An Open Letter to Aspiring Homesteaders

As a sort-of homesteader, I am always torn between the feelings of elation one gets when tapping trees, laying down compost, or canning tomatoes,…..and the feelings of hopelessness one gets over the heating bill or the need to take the tiller in to the repair shop AGAIN. It’s not just the expense that rankles. It’s the awareness that one sort of sucks at eco-friendly, small-is-beautiful, self sufficiency.

And it gets worse when one sits down to read the gurus. Eliot Coleman’s fabulously and alarmingly perfect rows of friggin color-coordinated lettuce all laid out with Germanic perfection on a grid scheme make me want to lie down and cry. And Joel Salatin moves his chickens every day. Yay for him. Meanwhile, our mobile coop has a flat tire and has been immobile since November. Oh, and I till my soil. Evil, I know, but I do it anyway. And let’s not talk about cloth diapers.

The beauty of my total lack of perfection as a homesteader is that I am able to have compassion for the thousands of others out there who are trapped in the city, have to work full time, have no space for the organic non-GMO ancient wheat they’d love to plant, and whose gardens are regularly ravaged by urban groundhogs. I have a message for you all, and it’s this: don’t beat yourselves up.

First of all, let’s get over the idea that country living is this huge sacrifice or hardship that only a few intrepid souls are willing to make. It is, in fact, a luxury. Land prices are outrageous. And even if you do scrape together the funds to get a little place on the land, chances are you will still have to support yourself by going to work. We are very lucky to be able to have our home on the land. But even so, we have not yet begun to achieve the level of sustainability that would enable us just to live off our acres.

So next time you read the heroic tale of some bold homesteader who quit his six-figure job in the city and made the sacrifice of living on the land…well, just roll your eyes, as I do. Those stories don’t have a lot of relevance for most of us. Most of us just have to try to do what we can, where we are.

Here are a few things, at least, that just about anyone can do, to make your life simpler, more wholesome, more sustainable, more earth-friendly, and more communal:

1) Compost. This is the number one item on my list because it’s easy, it’s free, and if everyone did it what a difference it would make to the quantity of crap we dump into landfills. Even if you have no idea HOW to compost, or have no intention of using your compost, simply burying your food scraps rather than trashing them can make an enormous impact. It also means less expense on trash bags, less gross stinkiness in the trash, and less guilt when your kids refuse to eat their crusts, or the whites of their eggs. And let’s not diminish the fun of setting up a really chic little compost bucket: I use an old Veuve Cliquot champagne bucket for my compost, just to advertise to everyone how classy I am.

2) Grow a garden, not a lawn. The “perfect lawn” is an unnatural object, made possible only by extensive applications of chemicals and laborious efforts with fuel-powered machines. Unless, of course, you are grazing sheep. If you aren’t, stop fretting about the clover: let it grow, it’s good for the bees! And the dandelions can be picked young and eaten. But either way, put in a garden. Even if you don’t have a green thumb, some things, like lettuce and snap beans, almost can’t go wrong.

3) Support your local farmer’ market. If you can’t grow it yourself, buy locally. Try to eat what’s in season. This means putting your money into your own community, getting better nutrition, reducing your carbon footprint, and making farmers happy.

4) Preserve your own food. If you can grow enough to can, freeze, or dry for the winter – excellent. If not – talk to your local farmers about the possibility of buying in bulk. Especially at the end of a harvest, growers often have extras, more than they can sell or preserve themselves. Even if the prospect of canning terrifies you, almost any produce can easily and safely be frozen for the winter months. This means healthier food, less packaging, and greater food independence for you.

5) Reuse, recycle, and upcycle. Even something as small as reusing shopping bags – using shopping bags instead of buying trash bags – can make a difference. Try to buy from thrift shops or local artisans as much as possible. When you need to make something, think about whether it can be made with materials you already have available.

6) Use simple hand-tools when possible. If you have to cut down a whole stand of trees, I realize you might need a chainsaw. But otherwise, use a handsaw. It’s quiet, it uses no gas, and it’s great for the biceps. Use a scythe or a swingblade whenever you can, instead of a weedwhacker. Invest in a high-quality hoe (see the earlier post on garden hoes) and use it when you can instead of the tiller. Do this often enough and you can eventually quit your gym membership, which means saving money and using less petrol driving around.

7) Put your kids to work. Yes, even at the tender age of six, a child can take out the compost, bring scraps to the chickens, weed a bed, or plant seeds. Some kids will love this – others will bitch and moan. I was one of those who bitched and moaned, but hey – look at me now, doing all the same things I used to whine about as a kid, and enjoying it! Involving your children in your homesteading activities – no matter how simple – means handing on your ideals and skills to a new generation, and knowing that the earth and the community are being passed on to good hands.

