Why I Marched

I participated in the local Women’s March yesterday. And I’m proud of it.

While I get that we live in a divided country, and that Trump supporters are unlikely to go march, I’ve still been dismayed by the guff the women’s marches have gotten from conservatives.

I’ve seen claims that the marches are tantamount to whining.

I’ve read comments that suggest the traffic snafus caused by the march are not worth it, and suggestions that we all just accept the new president, pick up, and carry on.

Perhaps most frustrating, I’ve heard at least two people (one our new president) express the belief that the protestors likely didn’t vote.

But I did vote, and the person I voted for did not get elected, and so that leaves the women’s march as an excellent way to make my voice heard at this important point in our nation’s history.

I am not whining. I am standing up for something I believe is critically important, and urging those who think it is important to do the same.

When Donald Trump criticized women and boasted about his sexual conquests on the campaign trail, I was deeply hurt and saddened. I was equally saddened by the reluctance of my fellow believers to stand up and condemn his remarks, and commit to voting against him.

Trump has demeaned women’s intelligence. He has objectified us, commented on the size of our chests and criticized our eating habits. He has freely helped himself to women’s bodies.

So as Trump takes the helm of our nation, then, let’s speak out on behalf of those that he mocked and criticized during his campaign, especially women. I marched yesterday because I wanted to stand up once again and say that women are important.

We are worth more than whether our bodies are conventionally beautiful or whether we are sexually available for men. We are smart and strong. We are thoughtful, capable, creative, and passionate. We too are made in the image of God.

Enough with criticizing women. Enough with objectifying us. Enough with disrespecting us because of our sex.

One of my favourite passages in the Bible is Micah 6:8

He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?

I chose a portion of this verse for my protest sign. It read, “Do Justice. Love Mercy.”

It is neither just nor merciful to treat women as Trump has done.

As believers, we can do better. This is why I marched, not to whine but to join my voice with those who are calling for women to be, not maligned, but treated justly: as human beings, worthy of respect, wonder, and love.

 

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On Marilynne Robinson

On the day after the election, I wore all blacks and greys to work. (Why, yes. I am dramatic.)

And then I picked myself up, and started reading Marilynne Robinson.

Few writers write as hopefully about human beings as Robinson does. In every soul she sees something wondrous. Nor is her hopefulness naiveté. It is grace, the firm belief that however thorny the world that we live in, behind it and through it, and within us, is the handprint of God, that enables her to see the saintliness of humanity, where others see only sinners.

Of the essays in The Death of Adam, the one that most struck me was “Facing Reality,” in which she pushes back against our gloomy worldview, our anxiety over the health of our bodies and of our 401Ks. This, she writes, is not a reasonable outlook:

When [we] make fear the key to interpretation of history and experience, nothing contains a greater potential for releasing all the varieties of destruction. Fearfulness assumes a hidden narrative – that we are ill despite our apparent health, vulnerable despite our apparent safety. We are contemptuous of transient well-being, as if there were any other kind. Routinely discounting the preponderance of evidence is not the behavior of reasonable people, nor is devaluing present experience because it may be overtaken by something worse.

What I find most fascinating about this passage is Robinson’s thoughts on fear. 

It is first of all fixated on the physical. Robinson mentions illness and health, vulnerability and safety, suggesting that the fear which drives us is fear for our worldly well-being. Later, she writes that “the true name for what we aspire to is nonfailure,” having our “income and credit shrewdly managed” and thus being comfortably well-off. Whatever challenges this comfort, whatever threatens the perception that we are (by worldly standards) successful, this is the cause of our fear.

Our fear is also illusory. Robinson makes no bones about the fact that she scorns the cause of our fear, this concern with worldly well-being; yet our fears are, like most fears, completely irrational. We appear, Robinson notes, both healthy and safe; the “preponderance of evidence” testifies to the fact that we are as well off as can be expected in a changing world. To expect that we will remain forever well off is to expect far more than this world can give.

Robinson suggests in place of fear, a different way of being:

I think we are not taking responsibility for keeping ourselves reasonable, individually or collectively – that we no longer admire or reward reasonableness, because it has lost its place in our imagination.

I like the strength of will in this passage, her emphasis on “taking responsibility” and on “keeping ourselves reasonable.” The truth is, we are physical creatures, and so fears for our physical safety can run very high indeed; the strong, active verbs which Robinson chooses her suggests the difficulty in laying aside fear, in choosing not to make decisions based on fears for our well-being.

Yet lay aside those fears we must; otherwise, we are not being reasonable; we are not seeing the world as it is meant to be seen, as part of a larger whole and shot through with God’s grace.

Robinson’s writing reminds me of a passage from one of my favorite poems, T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Eliot writes,

 

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

I find it interesting that Eliot rejects “the wisdom of old men,” for this wisdom is presumably a worldly wisdom, the wisdom of nonfailure. After all, what do old men know best by how to navigate this world which they have lived in longer than any of us?

