Monday, November 27, 2017

On Being Broke

Author's Note: I'm submitting this to The Sun magazine in hopes that it will be included in the "Readers Write" section.

            In the late 70s I was employed as a shop girl and I rode my bicycle to and from work. The income from my job barely covered the rent and sometimes I had to scrimp on food. There came a day when all I had to eat was a head of iceberg lettuce. That day I was hungry and more than a little desperate so I looked in my roommate's cupboard and found things to eat that I didn't think she would miss. Later on I would carefully replace what I took when I got a little money ahead.
            After my divorce I was the sole support of myself and my daughter. My ex didn't feel the need to send child support money. As a matter of fact, he thought I owed him financial support. He was angry and he'd always been good at punishing me for whatever infraction he decided I had committed. Why stop now? Punishing someone gave him power and in his mind he was justified.
            I thought about going down to the food bank but pride kept me from doing so. What would these people think of me? I was convinced they would look at me and wonder "what is she doing here?" It's a very strange circumstance to be working yet not able to make ends meet. I wanted to pin a sign on my chest that said "I honestly need this!" but I couldn't overcome my self-consciousness. Soon after that it looked like I would not make rent so I decided to have a rent party.  I made spaghetti and invited my friends and they were supposed to come and put money in a jar by the door. I don't think they understood what they were supposed to do and I was too embarrassed to press home the point. So we had a really good time and I made a few dollars but not enough to cover the rent. I had to sell some of my furniture and I also asked a friend for help which he was only too happy to give. Later on things changed and my financial picture was  better. Even so I'm still a penny pincher and I guess I always will be. Being broke so many times has made me a very cautious person.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

John Muir and the Bucket

The Merced River flows through Yosemite Valley
This post is dedicated to David Hinton who has encouraged me to keep this space alive in the face of the tidal wave of work washing over me. He let me know it's OK to post once in a while. And I agreed that abandoning it 100% seems like a big waste. Today's post is from the Tehipite Chapter of the Sierra Club, Fresno CA of which I am a member. I heavily edited it for brevity.

"living is more important than getting a living"

John Muir’s father had visions of expansion. He moved the family from their small acreage in Wisconsin to a much larger one nearby that didn't have  water. John’s father determined that a well must be dug and that young John would do the digging. 

The well would be ninety feet deep. Eighty feet of it would be in the beautiful Wisconsin granite-like, finely grained sandstone. Each morning, after being lowered into the well in a large water bucket, John would sit in the cramped space and  chip  away  at  the  sandstone  with  a  chisel.  It  was  painfully  slow  and  tedious work. 

One  night, unbeknownst to the family,  when  there was only about ten feet left to go,  the well  filled  with  deadly  carbonic  acid  gas.  The  next  morning, when John was lowered into the well he was immediately overcome by the gas. He was about  to  lose consciousness  and  die  when  he  happened  to  look  up  and  see  the  overhanging branch of a bur oak tree above the hole. The image jolted him awake and he  cried weakly to his father  “get me  out.”  As  his  father  began  to  crank  on  the  windlass  he  realized  John  was  not  in  the  bucket. He shouted out in alarm, “Get in! Get in the bucket and hold on!” Somehow, Muir managed to crawl into the bucket and he was drawn out of the well gasping for breath. 

Muir says the family’s move to the larger farm and associated need for a new well was the consequence of his father’s “vice of over-industry.” John didn't want to move, saying if people lived on smaller tracts of land, they would be less likely to sacrifice happiness for the sake of material wealth. He argued “living is more important than getting a living,” but his opinion was overruled. His family moved to the larger farm and began working themselves to exhaustion. 

John Muir was a hard worker his whole life. He valued focus and dedication. But Muir saw a difference between hard work and over-industry. To him hard work was a virtue leading one toward a full life, whereas over-industry was a mindless pursuit that made slaves of the people who were engaged in it. 

Muir’s choice of the image of slavery is telling. Slavery as a metaphor showed what being overly industrious did to freedom. He realized the grip could become so tight that one could actually  forget  there  were  other  choices.  As  Emerson  and  Thoreau  before  him,  Muir  believed  that  free  persons  are  not  so  much  oppressed  by  others  as  victimized  by  their  own  inclinations  to  conform  to  societal  norms. In this sense over-industry fosters a situation where one is both the enslaved and the slave owner. 

Some  things  we  learn  so  slowly.  After  having  lived  free  in  the  mountains  of  California  for  years, Muir returned to the over-industrious life. And for good reasons. At the age of 42, Muir chose to marry, raise a family and, for the better part of a decade, worked steadfastly cultivating a fruit orchard in Martinez, CA. The record of this time is thin and Muir’s previously lavish journal entries praising nature became sparse. Instead, we read of a husband and father often under great stress.
During  these  days  of  full-time  farm  management,  the  editor  of  a  magazine  asked  Muir to write an article about the Sierra. Muir responded, “I am choked in agricultural needs and am beyond the memory of literary work so that, much as I should like to give you the article you want, I am not able. Work  is  coming  upon  me  from  near  and far and at  present  I  cannot  see  how  I  am  to  escape  its  vicious effects. Get someone to write an article on the vice of over-industry. It is greatly needed in these times of horticultural storms.” 

In  1883,  a  friend  from  Alaska  and  former  hiking  buddy,  the Reverend  S.  Hall  Young,  came  to  the  Martinez  ranch  for  a  visit.  Young  says  Muir  broke  into  a  “passionate”  voicing  of  his  discontent.  “I  am  losing  precious days!” Muir told Young. “I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news!”

