Saturday, April 21, 2018

You don't have to live like they tell you: dare to be "poor" on purpose

I'm thinking of building something like this out of scrap lumber and string. The garden doesn't have a lot of shade, and I can't afford a commercial pergola (though I did see a pretty nice one in Ikea last time we were there.)

Annamaria's been bugging me to buy the place. I always say the same thing, "Non c'e soldi." She always says, "Ma puoi ottenere finanziamenti." Then I say something lame like, "Non sono pronto per comprare una casa." And "Ho bisogno di un'altra stanza per gli ospiti." Then we start talking about the garden. I think she's trying to wear me down.

I moved in here a year and three days ago. The garden has grown into a huge deal. The more I do, the more raised beds, trellises, Hugelkultur berms and paths I build, the more ideas grow. And of course, I've known from the start that this is not something one can pack up and move. Last September when Anna rototilled the Big Dry Patch, I knew immediately that to really bring it back to life would be the project of at least a few years. It's progressed faster than I expected, but so have my plans and hopes for it. Ultimately, it's become a work of art, like a very, very slow painting, as well as an opportunity to learn more than I ever have before about gardening: the needs of various species of plants and soil management, and especially about my own abilities and limitations. The garden is a kind of living laboratory for me, and many of the experiments I've started there won't produce verifiable results for at least a few years.

I know the world tells you to live in a particular way, especially the world I left behind - that urban, car-oriented, stuff-oriented scrabble we have started thinking of as "normal life". A life in which the goal is all, and the process is to be shortened as much as possible. And the goal is just a thing. And then the next thing. And the thing after that, with no end in sight of the things we get because someone has told us we're supposed to have them. And the only way to live in that world is to shut your mind off, to build a huge interior wall between yourself and your awful surroundings. I lived in cities for 40 of my 52 years. It's going to be a while before I get that wall dismantled. (But the bricks are going to make great garden beds.)

For me, I think the garden is like a metaphor for an entirely different way of looking at life. It's not goal oriented. There's never going to be a day when I say, "Well, that's that done. Now I can go do something else." Anna's family has lived in this bit of Umbria for more than a century. On All Souls last year I went to the San Martino cemetery to pray for the dead, and I found her family's site. The dates and names went back to the 1860s. On my walks around the area I've run into her cousins who always stop and say hello. The property includes a bunch of farm land, and it's all worked by members of her family, various cousins. Her daughter is leasing a chunk of it for an orto. So I really do feel very much included by her generosity. None of her grown-up kids want to have it and they all seem happy enough for me to stay. I've never detected any of that kind of family jealousy.

Whether I would be able to manage the money to buy it, and whether it is the thing for the long term is another question. I've got a three-year lease, so we'll probably be thinking and talking about it until then at least. But for the moment, I'm getting it into my head that there is another way of thinking about life.

Anna and her family work the land here. Most of them also have day jobs elsewhere, but the land is the base, the foundation. She comes every day, winter and summer, to look after things. Nothing she does is hurried, everything is in its proper time in the annual cycle. She never worries when something happens. Last year I was disappointed when the little cherry tree on my patch died of black fly infestation. Her bigger tree got it too, but she just calmly cut the dead bits off, and now she's bought another tree and planted it. For the little one I sawed off the dead branches and kept the trunk as a trellis for sweet peas. That's how it goes. Life isn't goal-oriented, but process oriented. It's not aimed at a particular material outcome. You don't try to get some particular thing out of it, you just live it.

In fact, it's the whole rhythm of life in Italy that you see in the food. You can't buy broccoli in the summer or strawberries in January. Those things don't grow at those times, and if they were in the shops no one would buy them. Why would you want to eat broccoli in July anyway?

This way of living is one that humans have done for 10,000 years or so. And before that we had a vastly deeper well of time in which we simply took what came around. Who knows how long. Maybe 100,000 years. Compared to all that, the "normal" life of urban Vancouver or Toronto or London is something we've been doing for an eye-blink, and we're rapidly learning that it's horrible. It's destructive beyond description. The diseases of Modernia - our stress and obesity related illnesses, our depression and anxiety, our sitting-down malaise - are absolutely new. Our bodies can't adapt to this, which is saying something considering we are the world's champion adapters.

I suppose if I'd wanted to have a lot of money, I probably could have figured it out. A lot of the things I've wanted to know how to do I've figured out from book in the library. But what I saw was that you had to pay for your money and house and car with everything that was worth having in life. To pursue those things you had to say goodbye forever to all the things I already loved.

I think I was 22 when I figured out that the modern world didn't have anything I wanted. I spent a long time being very confused about life. And for a long time, seeing only this narrow range of possibilities, I felt trapped by it, as though I were already living in one of those dark dystopian sci fi worlds. But in the midst of that misery one thing I was completely sure about was that I didn't want that. The only thing I wanted then was to escape that.

