It’s not fair that we have only one mind, only one pair of eyes, and only so many hours in the day. I wish I had more of all of those so I could read all the books on my desk, cracked open, belly-up, belly-down, bookmarked with old envelopes and pencils and whatnot – to read them all at the same time.

I’m in the excruciatingly beautiful last pages of Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams and right after I have I read that last word I will simply have to start all over again. From inter-library loan, yesterday, I got four books  - why do I do that to myself?  Here is Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity, an early philosophical essay (1970) on genetics and evolution, with that chapter called “The Kingdom and the Darkness,” which of course has to be the last chapter. Nick Lane’s Life Ascending and Oxygen, about the evolution of life, I’ve managed not to open yet. Not so Barbara Novak’s Nature and Culture and American Painting of the Nineteenth Century (I was referred to these by Lopez). I’ve skipped through the plates, the gorgeous icebergs and the Luminist skies and have had to close them.

I realized, once I had them all gathered on my desk, that all these are about man’s place in the world, and loneliness. There is a great lesson there, to be reaped as winter closes in. Is that why I am in such a rush? Because they’re from the library (and all but Lane’s books are  too expensive to buy)? Because winter will soon be over? Or is it because there is something so important to be learned and I fear it will escape me? Because my search might turn out to be per freta hactenus negata, which Lopez translates as “to have negotiated a trait the very existence of which has been denied”? (Arctic Dreams, p.406)

I remember as a child I never had this problem. Amie too reads six or seven books at a time, skips from one to the other, and is never worried about running out of time, losing the memory of the story, or not getting it.  She reads, not expecting anything from herself but everything from the story and she always gets what is enough. She is never lonely when she reads.

I just read another great post by fellow blogger and Transition worker Charlotte Du Cann (in UK) in which she writes about our need to listen to our ancestors. She writes:

Because you realise we have put the best of ourselves out with the trash, and what we have now is the life of a dog and a cockroach. A subservient and a scavenger existence in a technological cityworld.

This has come at a cost: it has cost us gratitude.

We haven’t paid for a long time and the debt is long, stretching back through history. Our dreams tell us this. What we have forgotten, what we have thrown away, what we have become. A pack of English hounds thirsting for the wild red fox, a thousand cockroaches ravening in a New York larder.

No one has said thank you for a very long time.

When I read that I immediately thought, “No one has said sorry either.”

And suddenly I got it.

I have been working on a short story, a letter from a healer and mother in the end days, when her community has failed to listen, failed to adapt and is, as a result, rapidly declining. Though it is often on my mind, I have never set down a word of this story because I could never grasp her voice. Imagining her, I knew she was trying to tell me something but I just wasn’t getting it. For instance, her central monologue goes like this:

Now that we’re here, people still don’t say “I’m sorry.” Instead they still say “I didn’t know.”

I always knew that this is the heart of the story, of the character, but I could never imagine what goes around it. It seemed too bitter, a dead end, a vacuum. It was not me - I admit it, who else could this woman in my story be?

But now I get it. And now here’s also a little test, a surprise for you, reader, as well.

By “I’m sorry” she doesn’t mean mea culpa, “I am to blame”. She means “I grieve with you.” By lamenting that others are still not saying “I’m sorry,” she is not accusing them of shirking blame. She is lamenting that they are still not grieving. By saying, basically, that they should be sorry, she is not putting blame on them. She is wishing on them a gift.

Do you see? How often have you said “I’m sorry” to someone and have that person respond with “oh, it wasn’t your fault”? How often have you said (or thought) that when someone said it to you? When you read her monologue – “they should be sorry” – did you too see only bitterness, hatred, revenge?

If so, it’s your culture, which acknowledges only blame and turns grief into guilt.

If so, I’m sorry.

I hear her now. She rings true.