Rather than the wisdom of old men, Eliot seeks out “their folly / Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession, / Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.”

At first glance, Eliot’s desire to hear the fears of old men seems to contradict Robinson’s refusal to follow the dictates of fear; but the fear which Eliot references here is not the same fear that Robinson refers to in her essay. No, the fear that Eliot’s poem describes is a spiritual fear, the awe and terror of a holy life. This is a “fear of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.” To belong to another is to have that other make claims upon you, claims which threaten your physical well-being; despite Eliot’s provocative phrasing, we enter gladly into such relationships throughout our lives, becoming marriage partners and parents and friends. We become disciples of Christ.

Such commitments are fearful, true. Eliot acknowledges this. Yet the fact that he invites these fears into his life suggests that the thing which he is truly afraid of is having no such commitments. Belonging to others and to God is indeed scary, but it would be more scary to belong to nobody at all.

I am reminded of that passage in The Horse and His Boy, when Hwin offers herself to be eaten by the Lion Aslan, for to her it would be greater pleasure to be eaten by him than fed by anyone else. Being eaten is indeed painful, but to surfeit on the things of this world, and yet find no deeper meaning in life, would be more painful still.

Eliot concludes in the end that “the only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility.”

I love the contrast here between acquiring and humility, for although we usually seek to acquire wealth, wealth is (as Robinson reminds us) impermanent. The only permanent thing is humility: a correct view of our place in this world, which is so much bigger than what we can see; a correct view of our connections to other people and to our divine Maker, on which we depend.

Ultimately, what Robinson and Eliot remind me of, and this is why I’m reading Robinson after the election, is that we must not let our actions be driven by fears of failure. What else did we expect? Everything in this world fails.

Everything, that is, expect the things which are beyond this world, and its profit and loss.

To those things we must cling.

 

 

 

On community, faith, & Marilynne Robinson

LilaTwo days ago, I stumbled across Alan Jacbos’s latest essay: “The Watchmen,” published at Harper’s. In a nutshell, it laments evangelicals’ disengagement from secular society, their climb into solitary towers of faith, and suggests that if we intend to have a true countercultural impact, we need to be willing to participate in the larger culture.

Jacobs make some interesting points, and I am looking forward to reading the responses from other intellectuals of faith. In this post, I want to nitpick: Jacobs insists towards the end of his essay that America’s current strongest believing writer, Marilynne Robinson, espouses an individualistic faith, one that contemplates the inner self rather than engaging with the community:

It is noteworthy how consistently inward and solitary the faith of the characters in Robinson’s novels is, including that of her most compelling creation, the elderly pastor John Ames in Gilead. The community of church is not a strong element in these people’s lives; they tend not to speak for anyone or anything more than themselves, and the conversations that they have about faith are mostly internal.

This is simply not true.

On the one hand, it is true that Robinson’s characters face conflicts which are nearly entirely internal: in Gilead, jealousy and suspicion of a black sheep returned to the community; in Home, a mistrust in God’s faithfulness and goodness in the face of family troubles.

Yet ultimately, the characters consistently come to terms with their conflicts through community. Only through community, in Robinson’s fiction, is redemption found.

This is most striking in comparing Robinson’s bookend novels: her first, Housekeeping, and her last, Lila. 

In Housekeeping, the central character grows up in a community where she never feels at home. With her mother dead, and her younger sister ever more estranged from her, Ruthie comes to identify with her vagabond aunt, Sylvie. The closer she grows to Sylvie, the further she grows from anything resembling an ordinary community life. She stops attending school, she stops speaking with the neighbours, she stops eating normal meals and keeping a normal house; magazines pile up across the kitchen table.

Although Ruthie and Sylvie flirt with the idea of participating in community rituals, as a way to prove that their family is sound and prevent the town from taking Ruthie away, they reject these ideas as too burdensome. Ruthie imagines “trudg[ing] to church through the snow in pillbox hats”, the verb indicating this is a difficult responsibility taken up unwillingly. Ruthie adds, “Those days [Sylvie] cast about constantly for ways to conform our lives to the expectation of others, or to what she guessed their expectations might be.”

To live in community, Ruthie implies, is to suppress individuality in pursuit of an identity which is always shifting. Not only are they required to “conform” to others’ expectations, they are not even sure what those expectations are, leaving them constantly changing, Proteus-like, in an effort to make themselves presentable to the little town where they live. In a novel published on the cusp of modernity, where individual identity and self-expression are inviolate, such life is unendurable.

Yet Ruthie is an unreliable narrator, her portrayal of community life not to be trusted. Certainly the life she takes up upon leaving town is no improvement. She and Sylvie burn down the family house, with all its heirlooms , and walk away from town in the middle of the night, crossing a high train trestle above the frozen lake where Ruthie’s mother committed suicide fifteen years previously. “We are drifters,” Ruthie tells the reader, adding that “once you have set your foot in that path, it is hard to imagine another one.”

