Being Grateful Instead of Blessed

I deleted the Facebook app from my phone several days ago and realized that, without it, I don’t check Facebook as that was the only device on which I accessed the social media network.

I am disengaging for a variety of reasons. It had become a huge time suck, something that became glaringly obvious as I used the screen time app on my phone. I rarely shared much and it seemed my timeline had somewhat stalled as well. Honestly, even my most interesting friends lead pretty dull day to day lives. I love them all but just didn’t need to have daily updates about their dog training and dinner preparations.

And, then there is the sometimes ugly divisiveness. I have friends across the political spectrum. One very liberal friend called Jesus a moron. Really? And another, a religious conservative,  commented during Obama’s last campaign that he would prefer a Mormon over a Muslim sympathizer.  Again, really? If these two represent the widely separated world view of a majority of people, we are in real trouble.

But, beyond that, it was the simplest of posts that pushed me away: I found myself constantly bothered by the pictures of families gathered for holidays and beach vacations. Wonderful snapshots of families living the good life. But, to a one, they almost all commented that they were blessed. Blessed. That word stopped me every time: it carries the connotation of being consecrated, favored by the divine. It had really begun to bother me and was a contributor to my departure. I know it seems silly on the surface, but I wondered how or even if these people considered the implications of their words: if you are blessed, does that mean others, who may be suffering problems, are not? Even if they are as devout as you? Has the divine turned away from them, no longer favoring them? Seems like iffy theology to me.

Today, I think I found an at least something of an answer to my conundrum in Hila Ratzabi’s blog post The Trouble with Gratitude: these people should not consider themselves blessed. Instead, they have been lucky in this dice roll called life. Their hash tag should be #grateful not #blessed. After an encounter with a stranger struggling down the street, Ratzabi muses on the idea of “bad” gratitude, that is, gratitude that you are better off than the next person rather than just being grateful for this moment in this life.

I will carry her conclusion with me:

So, thank you, universe, for a random encounter that allowed me to step outside my own story into that of another. Thank you for the chance to contemplate the miracle of the body and how quickly it changes. Here I am. And there is that man. Moving through this glorious earth in our very different, beautiful bodies. Both changing, both knowing it will all come to an end. What luck that we are here, even just for a moment. Breathing, walking, passing each other by.

Changing Perspectives: A Few of My Favorite Things

If, when I was living in my quiet suburban bungalow, you had asked me to name a few of my favorites things I would have mentioned my sets of family dishes. I am lucky to own my great grandmother’s Johnson Brothers china as well as my in laws’ Glidden pottery. Meals served on these dishes seem to take on a larger sense of family as we eat and remember the many other meals we have shared on them with family members long gone. They connect us to the past.

However, after moving to the farm, my list of favorite things has changed in a way that demonstrates how my perspective on much of life has changed. Oh, I still love my dishes and one of the draws of the farm house was its built in china cupboard where I am finally able to display them. But, as I immerse myself in the work of the farm, especially during this rainy winter, the top of the list is occupied by the practical objects that make my life easier, as in drier and cleaner. Number one on the list are my boots. They are Bogs–my second pair–and I wear them at least three times a day, every day for most of the year. They are easy to get on and off, easy to clean with the hose, and actually comfortable enough to walk the dogs. I can splash through standing water, sink into ankle deep mud, and walk over tree roots comfortably. And they have a fun pattern that livens up even the dreariest of mornings.

mytractorAs the polar vortex headed our way, we were also quite grateful for our little tractor. Even in the sub freezing temperatures, it started up with a roar and made it easy to haul bales of hay and buckets of water to the pigs. The truck would have sunk up to its rims in the mud. When the tractor did get stuck, I was able to jump out and give it a solid push to get it moving. I told my husband we need a name and he suggested Old Yeller. That was not a book I ever read, as I was avoiding the sad ending, so I’m still thinking about it. I considered Old Reliable but that’s a bit dull. Now I’m thinking about women’s names after reading one of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce books. Her bicycle is named Gladys. Trudi the tractor? Maybe too cute?

Finally, I have a new found love for my espresso machine. A small Krups that I found at a thrift shop, it has been with me for many years, churning out my daily four-shot latte. When your fingers are a bit frozen and your nose is cold, hot espresso and steamed milk are a wonderful thing.

