Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Satellites mediate for us

Another extended exposure picture. I think I'll be posting these for a while, because I love them so much.

The problem with traveling more is spending more money. The problem with spending more money is that I worry more about money. “A fool and his money are soon parted,” as Solomon said. Am I a fool? I used to see it in the Bahamas—rich American vacationers throwing around dollars like they were worthless, to the point that Bahamians began to believe they were worthless, too. Tourists blew as much money on a week’s vacation there as I spent in six months. Easily. A lot of them blew twice as much money.

For one year on the boat, we spent $6000. For two of us. Mainly because we ate canned goods and big bags of rice and caught fish and anchored rather than docked. But still. It was amazing to see how little one can live off, given motive and opportunity.

That’s my goal with the homestead in Alabama, too. To live as cheaply as possible, to produce myself what I need as much as is humanly possible. That’s the goal. It may take me several decades to get there.

For a while, at Aldi, my favorite grocery store, they were selling eggs for 49 cents a dozen. That’s one of those things that makes all the anti-factory-farmer people angry. When I asked about them at the front, they said they had made a special deal with a specific farmer at that price. They’ve now gone up, and oddly, don’t taste as good anymore.

By contrast, the eggs at the closest chicken co-op cost $2.50 a dozen, and I’d have to drive twenty miles to pick them up. This is one of those things that is a money-spending dilemma to me. Should I buy the 49-cent eggs? Or invest in the co-op? What I like to say is that that $2 difference is going into my homestead pot, and that eventually my goal is to raise my own chickens, to fry up my own eggs. Is that morally suspect? I don’t know. The point remains, though. If I spend that $2 on boiled peanuts at an Alabama gas station while touring, does that count as part of the investment?

Maybe the key is, as with everything, is just to continue to be mindful of the way I’m spending money. To be conscious of it, the way I should be conscious of every moment in my life.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Tell me one thing

Land with tulip trees. From one of the pieces I looked at.

I’m sitting back at my dining room table after five full days down south, in Alabama, land-hunting and recreating. I arrived back in Chattanooga exactly 45 minutes before I had to be at work, giving me just enough time to shower the woodsmoke off my body and slap some moisturizer on my sun-chapped face. Just the way I like it. I admit it is nice to have a home base here, nice to have a closet with clean clothes in it and a shower I know I can jump into. I’ll really know that I’m taking the plunge when I cut ties with my job and get another one down there. It won’t be real until I do that.

Tonight I’m happy. I feel like I accomplished a lot this last week. I visited exactly seven pieces of land, and the one that I like best so far is in Boaz, a lovely twelve-acre stretch of pines, on top of a ridge. My dilemma is in choosing between mountain land and bottomland. Mountains are beautiful and have nice views, and are much more remote and isolated. Bottomland has the advantage of lots more water and better soil for crops. Which is of more importance to me? I can’t decide. Yet.

In the meantime, I’m making use of my gym membership before that’s lost to me, too. I ran hard tonight. I had to after five days in the passenger seat of a van, eating fast food and gas station coffee and sushi from the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet in Talladega. Let it never be said that I’m not a risk-taker.

I’m planning another trip, starting this Wednesday. I hope this one will actually help me make some real decisions. That’s when things are going to get difficult, when the rubber meets the road. I’ve been talking about this decision for so long. Am I really ready?

Pine trees at dusk

Saturday, March 27, 2010

I could feel at the time

Pits at Talladega Grand Prix

An AMA racing kid was at the track this weekend, a fourteen-year-old wunderkind who didn’t look a day over eleven. He was a full five seconds faster than the next fastest adult, which sort of blows your mind. I wrote it off for a while--of course he’s faster, he has no fear and he weighs 104 pounds--until I actually saw him, goofing off on his brother’s BMX. He was just a kid! I mean, seriously, a kid!

A lot of things people don’t recognize as art are art, including motor-sports. It’s an art that I can appreciate, without needing to participate. Like opera. Motorcycle racing is like that. It’s a beautiful, elegant sport [] that pushes the limits of human creativity. It’s also a dangerous sport. I don’t really have a problem with dangerous sports. I terrified myself more than once sailing, and my brother is a mountain climber--a sport that has an obituary section in its most popular magazine. I’ve always believed that if one dies doing what one loves, than that’s a life well-spent.

Watching this kid out there racing made me question those presuppositions. After seeing him as a goofy fourteen-year-old without his helmet, without his 120-horsepower machine, I couldn’t help but imagine his tender bones and young joints, about the many years left he has to live. But who am I to say he deserves less than I do? Less of a chance to live his dream, if his dream is winning a championship, and mine is summiting K2? Even if he is young? If he dies, he’ll die doing what he loves, even if he is only a teenager. Right?

I don’t have an answer for those questions. The answer that I do have is how joyful every curve on that bike was for him. Watching the older guys out there struggle with their suspensions and their tuning and their egos, watching them crash after pushing themselves too hard, it made me realize that the reason the kid (Jake Lewis) is so good is that he’s just playing. He has the joy of his youth, the truth of living each moment fully inside of each moment.

It’s motorcycle yoga. The two sports have a lot in common, as different as they look from the outside. Each racer has to meet each turn in time, the same way a yogi meets each asana in time. If I push yourself beyond my current moment, that’s when I struggle. That’s when I fall. The key for all of us is to convince ourselves that we’re fourteen years old again. To recapture that ability to inhabit each moment completely.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Through our long eternity

Extended exposure of firelight off pine bark

The goal this week is home-hunting. Not just land-hunting, but home-hunting. For all of my talk about home, I’m ready to find one for real, to quit being homeless, to put down roots. So my second Alabama land-hunting expedition begins. I have it down to almost a science: find cheap land online via craigslist (my search criteria are more than five acres for under $20,000), plan out an itinerary using Google maps, find a cheap back-country camping place for intermediary stopovers, and then go.