Indeed, Ruthie’s life is barely human. Though from time to time she works in a local diner or truck stop, she does not drink the coffee or eat the food, asking “What have I to do with these ceremonies of sustenance, of nurturing?”

Rootless and drifting, Ruthie becomes a ghost upon her flight from community; the end of the novel is a kind of negative redemption, in which Ruthie finds herself, yes, but that self turns out to be empty and unmoored.

Contrast this with Lila. 

There, the main character starts the novel as a drifter. Born into an unloving family, she is stolen away by a woman named Doll. Doll saves her life, but she also brings Lila along when she joins a group of roaming sharecroppers. Lila does not attend school, does not have anything resembling an ordinary childhood; like Ruthie at the end of Housekeeping, she lives outside community norms.

Yet Lila moves in the opposite direction of Housekeeping, in that Lila is drawn away from her wanderings into community. Her entry into Gilead is a clear break with this kind of life: “She was there in Gilead,” the novel notes, “because once when she was walking along the road, probably hoping to get to Sioux City, tired of walking, tired of carrying her suitcase and her bedroll, she had noticed a little house sitting a way off by a cluster of cottonwood tress.” It is significant that her weariness with the vagabond life is what ties her to Gilead in the first place; the fact that she is “tired of walking” and “of carrying her suitcase and her bedroll” suggests the shortcomings of a life lived alone, of supporting oneself. Where Ruthie chooses a life of individuality, Lila finds too much individuality a burden.

And there in Gilead, Lila finds redemption. She lives outside the town for a while, then marries the preacher John Ames and has a son with him. While she imagines returning to her wanderings when Ames dies (he is older than she is), the truth is that she finds contendedness in abiding within the community, and its norms. “She could make a pretty good meat loaf now and a decent potato salad,” the novel notes; she takes joy in “this time, this waking up when the baby started fussing, this scrambling eggs and buttering toast in the new light of any day at all, geraniums in the windows, the old man with his doddering infant in his lap, propped against his arm, reading him the funny papers.”

Lila ultimately chooses a self shaped in obedience to community standards, the standards that she have a husband and child, that she be a tolerable cook. Yet unlike Ruthie, she finds pleasure in this version of herself; the imagery of bright morning light in this passage conveys that in submitting to communal norms, she has found pleasure, even grace. 

Of all the images, I find the garden most compelling. You cannot have a garden if you are perpetually on the move. I grow potted petunias every summer, yet even visiting with my family for a week threatens these; it is hard to keep them alive. That Lila is growing bright red geraniums suggests that she, like the flowers, is growing in a single place, the town of Gilead. Moreover, plants are associated with new life; consider Jesus’s parables of the seed falling into the ground and dying. Thus, Lila’s flowers work as a double metaphor, implying not only that she has learned to dwell in a community and be happy there, but also that the community has prompted a spiritual rebirth in her.

It is true that all of Robinson’s characters are introverts. Probably this is part of the reason that I, as an introvert, so enjoy her writing.

Yet it is not true, as Jacobs writes, that their faith is an altogether solitary thing. In reality, when one considers Robinson’s larger body of work, it is in community that we find redemption. To leave a community, she suggests, is to fall away from life. To come into a community is to come into grace. 

Indeed, as Lila’s cookery and gardening suggests, to experience grace it is important that we be willing to participate in community life. As we take up its everyday, ordinary burdens and responsibilities, Robinson implies, we find divine blessing.

So why does any of this matter? After all, Robinson’s novels are only an example in Jacobs’s larger essay; why bother correcting his interpretation?

For two reasons:

One, because Robinson’s portrayal of community has been encouraging to me, I hate to see it misrepresented. I want to correct the record. Robinson’s novels are populated with introverts, true, but they are introverts who find grace through community.

Two, and more seriously, Jacobs laments Robinson’s refusal to portray redemptive community as part of his larger point, that evangelicals decline to participate in secular culture as secular culture declines to appreciate evangelical community. He laments that characters do not have “conversations of faith,” nor do they engage in “church communities.” Perhaps this is unintentional, yet Jacob’s word choice here conveys to me the standard view of church community: a place defined by the four walls of the church building, and largely limited to the activities that happen, or at least originate, within those walls. To participate in church community is to attend Wednesday night Bible study and to serve at AWANA. It’s more important to host a prayer meeting than simply invite a few friends over for dinner.

Robinson’s novel Lila does not picture this flagrantly churchy kind of community, of course. Her community is much broader, encompassing not only the life of a particular church but the life of the home as well. But it is in that broader community life that Lila finds grace, and likewise, it is in a broad community life that we too will find grace, and that we will, as Jacobs desires, speak to our culture. 

I am in sympathy with Jacobs’s broader point, that we believers need to participate in culture in order to impact our community. Yet too often that participation is defined as either strictly religious, such as church Bible studies, or sweeping and dramatic, such as publishing a new book or leading a National Prayer Breakfast.

