You know? I enjoyed this book. Like There but for the by Ali Smith, this book was about the past and the present, but this one was more about what to...moreYou know? I enjoyed this book. Like There but for the by Ali Smith, this book was about the past and the present, but this one was more about what to do when the past is pulled out from underneath you. Cliff is trying to redefine or perhaps rediscover his foundation when, after 25 years of farming and nearly 40 years of marriage, he finds himself without both his farm and his wife. Cliff clings to his prior identity as an English Major and spends a lot of time reminiscing about the days before his marriage, alternately glorifying those days and poking fun at himself and at English Majors and academic types in general. He claims to hate farming and to have made a naive decision giving up his teaching career to farm full-time in his 30's, but he feels a strong draw back to the land. I suppose in the end what he finds is not so much a radical change, but a sense of balance.
It was interesting to me that I persisted in thinking that Cliff was an "old guy," when in reality, he's almost two years younger than my dad (and I don't think of my dad as an "old guy"). In a lot of ways he's like my dad. Which made the frequent (very frequent) references to sex all the more weird for me.
As a side note, why is it that there seem to be a number of older male writers who write a lot about sex? I'm thinking of Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings (which I could not stand) and John Updike's Toward the End of Time (which I could stand, and which I read through, but which I didn't really like except in the way that it showed a person very much consumed with his own life and in his own mind and body even through major global turmoil).
At any rate, even though the mentions of sex were rather excessive, I liked The English Major more than either of these other two books.
I wish Harrison had given more detail about the landscape as Cliff took his road trip. He drove all the way across Nebraska and noted none of the rather dramatic changes from the eastern half of the state to the western half, but he did note the weird way that distances become deceptive in Wyoming. And I loved the description of Cliff's walk through San Francisco and his experience of the Pacific Ocean and the redwoods in northern California. It made me nostalgic for the geography of the West Coast (but not for million-dollar condos). I was a little disappointed that Cliff reduced Utah to mentions of polygamous groups and a complaint about the traffic around Salt Lake City, but what are you going to do? He made up for it with his description of Montana. I finished the book with a desire to learn fly fishing.
I like a good road trip book (I like road trips), and Cliff's plan to work his way through the USA puzzle really appeals to my sense of order. Cliff attributes his sense of order to his English Major and his years of farming, with his 50 acre of cherry trees planted in neat rows. Perhaps this means I would do well as a farmer.
To summarize, this book made me feel icky with its frequent sexual references, but it also left me wanting to visit California, become a farmer, take a road trip, defend Utah, and go fly fishing. And maybe to send a copy of the book to my dad.(less)
The fact is, this book is about being trapped by history. Or herstory. Yourstory and mystory. It's a mystery, myst...moreThe fact is, this book makes me cry.
The fact is, this book is about being trapped by history. Or herstory. Yourstory and mystory. It's a mystery, mystory.
The fact is, it's brilliant (and infectious) the way Ali Smith plays with language. Puns, jokes, double entendres.
(The fact is, although I scold myself for the hours I've spent watching the racy and historically irresponsible series The Tudors, I wouldn't have caught the reference to Thomas Tallis had I not watched the show before I read this novel.)
The fact is, the book itself is a history trap. You start where past and present meet, move through the story, and circle back again.
The fact is, the characters in the story are trapped because they can't let the past stay behind them, nor can they let the past and the present coexist. The past keeps intruding, unbidden, catching them by surprise because they refuse to see it. They can't move forward because they keep circling back.
The fact is, one man finds a way out by shutting himself in until he's traveled far enough in his little room that he's ready to circle back and look his past in the eye.
The fact is, once a person can look the past in the eye and accept that it's all the same---past, present, future, all beneath our feet in this moment---once a person can do that, she is free.
