On small gratitudes.

I’ve officially hit the point where I think about work all the time. Not in a pathological way, but because it is interesting and there is a lot of stuff going on and there are good challenges to mull. But let’s face it: I think about work all the time. This is a problem for me.

However, I don’t believe in un-thinking, or in chastisement, or in turning away from interesting things; I just want to give myself something better to think about. Something more whole, more shared. Like my brilliant, beautiful, beneficent husband; my fabulous but struggling kiddos; my bizarre good fortune at having a rental situation good enough to miss when we move again in another month. But when I stack up mental lists of gratitudes, I just feel cluttered. I get overwhelmed by all the thoughts.

So this morning, when my young sons went running out into the grass at 6 am in their stripey pajamas, I was otherwise occupied. I did not in fact see their small bare feet grow wet and stain green; I did not see their glee in locating the first dandelions, nor their careful planning of a Surprise for Mama. The first I heard of it was when they came back to the open doorway, faces bright with delight, with handfuls of yellow. “LOOK MAMA! THE DANDELIONS ARE HERE! Quick, let’s get a vase.”

Even the vase-hunting process had me in busy-mode, trying to find something small enough to be convenient in our under-equipped kitchen. But at least that hunt slowed me down and made me use my eyes, my hands, to size up the stems and faces of these flowers, to consider the array of vases we have in storage, to understand again what a central role flowers (growing, picking, arranging, admiring) have in my family’s life. I breathed. I became, for a moment, just a human deeply touched by the love and givingness of others.

Then I saw it: the small green vase a dear friend had given me the day before we left. It held all my gifts perfectly. I packed up my gear for the day — my computer and backpack, of course, but also my little canvas lunch bag from another friend, holding a container of the delectable soup my husband had made the night before and a few other treats. And I picked up my little vase of dandelions. And I felt, for the first time in days, ready to face the world, bolstered by these reminders of who I am, small gratitudes in hand.

On preparing for spring. Hahahahaha.

They say it’s spring now.  I say: we have double-digit negatives most nights this week.  They say spring is coming.  I say: we have to get through mud season first, and we’re a far cry from the kind of thaw that entails.  Basically, I’m a cynic.  It’s seasonal.  It’s Maine. It’s Vitamin D deficiency.  Whatever.

I did, however, replace a broken shop-light today so that I can start my third and fourth flats of seeds in the basement.  My onions, leeks, brussels sprouts, cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers are all going strong.  (Trying cinnamon sprinkled on the soil surface this year to fight the damping-off I’ve struggled with the past two years…Have you tried that?  Is it a myth?)  I’m fired up about the parsley, the new lavender, the zinnias, the basil.  So, in essence, I’m ready for the theoretical reality of spring’s approach, but in my heart of hearts, I believe we’re stuck in sleet-land forever.

It’s this way on all fronts sometimes: you have a nice morning with one son, and that afternoon the second one pukes all over.  You book a fun new consulting gig only to learn that issues of responsiveness might be a drag.  You foolishly sign up to run a training session for a board you serve on, then find someone awesome to run it for you, and then find your leadership partners are reluctant to bring in someone else, which was the whole idea in the first place.  GET WITH THE PROGRAM, WORLD.  Enough puking and dragging-of-feet.  Let’s make some plans and get ’em done.

So I’ve got my graph paper out for the garden, and all my gorgeous books on potager designs; I’ve got a new necklace and a new lipstick for when the consulting gets its act together; I’m getting VERY CLEAR with my board partners about the limits of my available time for volunteer program design and delivery.  It might still be winter, or even mud season, in the spirit of the world, but I’m heading for the bright lights of summer.  Are you with me?

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.

 

On doing one thing at a time.

Like many of you, I struggle to be all things to all people.  Rather, I’ve given up EXPLICITLY trying to do that, because I’m too smart to keep at the impossible (sometimes), but I’m not smart enough, it seems to give it up entirely.  I still worry, when I’m parenting, that I’m not bringing in money.  When I’m bringing in money, I worry that it’s not building a career.  When I’m having conversations about building a career, I’m worry about the experience my kids are having in daycare and wondering what I should give up on in order to be more present somewhere, sometime.

But the bottom line is, we have to choose.  Most of us, as the self-help books point out, choose by default: we limp along in agony until eventually we fall on one side of the path or the other.  It’s unpleasant but surely saves on decision-making.  I am rather a master of this skill.  Case in point: a pretty fantastic job appeared recently at an institution near me, and I sweated for a week over whether or not to apply.  But every time I turn the decision over again, filling the wee hours with my remorse and trepidation, I arrive at the same place. I am not ready to go back to full-time work yet.  I want to spend more time in my children’s lives.  Other people may not; I may not eventually; but right now, I would feel sad and cheated and resentful if I could not spend these two-and-a-half weekdays with my boys.  So I will honor that and choose not to apply for full-time work.