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Religion and Institution

You’ve heard the claim a dozen times: “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” As a person who is particular about language, I tend always to want to ask: what the hell do you even MEAN?  Because, really, being “spiritual” is fundamentally just a condition of being human. Humans are “spiritual” in the sense that the function of our soul, our animus, transcends the realm of the merely natural.  If we want to stick with this somewhat traditional language, we can speak of all living things as having souls, but only of personal beings as having “spiritual souls.”

(This means the ninnies who like to taunt children by saying such things as “animals don’t have souls”  don’t know what the hell they’re talking about, either: they’re just jerks).

The implicit claim of the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd is one of superiority. They are deeper than the rest of us, freer; they’re not tied down to a set of rules, trapped in cavernous buildings where old men in robes mumble in ritualistic superstition.  Their spirituality is tied to love, kindness, puppies, and long walks on the beach at sunset.

However. Much as I enjoy making (gentle, I hope) fun of the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd, they do have a point.  There is, indeed, something about organized religion that can too often seem to suffocate the spirit, narrow the mind, and promote a severe case of boredom. I’ve often had to restrain myself from walking out of church: the constant homilies on how Muslims are badbadbad, while Christians are goodgoodgood get old; they’re petty; they’re also deeply historically inaccurate. Whatever arguments “we” want to use against Islam, we’d better make damn sure they can’t, at some point in history, be used against “us.” And here’s the thing: there is something deeply wrong with the situation, if I am sitting in church thinking of the many historical or logical inaccuracies in the sermon, when I ought to be thinking about my place in relation to the divine, the community, my call to holiness, the mystery of incarnation, the splendor of divine charity.

What the spiritual-but-not-religious folks are pointing to as a problem is not religion, really: it’s institutionalization. I have in mind the social critic Ivan Illich’s view of the danger of institution (whether political, educational, technological, or religious): that at a certain point, the institution takes on a life of its own, and lives only to serve and to sustain itself, indifferent to the needs of the person.

As I told my students recently: at some point in your life, you will be harmed, degraded, fired, or in some respect denied justice because the need of some institution to preserve itself was deemed more important than the demands of justice for the individual. And this may be done to you by an institution the mission of which is fundamentally “good.”

When religion becomes institutionalized, we end up with the problems of clericalism, abuse, bureaucracy, greed.  Bishops live high on the hog. Priests are “too busy” to talk to parishioners suffering from depression. Noisy children in the church are glared at. Dissent, even orthodox dissent, is never tolerated. We find that religious-run organizations find convenient excuses for not paying employees a just wage (take, for instance, Duquesne University’s “reasonable” explanations for why their abysmal treatment of adjunct professor Margaret Mary Vojtko whose sad death recently made national news, was a-okay). Marketing and PR are big. Humans become “resources.” Theology becomes apologetics. Worship is televised.

This is not to say that “organized religion” needs to be replaced with long walks on the beach, puppy kisses, etc. “Order” is a good thing, a necessary thing. Ritual, properly understood, involves an established form and balanced order according to which the human may approach the divine. It can also be a good check for keeping the noisy and egotistical in place (ritualistic worship services mean whichever Big Man considers himself the most Impressive Speaker has to just shut it and say Hail Marys with the hoi polloi).

We need to ditch institution, and in its place establish order. What’s the difference between the two?

Based on recent musings, here are a few distinctions. Feel free to add your own:

1. Order can be fluid. When the need of the moment alters, the order can be changed. Institution, however, is rigid and set in stone….or maybe concrete.

2. Order allows for freedom. Take dance, for instance: the more one learns of the order, the control, the discipline of the dance, the more free one is to do express the beauty of the form. Institution, however, denies freedom. It is characterized by a series of “shall nots” vs an instruction in “here’s how.”

3. Order tends towards community and communication. Language itself is orderly. Institution tends towards setting up power-structures and divisions, and its language is that of bureaucracy: that is, it lies.

4. Order always has time for beauty, for the pause, for the sudden surprising moment of inspiration. Institution is threatened by individual expression, and tends to punish any activity that happens outside the set protocol.

5. Order tends not to be fearful. When something bizarre or even painful happens, the impulse of order is to understand or heal. Institutions are fearful, because they must fight – “culture wars” anyone? – against anything that would hamper their power. The impulse of institution is to silence and eradicate.

6. Order is not threatened by dialogue with divergent groups. Institution has to protect itself by keeping the Outsider Out.

