Convenience

teapotEverything can be seen as a message if I pay attention – not necessarily a profound philosophical or spiritual message, but simply a common hint and teaching from the animate Cosmos in which I live.

Our electric coffee pot that is supposed to have an “off” switch has started to boil over if left unattended. Do we toss it and buy a new and better one? Or perhaps we are learning that we don’t need to push a button and quickly go on to something else for the sake of convenience. Leave the lid open. Pay attention. When it begins to boil, shut it off. “A watched pot never boils over.” (The original of that old saying.)

Humanity’s pursuit of convenience seems to have led to a diminishing of our ability to pay attention. Our ancestors were, by necessity, attentive to the environment and therefore were constantly learning what it had to teach them. Every convenience we have gained in the past 10,000 years has a price tag attached. Some, perhaps, are worth the price. However many are purchased with yet another decrease in the bank account of attention, mindfulness, and awareness. The completely convenient life, I think, would be a life of complete inattention to natural processes and environments.

The original definition of convenient implied, “fitting in well, being useful.” That definition has morphed to become, “time and effort saving,” and from there into, “the ability to accomplish a task with little or no thought or attention.” The question then becomes, “What am I doing instead?” If I have a large family and the large capacity clothes washer allows me to write an assignment, work in the garden, or take my toddler to the playground, then I can make a case for the money spent and the attention refocused. It doesn’t relieve me of the questions like: How long did I have to work to earn the money for the item, which was clearly time spent away from the garden or the playground with my toddler? Did I enjoy the time spent earning the money? And I also have to consider a final question: What do I actually do with the “time saved?” Really?

If we add up all the so-called conveniences, we find that they have somehow become necessities that we are working full time to afford. Surprise, they have now become even more of a necessity. And somehow they keep needing to be replaced, repaired, or kept company by some other new convenience. We are now trapped on the economic treadmill – working full time in order to buy the conveniences that enable us to work full time so we can afford the conveniences so that we can…

I don’t have any real solid answers that would fit everyone’s life. I am only raising the classic questions of, “What? Why? and How?” that I have spent so many decades ignoring. Freedom, simplicity, and Joy also comes with a price tag. As conveniences slip from being necessary, my condition mind shouts, “Inconvenient!” But the deeper awareness and joy of simple moments spent noticing real events is well worth the price.

 

The Grammar of Animacy

braiding sweetgrassRobin Kimmerer’s powerful and beautifully written book, Braiding Sweetgrass, contains a wealth of inspiration in every chapter. It is worth actually spending money to have it available beside your chair or on your bedside table. It is a marvelous combination of modern science, indigenous science, and traditional stories.

In a section titled, Learning the Grammar of Animacy she talks about her native language of Potawatomi and informs us that there are only nine living speakers left. She attends a session where some of these Elders are teaching a bit of the language. It is a very difficult language to learn and she soon understands why:

“English is a noun-based language, somehow appropriate to a culture so obsessed with things. Only 30 percent of English words are verbs, but in Potawatomi that proportion is 70 percent which means that 70 percent of the words have to be conjugated and 70 percent have different tenses and cases to be mastered.”

Though she can master only a little of this difficult language, she understands its tremendous potency. Like most indigenous languages, it perceives and attempts to communicate a living, rather than an inanimate, world. Such a language helps break down the separation from the natural world that has plagued Western Civilization for centuries, even millennia.

“… a world where everything is alive. Water, land, and even a day, the language a mirror for seeing the animacy of the world, the life that pulses through all things, through pines and nuthatches and mushrooms. This is the language I hear in the woods; this is the language that lets us speak of what wells up all around us.”

She continues this thread with the assertion that this is a grammar of intimacy:

“In English, we would never refer to a member of our family, or indeed to any person, as “it.” That would be a profound act of disrespect. It robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a mere thing. So it is that in Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family.”

Not only are plants and animals considered animate, but so are rocks, mountains, water, fire, and places – all are beings that have spirit and our interactions with them must therefore be seen as relationships, not simply as resources to be exploited and used. She tells of one of her field ecology students who, upon considering this difference in language, realized that speaking and thinking in English could easily allow us to disrespect all of nature. He wondered what things might be like if nothing was considered an “it.” This artificial distinction between persons and things shuts us off, not only from the wisdom of other species, but also from anyone somewhat different than ourselves. It becomes all to easy to subtly consider other cultures as less worthy of our respect, even as less than human.