Or at least that's what I took away from this book. That and comfort with a few more vocabulary words.(less)
My kids' doctor gave them a copy of this at one of their checkups. Nice illustrations, cute idea. My kids like it, although it's not one they memorize...moreMy kids' doctor gave them a copy of this at one of their checkups. Nice illustrations, cute idea. My kids like it, although it's not one they memorize and request like their favorites. Decent little book.(less)
I almost stopped reading this book about 50 pages in. I was enjoying Dederer's writing, with all of its pithy GenX-ness, but I found her perspective v...moreI almost stopped reading this book about 50 pages in. I was enjoying Dederer's writing, with all of its pithy GenX-ness, but I found her perspective very critical. She seemed to have concluded, since she felt pressured by her peer group to practice attachment parenting and it didn't work for her, that anyone who practiced attachment parenting was doing it because of social pressure. Attachment parenting devotees were some kind of Stepford Wives, blindly following the dictates of the masses. She ignored the idea that maybe attachment parenting works for some people and it didn't work for her. And she described What to Expect When You're Expecting as a left-wing book. I don't know many of my peers who would describe any book that doesn't list non-reclining positions for pushing as a left-wing book. We all hated that book. We gravitated towards Ina May Gaskin and Sheila Kitzinger. Had we been less ecologically and free-speech inclined, we would have burned What to Expect When You're Expecting.
Basically, I took her judgements personally, which is kind of ridiculous. I mean, she doesn't know me. We gave birth to our first children five years and nearly 1000 miles from one another. We're part of the same generation, but just barely.
But I soldiered on, and I'm glad I did because this book is all about personal growth. I felt a kinship to Dederer as she moved from being guarded and judgmental to being more open and accepting of other ways of raising children. Although I was on the other side of the fence (e.g., my first child refused a binky so I became militantly opposed to them by my second child), I recognized her journey from traumatic birth experience through anxious early motherhood through gradual comfort with her chosen path separate from what her peers were doing.
Although Dederer places a lot of value on staying in one's hometown, this is a particular downside to staying put, at least from my perspective. I have never had a hometown. I moved every three years as a child. As a grown-up, the longest I've lived in any one place is six years. Until I joined Facebook, I didn't even know what my elementary school friends thought of different parenting practices, much less what they thought of me for being a weirdo mommy. It is, in some ways, liberating to be a nomad, to lose touch with my past.
But by the end of the book I found myself jealous of Dederer. She finds the secret for her, which is to move away for a couple of years and then come "home". I like this idea, but without a "home," this is simply not an option for me. My whole life has been "away." Even if I moved to where my dad is or where my mom is, I wouldn't have a network of lifelong friends to tap into because the friends of my childhood are scattered across the country. I'm equally at home everywhere, and I'm equally a stranger everywhere. Dederer's voluntary exodus from and then voluntary return to her home just highlighted for me how much I don't have a home. It kind of pissed me off. I wanted a place to go home to, goshdarnit!
Even as it pissed me off, though, I delighted in watching Dederer's journey. I could relate to the growth-through-yoga that she experienced. Many of her fears and realizations seemed very familiar to me. I especially appreciated her chapter about handstand. I first attempted handstand in yoga teacher training. There an Iyengar teacher described me as "beyond clumsy" in handstand. It was a caution to another student about me in front of me: "Be careful," he said, "she's beyond clumsy." Meaning, "Watch it because she's likely to fall on you while you're trying to assist her." I know it's silly, but this teacher's words have echoed in my mind at practically every yoga practice I've done since. I've gradually allowed it to become background noise rather than letting it take center stage, but I sure as heck haven't tried handstand since then. (Well, once during a workshop, but I embarrassingly dissolved into tears, and I haven't tried since then.)
Some reviewers have complained that the links between Dederer's personal reflections and the poses for each chapter are rather tenuous. I agree to a point. Some chapters did seem to be "yoga pose" + "everything else". But those were the minority. For the most part, I found the link between yoga and her own personal growth to be pretty close.
The part I loved best was watching Dederer accept her reality in a less judgmental way. Rather than comparing herself to everyone else and/or throwing out what she'd built and trying to start over again as her mother had, Dederer took what she had and made it something that worked better for her. I find this inspirational. Even if it does involve having a hometown and a greater skill at making friends than I have.(less)
I gave this book to page 53 because a random person (random meaning I don't know him) on Goodreads said he gives books 50 pages to engage him. If they...moreI gave this book to page 53 because a random person (random meaning I don't know him) on Goodreads said he gives books 50 pages to engage him. If they haven't drawn him in after 50 pages, he moves on to another book. I'm fine with taking advice from random people when it suits me.
