For three-out-of-four of my years at Carleton College I have lived in Farm House– an exquisitely lovely “interest house” centered around food, farming, sustainability, and community living. The house has been a central feature of my college experience. It has helped me keep busy and social, and many of my fondest college memories occurred within the houses walls or in its expansive yard.
The house is loosely associated with the student farm, which is located just outside our door. (The farm is managed by a farming club and two or three student workers over the summer, but there is often overlap between the farmers and the residents.) We divvy up household chores, take turns cooking, eat communal dinners, and put on events for the campus.
It occurs to me that I have devoted a great deal of time to cooking in, and cleaning up, this house’s kitchen, a task that is absent the lives of many of my peers who opt to remain on the meal plan all four years. Some say “I’ll have to cook and clean for the rest of my life, I want to enjoy the dining halls while they are here.” And I understand that sentiment. But I have found the cooking to be quite manageable when we share the responsibility, and cleaning the Farm House kitchen often feels less like a chore and more like a soothing respite from the bustle and stress of college– a kind of meditative joy. Continue reading “The Meditative Joy of Cleaning a Community Kitchen”→
I met Daniel Zetah this past summer, while interning on a small-scale vegetable farm in northern Minnesota. He arrived one Thursday in a white, well-worn isuzu pickup, together with his fiancée, Stephanie. They brought with them two coolers full of meat (which they raised and butchered themselves), a few baskets of vegetables, a live turkey and her poults, two dogs, some camping equipment, and an old friend from their eco-village days who they had fortuitously seen hitchhiking along the side of the road. Daniel had interned on the farm years ago, and he was now returning to be married.
I learned over the course of their visit that Daniel had spent years living in Tasmania, where he had been a “freegan” (someone that scavenges for free food to reduce their consumption of resources), and full-time environmental activist, then a permaculture student, and then a natural builder. I learned Daniel had spent nine months on The Sea Shepherd—an anti-whaling ship vessel that uses direct-action tactics to confront illegal whaling ships—and played a very active role in Occupy Wallstreet.
I learned, too, that after ten years of vegetarianism, Daniel had become a big-time carnivore. As I had recently given up meat in an effort to mitigate my environmental impact, this choice struck me as incongruous. We ended up having a conversation about ethical and environmental eating, which challenged, angered, intrigued, and enlightened me. Daniel and his wife returned to their once-farm in central Minnesota, to finish packing and preparing to move to Tasmania. I called him at home to get the whole story, and record it for this article.
Would you describe yourself as a long-time farmer and environmental activist?
Not at all. I used to be a redneck. I used to race cars and motorcycles and snowmobiles… I was a motorhead. I don’t want people to think I was always like this, because then they’re like “oh, they were just brought up that way by parents that…” it’s like no, no: I was raised by wolves.
Until I was in my early 20s I ate nothing but crap. Like, garbage, American, supermarket food. When I would go shopping, I was literally after the cheapest calories I could possibly find at the supermarket.
Fifteen years ago, two seniors opened fire at Columbine High School. They killed 12 students and one teacher, in what remains the deadliest mass murder committed on an American high school campus. The unprecedented event shocked, saddened, and horrified people across the nation. While every school shooting since has induced the same feelings of sadness and horror, the shock seems to be fading.
That’s because a school shooting is no longer an anomaly. From the Wikipedia page dedicated to listing these events, I count 66 incidents in this decade. And we’re not very far into this decade. The latest addition comes from Roswell, New Mexico. It was breaking news last Tuesday: 12-year-old in custody after 2 students shot at New Mexico middle school. For a moment I thought the list was incomplete when I didn’t see the Arapahoe High shooting that took place in Colorado last month listed directly above it. I didn’t realize three shootings had occurred in between.
My school has responded to each event with increased security measures. We’ve started locking the doors at the bottom of the school, for example, forcing everyone to use the main entrance for much of the day. While this is often inconvenient, at least I can take consolation in knowing any potential shooters would be thoroughly thwarted by this ingenious tactic. After the Arapahoe tragedy, swift action was taken again. In a cunning gesture of decisive practicality, the school procured a very large desk. It now sits awkwardly in the hallway at the top of the school, manned by a security guard who watches people as they come in. Safety attained!
There is certainly more to the story. I know my school has worked very hard, as have schools around the country, to find solutions to this immensely complex and terrifying issue. I am deeply grateful for all the people working to keep me safe at school, and I appreciate the difficulty of finding suitable actions. But the locked doors and the desk just don’t make a lot of sense to me.
I wanted to briefly share a few interesting quotes from different sources I’ve come across over the past week or so.
From Yes! magazine:
Attaching our values of freedom to the market is not just dehumanizing. It also fails to recognize how one person’s ‘freedom’ of economic choice is another’s imprisonment in a life of exploitation and deprivation. There is no possibility for true freedom until we are all free, and this will only come through a much richer and deeper conception of human freedom than the one that consists of going to a grocery store and ‘choosing’ between 5,000 variations of processed corn.
