Crisis of Faith at LivingSmall Well, I’ve been having something of a crisis of faith about this whole blogging thing — not about blogging itself, but rather, about how on earth blogging about my own tiny little corner of the universe could in any way be a meaningful activity in the face of the global crisis into which our government is leading us. I mean really, we’re going to war and I’m blogging about cleaning? about floor machines? Compared to really insightful bloggers like Body and Soul, or Rittenhouse, or Blue Streak, or the Nielsen Haydens at Electrolite and Making Light, I started feeling like a total slacker. But on the other hand, those folks are all doing such a magnificent job finding “the goods” and sending the rest of us the news, that writing that sort of blog just didn’t feel like my role. I learned a long time ago in my own writing practice that we don’t all do the same things well — for example, I don’t write short stories. I’ve written a few, but they’re not great, and it’s not a form I feel compelled by — the novel is my territory, the bigger format is what compels me. (Accepting this was a whole different crisis of faith, because after all, I was in graduate creative writing programs for seven years, and what does one do in workshop if not short stories?) So I stewed about my blogging problem for most of the week without coming up with any kind of an answer, and hence, my blog went untended.
And then Mr. Rogers died. I have to say, this felt like a very bad sign from the universe. If even Mr. Rogers was checking out, if even Mr.Rogers wasn’t going to stick around and remind us, in his gentle way that we all live in a neighborhood, and that despite being afraid much of the time, the answer to our fear lies in loving our neighbors, then how on earth were we going to get through this? The thing about Mr. Rogers was, that he was the one guy who never let us down. He was always his same kind, gentle, authentic self and with Mr. Rogers there were no scandals, no latter-day revelations that he was really an evildoer or liar or in any way different than the person he told us he was, than the person he demonstrated to us that he was. He was the guy who told a room full of self-centered television executives to bow their heads for ten seconds of live airtime and think of someone who had influenced them to be good. And they did. And we did at home. Mr. Rogers dying felt like the last nail in the coffin of hope.
Nonetheless, I went about my business. Edited technical docs all day, tried to write another page or two of my novel every morning, and found myself yesterday, on a cold and sunny Saturday afternoon circing around two of the four apple trees in my backyard on an eight-foot ladder doing some serious pruning. Dear departed Mrs. Warnick, who owned this house before me, was quite a gardener, but she was very very old by the time she left the building, and her sons are, from what I gather (it’s a small town, remember) something of a shiftless lot. So it had been a few years since the trees were pruned. And it’s that time of year here in Montana. So I got up there on the ladder with my hacksaw and my loppers, and I lopped. I lopped off all those suckers that were just going straight up into the sky, all those criss-crossing branches, hacksawed off the dead wood. I kept thinking of my pruning coach in the Bar and Grill the night before who told me “you can’t overprune an apple tree.” I’d lop for a while, then get down, stand back, take a look at the overall shape of my trees. It’s a gestalt kind of thing, pruning. Four hours later, I had a big pile of apple branches, some of which I passed over the fence to my neighbor Paula so she could put them in water inside and force some blooms out of them.
And then I thought, but what? I’m going to blog about pruning my trees? That’s sort of boring. Personally very satisfying, especially as the yard is starting to come together a little bit, but compared to the nation going to war, my little tale of being happy in my backyard while pruning seemed, to borrow a word from Jim Harrison, otiose.
Today was the last of the Danforth Film Festival which finished up by showing Bowling for Columbine. To tell the truth, I wasn’t as excited about this one as were a lot of people in town. I figured it would just be the same sort of Michael Moore ambush that we’d gotten enough of on his television show, but that’s the beauty of buying the pass — you go to all the films because you’ve already paid for them. What I didn’t expect was Moore’s careful dissection of the culture of fear in America and its relation to violence of both the personal and national variety. The South-Park-esque cartoon history of America as a story of scared white men lashing out at others in order to alleviate their fear, which is, of course, bottomless, seemed like a particularly brilliant exegesis of the Four Noble Truths. What I really didn’t expect was a movie in which Marilyn Manson is the voice of reason as he deconstructs the cynical sybiosis between fearmongering and consumerism (they make us afraid with sensational “news” broadcasts, then show us seductive ads for products that will soothe us, then scare us again). As the movie progressed, I got thinking about fear. My morning started out with a really angry email in reply to a UN peace petition I’d forwarded (that had been sent to me by my dad). Now, I’d actually sent this to my old boyfriend, with whom I’ve stayed in touch all these years, and the reply from his wife was along the lines of “how could you send this to me?” and was full of dudgeon about how she was a lifelong republican, and there was lots of of might-makes-right reasoning and arguments about how all the nukes had actually ended the cold war, and how we have a right to go invade all these countries because they threaten us. I didn’t actually read it that carefully (since the whole argument just kind of scared me), but since they live in Manhattan, and because this is someone of whom I’m fond, I tried to just say “we respectfully disagree” — but it rankled all day. It was so full of fear and lashing out. I grew up in a family where when afraid, people lashed out (some of them still do). It took me a long time, and a lot of therapy, and a return to Faith (of my own odd hybrid Catholic/Buddhist variety) to realize that being lashed out at had never actually made me want to be a better person, that it was only those people who had been kind even when I didn’t deserve it who inspired me to be kinder, more loving, nicer. Who taught me that being nice didn’t mean you were a pushover, or weak.
So I was thinking of this while watching Bowling for Columbine, and it occurred to me that maybe there is a place in the blogosphere for my little tales of pruning, for my little tales of reclaiming this patch of ground way out here in Montana. It occurred to me that one could possibly see building a garden in a time of war as a small act of rebellion, as a way of manifesting hope in a time of despair. And then it hit me, as I was walking home, that Lent begins this week, and perhaps as my lenten practice, I’ll concentrate on resisting the temptation to live in fear. It’s personal. It’s small. But what if I just started here, in my little space in Montana, and went to Mass a lot during Lent (I’m going to try for daily Mass, but we’ll have to see), and what if I sat on my zafu and did some lovingkindess meditation? What if, radically, I tried to do some lovingkindness meditation for those people I know who believe in this war? Starting with the wife of my ex-beau? Maybe, although I’m not quite ready to commit to this yet, I could try even to send some lovingkindness energy out toward Cheney and Bush (that would be a lenten pennance!). What if I ordered seeds for my vegetable garden and built the raised beds as a peace protest? Maybe, if I try to be conscious about it, maybe if I try to consecrate my little house as a space dedicated to peaceful thought, to right speech, to growing those things I can grow here, then maybe even if it’s a small effort, it can be a place from which good energy can ripple out? I don’t know what else to do, really. It still seems like kind of a futile, or potentially self-important kind of project. But it might just be what I can do. I called this blog LivingSmall because I wanted to explore the challenges and ramifications of choosing to keep things smaller, of resisting the American siren call of bigness. So maybe in ways I didn’t really understand at the time I was working toward a place where tales of pruning, of growing a backyard vegetable garden, of walking to the movies might be my own small answer to those enormous terrifying forces at work out there.