 

A few weeks ago a very good friend and I were driving through town, delivering signs for an event. We were discussing vacation plans and I told her about a rule I’ve been tinkering with, that I would fly only to visit family, not  for recreation. She asked me why, which surprised me because she knows me so well. I explained that I want to keep my carbon footprint small. She immediately said, “Oh, so you’ve been riding your bike around town then, have you?”

That struck me dumb. My first (unspoken) reaction was: so a thing is only worth doing if one can do it perfectly? Is that a standard you hold yourself to, or do you only take it out when it suits you? I didn’t say that, of course, but I think my words still had an edge when after a deep breath I said: “I will not take that poison of purity. Yes, I’m not perfect, but that shouldn’t stop me from doing what I can.”

There was so much that was not right about that whole conversation. We were both on the defensive, there was no conversation possibly after that – thank goodness there was work to do! More importantly, I had failed to see what was really going on. The exchange  had not, fundamentally, been about purity. It had been about guilt. Always it is guilt, the elephant in the room, behind which hides the mammoth: grief.

I had spoken from responsibility: I take responsibility for the grievous things I do, and thereby work to minimize them. My sense of responsibility stems from grief – some of which is grief that I cannot indeed be pure in a perfect world.  I no longer feel guilty about what I can’t do or haven’t done, but I do grieve them. And I find that grieving gives me insight and strength. It also, seemingly paradoxically, gives me great joy when I do find a way to make things better. I write “seemingly paradoxically,” because there is no paradox: that is what grief does, it allows for joy, it is, indeed, joy’s necessary companion (*).  Guilt, on the other hand, is all-encompassing, it smothers everything that is not guilt: if you act for the good out of guilt, you will always only find more guilt, more ways in which you haven’t acted or can’t act, for the good.

So, there it is: I spoke from grief. She instantly turned it into guilt.

Why? I don’t know. I know that our culture mistakes grief for guilt. Why? I think Stephen Jenkinson would say it is because to grieve means ultimately to face death (that we cannot be pure and everlasting in a perfect world), and our dominant culture fears death so much it would rather embrace guilt. Guilt, in its passionate accusation seems to be – seems to be - more about life, more enlivening, but in the long run it is what kills life. Now there’s another culprit: the “long run”. We are no longer capable of thinking seven generations ahead. I’ve even heard a parent say, jokingly: “our kids will solve it!”  That’s the same as saying: I refuse to grieve – and therefore I am incapable of taking responsibility. Or perhaps it is because grief, unlike guilt, is not something you can give away or project onto someone else. It is so intimately yours and yours alone and you are alone in it…

What to do? What to do?

(*) The movie about Jenkinson, Grief Walkerwas translated into French to L’Accompagnateur, literally, the Companion.

 

In my journal I wrote:

Understanding comes and goes as huge, crashing waves. One recedes and the other comes. It’s hard to catch your breath.

I had just finished reading Stephen Jenkinson’s latest post, “There’s Grief in Coming Home,” when I looked up and I must have had an expression on my face for Amie asked: “What is it, Mama?”

I said: “I just read something by a man with great wisdom, a wise man. You can learn a lot from wise people.”

Amie asked: “Do we know any wise people?”

The question took me unawares. I had to think for a moment.

“We may know wise people, but we don’t know. There used to be a time when people asked for and shared wisdom freely. Now, we wouldn’t know if we were talking to a wise person.”

Amie said: “Just like there are no cobblers any more.”

This went back to her request yesterday morning that I take her to a cobbler so she could learn how to make shoes (she’s reading Little House). I explained there aren’t many cobblers now. She thought this preposterous.

“Who makes our shoes then?”

“Why, machines.”

That didn’t seem so self-evident to her, at all.

“Why?” (as in Why on earth!?)

And we talked, about machines making more, faster, cheaper. About how they do mostly everything, makes shoes, harvest crops.

This had not occurred to her. This didn’t seem right to her.

Why does it seem right to (most of) us?

Through the eyes of your child you look into the dark heart of your culture and your heart skips a beat because the dark heart is your heart, questioning itself, grieving.