I thought this was a wonderfully articulate snippet regarding the importance of shifting our views on freedom and capitalism. When we commit ourselves entirely to the idea of unbridled free market capitalism as the surest guarantee of personal freedom, we loose freedom in other ways, such as the freedom to live in a world with clean air and water and healthy plants and animals and ecosystems, among other things.
I read this in a copy of Yes! magazine I stumbled across– an exciting publication that “empowers people with the vision and tools to create a healthy planet and vibrant communities.” From the same edition I highly recommend the article, Get Apocalyptic: Why Radical is the New Normal.
Life has an unfortunate habit of abruptly becoming very busy, challenging, stressful, and overwhelming. In those moments it is important to step back, breathe, and realize that perhaps our big problems aren’t so big. Perhaps, much of our stress and worry is arbitrarily and unnecessarily self-inflicted. Perhaps much of the discomfort we feel is more a product of outlook than of circumstance, in which case it is easy to dispel. Perhaps life is too short to spend so much time buried in artificial misery, and it would be better to smile a lot and laugh a lot and say nice things to sad people.
When I find myself in need of a change in perspective, certain lyrics tend to drift through my mind- wonderfully apathetic and reassuring lyrics, from songs of peaceful resignation. I thought I’d share a few of my favorites:
1) “I’m gonna live it’s alright, I’m gonna die it’s alright, it’s okay”
— Good Old War (That’s Some Dream)
This is the phrase I come back to most frequently. It’s the chorus to a beautiful and soothing acoustic song by Good Old War, which, for me, has an incredible ability to shrink all of life’s problems down small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. This might be my favorite lyric of all time, man, just give it some time to sink in.
Per my father’s recommendation, I recently read Slaughterhouse-Five, a classic and exceptional novel by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. It follows the fictional Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier in WWII that is captured by Germans and taken to a prisoner of war camp in Dresden. The novels describes the tragic bombing of Dresden, a beautiful city that gets completely demolished, yet the novel is not purely historical.
At some point in his life, Billy Pilgrim becomes “unstuck” in time, which adds a very unique and surreal element to the story. He claims to have been captured by aliens, Tralfamadorians, who explain to him the true nature of time: that everything is predetermined and unchangeable. (They can see the entire past and future all at once.)
They put him on display at a Tralfamadorian zoo, and eventually return him to earth. Throughout the entire book, we (following Billy) jump sporadically to different times in his life. Billy attributes this time-traveling ability to his newfound understanding that our lives are already completely written. The author is deliberately ambiguous as to whether all this is real, or if Billy is merely delusional after a traumatizing experience in the war.
Either way, I thought the Tralfamadorians had some interesting things to say about time and destiny. There’s a great passage when Billy is in the Tralfamadorian zoo and somebody in the zoo crowd asks him what the most valuable thing he had learned on Tralfamadore was so far.Billy says “How the inhabitants of a whole planet can live in peace. As you know, I am from a planet that has been engaged in senseless slaughter since the beginning of time… If other planets aren’t now in danger from Earth, they soon will be. So tell me the secret so I can take it back to Earth and save us all: How can a planet live at peace?”
Billy thinks he just spoke “soaringly,” but the Tralfamadorians regard this as a stupid question, since they already know how the universe ends “and Earth has nothing to do with it, except that it gets wiped out, too.” Billy asks how it ends, and they plainly state, “We blow it up, experimenting with new fuels for our flying saucers. A Tralfamadorian test pilot presses a starter button, and the whole Universe disappears.”
Then comes the interesting part:
“If you know this,” said Billy, “isn’t there some way you can
prevent it? Can’t you keep the pilot from pressing the button?”
“He has always pressed it, and he always will. We always let him
and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way.”
I don’t really believe that everything is predetermined. But sometimes it’s nice to think that way. What a relief! What a burden off our backs to suddenly realize that everything is already set, and now we can just sit back and enjoy the ride. In the novel, Billy is certainly comforted by the idea that all the horrors he endured simply had to happen that way, and could not have gone differently.
Yet as the website Shmoop explains, that freedom and comfort comes at a cost. He surrenders his free will- his desire and ability to change and improve things: “He doesn’t prevent his son from going to war, he doesn’t attempt to remind people of the bombing of Dresden – nothing.”
I think the struggle to find a balance between acceptance and ambition is one of the most complex and important struggles that we as human beings face. So much of our unhappiness and conflict comes from not being able to accept things as they are. Western materialism is an important example.
We tend to think “If I only had a new car, a bigger house, a better phone…. then I would be happy.” We link our happiness to things; objects, achievements. But this “if..then” philosophy is an exercise in futility, because there will always be something newer and bigger and better, and so by not accepting what we have, we are unnecessarily preventing ourselves from being happy.
If you decide that what you have is what you want, then hey! Look at that! You have everything you want! Wasn’t that easy?
If everyone was perfectly content with what they have, would there be war? Would there crime? If we accepted everything that happens as perfect and unchangeable, simply saying “the moment is structured that way,” would there ever be sadness? Anger? Greed? Regret?