It’s amazing how alive this kind of travel makes me feel, the same way hiking and sailing both did. My joke has always been that I’m never happier than when I’m sleeping in a place that I’ve never slept before. It’s ironic that the land hunt itself, while I’m searching for someplace to remain still, allows me to experience adventure as I travel. It makes me second-guess my motives.

I keep thinking that I don’t need a real home, or a real place to put down roots. I just need a resting point, like in that John Donne poem, where he describes his wife as the stationary compass point around which he travels, and to which he always returns. Like that, except minus the wife. If I have a place I can come back to, then I can kayak down the Mississippi, or trek around South America, or do relief work in Afghanistan, all the while knowing I can come back and not be a homeless person. I can be a person with a landed estate.

So. On this trip so far I have visited these cities in Alabama: Muscadine, Heflin, Wedowee, and Sylacauga. Beautiful names, aren’t they? Not such beautiful pieces of property. I did find a couple of nice lots off a dirt road in Wedowee, but I’m not sure if they’re as nice as the spot I found on the western side of the state in January.

Camping has been better. Last night I camped for all of $3, in the middle of a National Forest, with not another campsite at the campground occupied. It was a beautiful night, an almost-full moon, clouds crossing and blocking the moonlight and the chill, a gorgeous pine fire. I listened to Bjork and experimented with my digital camera, exposing shots of the moon and the trees for a full sixty seconds.

Now I’m lying on a mattress in the back of the van that K. set up as a mobile-adventure unit: it carries motorcycle, inflatable kayak, backpacking equipment, GoLite teepee, grill, coolers, and anything else I could possibly need. I’m confident that this trip will allow me to find a place I can call my own, even if it is just some bare red-dirt acres with scrub pines. Then the real work begins, of figuring out whether or not I’m brave enough to allow my roots to dig into the soil.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

More than this

I'm heading off to Alabama, yet again, for another research and development trip. Future adventures await!! Unfortunately, internet access in the backwoods will be limited. I will be blogging, but I probably won't be able to post until I get back. It's like the boat all over again!! I'll try to take lots of pictures, too. Keep your fingers crossed that I'll finally find home.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I live my life for someone else

Finally. I've been waiting to post, and take, this picture for a very long time.

Monday, March 22, 2010

From your lips she drew the hallelujah

Unripe daffodil

Today I am going to blog about money again. Sorry. I suppose Jesus talked a lot about money, so I’m in good company. There aren’t very many ways to earn money. I’ve been thinking about this idealized village in my brain, the ideal way I think civilization, or people in community, should function. The idealized village in my brain is half tribal settlement and half feudal walled city. Whichever way suits me.

So here goes. Here are the ways to make money.

1. Make things. As exemplified by the carpenter in the idealized village of my brain. (Henceforth abbreviated as IVB.) It makes sense that Jesus earned his living as a carpenter for twenty years or however long. Aside from his long furlough to the Ganges to learn yoga, of course. Although he probably sold woodcrafts out there, also. Making things seems to be the most basic form of earning a living--it’s so simple. You take something, you turn it into something else, and then people pay you for it. I like how Etsy has given this option back to the people. I now have friends who make their living making soap.

2. Grow things. Here are the farmers. This is where I’d like to be, if I wasn’t so bad at it. It’s great that you can sell things just by getting them to come up out of the ground. It’s also what most of our great-grandparents did for their livings.

3. Sell things. Here’s where things begin to get fishy, and the beginning of the downfall of modern civilization. Because the salespeople take the things that other people have made or grown, and then they try to sell them to other people, who are really giving them money they’ve taken from other people by selling them things that other people have made. Ad infinitum. By having broker upon broker we become so removed from the actual fruits of our labors (the actual wood carving, for instance, or tomato) that we aren’t connected to our work at all. Oh, wait. Maybe that’s Marxism. Definitely on the terrorism watch list now.

4. Ask people for money. Now things get interesting. I get this attitude from people when I say I want to grow my own food or make a living as a writer is: why don’t you get a real job? By that they mean: get a job with benefits working nine to five, preferably with a large multinational conglomerate. What’s funny is that about half of the people I know ask people to give them money for a living. Instead of earning a living, they just say: give me money. And then they get given money, and that’s how they live. My father, for instance. The missionary. He asks people for money for a living, as did all of the other missionary families I knew growing up. All of the pastors you know. My brother works for a university. How do universities make their money? They ask for it. We don’t accuse people who work for any number of charities of sloth or indolence, but if I sat on my five acres in Alabama and just asked people to give me money because I believed in myself, I can’t imagine the blowback I’d get.

5. Work for the government. Here’s where the Republicans get angry. But seriously--half of the people I know work for the government. Everyone in the army? They work for the government. My friend in the Peace Corps. My sister consulting for the city of Chicago. Etcetera, etcetera. Why is it so reprehensible? It’s funny to me to think back to the IVB. There have always been tribal leaders, no matter how far back you go. What they did was redistribute wealth. Instead of taxes, they collected gifts in tribute. Instead of providing health care or roads, they handed out the money to their cronies. You can argue that government is worse or better now, but the point remains. It’s been in place since the foundation of civilization.

6. Shuffle papers around. I’m half-sarcastic here, but I do feel like it’s what ninety percent of Americans do for a living these days. These are the people who I can’t figure out exactly what they do, how they earn their paychecks. Most of my professional life involved moving paper from one stack to another. Or moving emails from one folder to another. How do we expect our civilization to survive on that? If we’re not making anything except stacks of paper, how do we expect to sustain ourselves?

7. Creative life. Here, of course, is where I’d like my life to be situation. The funny thing is that creativity was essential in the IVB, but we’ve completely lost it now. We not only won’t pay artists and creatives for doing legitimate good work, but we accuse them of insanity and laziness and suicidal tendencies. In the IVB, they were sitting t the right hand of the tribal elders, informing every decision that was made. The tribal artist was the historian, storyteller, musician, herbalist, doctor, and dancer. Now we’ve lost all of that. It’s not so much the role that’s been lost--I, for one, believe the creative impulse will always find a way to be felt--but our culture’s perspective on its importance. The storytellers and dream-walkers and singers used to be right up there next to the president in terms of cultural value. Now we value them so little that we don’t even think they deserve health care.