So, there's my caveat: I only read three chapters of this book. I read the reasoning for the year-long weekly friend-date challenge and recaps of the first seven friend-dates, and already I feel overwhelmed trying to keep track of names and impressions and why someone who already has lots of friends is seeking a "BFF" from a pool of people she doesn't know rather than from the people with whom she's already friends. I am not someone who is energized by casual interaction in a public setting, but even knowing this, I was surprised at just how worn out I got just reading about how often the author went out with people (on top of being around people all day at work). Actually doing it would be like Hell to me. Not the innermost circle, one of the more outer circles (maybe the fourth?), but in the neighborhood, for sure.
Add to that the fact that I don't think I have much in common with the author aside from the desire to be a writer and a recent relocation to an unfamiliar city (except that she went to college in her unfamiliar city whereas I didn't set foot in mine until we drove up in our rental car with the kids and the cats and my Vitamix in back). She's seeking to recreate a BFF experience from her childhood, a BFF experience she can access via phone calls and visits back to her home city, if she chooses to. I don't have that kind of measuring stick (as I mentioned in my review of Claire Dederer's Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses).
I do appreciate that she leaves open the possibility that she might not "need" a new best friend, that she's actually happy and fine just the way she is and only thinks she needs a best friend because she's comparing her present life to her past and to the lives of people on her favorite tv shows. While I would like to establish a stronger social circle in my newest home town, I'm mostly satisfied with my homebody existence. Despite Bertsche's arguments that it's impossible, I do actually consider my husband my best friend. The trouble we have is that we have so little time without the children that we rarely can have an uninterrupted conversation. When we do, we're great buddies and chief confidantes for one another. We mostly need friends here so we have a safety net in case we need help and so we can get referrals for good babysitters. Oh, and the neighbors wandering about with chainsaws after that freak October snow storm were surprisingly helpful.
Perhaps the book gets just awesome after Chapter 3, but I've got A Gesture Life to pick up from the library's hold shelf, and I'd much rather sink my teeth into some good fiction right now.
And frankly, even if the way to find a best friend is to go on one friend date a week for a year, it's just not worth it to me; I would go batty (battier) well before the 52nd date.(less)
It took me a long time to read this book. There is a lot to chew on in its pages, and a lot to challenge me towards action within my home and my perso...moreIt took me a long time to read this book. There is a lot to chew on in its pages, and a lot to challenge me towards action within my home and my person, within my community, and within the world at large. I plan to write a more reflective review hopefully in the next day or so, but for now, I just want to note a few things that were particularly interesting to me about this book.
1) This is not just a book for Mennonites. Although it's clear from some of the cultural references and jargon (for lack of a better term) that this is written from a Mennonite perspective primarily for a Mennonite audience, it has so much of value to offer people from all backgrounds. I'm Unitarian Universalist with an affinity for buddhist teachings and practice, and I found myself thinking many times, "Wow...I had no idea how similar Mennonites and UUs are!"
2) This is not a guilt-inspiring book. When I read books like this, about all of the things that we need to change in order to promote environmental wellbeing, political and social equality, and economic justice, I tend to feel hope ("Wow! Look at all of the things that people are doing! I could do that, too!") followed closely by despair ("Holy cow, this job is way, way too big for me. Even if I totally rearrange my life, my efforts will be only a drop in the bucket."). I admit, I did at first follow this familiar pattern while reading this book, but the focus and structure of the book helped cushion the fall. Looking at each challenge through the lens of Longacre's Five Life Standards made simplifying seem like a change that adds something of value, not a change centered on sacrifice. Brian McLaren's afterword was the icing on the cake for me. McLaren spells out a way of reading the book and taking on the challenges outlined therein---with an outlook of joy and grace rather than guilt. It helped me, too, that he specifically opens up the idea to those who are not Mennonite---or even Christian. While I felt the invitation in the pages, it was nice to see it spelled out so explicitly. My favorite bit:
"Grace is our best motivation for a more-with-less lifestyle. Having received grace ourselves, we want our neighbors in poverty to receive it, too. Even our enemies need grace, we realize. So do the rivers and streams, the soil and wind...the same goes for the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, the flowers and creatures of the field. We want all to be given all the grace they need to thrive and prosper. It is our joy to live with less so that others may have enough."
