Passion by C.W. Wolff

Nukes and Passion

By Cathy Wolff

I was chopping onions for spaghetti sauce one winter Sunday evening, listening to the radio. It was one of those NPR variety shows. The host was chatting with people in the studio audience.

“What do you do for a living?” he asked one guest. “I’ve taught English composition for 30 years,” a weary voice replied. “Have you figured out how to make it exciting for students?” the host asked, upbeat. “No,” sighed the man without elaborating. “Is there something else — just one thing — you’ve always wanted to teach instead?” “No,” again with a sigh, “I’ve never found my passion.”

I stopped chopping. To my disappointment, the host quickly moved on to another guest.  Why couldn’t he ask the audience for a show of hands of those who had failed to find — or to follow — their passion? I wanted the teacher to know he wasn’t alone. I wanted to know I wasn’t alone.

I thought I knew what passion was:  that feeling of being fueled and at the same time consumed; the exhilaration of being intimately part of something bigger than yourself, something that might actually make a difference; a full and strong and heartfelt embracing; a sense of rightness; a paling of much of the rest of life in comparison; an altered state. I had felt it once, briefly, many years ago.

I put down the knife and turned off the radio. Out the kitchen window, the evening turned the backyard from a watercolor to an etching. A scraggly line of seagulls headed east as they did every night around this time.

Thirty years ago, April 30, 1977, I too was heading east, along with about 500 other people, marching down Route 107, past the greyhound racetrack in Seabrook, N.H. It was a brilliant morning with a steady, warm breeze; the kind of day that demanded any excuse to be outside.

We had camped the night before in a farmer’s field and shared coffee and biscuits in the morning. Now we offered each other sunscreen, advised each other to don hats. We carried signs, wore backpacks, chanted and sang and waved at every car that honked.

As we neared our destination — the construction site of the Seabrook nuclear power plant — we saw, coming from both the north and south on Route 1, hundreds of other anti-nuclear activists. We moved together onto the dusty site, past the lines of police in riot gear, and past hundreds of cheering bystanders.

We gathered there that morning, 2,000 strong from 30 states. We felt proud, scared, giddy, determined and righteous. Each of us was passionate enough about the wrongness of nuclear power to risk arrest. Some of us were passionate enough to change our lives.

I’m not sure there’s an object of passion out there with your name on it, waiting to be found. Maybe, like the lottery, it’s luck. Maybe it’s timing. Maybe you create it. Maybe all of that was true for me.

I left a job with the Associated Press in May of 1976. I was 28 and tired of how much of my thinking, even away from work, involved the word “allegedly.”

My plans were no more substantial than to “collect sunsets,” work at an apple orchard and write fiction. But I fell into the Clamshell Alliance, formed that summer after a construction permit was issued for the giant twin-reactor plant on the New Hampshire marsh. I learned the electricity wasn’t needed; there were alternative; accidents could happen; radioactive waste lasts forever; Seabrook residents opposed the plant. For the next two years, the Clam consumed me — passionately.

I worked longer hours than I ever had, earned less, and even moved into the Clam office.. I prepared press packets, fielded media calls, arranged news conferences, helped write Clam literature. I sat through meetings that lasted four to six hours as we sought consensus on all our plans. I made friends I still love today. I met the man I would marry.

But it was a passion I could not sustain. I burned out and couldn’t find a way to renew myself. I began to recognize a hollow space in my heart that had once been filled. Only later did I realize that what had filled it was passion.

Life went on. I had to make a living and, soon, others began to depend on me –not to change the world but to change the diaper.

If passion dies, is it real? I’m not sure. Did it die or did I suffocate it out of fear of losing myself?  I do know that what I felt during those years of working intensely and collectively against the Seabrook nuke was unlike anything I’ve experienced before or since. What I felt when my son was born came close in its aching fullness. But that was love, not passion.

I know now it also takes courage just to keep on keeping on, to live a life as well as you can, as consciously as you can. Perhaps that’s as good as being driven by an all-consuming, world-changing passion. After all, someone has to put dinner on the table.

The kitchen was dark now. Dusk had given way to night; the apple tree’s finely lined braches had disappeared. The gulls were settled on the rocks. I turned on the light and picked up the paring knife. I was crying, But maybe it was just the onions.

— C.W. Wolff

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