7. Order is necessary. Institution is soul-destroying.

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I’m calling you out in love

I guess love is sort of a banal idea.  I discovered that in grad school, where it was the hip thing to find the “secret teaching” in the great books: of course Antony and Cleopatra could not possibly be about human passion! How very 2000 years ago.  No, it must be about the need of the Republic for a leader who is willing to count down to line 15 and invert the central word and unite the kingdom, or something or other.  At age 22 that sort of thing is thrilling because counting down to line 15 is not something in whch the hoi polloi like to indulge. Love, though? Bah, even peasants do that.  So our lofty tomes could not possibly be about anything so simple.

But then you remember that even after thousands of years and thousands of books and thousands of broken hearts, love is still sort of a primary datum: it does not need to be reducible to anything else, it just is.  History may have worn down its edges, but in every human heart it always comes about fresh.  And that’s why stories still can be made about it: the same old thing, but cast as totally new, in a different time and place.  Love is still one of the primary motive forces behind great or terrible actions. It is still something you can write a story about.

Counting down to line 15 and inverting the word, not so much.

I run into this same sort of snobbery when it comes to Christ’s commandment that we love one another.  What does this commandment mean, we ask? Well, that seems fairly self-evident, I think.  Again, love is a primary datum….when someone looks at you with love, acts towards you with love, you know it.  Whether it is a case of someone stopping and asking “how are you?” and meaning it – or someone stopping by with a meal when you’ve just had a baby – or someone seeing that you’ve made a mistake, and that you are feeling shitty about it, and saying “hey, it’s okay.”

Oh, but that is all so soppy. It can’t be that easy, can it? I mean, if it is that easy then dumb people and atheists and drunks can do it too.

Why yes, yes they can.  But it is not really easy. Being kind takes a lot of work; going out of one’s way to help someone else can be a pain in the ass.  Forgiveness is a bitch.

It’s intellectually easy, though: you don’t need to have access to some special formula to pull it off.  You don’t have to belong to the special in-club of people who have it right and are battling to save the world, even though the world just doesn’t understand them in their loftiness.

Maybe that’s why some people, when presented with Christ’s commandment that we love on another, are quick to bypass the really obvious, really simple, yet really demanding understanding of that commandment and move on to a sort of specialized, secondary understanding: “loving people means wanting the best for them even if they don’t want it for themselves.” Or “loving people means doing what is best for them, but remember, what is best for you is not always comfortable.”

Okay, sure….but is that really what comes to mind first when we imagine the Essence of Caritas?

You can take the analogy of parenting.  Sometimes loving our kids means wanting the best for them even when they don’t want it (such as not letting my daughter eat stuff with butter in it, since she has a milk intolerance).  It might mean punishing them by removing a privilege, for their own good, to help them achieve discipline.

But in the whole scope of parenting, aren’t these instances of love sort of secondary?  And less than ideal?  In a day of loving my kids, loving them far more often means making them meals, listening to their problems, driving them to activities, washing their clothes, playing games with them, changing their diapers, givig them treats, telling them stories – then it does punishing them or keeping them from stuff they enjoy.  And the punishments are only ever effective in the larger context of this love…this relationship.

Sure, Christ told people “go and sin no more.” But usually when he was performing a miracle on their behalf.  If you want to come over to my house and miraculously turn my water into wine, believe me, I will actually listen to you when you call me out in love.  Otherwise don’t bother.

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On the Proper Care and Feeding of Literary Works

I’ve noticed that my writing output significantly decreases when I am pregnant (as I am now: 31 weeks).  It’s not just that I lack the focus or the energy to sit down and sustain a thought for more than three seconds – it goes deeper than that: I am low on inspiration.

Usually I find myself up to my neck in a veritable river of metaphors, ideas, images, controversies…the trick is to catch one and figure out what to do with it.  Last summer there was this chili pepper, curled into a hook-like shape, drying on my windowsill, and in the evening when the gold late sun filtered through the screen it glowed red like a beacon. Everything else in the kitchen went sort of dim and fog-like.  I wrote a poem about it…also about vultures flying off with road-kill, about bagworm tents in the black walnut trees, about iris rhizomes, and even about moon-pies. Everything was fraught with significance and connected to everything else.

This summer though a chili pepper remains stubbornly a chili pepper (which is fine, really – why should it be anything else?) and I haven’t written a damn thing, beyond lecture notes, Facebook posts, and one creative project that I HAD to finish.  My body is very busy creating a whole other person, and my mind is left either to dangle about and wait or to get invested in the process – which, in my case, usually means worrying.