Musing About Monarchs: Richard III

How fortunate that it is Musing Mondays day at Should Be Reading…I’m ready to muse on my last read: The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman.  It is billed as the story of Richard III but because it covers most of his life and since his reign was short, the book also portrays the monarchy of Edward IV, during whose reign most of the major battles of the Wars of the Roses were fought.

Penman portrays a Richard who is nothing like the murderous hunchback of Shakespeare and other popular tales.  He is sensitive and just, willing to forgive and forget even to the point of the final betrayal at Bosworth Field. And, Penman takes the side of those who blame the Duke of Buckingham for killing Edward’s two sons, the famous Princes in the Tower.  She believes that Richard was slandered by history as the Tudors worked to strengthen their somewhat tenuous hold on the English crown, a belief shared by the Richard III Society.

Perhaps the biggest irony is that, with the fall of Richard, the House of Plantagenet was gone forever, with both red and white roses wilting on the vine.  It was the Tudors who would move into the limelight, and with such stars as Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, they easily became the more well known family.

But what has me musing are the middle ages themselves: these deeply religious people who were willing to do anything to gain power as that meant wealth and security in a time when most people lived in abject poverty.  Even when gaining power meant the sure death of  your rivals either on the battlefield or later on the execution ground or perhaps in a prison cell. Deeply religious people who had no problem with recognizing children born out of wedlock  but when even a “plight troth”–a pledge of eventual marriage–could make a future marriage illegal, as was thought to be the case with Edward IV.  Yet, getting dispensation to annul a marriage or marry a cousin was often quite easy and, if you couldn’t, you could just start a new church that did allow it ala Henry VIII. In fact, almost anything could be justified based on religious belief since the King was still seen as divinely endowed.  Sanctuaries are violated with swords, whole towns are pillaged after battles, and women and children are often not spared.

And then I started musing about what has changed: at least in Western style democracies, you generally don’t die when you lose an election. (Of course, the very fact of elections means we’ve moved pretty far along here.) In fact, in the United States, you benefit handsomely by going on book and lecture tours and making lots of money along with your cronies who, in the past, would have died with you or had a last minute change of heart when they saw how the battle was going, like the Duke of Northumberland and the Stanleys at the Battle of Bosworth. But killing your rivals certainly goes on in other parts of the world with alarming frequency.  And, if anything, we are more prudish about children born without benefit of marriage, at least if the covers of the grocery store tabloids are to be believed. Rulers of earlier times often recognized these children and brought them to court or at least provided good lives for them although they, of course, weren’t good enough to be considered heirs to the throne.

And, even as Penman makes the point that the winners write history, access to a world wide audience on the Internet means that the losers can at least have a voice, even it is a ghostly one echoing from the past.  My last musing is about Shakespeare, for whom we have much to thank for our modern perceptions of Richard: what was his motivation in portraying such an evil man?  Was he something of mouthpiece for the Tudors, writing under their tutelage?  Or was it simply stagecraft, combining history and tragedy to tell a compelling story that would not have been as entertaining without the evil Richard?

Celebrating Solstice At the Farm

It is just me and Tina hanging out on the porch watching the sky slowly darken on the longest day of the year.  It got hazy and humid about an hour ago, harbingers of the hot weather that is on its way.  Just in time for our first official houseguest who are venturing out of the cool environs of the Pacific Northwest for a visit back east.  We’re buying a new air conditioner and putting them upstairs in the back room with its outside porch and lovely views.

My biggest issue right now is furniture, specifically sofas and chairs.  We have kitchen chairs and one sad futon sofa that I ordered from LL Bean many many years ago.  I know of at least two more chairs still to come but that’s about it.  We only really had the one sitting room.  Now, I have three or four rooms that could use at least one comfortable chair and two rooms that could use a sofa.  I really want a chaise lounge for the library along with a couple chairs for the first place.  I need to run out tomorrow so may stop by the local antique store to see if there are any treasures around with small price tags on them.  I’m not a great decorator but I know what I like and was practicing shabby chic before they even coined the term.

The rest of the crew-husband, nephew and friend-are staying in Williamsburg where they are very close to finishing up the house improvements as we prepare for our first tenants.  We discovered nice hard wood floors under some of the “tired” grey carpeting and the renters are bringing their own carpet for the newest sections of the house that are just plywood.  It’s sort of hard to believe we lived in that little house for all those years.

