30 October 2008

Hannah Coulter: When Geography Separates

Sometimes, fiction can work empathy into our souls. As we read about a character's first-hand experience, that experience becomes our own. It might not be exactly the same as truly living the events, but it comes close if the work is written well. This is why we laugh with the characters and cry with the characters. We feel their losses as our own. When reading, we enter into another world and return to our own a little bit changed.

In fact, this is one of the many reasons why I think it is so important that our family read aloud together. Two many stories read in isolation separate us from each other, while reading together doesn't just not separate, but it actually drives us together a bit.

But I digress.

My missing copy of Hannah Coulter has returned. {We are pretty sure a short person is to blame, but we'll never know which one.} I haven't had time to get back into it, but there is one theme I was already contemplating, and that is the idea that education {specifically, college education} separates. Berry writes:
The way of education leads away from home.
This novel is thick with Hannah's loss of her children. They didn't die. They simply went away to college and never came back. And now she is old and living out her days alone, for the most part.

I started this post off with the idea of empathy. That was on purpose. Midway through the book, I began to wonder if this is how Si's mom feels. It's not that she isn't happy that he met me and made his own family, but I wonder if she hoped it'd be easier to see us. You see, she lives across the country from us. We used to see her more often, but each time we add a child, traveling gets complicated. When our children ended up with food allergies, traveling got even more complicated. Finances restrict our visits. Jobs without vacation time have restricted our visits.

Life gets in the way.

I also thought of my own sister. She's not nearly as far, but sometimes it feels like she might as well be. She and Si did the same thing: met someone at college, got married, and never came back.

Now, Wendell Berry doesn't actually blame marriage. He actually sees it as a result of education itself. And not just the methodology of education, but the sort of dreams and goals a modern education encourages.

But I still think that falling in love can be a big culprit in this area!

I felt empathy come upon me when I read this:
You send your children to college, you do the best you can for them, and then, because you have to be, you're careful not to make plans for them. You don't want to be disappointed, and you don't want to burden them with your expectations either. But you keep a little thought, a little hope, that maybe they'll go away and study and learn and then come back, and you'll have them for neighbors. You'll have the comfort of being with them and having them for companions. You'll have your grandchildren nearby where you can get to know them and help to raise them. But that doesn't happen often anymore, and you know better than to hope too much. Or you ought to.

After each one of our children went away to the university, there always came a time when we would feel the distance opening to them, pulling them away. It was like sitting snug in the house, and a door is opened somewhere, and suddenly you feel a draft.
I was raised in a small town. My father's parents lived one street over and two blocks up from us. My mother's parents lived one street over in the other direction...and two blocks up. From the time we were quite young, we could ride our bikes over to see them. We didn't pack suitcases for a week or two of every year and go to visit my grandparents. We simply lived with them. Our family--our extended family shared a life.

And now Si and I do not live in that small town, but we live close to it. At least one of my grandparents {the children's great-grandparents} see our children every week. My parents live a couple miles away as well. My children have second-cousins and third-cousins at their birthday parties.

Again, we do not go to visit, but we share a life.

Except that we can only do this with my side of the family. And I feel the pain of that sometimes. I wish for their sake and the sake of my children that they could all know each other better than they do. Our visits often feel like Disneyland, so exciting and new. And it is tons of fun and exhausting, but it isn't the same as building a life together.

There is nothing that can be done to fix this situation, not unless folks want to move. And who in the world wants to move to California where the crazies live? Most people don't. But it's here we've built our life, and it's here we are. And we'll encourage the children to do the best they can in building a relationship with those who are far away.

But it isn't the same, and reading this gave me an extra measure of compassion, especially for Si's mom, whose heart I know sometimes aches when she sees, for instance, other grandmas pushing their grandbabies in a shopping cart at the grocery store. She's never done that.

And now two of our children are already too old.

Time. It gets away from us, doesn't it?

29 October 2008

Aesop on Politics

Part of today's reading was a very interesting fable from Aesop called The Frogs Who Wished for a King. The frogs in this story are "tired of governing themselves." So, they ask Jupiter for a king, one who will "rule them in a way to make them know they were being ruled." They also want someone who really acts like royalty and will "entertain them with pomp and display."

In the beginning, Jupiter tries to protect them from their own desires. He sends them a mock king, King Log, who begins his rule with the appearance of greatness without actually interfering in the lives of the frogs. But they are not content, and complain to Jupiter once again. The story continues:
To teach the Frogs a lesson the ruler...now sent a Crane to be king of Frogland. The Crane proved to be a very different sort of king from old King Log. He gobbled up the poor Frogs right and left and they soon saw what fools they had been. In mournful croaks they begged Jupiter to take away the cruel tyrant before they should all be destroyed.

"How now!" cried Jupiter. "Are you not yet content? You have what you asked for and so you have only yourselves to blame for your misfortunes."


Aesop's moral?

Be sure you can better your condition before you seek to change.

28 October 2008

Preparing for Thanksgiving

I vowed last year that I would be better about preparing for Thanksgiving this year. Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July are the only two truly American holidays, and they are a valuable part of our children's cultural heritage. My son likes July Fourth because of all the explosions and smoke. I prefer Thanksgiving!

So...how to prepare for Thanksgiving? This year, my goal is for the children to begin to understand who the Pilgrims were and why they left England for Holland, and why they left Holland for the New World. I especially want them to understand the persecution and debauchary faced in those countries so that they can then understand what sort of society the Pilgrims aimed to build here in the Americas.

