On our most valuable commodity: time.

What are the two things we complain about most? Lack of money and lack of time.  But when you get right down to it, we aren’t even complaining about lack of time anymore.  We just believe that we have no time and live accordingly.

Money is where we focus our attention, for good reasons (often).  There is a threshold of “enough” money below which we experience real suffering: not enough food, not enough medicine, no winter boots, a car that can’t get us to work reliably.  The problem is that “enough” is a very thin line and a hard one to recognize, because a) we have no cultural standard for it (indeed, we have lots of cultural standards that say it doesn’t exist), and b) we ourselves perceive it as always receding, like the horizon.

As soon as we have enough to eat and enough to keep warm and healthy, we want a nicer car.  Then a bigger kitchen.  Then private school for the kids.  Then a little cabin somewhere on a lake, because hey, our friends have one.  Some days it’s hard to remember how fortunate we are because our cultural methodology for happiness involves training our eyes on the next thing we don’t have.  Happiness isn’t something we HAVE, it’s something we pursue.  Like hounds, panting, barking, giving chase.

You could argue the same basic truths apply to the problem of time.  We have no time because we’re rushing to get everything done: meet a deadline, make the meeting, get the kids to school, run the errands.  And when we DO have time, we don’t know how to deal with the time itself OR with the fact of having it.  We figure having time means we should be doing something (and Facebook and Pinterest feel like we’re doing something, right?), and/or the fact that we actually have time means there’s something we aren’t doing, something we should have done.  And this isn’t even counting the many professional cultures where you would never dare admit that you weren’t incredibly busy, where busy is the measure of your worth.  Sigh.  It’s quite a burden we choose to haul.

But it’s also clear that many of the solutions to our many problems involve, at bottom, more time.  Organizational culture is about time together; community is about time together; all forms of education are about time together and alone; overcoming fear takes time; developing creative solutions takes time; doing all the work that needs to be done to keep our systems running takes time. Answers to poverty are in many ways rooted in time: to grow things together, to care for one another’s needs, to build relationships that help us teach and learn and share.  The impetus behind the industrial revolution was about time, a fact we conveniently forget: the goal was not to “save” time by replacing people with machines so that more of us could live in poverty and/or do more menial work for less money; the goal was to save time so that we could spend it with our families, our communities, our churches.  Imagine that instead of a small group of overworked wealthy people and masses of unemployed, we had most folks working three days a week, or every morning, or whatever the arrangement.  With the necessarily reconfigured salaries, we could actually have our cake and eat it too: rewarding careers AND a life, albeit a less monetarily-driven one.  We could play in a band. Go to soccer practice, or watch your kid’s games.  Volunteer.  Build things.

Right now, most of us either don’t have time or we’re ashamed of having it.  That’s no way to live.

I’ve struggled for a long time to come to terms with my own life choices — leaving a hectic and important full-time career for mostly mommying with part-time consulting and teaching.  I made my choices because everything else felt wrong, but that’s not to say that this felt right.  It’s taken me a long time to see that it doesn’t “feel right” for two reasons: 1. Because it IS right, for me, and I find it very hard to accept and choose to live in that kind of basic happiness; and 2. because it affords me so much time.  I have 2.5 days a week with both my sweet boys and 2.5 days a week for my writing, board work, consulting, teaching, creative endeavors, and household management.  It’s a thing of beauty, and four years in, I’m just starting to be able to describe it to others with joy and pride instead of bashfulness and self-justification.  The money part is hard, I grant (almost as hard as the gendered nature of relying on my husband’s income and insurance) but I have faith I’ll be able to bring in more when more is necessary, and meanwhile the tightness encourages lifestyles I love (mostly): thrifting, cooking, growing, eating largely vegetarian, and DIY for whatever we can.  (Talk to me in another six months when my fifteen-year-old station wagon dies, and you’ll hear another story…)

This newfound appreciation of the life I’ve chosen has led to some other useful realizations: time is precious and it is mercurial.  We imagine we can chop it up into segments (this bit for exercise, that bit for meetings), but it messes with us.  The twenty minutes on the treadmill take FOREVER (unless you have a good book and then it’s not long enough); the meeting can spend an hour in a bad twelve minutes and then fly through the next forty-eight. The gift, I find, is that time stretches when we let it, and then all kinds of life can step in and pull up a seat.

