December 16, 2017

Enjoying an Abnormal Normal

neighbors-over-the-fence

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, “What is it?”
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod; I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.

– Robert Frost, “A Time to Talk”

Last week I enjoyed what I consider to be a “normal” week (ideally). In terms of my life, it was abnormal. In terms of what I think life should involve, it struck me as delightfully (though abnormally) normal.

I spent time every day with members of my family.

We ate supper every evening together at the table.

I had time to visit with neighbors as we puttered around our houses and yards.

I was able to run errands and go to the store on occasion and talk with people from town while getting things I needed.

We had meaningful work and projects that we participated in together around our house.

I had a decent night’s sleep every night.

I felt no pressure to constantly check the web, my phone, and my email.

I read for enjoyment alone.

I sat on my front porch.

This is the life from which we used to take vacations. Now it requires taking a vacation to enjoy anything resembling this kind of daily experience.

It is criminal, what we have done with the rhythms of life.

Too soon will come the final rest, when conversation ceases.
And will I be carried to that place whole? Or in pieces?

Comments

  1. JoanieD says:

    Thanks for that poem, Chaplain Mike. I am going to share it with my friends and family. And I am glad you are having this time to relax with your friends and family.

  2. Robert F says:

    I agree with what you’re saying, CM; but, although he was a great poet, Robert Frost was an abject failure as a farmer. Maybe the above poem illustrates why.

    • I have an idea that most poets make bad farmers, but I could be wrong.

      • Robert F says:

        Probably because they’re in it for the poetry, not because their lives, and the lives of their families, depend on it.

        I live in Lancaster County, PA. The county is filled with small family farms, partly made sustainable by the Farm Preservation Act, which regulates the sale of farmlands to protect the rural, Mennonite lifestyle of a small family farm culture (thus sustaining the county as a place of interest for tourists who bring in a whole lot of money). I can tell you that during most of the year the family farmers, and their families, including children (child labor laws do not apply to them), work harder than I think I could endure even when I was a young man; sometimes we hear their machines (yes, many Mennonites use farm machines) working until midnight, and they work six days a week.

        During the winter there is a lot of down time for them. They have it all down to a science, and they profit from the customers that the technological, consumer culture surrounding them offers; for these reasons, their lives are stable and affluent. But in the old days, family farmers were at the mercy of the elements and God’s grace in a way that no farmer, Mennonite or not, is today. The off season was as much an enforced time of helplessness and waiting as it was a natural period of rest; if they had been able to continue farming throughout the year, they would have, to provide more security for their families and communities.

        I guess I’m saying that life was never as leisurely for most people as your post suggests; often, the periodic lulls that occurred in previous eras were not the result of choice and preference, but necessity. The positive aspect of such lulls in activity was the space if afforded for community cohesiveness, for play together (instead of solitary play on tablets and iphones) and just plain time to think and reflect; the negative aspect was the threat to survival. Through most of human history, until very recently, the vast majority of human beings were directly involved in agriculture, farming; it was a hard life, and a life contingent on nature’s whims for mere survival.

        The Faustian bargain that humanity made for more structural security and less dependence on the cycles of nature and their whims was to give up those natural rhythms and lulls for a hyper-active technological culture and lifestyle; there is an argument to be made for the idea that the trade-off was too much, and the security not enduring and sustainable (witness our current global economic insecurity and our growing environmental crisis).

        But I think we tend to idealize life in former times in an unrealistic way; everything wasn’t “Mayberry R.F.D.” Racism, sexism, homophobia went unquestioned; people routinely worked six days a week, there were no child labor laws. And the regular rhythms of nature held human societies in their often less than gentle hands.

        Just sayin’.

        • Robert F says:

          CM,
          As an aside: Mennonite and Amish love baseball. Busloads of them routinely travel down to Spring training in Florida just like any other rabid baseball fan who can manage it. And they play a mean game of baseball, and I do mean mean; you wouldn’t know they were pacifists if all you ever experienced of them was one of their baseball games.

        • I hear you, but one thing you didn’t read in my post is that we worked our tails off last week. We embarked on a house painting project that involved some of the hardest, longest days of labor I have participated in in a long time. It wasn’t a “leisurely” week in that sense. It was leisurely in that we removed ourselves from that “hyper-active technological culture and lifestyle” that you mentioned.

          I am old enough to remember, even in such a culture, when my family ate dinner at the table together every evening and we weren’t running around chasing activities every spare moment. I recall a childhood of unsupervised play and more sane rhythms. My children knew less of that. My grandson knows almost nothing of that.

          When we visit my wife’s extended family (background: Mennonite farmers and hard workers), I can see the same changes in just a couple of generations. It was nothing a few decades ago when we visited to have most of the family together for a noon meal on a weekday and long evenings and weekends of conversation, even in the midst of work’s demands. Our generation can hardly find time to even go there for a visit these days, and if we went, it is unlikely we could get the family together as we used to.