My resource this year is free online. I don't prefer reading books to the children from the blue screen, but this is definitely an inexpensive way to access a wonderful old book, beautifully written, that accurately details the history of the Pilgrims.

Try it now. Margaret Pumphrey's Pilgrim Stories is online, courtesy of Google Books. Of course, if you want to hold a real book in your hands, you can also buy Pilgrim Stories online.

27 October 2008

The Great Outdoors

Our children need to play outside more," I said to Si on Saturday night. You see, Si pretended he was Pa Ingalls that day and worked from sun-up to sun-down {or is it "sunup to sundown"?}. Saturday was Trenching Day, which means that Si and our friend, Dan, spent the day getting their arms shaken off by a Ditch Witch while trying to create trenches in straight lines in which the irrigation piping can be ran in the near future.

And the children were with him the entire time.

Well, not Baby Q., but that's because she eats dirt, rolls in dirt, and is generally a giant mess when outside. I couldn't attend to her because I had to cook for the working men, plus Dan's wife came for a timely visit.

But E. and A., along with Dan's kids, who I'll call The Brothers J. for internet purposes, had a great time being outside all day long. They even ate their snacks outside! I brought them slices of cake, bananas, you name it. They ate it with dirty hands and faces and it was great.

The reason why I told Si we should do it more often is because I realized that E. hadn't gotten in trouble the entire day, except maybe once at the very end when he was tired and everyone was getting cranky. But other than that, he was happy as a lark and very obedient.

I tried to analyze why this was, and it dawned on me that a lot of what I get on to him about deals with acting inappropriately for indoors. In fact, I often tell him that he's beginning to be wild so he needs to go outside Where the Wild Things Are. You see, a lot of my run-ins with that boy sound like this:
Don't run in the house.
Don't jump on the couch/bed/loveseat/futon.
Don't throw things in the living room.
Don't hit the walls with your drumstick.
Etcetera.

The point is, all of this behavior is acceptable outside. It just happens to cause disasters and injuries when it happens in close quarters, especially near small girls who like to cry.

Sunday, we began reading E. Nesbit's Five Children and It. This is our new family read-aloud now that we've finished the Little House Books. Anyhow, imagine my surprise to find that my thought that the children should play outside more because they are displaying outside behavior is actually an afterthought:
London is like a prison for children, especially if their relations are not rich.

[snip]

London has none of those nice things that children may play with without hurting the things or themselves--such as trees and sand and woods and waters. And nearly everything in London is the wrong sort of shape--all straight lines and flat streets, instead of being all sorts of odd shapes, like things are in the country. Trees are all different, as you know, and I am sure some tiresome person must have told you that there are no two blades of grass exactly alike. But in streets, where the blades of grass don't grow, everything is like everything else. This is why so many children who live in towns are so extremely naughty. They do not know what is the matter with them, and no more do their fathers and mothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, tutors, governesses, and nurses; but I know. And so do you now. Children in the country are naughty sometimes, too, but that is for quite different reasons.

This just goes to show that my original assumption about good thoughts is true: everything worth thinking has already been thought. Every good thought these days is an Afterthought. Actually, bad thoughts these days are Afterthoughts, too. Like how Obama thinks the thoughts of Karl Marx.

I'm just saying.

22 October 2008

Understanding Metaphor

Yesterday, our preschool reading was Max Lucado's You Are Special. This book is a simple metaphor. There is a wooden person named Punchinello who was made by a wood carver named Eli. Eli is big and lives on top of the hill above the village where Punchinello lives. Punchinello, for reasons I won't go into, is feeling very down on himself, but he goes to visit Eli anyhow, and Eli explains that he is special. The reason that Punchinello is special is that Eli made him. As Eli puts it to Punchinello, "You are special because you are mine."

Little A. is all girl, meaning that she is a sucker for a story like this.

Usually, she and I do a quick preschool book together before Circle Time really gets going. During this time, O. and Q. are both napping and E. is outside in a chair trying to memorize his verses for Awana.

Yesterday, E. came back inside before A. and I were finished. He was fairly polite, and quietly settled himself on the couch opposite us.

The first time he spoke, it was mostly to himself. He said something about Eli being kind of like God. A little later, he muttered that Punchinello was kind of like us. By the end of the book, I had to shush him so that A. could hear the story. He was so excited! After we were done, he said, "Mommy! Mommy! I never understood that book before, but now I do! It isn't just about Punchinello and Eli, but also about God and us!"

His eyes were shining with the joy of epiphany.

And I was pretty excited, too. You see, just a couple of days before, I had spent some time perusing Vigen Guroian's Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination. In the first chapter, Guroian spends time discussing the idea of moral imagination. He defines it this way:
The moral imagination is not a thing, not even so much a faculty, as the very process by which the self makes metaphors out of images given by experience and then employs these metaphors to find and suppose moral correspondences in experience.
He then goes into introducing the idea that certain experiences build this moral imagination. He writes:
Unfortunately, more often than not, our society is failing to provide children with the kinds of experience that nurture and build the moral imagination. One measure of the impoverishment of the moral imagination in the rising generations is their inability to recognize, make, or use metaphors. My college students do not lack an awareness of morality...But when they read a novel they are perplexed because they are unable to find the inner connections of character, action, and narrative provided by the author's own figurative imagination.

[snip]

[My students] lacked...a personal knowledge of metaphor that only an active imagination engenders.
In the last couple of weeks, I have seen a little bit of fruit regarding our homeschooling. I don't mean the passing of tests, but real fruit. My son's ability to recognize a metaphor was one.

