When we built
our home some years ago, we tried to build for eternity. We built well,
and carefully. We mortised and pegged the joints to hold firm in hurricane
winds. We sealed and resealed openings to keep out the water from winter
storms that brings rot and termites. We chose the materials with care, and
put love into their joining. It took us six months, without power or power
tools, to reach the point where we could move in.
The next morning the house was gone, burned to a mass of smoldering charred wood.
Our minds battled to believe and to not believe what had happened. As the reality began to sink in, my first agonized thought, over and over, was, "Six months of my life, of love and labor - gone, vanished, as if it never existed."
I tried to balance it out. Every six months of my life vanishes. Do many leave more than a pile of charcoal at the end? What did this six months leave me with besides charcoal? Was this loss so great? Our friend adn neighbor had died a month earlier. A whole future was lost there - was there any comparison?
Occasionally it takes events as drastic as these to get us to discover what is really rare and precious in our lives. Perhaps that event is a medical diagnosis, perhpas a narrowly avoided traffic accident. It might, however, be something as small as built up frustrations with the everyday baggage of responsibilities we've taken on that cause us to look afresh at our lives and try to sort the wheat from the chaff.
Sometimes we think the problem would be solvved if we could live forever. There would be time for everything! Then we visit older friends with empty lives, whose every day is a penance of endless time without fulfillment. Forever is not an answer.
Several times I've had the detritus of existence scrapped off of my life and have been given the opportunity to choose afresh which burdens I wanted to accept. Our fire did that, and helped me learn what was valuable and what was a burden about possessions. Several years before, tired of possessions that seemed to multiply their demands for care, maintenance, and use, I sold and gave away almost everything I had, left my job, and went on the road. Freedom! For a while. Eventually, I found that a freedom which did not give a leverage point to use myself well, to accomplish things, no longer seemed a real freedom.
After we rebuilt our house, we lived for seven years without radio, TV, or newspapers. People were appalled. Didn't we have a responsibility to keep up with the news? It turned out that we didn't miss much - we only became aware of the incredible redundancy with which we are deluged by what someone has determined to be "news". As we prepared to get on a plane, we'd hear someone discussing something. A couple of hours and several thousand miles later, we'd hear someone else virtually finish the same sentence. Is that news?
There are times when our witnessing and sharing the heroism, power, or grief of events is important. That can affect our lives. And there are events both good and bad that should not go unwitnessed and unacknowledged. But most of what we spend our time watching is in truth trivial.
Ignoring "news" never keep us from knowing what was happening in the world. The redundancy is far too great for that to happen. It just saved us from saturation with things we couldn't affect and shouldn't waste time worrying about.
Unknowingly, in doing this we moved our lives out of the "crisis" mentality which fills the world of bureaucratic "news", and into a more holistic and nurturing way of participating and responding to events. This removed a major sense of time pressure from our actions and allowed us to develop fuller and more fitting responses rather than knee-jerking with whatever could be done "immediately".
We're constantly urged with the cry, "Crisis!", to drop everything else and put all our energy into responding to one thing. Yet every "crisis" has multiple causes which any meaningful response must address. And any rightful action taken in response probably helps "solve" many other problems as well.
We found we had gained several hours a day, freedom from needless worrying about the "crises of the day", and freedom from the endless barrage of advertisements. Not a bad deal for the price.
When it became clear to me that the things I wanted to accomplish with my life were things it was unlikely anyone would ever pay me for, a big decision was necessary. Either I gave up my dreams and earned a living, or I'd have to learn to live my life differently so I could have time to pursue my dreams.
I started to look closely at living patterns. Where does our time go? How much goes to earn money, and what do we need that money for? How much went to pay taxes? How much for mortgages, cars, TV's, vacations? What further time commitment did each of those "purchases" entail?
What I found was interesting. Running on the treadmill of modern living didn't get us any farther any faster than simple living. And the luxuries of simple living were closer to being soul-satisfying and life-enriching ones, while the luxuries of a fast and flashy life were in the large part ultimately unfulfilling.
So we built our own home, with our own labor, and no mortgage. We found a diet which is at once healthier, tastier, cheaper and less demanding on the world. We've invested in friends instead of stocks. We watch sunsets and moonrise in stead of TV. We make music instead of consuming it. We heat with the sun and wood from our land. I work at home, and our elder son home-schooled with me when he graduated from our alternative elementary school.