She remembers Elders telling her to, “Go be with the standing people (trees).” or “Spend some time with the Bear people.” Imagine what new possibilities could open to us if we saw the whole world populated with teachers and companions?

“We American people are reluctant to learn a foreign language of our own species, let alone another species. But imagine the possibilities. Imagine the access we would have to different perspectives, the things we might see through other eyes, the wisdom that surrounds us. We don’t have to figure everything out by ourselves: there are intelligences other than our own, teachers all around us. Imagine how much less lonely the world would be.”

Kimmerer speaks the language of poetry, of science (She is Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology at the State University of New York), and of indigenous peoples. She brings these three languages together in a beautiful blend of story, science, and social analysis.

From the Latin, anima, meaning “spirit” or “life”, Animism offers a powerful and necessary perspective for the healing of the Earth. This healing will come to our planet only when we reconnect with the Indigenous (including Taoist and Buddhist) teachings of the “aliveness” of all things. Being a “tree hugger” is not a cynical and crazy appellation. It is a appropriate name for one who sees the world as it truly is. All things are animate. If we treated them as such, I wonder what would happen?

Continuing Transformation

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Nancy had a hitchhiker along the trail. He must have sensed that she is a “vehicle for transformation.”

It is another beautiful morning in Northern California. As I sit in the quiet space of the library at the College of the Siskiyous, avoiding work on my novel, I am conscious of the many blessings I experience. Our old motor home, Brego, is sitting in a beautiful location on property that has been in my family for decades. It is property that has been a bit under my radar all these years. My sister now owns it and Nancy and I get the benefit of being next to the old unoccupied cabin that still has electricity to which we can attach, giving us benefits of microwave oven and air conditioning. We’re grateful. We will remain here until the winter snows arrive and then perhaps look for a near-by non-snow environment where we can spend a few months before returning home again.

I am settling into a deeper and deeper sense of freedom, simplicity, and joy than I ever thought possible. Slowly, but patiently and surely, we are untying the threads that have bound us in a life-long addiction to the dysfunctions of our culture. It is not a, “cold turkey,’ process. We will never be completely detached from some aspects of this dysfunction, but we are going in the right direction and we feel the sweet relief of a profound transformation.

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Us on the PCT

The tiny house aspects of our home encourage us to spend most of our time outdoors for meals, reading under the shade, doing our work, and walking in beauty. Yesterday we took a wonderful hike along a section of the Pacific Crest Trail a few miles from the little town of McCloud. We were with members of our hiking group for most of the walk. On the way back to the car we met a young woman who is hiking the Pacific Crest Trail this summer. She needed a ride into town to pick up some items at the post office. She ended up having dinner with us and spending the night in the old cabin, grateful for the warm shower and hot food.

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Our new friend, trail name, “Shuffles.”

She is from New Zealand and has trekked in Nepal and Argentina as well as some time last summer here on the Pacific Crest Trail. What a delight to spend this time with her and see her off on her way this morning. As a New Zealander, she has trouble believing the politics of our country and is committed to living her life in Earth-centered simplicity. Meeting a young person like this and hearing her talk of her friends and their commitment to a new and sustainable Earth gives me an injection of hope.

Since we settled back here in Mt. Shasta, our plumbing has been broken and we have had to use a hose from the well to bring water to our door, then fill up containers for washing. We discovered that a small amount of warm water in a washtub can provide a luxurious foot-soaking at the end of the day. Finally, I figured out a way to fix the problem, and after a few trips to the hardware store and only one bout of swearing, we have hot and cold running water again! We feel as if we’ve stepped into a new world of luxury and convenience.

The flow of finances is still an issue in the background, but we are well and happy and have a trust in our ability to not only survive, but thrive, as we find our authentic work. It has been a wild ride but we are where we have always longed to be and are sinking ever deeper into a dedication to the healing of the life of this Earth. I have no doubt that my future writing will reflect this.

I must now return to work on my novel. I know you are eager to find out what the characters from my first novel, The Happy Frog, are up to. So am I.

Blessings,