I felt like the guy in 1984 or Brazil. Every one of those dystopian movies is about our own civilisation, and how it feels to live in it.

Every one of them is about some individual realising it's a horror and trying to figure a way out of it.

Office Space is about a guy who escapes his dystopia by learning not to want what it offers.

American Psycho is about what happens to a human being when it accomplishes the work of interiorising the modern urban dystopia. Don't be Christian Slater.

It is the unconscious assumption that we have to want what they tell us to want that keeps us trapped. Break out of that assumption, learn to want something else, something obtainable and inherently good, and you're free. When I hear about Japanese high school students jumping off buildings because they fail the university entrance exams, I always think, "Why not just want something else?"

I still struggle very much with my own brain. A lifetime of assumptions that life is awful and good things don't happen don't get broken over night, or even in a whole decade. I'm coming up on ten years in Italy. There's still a ton of things I haven't done (improved my Italian from "barely functional" to "conversational" high on that list). And with every item on my list of "Gee, I ought to do that" or "I'd really like to try that..." I still hear the chorus in my brain starting up, "Oh, you can't do that. You don't know how to do that sort of thing. You wouldn't be any good at that. You don't have any money. That wouldn't work. You've never done anything like that before... And anyway, people don't do that..." All followed with the worst of all, the sign nailed above the entrance to the nihilistic despair rabbit hole: "What's the point anyway?"

But with every new thing I do - starting, I suppose, with moving to and living in a weird foreign country that until I got here I strongly suspected was mythical - I chip away at the mental edifice of "You can't do that." I can now confidently say, "Well, I did all this other stuff, and that worked out pretty good."

I was raised in a kind of mental dystopia. The post-Christian culture - the post-traditional culture - is one of despair and hopelessness. I suspect that a lot of people live in it. I think that's why so many people can't accept Christ. The Good News is too good to be true. Good things don't happen, and things that good are just literally unimaginable.

Our mental maps for life start in Brazil's dystopia and move on to the post-apocalyptic wasteland of The Road. If you were raised in this, it's going to be the work of a lifetime to pull your mind out of it. I'd just like to let everyone know that it is actually possible to completely change your inner world.



Anonymous said...

"Life isn't goal-oriented, but process oriented."
What a perfect definition of life lived instead of endured. Thank you for insight well said.


Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

I figured it out about 20 years ago, while I was in the shower. I hate showers. Hate em. I hate all that stuff flying towards your face, like the volleyball in gym class. I hate the fact that you're cold everywhere except the parts the water isn't actually touching, so you have to keep turning around just to keep from getting cold all over. And you can fall over in the shower really easy. It's dangerous.

But mostly I figured out that they're goal oriented. The purpose of a shower is to get out again as quickly as possible, basically to stop showering. They're designed to make you want to stop.

A bath is process oriented. The whole thing is a ritual. Warming the room. Filling the tub. Getting the right essential oils. Giving yourself a good scrub, maybe with some sea salt and honey scrub you made for yourself, and a rinse before you get in. Every step is about that step. You're doing a thing for the sake of doing it, not so you can get out again as quickly as possible.

Showers were made by the industrial revolution to keep people barely clean enough to not be socially unbearable, and to make sure they didn't enjoy the process at all. They are designed to alter our entire mindset about how to live our lives: do every personal thing as quickly as you can to maximise the time you can spend in the factory; serving the machine is your main purpose.

Anonymous said...

Well, thanks to you, I have the beginnings of my hugelkultur in my doormat sized garden. I'm expecting a delivery of turf which the man promised me for free when I told him I was going to lay it face down, because I don't need lawn stripes. I wish I could build my dream cob house, but to get any land to build it on in the UK would probably cost me more than I would get selling my present place. Even if I could find any where I want to live. Plus the fact that I'm not the only person involved

Potatoes next. Let's hope I don't kill everything like I normally do. So here I am, faint but pursuing...


Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

This is great Chloe. Let me know how it goes.

thetimman said...

A beautiful piece. One reason to revisit subject matter on your blog from time to time. It can strike one differently at different times. As a 50-year-old also, I have been turning over my own dissatisfaction with modernity; for me, this came to a head through the lens of pilgrimage. My wife and I walked the Camino de Santiago all too briefly this March, but in that brief time the whole concept of time changed for me—the process became all. What do I do? I walk. I pack light, freeing myself of burdens I don’t really need and tha5 would get in the way. I eat. I pray. Everything slow, everything real. Quite refreshing. After all, only one day did I reach my goal— just as in life. And even after that, I still picture myself out there, still yearn to be out there. Not having much of a veil between God and me. I don’t know. I’m rambling. But I read your post and just loved it. Thanks.


Anonymous said...

Will do Hilary. Thank you.