In the time I’ve spent in South America, I’ve found that many people there tend to lean toward this end of the spectrum. They are laid back and easygoing. I volunteered for 6 weeks in a community in the Paraguayan countryside, where I was thrilled by a standard response to the question “Que tal?” (How are things?”). People would reply “Tranquilopa,” a combination of the spanish “tranquilo” (calm, tranquil) and the indigenous guaraní, “opa” (everything, complete.)
Though they were poor and lived comparatively simple lives, the people seemed content to have and do very little. They would often sit for long periods of time, enjoying the company of friends and family, passing around a cup of tereré. Sometimes I would sit quietly with my host dad, just thinking and observing the scenery.
Coming from such a fast-paced, competitive, and demanding culture, it was a little unsettling at first to spend so much time simply sitting, but I soon had moments of profound appreciation for this way of life. Relax. Breathe. Take in the scenery. Enjoy the people you’re with. What else could you possibly need?
Towards the end of the trip, however, I began to grow a little restless once more. At some point, a beautifully accepting disposition begins to feel like a waste of potential. My ambitious American side, which has been exposed to the idea ‘you can do anything you want if you put your mind to it,’ since Kindergarten began to kick in, and I thought, Don’t you guys want to pursue something bigger?
For while there is power in acceptance, there is also merit to ambition. Not accepting things as they are is what drives progress and innovation. Why should we have to be cold, when we could be warm? Why should we have to die painfully of horrible diseases, when they could be cured? Why should we have to walk everywhere, when there could be speedier alternatives? Rejecting the status quo and seeking out something better is how mankind came to domesticate crops, discover the earth was round, invent the airplane, and build the computer. Almost all the great achievements of humanity are direct results of dissatisfaction. But perhaps, so are our biggest mistakes…
Life is short and everyone wants to live it to the fullest- as happily as possible. So the question is: is happiness best achieved through acceptance or through improvement? At what point should we strive for something better, and at what point should we simply accept things as they are? As with all things in life, I think the best solution is a balance. Everything in moderation. I suppose the exact ratio would be unique for everyone, but I think it’s important to remember that both are always viable options.
Many of us could probably benefit from letting go a little more often. When things don’t go our way and we find ourselves angry, frustrated, upset, or saddened, perhaps it would be useful to think: You know what? It’s okay. It’s perfect. That’s the way it had to happen. That’s the way this moment was structured. Perhaps then we can let go, and put our energy into something more productive.
On the other hand, there are certainly many of us that could be happier if we took more control over our lives and our world. Instead of just feeling sad or angry about something, confront it head on. Fix it. Do it. Make it happen. Get it done. In some circumstances, this is the best way to deal with the situations that befall us.
The right balance between these two approaches is infinitely difficult to determine, but important to contemplate. Kurt Vonnegut Jr., the author of Slaughterhouse-Five, was certainly aware of this struggle, and articulates it perfectly in a short poem that appears twice in the book:
GOD GRANT ME
THE SERENITY TO ACCEPT
THE THINGS I CANNOT CHANGE,
TO CHANGE THE THINGS I CAN,
AND WISDOM ALWAYS
TO TELL THE
While doing some research for a blog post that I will probably never publish, (a fate that befalls most of the blogs I start to write,) I learned that scientists have recently discovered a planet that could be habitable by humans. My initial reaction, sadly enough, was something along the lines of “hey, that’s great, because when we trash this one, we’ll have another in store.”
I felt that concept could make for an interesting song, and when I realized the “D” and the “g” in the planet’s name basically rhyme, making the name sing-able, I decided it had to be done.
This is my ode to the poetically named and utterly ineffable HD 40307g.
(Note: The video at the start is from “slatester,” the Slate News Chanel.)
It’s the year 2073
And the world’s no longer habitable by you or by me me
So it’s pretty clear we’ll simply have to leave
We’re headed for HD 40307g
I am a strong believer in the chill pill. The philosophy “you can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf” has influenced me from a very young age, as well as the mantra “everything in moderation.” I find total conviction in any one belief, to be unnerving and dangerous. All the hatred and violence in this world arises from people being too sure that their idea is right and everyone else is wrong. This kind of extremism not only promotes hatred, but stunts the progress of mankind. If the church were less absolute in its belief in the bible, for example, Galileo’s legitimate observation that the earth moves around the sun could have been celebrated and applied rather than landing him under house arrest for the remainder of his life.
Throughout history, communities have come to believe in fallacies with unwavering certainty. As a result, good people have died and truth has been restrained. Perhaps it would be beneficial to drill into every human being a sense of insignificance- to teach them that the universe is big and they are small, and their knowledge is limited.
In relation to the size of the universe, and the time over which it has existed, all of humanity becomes immeasurably small. In the never ending expanse of the space-time continuum, your own lifespan is scarcely detectable. I think extremism is dangerous, and it comes from feelings of self-importance. The fact that we’re not so big and powerful, and that we can’t possibly know everything is humbling. To be humble is to be moderate, and to be moderate is to be peaceful and open to rational discussion.