One thing I have noticed, though, is that contrary to a fairly popular trope, pregnancy and childbearing are absolutely nothing like producing a work of art – beyond the fact that both are work, and in both cases you end up with Something New. But the same could be said of baking a pie.

I spent so much time analyzing the “Oxen of the Sun” episode in Joyce’s Ulysses, in which the development of literature is juxtaposed against the birth of a baby, in which the forty paragraphs coincide with forty weeks of gestation, I got all caught up in the metaphor and even wrote a conference paper on “Birth and the Book: Joyce’s Pro-Life Aesthetics” (which incidentally I didn’t get to present since adjuncts don’t get travel stipends – insert loud bitchy noises here)…but when it comes down to it, the comparison only goes so far.  I would hate for writers to approach writing the way women approach childbearing, vice versa.

It is true that both books and babies are kind of a part of oneself, but also kind of separate.  You can see bits of yourself in both.  But in the case of the baby, it is absolutely guaranteed that the New Thing is completely unique, an individual, separate from you.  The same, alas, is rarely true of literary works.  The good ones have a life of their own, but all the rest, the mediocre and the poor and the downright shitty (and most of them, you know, fall into one of those latter categories) do not. They remain tied to their mamas’ apron strings.  Read one, and it makes no sense unless you know who wrote it and why, and on what biographical event it is based….and even then, you won’t find it very interesting. Unless you are in love with the person who wrote it, or something, and sufficiently loopy with desire to find ANYTHING associated with that person – a used tissue, for instance – deeply compelling.  It doesn’t speak to you on its own.  A baby will eventually learn to talk, but a poorly written poem never will.

If you treat your artistic productions as you should treat a newborn, then you are probably guaranteed to produce utter schlock. A baby, you love flaws and all: you wouldn’t have it any other way. You love it, coddle it, tolerate its messes and its bawling. It is your baby – it is completely unique and beloved, even if it is bald and red-faced and covered with baby acne and flaking cradle cap and stinky sour milk-puke in all its little folds and creases.  No one else may see that it is beautiful, but you KNOW that it is.

That’s totally the right way to look at your baby and totally the wrong way to look at the crappy poem you just produced while half-drunk under a lamppost, dripping tears of scorned love and sucking at a cigarette and feeling like what you really want to do most is scream and break things, but you don’t want to get arrested, so you write this poem instead.  Even if the baby, like the poem, came about because you were drunk and thought it was love and weren’t thinking clearly…

Have you ever had someone just out of the blue ask if you would take a look at his / her poetry? It happens to me all the time. I don’t know whether I have some sort of “reads poetry!!!” aura around me, but I have actually had total strangers approach me and ask if I can look over some poems.  I really hope I will get time off purgatory for this. Because there is always a “you can hold my baby if you want to” feel to such an offer. You can’t look at someone’s baby and say, “well, the nose is okay, but if I were you I would just get rid of the rest and start over….see if you can make something of the nose, it’s not bad. But the rest…it’s sort of awkward, it doesn’t hold together. Actually, it stinks.”  You can’t. You wouldn’t. But that is often pretty much what you ought to say to the poem-mother who has just handed you her poem-baby.  I usually try to be nicer than that….there is enough suffering in the world as it is, between wars and famines and political parties and baby-puke and bad art.

The comparison between the baby and the book becomes downright alarming when you think about some of the advice a burgeoning writer should take to heart.  Here are a few things I told my creative writing class last year:  be ruthless with yourself and with your work.  Don’t hold onto a first draft just because it is yours and you have an affection for it. Detach yourself from your work.  If it’s no good, throw it away.  Does it have a life of its own? Then let it live. Does it serve only as an expression of yourself – does it need you, in order to survive and thrive? Then trash it.  Or, if you want to keep it, keep it only to laugh at later.  The fact that it is yours and that you worked hard to produce it – the fact that it came from you – this is not, in itself, sufficient to make it important or beautiful or even halfway-decent.  Do not love your work, unless it deserves love.

Maybe Ayn Rand would support that sort of childbearing philosophy. But she never had kids.  Nor, to be honest, did she write very well.

I am thinking of the childbirth / writing comparison, and where I have seen it, and actually can’t think of a single case in which a woman has made it.  I can be tolerably certain that I will never make it again.

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Apocalypse Beans

“One can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. “

I do this.  It’s a good exercise to see whether something is or is not actually impossible.  A square circle is impossible; I know this not only because of its inherent self-contradiction but because, in spite of having fairly flexible imagination, I can’t picture it.  I can picture gnomes and elves and centaurs, minotaurs, giants, dryads, Nephilim, kobolds, flying carpets or saucers, genies in bottles, underground kingdoms ruled by talking cats, golden apples of the sun, mysterious one-eyed men on horses from distant climes, goofy aliens, water babies, etc etc etc.  I have never seen any of these things but they may be Up to Something behind my back, and there’s nothing really inherently impossible about any of them.