Robinson reminds us that real community impact need not be so dramatic, that if we never publish a book nor lead thousands of people to Christ, if we only cook and raise our families and love others, we can partake of grace, and share it with others.

 

How to Be Single

I recently stumbled across this excellent Mental Floss post, a collection of tips from then-editor of Vogue, Marjorie Hill, for being single in the 1930s. Some of my favourites:

1. Take Care of Yourself

“You have got to decide what kind of a life you want and then make it for yourself. You may think that you must do that anyway, but husbands and families modify the need considerably,” Hill explains.

Mental Floss adds: “Go out and buy that toolbox and step ladder now. You’ll need it.”

The spunk and grit of this rule appeals to me. If you want something to happen, make it happen. We women are not helpless without men. I may have to call my landlord to move in my new refrigerator, of course, but I can unclog my drains and open jars on my own!

4. Host Parties. 

Mental Floss writes, “in the ‘30s, social mores dictated that if you got invited out, you needed to return the invitation, or people would stop hosting you. While we no longer practice precise tit-for-tat party hosting, it’s true that the easiest way to get yourself to a party is to throw one.”

I’d add that not only does throwing parties spice up your social life, it also makes your house more homey.  As a single woman, I’ve learned that unless I’m careful, it’s easy for my apartment to become my fortress: a place where I retreat after work, shutting out the world. That’s not a home.

A home is (partly) defined as a place where we show hospitality, and married people need not have a monopoly on this. I do what I can to invite people in: bringing friends over for lunch or supper, or crowding a few students onto my tiny couch for a movie night.

7. Make Your Bed Luxurious. 

“Hill,” Mental Floss writes,  “was a big fan of the “treat yourself” lifestyle, encouraging women to buy fashionable clothes (even if no one was home to see), fresh flowers, and stylish furniture, even if most of it came from the thrift store. And she was a really, really big fan of getting all dolled up and going straight back to bed.”

The idea that single people should “treat themselves” to the fine things in life goes along with the final tip listed in the Mental Floss article:

9. Eat Well. 

I love the way these final two tips celebrate beauty: gorgeous flowers, delicious food, comfortable bedding. The way our society is set up to privilege marriage, it’s easy to put the finer things in love off until marriage: No fancy ring until the engagement, no fine china until the wedding registry, an old T-shirt instead of a fancy nightie, and cereal for supper since nobody is there to enjoy good cooking.

But the truth is, this way of living is boring. We were made to enjoy beauty, and so why wait until marriage to enjoy lovely rings and yummy suppers?

A friend of mine is making plans to purchase a fancy ring for herself to celebrate a life milestone, perhaps her PhD graduation. Another friend purchased fancy nighties for herself long before she married her husband, simply because they helped her feel more feminine. I cook, if not elaborate meals, at least thoughtful and delicious ones, because I like good food.

Ultimately, I think these final two tips get at what I love about the Mental Floss list: living successfully as a single is about being proactive, and making for ourselves the kind of life we want.

facebook_-1636470038We tend to picture the ideal life as involving a significant other. When you’re married, then you take exciting vacations (a honeymoon!) and buy gorgeous new furniture. When you’re married, you have someone to help you meet new people. When you’re married, you have someone to raise children with, someone to build a family with and find the true meaning of life. But if you’re single, get used to spending Friday nights alone with six cats.

As single women, it’s important to remember that these pictures are just stereotypes. If there’s something you want, go get it. Don’t wait for a husband. I take myself on dates to the ice cream shop or to the movies, because if I waited for a man (or even a friend!) to take me, I’d be waiting a long time. I haven’t been on a honeymoon, but I’ve been on several pretty cool vacations because I’m willing to go alone. I was traveling through the Southwest this summer and met a guy with the same philosophy, taking a ten-day road trip from L.A. through Arizona and New Mexico, up to North Dakota, and home again, on his own because he was done waiting for his friends to get on board.

Contentment doesn’t mean that we accept a colorless life without a fight. Contentment means that we make the most of the life we have, enjoying the things that God has given us to enjoy.

And importantly, being proactive in our singleness applies to our spiritual life as well. In the church, we tend to pinpoint marriage as the start of real fruitfulness: That’s when we women can fulfill our God-given nurturing qualities, we’re told, and that’s when we can start building a family to change the world for Christ.

But this is not true. We are complete in Christ, equally capable of living an abundant and fruitful spiritual life. I may not have a husband to whom I am committed, but I can show commitment to my relationships at church and in my friendships. I may not have the responsibilities of marriage to make me disciplined, but I have the responsibility of a quiet house to make me disciplined instead. I may not have biological children, but I can nurture my fellow believers, my neighbours, and my students.

The point is, there’s a widespread assumption that life, whether ordinary or spiritual, starts with marriage. It doesn’t. Life has already started, and we singles need to live it with gusto.

Carpe diem. 