So often I think homeschooling can feel like a journey of failure. Because, as Gurioan explains, childhood is more about moral formation than it is about socialization, it can feel like an uphill battle. Every parent knows that children are born sinful and even the sweetest child has his flaws. I have already learned that in homeschooling those flaws are encountered at an intimate level.

This isn't a bad thing. I think back to when our son was kindergarten age and lied a lot. {I can talk about this now that it is in the past.} One of the things Si and I discussed was how, had he been being schooled at an institution, we might never have known that he was lying. How many days, weeks, months or years might he have lied? Would he have become a liar in the worst sense?

Homeschooling allows us to meet these flaws in the early stages and offer correction.

However, having to give correction and discipline day in and day out can be exhausting.

So that is why it is nice to have small successes as well. During those moments when we see a child show evidence of internalizing their lessons and adopting true virtue as their own, a parent can feel encouraged to continue the journey.

21 October 2008

M.I.A.

My book is gone. Anyone? Anyone? Has anyone around here seen my book? How in the world does one write about a book {complete with quotes} when the book disappears? In a word, one doesn't.

I've searched high. I've searched low. Actually, I searched low twice since all the Usual Suspects are under four feet tall.

Si has put his money on Baby Q., otherwise know as The Tornado. That is her wrestling name. It is also descriptive of her ability to pick up armfuls of stuff and carry it to another part of the house, where she drops it and walks away.

Actually, when Si isn't home I call her The Transient because she loads up her toy stroller with all her earthly belongings and walks around the house sipping a water bottle. If I ever forget to wash her face, she'll be mistaken for a ragamuffin.

So back to the point: Where, oh where, is Hannah Coulter? I'm not finished reading...and I need to know what happens!

Ack.

18 October 2008

Wendell Berry's Hannah Coulter

This is the second Wendell Berry novel I've read, and I'm liking it as much as the first. I love the feel of Berry's work. I have this sense that I'm sitting at the dying bedside of a really old person, and I'm getting this chance to wander in their memories and see the whole of their life for a brief moment before they leave this world. Berry has an undeniable respect for the aged. Couple this for his respect for the land and the family farm and you find that his work truly stands out among today's living writers.

Berry is so down-to-earth, and I think it's because of his bio on the back of his books. It doesn't say that he has both a B.A. and an M.A. in English from the University of Kentucky, though he does. It doesn't tell of his Guggenheim Fellowship in France or that he taught at New York University and also his alma mater, the University of Kentucky. He has many accomplishments that qualify him as a writer, and yet his bio simply states:
Wendell Berry, author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, and essays, has farmed a hillside in his native Kentucky for forty years.
Perhaps Berry's novels are believable because he has lived, and is living, the life his tales capture.

Hannah Coulter is a beautiful story. In the coming days {perhaps weeks?}) I'll be sharing some of the more profound excerpts, the parts that made me think. However, I would highly suggest it if you are looking for a new book to add to your list. My quotes won't ruin the storyline for you, not much anyhow, and my reviews usually focus on the ideas within the story rather than the story itself. The story is beautifully woven and tells of when Time Past began to become Time Present. Just as in Jayber Crow, the reader gets a chance to watch the Post World War II transition, where the family farm becomes obsolete and an old culture is lost.

17 October 2008

News on the Homefront

Where did Friday come from anyhow? It snuck up on me. {By the way, Happy Birthday, Grace!} I know I have neglected Afterthoughts this week. Truth be told, I'm just tired. I've been trying to sneak in extra naps where I can so that I have stamina to make it through the evening--which seems to be lasting until almost midnight with that last feeding of the day.

Baby O. is eight weeks old today. He looks great and I don't think you can tell by looking at him that anything was ever wrong. He smiles and gurgles, just as he should. He can see farther now and is becoming more difficult to nurse because he wants to look around {a blanket over him helps immensely}.

But I am definitely eight weeks tired.

We've had a little bit of excitement around here lately, too. Our backyard homesteading dreams are a little closer to reality every day. Si has worked tirelessly at clearing out the tumbleweeds. We came up with a plan and a local supply store drew up the necessary irrigation map for us. That was something we had no clue how to do ourselves, so it was nice to have professionals to tap into. If all goes well, Si and some friends will be trenching the irrigation soon. After that, he'll seed the lawn area of the yard for fescue. We chose this type of grass for many reasons, one of them being that it will provide good grazing for our ducks.

There was some sort of giant triangular dog run that was installed in the yard by the former owners. They took the fencing and roof with them, but left behind concrete curbing with something like sixteen poles sunk over a foot into our hard packed clay soil. Si broke up the concrete with a sledge hammer, but when he tried to dig the poles out, one pole took over an hour! Not exactly efficient. So my uncle and father graciously brought over a bulldozer {every family should have access to a bulldozer!} and pulled them all out in no time flat. Plus, this offered entertainment for the children.

Of course, now we have sixteen poles partially covered in concrete to dispose of. He he.

So as I was saying, we are getting somewhere.

And as if Si didn't have enough going on with the yard, his friend Sean {author of Ethix} is editing Broadman and Holman's new Apologetics Study Bible for Students {photo is of the adult version} and gave Si the opportunity to be an article contributor! So Si was busy this week finishing up his submissions for that as well. We were excited for him to have yet another venue to use his training and talents for the building up of the Church.

And me? I really do try to write daily. A wise woman {and far better writer than I} once said that this is what writers do: Nulla Dies Sine Linea. Not a day without a line. But I admit that I have failed this week, what with my exhaustion and Si's hogging working on the computer. But tomorrow is another day!