          • Robert F says:

            I did hear you about your exertions last week, but I tend to think of those labors as different from the exigencies on people whose lives depend on it.

            Also, I think that it would be inaccurate to believe that the experience you had in your childhood with regard to your family’s lifestyle was the lifestyle that most people experienced prior to that time; instead, I think it’s more accurate to understand it as a very culturally and time specific snapshot of a period of transition from the earlier picture I painted in my comments above to the place where we are now, with considerable overlap.

            I do agree with you in questioning the wisdom of the Faustian bargain that humanity has struck; I don’t think, however, that it’s possible to put the genie back in the bottle.

            • Good thoughts, Robert. I guess one can hope that, as life cycles and moves on, we can learn to value some saner sense of rhythm and community along with our “progress.” I do hear some voices out there advocating that, which gives me hope.

          • Robert F says:

            Although as a Christian I shouldn’t be, I’m a pessimist; I’m expecting the kind of dystopia we’ve seen in science-fiction films like “Blade Runner” and “Escape from New York” (I know they’re old films, but I’m not very well informed about the newer sci-fi films).

          • David Cornwell says:

            My memories, and also those of Marge are very similar to yours, Chaplain Mike. My dad was one of the hardest workers I’ve ever known, yet on Sunday the pace totally changed and the activities were different. Even during the week, however, we were mostly together a one or two meals a day as a family.We found time to visit with neighbors, relatives, and friends, especially those from church.

            Some other memories:
            Playing outdoors for hours, even into the summer darkness.
            The ice cream shop where we would go on weekends for big cones of real ice cream.
            My brothers and I would walk miles to go somewhere if a car wasn’t available. Sometmes we would do this even though there was bus service.
            On rainy Saturdays playing board games with my brothers for hours. Monopoly for example. Also dominoes, checkers, and others.
            The lawn set up for croquet, a favorite family game.
            Swinging high on a homemade swing next to the house, to see who could hit the house halfway up.
            Flying kites so high that the neighbor kids would join us, bringing more and more string. Once we made a pully with a motor to pull back in.

            Wow, it just keeps coming. Life has changed. Time goes so quickly. An illustration: The nation is remembering the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg. I very clearly remember the 100th anniversary. I was 25.

            However I really do not want to live in the past.

        • Hey Robert,

          If the F in your name stands for Frey, and you are from Lancaster, then we are related!

          • Robert F says:

            Michael,

            No, my F doesn’t stand for Frey; I’m an ethnically Italian transplant to Lancaster County from Northern New Jersey, only been here about 6 years.

        • +1 Absolutely true of the Amish and Mennonite farms/farmers up my way, too… agricultural labor is HARD work, and has to be done in all weathers and seasons.

          Most farmers up here – Amish and “English” – concentrate on dairy farming, and that is a lot of work year-’round. The cows have to be milked and cared for regardless of weather and days still begin (for adults and kids who help) around 3-4:00 a.m. regardless. (Obviously, the more animals you’ve got, the more work there is.)

          I fall into the trap of idealizing farms and farm work, too – it’s part of our culture – but I doubt I would last through a single day of normal dairy farm work!

          • Believe me, I don’t idealize farm work in the least. If I idealize anything it is small town life in the Midwest. Not that it was perfect, but that its rhythms suited me better.

          • Mike, I hear you – again, I think that’s very common, and yet, the halcyon days of that idea seem to be set during the Depression (think Norman Rockwell’s Sat. Evening Post covers, for example).

            Which is extremely ironic, to say the least!

            per idealizing rural life and farming, I think the English are *very* much to blame there – it permeates a lot of English art and lit., going back several centuries. No doubt most of the people who contributed to that were from cites – or at very least, large market towns and manufacturing cities – as is often the case over her as well.

          • There is a VERY weird sub-genre of “xtian fiction” these days – the Amish romance.

            People seem to gobble them up, and even though the details might be accurate re. Amish life, these books paint Amish/rural farm life as some kind of idyll.

            If you don’t believe me, Google it – there are people getting rich from this trend!

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            There is a VERY weird sub-genre of “xtian fiction” these days – the Amish romance.

            They’re called “Bonnet Books” and are a staple of Jesus Junk store bookshelves. Internet Monk has done essay postings about them in the past.

            Best description of them is “When I read a book about Amish, I want to read about the Amish — not what some Evangelical thinks Amish are like.”

            P.S. Two days ago, I narrowly escaped being stuck behind an Amish buggy while coming back from the Pennsylvania State Railroad Museum in Strassburg.

      • Not sure how profitable his farming operation in rural North Dakota is, but Larry Woiwode is a favorite writer and poet.

        • Robert F says:

          He’s a world class literary artist and also unashamedly Christian, which is not a very common combination these days.

  3. The experience you described is what many people wish to retire to, I think.

    What about Wendell Berry? Still farming, and he’s a wonderful poet. He’s an exception, I guess.

    • I thought of him. There’s a difference, I think, between a farmer who writes poetry and a poet who tries to take up farming.