The friend who came with my nephew to help us out with all the work commented about my cute teapots and other trinkets that are all around the house and showed me an adorable box she had.  I found myself telling her that it has been so many years since many of the items have seen the light of day.  I had forgotten a few things and was delighted to see them.  I also found that there were some things I really had learned to live without and so they are on their way to new owners by way of the local thrift shop.  And then there are things that have never been out of the boxes, like my great grandmother’s Johnson Brothers china. It is the Wild Rose pattern in green and I have a fairly complete set considering how old it is.  My mother had it and passed it along to me some time ago.  I’ll eventually get the china closet, too, but for now the china is enjoying new life in the built in cupboard in the paneled room.  I can’t wait to have a dinner party and use it!

The weather has been so nice that I put the hammock on the front porch on Sunday and read and relaxed.  It takes up a bit too much room so I’m going to set up the gazebo we bought and put the hammock inside.  It will help with the bugs in the evening.

It is now full on dark and my battery is complaining so I think it’s time to head inside. I was tempted to stay with the crew in the burg but wanted to wake up at the farm.  Latte on the porch, quiet morning of reading email and doing chores, some antique shopping…sounds like a perfect day lays ahead.  A train calls at the crossing, my candle burns low, and I feel content.

NB: I have talked to a couple people lately who really need a break from either work or personal problems.  While I have no interest in running a bed and breakfast, I would love to create a retreat of some sort, maybe using the cottage.  Instead of doing long term renters, rent it by the week or weekend as an efficiency since it has a kitchen and laundry.  You can work on the farm if you like, sit on the front porch and watch the garden grow or sprawl on the chaise lounge in the library and read.  I like the idea more and more…

NB: Like all those ppsss you put on letters as a kid: there’s an old church building for sale in Waverly.  I haven’t been able to find the listing online but it would be a great art/music center for the town.  Hmmm…maybe it’s the Solstice talking and I should just go to bed.

Really Going Mobile

Another week of feeling disjointed. I left my laptop power supply in the burg so had to use husband’s windows 7 machine all week. I found it easy to use and I mostly work in the cloud anyway but it wasn’t my air.  Plus I found myself missing the comfort of my desk and office.

Being without my air did have one interesting effect: I found myself relying more on my phone. I finally figured out how to both retrieve my bluehost mail and send using the built in email client. I discovered the librarything scanner and started entering books. And the mobile learning event on Saturday gave me some great tips for reading blogs and being more productive. This afternoon, as we cleaned up walls in preparation for painting, I kept up with the VCU game.

Now, I am reluctant to turn on the laptop so am experimenting with the WordPress plugin on the Droid. I have gotten pretty good with the virtual keyboard. I also installed swype but I wasn’t completely in love with it. I may try it again but for now auto complete has been doing a great job.

I have been reading nonstop despite traveling. I did take advantage of cable in the hotel room to watch Who Do You Think You Are? Steve Buscemi was looking into his past and went first to Pennsylvania and then ended up in Fredericksburg just a few miles away from my Hampton Inn.  I have been to those battlefields and stood at the base of Marye’s Heights wondering at the courage of those farm boys and office clerks. I was also in the middle of a Civil War anthology that I finished today. Blood: Stories of Life and Death From the Civil War was a wonderful if sometimes horrifying collection of both primary documents and classic nonfiction that brought a living, breathing perspective to history and made me wonder why we used textbooks at all to teach history? I was able to quickly and easily download Sam Watkins’ memoir Co. Aytch from Project Gutenberg. There are plenty of timelines and historical websites to provide dates and names. Watkins gives us a reason to care, to want to learn more, to understand that war in a way that no history standard can dictate.

Preserving the Past While Working in the Present

Back at the farm…took the ferry yesterday afternoon and stayed the night.  It is still cold, but the air mattress made a real difference!  I am just too old to sleep on the floor.  I spent yesterday working in the library, looking through cupboards and making piles of left behind books that I really don’t want.  The previous owner and I shared some interests–nature and history–but he was much more conservative than I am, and I don’t want to have to explain the Ann Coulter books to anyone.

Today was cleaning day.  With hot, running water available in the main house, I could finally tackle the kitchen floor and walls of the cottage where we will be camping out.  I’ve gotten at least the top coat of dirt off the floor and made real progress on the white paneled walls.  We’ll paint them eventually and replace the kitchen tile but for now, I’m just trying to make them passable for us to live.   I took a few before pictures but I’m actually a little concerned about showing people as I don’t want them to think Bob and I are completely crazy!