3) This is not only practical advice for simple living. At each step, the topic and suggestions come back to the Five Life Standards. As a result, each suggestion for change has a clear connection to the values and ideals that were outlined at the beginning of the book. It's not just simplifying for the sake of simplifying. It's action with a purpose, and that feels much more satisfying to me.
At any rate, I'm going to mull this one over a bit, maybe read the beginning again, and see what comes up. I really, really enjoyed it, even though I had to take it in small doses so as not to overwhelm myself. There is just so much to take in. It's such a deceptively radical act to consider, living according to our values.(less)
This was another of the books my husband got for me from the library for Christmas. I put it on my list about a year ago when I was reading back throu...moreThis was another of the books my husband got for me from the library for Christmas. I put it on my list about a year ago when I was reading back through the materials from Northwest Earth Institute's Voluntary Simplicity discussion course, which my husband and I took more than a decade ago. Two of Wendell Berry's essays were reprinted in those materials, one---"The Pleasures of Eating" from What Are People For?---made such an impression on me, I decided to pick up the book. And am I glad I did.
Berry's essays include book reviews, poetry commentary, and personal essays of the kind that, in 20 years' time, would appear on blogs in much simpler form and cut down to <800 words, most likely. Their tone is conversational and their insights simple and relatable. In fact, I was impressed by the sense of conversation that pervades the pieces. Writing for print media at a time when internet was in its infancy, Berry communicates with his readers and other authors, both contemporaries and those throughout history, in a way similar to that to which I strive in my blogging. Like a good conversation, the essays meander through literary and historical citations, personal anecdotes, and assertions of strong personal opinions; I found it a pleasure to follow the trails he blazed.
The topics of the essays vary, but certain themes come up again and again. One theme is working in harmony with nature. Berry offers examples from his own experiences as a farmer, those of farmers he's known and those of the wider community of farmers throughout history, like Nate Shaw, the subject of "A Remarkable Man," as well as biblical support for the practice of moving with the rhythms of nature rather than trying to subdue it. This theme also shows up in his suggestion that we become knowledgable about and active in the process by which food travels to our plates, which includes eating locally, an idea that I find surprising from essays written in the late 1980's. This idea of local eating comes up in "The Pleasure of Eating," and is one of the rare instances when Berry actually offers possible solutions; mostly he just asks really good questions.
The theme of local action is another that runs through his essays. Berry supports local eating, yes, but he also posits the idea that family farms are failing in our country because our society devalues the work that is done in the places where we live. He writes about the disconnection many of us have with our communities and even our families, a phenomenon he attributes to the fact that we are so dependent on careers that we feel we must be willing to relocate far from our home communities, breaking ties with family and friends each time we do (this one hit home for me). "Living is a communal act," he writes, "whether or not its communality is acknowledged." The entire culture, Berry suggests, is oriented towards centralization, pulling us away from the connections we build with those near us in favor of more diluted connections with those over a broad geography. And this was well before Facebook.
Berry does a little of the nostalgic "back in my day" musing, but it's not gratuitous or overbearing. He points out that in the time of family farms (actually before his day), people would visit with each other in the evening after supper. They'd just drop by and talk or play music or tell stories in the time-honored tradition of building community memory through storytelling. They would create their own entertainment while today people expect their entertainment to be delivered to them through the television or the internet. Instead of connecting in person with those near us, we hole up in our homes and connect with those geographically distant from us (or with those who are fictional), and we're losing not only that connection to local community, but also the stories and memory that make up a community.