      • I hear you – again, I think that’s very common, and yet, the halcyon days of that idea seem to be set during the Depression (think Norman Rockwell’s Sat. Evening Post covers, for example).

        Which is extremely ironic, to say the least!

        per idealizing rural life and farming, I think the English are *very* much to blame there – it permeates a lot of English art and lit., going back several centuries. No doubt most of the people who contributed to that were from cites – or at very least, large market towns and manufacturing cities – as is often the case over her as well.

  4. I guess our normal ‘normal’ is another word for ‘progress’, though I’m not convinced it’s all it’s cracked up to be. Too bad we can’t strike some balance that lets us enjoy some of the ‘progress’ without losing ‘normal’. I’m hoping that’s what retirement is about (though it’s coming at me a lot sooner than I prepared for!). I for one look forward to sitting on my front porch in one of those old steel lawn chairs with the big curvy arms, drinking a glass of iced tea, and having nowhere to go or be. But I’ll probably be that old geezer who yells at the kids on skateboards who ride past his house.

  5. Just dropping in to say, good one, Mike.

    “It is criminal, what we have done with the rhythms of life.”

    Indeed. Peace to you.

  6. Rick Ro. says:

    “It is criminal, what we have done with the rhythms of life.”

    Yes. And perhaps related, just a couple of weeks ago I read this scripture out of Matthew, as paraphrased in The Message:

    “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message)

    Seems to me if we can just “learn the unforced rhythms of grace,” the rhythms of life might become lighter and easier.

  7. Also… for women, housekeeping (in my childhood and now) is a VERY demanding thing, in terms of time and stress.

    This was true before we started ferrying kids all over the place for activities.

    While I completely agree that our society as a whole has become too frenetic and fragmented as a result, I also think it’s important to keep in mind that the demands of work are a constant. And that the idealized slower pace of life we often think about dates back to – when? The Depression, most likely.

    There’s a *big* problem with that kind of sunny view of the past, I think. (Including memories of how great everything was when we were kids – after all, part of the reason for that is simply that we were *kids,* with far less demands on us than were a daily reality for adults.)

    • Robert F says:

      Even the fact that we might have “memories of how great everything was when we were kids” simply due to the fact that “we were kids, with far less demands on us than were a daily reality for adults” is due to the very recent development in human culture involving newly developed laws and customs designed to protect children from the harsh realities of life and to prevent their exploitation. Through all history before these developments, it was not expected that children would be treated in this way; they worked and bore adult responsibilities at an early age, and often were badly mistreated without any recourse available by way of protective laws and customs.

      It’s technology that in large part has made what we now consider a normal and healthy childhood possible, even if still unlikely in many places, by providing affluence and leisure, by providing space within the newly formed middle-class for it to exist. At this point, neither that space for childhood nor the continued existence of a thriving middle-class are certain to continue; the technology, however, almost certainly will.

      • Even then, it’s only in prosperous countries that kids can be kids, as they are now.

        Most people int eh world don’t have that luxury.

  8. Oops – please ignore “as a result” above. (Sentence fragments – gah!)

  9. Another thought – about the fine art of porch-sitting, which is largely gone.

    I think that’s partly because

    – most houses these days are built with decks in the back, not porches in the front

    – a/c is pervasive (Don’t get me wrong; I am incredibly grateful for central a/c and am dependent on it due to some medical issues)

    I realize that one reason for houses not having front or side porches these days has to do with there being less need for covered porches (as cooling mechanisms), but I think what’s happened as a result of the switch to back decks only is very sad.

    • > – most houses these days are built with decks in the back, not porches in the front

      My house was built by my great grandfather. Porch on the front.

      … and I had a deck built on the back. The reason is simple and pragmatic – the automobile. Who wants to watch, hear, and *smell* the automobiles go roaring by at 30+ MP/h [on a street that is a only two blocks long!]. It is not relaxing or pleasant.

      These days at least society seems in a healthy move away from hurting blocks of steel powered by the noisy and filthy infernal powered engine. Stats show younger people driving a lot less, and aging baby boomers driving less, and use of public-transit is soaring. Thank goodness. Perhaps someday we will return to the front-porch.

  10. Radagast says:

    I get you CM. I finally took Friday and Monday off, shut off my work computer Wednesday night, and from that time till 6:00 AM this morning did not let work get in my way (yes, I still read IMonk thru the weekend). And what did that do for me? Helped me to keep from being distracted, to detox enough so that I could reconnect a bit deeper with those around me, to just sit and enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of summer. I am in the technology industry, yet I hate what it has done in isolating us from others and the world. Its good to get away from that and every manufactured crisis that must be solved yesterday whether it be systems down or someone can’t find a file.

  11. That last line,

    “Too soon will come the final rest, when conversation ceases.
    And will I be carried to that place whole? Or in pieces?”

    Where does it come from? Robert Frost? I googled it and found nothing.

    It’s beautiful.