Until 2014. Go, Democrats. I, for one, am happy that even as a working artist I will be able to be screened for cancer before I die of it. I’m not sure what my point is. I just want the work I do, at my desk, to be valued. To be valuable to someone. That’s what’s more important, even, than being able to afford a new rain jacket or a dinner out. What’s important is feeling like one’s life work, anyone’s life work, is important.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

You can go your own way

As the sparks fly upward

“The believer's shade on the day of resurrection will be his charity." Al-Tirmidhi

My tithe this year went partially to an organization that runs orphanages in Afghanistan. They’ve been sending me emails ever since, and although I didn’t realize it at the time (it’s hard to find aid organizations working in Afghanistan and I just googled and then did research on the auditing organizations for non-profits) it turns out its faith-based. The faith being Islam. They’ve been sending me emails ever since, and are now doing exciting work in Haiti, when Haiti seems to have dropped off the rest of our radars.

The added benefit is that I get fun quotes from the Koran. Or I thought it was the Koran, but Al-Tirmidhi actually (according to Wikipedia) is one of the canonical scholars of Sunni, Sunni being the branch of Islam that accepts additional works outside of the Koran as sacred. I think. The other added benefit is that it makes me realize there is complexity beyond complexity in the Muslim world that I don’t begin to understand.

I hope I don’t get put on a terrorism watch list for posting about Islam.

I spent the weekend camping at a friend of a friend’s house on Lookout Mountain. He owns fifty acres and has built a monolithic dome house and keeps horses and grows heirloom vegetables and organic herbs. We had drumming around the bonfire. It was great to be around trail people again (a thru-hiker attended) and also great to realize what kind of potential there is out there to live life out of the ordinary.

But I’m exhausted. So I’m going to say good night.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Fed up with not being fed

Seeds and dirt

On the agenda today were bathroom cleaning and gardening. I’m finally digging my fingers in the dirt for the first time this year--it feels goods. Breaking up clay clods with my fingernails, playing with happy earthworms. Earthworms are amazing, and it makes me happy how many of them have populated my soil over the winter. I put in two rows of sugar snap peas, and one row of 2002 lettuce. Think anything will come up? I think not. I think it’s too early. But I totally over-thought my garden last year and I’m not over-thinking it this year. I’m just going to dump seeds into the ground and see what happens.

Also did yoga and watched Seinfeld. Good day.

Here’s a song for today. I have mixed feelings about Jack Johnson, mainly due to big-city-Chicago hipster prejudice, but this song may have won me over.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

So easy to say

Garden detritus from last year

When I think about what I was told as a little girl, I was sold such a bill of goods. We all are, with the princesses and the frogs and the pumpkins and the stagecoaches and frilly dresses. I remember learning to read with Cinderella, the old-fashioned version of the story where she gets to go to three different balls in three different dresses. I loved that song: “So this is love, nah-nah-nah,” when she dances by the fountain in the Disney version.

And it’s all a crock. There aren’t any princes or fairy-tale endings. I mean this in a good way. It’s a good thing there aren’t fairy-tale endings. Who wants that? What does Cinderella actually do in her boring old castle? Wasn’t life a lot cooler when she had little rat friends who helped her sew dresses?

Someone made the point recently that that marriage wouldn’t have had a happy ending anyway. Do you think that the prince’s fuzzed-over mother and father, the King and Queen, would have been oh-so-jumping-for-joy that their precious baby boy was marrying a girl from the other side of the tracks? Anyone think there might have been some in-law issues there? Heck, yeah. Not to mention the evil stepmother, who doesn’t just disappear into the ether. Don’t you bet she and her hellacious daughters would have been sticking their nose in at the palace every second day, spying for cute cousins or aging earls?

It’s just funny. We think at some point there’s going to be this shiny, glorious moment, where all of a sudden we’re in this gorgeous gown, and then we ride off into the sunset, and everything’s beautiful and perfect forever. But it’s just not true. Instead we age. We change. We learn that love is something entirely different than what we thought it was at first. We learn that we have to talk to our partners and that they can’t read our minds, and that fairy godmothers don’t always show up and give us brand new cars made of garden vegetables. We learn that life requires almost endless repetition and hard work. That most of life is about establishing good habits, not those glorious moments of bliss.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Till the next episode

Bradford pear begins to open

I've been posting a lot about money lately because money has been a lot on my mind. It's one of those things that gets stuck in your mind and stays there. For one thing, I've been thinking about this quote from Julia Cameron:

"For many of us, raised to believe that money is the real source of security, a dependence on God feels foolhardy, suicidal, even laughable. When we consider the lilies of the fields, we think they are quaint, too out of it for the modern world. We're the ones who keep clothes on our backs. We're the ones who buy the groceries. And we will pursue our art, we tell ourselves when we have enough money to do it easily.

And when will that be?

We want a God that feels like a fat paycheck and a license to spend as we please....

'Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and all things will be added to it,' we have been told, often since childhood, by people quoting from the Bible. We don't believe this. And we certainly don't believe it about art. Maybe God would feed and clothe us, in a pinch, but painting supplies? A museum tour of Europe, art classes? God's not about to spring for those."
It reminds me vaguely of that oh-so-tempting prosperity gospel, doesn't it?

In Thailand, there weren't always a lot of books in English for me to get my hands on. I wasn't one of the lucky members of the Commonwealth Club (bloody Aussies, Brits, and Canadians). They had a lush wood-paneled English-language library, just off from their Olympic-sized pool, with a concession stand that sold real Dr. Pepper, sold by white-gloved Thais.

So I read missionary biographies: David Livingstone, Mary Slessor, Hudson Taylor. They're all great stories. David Livingstone goes trekking across Africa... Mary Slessor gets rowed down a green river into the innermost heart of the jungle... Hudson Taylor grows a braid to fit in with the nineteenth-century Chinese. When I think back now, I realize that they were all just adventurers, and maybe that's what I loved about their stories.