Berry worries that we have adopted a societal idea of progress that is ultimately destructive to our society itself. Throughout his essays, Berry seems to be wrestling with his obvious optimism that change is possible and his deep anger at how blindly we are driving society towards dissolution and self-centeredness. Our economy is based on waste, he says, an idea that others have suggested in their criticism of the way in which GDP is calculated. For example, if I stay at home with my children, do the work of keeping a home, keep a garden, and cook our meals at home, I'm considered less valuable to the economy than if I were to have a full-time career and outsource child-rearing, housekeeping, and food production and preparation. I don't hear many people touting divorce as a practice for improving the health of families and communities, but with the way GDP is calculated, our economy looks healthier if people get divorced because they're spending so much on attorneys and breaking one household into two. But this waste isn't just something dictated from on high. Each of us plays a part in driving this wasteful economy. "Our waste problem," Berry asserts, "...is the fault of an economy that is wasteful from top to bottom---a symbiosis of an unlimited greed at the top and a lazy, passive, and self-indulgent consumptiveness at the bottom---and all of us are involved in it." We are each part of the problem, himself included, and we each must be ready to change as individuals in order to effect broader change. "The possibility of change," Berry writes, "depends on the existence of people who have the power to change."
Many of his essays seem to be speaking directly to me, and not just in an abstract, preaching-to-the-choir way. He writes in one essay about his experience as a Stegner Fellow at Stanford in the late 1950's. I once applied for a Stegner Fellowship. I'm a little embarrassed to admit this because at the time I didn't fully comprehend the history of the fellowship and the boatloads of Really Big Writers who've been Stegner Fellows. I just thought it was an awesome program and, even better, I could bike to it from where we were living at the time. I didn't get the fellowship, naturally, but I don't know...somehow reading Berry's essay about it helped me feel less silly for taking the chance on applying. Not because he made the fellowship sound any less awesome---quite the contrary. More I think it was just the fact that here was this writer-and-farmer from Kentucky, an unassuming fellow and a working man, someone with values similar to mine who's writing about subjects with which I'm grappling in my own life; if he was a Stegner Fellow, then it's not so crazy that I could have been, too, had I been able to convey that I was committed to improving my skill as a writer and that I would be a valuable addition to that year's fellowship class, which I wasn't able to do because I wasn't either of those things at the time, something I've realized over the years.
The essay entitled "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer" and its follow-up essay, "Feminism, the Body, and the Machine," spoke to me as well. I have a computer, but I am staunchly opposed to owning a smart phone for many of the reasons Berry lists, not the least of which is this: "I should ask, in the first place, whether or not I wish to purchase a solution to a problem that I do not have." Berry notes the unintended consequences of the rapid and widespread adoption of the automobile, and he just advises caution before blindly adopting any new technology. I am very much in favor of caution.
So, I love these essays because they're satisfyingly complex, they express strong opinions in a respectful way, they echo many of the things I say to myself (and other people within earshot), and they are written in a style which I long to emulate, but I also love them because Berry's style is friendly and, at times, surprisingly funny. He wrote "Feminism, the Body, and the Machine" in response to some very heated reader replies to his "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer." He is tallying his supporters and detractors from among the responses and comes to one that would fall into the latter category. He quotes the letter and then remarks, "I like this retort so well that I am tempted to count it a favorable response, raising the total to four." I laughed out loud at that. But then, I like public radio a lot, too.
I could keep writing and writing (and writing) about this book, but I'll stop myself here with a quote from "Healing," one of the poem-like essays from Part I of the book, which speaks to what I hope to experience each time I return from seeking solitude:
True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.
One's inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one's most intimate sources.
In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.
One returns from solitude laden with the gifts of circumstance.
These were good for listening to on our cross-country road trip, but when I picked up the first book for my daughter to read, she got bored with it ve...moreThese were good for listening to on our cross-country road trip, but when I picked up the first book for my daughter to read, she got bored with it very quickly. The stories are cute enough but very formulaic, which gets old kind of fast. Fun enough for what they are, but these books are not going to be a child's introduction to good literature.(less)
I'm enjoying all of the Little House books, but this one has been the best to date.