13 October 2008

The Darndest Things: What Boys Are For

Today I shushed the older boy. He talks so much, and so loudly. As I shushed, his volume seemed to increase. Again I shushed. Again, the volume went up.

"You're a loud talker," I said.

"I'm a boy," he answered, "I'm not meant for being quiet."

Money Troubles

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 1:9
I risk incriminating myself by using the quote I'm about to use. We have a family rule that the family read-aloud should only be read by the family together. But I couldn't resist browsing the afterward. Is the afterward officially part of the book, even though some editions don't contain it?

If so, I'm in trouble because Si reads my blog.

As I was saying, we are currently reading the posthumously published book The First Four Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The notes at the end are written by Wilder's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Lane begins her ending notes with this:
For seven years there had been too little rain. The prairies were dust. Day after day, summer after summer, the scorching winds blew the dust and the sun was brassy in a yellow sky. Crop after crop failed. Again and again the barren land must be mortgaged, for taxes and food and next year's seed. The agony of hope ended when there was no harvest and no more credit, no money to pay interest and taxes; the banker took the land. Then the bank failed.

In the seventh year a mysterious catastrophe was worldwide. All banks failed. From coast to coast the factories shut down, and business ceased. This was a Panic.

It was not a depression. The year was 1893, when no one had heard of depressions. Everyone knew about Panics; there had been Panics in 1797, 1820, 1835, 1857, and 1873. A Panic was nothing new to Grandpa, he had seen them before; this one was no worse than usual, he said, and nothing like as bad as the wartime.

The cacophony of cries over the state of the economy reminds me of the global warming/climate change crowd whose members are always distressed about a hurricane here and a flood there. Now, I'm not saying that natural disasters aren't distressing as much as I'm saying that such folks don't seem to be very aware of history. If you read enough, you know that there have always been floods and storms and blizzards.

Truly there is nothing new under the sun.

I think what might have happened in our own culture is that we actually believed we could avoid any future troubles, economically speaking. We lived like the future would be ever bright and welcoming.

I suppose if we had read our history, we might have thought ourselves overdue for money trouble. Such happenings were apparently quite common in the 1800s.

Of course, we've been so free from such worries that we have jeopardized our ability to survive by forgetting how to do so. That definitely makes things scarier.

Anyhow, today I was reading some thoughts on the economy written by someone who is not an economist. His points made me think, and anything that makes a person think afterwards is worth noting here at Afterthoughts, for that is what it's all about, right? Thinking someone else's thoughts after they do and hopefully learning a little bit along the way.

Here are a few excerpts from Andrew Kern's posting at Quiddity:
What I am opposed to is vast bureaucracies who replace the wisdom of elders with their expertise - whether they are corporate or government is not the primary concern.
Economy comes from the Greek for household customs or household laws. It used to have to do with the best way to run a household. Now it means the statistical analysis of the movement of money and how I can get more for myself. Autonomous economics is a death wish. It no longer has any interest in the household, the health of which is often in conflict with the so-called health of the substitute economy created by economists so they could have something that fit into their calculators.
Go read the rest.

08 October 2008

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Final Review

Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth." Then God said, "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food"; and it was so. God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
{Genesis 1:26-31}

The LORD God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed...Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.
{Genesis 2:8, 15}
I fully admit that one of the reasons why I romanticize gardening and farming is because the mere idea of such a thing brings forth a sense of First Things. Before there were cities and industries and governments and bureaucracies, before any of these things even entered the human imagination, there was a Garden. Now, of course, it is easy to romanticize The Garden, since it was perfect in every way. Not only was it laid out perfectly because it was conceived by an Imagination beyond fault, but is was also completely void of inconvenient things, like the need to sweat while working in it, or weeds of any kind.

That came later.

I find the urge to take hold and grasp these First Things, these simple gifts from God. I have a husband, we now have children, and now we even have a small bit of ground to cultivate.

Dominion, where man reaches for his rightful place as benevolent ruler of the earth, whether he be a king, or, like us, the simple title-holders of almost half an acre. Man lovingly leads his home and he lovingly works the ground. This is the essence of the Genesis dominion mandate.

As long as we can forget about the weeds in the way a woman forgets the pains of labor after they are gone, each spring will hold a new planting season.

It is because of my attraction to gardening and my anticipation for what the spring might hold if our plans are allowed to take form that I was drawn to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.Author Kingsolver made sure to describe the great variety of fruits and vegetables with which the earth abounds. Reading her words encouraged me to do a little research and get creative with our own garden rather than allowing our backyard to become a mirror-image of the modern grocery store. And as I found myself putting purple carrots that look striped when you cut them, blue potatoes containing all the antioxidants of blueberries, and tomatoes that ripen slowly in your pantry just in time for Christmas on my seed list, I marveled at the creativity of our Lord, of the magnitude of His imagination.

Once upon a time, grocery stores defined food for me, and I thought all carrots were orange, all potatoes brown, and all tomatoes ripe between May and September.

Kingsolver described the growth of the peanut bush and how it looks so normal to begin with. It grows its leaves and flowers and begins to form its seeds, and then the stems lengthen and make a dash for the ground, digging in and effectually planting its own seeds without the assistance of any other part of nature! I read that part out loud to the children and, again, we all marveled at God's goodness and agreed that we would have to grow peanuts at least once for the sake of our own amusement.

It was with wonder that I read through the book, feeding that desire in myself to return to my birthright given to me at the dawn of creation. Yes, dominion doesn't end in the Garden, it is true enough. The Garden of Eden would have naturally expanded as it was filled with people, and when people multiply, what results is first an immediate family, and then an extended family, and finally villages and towns, and maybe even cities.