 

 

 

 

Friday (Non)Fiction: The Road to Wigan Pier

583edc16de6548054a01a39f9273a56fOn Tuesday I was completely swamped with some professional stuff. So this is my Teaser Tuesday post, three days late.

Currently I’m reading George Orwell’s excellent work, The Road to Wigan Pier. In the first half of this book, Orwell describes his first-hand observations of the living and working conditions of the poor in Northern England. In the second, he argues on the basis of those observations in favour of Socialism. (Yes, that George Orwell. We misread 1984 all the time. Its author was actually a socialist, though perhaps not in the way we use the term.)

In any case, The Road to Wigan Pier is excellent: crisp, precise diction, startlingly funny, clear description. I find this book thoroughly enjoyable and applicable, as relevant to 2016 America as to 1937 Great Britain.

Because the book exists in two parts, I’ve chosen two selections from it.

From the first section, on page 25:

Before I had been down a mine I had vaguely imagined the miner stepping out of the cage and getting to work on a ledge of coal a few yards away. I had not realised that before he even gets to his work he may have to creep through passages as long as from London Bridge to Oxford Circus. In the beginning of course a mine shaft is sunk somewhere near a seam of coal. But as that seam is worked out and fresh seams are followed up, the workings get further and further from the pit bottom. If it is a mile from the pit bottom to the coal face, that is probably an average distance; three miles is a fairly normal one; there are even said to be a few mines where it is as much as five miles.

And from the second, on page 136, comes this excerpt. This one gives a taste of the personal tone and ironical humour that occasionally breaks through the serious social and political thought that Orwell works through in this book:

I still don’t like drinking out of a cup or bottle after another person – another man, I mean: with women  I don’t mind – but at least the question of class does not enter. It was rubbing shoulders with the tramps that cured me of it. Tramps are not really very dirty as English people go, but they have the name for being dirty, and when you have shared a bed with a tramp and drunk tea out of the same snuff-tin, you feel that you have seen the worst and the worst has no terrors for you.

Read the book. You can find a fuller description here at Goodreads.

 

 

 

Counting Costs

Comic-about-money

Me, except instead of packets of sugar and ketchup I have a free banana from my staff meeting today and twenty tomatoes from last summer in my freezer

After my last post on the Benedict Option, which netted me a few new followers (hurrah! And if you’re reading this, welcome!), I felt as though I needed to live up to my status as a thought-provoking writer, and write a thought-provoking post.

This post is not that.

One goal of this blog is to engage with larger, thoughtful conversations, like that surrounding the Benedict Option. Another goal is simply to chew through the daily experience of living, and this post falls into that category.

I’ve been working through my budget lately.

A few years ago, I caught myself running short on food money every month, so I limited myself to a certain amount per week: between $40 and $50, for just me. (This sounds high, but when I compare it to USDA stats, I realize it’s about average.) Using a set amount of cash to pay for food-related expenses has stabilized my food spending.

But I’ve also been burning through $200 on “miscellaneous”, which I find difficult to track and keep in check. Curious where the money all went, I tracked my food expenses in April and my miscellaneous expenses in May. The results were illuminating, and embarrassing

Some miscellaneous funds go in big chunks. In May, for my birthday I received an excellent coupon for Mary Kay products, and so I spent nearly $50 on makeup, all at once. More concerning are the little expenses, which add up slowly:

  • Gum: $16.00
  • Nuts: $16.00
  • Yogurt-covered pretzels: $5.00
  • Library fines: $9.00
  • Plants: $20.00
  • Random fun stuff (a pretty teacup here, a few books there, some chocolates): $25.00

For several years now I’ve been increasingly aware of the consumerist society we live in, and upset by its dominance over our lives; through reading Wendell Berry and others, I’ve noticed how shopping helps not only fill up our free hours by also defines who we are. (We’re the kind of person who shops at the farmers’ market or only buys free trade, we go church shopping and career shopping, and we devote hours to websites such as Pinterest which are essentially geared to get us to buy stuff.)

And I’ve liked to think that I’m above the consumerist society. After all, I haven’t had a new pair of jeans in three or four years, and I almost never go out to eat.

But looking at my spending makes me wonder if that’s true. After all, why else would I spent half a week’s food budget on teacups and chocolate if I didn’t feel that having stuff made my life better? And there are weeks when I catch myself stopping at every shop, looking around for good things.

Look at the plants expense in particular. I like to be surrounded by beautiful things; I get one petunia, and immediately I want three more petunias. Right now I’m growing one pot of basil and wondering whether I should purchase a second pot in case something happens to the first. There’s always the desire to have more. 

And so it’s my goal to make do with less, to remember that having a satisfying life has nothing to do with how much stuff I have. This is easy to say, easy to pay lip service to, but surprisingly difficult to do.