Five years later Young again visited Muir and found him still lamenting his situation. “I am a horrible example," he said. "I, who have breathed the mountain air—who have really loved a life of freedom—am condemned to servitude with these miserable little bald-heads! (he holds up a bunch of cherries). Boxing them up! Putting them in prison! And for money!  I’d like to die for the shame of it.” 

Muir wanted to marry and raise children and he found great joy in it. Letters to his daughter Wanda reveal a highly sensitive and doting father, filled with love for his family. But Muir was overwhelmed by  what  he  saw  as  the  trivial,  oppressive,  and  distracting  details  of  farm  life. For example, he grumbled at the need to choose which grape variety would be best to cultivate. He didn’t see it as a choice that makes a difference.

Muir’s attitude is echoed by Nobel Prize-winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen. Amartya talks about the importance of choices in our lives from the functional role they play. He suggests that,  instead of upholding freedom of choice in and of itself as the ultimate that we might instead ask whether "does this choice nourish or deprive me?  Does it makes me more mobile or does it hem me in? Does it enhance self-respect  or  diminish  it?  In  short,  do  the  choices  available  make  life better?  Not  all  choices  enhance  freedom.  In  fact,  some  may  impair  freedom  by  taking  time  and  energy  that we’d  be  better  off  devoting  to  other  matters." 

Choice  has  a  clear  instrumental  value.  It  helps  us  get  what  we  want. However,  an  over-abundance of choice can have the opposite effect. Too many choices can become time consuming and  burdensome.  This  is  especially  true where  the  choice  does  not promote  a  deeper value or help one move toward a flourishing life. We can choose from 30 styles of blue jeans  or  6000 TV  stations  but  passing  the  time doing that  doesn’t make our lives better, does it? The essential question for Muir, as it is for us today, is how much of real life is exchanged for considering all the options and resisting all the temptations? A good life is not the same as a complicated life and for John Muir, a man who walked from Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico with only a comb, a change of underwear, a couple of books, and a plant press in his pack, simplicity was a deeply seated value.
Farming life took a toll on Muir’s health. It was his wife Louie who finally released him. She saw that the family had plenty of money so  she sold or leased most of their ranch to other people who would work it. In a letter,  she explained to John that she had seen a devoted husband and father give too much. She urged him to go back to Nature  to get strong again and to devote himself to his nature writing. She ended the letter saying, “A ranch that takes the sacrifice of a noble life ought to be flung away beyond all reach and power for harm. As for the Alaska book and the Yosemite book, dear John, you need to be your own self, well and strong, to make them worthy of you. There is nothing that has a right to be considered beside this except the welfare of our children.”

At Louie’s urging, John went back to the mountains. He went Lake Tahoe and Mount Shasta and Mount Rainer. During that time Muir affirmed his commitment to wilderness preservation. When he saw the “commercialism and destruction,” that was going on he was appalled to realize that this had been happening while he was consumed with “money-grubbing”. 

Camping at the base of Mt. Rainer, feeling unwell, unfit, and unprepared, the fifty-year-old Muir had no plan to climb  the  mountain.  Encouraged  by  a  group  of  much  younger  men,  Muir  found  himself  overcome by enthusiasm. He wrote to his wife, “Did not mean to climb it but got excited and was on top.”  In  the  years  that  followed, he  moved  away  from  the  vice  of  over-industry  and  toward  the  virtue  of  hard  work.  He  would  become  the  leading  voice  for  the  protection  of  wild  places and he would found the Sierra Club and help establish the National Park Service. Now he was happy.

Later in his life, while wandering in the Sierra, Muir recalled the digging of the well on his father’s farm. In his notebook, he scribbled this warning:“Once I was let down into a well into which choke-damp had settled and nearly lost my life. The horror was this: the deeper I was immersed in the invisible poison, the less capable I became of willing measures to escape from it. And in just this condition are those who toil in the crowded towns, in the sinks of commerce or pleasure.”

Muir’s life was saved by his vision of nature. If the “branch of the blessed bur oak” had  not  reminded  him  that  there  was life  above,  he  would  not  have  been  able  to  rouse  himself  and  escape  the  poison. The story is an allegory for the condition of being so enmeshed in toxicity that one can’t even muster the energy to get free. Muir would return to these themes for the rest of his life, exploring and developing them through his  writing.  The  basic  formula  is  this:  There  is  an  inspired  life  to  be  lived  if  we  can  brush  off  apathy  and  inertia, energize ourselves and each other, and allow nature to remind us of callings above and beyond.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

We Were Made For These Times

"We Were Made For These Times" is by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. She is an American poet, post-trauma specialist and Jungian psychoanalyst, as well as author of Women Who Run With the Wolves.)

A friend of mine re-posted this on his Facebook feed. He posted it in 2008 originally. It just shows that plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose (the more things change the more they stay the same.) (attributed to Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr)

"My friends, do not lose heart. We were made for these times. I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world now. Ours is a time of almost daily astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.

You are right in your assessments. The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking. Yet, I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is that we were made for these times. Yes. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement.

I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see one. Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able vessels in the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind.

Look out over the prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you. Even though your veneers may shiver from every wave in this stormy roil, I assure you that the long timbers composing your prow and rudder come from a greater forest. That long-grained lumber is known to withstand storms, to hold together, to hold its own, and to advance, regardless.

In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails.

We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us and guide us, and we will know them when they appear. Didn't you say you were a believer? Didn't you say you pledged to listen to a voice greater? Didn't you ask for grace? Don't you remember that to be in grace means to submit to the voice greater?

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.

What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these - to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.

Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.

There will always be times when you feel discouraged. I, too, have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it. I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate.

The reason is this: In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours. They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here. In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for."