I had an interesting day yesterday. It didn’t start out promising. My car had failed inspection the day before and needed fixing, so I was dropping it off in the next town over, at Mike the Mechanic’s.  It’s not like Mike the Mechanic has an inviting waiting room or a replacement car service. It’s just Mike, who was supposed to retire fifteen years ago but forgot. So I walked five minutes in the weirdly warm wind to the library around the corner. It opens at 10 am and this was 9 am. The sky was slate grey and promising rain, the wind was laced with a chill. Across the street from the library is the Natick Town Hall. That’s where I headed.

When you enter the Town Hall there’s a short vestibule before you pass on straight into the guts of the place. It was too busy there, with lots of chatter and phones ringing. I had brought three books and my journal, knowing it would be a while before the car was diagnosed and cured, and I wanted a quiet spot. So I made myself at home on one of the wooden benches lining the vestibule.

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It was comfortable enough, despite for the occasional gust of wind as the doors opened as people came and went. It was the last day to pay the taxes and the water bill, so it was a busy place. I didn’t mind the people, and it became an easy thing, to look up each time someone passed, make quick eye contact and smile, even answer the occasional hello. In my journal, ever open on my lap underneath my book to receive my running commentary, I wrote “Hello people of Natick! I am your  Town Hall Greeter!” It felt right, in that transitional place, and it didn’t disturb my concentration.

But the left one of the two doors was very noisy, closing with a bang, then a rattling shudder, then a final bang. I thought to hang a note of sorts to direct people to the right, silent door. Then I realized what a great opportunity this was for an experiment. So I endured the noise for another half hour and wrote down how many chose the left, how many chose the right door. To these passersby, which door they chose had no consequence: by the time the door closed – slowly – with a bang, they were long gone, outside or in. I tried to see if there was a logic to their choices: if it was perhaps the lefties who chose the right door, but no, for that first half hour, thirteen  people chose the right, thirteen chose the left.

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Among them was a man in his mid-thirties. He came in and quickly came out again, carrying a green certificate with a golden stamp on it: wedding, birth or death. By then the storm had broken and sheets of rain were blowing through, the flag right outside the door was whipping on its pole. This young man had on a t-shirt (the wind was blowing out a spell of balmy air) and had no bag or folder. He saw that his certificate would get spoiled if he ran for his car, so he sat down on the bench across from me to wait it out. He started doing things on his phone.  Here is some of my commentary:

He only has a phone. Is he reading email, checking Facebook? I feel for him. I want to offer him a book. I could lend him the Greg Bear sci-fi novel… He seems so naked without something REAL for his mind. He seems to get more antsy and upset with each flick of his thumb. It makes me appreciative of a day like this: away from my desk and “a connection” (reminder: quit Facebook!). To be disconnected and with myself for a bit, read a book in this in-between place.

He left. He glanced up from his phone at the rain that had died down, stood and left (using the left door). He didn’t hold the door open for the elderly lady who was coming in just as he left. He seemed nice but it shocked me. He is probably nice but was lost.

Time to hang my sign. It was not obtrusive, but at eye level for most, on the right door. By the time I hung the sign it was forty minutes past ten,  but I was having too much fun to exchange this rather drafty place for the warm and quiet library.

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The next one hour and fifty minutes were very interesting. It was quite obvious that most of those who chose the left (noisy) door did not see the sign (simple stripes: 27 people). They were too fast or distracted. Two saw the sign but it was too late, they were already committed to the left door.  Only two saw the sign and deliberately chose the left door anyway.

Of those who chose the right door (THIS door), only very few (13 people) obviously didn’t see the sign.  The majority did see it, but it was hard to tell whether they saw it before or after making their decision (they are the bold stripes: 11 people).

