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Month: October 2015

What is a Good Life?

What is a Good Life?

I was in the car doing errands yesterday when an interview came on the radio.  David Holbrooke was talking about Diplomat the movie he’s just done about his father, Richard Holbrooke. The interviewer was giving a capsule account of Richard Holbrooke’s life and when he got to his untimely death, he said Holbrooke’s death “cut off an astonishing career.” Not cut off his life, but his career.

When did “career” become synonymous with “life”?

I’ve worked since I was 14, often more than one job at a time, but I never felt that any of those jobs, not even teaching, represented who I was (well, maybe raft guide, that one felt kind of definitive, but more because it made me part of a tribe than because of the job itself). Who I was was never my job — the trick was always trying to find a job that would pay enough to so I could buy more time off — time to read and write, or to hike, or hunt mushrooms, or cook and garden, or in recent years to sew, or knit. What I always wanted was a good life, not a good career.

As I try to articulate what I’ve been building here in Livingston this past decade or so, I’ve been turning back not only to Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry, but to Scott and Helen Nearing, the radical leftists who wrote the book on the subject in 1957: The Good Life (and Continuing the Good Life). The Nearings believed each 8 hour workday should be evenly divided between 4 hours of “bread labor” — work to keep the homestead afloat, to keep bread on the table — and 4 hours of creative and mental work. They built their own homesteads (two of them, including a second one started when Scott was in his 80s), wrote and published nearly 50 books and pamphlets, pioneered organic farming in cold climates and passed their knowledge along to Eliot Coleman, who carries the torch today. They got so much done because they were not interested in working for money, but in working for time. They paid cash for everything, built it themselves, didn’t eat meat, grew most of their own food, and spent their lifetimes turning their considerable intelligences to ways to keep body and soul together without participating in the corporate and political systems they could see even then were consolidating power.

The whole of their project fascinates me, but it’s the organization of hours that most interests me these days. One reason that jobs have become such a nightmare is that there truly aren’t enough of them to go around, especially the traditional 40 hour a week job with benefits. Back in the 1930s, when the Nearings were beginning to homestead in Vermont, John Maynard Keynes predicted that the workweek would eventually shrink to 15 hours a week as capital accrued, thereby freeing us all up for creative pursuits. But that hasn’t happened, instead we’ve seen the rise of a rapacious consumer capitalism, one determined to convince us all we don’t have enough, we’ll never have enough, someone else will take what we have, that we’re never good enough or pretty enough or thin enough or enough enough — all to keep selling us goods we don’t need to feed an economy that demands growth at any cost. And corporations have used the shrinking need for workers to flog those still on board even harder — we’re told we should consider ourselves lucky just to have a job at all even if that job means we’re checking emails on our phones before going to sleep and taking meetings with people on the other side of the globe in the middle of the night.

Sometimes I feel bad about stepping off the monkey wheel. I go back to the upscale suburb where I was raised and comparisons arise. I live in a small house, heated largely by one woodstove. I drive a 12 year old car. I make most of my own clothes. My house is just about paid off and I’ve gotten my workweek down to about 30 hours. I’m not rushing around, taking meetings from the driveway or answering emails while I’m there — these days I’m usually hanging out with old people. Old people who have known me my whole life and who, the last time I was home seemed enormously pleased that I’m finally happy, and at ease in my skin, and have a nice partner and a bunch of kids I’m helping to raise and that I’ve finally landed in a solid place.

And I have to say, if I’d had kids, I don’t know that I could have pulled this off. I would have liked to have kids, but I never wanted to do it alone, and the right person didn’t come along until we were both too old (and he never wanted any). While it wasn’t the plan, not having kids has freed me up to be creative in all these other ways. What was in the plan is just what I’ve done — to buy a small, cheap house in an interesting place, to get it paid off as soon as I could, to build a garden and see how much of my own food I can produce and preserve. To buy myself time to write, and to read and to spend my days as the Nearings advised, making and thinking and doing.

Now what we need to do is demand the same for everyone. We could all have jobs if we shared them. Despite the avalanche of articles mocking the Swedes for instituting a 6-hour workday, evidence shows that nations with solid social support networks (universal health care, day care, elder care, free university tuition) and shorter work weeks have consistently higher scores on every happiness index. It’s completely possible to do this, but it will take all of us working together. The 8 hour work week didn’t just come about, people fought for it. We’re going to need to revisit the heroes of the original labor movements, people like the Nearings, if we’re to make any headway at all against the powerful forces of greed that have riven our country into such stark categories of have and have not.