I’m not entirely sure how this will work, though I have a few ideas. Maybe instead of daytripping to a city I’ll take my journal and a book to a local park. Maybe instead of shopping around in secondhand stores, I’ll organize my yarn collection. I’ll be more home, I’ll go on more walks, I’ll find the beauty in the everyday and not always be looking for something new.

I read a book recently, Acedia & Its Discontents, and it argued that when we’re bored, when we’re weary of our work, the cure is not to throw off the work and go do something exciting; we must, like the ancient monks, keep at the tasks we are set. This is my hope: that rather than seeking out excitement in the city, I keep at my task here, and find joy in my home, quiet though it is with just me.

I may also cut back on certain forms of media consumption. Useful as websites like Pinterest are, the fact remains that all those pretty pictures make me want to buy more stuff.

The other thing I’m interested by is my food cost. Some trends there:

  • About 10% of my food budget every month, $20 out of $200 and change, goes to yogurt, usually really good brands bought on sale.
  • Nearly 25% of my food budget goes to produce: apples, bananas, berries, onions and bell peppers, and chickpeas.
  • I spent $70 on snack items, including the gum and yogurt-covered pretzels.
  • I spent $10 on wine & alcohol, which was more than I thought but much less than it could have been.

My main goal with the food is to cut back on items which deliver little or no nutritional value: the snack items; and to spend the money on better food, like a meal out with friends or even takeaway from Panera. I also want to watch how much I’m spending on yogurt and produce. Since I’m not about to stop buying yogurt and fruits and veggies, I want to make sure I’m spending money in the right areas.

I’m planning on tracking my miscellaneous and food expenses both through the month of June. Tracking food will be particularly interesting, since farmers’ markets are alluring to me. (My freezer has far too many tomatoes in it.)

BooksSpending

Me again, only at the library booksale. 

So here we are, at the start of a new month. I have money set aside for food, for travel, for some new yarn I had ordered and for clothing, and a little miscellaneous for purchasing ingredients for desserts I make for book club, or gifts for friends, or postage for letters.

The goal is to buy, and be thankful, for what I need.

And apparently, to break my gum addiction.

 

 

An Open Letter to the Benedict Option

IMG_0110I don’t recall when or where I first heard of the Benedict Option, but immediately I was intrigued, hopeful.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Benedict Option (or BenOp, as it’s sometimes called), it’s the brainchild of Rod Dreher, a politically conservative American writer whose recent books include one on the life-changing power of Dante. Essentially, the BenOp, hearing the “withdrawing roar” of ebbing faith, calls for faithful believers to retreat from the culture wars and instead strengthen their own communities, affirming and renewing the narratives which compose orthodox Christian belief. Dreher, and those who follow the BenOp, insist that it’s not a call for total cultural disengagement; believers are still encouraged to vote in accordance with their convictions, to run for office as God leads, to live in the suburbs and shop at the local grocery store and visit the local movie theaters. But the emphasis changes. Rather than being focused outward, on molding the community – usually, via legal means – to faith, believers are now focused inward, committing themselves to the essentials of faith not only in doctrine but also in practice, binding themselves to the community in order to become whole and holy persons.

There’s a lot that appeals to me about this idea.

As a single woman, I live largely without a genuine community. My work and church offer activities for me to be involved in, but attending a Christian concert or watching a videotaped women’s Bible study is not actually authentic community. I have caring, encouraging parents and family members, but they live nine hours and more away by car. The idea of fellow believers coming together to work, to eat, perhaps to linger over a deep conversation and a glass of wine and through this community to encourage and renew each other in the faith is one that seems encouraging to me. I imagine it strikes other people in the same way.

I also find the idea of withdrawing, at least partially, from the culture wars attractive. Don’t get me wrong; I believe that we Christians should be involved in our culture. But changing the culture, which usually involves changing the law, or at least preserving it, is often a substitute for the much more difficult process of changing our hearts to be like Christ. We forget that holiness cannot be brought about through legal means, and in any case, we are less to be concerned about their holiness, and more about our own. I have spent time on the fringes of fundamentalist Christianity, where believers continually emphasize the godlessness of our culture and call for reform; it is a scary and upsetting place to be. The Lord calls us to peace and Christlikeness, and in this context, the BenOp’s emphasis on knowing and living out what we believe, rather than on tweaking the culture, seems appropriate.

So it has saddened me recently to observe the tone of Dreher’s posts, at least on The American Conservative. Post after post adopts a fearful, almost apocalyptic tone towards the events of modern culture. One recent post suggests that feminism is anti-woman in that it makes having children something to be feared; and then argues that in convincing women not to be mothers, feminism has torn down the stabilizing Western family structure. Another post bemoans Obama’s directive about school bathrooms being open to transgender students, taking the missive as a sign that public schools really are in the toilet, beyond redemption.

My problem here is not primarily with the content of Dreher’s posts, though I think that both issues (specifically feminism and the family, a topic I always find compelling) are far more complex than either of his posts make them out to be. (Maybe watch for a follow-up post on feminism in the near future.)