George Mueller had the most compelling spiritual story. He used to have food just show up at his door. Just show up. He ran orphanages, and when the kids ran out of food, a bread van broke down in front of his front door. When they needed a rent payment, the exact amount, down to the penny, was shoved in an envelope under his door.

At least that's how the legend goes. I believe the legend a little less whole-heartedly now. But I still believe in the idea behind it, or at least try to. I still believe that if I actually step out in faith, even in some nebulous non-Christian way, that somehow, I'll be financially able to do it. I used to have a friend who believed that if he closed his eyes and ran full-throttle into the woods, at full speed, and really believed, believed, that he'd be able to miss all of the trees. Sometimes I have that kind of belief about money. It's the belief part I have the hard time with.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What has happened down here?

You can't grow houseplants without a house.

What an amazing post, Erica. It is all about the what-ifs, and then finding that balance between stability and mobility. I thought I'd find that on a sailboat--I could sleep in the same place every night, even if the boat itself moved. That stability was okay if where I lived moved, as long as I could have familiar things around me. That didn't work out so well.

I was thinking tonight how I refuse to call anything home. Like, even: “I’ll pick up some groceries on the way home.” That word is the worst word for me. I hate it. I hate when someone asks me: “Where are you from?” It’s like: “Who are you and why do you want to know?” Or: “Nowhere. And you?”

The fox has his hole and the bird has his nest and all that crap. So, Jesus didn’t have a home. That doesn’t mean I can’t have a home. This is what I want my home to look like. (That website, Eating Alabama, has a lot of really great things to say about locavorism and vegetarian stuff, too.)

I’m still having a hard time with it, though. I still struggle against putting down the roots into the ground, and I can only imagine the pull of the ground is all the more strong when you have children. Not in a bad way, in a good way. Like that old saw: “Give your kids roots so they can grow wings.” We were rootless children. And I see the advantages of that, too. Being rootless gives you a whole different perspective on life.

I used to have this whole theory about communities, about how the idea of community always looks amazing, and it is amazing, but after a time you dig into the dirt beneath the surface of the community and you discover all of this ugliness. Not that communities are ugly, it’s just that people have ugliness and beauty mixed, just like people.

Then I thought that this quote from Paul Simon was my life motto:
“A man gets tied up to the ground
He gives the world its saddest sound.”

Maybe I was wrong about all of it, though. Maybe it'll mean something if I can say: “I’m going home.”

Monday, March 15, 2010

We're your sons and your daughters

Stack of unread magazines

I don't have much of anything to say today. But with all my talk of white blazes and putting one step in front of another, I suppose I need to post, even if it's only one word: hi. I work on Sundays, and when I look back at my history of the blog so far during Lent, it's Sunday and Monday that I've skipped. This part of the week is the most stressful for me, and it's harder because it's nothing that I particularly believe in. It's just for the paycheck.

So what does that mean? I get distracted from the things I really believe in, from the things I really want to do, and for what? A little bit of money? How many of us are like that in this country? In the world? There's a reason they call it the daily grind.

As Yeats said:
"It's certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam's fall but needs much laboring..."

I keep saying that I'm going to just drop out, and then I do, but I always get pulled back in. Just when I thought I was out... It's rough to feel like my real life is always pushed to the corners, and I feel like that about every job I've had since I graduated. Some are worse, some are better, but what it boils down to is that I'm not being paid to do the things I believe I'm meant to be doing. What it boils down to is money.

I've said all of this a hundred times before. A thousand times before. I'm sick of moaning about it, but what else do I have to talk about? The life of sunsets over water every night is gone. Now I have sunsets over parking lots if I have them at all.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Summer days are gone

Another one of my brother's excellent photographs

It's really late. I think today I'm just going to post a link to a video, the video from the trail I mentioned yesterday. I went back and watched some of the videos I posted during last year's Lent today. Although I felt like I was totally wimping out posting them at the time, now I'm really happy, because I have a link to them. This is what experience means now. What we post on the internet.

If nothing else, they are where I was last year at this time. So here's to you, thirteen-month-from-now, Melissa.

And here's quotes from the video:
"You get on the trail and whether you're with a dog or another person, all you got is a backpack on your back, you really get to to learn what's important, what's not, what's necessary, what's dead weight... you really get to know you and your personal world, nothing else, just you." --Bonzo
"It's hard not to think of it as a pilgrimage. For it to be as meaningful and as grave of an experience as it is for people, and it definitely is, it has to be more than just a hike. By the time people are done with it, they're changed." --Brice

Friday, March 12, 2010

Lie lie lie

All sunsets, all the time.

I taught my first yoga class today. I've been working on a certification and finally passed the written test. Today I just had one student, a guinea pig. It made me realize how much I had to work on, and how difficult it is to explain body movements with language. The experience also brought me to tears, just because it was so amazing to have given someone else the gift that has meant so much to me these last few years. Even just an hour

Yoga is one of those things I have difficulty being honest about. I'm not sure if it's because of the body-image issues that still haunt me, obsessively, like little over-my-shoulder demons. Or because it feels so profoundly intimate, in a way that little else does--this union of body and spirit.

I'm not really sure what I'm doing here, sometimes. Not in this life, but on this site. I am blogging for Lent, which is really weird. Someone said: so you gave up not blogging? I know it's weird. It's weird being so public with my dreams, desires, goals, thoughts. What's the point? A lot of bloggers say that maybe random posts will somehow help other people. Maybe. Or maybe I'm just full of hot air I like to blow around.

I'm not quitting. I watched a mini-documentary about the Appalachian Trail last night, and it reminded me of all of those hiking feelings. What's beautiful about the trail is the commitment you make to it, to moving one foot in front of the other, to traveling through time and space to a certain destination. The trail is just a promise you make to yourself. You say: I am choosing to follow these white blazes to where they end.

So I follow these posts towards Easter. I'm not sure what the point is. But I take one step, and then another. Today it's yoga--yesterday, childhood. I'll follow the blazes.

