Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Art of the Commonplace

Sometimes I get sucked into a vortex. It's a fun little phenomenon for me because it means that I am intensely thinking on one particular area or thought and am excited and passionate about it. Perhaps the people around me don't look at it that way but most of them are too young to be aware that this phenomenon is happening and those who are of age (my husband) are both amiable and level headed enough to bounce my thoughts and emotions right back into... my little vortex. 

So, lately I've been musing a lot over the way I live. Whoa, kind of broad you say, but I'll try to break it down. (if you don't feel like reading an essay... just skip down to the bracketed paragraphs near the end)

All of our lives are filled with the day to day. It is this everyday stuff of life that actually makes up our life. I know it is in these things that I need to find joy, fulfillment, gratefulness, acceptance, and meaning. But as so much of our modern day society attests to, this is not so easily done. I wonder on why that is. I read books about it, I ask God about it, I try to be aware of ways that I am falling short of what I've been made to be, ways that need confession and renewal. But I still struggle mightily with it; with being a pool of stilled water in the midst of the place that I am, with being a cup filled right in the midst of the things I possess, with being a joy-filled soul right smack dab in the middle of the days and the tasks and the very life I now live.

Wendell Berry, sage and modern day critic of our culture and the way many of our practices are eroding at the very things that make us human, has a collection of essays called The Art of the Commonplace. In it, I am finding much that is challenging my way of living and the thinking that underlies it. He's a farmer. He doesn't think we should all be farmers, but he writes to show us that we, in our post Industrial Revolution world and Age of Technology, have lost our connection to a huge part of what makes us whole as humans. In short, it's our connection to the land. He doesn't mean this in a New-Agey sort of way, but in the sense that we are biological, created creatures, who feed off of and live upon and in interdependence with the created earth and other living creatures. 

Most of us don''t live with an awareness of these truths, even though they are at the root of what makes us human. Instead, in our Information Age, we have become career people, where all information becomes specialized and the effect of this is "to make us frustratingly helpless and ignorant in regard to basic human skills- growing food, maintaining a home, caring for and educating children, promoting friendship and cooperation, facing illness and death. This specialization also leads to a sense of our own isolation from the broader wholes of which we are a part." Berry also writes of how we as modern day people no longer have pursuits or goals constrained by the limitations our natural world and communities put on us, we have instead become autonomous, self-seeking individuals whose goals are measured and limited only by our own egos. But we aren't any happier or healthier as a result. Instead, this has lead to the destruction of our natural world for our own limitless pursuits and the destruction of our communal lifestyles of which we as humans are (like it or not) desperately dependent upon.

I don't think it's hard to see these things as true. Movies, books, the Today show, our own hearts, all testify to the fact that for all our abundance, for all our advancements, we struggle with isolation, purposelessness, feelings of homelessness, angst, dissatisfaction, egotism, narcissism (see this interesting post about Mel Gibson from NY Times writer David Brooks). And what I'm trying to say is that I experience many of these things myself.

One thing in Berry's writing that hit home to me is that many of these destructive symptoms are a result of our dis-ordered living within the ordered world we've been given. It really is a gift, this earth, and especially as someone who believes in the Creator and walks in a hopeful following of Him, I ought to be seeking to be thankful for this gift, and striving to live as I was designed to within it. Sometimes discontentment in our hearts can come from a purposeful choosing to want things we do not have, but perhaps sometimes it comes from a different kind of waywardness, the sin of ignorance, or of careless living in the place God created for us, and created us for. So for all the good that we have at our fingertips, we need to become more and more mindful about ways to overcome or change, or perhaps even eradicate modern day practices that are eroding away not just our land, but our humanity as well. 

It's funny, one of the first suggestions Berry makes for reforming our relationship with the land and our communities (because he really doesn't want us all to be farmers, though you may come away feeling that way) is changing our relationship with food. There are a few other practices and parts of daily living that I've come across whether in his book or on my own reading (or perusing through blog-world one day), and it has set me to thinking on all of them.  I think all of these areas require improvement or overhaul in my life, and this requires careful thinking about what they do to not only me but the land I live upon and off of, and the people I depend upon and whom depend upon me. I don't by any means have them all figured out or even understand them all, so I welcome your responses if you have them.

Food is not just a fuel, as much of our eating and dieting tends to make us think. It is "the most concrete and intimate connection between ourselves and the earth that exists." And I would add to that, it is one of the most important ways that we as humans connect with one another-- in all cultures in all times the meal has been a central rite of our fellowship and community and family. This area is always a challenge to me as some of the ideas about how to (as a non-farmer) cultivate a healthier relationship with where my food comes from are difficult to do in this city. But there are ways and I need to pursue them.

I came across this post about hospitality the other day and it hit me rather hard, a bit harder than I would have expected because I tell myself that hospitality is important to me. But as with most things, there are blinders on that routinely need to be swiped off. Hospitality is not about impressing people, being a food artisan, or being the life of the party. It is simply about welcoming people into your home and seeking to know them, to make them feel cared for, and to share in life together. I very easily aim for other things even while I think I am aiming for these.

To rest from work, from technology, from the things that sap us and drive us, and to spend time doing things that bring us together with people, with creation, with God, with the joy of a rested, rejuvenated heart and mind and soul.

"The goal of human life, and therefore also its inspiration, must be to attain the peace and rest that marked the climax of creation. Our desire, our knowledge, and our work must finally end in the dance of joy and delight that mirrors the creator's pleasure in the goodness of creation.
"A Timbered Choir" (collection of Sabbath poems) by Wendell Berry.

 "The focus [in Wendell's poems] is not simply on a cessation of work for one day of the week but rather the transformation of all work in light of the goodness and interdependence of creation."
-Norman Wirzba

I came across this quote the other day from a book someone else was reading...

"Failing to notice a gift dishonors it, and deflects the love of the giver. That's what's wrong with living a careless life, storing up sorrow, waking up regretful, walking unaware. But to turn the gift in your hands, to say, this is wonderful and beautiful, this is a great gift-- this honors the gift and the giver of it....notice the gift. Be astonished at it. Be glad for it, care about it. Keep it in mind. This is the greatest gift a person can give in return. 'This is your work,' my friend told me, 'which is work of substance and prayer and mad attentiveness, which is the real deal, which is why we are here.'" 
-Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature by Kathleen Dean Moore. 

It struck another chord (it's like they're all strumming at once in here!) with me about this desire I have to learn how to make things that are "homemade." In today's world, where there is everything at your fingertips, handmade stuff is more of a hobby, a fun crafty thing to do, but it is not a necessity to life, as much of it used to be. And yet, I wonder if some of our disconnect with our things and our discontent with them, could be coming from our lack of effort and work put into the creation of them. I want to learn to make things so that I can give gifts like that quote. I want to look at the things I have been given, whether it is  a meal, or a sweater, or people made by the hand of God, or the world crafted by Him, and honor them with all that I am.

What is my work? What in the world do I think about it? Do I accept it? Do I strive to be the best I can be at it? Do I see the goodness, the grace, even the mystery in it and marvel and give thanks? I am overwhelmed by how to even do that on a day to day basis. 

But I see a glimpse... that the "commonplace" is a place for artful living, when that art is pursued by serving the land and the lives around me. "Service is the "art of the commonplace," the art that willingly enters into life with others and the earth and seeks the flourishing of all." (Wirzba) This seems to me a faithful understanding of the way God intends for us to live. Now to do it.

No comments:

Post a Comment