The hard part, of course, is less making the choice and more living with it.  I have always believed in a keep-all-doors-open policy, which makes perfect sense if you are not sure where you want to go.  And so I mistrust my own clarity when I do have it.  But enough sleepless nights, going around the same circles, and even I come to see that my conclusions are always the same.  So the math leads me to believe what the soul has been trying to say all along.

This macro-dynamic of too-many-things shows up everywhere, of course.  In college, I changed majors four times, the last time in the middle of my junior year (bad idea, in case you wondered).  When designing courses, some people think about what reading and assignments to include; I have to think about what to leave out, because there’s SO MUCH great stuff to work with.  Last month I purchased no fewer than eight sample cans of paint in order to decide what color to paint the kitchen (and please note: they were all shades of white.  The kitchen is white).  My any.do app which I use to manage to-do lists typically includes eight or ten things under “today” and a similar number under “tomorrow”; never mind that any ONE of these things might be (was, in fact, today) enormous: making curtains for a friend.  (FYI, that project involves cutting and sewing ten panels of various lengths, hemming on all sides and creating top pockets for the tension rods she will use.  The fabric is a gauzy linen; the sewing machine is a temperamental thing with a bad attitude about tension.)  What special form of self-flagellation leads me to put all these items on a single day?  I realize it’s mostly a commitment to keeping the doors open, in case circumstances direct me to one or another of these things, they are all right there for the doing.  And on an average day, I probably do cross off three or four things.  But…three or four out of eight is kind of depressing.  I want to feel more efficient than that.  I want good reasons to tell some of these nagging voices to pipe down.

So as part of my commitment to Peace in All Things (a mother of two under four: bwahahaha), I decided today that come hell or high water, I would achieve SOMETHING.  I was not going to spend my available time on Pinterest and Facebook, planning and pining.  I was going to find my way into that beautiful, soul-soothing creative space and emerge without having done everything but having made something.  Because that has to be enough, and I have to practice it.  And so I did.  Four panels only, but that’s something for an afternoon.  Small hands may have helpfully pushed each pin all the way into the pincushion (“I like the colors, Mama!”), and even smaller hands may have spent quality time measuring my chair repeatedly (“My measure tape!  I measure for you!”), but I was able to be and do together.  This feels like spiritual practice.  It feels like good work, one thing at a time.

On the generative power of dialogue. Or, learning by talking.

I’m an idea person.  I have a lot of them, and I like to talk about them.  I like other people’s ideas, too, and not much makes me happier than an exchange of ideas, especially in person.  (With good food and bev, preferably, though not necessarily.)  So when I have a big new idea, I like to talk it out.

My latest big idea is a new blog.  I’ll be announcing it here once I get it formed and fleshed enough that it’s ready for public engagement.  And in the meantime, I’m seeking out smart people to help me think about its scope and ambition.   Here’s a sampling of those conversations and what I’ve learned from them.

In a friend’s living room, with various babies crawling around, I chatted with a woman I’ve known for a long time but never really had a chance to buttonhole before.  And I’ve wanted to.  She’s an organizer who works on smart and interesting issues, always justice-oriented, always thinking about the experiences of EVERYONE, not just the mainstream folks.  She has a huge, flamboyant personality, full of hugs and squeezes and prone to sitting on the floor and touching you while she talks.  She reminds me that my own large, noisy self is usually toned down, and that sometimes I’d like it not to be.  She reminds me that it’s okay to laugh loudly and share big enthusiasms and ask hard questions.  When I mentioned my incipient blog, she said that she had one, too, and that she’d been NOT writing it for three years (hurray! I’m not the only one!) but that now she was going to begin, because you can only wait so long to achieve Full and Perfect Knowledge of your topic, and sometimes you just have to START, to get your ideas OUT there.  She cited Myles Horton, which makes me want to reread We Make the Road By Walking.  She proposed the concept paper as a way of sharing what needs to be shared, and I love it.  I love her.  I am inspired.