We had a visit from our Williamsburg neighbors who were over working with a friend who lives on this side of the river.  He owns an old farm himself and was full of great information about the farm and some of the things we’ve been wondering about, including the smokehouse.  And, he made me feel good about what we doing because he could see past all the work to the beautiful homestead we are imagining.  Despite all the dirt that needs cleaned and work that needs done, it is a special place that deserves to be preserved.  He commented, as I have, on the solid roof and foundation.  The rest is just time and elbow grease.  And he noticed my rocking chair on the porch of the cottage. The perfect place to rest at the end of the day, looking out over the barns and fields.

And, I really have been able to do my regular work from here.  The tethered phone allows me to send and receive email and in about three minutes, I’m doing a test webinar connect as well.  I’m pretty confident it will work since it was the same setup I’ve used before.  It is amazing to be able to combine work and play (if you can consider scrubbing a kitchen floor play) in this kind of way.  Being able to be connected means that work becomes more humane, something done as part of your regular life, rather than being disconnected.  And then I start thinking about school and what it could mean for how we teach our kids.  But the latter is much more complex so I’m going to leave that for another day…

Happy People…

John Trindle at The Fogbound Continuum has a great piece on the difference between making people happy and making happy people. It is the latter that is indeed the challenge as it flies in the face of the mantra of materialism: things, events, even other people, can and should MAKE us happy. Perhaps they bring on a temporary state of pleasure, but long-term happiness is a personal responsibility that, as John suggests, can be encouraged through trusting, respectful relationships.

John wrote, “A happy household relies on trust and respect, not trips to Disney or the latest toy,” which reminded me of two car commercials that played throughout the holiday season this year; I winced every time I saw them. The first one included the tag line: “Let’s face it: no one ever asked for a smaller Christmas present.” The second showed a couple admiring their new car, complete with big red bow, but their happy smiles turned to envious scowls when their neighbors drove past in their own, much more desirable new car. Now, I’ll admit to not knowing much about cars but both vehicles looked very similar to me.

Those scowling people in the commercial represent the very real challenge we face in trying to raise kids who don’t equate happiness with stuff even as we sometimes have to remind ourselves of that as well. I’m no humbug: I like giving gifts as much as the next person but when giving and getting become a competitive sport, something has gone very wrong.

I’ll end with Wordsworth whose lines about “getting and spending” seem to resonate here:

The world is too much with us; late and soon

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God!I’d rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Thanks, John, for the inspiration!

Support Your Public Library

I am reading a library book! That’s right…a public library book that I will have to return in two weeks. Of course, I’ve already had to renew it once but I’m confident in my ability to finish it this time. I checked it out along with another book and a music CD when I attended a Civil War presentation held at the library. It had been so long since I had been there that I had to update my card information!

I have nothing against public libraries and, in fact, think they are one of the best institutions. During our travels in early Internet days, we often found access at libraries. I volunteered in the public library in my home town when I was a teenager, shelving books and cutting out name tags for the pre-school reading circles. Actually, I even volunteered at THIS public library during their summer reading program. And, in the days before I controlled my own money, I was a public library user.

But I’m not any more. I like owning books and being able to come to them in my own good time. I may think I want to read a book right away when I’m holding it in my hands at the library, but who knows what might happen by the time I get home. That book may have reminded me of another one that needs to be read first. And, if I really want to read a book immediately, I won’t wait to go to the library to check it out: I’ll just buy it on one of the two ereaders I now own. If it’s not available digitally, I would just as soon buy it from Amazon than drive to the library. Sad, but true. I have joined the “buy it now” generation, unable to postpone pleasure. And, even sadder? When I do buy a book, I almost never read it right away. It goes on the shelf and waits its turn, which may come sooner or later. So, I could certainly allow the library to store it for me and then go get it when it gets to the top of the list.

This year, I am going to try to become a public library user. As I clean out my books for the move to the farm, I’ll donate some to the library for their book sale. And, I certainly don’t want to buy any more analog books since I will just have to move them, so I’ll look to the library. Of course, there are plenty of unread books on my shelves but there’s something about knowing I have wider access that comforts me. I just like having books around me, endless possibilities for learning and laughing, musing and marveling.

The Science of Not Knowing

There are moments when reading and real life come together. Not to be too dramatic: but now is one of those times. As oil spews into the Gulf of Mexico, my companions for the journey are Annie Dillard and Wendell Berry. And, both of them make the same essential point about science: the real power and terror of science is that neither doesn’t nor can know everything.