At a recent board meeting, some of us were five or ten minutes early; most folks were on time; one key leader was fifteen minutes late.  For two folks carrying great tension, the wait was visibly painful.  For those of us who always regret not having time to catch up with others, it was (I hesitate to say it) something of a gift.  We CHATTED.  About jewelry, and clothing swaps, and how we love it when an object we’ve cared for but no longer need finds a new home.  About grandchildren and winter and the sudden discovery of a loved-one’s need for heart surgery.  Suddenly we were whole people around the table, bringing all our gifts and selfness, all because we had a stray fifteen minutes put to good use.

I’m rereading Wendell Berry’s beautiful novel Jayber Crow (if you haven’t read it, do), which is all about time.  I mean, it’s ostensibly about a young man’s journey to find home and build community, but that of course means it’s about time.  He’s a reader and a wanderer and a listener.  His sense of the world comes from being out in it, without rush or agenda, with instead a deep curiosity and an openness to what is.  Never mind that the voice of the novel feels as if you’re sitting at your beloved grandfather’s feet near the fireplace on a cold evening; everything about it evokes a time when we had time.  Men sit in the old closed-up town store playing an endless game of gin runny to while away the winter hours during the war.  Jayber himself, the town barber, recognizes that his shop is as much for loafing and talking as it is for the commerce of haircuts and shaves.  The land itself, through flood and storm and gentle new growth, has needs that the good farmers seek to hear and to meet, not only through work but through slow walks around their properties and long conversations with neighbors.

The writers I love, the PEOPLE I love, are those who honor time.  They stretch it out like taffy with stories and music, meditation, board games, nature walks, floating in lakes, observing birds in flight and at rest.  They unfold it like a warm blanket over anyone in their presence, with careful questions and unhurried listening.  They understand how much they don’t understand, and they are willing to listen, to learn, or simply to be present.  These are my chosen ways, now that I can see they are choices.  They fill me with hope.

 

Advertisements

On embracing change.

In this season of traditions it can be hard to think about change.  In a focused way, I  mean, a way that’s internal and wholehearted as opposed to, er, decorative.  But it’s as good a time as any to process those deeper questions about change.

Brian Andreas of the Story People has some good advice for successful celebration of the holidays: “1. Get together with the family.  2. Relive old times.  3. Get out before it blows.”  I LOVE this, not least because something usually does blow, and indeed we are wise to escape in advance.  Or, of course, we can work on change.  Prolonged work toward complex, deep, systemic change.  Easier, often, to eat and run.  (And yes, this is where I brag about the fabulous eight days my family just spent with my brother’s family…an unprecedented and unprecedentedly good time together.  I chalk it up to change of the scariest, hardest, and most rewarding kind.  We rock.)

In related news, I was just asked to view Jason Clarke’s TEDxPerth talk “Embracing Change,” and it’s well worth it.  Not only is he nail-on-the-head right about reasons why we don’t change and obstacles we throw up, but his models for approaching change are eminently useful.  He’s got a four-part chart, for instance, that you use in a fictional home renovation to map what you’d keep, what you’d chuck, what you’d change, what you’d add.  Nice, right?  Imagine applying this to ourselves, our souls, our lives.  In fact, this may be the new New Year’s tradition in our household, maybe in crayon on the fridge.  Keep the love!  Chuck the clutter!  Change the post-nap entertainment from tv to reading!  Add more music!

Change is hard.  It FEELS hard.  It makes us lonely and uncomfortable, both of which suggest that we’ve done something wrong.  But sometimes that itchy feeling gives way to something better; sometimes that fear of screwing it all up needs to take a back seat to the hope that even if it’s not perfect, what comes next will be better than what is.  Those of us who overthink things need extra help in remembering that, and extra cups of cocoa, perhaps, to soothe the anxiety that is a totally reasonable part of moving on.

On agrarianism.

This is a strange little post, perhaps, because I’m describing a work in progress, but it’s so darn exciting that it feels worth sharing.

So for a few years I’ve been leading reading and discussion groups for the Maine Humanities Council through their “Let’s Talk About It” program.  This time, I’m creating a brand new series for them: “People, Purpose, Place: Agrarian Novels in the USA.”

What is agrarianism, you ask?  A range of things.  But mostly a philosophy and a practice of living on the land, asking, as Wendell  Berry has put it, “what the land requires of us.”  Berry is a key voice of contemporary or “new” agrarianism, and he’s a handy figure because he’s one of the few people writing both critical AND literary work within and about the theme.