Those represented by the blocks are people who noticed the sign and let it guide their decision. The two aforementioned  people clearly saw it and decided to take the other, the noisy door anyway, and I suspect the same of two more people. Seventeen people chose the right door. Many of these stopped, read the sign out loud to themselves (or to me as they were vaguely aware of me), laughed or shrugged and said “okay!” Two people got very confused, became torn between one door or the other, and eventually chose the right door. Only one person asked me about it, and I told him the reason for the sign (both the noise and the experiment). He appreciated it all. He turned out to have come to clean these doors. He chose the right door to go out but on the two later occasions he went out, he said a happy hello to me but took the left door anyway!
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After the sign went up. thirty-seven people chose the left door, forty-two the right one.

All this was a little naughty but well concealed inside joke on my part. The book on my lap was about free will, choice, conditioning and predetermination  in so-called “open systems”. Every time someone followed the request on the sign, “Please choose this door,” I smiled because they helped my out by not making noise, but also because  they exemplified my on-going struggle with free will. Did they really choose? Or had I, by hanging the sign, taken away their choice? What sort of choice was that, anyway? What does it mean, to choose? It means a lot to me, and I’ve not yet figured any of it out.

My cell phone rang (it’s a ten-year-old model, even texting is far from straightforward). It was Mike the Mechanic. The damage was $270 and the car was ready. It had stopped raining. I said goodbye to the good people of Natick, knowing what I could do next time I found myself in the neighborhood, or any neighborhood, with a couple of hours to spare.

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virginsmallI feel like I’ve gained some clarity in the last few months, but it has been hard to write about it. Every time I sit down to start, the task seems impossible. So let me break it down into pieces – events, insights, decisions, changes in plans.

The first evening when all of my thinking and reading actually “came together” was the evening I decided to leave my church (Unitarian Universalist). I can’t remember what came first in the process: the sudden flare of insight (this is what it all means, this is how it all hangs together), the insight that leaving the church is one of the things I need to do because of this new insight, or the very act of emailing the people in the congregation I care most about – good friends, fortunately, also outside of church – and taking the step. All I remember was the immense empowerment of seeing an insight emerge out of many strands of thought, feeling and soul-searching, and acting on it. Sadness too, that this newly emerging insight meant that I had to give up something that I cherished (and that it wouldn’t be the last thing I will need to give up). And, lastly, awesome too, because I had felt uncomfortable with this cherished “membership” for while, and now here it was: the reason why!

So, as to the reason why.
I work with a vision of our predicament all day long. All my thinking, reading and writing are related to it, and my activism, and nowadays also every act of mothering, shopping, cooking, doing laundry-you name it. I am now at a stage that I carry this vision with me at all times and nothing escapes it. It is empowering, frightening and often exhausting.  It is not a comforting vision, though it does allow me or actually inspires in me, a kind of  joyfulness. I call this Joyfulness Notwithstanding.
I need a place where I can keep my Joyfulness Notwithstanding alive and cultivate it. How? Not by retreating to a place where I can forget that vision for a while, but on the contrary by actively stepping into a place where I can look at it clearly.
That turns out to be a place where it’s just it and me.
And so a place where I do not have to discuss/justify the vision and where I am not confronted with circumstances that I feel are part of the problem and that automatically bring out the activist in me. Working to eliminate paper cups during coffee hours is fulfilling work for me as an activist, and as an activist, I want to keep working with the congregation on these issues. But it greatly muddles my spiritual clarity.

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Leigh form 5 Acres and a Dream awarded me the Honest  Scrap Award. It’s my first award ever. These are the rules:

  1. Choose a minimum of 7 blogs to give this award to that you feel to be brilliant in content and design. That’s the toughest part.
  2. Show the 7 winner’s links on your blog and leave them a comment informing them that they have been given the “Honest Scrap.” That’s the easiest part.
  3. List 10 honest things about yourself that people may not know.