An empiricist might argue that a flying carpet is impossible according to the rules of nature as we know it.  This reminds me of Chesterton’s Father Brown:

“It’s not the supernatural part I doubt. It’s the natural part. I’m exactly in the position of the man who said, `I can believe the impossible, but not the improbable.’”

“That’s what you call a paradox, isn’t it?” asked the other.

“It’s what I call common sense, properly understood,” replied Father Brown. “It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing–room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible. But I’m much more certain it didn’t happen than that Parnell’s ghost didn’t appear; because it violates the laws of the world I do understand. So it is with that tale of the curse. It isn’t the legend that I disbelieve–it’s the history.”

As for the apocalypse, I was brought up on it.  This was partially due to the anxiety over nuclear war that was a staple of the Eighties, but also partially due to a lot of fringe religious influences.  Armageddon was supposed to be right around the corner (because, you know, these days are So Much Wickeder than any days that have ever gone before.  Which you may continue to believe, if you never study history).

The Three Days of Darkness was a big deal for some people.  I forget what was supposed to happen if you didn’t barricade yourself inside with wretched canned food and candles (no one ever suggested cigars, wine, cheese, and apples…because heaven forbid that one should actually enjoy the apocalypse)…demons would haul you off howling, or something, and there would be NOTHING God could do about it.  We didn’t need to stockpile canned goods because we raised our own food and anyway, we had a whole room full of boxes of dried beans, which we could cook and eat or, alternatively, plant, after civilization had collapsed.  This room accounted for the quantity of mice that made themselves at home with us.  Rats, too.  And snakes, to eat the mice.  One of them got into our bathroom one morning, and my dad found it coiled around a lamp atop the toilet.  It was a fine menagerie.

Then we had y2k which was a sort of remote possibility, but people were thrilled with the opportunity to drop everything and prepare for cataclysm once again.  By this time I was old enough to see that the End of the World (as we know it) could be a useful excuse for evading responsibility.  I regularly have wished civilization would collapse, so that I won’t have to pay off my student loans, and so my not terribly marketable skills will suddenly be eminently useful.   I am shit with computer technology, but I can live off the land and shoot a gun and survive without running water and also teach a lot of useless but delightful lore about Philosophy and Literature, to keep civilization alive.

It is not incomprehensible to me that civilization should collapse eventually. History shows us numerous instances of societies that have risen and fallen.  The fact that is could happen, and that it has happened before, should be a reminder to people not to put too much trust in the status quo.

There is a tendency among some to say “it hasn’t happened yet, so it’s never going to happen.”  This is pretty bloody naive. I mean, I haven’t died yet, but that doesn’t mean I won’t, eventually.

Then on the other hand there are the alarmists who confuse a “could happen” with a “must happen.” I suppose on one hand this could be the result of sloppy grammar and a mixing-up of modal verbs.  But I think it’s really just that some people are primordially discontent. Some of these people are fond of saying things like “I was born into the wrong time.  I was meant to be a Victorian Lady” (or a wild west outlaw, or a renaissance philosopher, etc etc etc). This offers a good excuse for not flourishing in the here and now.

Anyway, I don’t think that there’s anything inherently impossible about a collapse of civilization, especially considering our unnecessary wars, our boundless materialism, our exhaustion of our natural resources, and the fact that Katy Perry is at the top of the pop charts.  But until civilization collapses, I unfortunately still have to clean my house, pay my bills, go to work, etc.  From a religious perspective, this is where I am called to live each moment with love for God and family and neighbor. What a drag.

I do however think that the Rapture is inherently silly.  I CAN imagine it – it’s not like a square circle – but when I do, it seems goofy.  I know God has a sense of humor, but he is not (as far as I can tell) a bad movie director who replaces a good plotline with pointless special effects and gratuitous nudity.

Reasons why the Rapture is improbable:

1) People who believe in it take their “evidence” from the Bible, which explicitly states that we “know not the day nor the hour,” and yet they are often telling us the day or the hour.

2) People are, apparently, going to be sucked up out of their shoes and clothes, and go swooping through the sky.  This means that a lot of unappealing physiques are going to be suddenly bare beneath the sun.  Seems like poor taste.  It also means that some appealing ones are going to be bare…does this mean that the Elect are going to be casting covert glances at beefy bottoms and opulent bosoms, while singing “alleluia” with a sudden, greater fervor? Or maybe you lose your sex drive while flying through the air.  I don’t know.