The “new” before “agrarian” is important, some argue, because the last folks to claim that title were Twelve Southerners who in 1930 published a manifesto called “I’ll Take My Stand” which was basically a rant against industrialism and a defense of a land-based, individualist and communitarian way of life.  New agrarianism similarly argues against technology for technology’s sake and is similarly committed to exploring the real, human and environmental costs of contemporary ways of life.  New agrarianism is, however, inclined to treat both women and minorities with greater respect and perhaps to more deeply understand the world as the large, complex, and interconnected beast that it is.  The new folks are also more likely to actually BE farmers; the first crew were largely poets and writers with a commitment to the idea of farming.  (And if you want more of the theory on this, see the essay collections The Essential Agrarian ReaderThe Unsettling of America; and The New Agrarianism for more.)

If you’re yawning, bear with me.  This stuff makes for amazing novels, full of generosity and landscape and primal sex.  Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer was our first; Wendell Berry’s A Place on Earth came next.  In November we read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; December will bring John Nichols’ The Milagro Beanfield War; January Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation.  Other hot contenders have included Annie Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, and Edna Ferber’s So Big.  Even on the Berry front, it’s unclear whether Jayber Crow would be a better choice than A Place on Earth; I chose the latter because of its insistence on the slow and patient pace of agrarian life and its complex ecosystem of characters and families, engaging in their lives through and across a staggering array of forces.

Some folks have said that there’s too much sadness in these novels.  Some have said that they move to slowly.  No one, however, accuses them of idealizing life on the land, which makes for a nice change from the genre of the idyllic pastoral.  In fact, it strikes me that all of them demonstrate a commitment to a kind of clear vision, a seeing of the world as it is and as it should be, that sounds almost more Buddhist than American (if we’re willing to accept as “American” the bustle and pressure and meaninglessness of advanced capitalist life).  Across the board, these writers are asking questions about value and about survival, about community and the meaning of our work and our capacity to feed ourselves, or not.  I couldn’t believe it when Steinbeck elbowed his way into this series, but there he was…you can’t discuss agrarianism at ALL in this country without understanding that historical perspective on the engineered migration of human lives and labor based on the application of corporate profit mandates to the land itself.  Plus, the ending of that novel is the most poignant statement of human resilience and generosity EVER.  (Go back.  It’s gotten better since high school.)

I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments if you want to read along with us!  As a sometime college lit teacher, nothing pleases me more than writing and talking and thinking with others about books and what they mean…so jump on in!

On simplicity and plenty.

My idea of bliss is spacious: open fields, airy rooms, bright spaces.  I’ve always thought it was an aesthetic thing, but as I’m reading (again, in parts) Kim John Payne’s Simplicity Parenting, I realize that’s it’s more than that.  As usual, aesthetics are also ethics, and I believe in a lifestyle that is simple, natural, deep, and direct.

Yesterday was our fifteenth wedding anniversary, and while we had a lovely night out, the day itself was hard.  I’d been looking forward to it, because I had both boys and a playdate in the morning AND a visit from another friend in the afternoon.  But the boys were more or less intractable.  We spent much of the morning in a tussle to get TO our friends’ house and the rest of it in a tussle to get back home.  I’ve never seen so much crying.  It occurs to me, of course, that what they want is simple downtime — to rummage through their toys, invent new games, lie on the floor under the table, eat an oversized apple in a particularly messy and inefficient way.

Payne’s book makes the case that such downtime is not only valuable for kids; it’s necessary.  For them and for us.  Our lives are too complicated, too fast, too crowded, too loud, and the net result is that we don’t have much space to permit our feelings, our processing, our development, our SELVES, to show up.  We feel sad about something so we put on a movie.  We have a window of time between meetings so we hit Pinterest.  Even the guilty pleasures we adore sometimes drop away from our lives, squeezed out by a sense that we don’t deserve such luxury and that anyway, we don’t have time.  Reading is like that for me.  But it’s astonishing how time stretches out when we let it.  I check the clock after fifteen minutes of reading because I’m sure it’s been an hour already.  Singing does that.  Gardening does that.  Lying on the floor with our kids does that.

Time with our kids, and SPACE with our kids, is like that.  We filled up Ezra’s walls with pictures of animals because he loves them, but before long he seems not to care about them anymore, and the room just looks smaller, cluttered, with less room for air and light.  The single bird-feeder, mounted outside his window, does far more for entertainment, learning, and connection to the animal world than the twenty pictures all over the walls.  And yet, when I try to reduce the book collection, as Payne recommends, I hit a wall.  There are a few things I don’t love, but mostly his two-shelf collection is carefully chosen and thoroughly wonderful.  How to get it down to twelve books, and why?  Perhaps a commitment to rotation more often would soothe my concerns here…or perhaps we try to winnow in other places.

