Saturday, August 27, 2011

Limitation As the Stuff of Art

Ah, a blank piece of paper, a two hour time slot totally allotted to writing, the rare treat of a quiet house … Shall I work on one of my novels, on one of the philosophical ideas I would like to develop, or come up with something informational or pithy for my blog? The possibilities are endless when you have a blank piece of paper and a blank time slot. But why does it so often happen that the end result is a blank mind?

It may be that the blank mind is a direct result of the endlessness of the possibilities. There is nothing for the mind to fix on and to form. Human beings are by nature limited, but with the wonderful capacity to work within the limits of their nature and environment. The modern world is rife with devices to overcome the limits of nature and environment. We have airplanes and air conditioning. The modern mind is conditioned to believe that any sort of restraint is an attack on personal freedom and creativity.

“If you can imagine it you can achieve it. If you can believe it you can become it.” Thus, proclaimed an inspirational poster that hung in my room when I was a teenager. That isn’t true, and I wish some one would have told me that it's not true in a constructive way when I was still young. As I get older, I wonder if the limits of our personalities and circumstances are obstacles that we must overcome to achieve our dreams or the material that we were given to create a unique work of art where dreams and reality are interwoven in a kind of tapestry or dance. I think that the latter view is healthier and more exciting.

Life is like art. The artist and the artisan work within the limits of a given medium. Watercolors have limits and possibilities that acrylics do not have. The limits of watercolor, as well as its possibilities, give it its particular beauty. Wool produces artifacts of a certain kind. Wool has its own beauty and usefulness. It cannot do the kind of things that clay does, and we are grateful for that.

Let us not waste time and energy fretting that things are not as we wish that they were. Let us instead start molding the clay that we have into beautiful new pottery.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Planting for a Fall Harvest

Whenever I talk to people with the survivalist mentality, they are always interested in learning that I live off grid and raise a good portion of my food. “How did you get so prepared for the coming food crisis?” one person asked with astonishment.

I don’t raise food because of any sense of impeding disaster, but I do think that as our society becomes dependent on fewer and fewer farmers who are based further and further away the population centers that rely on them, we do make ourselves more vulnerable to natural, economic and political disruptions. These disruptions have a way of making people think about where their food is coming from. Recent news on the economy and earthquakes on the East Coast might have you thinking about starting a garden or wishing you had planted a bigger one. Or if you want to do it for any of the many other good reasons to start a garden, it is probably not too late if you start today, especially if you have a cold frame or a green house.

This week I am focusing on my fall vegetable crop. Normally I don’t plant this late, but this year has been exceptionally dry, and the late July planting did not germinate well. Today I planted more beets and turnips to add to my July planting. My July planting of radishes flourished in spite of the heat and drought so I am both harvesting and planting radishes this week. Lettuce and spinach will be planted in the cold frame and greenhouse in September. The arugula that I planted in the spring went to seed; there is wall to wall arugula carpeting in the bed where it was planted. I will be leaving some in the garden and transplanting some to the greenhouse.

As a new experiment for this year I just planted bush beans. I never would have thought of planting them this late, but I get emails from my county extension office that has a gardening timeline for local gardeners. According to the timeline we should be able to plant green beans (bush not pole) and still get a harvest before frost.

If you want to start a fall garden, but you don’t know for sure what will grow in your area, most seed catalogues and many seed packets show maps of the different planting zones and include planting dates for the different zones. You can also check with your local county extension office. Our extension office website has a wealth of information for gardeners.

Enjoy your garden and trust in the Lord for all things, survival or otherwise.

Monday, August 22, 2011

What Is Simplicity?

“What is simplicity? That can be your first blog!” my friend exclaimed. She had just asked me to pray for her because she felt called to simplify her ever-expanding homeschooling book collection.

Strangely, or providentially, enough, I had decided earlier in the day to start a blog focusing on the theory and practice of whatever it is that I do. I am not sure what to call it because some people will understand me if I say locally based, green living. Others, who would dismiss me as a left-wing nut when they hear that kind of language, would understand me if I say I am writing about the practice of evangelical poverty and asceticism and its relationship to the concept of subsidiarity. Personally, I prefer to think of myself as a part time hermit and goat-herding philosopher, thereby ensuring that everyone of whatever theological and political persuasion thinks I am a nut.

Therefore, I had already settled on simplicity as a focus when my friend made her prayer request. This started a conversation and reflection on simplicity. We hear the word all of the time; we use it all of the time; we think we know what it means; but do we? Sometimes when city people come to the farm they say things like, “How wonderful to lead such a simple life!” Others have a way of saying, “You make your own maple syrup?! Wouldn’t it be simpler to go to the supermarket and buy it?” The first group of people might mean that life is simple because it has fewer distractions or that there is a closer connection to primary goods like food without the middle men of truckers, supermarkets, etc. The second group means that making syrup involves a long process of many labor intensive steps as opposed to buying the syrup in one step. Both use the word “simple” in valid ways, but they imply radically different lifestyles. If one accepts along with the great spiritual thinkers, both Christian and non-Christian that simplicity is a virtue, what does it imply concretely for a choice of lifestyle? In order to answer that question in the particulars of our own lives, we must consider what simplicity is and why it is something to be sought.

To be simple is to be without division. It is to be whole. The starting point for simplicity is in the heart, soul, and mind. It must find its outward expression in the material surroundings, but the material surroundings are neither its origin nor its end. One may have the urge, whether of grace or of nature, to simplify but become so focused on the material that the reason for simplifying is lost. I like cleaning out my closet frequently because an over abundance of clothes distracts and burdens me. But the cleaning out of the closet can itself become a distraction and a compulsive activity. The freedom I seek in simplifying is lost because I have made a little idol out of the act of simplifying. I choose a rural lifestyle because I believe that the modern world has become so complex and so far removed from the primary world that it threatens our psychological and spiritual health, as well as the health of the Earth, our home and the home of our children. But sometimes I get so caught up in the dynamic of avoiding waste or raising food that I threaten my own psychological well being. This is not simplicity. Simplicity must have its origins in the interior life of the heart, mind and soul. It must arise from wholeness of purpose and person, otherwise it becomes just another complex ritual.

“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.  The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Mt.22:37-39). This is a singleness of purpose that encompasses all of life. This is vibrant life-giving simplicity. It may find expression at one time or in one person’s life in the act of making maple syrup; for a different time or a different person it may mean buying or giving it up all together. That might sound complex but it is not. It is simply having the strength and the wisdom to recognize and act on the understanding of ourselves and our neighbors as the image of God, called to share in the fullness of His life. The strength comes from action the wisdom from contemplation. Life lived to the full requires both. Anything that distracts and divides us from the fullness of life for which we were created takes us away from wholeness and simplicity.