3) Speaking of bodies…I hope, if it happens, that your digestive functions shut down, too.  En route to the glorified body, some folks might get so excited by the experience of ascension, that they lose all control. This could be particularly troublesome if people are raptured out of bathrooms and outhouses, in the middle of a “project.” Not fun for those of us “left behind.”  But then, I guess it’s not supposed to be.  However, nowhere in the book of Revelation does it say that “the heavens rained down…” in this respect.

4) Since we know from modern science that you can go on and on and on through space and not bump your head against the underbelly of Heaven, and we know from theology that Heaven is not really a “place up there,” the whole ascension thing has got to be just a special effect thrown in for a couple of minutes.  Otherwise the Elect are just going to go on and on and on and on for billions and billions of light years.  So I guess once they get past the cloud  cover, or out of sight, the ascension bit stops and they get blipped out of this space-time continuum into Paradise.  In which case, why bother with Rapturing them at all? Why not just have them disappear? Or drop (apparently) dead?  Is it just to make the ones jealous, who are Left Behind?

5) Do babies get raptured out of mothers’ wombs? Because, I am not a very holy person. But my unborn child is quite innocent, as far as I know.   So how is it going to get out? The traditional way? Will it go flying through the air, four inches long, five ounces? How will it breathe, poor thing?  Wouldn’t this be kind of like an abortion? Wouldn’t that be bad?

6) Interestingly, the people who think they are going to be raptured rarely strike me as particularly holy themselves. Well-meaning, I suppose.  Followers of certain rules. Fond of passing judgment.  A little lazy about REALLY studying their Bibles (they memorize verses, but it never seems to dawn on them that the Bible was not originally written in their language, so if they want to know it well, a few courses in Hebrew and Greek and Aramaic might not be amiss).  But then, who am I to know what God really likes?

7) Speaking of the Bible, there is such a thing as apocalypse literature, and there is a tradition for interpreting it. It is not, traditionally, to be interpreted literally.  Numbers, for instance, have a spiritual significance. So if I say that seven bears with three heads each, and claws ten inches long, sat down on twelve thrones and ate forty virgins, the thing to do is NOT to try to figure out which seven evil world leaders are referred to here, but to figure out what the number seven actually signifies, allegorically.  (Okay, actually, if I were to say this, the thing to do would be to put me on some pretty powerful meds. Since I’m not divinely inspired, as far as I know).

8) Of course, if everything in the Bible is to be taken literally, then we Catholics are right about the Real Presence. In which case, we should be raptured, too. But here it is, May 21, and I am sitting in front of my computer, when I should be out weeding.  See? You can shirk responsibility, even without the Apocalypse as an excuse.

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The Italian Peasant Experiment

Once you grow up, you are expected only to make believe when you are cast in a play…and then you call it acting, and it is serious. I never quite stopped playing pretend games, however.  Probably my love for theatre has a lot to do with my love for make-believe, but I also think the reason theatre exists is the same reason why make-believe exists: mimetic desire, the longing to become in order better to know, the thrill of liminality.

Fortunately for me I met my friend Kate when I was 25, and technically a good 15 years past the time when make-believe is socially acceptable.  Eventually, I suppose, I will be old enough so that it will constitute a symptom of inevitable dotage; in the meantime, I am hopeless.

Among other commonalities, we found that both of us had, at some point in our teenage years, gone wafting about mist-covered hills in cloaks, pretending to be…something or other.  Eowyn, I think, in my case.  I still fear a cage above all other things.  I still also like to dress up in ridiculous outfits and waft – so does Kate – although we now do so with babes in arms.