Because I do think there’s a place where abundance still does mean abundance.  A collection of fabrics that I love makes me feel rich, as does a well-chosen shelf of books.  A stack of good magazines, arranged in a lovely basket, ditto.  A coffee table obscured by heaps of books and magazines, however, makes me crazy.  So the line between simplicity and plenty is a moving target for me, highly conditional, field-specific, and storage-dependent.  I revile the notion of storing lots of stuff — why?  WHY? — but I honor the desire to keep what really matters.

I come back, over and over again in my life, to the Craftsman principle articulated by William Morris: “Let there be nothing in your home you do not know to be useful or find to be beautiful.”  With kids, I grant you, that’s a bit of a stretch, but then we’re not shooting for ideal.  We’re just looking to feel at home in our lives.  So we keep tacking back and forth, then, clearing out and making way, hoping the new air and light will help us make best use and beauty of all the chosen objects of our lives.

Things that shut down.

Happy October!  The federal government is shut down.  Or, at least, much of it.  I hear that the military is exempt; I hear that gas and oil drilling operations are exempt, and some other stuff.  I can’t imagine the calculus of deciding what our nation needs to keep moving forward, except for this: we need a government.  We need one that works.  One that is willing to honor existing laws — which, despite popular confusion, includes the Affordable Health Care Act. We need to live in a place where people are willing to have hard conversations and imagine that the folks on the other side are genuinely interested in finding solutions, in understanding different others, in forging a common welfare that sustains us all.  Who are those people?  Why are they not in government?

There are a range of obvious problems: the press eating away at anyone in public life; the unthinkably large price tags of even running for office; the broken two-party system that forces a polarization of views and a false unification of important difference.  We need, frankly, common threats to make us unite behind something.  If the Tea Party were a separate political party (and please!  When will those radical independents get the nerve to cut the apron strings?  Get off the teat!), imagine the fascinating realignments in Congress.  Heck, we might even have an actual conversation about something instead of partisan bickering.

But more than all these obvious problems are the subtler ones: our failure, as a society, to understand how knowledge works, and rhetoric, and logic itself.  We don’t know how to HAVE conversations, or even civil arguments.  We don’t ask good questions or seek to learn what we don’t know.  It’s like our fear of loss, of pain, of discomfort have left us so overwhelmingly anxious that all we can do is cling to our little bit of the world, thumbs in our mouths, rocking.

Our minds shut down — liberals as well as conservatives (whatever those terms even mean any more).  Our hearts shut down — we become unable to imagine the world from the standpoint of a hungry child, even if that child is one of our constituents.  We lose the capacity to even conceive of a greater good where my joy is bound up in your joy, where I genuinely cannot feel happy or whole unless I know that my neighbors, too, are taken care of, at least in basic ways.  A dog-eat-dog world is scary, my friends, and I don’t see the moral virtue in pretending that since you’re a big dog, the system works.  I suppose it does if you’re a dog.  But then please, stop pretending you’re a human.

As I write this, the LifeFlight helicopter passes over my house on its way to the hospital with some urgently ill patient.  I just came from a warm get-together of new friends and their family where, among other things, I learned that they lost a daughter, a sister, in a car accident as a child.  These griefs are real and immediate and timeless and tangible.  They work to shut us down, but they can’t — because we have lives to live.  Other children to raise, other patients to transport, other honorable and important work before us.  Shutting down is not an option.  It’s a child’s choice, or an addict’s, to withdraw from the problem until the problem goes away.

This position is even harder to sustain when you yourself may, in fact, represent the problem.

I want to write the word “leadership” and the word “integrity.”  I want to write “hope” and “transparency” and “faith” and “systems change.”  I want to map out the solutions, not just to this impasse (I can’t even call it that.  This is a tantrum) but to our whole broken society.  But that’s my own form of shutting down: imposing my vision instead of someone else’s.  So maybe we can ask, instead, how we can come to understand one another better, how we can try to respect a system that seems so dysfunctional, how we can begin to imagine solutions other than our own.  Maybe that’s a kind of exercise we need.  (The answer, of course, likes in books and careful, mediated dialogue…or so sayeth the lit-teacher/organizer.  Surprise.  And yes, please let me know if you’d like details on how to do this.  I consult, did I mention?)

On wading in: Day 29. The least obvious kinds of blessings.