But in the beginning there was a marriage and a garden and a hope for the future: future fruits in the form of children and a harvest worth eating.

Kingsolver mentions her beliefs in evolution in some of the earliest pages of her work, and it is mentioned throughout, and then again at the end. I wish I could say she is a comrade, seeking the same things for a similar reason, but she really isn't. I think she is what Francis Schaeffer would have called a cobelligerent, someone with whom I might seek the same ends for completely different reasons.

In the conclusion of the book, Kingsolver tries to explain her family's year of growing their own food. She does so in the context of her first discussion with her youngest daughter concerning the origin of all things {emphasis mine}:
"How did dinosaurs get on the earth, and why did they go away?" was her reasonable starting point.

[snip] Lily and I talked about the millions and millions of years, the seaweeds and jellyfish and rabbits. I explained how most creatures have many children {some have thousands!} with lots of small differences between them. These specialities--things like quick hiding or slow, picky eating or just shoveling everything in--can make a difference in whether the baby lives to be a grown-up. The ones that survive will have children more like themselves. And so on. The group slowly changes.

[snip]

Is it possible to explain the year we had? I can tell you we came to think of ourselves, in the best way, as a family of animals living in our habitat. Does that reveal the meaning of our passage?
As I work with my children in our garden in the coming years, we will talk of our Lord, of the First Things, of the original occupation given to man, of the responsibility to love what God has made that is inseparable from the work of dominion. We will stand upon the earth knowing that we were born, vitalized might be a better word, by the very life-giving breath of God. Ours is an origin of life, a heritage of life, a work of promoting life by cultivating the ground and taking its fruits into our bodies, and all the while we know that death has not defeated us and there will be life yet.

Life in the beginning.

Life in the end, after all.

But Kingsolver? My soul weeps for her a bit, though I don't really know her. Here she is, standing on millions of years of death, millions of tiny deaths that made her life possible, and when she dies, death is all that her life will reap. A family of animals living in our habitat? I am sure that, like most people, Kingsolver feels at home in the garden. It's a natural response to creation, I think. But what hope is there when you are born out of death and all the future holds for you is death on the other end?

Two dark bookends enclosing a life that leads to naught.

So this is the end, I think, of my reviews of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. There is a richness of information in this book; I would never tell you not to read it. But if you do, say a prayer for Kingsolver. Unfortunately, even the path in her garden leads to despair.
___________________

Other Posts Concerning Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:

Economics as a Form of Community
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Quote Selection One
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Quote Selection Two
What to Look For in a Rooster

07 October 2008

What to Look For in a Rooster

I don't know anyone who keeps a rooster. Once, during a field trip with our church's {now-defunct} homeschool group, I met a woman whose children raised chickens for 4-H. We spent a long time discussing the difference between chickens raised for meat, chickens raised for eggs, and even chickens raised for show. But the family's two roosters were boarded somewhere out of town due to zoning regulations.

And I get it. Roosters are especially noisy in cities because the streetlights confuse them, making them think that the day never ends.

I am generally interested in all things chicken, though we've decided to go with ducks for many reasons that I won't discuss today.

Even though I'm not planning on buying a rooster anytime soon,I must admit I was fascinated with Barbara Kingsolver's discussion of what qualities make a rooster a good one:
A mature, skillful rooster takes his job seriously as protector of the flock, using different vocal calls to alert his hens to food, aerial predators, or dangers on the ground. He leads his wives into the coop every evening at dusk. Lacking a proper coop, he'll coax them up onto a tree branch or other safe nighttime roost {hence, his name}...[A] flock of free-range hens behaves very differently without a rooster: scattered, vulnerable, a witless wandering of lost souls.
Kingsolver goes on to describe the best rooster her family ever owned, named Mr. Doodle:
He had a keen eye for safety and a heart for justice. I saved caterpillars I pulled off my garden so I could throw them into the chicken yard and watch Mr. Doodle run to snatch up each one, cock his head in judgment, and dole one out to each of the six hens in turn before he started the next round. Any number of caterpillars not evenly divisible by six would set him into angst; he hated to play favorites.
I marvel at the creativity of God, and I often think that some creatures really were created for our entertainment, in addition to providing for our sustenance.
______________________________

Other Posts Concerning Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:

Economics as a Form of Community
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Quote Selection One
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Quote Selection Two
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Final Review

06 October 2008

Moral Virtue and the Real Estate Meltdown

Sallie posted a link to Life in Foreclosure Alley on Saturday. I had already been thinking about writing a post on this topic, and when I tried to write a comment on Sallie's post, so many thoughts came at once that I knew there was no way I could comment without it being ridiculously long. And I try not to hijack other bloggers' comments sections if I can possibly avoid it.

There are a lot of good thinkers out there blogging about the real estate crisis. But there is one perspective on this subject that I think is being sorely neglected, and that is what I plan to tackle today.

As most of you know, we purchased a foreclosure in an auction this summer. Talk about plummeting property values! During the purchase our house not only appraised for over ten thousand dollars more than we were paying, but we also discovered that our purchase price was approximately one hundred fifty-seven thousand dollars less than the original owner had paid for it. And the bank that owned the home lost more than that because they had to pay the utilities while it was on the market, plus a number of fees to have an auction company sell it {it went to auction more than once} and an escrow company process it.

