Stuff

Vase on Mantel DSC00542Today was one of those days when the idea of actually sorting through and giving away or packing our stuff seemed pretty overwhelming. Part of our search for greener housing includes this process of dealing with our stuff. How did I get so much stuff? I remember being able to put almost everything I owned into a backpack, along with a tent, and carrying it on a bus when I went to join the Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice in 1985. I must have had a few boxes of stuff stored with a friend back in Chicago, but not much. Now, our stuff fills a house.

Maybe some people feel happy having lots of stuff, but I often feel uneasy about it. I grew up with St. Francis of Assisi as a role model, the patron saint of voluntary simplicity. I had to learn to appreciate the value of creating a beautiful and welcoming household. I was reminding of that value when a friend visited this weekend and remarked about how wonderful it was to be in such beauty. And I do love our home, and the stuff that helps to bring it alive. Some of it is practical–a kitchen table, chairs, beds, desks, bookcases, dishes. Some of it is sentimental–gifts from friends or a few cherished pieces from family. Some of it is just for beauty–the pitcher and cups on our mantel, a wall hanging of the tree of life.

But when I think about having to move it all from one place to another, it feels daunting. Today we were cleaning up some of our clutter in preparation for a visit from an appraiser. Not quite as daunting as preparing the house for showing to prospective buyers, but that will be coming up too. It is funny that as Americans have become more mobile, we have also accumulated more and more stuff. Is our attachment to our stuff trying to make up for our loss of attachment to land and community?

There are a lot of guides out there for helping to get rid of excess stuff. Common questions to help in the process include these: Have you used it within the last year? Does it give you joy? I have added another: Is this worth saving for my permanent personal archives? That one covers the fact that as a writer I am attached to keeping all of my personal journals. The last time we moved I even purchased archival quality boxes to store them in. I understand the process we need to go through. I just can’t imagine how we’re going to find the time to get it all done.

I am reminded of a quote by Wendell Berry. It isn’t really about stuff, but about anything that feels daunting or too big. I have it posted on the bulletin board next to my desk:

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

Or perhaps it would be helpful to take the advice of Dory in Finding Nemo:  “Just keep swimming.”

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Why Is There So Much Evil and Suffering?

Bars DSC00601_2To my granddaughters who visited the Holocaust
Museum on the day of the burial of Yitzhak Rabin

 Now you know the worst
we humans have to know
about ourselves, and I am sorry,
for I know that you will be afraid.
                                                                         Wendell Berry

If we are paying attention, we have to notice that life holds not only beauty, but tragedy. It holds not only goodness, but greed and hate and oppression. It holds unspeakable acts that human beings commit against each other and against the earth. Some people ask, if there is a God, especially a God of Love, why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?  I want to explore this question over the next several blog posts.

Every once in a while I have a dream in which there is a dangerous person lurking about outside of my house, and I am frantically trying to lock the doors. But in this dream I keep finding openings to the outside that don’t lock. Here in America, we associate locked doors with a sense of safety from evil. We think of evil as something that has to be kept out.

It makes me think about walls. There is a wall being built in Palestine, purportedly to keep terrorists out of Israel. Some sections of the wall go right between a family and their own olive grove. There is a plan to extend a wall across our entire border with Mexico, as part of Homeland Security. That doesn’t make any sense to me at all. I mean, even if a wall could protect us from terrorists, I have never heard of a Mexican crossing the border to blow up a building in the U.S. But the thing with keeping evil out is that you’ve got to blame somebody. Immigrants have often born the brunt of our feelings of insecurity.

Since September 11th, 2001, many previously safe Americans have felt as if evil has gotten through the doors, and we must frantically try to find a way to feel safe again. Terrorism has become the new face of evil.

Wendell Berry quote is from “To My Granddaughters” in A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-97

Will the Real God Please Stand Up

If I say the word God, people run away.
They’ve been frightened–sat on ’till the spirit cried ‘uncle.’
Tom Barrett

Steeple DSC01264Spirituality is our experience of the larger reality of which we are a part, the Mystery that connects and upholds all life. Many people call that Mystery God. But the word God is a challenging one. Some people have a hard time with it. A few may stop listening immediately. Others may call to mind particular beliefs and images from their own religious community that are difficult for them. Some may be very clear what it means to them, and very assured that everyone else is wrong about it. Some may be moved with emotion, wounded by the betrayals of those who used that word in hurtful ways. Others may feel a sense of confusion, perhaps tinged with longing. The word is powerful and charged with conflict. I want to wrestle with that word.

When I was growing up, there was a TV game show called, “To Tell the Truth.” Three contestants each claimed to be the same person. The first would say, “My name is Jane Doe.” The second would say, “My name is Jane Doe.” The third would also claim to be Jane Doe. A celebrity panel tried to guess which one was telling the truth. At the end, we all learned the truth when the game show host commanded: “Will the real Jane Doe please stand up!”

Don’t we wish sometimes that there were a game show host to shout—“Will the real God please stand up?” If only it wasn’t so confounding and mysterious! We know that this is not merely a debate about ideas. People fight wars and hurt each other over the issue of whose God is the real God. And, if God is real, others ask, why is there so much trouble in the world? Why aren’t our prayers answered when we are suffering? Why doesn’t the real God just show up, make it all clear?

Wendell Berry asked that question, too, through his character Jayber Crow, who was the town barber in a fictional village called Port William, Kentucky. Jayber was very troubled by the war going on—it was the time of the Second World War—troubled by all the pain it caused. He says: “In the most secret place of my soul I wanted to beg the Lord to reveal Himself in power… to lay His hands on the hurt children. Why didn’t He cow our arrogance? …Why hasn’t he done it at any one of a thousand good times…?” He goes on to say:

I knew the answer. I knew it a long time before I could admit it, for all the suffering of the world is in it. He didn’t, He hasn’t, because from the moment He did, He would be the absolute tyrant of the world and we would be His slaves. …From that moment the possibility that we might be bound to Him and He to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended.

 Berry asks how could we be human beings if God appeared in the sky and took away our ability to search, to struggle, to think for ourselves, to love? As soon as God stood up, the game would be over—the adventure of human life would lose its meaning. There would be nothing left to do.