First, Laura's a teenager here. She's assumed many more grown-up re...moreI'm enjoying all of the Little House books, but this one has been the best to date.
First, Laura's a teenager here. She's assumed many more grown-up responsibilities around the Ingalls' home. Not only is her work becoming more critical to the operation of the household, she's starting to be let in on the dangers of her family's life in a way that she's not been before. In The Long Winter, Laura faces the very real possibility of losing her family and her own life. She witnesses her parents shift their ideals, strange as they seem to modern audiences, to suit the needs of the family. Ma lets Laura help Pa with the summer haying despite her claim that only immigrants let their daughters do such work. Laura's assistance not only helps Pa avoid sunstroke, but it contributes greatly to their survival in the long winter.
One thing I love about this book is that Ma finally loses it. She doesn't go completely ape, but she snaps at Pa and just in general acts much more like I do on a daily basis (but without the profanity). I feel like I can relate to her better now, even though the hardships that cause her to lose it are relentless blizzards and the impending starvation of her family while I lose it when over something like my husband leaving the empty cat food cans in the sink rather than rinsing them out immediately and putting them in the recycling. Still, the proof that Ma ever loses it at all helps me feel a greater kinship to her.
I also really enjoyed the bits of discussion in this book about the double-edged sword of technological advance. Whether it's Ma complaining about their reliance on kerosene or Pa concerned about their reliance on the trains, the point is that while technology brings us great gifts, we quickly become dependent upon their fruits and find we can't live without them.
I find that I often use the Little House books as a model for how I ought to live my life. We experienced a four-day power outage in our New England home after the freak snowstorm last October, and listening to The Long Winter (I listened to the audiobook read by Cherry Jones), I constantly thought back to just how ill-suited our home (and our family) is to inclement weather. When we're cut off from electricity, we can do nothing. Our food spoils, we can't heat our home, we can't cook, we have no hot water. Luckily we're on city water and sewer and don't rely on a sump to flush our toilets and run the taps, or we'd not have been able to stay in our home during that cold, dark four days. My thoughts turned to how to make our home less reliant on the "grid" and I realized (yet again) how little my husband and I know about the workings of our dwelling. While I wouldn't want to live in a 250-square-foot home with my family, I can certainly see how doing so would (could) simplify our lives. I find myself yearning for knowledge about sustainable energy sources and uber-insulation and woodstoves, but in the end, daily life intercedes and I get tied up once again in the daily tasks of doing dishes and washing clothes. That and the knowledge that the longest we've lived in any home in our adult lives is two years is enough to discourage us from any major renovations, regardless of the purpose.
In the end, though, the thing that struck me was how close their family is. They have restraint and concern for the other family members and don't just blurt things out whenever they think of them. They don't yell at each other. They don't clamor for the bigger share of possessions or food or parental affection. When they're down (and they're not down unless the wolf's not just slavering at the door but has pulled up a chair for supper), they sing together or read together or just sit together and tell stories. Maybe learning how to make hay or how to ground wheat in a coffee grinder aren't the lessons I should be getting from the Little House books.
But then, our coffee grinder is electric, too.(less)
I started out with the audiobook version, but after listening to the first two CDs about three times and not really t...moreThis book is deceptively complex.
I started out with the audiobook version, but after listening to the first two CDs about three times and not really taking in any of it in, I checked out the hardcover from the library. That worked somewhat better, but the book was still quite confusing.
In a way, it seemed like a very long koan. If the self doesn't inherently exist---although it does, in fact exist---what is its nature? If you can't locate it in the mind or the body, where is it?
One thing that I found frustrating (beyond the basic incomprehensibility of the book) was that the Dalai Lama asks these questions and then gives the answer while insisting that the process of exploring the questions is more important than just having the answer. I don't doubt this is true, I would just kind of prefer if he kept the answer a secret and let me figure it out on my own. Or at least gave a spoiler alert. Having an endpoint for my contemplation makes the contemplation itself less satisfying.