Is it not surprising that these banks are going under if they are losing that kind of money on every single foreclosure? Just to give you an idea, in my city alone, there were over a thousand foreclosures last month. In fact, the last three months have been record-setting, first in the eight-hundreds, then the nine-hundred, and then the new record I just mentioned. And it isn't over! As we see the other foreclosures in our neighborhood snatched up by buyers {a lot of young families like us who were completely priced out of the market during the boom are now able to afford homes again}, we also see new houses foreclosed on. It seems that when one "For Sale" sign is removed, another goes up right next door.

Such is life not only in the Inland Empire, but also in the Central Valley of California.

Now, the folks that lost our house were obviously in real, true distress. I know this because we have been receiving their bankruptcy papers in our mailbox. Foreclosure was designed for real financial distress. It was a method of mercy, so-to-speak. Foreclosure is a measure of protection because the bank can take the house back from you, but they can't take anything else.

And foreclosure is being taken advantage of every single day.

The first time I heard of this, I was floored. Our realtor explained how one of the other agents at her office had been asked by an acquaintance to list their home as a short sale. Apparently, this couple only had the house in the husband's name. The wife was not on the loan, nor was she on the title. This is where the scamming starts. What this couple requested was that the agent not only list their home, but help them shop for a house at the new, lower prices. Once they purchased a new, cheaper home {in the wife's name} then, if the house hadn't sold, they would just let it slip into foreclosure.

The agent, admirably, shut this potential client down, explaining that she was basically being asked to help lie, cheat, and steal and that it was simply immoral.

Very few realtors in this town would do that.

Last week, I heard of a similar situation during a local AM-radio show. The caller to the show explained that he and his wife had bought their dream home at just about the peak of the market. They had worried about getting priced out, so they took the plunge, even though it meant getting an 80/20 loan {meaning they financed the house at 100%, 80% being a first mortgage and 20% being a second mortgage}. They wanted to have a nice house with nice schools for their children and so on. Now their property was worth about half of what they had paid. They were completely upside down on the house in terms of equity.

This caller wanted to know if he should let the house go even though he had no trouble whatsoever with paying his bills.

I'll just let you think about that for a minute.

Thankfully, the host of the talk show talked the man out of it, but the entire conversation revolved around this being a financial decision, not a moral one. No one mentioned that this man was morally obligated to pay for the house because he had promised to do so. No one reminded him that he would be stealing from the bank if he did such a thing.

Renters in this town are also finding themselves homeless, even though they are paying their rent. As landlords decide that they don't want to deal with the falling property values, they pocket the rent as long as they can, leaving their tenants to be evicted by the bank once the foreclosure process is over.

This just happened to a woman we know. And it is happening all over our town.

I am realizing that there are a lot of people in this town that were more than willing to go along with the ride when everything was going up. If their neighbor's house sold for an extra twenty thousand, these folks wanted to gather that gain in equity for themselves. And many of them did, usually in the form of a cash-out refinance.

That is what it means to live in community. When one benefits, we often all benefit.

But it seems that folks only want one part of community, and that's the good part. When things go badly and a neighbor sells their house for twenty thousand less, no one wants any part of that. In fact, they want someone else to eat that loss.

Someone else being the bank.

And the banks have no recourse. There is no way for them to stop these people and say that they really can pay their bills and are just choosing not to because it suits their budget to do so.

And here we have the government paying off the banks? How is this really dealing with a problem that runs deep in the moral fiber of our community?

If the banks need more regulation, and I don't really know if they do or not, fine. But we shouldn't leave it at that. We need complete reform of the foreclosure process. Folks that have the means to pay their bills shouldn't be allowed to walk away from a house without shame. If someone signs a legally binding loan document which obligates them to pay, they should be truly obligated to pay. The abuse of the foreclosure process is making loan docs into a joke. They are meaningless if they only obligate us to pay if we feel like it.

And this will jeopardize housing prices as long as it continues.

We live in a community. And if my a third of my neighbors are capable of paying their mortgage but choose not to, my equity begins to disappear. And if this happens on a large enough scale, we have a situation in which individual selfish acts are adding up to a huge financial crisis.

And that is what is really going on in this country. This is a crisis of selfishness, a crisis of morality, a crisis caused by sin. Allowing sin into the camp can destroy the camp. And we all know it. But we looked the other way, or didn't see it for what it was.

Like all sinful situations, throwing money at it isn't going to help {though allowing natural consequences would at the very least be instructive}. Repentance is the only logical solution.

03 October 2008

Troubled Times

If you're like me, and you've watched your savings grow smaller, and you've started to think the safest place to keep your money might be The Money Jar, it just might be time to remember that money isn't everything. It is one thing, certainly, and a helpful tool, to be sure. But folks have often lived with little of it and managed to survive.

There are some things that every Christian should be pursuing in these troubled times, and it isn't money. The Powers That Be tell us that billions of dollars are what it's going to take to bring about stability. And yet money can never bring about stability. First pursue the things that are the source of stability and all else will follow.



Wisdom and knowledge will be the stability of your times,
And the strength of salvation;
The fear of the LORD is His treasure.
-Isaiah 33:6

02 October 2008

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Quote Selection Two

For all the talk that politicians on the left as well as the right make about America being a democracy, we are not. We never have been. In fact, founding father Benjamin Franklin wrote: "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!" This is why James Madison promoted a republic in The Federalist Papers. In Number 51, he wrote: "It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part."