We’ve been gardening and CSA-ing for long enough that we’re used to having fresh local food, at least much of the time.  And we’re big fans of local arts and crafts, DIY and various forms of microenterprise.  And every day that I get to grow something, buy something locally, or give to support an initiative I believe in, I am grateful that I have enough (time, land, money, energy, knowledge, compassion, community) to be able to do that.

Every once in a while, though, something shifts a little in how I view the world, and that happened today.  We were driving home from the farmer’s market downtown with a little car bursting with local goodness: cabbage, beets, turnips, red onions, raspberries, Sungold tomatoes, soft pretzels, eggs, camembert, and two kinds of pork sausage, all produced in and around our area.  And we’d enjoyed seeing our farmers and growers as well as assorted friends we run into downtown.

As we headed home, I was wishing I’d had a chance to get to my friend’s shop not far away, Downtown Handmade and Vintage.  It’s a funky, beautiful, creative place, and I’m feeling like I need a little more funk in my life.  But every time I go to buy an item of clothing from an ordinary place (like my Old Navy jeans and H&M shirt at the moment), I feel a little gross.  Just a little bit.  And I’m not suggesting YOU should; I’m just saying that it’s increasingly hard for me to reconcile my pretty minimal clothing needs with my pretty substantial concerns about global fiscal, labor, and environmental sustainability.  My clothing is part of me and yet it’s also mostly part of a culture and practices that I don’t want to support.

So here’s what occurred to me: the ability to buy things you cherish from people you want to support in a community you are happy to belong to — this is the perhaps the least obvious and most important kind of blessing.

Herman Daly says in one of his many fabulous articles on sustainable economics that water (as in the “trickle down” theory) is the wrong metaphor for money in an economic system.  Blood makes more sense, he argues.  Because economies don’t get rained on from above; they are circulatory, with all organs needing the flow of funds and important central organs driving its pulse, pressure, and purity.  (Okay, he may not have spelled it out in such detail; I can’t remember.  Check out his work at Orion Magazine and elsewhere to find out.)  But here’s my point: when we have money to spend and the inclination to spend it locally, we are part of the heart of our community.  When we love what we buy and are grateful to its makers and growers, we are part of the soul of our community.  It’s not only a responsibility to buy local, but a privilege and a positive pleasure.

(“Duh,” you’re thinking.  Well, sure.  But still.  Right?)

On wading in: Day 25. The finite resources of attention.

This morning Ezra awoke a cheerful boy.  We watched the birds at his window feeder for a little bit; he used the potty; we headed downstairs.  Somewhere along the way, presumably in the bathroom, he remembered a set of old squirting tub toys he used to have, which were thrown away when they got all mildewy inside.  Which happened maybe 6 or eight months ago.  He spent the next hour in full-throated grief at their loss.

This is a kid who can normally marshall all kinds of resources to solve problems, especially when he knows the thing he wants is available at a store.  (And he knows these are available at a store because he’s seen them and asked for them before.)  But his sadness was so all-encompassing and his attention so focused on retrieving the lost toys (“Mama, can we ask the recycling man?  Maybe he knows where they are…”) that he could not think about replacement as an option.

Recent research into the effects of narrow “bandwidth” on decision-making is showing us that attention really is more finite than we’d like to believe.  Multi-tasking aside, the presence of stress taxes our attention and leads us to make bad decisions.

In a NYTimes article, one of the authors of an important new book discusses this phenomenon, making (unfortunate) comparisons between dieting and poverty.  His basic point seems entirely useful: the stressors restrict our available bandwidth, leading us to make poor choices.  He doesn’t seem to address adequately the difference between self-imposed choices like dieting and systemic traps like poverty, which I find problematic, but the bottom line phenomenon, he’s saying, is the same.

In related news, I’m preparing with a group of friends to throw a baby shower for another friend, and we’re planning to sing a song.  So at breakfast this morning I’m teaching the kids Elizabeth Mitchell’s version of “Three Little Birds” (of Bob Marley fame), and it occurs to us that there may be serious emotional, psychological, and perhaps, we now suspect, even financial value to being told in a sing-song melody that “every little thing is gonna be all right.”  It’s what we most need to believe; it’s what we most easily forget through grief or loss or stress or pain.  We become like Ezra, wailing at the top of our lungs, “I want my old mildewy tub toys!!” when in fact there might be something else we want more: comfort, togetherness, entertainment, reassurance.  I held him and rocked him until we could gather the energy to sing again.