My problem is with the tone: fear.

In fact, the posts seem to stoke fear. The post on feminism warns of looming “catastrophe” and threatens that children will “never be able to form stable families” (emphasis mine); the one on transgender school bathrooms compares the schools to a “python slowly squeezing the life out of” students. Notice the panicky quality of these words, the sense of the dramatic and apocalyptic. Not every word is Dreher’s (the post on schools was a letter from one of his readers), but their place on the blog guarantees that those who read about the BenOp, and consider following it, are increasingly being urged to fear what is happening in the culture.

And yet fear is not who we are as Christians. 

Whatever happened to Paul’s encouragement to Timothy: “God has not given you a spirit of fear, but of power, and love, and a sound mind?”

Whatever happened to Jesus’s words to his disciples: “In this world you will have trouble, but be of good cheer: I have overcome the world.”

No, the world is not godly. Did we expect it to be? Then we expected wrong. We who believe are seeking a homeland, a heavenly country, and we will not find it here.

Ultimately, I’m concerned about the panicky tone of these posts for two reasons:

One, being fearful is not what the BenOp is about, and two, it’s not what the Christian life is about. If I understand the Ben Op correctly, it is about telling the story of who we are as Christians, the story of orthodox doctrine; not the story of how we conquered the godless laws of the Western world. But when we panic about those godless laws, we interrupt the story about who we are as believers. Put another way, the Ben Op is about building a local culture of faith, not making the culture of the world ours; and when we are fearful of the worldly culture, we get distracted from our own local culture of faith.

Surely when the Lord said through Paul that we were not to be conformed to this world, included in that instruction was a warning against being obsessed and fearful of this world and its ways. Surely when the Lord said to us that we were to be transformed by the renewing of our mind, He meant that we were to be made like Him in our thoughts as well as our actions, unafraid of this present darkness and hopeful for His dawning in us.

The Ben Op, as I understand it, is meant to provide the kind of structured community that enables us to not be conformed to this world, to be transformed in the image of Christ. But all these fearmongering posts will be its undoing.

C.S. Lewis, in writing on the dangers of the atomic war, urged his fellow Englishmen to courage: “The first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb, when it comes, find us doing sensible and human things — praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts — not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.”

Those of us who are interested in the Ben Op must likewise pull ourselves together. Maybe we will be destroyed by the fall of Western culture, but huddling together and thinking about that fall will do us no good whatever. So let us be sensible, human, and Christlike, which is what (I thought) the Ben Op was about: praying, working, teaching, and reading together, putting aside our fears of the fraying Western culture so that together we may become more like Christ.

 

 

On Spending Money

CalvinI’ve been reading Rod Dreher’s post over at The American Conservative tonight, about how too many Americans are in debt. And I’ve been scrolling through the comments, reading how people have warded off poverty by driving cheap cars and using cheap phones.

This way of living makes sense to me. My parents raised me to avoid debt, and I do. I work really hard every month to keep my expenses low. I pay for all my food in cash, for instance, so I’m not tempted to do that thing where I go, Let’s pick up three more cartons of yogurt because I’m about to run out, and oh! the raspberries are in season and so I should get those too, and let me stock up on my mints and gum, too. When I’m literally running out of cash, it’s hard to justify those expenses.

But at the same time, the comments make me wonder about whether saving every dime, every nickel, every penny (the way that some people imply they do) is really the best course of action, even for someone who’s not rich.

I’m not rich. I’m not going into the details of my financial situation online, but suffice it to say, I don’t feel financially stable at all.

And yet, I’m not saving every penny I could. I don’t subscribe to Netflix, or Amazon Prime, but I do have some expenses I could, if I really had to, do without:

I pay for internet at home. This costs me nearly $60/month.

I knit, and so every month I spend money on yarn – good yarn, because I’ve used the cheap stuff, and it’s not worth the plastic bag I carry it out to the car in. I recently made a child’s blanket: a project which took four weeks and cost around $40, maybe a little more.

I run. Running itself is free, but the shoes cost money: $120 every six months. And last weekend I spent $50 for arch supports to protect my knees. I’ll enter some races this summer, which can cost between $30 for a 5K and $100 for a half marathon.

I want to go on a trip this summer, maybe some solo camping in the Southwest (I’m dreaming, okay?). Getting out of my current city is good for my mental health, but that too will cost money: several hundred dollars in fuel costs, plus some in equipment and food.

I could cut all of this out and save more, hundreds of dollars a year. I don’t have to knit. I don’t have to run. I could not take a trip.

Is it wrong for me to spend money on these expenses, when I could be saving the money for a rainy day?

But my life is much more interesting and richer because of these expenses.

When I have Internet at home, I feel relaxed enough to do things like post on my blog. I write emails to my friends and take the time to comment thoughtfully on student writing.

When I knit and run, I am a better developed person. If I did not do these things, my life would be flat. Actually, I remember a time when I didn’t do these things, and I think I spent a good chunk of my time playing Minesweeper. Especially since I’m single, having hobbies means I use my time better.