Republicanism {as a political process, not a political party} protects minorities from majorities. Originally, it protected the rural parts of the country from being dictated to by densely populated cities. I can tell you, having my entire life watched the farmers in my area battle politicians from San Francisco for water rights, that city politicians don't understand the needs of country folk, nor do they acknowledge that what is in the best interest of the farmer would be in the best interest of the city as well, since that is where they get their food.

All of this is to frame my first quote from Kingsolver, which concerns this country-mouse-city-mouse battlefront {and would someone please explain this to President Bush??}:
The policy of our nation is made in cities, controlled largely by urban voters who aren't well-informed about the changes on the face of our land, and the men and women who work it.

[snip]

For much of U.S. history, rural regions have been treated essentially as colonial property of the cities.

I expected Kingsolver to be a vegetarian or a vegan. Her politics seemed to line up perfectly, and she seemed health-conscious enough to pull it off without any major health repercussions. But she isn't, and she explains why. She begins by musing about a young Hollywood starlet who is vegan and fantasizes about building a haven for domestic animals where they are safe from harvest:
We know she meant well, and as fantasies of the super-rich go, it's more inspired than most. It's just the high-mindedness that rankles; when moral superiority combines with billowing ignorance, they fill up a hot-air balloon that's awfully hard not to poke. The farm-liberation fantasy simply reflects a modern cultural confusion about farm animals. They're human property, not just legally but biologically. Over the millenia of our clever history, we created from wild progenitors whole new classes of beasts whose sole purpose was to feed us. If turned loose in the wild, they would haplessly starve, succumb to predation, and destroy the habitats and lives of most or all natural things. If housed at the public expense they would post a more immense civic burden than our public schools and prisons combined. No thoughtful person really wants those things to happen. But living at a remove from the actual workings of a farm, most humans no longer learn appropriate modes of thinking about animal harvest.

[snip]

On our farm we don't especially enjoy processing our animals, but we do value it, as an important ritual for ourselves and any friends adventurous enough to come and help, because of what we learn from it. We reconnect with the purpose for which these animals were bred. We dispense with all the delusions about who put the live in livestock and who must take it away.

She had some comments about vegetarianism that I hadn't heard before:
Most humans could well consume more vegetable foods, and less meat. But globally speaking, the vegetarian option is a luxury. The oft-cited energetic argument for vegetarianism, that it takes ten times as much land to make a pound of meat as a pound of grain, only applies to the kind of land where rain falls abundantly on rich topsoil. Many of the world's poor live in marginal lands that can't support plant-based agriculture. Those not blessed with the fruited plain and amber waves of grain must make do with woody tree pods, tough-leaved shrubs, or sparse grasses. Camels, reindeer, sheep, goats, cattle, and other ruminants are uniquely adapted to transform all those types of indigestible cellulose into edible milk and meat. The fringes of desert, tundra, and marginal grasslands on every continent--coastal Peru, the southwestern United States, the Kalahari, the Gobi, the Australian outback, northern Scandinavia--are inhabited by herders. The Navajo, Mongols, Lapps, Masai, and countless other resourceful tribes would starve without their animals.

Kingsolver echoes something my father has told me in the past, which also seems to be a simplistic summary of Rudolph Steiner's biodynamic farming method:
[W]ell-managed grazing can actually benefit natural habitats where native grazers exist or formerly existed.

Kingsolver wasn't afraid to cook with her children, even when they were small. She writes:
Cooking is 80 percent confidence, a skill best acquired starting from when the apron strings wrap around you twice.

Fans of dessert everywhere will be thrilled to hear that Kingsolver extols indulging in pie on Thanksgiving and Christmas! She writes:
[M]ost of America's excess pounds were not gained on national holidays. After a certain age we can't make a habit of pie, certainly, but it's a soul-killing dogma that says we have to snub it even on Thanksgiving. Good people eat. So do bad people, skinny people, fat people, tall and short ones. Heaven help us, we will never master photosynthesis.

Living like this--where you grow your own food, preserve it, and eat it throughout the year {with only minor supplementation from a local farmer's market} is a choice:
In a culture that assigns nil prestige to domestic work, I usually self-deprecate when anyone comments on my gardening and cooking-from-scratch lifestyle. I explain that I have to do something brainless to unwind from my work, and I don't like TV. But the truth is, I enjoy this so-called brainless work. I like the kind of family I can raise on this kind of food.

Kingsolver discusses poultry a lot in this book, and I found it all very fascinating. She explains how modern breeds have had the ability to reproduce on their own completely bred out of them. Modern chickens and turkeys are artificially inseminated, eggs are extracted and then raised by machines in incubators where robots systematically turn the eggs. Makes me wonder what a power-outage would do to the poultry industry:
Having no self-sustaining bloodlines to back up the industry is like having no gold standard to underpin paper currency. Maintaining a naturally breeding poultry flock is a rebellion, at the most basic level, against the wholly artificial nature of how foods are produced.

On raising certain types of children:
[T]he ultimate act of failure is to raise helpless kids...Kids who can explain how supernovas are formed may not be allowed to get dirty in play group, and many teenagers who could construct and manage a Web site would starve if left alone on a working food farm.

That is almost the end of my quote selection. I have two remaining, both of which deserve their own posts. The first explains the beauty of the rooster, something that will foster a new appreciation for the Creator. The second explains the worldview of the book, the reason why I can agree with Kingsolver on so much, appreciate her writing, seek to live a somewhat similar lifestyle, and yet feel, in the end, that we are worlds apart.