For Dillard, the not-knowing can be seen in the natural world, in something as seemingly simple as an elm leaf:

Or again, there are, as I have said, six million leaves on a big elm. All right…but they are toothed, and the teeth themselves are toothed. How many notches and barbs is that to the world. In and out go the intricate leaf edges, and “don’t nobody know why.” All the theories botanists have devised to explain the functions of various leaf shapes tumble under an avalanche of inconsistencies. They simply don’t know, can’t imagine.

Berry’s comments are in response to Edward O. Wilson, who in his book Consilience, celebrates science and discounts the possibilities of learning in and from mystery:

He understands mystery as attributable entirely to human ignorance, and thereby appropriates it for the future of human science; in his formula, the unknown = the-to-be-known…If modern science is a religion, then one of its presiding deities must be Sherlock Holmes. To the modern scientist as to the great detective, every mystery is a problem, and every problem can be solved. A mystery can exist only because of human ignorance, and human ignorance is always redeemable. the appropriate response is not deference or respect, let alone reverence, but pursuit of “the answer”.

Don’t nobody know why…and yet we teach students that there are answers. I am outraged that BP was not required to have a solution to what was clearly a potential problem. I suppose we can blame it on a failure of the imagination but the cynic in me can’t help but blame it on a desire for profit. And an unwavering belief in science to solve any problem. I, of course, am hoping along with everyone else that this IS a problem science can solve, and quickly, but at what cost?

BP, with its string of abuses, clearly has not real concern for the world community other than as a market for its oil. Berry points out that science is often conducted with economics rather than community in mind and quotes Wilson’s description of the “cardinal principle in the conduct of scientific research: Find a paradigm for which you can raise money and attack with every method of anaylsis at your disposal.” Berry goes on:

This principle, in effect, makes the patron the prescriber of the work to be done. It would seem to eliminate the scientist as a person or community member who would judge whether or not the work ought to be done. It removes the scientist from the human and ecological circumstances in which the work will have its effect and which should provide one of the standards by which the work is to be judged; the scientist is thus isolated, by this principle of following patronage, in a career with a budget.

Hmmm…as I typed those last words, I realized how hard I was being on scientists, even if I was only channeling Berry. I’m blaming scientists for the flaws in a system that is much larger than them just as teachers often get blamed for failed reforms for which they had no responsibility. I imagine some scientist, in a planning meeting for the platform, quietly suggesting that this could be a problem. His solution, however, did not meet the cost analysis: what was the chance of this happening and how much would it cost? What the number crunchers failed to consider, however, was the cost if it DID happen! This could ruin BP. I don’t think anyone has the heart to bail them out.

Pulling My Head Out of the Sand

Like all Unitarian Universalists, my week has been overshadowed by the horrible shootings in Tennessee last Sunday. I think the shock was intensified for me as the week played out because of  the sudden awareness that my liberal beliefs pose such a threat to others.  Oh, I knew Ann Coulter and her tribe made fun of me, but I figured much of it was just political theater.  So, it was a real eye opener when I heard about the “liberal hunting license” that is available on the web.  (Sorry, unlike some of my liberal brethren, I refuse to link to these kinds of hateful things.  You’ll just have to google it yourself.)  And, then I discovered that killing liberals has been a pretty standard joke on Fox News.  Really?  Someone, anyone, finds it funny to talk about killing people like me because of my political views.  I might find Russ Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly offensive but I would never wish their death.

And I found myself wondering how we got here…where hateful rhetoric like this is not only accepted but seemingly encouraged.  While I wouldn’t want to blame people like Sean Hannity for what happened last Sunday, his ongoing war against liberals certainly didn’t help.  For someone who is mentally unbalanced, these relenting attacks become an underlying soundtrack to a tragic life and offer up an easy target.  Tom Friedman says that while he was sleeping, the world got flat.  While I was sleeping, the world got ugly.

There has been a positive side for me, and I suspect for others.  I very much took my religious faith for granted, that I had a place where I could worship freely, no matter my beliefs.  I knew that there were martyrs like Michael Servetus, burned at the stake for his beliefs.  But that was ancient history.  We live in an enlightened era, in a country that espouses freedom of religion, right?  The shootings in Tennessee shook my trust in that freedom and made me think hard about my own faith.  When I walk into the sanctuary on Sunday morning, it will be with a new-found gratitude and a prayer for those who are now suffering for their beliefs.