Kate and I worked together on a landscape crew between Ann Arbor and Detroit, in the summer of 2000.  We were the worst landscape crew ever, not because we weren’t good with the soil, precisely, but because everyone on the crew was going through some variety of angst or turmoil. After burning the midnight oil, we would head to work in the morning jaded and weary, half the crew in my old silver cop car, smoking cigarettes bitterly and bickering over whether to listen to NPR or the classical station.  Once we blasted Aerosmith and all stuck our heads out the windows and sang, “sing with me, sing for the years…” feeling alive and elegiac.  The fact that this was one of our brighter moments is instructive.
We also sucked because Kate and I kept succumbing to the inexplicable urge to turn every planting or weeding or pruning job into a musical.  We used rakes and shovels as props, and belted out impromptu choruses, modeled vaguely on “Glory and Praise” songs (infantile melodies: easy to mimic, even for a non-musician like myself) with some sort of general romantic theme of desire or treachery.  Eventually it dawned on us that our boss was always sending the two of us off to work on totally unnecessary projects, on our own, far from the rest of the crew, ANYTHING to get us and our horrific musical theatre away from the porches of their ears.                                                                                                          
One of these unnecessary projects involved dead-heading lavender – huge, springy, fragrant beds of lavender, that didn’t in the least need to be dead-headed, but it was something for us to do.  It was glorious – we sank briefly into a world that was dominated entirely by lavender, lavender everywhere, its air around us, its color dotting our vision.  We collected all the faded sprigs of sweetness on a giant canvas tarp, which I believe we were suppose to load up and then dump somewhere. I ended up keeping it in the trunk of the Crown Vic, since it smelled so lovely (which made for interesting encounters with border guards when we’d drive over to visit our favorite pub in Canada:  “have you got anything in your trunk?”  “only some dried herbs.”  Honesty is a good policy).

It was all so picturesque, the sweet far-away aroma of the lavender rising all about us, the languor of a July day…we decided on our lunch break to get a loaf of bread, a brick of cheese, and a bottle of wine, to carry on with the general Arcadian theme.  I think we both had the famous Brideshead picnic lurking in our minds somewhere: we were living out a beautiful storybook rebellion.

My reasoning on the wine was as follows: Italian peasants would eat just such a lunch, and then go right back to work the fields.  But that sort of reasoning involves the willful ignorance of certain glaring historical discrepancies.  It also involves one NOT drinking the entire bottle of wine, on an 85 degree day…especially cheap screw-cap wine (we had no corkscrews, so that was our only option).  The amazing Brideshead wine that was “heaven with strawberries”… this was surely not it.  The cheese sat and saddened in the sun; it sweated; we sweated; the lavender was sort of absorbed into a general odor of warm cheese, Michigan suburbs, and body odor.  A siesta would have been welcome but back we went to work, digging holes for shrubberies around a depressing suburban development. We lagged and our heads swam, all the houses began to look the same – well, actually, they always looked the same, but now the sameness became more notably dreary.

I did not learn however. We tried the same Italian Peasant experiment again that same summer, and it failed, again (imagine!).  For the past ten years I have continued in my pigheaded determination that I WILL drink wine or beer along with some heavy bready and cheesy substances, on my lunch break, and then successfully carry on manual labor, or directing a play, or running after maniacal children.  I subjected Brendan to the experiment on our honeymoon: we drove to the top of a mountain, then hiked way, way down into the river valley to gaze at a waterfall and eat cheese and apples, and drink Chianti. Then we had to climb back up. Happy times.

I have recently discovered two things:

1) If you leave out the wine, you can pretend to be a peasant and still go back to work.  Pregnancy taught me this.  It’s not quite as much fun while you’re pretending, but it makes for better gardening afterwards.

2) We can’t be Charles and Sebastian because we’re not upper class Oxonians in the twenties, and we’re not in love with each other (I mean, Kate and I aren’t.  When we played Olivia and Viola in Twelfth Night that was rather painfully obvious, that we were NOT in love with each other).  And that is one of the magickal things about stories: they are in many cases our only entry to a rich, rife atmosphere that otherwise we would never breathe, because each story has its special uniqueness, its singularity to a time and place like no other.  This reveals to us the terrible preciousness of the moment that burns once and then slips away: it is not just a symbol, not just a pointer, it is real and tangible and meaningful in itself, the single tree or the golden afternoon or the slant of a face in shadow.

“I should like to bury something precious in every place where I’ve been happy and then, when I’m old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.”

You can’t, though.  If you really think you can, you end up like Sebastian.  It’s lost in time, the pot of gold.  But it was gold, for all that.   Playing pretend games keeps it shiny in our recollection.

(That’s my excuse, at any rate).

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Suspended in her jar

The sun is shining.  I am eating a mango.  Ideologies fade like miasma.

I am firmly of the conviction that the pleasure of eating good food puts one in direct contact with the ineffable Good, which is too often mediated to us through mere theory or guesswork – it is posited as something Out There which has nothing to do with bodily pleasure.  Indeed, this mango right now is, according to such theories, interfering with my contact with the Good, because it is distracting me through base pleasure.  You know what I say to that? Hooray for base pleasure! I know that the taste of this mango is good with the same certainty that I know I exist. It is a comforting thought.