Because the choice should not be between working oneself to death and starving to death. But in a culture which pushes narratives of more more more more more, it can be very difficult to say no thank you, to get off the wheel, to say I have enough.

 

Knitting, Place, Landscape …

Knitting, Place, Landscape …

Morning light on the Yellowstone
Morning light on the Yellowstone

We are having the most astonishing fall — and I am back to talk about Making Things.

I finally seem to be in a creative space again, and have established a routine that I think is going to get me over the hump with the Book That Refuses To Be Written. I’ve been entirely stuck on a couple of topics, and with a 4 days at work/3 days to write schedule, I find that it’s late Sunday before I’m making any headway again. It’s been a problem.

One of my recent discoveries is the absolutely delightful Felicity Ford at the Domestic Soundscape and the Knitsonik podcast. I’ve been gorging on the podcasts. I ordered her book. I’m on the verge of cyber-stalking her because she is SO delightful, and because her combination of thoughts on domestic life, attention to sound, and the notion that we can translate the landscapes in which we live into knitted objects has blown my mind these past couple of weeks. It’s feels like this combination of ideas has blasted open the stuck door of everything I’ve been stymied by on this book of mine.

Those of you who are still here have not only my undying gratitude, but are probably the 12 people on earth who understand that all the making — all the cooking and canning and learning to sew again and my clumsy-but-earnest knitting — all those practices are what have saved me in the wake of Patrick’s death.

The anniversary of which was a couple of weeks ago. It’s been twelve years. Which seems astonishing to me. It seems like always, and yesterday at the same time. I have this loopy and probably romanticized idea about string theory — I think it’s my substitution for the idea of heaven, with which I really have no truck — but I like the idea of string theory. That Patrick’s still out there — he’s just on a different plane, a different time and space string. At any rate, twelve years. My Lily, who I carried around on my hip as a toddler in fairy wings at the wake, is now tall enough to rest her chin on my head, and is cooking in a restaurant in LA. A lifetime.

When Patrick died, my biggest terror was being caught in the whirlpool of depression that I believe was largely the cause of his death, and the death of my beloved Aunt Lynn, and has done such damage to my mother over the decades. I started making things because that first spring, as I was starting seedlings in my mud room, I thought “depressed people don’t start gardens.” I make things because it brings order to my world, and joy, and because I love the things I make. I love wearing my own clothes — clothes that fit, and that make me feel happy in my skin. I keep a garden and chickens because these are activities that keep me connected to the earth and the weather and the seasons, and that provide me with food through our long cold Montana winters and cushion the blow when corporate layoffs blow through my world.

Dog Walk Colors
Dog Walk Colors

Hank and I have been walking this stretch of spring creek along the Yellowstone mornings, and most evenings for the better part of the year. We’ve watched it go from snowy, to greening up last spring, to this fall moving through the entire color spectrum of green to yellow to gold to russet — all with blue sky and water to frame it. It is unutterably beautiful. More than once we’ve gotten back to the car, which is parked on a little pullout from the main highway, only to find another car or truck pulled over, the driver taking photos, or just gazing at the view. It has been stupendous.

And I am now waiting with toe-tapping impatience for Felicity’s book to arrive from the UK, so I can begin figuring out how to match colors, and knit up a swatch, and perhaps make myself a garment that I can wear that will represent the joy this riverbottom, and by extension the Paradise Valley, and by further extension, this life I’ve built here in the wake of a disaster I could not envision surviving have brought me. Because my life is joyful these days. Even if I haven’t had a book in 15 years, what I have had is a life.

I want to knit this on my body, these colors, this light.
I want to knit this on my body, these colors, this light.

The discovery of this group of artists out there, working in domestic crafts and landscape, and place has me more excited than anything else I can remember. This is what I’m trying to do in this book I keep wrestling with — to link the landscape and the people and the things we make to the task of right livelihood — which is not a consumerist one of simply curating a lifestyle — but rather is a bigger, richer project of creating art and community — and of surviving the inevitable losses that come with any life. Losing Patrick nearly killed me, but with any luck, we’re all going to have to survive the loss of our beloved ones (I’d still rather be the bereaved than the dead). It’s one of the core tasks of adulthood, and the entire firehose of contemporary consumer culture is designed to distract us from the task of experiencing it. One reason I value craft so much is that it forces you to slow the fuck down. Sewing, knitting, cooking, gardening — they all force us to attend to the physical realities around us, to pay attention.

And so, I’ll be back, blogging some about these ideas I’m trying to put into a bigger context, thinking out loud over here in my tiny corner of the intertubes.

And to celebrate, here’s one more gorgeous dog walk photo:

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