The sensation I had reading this book kind of reminded me of when my then-five-year-old asked me where we were before we were in our mommy's bellies.
"Where do you think we were?" I asked, thinking that, since she'd been there more recently than I had, she might have a better idea than I did. ("Nowhere," was her matter-of-fact answer, incidentally).
I'm not at all sure I get the book, although what I think I get is fairly liberating, if I'm actually understanding it correctly. Of course, the fact that I use the word "I" so often is probably evidence that I'm not getting it at all being that it's all about the emptiness of existence of the self.
A quote from the book:
"Ordinary happiness is like dew on the tip of a blade of grass, disappearing very quickly. That it vanishes reveals that it is impermanent and under the control of other forces, causes, and conditions. Its vanishing also shows that there is no way of making everything right; no matter what you do within the scope of cyclic existence, you cannot pass beyond the range of suffering. By seeing that the true nature of things is impermanence, you will not be shocked by change when it occurs, not even by death."
At any rate, this book seemed to fit well with the daily meditation practice in which I've been engaged for the past five and a half weeks. And contemplation of the nature of the thing I think of as "I" has been...interesting. I'd read it again. (less)
My husband and I took a "Voluntary Simplicity" discussion course back in 2000/2001. The course was from Northwest Earth Institute and was based on Dua...moreMy husband and I took a "Voluntary Simplicity" discussion course back in 2000/2001. The course was from Northwest Earth Institute and was based on Duane Elgin's book and scads of other terrific writings about simplicity and mindfulness. It was remarkably influential on how we lived our newly-married life together, but for some reason, it took me more than ten years to pick up Elgin's original book (well, the 1993 revision).
When I finally did read the book, I was blown away by the simplicity and compassion with which Elgin presents the idea of Voluntary Simplicity.
The book consists of three main sections. The first introduces the idea and contains excerpts from the written replies on a 1977 survey of people committed to voluntary simplicity to give a sense of how some people live the principles of voluntary simplicity. The second expands on the idea of voluntary simplicity, dissecting both the "voluntary" and the "simplicity" aspects of this way of living. And the third was a rather apocalyptic vision of the future if we choose not to address our current ecological problems head on.
The first section was a little dry at times, but I found it interesting to note the demographics of the respondents as I read their responses. It was encouraging that so many people from all over the country and with so many different ways of life embraced voluntary simplicity and were finding similar benefits (and challenges). It was also interesting how similar the culture of 1977 seems to be to the culture of 2011. My dad would laugh to hear me say that and make some comment about how it wasn't that long ago and how he was there when I was born, after all. But being that I was less than a year old then, it seems like a long time ago to me, and it seemed odd how little things have changed, really, in the past 34+ years.
The second I found inspiring as Elgin made it clear that there's no one way to live a voluntarily simple lifestyle. It's about making individual choices with awareness of both their direct and indirect effects on us and on the people and environment around us. Two people can live lives of voluntary simplicity that look vastly different from one another. The important piece is to stop living on automatic pilot. We must wake up and make conscious choices.
The third section I approached with some trepidation. Elgin empathizes with the discomfort the reader will likely experience considering the possible collapse of civilization as we know it. "All of the hopes and fears that lie in uneasy though quiet repose in our everyday lives become starkly visible as we consider the depth and scope of change that lies ahead." He encourages us to embrace these changes as natural: "Our anxiety about transformative civilizational change is lessened when we realize that it is part of a natural and purposeful process."
I wasn't really comforted.
It took me a week or so to pick the book back up, but last night I screwed up my courage and finished the book. And it really wasn't so bad after all. Elgin outlines three possible cultural responses to the current ecological, societal, and governmental problems:
1. Overshoot and collapse. Basically we continue to increase our rampant consumerism and individualistic focus until the ecosystem can no longer support us and society collapses because we're not at all prepared for the disasters as they mount. The human race experiences a massive die-out due to disease and famine and civilization enters an extended dark age. This was the one I was worried about reading. On to the next...