I’ve spent years recovering from the philosophical prejudice about bodily pleasure. But recovery is complete! No longer will I apologize for enjoying a ripe tomato or a succulent bloody steak. I won’t try to make shameful excuses: “it’s okay as long as it’s nourishing the body that sustains the mind that enables me to read Hegel” – or the “merely subjectively satisfying is neutral as long as it does not distract one from the objective good” or “I have to eat this tomato because a nice old lady offered it to me, and I don’t want to offend her, but I promise I am NOT enjoying it. I am thinking about Higher Things.”


Incidentally, the tomato was first mentioned in a European cookbook in 1692 – the same year Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy was translated into English. I love Descartes, but it seems that a lot of ripe tomatoes are necessary, occasionally, to balance out the psychological effect of too much Cartesian meditation.  Reading Descartes gives me the distinct impression a) that he is right; and b) that I am sort of disintegrating like the Cumaean Sybil, one bit of me over there washing dishes, the other bit of me huddled over a hot stove in Sweden, some snippet of me (a nose, perhaps) galloping across golden fields at dusk, far away, over there.

I ascribe to a Schelerian view of a hierarchy of goods, according to which sometimes a lower good should be eschewed for the sake of a higher one. Thus it is of course acceptable to give up the pleasure of food for the sake of fasting, or for the sake of health. Gluttony involves pursuing the pleasure of eating to so inordinate an extent that other goods are harmed or neglected.  But that doesn’t mean gastronomic pleasure isn’t good; it simply means that it is not the highest good.

One pleasant thing about eating is that you can romanticize it as much as you want, and it still won’t disappoint you. Romanticization of marriage, or pregnancy, or traveling in France, or having a kickass career, can lead to despondency.  But there is something about a good meal that prevents one from trying to make it into anything other than what it is…a good meal.  This may be because a glass of wine is not a person – it is finite and contained, and we are not in danger of pretending that it is more or less than what it is.  We often make the error of reducing a person to a mere object of pleasure, or trying to transmute him or her into an Ideal (also a sort of reduction, really: if anyone ever says “you’re my ideal” you should RUN SCREAMING AWAY).  It’s fine to regard a chocolate cake as an object, though. And no one I know has ever pretended that a cake is a Platonic Form (and I’ve known some pretty loopy people).

No matter how many glorious literary descriptions of feasts I read, I am still not downcast over real feasts in real life.

This leads one to reflect upon memorable literary meals.  I present these, in no particular order. Feel free to add more:

1) “Babette’s Feast,” by Isak Dinesen. The amazing banquet cooked up by the mysterious French chef, Babette, for a host of simple, kindly, Puritanical Danish Christians.  Almost as good as the descriptions of the meal: descriptions of the aging, cautious sisters’ terror of the heathenish ingredients in store for them, their determination NOT to speak a word about the food, not even to enjoy it.  Best of all, though: the true communion and love experienced, at the close of the feast.  “Justice and peace shall kiss.”

2) Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh.  Here we have two memorable feasts:  Charles and Sebastian drinking wine and eating strawberries one golden Arcadian day, and the exquisitely sophisticated Parisian meal Charles orders for the clueless Rex. Especially the description of the pearls or caviar in melted butter on blinis.

3) The Odyssey, by Homer.  The Cyclops’ “feast” does a lot to explain the hero’s relief to finally be again among “men who eat bread.”  For a change.

4) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis.  The breakfast Mr. Tumnus serves Lucy.  So many different things to serve on toast!

5) The Satyricon, by Petronius.  Trimalchio’s Feast is a monument of vulgarity, especially when they slice open the roast pig and out come all the sausages.  Also, here we find that memorable quotation about the Sybil (suspended in her jar):

One interesting thing about this book is that in the Loeb classical edition, prudish scholars wouldn’t translate certain bits; this gives the curious Latin student impetus to brush up on grammar and vocabulary to find out just WHAT happened after Encolpius meets Arquilla.  Nothing salutary, you can bet on that.  After you have translated as much as you can you will reject these silly notions about contemporary literature breaking with the high-minded purity of the sacred Tradition.

6) The Bible.  Speaking of mangoes: the Forbidden Fruit in the garden of Eden.  Probably NOT an apple. Most likely a mango. Also, the rapid-fire meal Abraham prepares for his heavenly visitors.  The man runs out, slaughters a calf, roasts it up on a fire, grinds grain, makes bread, runs back in, serves his guests…in the time it would take most of us, presumably, to throw together a PB & J sandwich.  Oh, and of course, the Last Supper.

I could go on and on, but I will leave it to you all to supply further examples: because I have to go make lunch for my kids.  Incidentally, isn’t it nice that we can read all about these feasts, in graphic sensual detail, without ever feeling one bit guilty for our delectation?  Nothing about food needs to be left untranslated, by even the most dusty and pedantic classicist.

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