Stay tuned.
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Other Posts Concerning Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:

Economics as a Form of Community
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Quote Selection One
What to Look For in a Rooster
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Final Review

01 October 2008

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Quote Selection One

Here we have a book which I found enjoyable and informative. Even though it was a memoir, it was full of helpful information, especially for me since I've been dreaming of our first full-sized gardening adventure that {Lord willing} begins this spring. However, I also had an underlying uncomfortable feeling as I read the book. I initially thought that it was because the author was so obviously feminist, so obviously evolutionist.

But then I thought of other books I've read that contained these elements and yet didn't give me the same feeling. A difference of opinion or belief doesn't necessarily have to translate into this feeling that I'm having trouble putting words to.

I think the majority of the feeling stems from my impression that the author was antagonistic toward the average creationist. She made room for the Amish, but deep down, everyone likes and respects the Amish, right? But someone from my community, who lives in the modern world and yet seeks the old paths at the same time? I got the feeling that Kingsolver would look upon this with disdain.

I also found another source of my irritation, but it is so involved that I'm going to save that for a future post, because this post is intended to be a quote selection, or collection, depending on your way of looking at it.

Kingsolver's perspective on tobacco farming is much like my own, so I appreciated her comments on it. She wrote:
I grew up in a tobacco county....[W]e knew what tobacco meant to our lives. It paid our schoolteachers and blacktopped our roads...For my classmates who went to college, it was tobacco that sent them. Me too, since my family could not have stayed solvent without other family economies that relied on tobacco.

From that society I sallied out into a world where, to my surprise, farmer was widely presumed synonymous with hee-haw, and tobacco was the new smallpox. I remember standing in someone's kitchen once at a college party...listening while everyone present agreed on the obvious truth about tobacco: it should be eliminated from this planet and all others. I blurted out, foolishly, "But what about the tobacco farmers?"

You'd have thought I'd spoken up for child porn....

Yes, it's a plant that causes cancer after a long line of people {postfarmer} have specifically altered and abused it. And yes, it takes chemicals to keep the blue mold off the crop. And it sends people to college. It makes house payments, buys shoes, and pays doctor bills. It allows people to live with their families and shake hands with their neighbors in one of the greenest, kindest places in all this world. Tobacco is slowly going extinct as a U.S. crop, and that is probably a sign of good civic sense, but it's also a cultural death when all those who grew it must pack up, go find an apartment somewhere, and work in a factory. What is family farming worth?

Kingsolver understands the value in food crops is related to their proximity to the marketplace:
The world's most beautiful tomato, if it can't get into a shopper's basket in less than five days, it worth exactly nothing.

It was interesting to me to see Kingsolver try to bring feminism back from its kitchen neglect:
When my generation of women walked away from the kitchen we were escorted down that path by a profiteering industry that knew a tired, vulnerable marketing target when they saw it...We came a long way, baby, into bad eating habits and collaterally impaired family dynamics. No matter what else we do believe, food remains at the center of every culture. Ours now runs on empty calories.

[snip]

Eating preprocessed or fast food can look like salvation in the short run, until we start losing what real mealtimes give to a family: civility, economy, and health. A lot of us are wishing for a way back home, to the place where care-and-feeding isn't zookeeper's duty but something happier and more creative.

Kingsolver looks to the Amish for hints on how to make self-sufficiency a reality:
If a self-sufficient farming community has survived here, it remains a possibility elsewhere. The success of this one seemed to hinge on many things, including steady work, material thrift, flexibility, modest expectations, and careful avoidance of debt--but not including miracles, as far as I could see. Unless, of course, we live in a country where those qualities have slipped from our paddock of everyday virtues, off to the side of "miracle." I couldn't say.

Because I find the Amish fascinating, I made sure I underlined this insight:
The Amish don't oppose technology on principle, only particular technologies they feel would change their lives for the worse...When milking machines came up for discussion in David and Elsie's community, the dairy farmers pointed out that milking by hand involves repeatedly lifting eighty-pound milk cans, limiting the participation of smaller-framed women and children. Milking machines were voted in because they allow families to do this work together....

David summarizes his position on technology in one word: boundaries. "The workhorse places a limit on the size of our farms, and the standardbred horse-drawn buggy limits the distances we travel. This is basically what we need. This is what keeps our communities healthy."...[L]imiting territory size can yield dividends in appreciation for what one already has, and the ability to manage it without debt. The surprise is to find whole communities gracefully accepting such boundaries, inside a nation that seems allergic to limitations, priding itself instead of the freedom to go as far as we want, as fast as we can, and buy until we run out of money--or longer, if we have credit cards.

Want to know why we want to grow a lot of our own food? It's knowledge we might need someday. Kingsolver gets that:
[W]hen centralization collapses on itself, as it inevitably does, back we go to the family farm. The Roman Empire grew fat on the fruits of huge, corporate, slave-driven agricultural operations, to the near exclusion of any small farms by the end of the era. But when Rome crashed and burned, its urbanized citizenry scurried out to every nook and cranny of Italy's mountains and valleys, returning once again to the work of feeding themselves and their families. They're still doing it, to this day.

Are poultry were vegetarians? Vegans? There aren't many true, 100% vegan animals in the world, much as my high school biology teacher would have liked to believe. Kingsolver explains:
Both chickens and turkeys are also eager carnivores. I've seen many a small life meet its doom at the end of a beak in our yard, not just beetles and worms but salamanders and wild-eyed frogs. {The "free-range vegetarian hens" testimony on an egg-carton label is perjury, unless someone's trained them with little shock collars.}

That's enough for today. More quotes tomorrow!
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Other Posts Concerning Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:

Economics as a Form of Community
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Quote Selection Two
What to Look For in a Rooster
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Final Review