Well fine

Flower from a spider plant

Erica and I have been talking about using our blogs as an out and out dialog, as if we were actually talking to each other. That’s what all you young ‘uns do on Twitter, right? It drives me crazy: everyone bashing around at each other like little birds. Like we were regressing into dinosaurs.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the issues that she raises here. Basically how to have a happy life. How to live with contentment. Isn’t that what life is all about?

I feel like her blog is so much better than mine, sometimes. Having kids makes her life so much more experiential than mine. She gets to go out and play in the grass with her children. Maybe she would do that with or without children, and maybe I should applaud her for that and not her progeny. But me? I did take some flower pictures today. House plants, from indoors. They’re still beautiful, their flowers at least. They need their moment in the sun.

Post-feminists are right, I think. Feminists argued that women deserved the same rights and opportunities as men, and post-feminists argued that traditional female roles were just as important as traditional male roles. Experiencing things like motherhood and cooking and cleaning and the creative aspects of housekeeping (cheese-making, butchering, quilt-making, gardening) are just as deep and profound and meaningful even if they are not as remembered by history. Because men, not women are historians. Maybe history doesn’t matter as much as experience. Who knows. Maybe one kind of life isn’t better than another kind.

I want to learn to make cheese. And raise chickens. And grow lettuce. Those are things I want to do.

I read an amazing short story by T. Coraghessan Boyle today, from the New Yorker. I can’t describe it. Just read it.

Here’s a line: “She knows that it will all be lost, everything we make, everything we love, everything we are.”

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

I remember when we used to sing

I’ve been thinking about another proverb today: “a fool and his money are soon parted.” Money is a hard thing. Maybe the hardest thing. I say that every single day, about something new. Whatev. There are lots of hard things, but even Jesus said that money is the hardest thing: “The love of money is the root of all evil.” “It is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” “Sell all you have and give it to the poor.”

So, money. How do we get it? That’s the central problem. Money is freedom. But money isn’t freedom if you don’t allow yourself to spend it. Money is also power. And time is money. So money=freedom, time, and power. Great.

Certain branches of the Christian church espouse something called a prosperity gospel, which claims that it’s just lack of belief that keeps us poor. If we believe enough, just believe, God will bless us, and the proof of that blessing will be in the cars, houses, and jewels he showers us with. You may be familiar with this school of thought from late-night televangelists.

I, of course, am skeptical. I’m with Janis--it’d be great to get a Mercedes Benz. My friends all have Porsches, after all. I must make amends. But do I think that God is a great big piggy bank up in the sky? Of course not. For one thing, there just isn’t evidence. The people I know who have the greatest faith are not the ones who sport the bling.

Then again, Christ did say: “Ask, and it shall be given to you.” That’s one of those crazy verses where I always ask myself: did he really mean that? Could he have really meant that? And: “if we seek first the kingdom of heaven, all of these things will be added to us as well.” What does that mean?

What I try to believe, when I can find faith enough, is that if I really seek the path laid out for me, the path that leads to the kingdom of heaven, if I really seek the will of God, then my needs will be met. If I had to claim a life verse, it’d be that one about the lilies of the field. They neither toil nor spin, but God takes care of them. My goal is to live like the lilies, and trust that God will take care of the money.

The key in that belief is understanding that I can’t put any boundaries on the gifts that God gives me. I can trust that I won’t die of exposure, but I can’t trust that I’ll have indoor plumbing. I can trust that I won’t die of starvation, but not that I’ll dine on beluga caviar. That’s where people get in trouble with the prosperity gospel. God will meet my needs, but never in the way I expect.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Back to the earth

I'm jumping the gun. From the garden last year.

It’s coming on spring, folks. Isn’t it amazing? It blows my mind how quickly I can shift my attitude towards the weather--yesterday I was outside journaling in a tank top with my pant legs pulled up to expose my calves to the sun. Immediately I forget about the relentless winter. My psyche transitions effortlessly to the world of the outdoors. I can’t even quite remember how it feels to be cold.

We’ve got some days of chilly rain still coming, but summer is in sight, too. Hallelujah. There’s even a small patch of daffodils by the road in a neighbor’s lawn, although I’m afraid that my daffodils were slaughtered by the snow. Spring means I have to begin to dig in the dirt, in addition to doing yoga and writing and research on land.

I’ve been trying to work on assembling all of the sections of my novel into something that resembles a finished product, but I’m not being very successful. It’s so hard to come home from my absolutely draining job that forces me to be extroverted and deal with people and all of their drama and idiocy and everything they ask of me and then be creative. Wait. Strike that. It’s almost impossible to come home and be creative. That’s why I don’t do it. That’s why I’ve never been successful at working full-time and accomplishing any creative goals. That’s why I only work part-time now, but some days I’m not even sure that’s good enough.

Especially on beautiful days like today. It’s hard to come to my desk in winter, when there’s a fire going upstairs and I can see my breath in the basement, but it’s hard to come to my desk in the summer, too, when there’s a bright yellow sun shining outside and it’s dark and lonely in here. That’s the other thing I hated about working full-time--getting to work before the sun came up and leaving after it went down, sitting in front of a computer screen for eight hours a day. The thing is that I still want to sit in front of a computer eight hours a day, at least theoretically. I just want to do it in pursuit of something I passionately believe in. It doesn’t make it any easier to corral myself at my desk.

I think about other writers sometimes. Wallace Stevens, namely. He spent forty years working as an insurance agent. Insurance. Is there a less poetic craft? But he still managed to come home and create. I think about William Faulkner, who wrote As I Lay Dying on his knees in the boiler room when he was working as a night watchman. Not all writers are sexy bull-fighting mountain-climbing womanizers like Ernest Hemingway. Then again, maybe he could do all of his sexy bull-fighting and mountain-climbing because he was a womanizer. It helps a lot in not needing to work if you marry a succession of nubile heiresses.

That’s actually the solution proposed by John Gardner in On Becoming a Novelist: marry into money. Great one, huh? Real practical.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

We used to fight for building blocks

What about this one for the masthead?