Look, the Internet tells us to “buy experiences, not things” – and I think that the world tries to sell us not only consumerism packaged as having more things, like fancy clothes or brand-new dishes and furniture, but also consumerism doing lots of things, being on the move, having adventures. And it’s important to resist the world’s message.

But I also want to take care that I do not fall prey to the world’s other message, that we need to put a great deal of effort into building up a substantial bank account, lots of retirement savings.

Retirement savings are good (I need to get some.) But the truth is, we’re not guaranteed twenty years to slowly use those savings, and there’s danger in making life miserable now in hopes of an uncertain payoff in forty years.

Virtue, Aristotle taught, was a balance between two extremes. In this case, there’s the extreme of spending too much, but also the extreme of spending too little, being so miserly that life is neither interesting nor sweet, but flat.

I don’t really have a conclusion, just this thought: that while cutting expenses and living carefully is important, perhaps some expenses, even apparently frivolous ones, should be kept.

 

In Praise of Inefficiency

Yesterday I ran out of papers to grade.IMGP7017

No fear, I’ll have at least twenty again by Monday at the latest.

But for today at least, caught up on grading and even on lesson planning, I found myself at loose ends, professionally speaking. What to do?

Ostensibly, I had a to-do list. On it were things like “return student papers” and “plan online composition course”. And ostensibly, I followed that to-do list. I headed down to the library with an armful of student papers to return, and I checked out a few books and send off some emails relating to planning an online composition course.

But I kept getting distracted. 

Without the pressure of getting my grading done, so I could buckle down to lesson planning, there was no pressure to get stuff ticked off my to-do list, and my tasks spiraled into much larger projects than they otherwise would be.

En route to return student papers, I ran into my colleague Steve in the library and picked his brain about how parents regulate (or don’t regulate) their children’s technology usage. (I’d been thinking about it since reading this post by Rod Dreher yesterday). We talked for fifteen or twenty minutes.

And in my office, working on an online version of college writing, all I really wanted to do was find a good resource for teaching students to structure persuasive writing. But there too the task spiraled outward, covering much larger territory. I talked books and pedagogy with a colleague across the hall. I read a variety of writing-related essays on the Internet, including a description of a course on personal essays, a Q&A approach to using sources, and the helpful and hilarious “How to Say Nothing in 500 Words.” I made no discernible progress on the online course. I got nothing ticked off my to-do list. In fact, I added a few things.

So no, I was not efficient today. Nor was I productive.

But being productive and efficient is not, or at least not always, the same thing as spending time well.

We modern Americans, immersed in a world of big data, like to think that only when we produce something that can be quantitatively measured are we doing worthwhile work. And of course, the more of this measurable work we do, the more efficient we are, and the better workers we are.

But good work doesn’t always work that way. A student who writes a ten page paper overnight is very productive and efficient, true. But his paper may not be as good as the six page one that was written over a period of two weeks. (I speak from experience here.)

Not all work can be quantitatively measured. Nor does getting a lot of work done in a short period of time always guarantee that we are doing work well.

Some work needs to be done slowly. Sometimes the things which make us inefficient, which cause us to dawdle and dally, actually make us better workers.

I have friends in graduate school who tell me that when they are trying to grade student papers or plan lessons, they are frequently distracted by interesting conversations with their friends. But surely the richness and depth of those conversations nourish in my friend a rich thought life, the kind that contributes to a much more enriching class for her students.

I just finished reading Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. There, he writes that the best soil for growing fruits and vegetables is that which has been nourished by long, attentive care. Dumping some nitrogen fertilizer on sandy soil will not produce nearly the rich food that spending years spreading animal waste, rotating plants, and careful tilling  does. The natural method is longer, but the natural method results in much sweeter corn and juicer tomatoes.

The same with work. We Americans tend to honor work accomplished the nitrogen fertilizer way: Swig some coffee or Red Bull, power through a couple hours of work, and turn in as much final product, whether that be veggies or research papers, as you possibly can.

But the quality will always, always be better if we spend time over our work.

This is not to say that we should never work quickly. Sometimes working quickly is necessary, and indeed, at some point in the near future, I’m going to need to stop all the distracted reading and research that I’m doing for my online course and actually plan the dang thing.

But nor is good work always done quickly, and sometimes even the things which do not seem directly relevant to our project wind up being nourishing in the end. I did not intend to quote The Omnivore’s Dilemma in this blog post; I just read the book, and now my knowledge of it permits me an illustration which makes the blog post (hopefully) richer.

All I’m trying to say here is that sometimes we (or at least I) can feel guilty for not ticking enough items off my to-do list, or for making slow progress. Without items ticked off my to-do list, how do I know that I’m actually worth something? And so to me, or to people like me, I remember that while our culture teaches us that fast and efficient are better, slow work is better nourished, and much richer.