So here goes:

  1. I was born in Congo (it was called Zaire back then), where my parents were doing missionary work – my dad taught math at a country high school. We left when I was one, so I don’t recall that adventure. I grew up in (Dutch-speaking) Antwerp, Belgium, the oldest of two. I moved to Boston in 1998. The idea was to stay for a year to do my Masters (in Philosophy) but I never, or at least haven’t, left. I haven’t been back to Belgium in over three years! We’re trying to make it work this winter.
  2. I like being alone. DH will call it like it is and say I’m antisocial. True, if you let me I’ll just potter around here on my hill and be totally happy. But I do love the company of good friends and good friends-to-be and am never more thrilled than when they stay over for a meal or a sleep-over. Then I will molly-coddle them to make them come back more often.
  3. If I didn’t have my wonderful family, I’d be a drifter. I’d live out of my car, on a dime, and travel this great continent seeking out nature. I discovered this about myself when I moved here. I traded my beloved medieval Europe for the adventure of America’s wide-open spaces, dense forests and mountain peaks…
  4. I am obsessed with nuclear threat but am careful not to indulge myself too often. It goes back to when I saw The Day After on television as a young teen: it sent me into a tailspin of depression for months. Now I sometimes consciously seek it out, because in some ways it makes me feel more alive. But I’m careful. I know my limits.
  5. I’m addicted to the written word. I must read and I must write, every day, or I go crazy. The most gruesome moment in Cormack McCarthy’s The Road was not the nuclear disaster or the cannibals or the dying world or the physical and emotional deterioration, etc. etc., but the scene where the protagonist looks at a sodden book and can’t remember what once attracted him so to reading and learning. Chilling.
  6. I despair a lot, yet I go through life smiling and my smile is sincere. How do I do it? I don’t know, I just don’t see how a gloomy face could help… Same with my blog: it’s mostly chipper and the gloom only comes through once in a while. Whenever I write an entry about how scared and sad I am I over-write it and then it doesn’t feel right, so I nix it.
  7. The stuff we do here (like the Riot and Freeze Yer Buns etc.) gives me a lot of personal satisfaction, as in it’s fun and makes for a healthier lifestyle, both physically and spiritually. But I don’t think any of it will help to make the future better, unless we start something like Transition in our towns.
  8. I’m lousy at most homesteading things – you should see my needlework (cough) – but I don’t care. I’ll get better with practice.
  9. I walk away from arguments. I’m the most non-confrontational person I know. If I stick with an argument I soon get upset to the point of tears and often feel physically sick. I think that’s why I walked away from an academic career: even arguing metaphysics was just not in me.
  10. I’m a procrastinator but I have some ways of overcoming that. I’m big on making TO DO lists and will always include something I’ve already done, then will tick that off and that gets me going. And sometimes I will post something on the blog as having been accomplished, while it hasn’t yet, and then I’ll feel so guilty, I just have to do it!

Well, I wanted to make an upbeat list, but I guess many of these points seem rather negative and gloomy. What can I say: it’s honest scrap.

I nominate, in alphabetical order:

  1. Faith Acre Farm
  2. Handbook of Nature Study
  3. Humble Garden
  4. Living and Learning
  5. Pile of Omelays
  6. Stony Run Farm
  7. Throwback at Trapper Creek

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I was talking with a friend today and she mentioned my picture a while back of my canning pantry. She said she certainly understands the feeling of growing, harvesting, putting up and getting the firewood ready from her reading of the Little House on the Prairie books – which I admitted I have never read (all gasp), as it’s not quite part of the European schoolgirl’s library, and as I simply never felt the need to read it after my school years. She told me that especially the ritual of putting up always gave her a sense of security, and how had she lost that feeling?

I said when you live according to the seasons, you live according to the ever recurring year, with its waxings and wanings, its rituals of life and work, its periods of plenty and of less, and its ample pockets of security in rough times… A life, in short, that can count on certain comforts even if they’re not present, because the recurring rituals hold them in place in the future. This gives you a sense of security without however lulling you into a false sense of security. Because it is a whole year, it doesn’t get boring, and the periods and transitions within it cannot be taken for granted.