I’m sitting at my desk, with cold feet and the heater on, even though it’s a beautiful day outside. (Yes, I do my part to keep up US consumption of fossil fuels.) These are days when it’s hard to be cooped up in the basement. Even the squirrels have spring fever, evidently. One has spent all morning tearing a part an old piece of cardboard right outside my French door. Occasionally he stops and puts his hands to the glass, probably wondering where that Jay-Z is coming from. A cardinal perched on the clothesline is also appreciating the music.

I’ve been distracted today by other people’s blogs, which, I suppose, is putting my money where my mouth is. I read several regularly, including this one: The New Girl in Town

Love that Tavi self-identifies as a feminist. We may have the lost the 18-to-24-year-old women, but we have thirteen-year-old fashion bloggers!

And: More Than 95 Theses

Both of them led me on wild-goose trails today, though, to good places that disturbed me at the same time. The good thing is that I found out there’s lots more wildly intelligent feminist bloggers there than I had given credit for. This post is about Edward Cullen, and I can’t say anything better than what she said (in fact, I’ve been trying to give voice to her sentiment exactly for a year now, so I’m just going to link):

I ended up at a blog called The Sexist, which is absolutely wonderful. I’ve been thinking a lot about this “Walking in a Bad Neighborhood” Theory a lot. Mainly because I had to live it--I had to make the choice. Was I going to walk in the bad neighborhood, or not? I had the choice to make. Many women don’t.

Rape is always rape. Period. End of story. And no one is to blame except the rapist himself. (And, maybe, in a larger generic sense, our culture.) If I go walking through a bad neighborhood in a skirt that’s barely more than a belt, I do not deserve rape. If I am raped, I am never to be blamed for that rape. That rape was the rapist’s decision, and no one else’s.

But here’s the thing: I still have to make the decision about what to do. That doesn’t justify the rapist’s choice, it just distinguishes my choice from the rapist’s.

Should I go walking in a bad neighborhood in a skirt that’s barely more than a belt? It begs the question: am I more likely to be raped if I go walking in a bad neighborhood? Statistics on that differ significantly, based on what I’ve read today. I’ve engaged in some fairly risky behavior. I used to run a block from the worst neighborhood in Chicago at three in the morning. I was never assaulted. Except once, verbally, in the middle of the day, by a group of teenagers who yelled insults as I passed.

In my case: should I become a solo female sailor in a crippled boat that would require many months to repair, knowing I would be required to ask or pay for help, in a country that has the highest per capita rates of rape in the world? I still don’t think I have the answer that question. I haven’t justified it to myself. I wanted to follow that path. My decision not to was motivated primarily out of fear. Fear that what I was doing wasn’t safe, number one. But also fear that I did not have the abilities I needed to be successful.

There’s a place for courage, but there’s also a place for wisdom. Whenever I floated the idea of returning to Secret, my friends and family would always say--didn’t we decide that wasn’t safe?

I hate that reality. If a woman chooses to wear a short skirt, why shouldn’t she be able to? If that makes her happy, makes her feel beautiful, makes her proud? What harm is done to anyone by that choice?

The same for me with my boat: it would have made me happy and proud to be able to sail back to Florida by myself. But could I do it without endangering myself? No.

That’s my point about equal human rights. Until I am equally able to wear whatever I want, sail wherever I want, without having to think about my safety from sexual assault, I don’t have equal human rights.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Fingers of smooth mastery

Snow-covered oaks. No, there's not still snow. Did I mention that my camera ate my best pictures?

Yesterday I feel like maybe I wasn't clear enough, at least when I spoke about dominant western culture. I was trying to explore the complex concept of collective guilt. I don't own slaves, I've never owned slaves, but I still believe my race bears responsibility in the larger context of history.

I feel the same way as an American. I don't agree with Osama bin Laden, but I see his point. I always have. If he believes that our empire is not just corrupt, but truly evil, then his war against us is just. We are all equally culpable. There are no innocent bystanders. As the Apostle Paul said, "There is no one righteous. No, not one."

The United States still uses 25% of the world's fossil fuels, for 5% of the world's population. How is that right by anyone's standards? And why? Why is it like that? I don't see how even the most ardent of American capitalist libertarians can justify it. They can say, "life isn't fair," which while true, doesn't answer the larger question. The reason why is because of generation upon generation of injustice. We may be all born equal, but we are not all born with equal opportunities.

Which brings up one of the many things I don't get about the whole health-care debate. What the Republicans are saying is that people who are born into poverty don't deserve the same treatment options as people who are born into wealth. If that's what they really believe, then fine. I just wish they would say it out loud.

And I understand the rage that people of the underclasses feel at that kind of injustice. I can't understand it really, not how it feels from inside, but I've seen horrible, horrible things in the cities of Manila, Calcutta, Bangkok, Dhaka, and in the outlying provinces of their countries. I feel occasional despair at the lack of options for someone of my nationality, education, social class, and with my career goals. I can only imagine how it must feel for someone without my advantages, but with a wife and hungry children.

I can understand how that rage can manifest itself as theft, violence, and even rape. Especially if we accept that rape is an act of violence, an act of war, as it’s being used in Congo, and not a sexual act at all. At a certain point, if people feel powerless enough, they will find any way they can to take violent action against the people they believe are perpetrators. My point being that crime, especially in developing countries, often isn't aimed at the victims of the crime. It's aimed at us, white Americans, imperialists and post-imperialists, colonialists and post-colonialists. It's impotent rage aimed at the climate that continues to shift in such a way as to imperil even further the livelihood of the poorest countries. All while it enriches the richest countries, making their land and crops more fertile as they warm.

I felt it in the Bahamas. Bahamians make their living from tourism, and especially in the islands closer to Florida, I could feel anger simmering under the surface. Americans come over and spend their money, fill their million-dollar boats with hundreds of gallons of gas, stock their freezers with conch and lobster and fifty-year-old grouper. We heard stories of the harbors that had been completely emptied by scuba-tank-wearing American divers, harbors that before had kept their population-bearing stock because of the natural limitations of unassisted diving. That’s just a quick snapshot of our attitude towards one neighboring country, but that's what we're systematically doing worldwide. As Bono said, "See the tuna fleets clearing the seas out..."