I talk to my program-officer husband about my project all the time, and to my amazing friend Kate who blends love and justice seamlessly in her many commitments at home, on her farm, in her paid work teaching new immigrants English, in her support of important causes.  Both of them agree that the divide between what we do at home, what our homes are LIKE, how they are run, what they contain, who they include, and what we do outside in our paid work, our board work, our volunteer work, our social commitments and attitudes…that divide is far too great and far too thoughtless.  Whether or not you work outside the home, I’ve decided, is no longer primarily a feminist question, because it’s determined by too many issues beyond our control.  But HOW we live, how we conceptualize and raise our families, those are fundamentally feminist questions, human questions, and also questions of justice across spiritual, economic, financial, social, and environmental domains.  My friend and husband help me see this.

A third (fourth?) conversation that wants to be mentioned here just happened on the phone.  My dad, who has a complicated life and who has done social and humanitarian work in a bunch of contexts and had a career with the UN, caught up with me on the phone after a bit of tag.  I caught up with him, really, as he had just finished some tractor work at his house — a totally off-grid, locally- and self-built timber-frame on nineteen acres with lots of forest, much garden, and some open field.  He sat down in the tractor bucket to talk, pleased, I think, with this rudimentary and totally available seat.  I could picture the cold wind up there chilling his phone hand; I imagine he switched hands a couple of times to warm up the other one.  We talked about jobs, and work, and writing, and my boys; we chewed on the problems of civil society and an economy that has screwed itself by overprivileging the few at the expense of the many.  He reminded me, when I mentioned my new blog and my hopes that it will serve as an idea-bank for a whole range of issues spanning love and justice, at home and in the world, that every conversation is just a conversation.  And it helps to have an introduction, and it helps to have back-up materials, but mostly it is just a conversation.  And people are kind and sometimes this conversation is their work, so get on in there.

As we hung up, he explained that he would now climb out of the tractor bucket.

Perhaps that what I’m trying to do today: have a conversation, then get out of the tractor bucket and have another.

 

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 getting off the couch (or not).

I have this strange rhythm to my life, with two days a week of daycare and all my “work” crammed into those two days.  I say this not to discount the important work of homemaking and childrearing and keeping our lives moving ahead that fill all the rest of my days; I say it because I’m guessing lots of other people struggle to differentiate between paid (or pay-able) work and the other critical unpaid occupations of our lives.

Anyway, I jam these childcare days FULL of expectations.  I schedule appointments and meetings and regular commitments; I plan major writing initiatives; I intend to do research and also tackle the big household projects I can’t take care of with kids around.  But then I end up overwhelmed.  My task management app, Any.Do, invites me DAILY to “manage my to-do’s.”  Clearly it thinks I’m overwhelmed, too.

Today, for example, I left the house shortly after 7 am to take Ezra to a specialist appointment in Portland.  An hour down, fifteen minutes with the doc, and an hour back.  I make good use of the time singing endless rounds of ABCs and “Three Little Birds” with Ezra, so that feels fulfilling, at least.  And then I go straight to the gym after dropping him at daycare.  (Let me stop right here to say that I’ve contemplated saving time by skipping the gym, but apparently I have the good fortune of a crappy back that causes pain if I skip my lifting regimen for more than three days, so I guess I’ll run with that.  But don’t mistake this exercise commitment for either Virtue or Vanity.  It’s simple self-preservation.)  Anyway, I’m home, dripping with sweat, by 10:30, and I’m so starving that I have to eat right away rather than shower.  So then I’m disgusting but dry, and I figure I’ll Get Things Done before I shower, and that lands me on the couch with the computer, and from there on out, my friends, it’s game over.  I’ve cleaned out my inbox; followed up on old business; drafted letters of recommendation for former students (in my head).  I’ve played innumerable games of Bubble as I strategize my next move, and I’ve strongly considered showering.  And napping.  And Doing things.  But to consider, alas, is not to do.  And when I get this tired, there’s a whole phenomenon of not-caring that kicks in.  I need to mobilize to CARE and then I’ll do things.  Or I can just get really hard-nosed about it all and force myself to do things, assuming the caring will follow…the arranged-marriage version of life-planning.  Huh.

And there, you see, is the rub.  It’s a considering kind of day, not a caring kind of day.  I want to loaf about.  I want to read novels and watch bad tv and sip cocoa.  Is that so wrong?  Am I allowed to just DO that?  It feels like no, not with the board meeting tonight that I need to present at, the upcoming discussion group I need to plan and write an email to, the three novels by my bedside I need to finish before I can finalize the discussion group work.  Not to mention the excellent contacts I need to get back to regarding the Possibility of Paid Work.  Sigh.  Perhaps I should organize my day into segments: gym; computer; existing work; board work; potential work; house/yard work.  Maybe that would get me off the couch.

Or not.