Life isn't all peak experiences and starry-eyed chasing of dreams. Someone still has to take care of dirty baby bottoms and all the other cleanup, maintenance and ongoing work of living. Eating nothing but desserts would make anyone sick. But the patterns and chores of everyday living return us a deepening and relatedness, and give us preparation and nurturing for new experiences for which we rarely give credit.
This is possible, however, only when we give those everyday acts our undivided time, attention, and commitment. It won't happen if we view them as something to be brushed aside, avoided, delegated, or hur ried through to get on to the real parts of life. When a pile of clean clothes, a sparkling window or a well-cooked meal give us pleasure in both the doing and the product, we are nurtured rather than drained by them.
What I was learning, I discovered later, was the real and positive meaning of austerity of all things! I found that austerity does not exclude all richness or enjoyments in our lives. It does not mean a cold and barren existence. What it does do is remind us to avoid those things distracting from or destructive of personal relatedness - what keeps us from others or from our goals in life.
Affluence, it turns out, has a real cost. Compared to austerity, it does not discriminate between what is wise and useful and what is merely possible. Affluence demands impossible endless commitments of time and energy. It does this because it causes us to forego those things necessary for good relations and a truly satisfying life in order to make time and space for unnecessary things. And many of those unnecessary things act to damage or destroy the things we truly wish out of life. Like a garden, our lives need to be weeded if they are to produce a good crop.
We hunger for rich and powerful experiences and bemoan the empty and boring ones which fill our lives. Instead, we should be relearning how to make each and every experience one filled with meaning, love, and joy!
How many hours a day are we inundated by TV or radio - and why do we fear their silence? Pay attention to the causes of the emptiness we try to fill with TV and shopping and focus on deepening our places and relationships to truly eliminate that emptiness. Think how many hours of our lives we spend being "educated", and how many of those hours felt endlessly boring and pure drudgery. And think how much more quickly and interestingly we have learned something we wanted to find out about and set out to do that by ourselves. Time? The difference there alone is enough hours to accomplish almost anything we would wish with our lives!
A Lummi Indian friend told me once that when they get together to talk over a problem they form a circle and set a rock in the middle. The rock is to remind them of patience. We need such a touchstone in all our actions to remind us that getting to the end of a song is not the goal of singing, nor of scrubbing floors, weeding a garden, or grocery shopping.
We've created a world which splits us through the heart. We divide our time and lives between work and leisure. But rarely do we allow ourselves the leisure in our work to allow it to be enriching, to allow us to develop and apply our skills and interact rewardingly with others. And rarely in our leisure do we allow ourselves the purpose and reward of doing things of value and benefit to others and ourselves.
Wendell Berry once wrote about the beauty of an old woman crocheting - a job she knows she will never finish - and that the joy of the time spent making something beautiful is the real product she was creating. The Inuit used to throw away a carving once finished - the joy again was in the making! We need to account for both the inner and outer products of our work.
Our concern with "time" is a false one. The concepts and pressures of time are generated out of wrongful action and purposes. Greed inflates the importance of time to where it controls our lives.
We need instead to learn how to focus more fully on the present. We need to learn to choose what is important to do and not do, and to rediscover how to allow ourselves the freedom to be fully immersed in what we are doing - be it extraordinary or mundane.
Washing dishes without the "pressure of time" doesn't take significantly more or less time. But it becomes "timeless" - how long it takes isn't that important, and the experience isn't clouded by the constant pressure to be done and on to other, more important, things.
That pressure changes our lives - whether talking with a stranger or doing some work which we could otherwise love. It causes us to draw back from opportunities which arise during our day which might be more time-consuming. Yet these can be the very opportunities that result in deeper and richer relationships and lives. A vicious circle develops where whatever we're doing gives us less and less reward, and we feel more and more strongly the urges to spend less and less time on it!
Some people have concluded that time is more scarce and precious than money. They say we should go to school longer, work longer, sleep less. But where would we find new dreams, and what would happen to that wonderful place in-between sleep and wakefulness where the solution to problems so often arise?
Time vanishes when we are happy and excited and immersed in what we are doing. That is where we and our lives belong. Take a deep breath, ....relax! Read this again - slowly, this time - and see!
38755 Reed Rd.
Nehalem OR 97131 USA
© November 1993