I'm not saying violence is a valid, or even an effective, response. Reading my book about the French Revolution certainly proved that point. Almost every step of the French Revolution was initiated by poor women who couldn't afford bread for their children, and were furious about the ridiculous wealth flaunted in their faces. But what happened every step of the way? A new group of rich people took power, and the poor continued to starve.

We're the aristocrats now, with our SUVs and our 2000-square-foot houses, and our continued cycle of consumption and waste. We've just distanced ourselves from our underclass, so they can't rise up among us and cut off our heads. We still keep slaves--they're just on the other side of the world. In some ways, our current economic crisis is just an indicator of the larger global problem of inequity. What have we been living on all these years? Other people’s money.

If our underclass united against us, if they channeled their rage into something other than random violence, they'd be able to bring down our tottering empire, no problem. Things could get a lot more apocalyptic than they are already.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Rock ‘n roll suicide

This picture would be a lot better if my camera hadn't decided to eat all of my ones in good light.

My feminism is rearing its beautiful head again, so if that bothers you, you may want to get off the train now. But maybe you shouldn’t. Feminism is one of those things that’s difficult to talk about because people are so passionate in response to it. What’s funny is that feminism’s central tenet is that women are deserving of full and equal human rights. How is that controversial?

It drives me crazy that women in their twenties don’t even bother to use the title. Their subtext is: “Haven’t we outgrown that yet?” Do women have full and equal human rights? No? Then no.

Feminists are criticized for being two-trick ponies, so to speak, focusing on only two issues: wife beating and abortion. It used to bother even me that feminist organizations seem to focus exclusively on those two issues. I still wish NOW would find a way to be more relevant to today’s young women, but more and more I believe that violence against women and reproductive rights are, in fact, the most crucial issues for today’s women.

They say (they being NPR last week) that the number one thing that reduces poverty worldwide is the education of women. When women are educated, birth rates go down, and so too do infant mortality rates, population, and any number of other social ills. Reproductive rights are, of course, what make religious fundamentalists of all stripes apoplectic. We’re endangering family values!! Family values, of course, meaning a subservient and submissive female population.

And we’re all sick to death of hearing about violence against women. Why is that? Maybe because of its ubiquity? The book that I cannot recommend enough is The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolf. An impeccably researched sociological treatise about the challenges of women in today’s culture, its central theme is that as the power of women in society increases, images of violence towards them increase. Don’t ask me for proof--check out her twenty-page bibliography.

One day last month, I began with breakfast over the New Yorker, reading an interesting short story by Ian McEwen, called “The Use of Poetry.” A quote:
“She confronted the blatant fact of patriarchy and her husband’s role in a network of oppression that extended from the institutions that sustained him as a man, even though he could not acknowledge... how the system that worked in his favor in both trivial and important ways always worked against her. One example was this: he could go to the village pub for a pleasant pint on his own, while she could not do so without being stared at by the locals and made to feel like a whore.”
That’s what I read over breakfast. I did laundry later in the afternoon, and I always flip on the television when I’m folding clothes. The classic movie channel was showing the closing sequence of a movie entitled “The Born Losers” that I had never heard of. In it, the spunky female heroine is beaten until bloody, stripped, humiliated, raped, and ultimately rescued by a big, strong man.

Then, on the way to the airport, I listened to a recording of Janet Evanovich’s One for the Money, in which a sado-masochistic boxer-murderer rapes one woman with a broken beer bottle and uses intimidation, threats, and physical violence to subdue yet another spunky heroine. Before bed, I read a couple of chapters from Liberty, a history text about how women during the French Revolution attempted to gain their freedom and failed, all the while being held up as the bare-breasted symbol of Liberty itself.

That was just one day. It made me want to laugh and cry at the same time.

I’m not going to claim innocence here. I like a good episode of Law and Order: SVU as much as the next person. Often guiltily. But I realize there’s something profoundly wrong with images of increasingly disturbing sexual violence overlaid with beaten and dead, often bikini-clad, bodies of women. Just watch the opening sequence of any episode of CSI. On the one hand, these books (Evanovich, Patterson) and shows (Law & Order, Criminal Minds) say that they’re fighting violence against women by “raising our consciousness” and telling their stories from the perspectives of strong women. On the other hand, they’re flooding our minds with the same images over and over. Our subconscious accepts them and files them away under normal.

The concept of rape is the hardest thing for any woman to reconcile with her inborn desire for equality. The idea that her autonomy could be taken away so swiftly, just because of someone else’s superior muscle mass, makes it hard not to live in fear. I choose to believe that rape is not a sexual act at all. It’s an act of violence, pure and simple. It can be an act of violence of a man against the idea of women, or what that woman stands for.

Sometimes I believe that act of violence isn’t aimed at a specific woman at all, but against dominant western culture, against the images of zaftig blondes saturating the world’s air waves. I’ve heard of rapes like that in Thailand, in the Middle East, in the Bahamas. Although no one can be blamed except the rapist himself, I do feel like our larger culture of permissiveness towards sexual violence has to bear some responsibility.

My favorite professor in college claimed that the twentieth century, starting with Freud, united the concepts of eros and thanatos, sex and death, and here, in the 21st, we’re still unable to disentangle them.

If only men could recognize the truth. “Acknowledge the system that worked in his favor in both trivial and important ways,” as McEwan puts it. But men can’t, and most women can’t, either. The male attitude is consistently: “Buck up, li’l camper. It’s not so bad. Aren’t you lucky? You get to be rescued! And you’re so pretty! It doesn’t really bother you, does it?”

Come on. How can it not bother a person to be not fully free? It’s slavery by another name. Until I can go down to the corner pub--Spec-Taters, in my case, the sports bar at the corner--for a pleasant glass of chardonnay without being made to feel like a whore, or without my life being endangered, I am not truly free. As long as there are barriers to the actions which I am capable of taking by myself, I am not truly free.