2. Dynamic Stagnation. This is the one where we as a culture fight so hard to maintain the status quo that we don't really make anything all that worse, we're just not well prepared for what comes so we end up making the changes necessary to survive but not to thrive as a species and a civilization. We depend too much on existing institutions rather than taking personal, local, and global responsibility for the changes necessary to make it through this "Winter" period of our culture. This is bad, but not so bad compared to #1.
3. Reconciliation and Revitalization. This is the one that made it possible for me to go to sleep last night once I closed the book. Individuals come together in a grass-roots effort to build up new decentralized institutions to provide for the needs of our population on a more local level and to put pressure on our government and the global community to make choices based not on isolationism and personal gain but on a collective desire to see humanity thrive. We enter a period of unprecedented cooperation and compassion which results in a New Renaissance of cultural, artistic, and governmental advances.
Elgin concludes by making the case for compassion as the basis for our society and for our species going forward. "If we value our freedom and vitality as a species, we are obliged to do no less than learn to love one another as a human family or else destroy ourselves in the learning," he writes.
I immediately began to think of ways that I could act in my own life to improve the health of my community. Voluntary simplicity from Elgin's perspective isn't about a back-to-the-land movement or about living a life of deprivation and social/geographical isolation. On the contrary, Voluntary Simplicity requires making conscious choices not only in our own homes but also in close cooperation with our communities and being active in creating the changes that we need on a national and international level. I thought of things that I could do to connect with my neighbors and to be a part of our small city and our religious community that would also serve my introverted needs for physical space and quiet reflection. Learning about the history of our town, inviting the neighbors over one or two families at a time to talk and share food, asking for assistance in gaining expertise about issues from home repair to hiking trails, and sharing yard and garden-care equipment were all ideas that came to mind. It will be a challenge to engage like this, but I think that if I do it prudently, we'll experience a much richer involvement in our community.
The key really isn't simplicity so much as it is consciousness. Making conscious choices, we understand the larger impact of our consumption patterns. For example, when we buy a television, we recognize not only the price tag, but the materials and labor and research and marketing that went into bringing us that television. We understand the social impact of the manufacture of the television on the community where it was assembled. We understand that our perceptions and our desires will be shaped not only by the programs we choose to watch but also the advertising that we see between and within the programs and by the time we spend watching television rather than interacting. In addition, we understand where that television will go when its useful life is over (or when we choose to upgrade to a newer model) and what affect that later life will have on our environment and on the health and wellbeing of the communities surrounding the television's final resting place. Voluntary Simplicity doesn't mean not buying the television; it means knowing what it is we're really buying.
Making conscious choices, we see the world with open eyes, and we realize that there is nothing we can do that doesn't somehow affect someone else. And that's comforting, when you really think about it.(less)
The Ingalls kids are getting older and are taking on more responsibility as the hardships get more difficult. Laura's becoming a young woman and her r...moreThe Ingalls kids are getting older and are taking on more responsibility as the hardships get more difficult. Laura's becoming a young woman and her reflections and perception is changing to match that transition.
There was one part that really struck a chord with me. It's when the Ingalls are moving from the surveyors' house to the unfinished store building in town at the end of the winter. Laura reflects that she was "alone and happy" on the prairie throughout the winter, but now in town with so many people around, she's lonely. While I'm not certain how I would handle the level of isolation the family experienced during a South Dakota winter hundreds of miles from any other people, I can relate to her sentiment. I'm rarely lonely when I'm alone. It's when I'm surrounded by people I don't know that I feel most isolated.
My feelings about this book are a little more nuanced than they are about the previous books, but I'm still quite enjoying them. We're going back and reading Farmer Boy before moving on the The Long Winter. I figured we ought to get a sense for who Almanzo is before he starts playing a larger role in the stories. And on the positive side, I'm fairly certain that I can now, if necessary, build a railroad, thanks to Wilder's detailed description of the process.
It's still not at all clear to me, though, what the privy situation was. Did they have to trudge through the snow to the outhouse or go in a chamber pot every time they did their business? Was the privy in the lean-to? How far did they have to walk? And if the well was only 6 feet deep, how deep did they need to dig their privy?(less)