This unlike “modern life”, which lives not the recurring year, but the recurring day, over and over again the same day, with (as per usual at least) not a one big shift, whether gift or sacrifice, to make us feel alive and the passage of time.

This friend understands what I’m trying to do here, and I appreciate our conversations, however interrupted by kids and “modern life”, more than she knows. I hardly ever write about the emotional side of our endeavors and dreams on this blog, I don’t know why. Perhaps I fear of the dreaded “No Comments” under the entry headings. But most of the time, it is simple exhausting to try to get the maelstrom of emotions to stay still on paper/screen, in neat sentences let alone paragraphs. Easier to let it all come pouring out as a warbled stream of consciousness into the ear of a dear friend. And, later in the evening, to salvage a few choice thoughts.

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I am reading Jerry Mander’s In the Absence of the Sacred. The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations. Many points are too loosely argued for my taste – as in, I doubt it would convince my DH, who is a total techno-optimist. As a confirmation for what I believe, it reads pleasurably.

But these lines grabbed me:

With each new generation of technology, and with each stage of technological expansion into pristine environments, human beings have fewer alternatives and become more deeply immersed within technological consciousness. We have a harder time seeing our way out. Living constantly inside an environment of our own invention, reacting solely to things we ourselves have created, we are essentially living inside our own minds. Where evolution was once an interactive process between human beings and a natural, unmediated world, evolution is now an interaction between human beings and our own artifacts. (p. 32)

I have read in many environmental books that we are destroying nature, that great Other. McKibben, in his seminal End to Nature, hangs nearly his entire argument on the despair of there being just us.  I never realized what it meant until I read Mander’s words.

Don’t say that this is not true, that there is no other, that it’s just us. In many parts of our world this is already true:  in mega cities, malls, schools, work places. Look around you: what do you see that will take you out of your own mind? What do you see that is not you? Sorry, the potted palm does not count. Nor does the lawn. The creatures visiting your lawn, yes, but how often do you see them, look for them? And it is getting worse second by second.

Then you may ask: so what?

A few weeks ago I was on my way to fill up the buckets with rain water  when I came upon this creature amongst the weeds.

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A garter or garden snake, about as dangerous as a field mouse (to us, not to the field mouse). But it’s a snake, and my biological instinct was: hark! And it felt good, that jolt of surprise and rapt attention, that lurch out of the of the ordinary.

I was, for a few seconds, out of my mind.

If we eliminate what is other, then we are without surprise, without instinct, without perspective, and without the possibility of ever being truly free.

Someone asked me: What if you  would have to move now? This was with reference to the vegetable garden, to which I have devoted many, many hours of hard labor and a whole lot more of research, hopes and dreams. My answer was: It would be no problem. Really? You could leave all of this behind?

What would I be leaving behind? A half acre of land, some well-tended topsoil and some raised beds, and a fence. Possibly a season’s harvest.

What would I be taking with me? The knowledge of what vegetables, herbs and flowers are available for my region, where to buy them, how to sow them and tend to the seedlings, how to amend soils and dig beds, how to compost, how to space vegetables, plant companions, water them and wage war on bad bugs and weeds. What tools are needed (surprisingly few). Knowledge of the path of the sun in the seasons. Of the functions of the soil horizons. Of the fact that organic materials don’t “break down”, no: they are broken down, by fungi and bacteria and little critters. That chipmunks dig holes in the beds, deep ones. That it’s okay if a couple of bean seedlings are eaten  by an entity unknown: pull and reseed. That it’s good fun, “tucking in” seeds here and there. All that, and also a fitter body, more physical endurance, and above all a happier spirit for my entire family.

That’s what it means to be self-sustainable: to have skills and knowledge that can travel with me anywhere.

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Amie’s picture of Mama in the Garden (taken with her very own camera)