How do I confront those barriers? I have to storm the barricades. With a pen. With this pen. It’s my only weapon that counts.

Wishful sinful

Books at my bedside

When I was watching the Olympics the other day, I was talking about how sick I get of hearing the American anthem played again and again and again. They only play the medal ceremonies if an American wins, and never when anyone else wins. Why don’t they play another country’s anthem every once in a while? Just to fool us into believing that we’re the best at everything? A friend said, “Maybe because the point of the Olympics is cheering on your country.”

I responded, without hesitation, “And if Thailand was on the stand, I’d be pretty excited.”

I’m not Thai, and I never will be, as much as I hope--but it’s crazy how deeply ingrained that identity still is in my psyche. It just makes me think about myself as a child, and all of us missionary kids, and how confused we all must be, and how amazing it is and how much it sucks at the same time. I had my country taken away from me. Twice. And not just my country, but everything that comes along with a country. An identity. The food that speaks to me of home. A whole language.

Lately, when I’m hungry, I’ve been trying to think about what I’m really hungry for, and if I think hard I’m almost always craving a bowl of Thai street noodles, guiteaw nam. Something I absolutely can’t buy in this country, at any price. I can find approximations, but the food that comforts me the most is forever distant. Twelve time zones and $1000 away.

The same thing with certain words. I find myself reaching for concepts that aren’t available in English but still resonate with my core. Phrases like maipenlai, or sanuk, or pai teaw, concepts that explain the fundamental Thai attitude towards life, that it’s something to be enjoyed and not taken too seriously. Or a word like reaproy, that conveys so much more than neatness, but the sense that everything is in its right place, exactly where it’s supposed to be, utterly lacking in chaos. Or lumbak, a word that I didn’t even know wasn’t English for a long time, but means difficult, strenuous, requiring the absolute best of a person.

Thai also has a fantastic concept called jai, which is closest to the English idea of heart. It’s also more than heart, closer to the soul, or the idea of heart center we use in yoga. I find myself associating the ancient Sanskrit yogi words with Thai words, often. In Thai, you don’t say you’re happy. You say deejai, which means, literally, “good heart.” In Thailand, I was forever discovering new conjunctions of adjectives with jai that conveyed different ideas that explained how the heart worked, the different ways hearts and people can be.

I’m doing a horrible job of interpreting the concept. I don’t know how. My point comes back to that passage from Solomon. More and more his wellspring of life becomes something closer to jai. Because the jai is my life’s wellspring, the source from which everything else flows. The more I think about that verse, the more I think that a more accurate translation would be: Protect your jai, for it is the source of your prana.

Now there’s a life philosophy I can get on board with.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

There’s so much to do before you die

Snow on the poor daffodils. Three seasons at once!

I almost wrote Tuesday as Turdsday. Ha ha. I read the John Mayer profile in Rolling Stone the other day, and although I can’t quite get behind his music, he did have some interesting things to say about media and life in the public arena. Specifically, his fondness for poop jokes. He finds that a well-placed humorous reference to bodily functions is a good way to diffuse paparazzi hysteria. My sister is also a huge fan of coprophiliac humor, and I’ve always known I could make her happy my entire life by telling any kind of fart joke.

That’s an auspicious beginning for a post, isn’t it? Hey, even James Joyce had a soft spot for tales from the privy. I have certainly decided that plumbing will be my first priority if I become a landowner. I’m happy living in a teepee almost indefinitely, as long as I don’t have to smell my own crap. This is something I learned about a million times over on the boat.

Maybe it’s the drugs talking. I’m still cracked out on cold medicine, and my nose feel like someone took a belt sander to it. I feel like common colds every spring and fall are one of those things that didn’t happen in the tropics. We did have to deal with roundworms and malaria and tuberculosis, but hey! No runny noses!

Or maybe it’s the fifth snowfall of the year happening outside. In Chattanooga? Craziness! It seems prettier to me, today, somehow. Maybe it’s because it’s March, and I know this is winter’s last-ditch effort. It’ll be gone tomorrow, and then, maybe, finally, we can start on spring. The snow does have the unfortunate side effect of making the folks at Fox News (which I am forced to watch, in perpetuity, at work) place into further question the reality of global warming. They have yet to grasp the difference between “weather” and “climate.” Science? What science? Who cares?

Monday, March 01, 2010

Get ready

For boring posts, I'm going to steal my brother's pictures.

“There are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn.” --PG Wodehouse

Or to echo my quote from last week: I want to know if I’m worth your time. I’ve had a very bad cold the last couple of days, which is just a bad excuse for not writing, but it is one of those times where you just want to curl up in bed and have someone bring you chicken soup on a tray. I’m having a hard time convincing myself that my life is interesting enough to write about every day. It certainly doesn’t seem interesting enough to me.

Blogging is an odd thing to do for Lent. The whole idea is to make me think about my faith every day, but I end up thinking, instead, about how much I’m boring the whole world at large. I had an easy time writing about my life every day when I was living on the boat, or hiking, or traveling--doing something interesting with my life. I know there are plenty of people with ordinary-life sites, many of which I read voraciously, but my life itself just feels so mind-numbing.

The problem with writing about it every day is that it makes me want to take off to parts unknown. An Afghanistan blog--that’d be worth reading, wouldn’t it? A girl building a house with her own hands--you’d want to read that, right? Someone who decided to pick cotton with her teeth for an entire year, while weaving her own clothes from flowers? Wouldn’t that be the best blog ever??

No. It makes me feel bored with my life, which doesn’t make me all that happy. I guess everyone feels bored with their lives sometimes. Maybe I’ll finish with a quote, too. When in doubt, use other people’s wordds to make myself seem more interesting. This guy was the first person to walk solo to the South Pole. Now, there’s something worth writing about.

“Inspiration comes from doing the work, not as a catalyst to do the work.”
--Todd Carmichael