Eating Ethically and Meaning Making

After posting Eating Ethically, some questions began to rumble around inside of me. Reading an opinion article on climate change by Emma Marris, helped to clarified them:

  • How do we encourage one another to take moral action without triggering shame or guilt?
  • How do we lift up the work that we are able to do, as examples for what is possible, without patting ourselves on the back?

Marris says that the first step for fighting climate change is to “ditch the shame.” The second step is to “focus on systems, not yourself.” Her point is that the biggest actors in addressing climate change are politicians and corporations. If we get stuck looking only at what we eat, wear and how much we drive, then we lose sight of the importance of collective action targeted at those with the most economic and political power. For example, if we want to make a major impact on improving the health of the Indiana environment, we all ought to be fighting with gusto against the coal-to-diesel refinery that is being planned in Dale, Indiana. Stopping this refinery, and the projected 2.2 million tons of CO2 it would release, does more for the environment than any accumulated benefit of our individual consumptive habits.

It is, of course, a both-and situation. What we consume matters AND collective action matters. We can simultaneously change our own harmful consumptive habits AND join with others to pressure politicians to reduce emissions.

For me it is also about making meaning. My moral compass gets mixed up if I am breezing through the McDonald’s drive through on my way to the climate change rally. Moral action may be difficult but it generally feels good, in the way that manual labor feels good when you get to do it voluntarily. It’s satisfying and purposeful. Eating food from the dumpster feels better than buying food from the store, and not only because it’s free. Also because we can recycle the packaging. We can share it with friends. We can save it from a purposeless existence.

So don’t engage in moral action with shame, because it’s what you should do or what your neighbor is doing. Experiment with it. Try out some new habits and see what brings you joy.

Eating Ethically in the Monsoon Rains of January

If we are heading toward apocalypse, then obviously we must undertake an ordeal of preparation. We must cleanse ourselves of slovenliness, laziness, and waste. We must learn to discipline ourselves, to restrain ourselves, to need less, to care more for the needs of others. We must understand what the health of the earth requires and put that before all other needs. If catastrophic famine is possible, then let us undertake the labors of wisdom and make the necessary sacrifices of luxury and comfort. — Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America

What is ecological grace if not the sum of daily, hourly decisions to take less than one’s hands can hold, to eat other than what our stomachs most want, to create limits for ourselves so that we all might be able to share in what’s left? – Jonathan Safran Foer, We are the Weather

The creek in the woods at Common Home Farm

There are rivers in the driveway that run down the back ravine and into the creek. If the rain ever lets up, I’ll put on my boots and walk down the wooded hills to see how much water is flowing in the ephemeral creek.

Indiana is having a monsoon season – humid air and heavy rain. Our January is confused and we are all scrambling to prepare for a climate that has already changed. It’s a strange time to be alive, a strange time to be settling onto land with the idea that we will grow food here. It’s like entering a relationship with someone in the midst of a psychotic episode who is living a reality you can’t comprehend.

We, like you, have been trying to live ethically in response to climate change. I’ve been reading The Unsettling of America (Wendell Berry) and We Are the Weather (Jonathan Safran Foer). I’ve been watching my friend Amy live out a food ethic that exhausted me at first but now inspires and motivates me. We can all very easily tell ourselves that we are doing enough, but as Berry wrote in 1986, “We must understand what the health of the earth requires and put that before all other needs.” For Jonathan Safran Foer, that comes down to the concrete choice to not eat animal products at breakfast and lunch. Large-scale animal agriculture accounts for between 18-51%* of greenhouse gas emissions. Safran Foer uses this research to argue that the most pragmatic and efficient way to affect climate change is to replace animal products with alternatives, thus cutting emissions and freeing up land to be planted with carbon-absorbing trees. Eating fewer animal products is something everyone can do every day. But it’s hard and most people will continue on with their same habits of consumption because, as Safran Foer notes, “choosing death is more convenient than choosing life….Because short-term pleasure is more seductive than long-term survival.”

So here we are, as the rain continues to fall, the puddles to deepen, our minds to scramble for how to live in these unpredictable times. And here is something we can do that makes a difference.

Our family is making a renewed commitment to the following food choices:

  1. Dumpster Diving
  2. Buying from local farmers
  3. Buying from the local food co-op

The first place we’ll go for food will be the dumpster. This keeps food out of the landfill and saves us money which we can then invest in the local food economy. Dumpster diving also provides us with an abundance of food that we can share with neighbors and use to stock the freezer. An abundance of dumpstered bananas and whole wheat flour** and sugar has been the impetus for a dozen loaves of banana bread already this week. What we can’t consume from the dumpster, we can offer to our compost heap.

If we can’t find what we need (want) in the dumpster, we’ll try to source from local farmers. We recently bought half-a-cow from the Gonso family in Owen County. We split the cost and the meat with two other families. So now we aren’t tempted to buy crappy meat at the grocery store, and we get meat that tastes delicious and is not harmful to the environment. Our hope is to raise animals of our own in the next year and perhaps some of you will enjoy buying meat from us!

Our goal is to stay away from Kroger and Aldi, where we habitually go for cheap food. We’ll go to Bloomingfoods for the rest of our food needs. We can buy in bulk with our own jars and bags. Perhaps the price of local cheese will limit the amount of cheese we have in our diet – as it should. We will find ourselves eating differently.

You’ll notice that we’re not becoming vegetarian or vegan. But we are refusing to buy factory-farmed meat, dairy and eggs. Instead we will eat the surplus from our wasteful capitalist system and support the farmers in our local economy. Not all animal food production is bad for the environment, and some, like rotational grazing, actually helps to sequester carbon in the ground (check out @anathothcatholicworker on Facebook)

This all takes energy, awareness, and effort. Building new habits is challenging. But me and my comfort are not my primary concern anymore. My primary concern is the sustenance of the earth and building my character in such a way that the next generation has the grit to heal our planet, and on and on, each generation with a more finely tuned way of living that protects the sources of all life.

P.S. If you’ve never been dumpster diving, and you’d like to go, shoot me an email and we’ll go out together.

* Safran Foer cites two main research papers, Livestock’s Long Shadow, published by the FOA of the UN and “Livestock and Climate Change: What If the Key Actors in Climate Change are … Cows, Pigs, and Chickens?” published by the Worldwatch Institute and authored by Jeff Anhang and Robert Goodland. The animal agriculture industry is particularly bad for the environment because it compels the majority of the deforestation which eliminates our earth’s capacity to absorb additional carbon. So not only does it emit the worst kinds of greenhouse gases (methane and nitrous oxide) but it prevents those gases from being absorbed. Safran Foer’s book is full of great stories and metaphors along with the hard-hitting facts. He examines why we aren’t acting on the knowledge we have of climate change, taking a close look at how his own beliefs and feelings lead him to resist ethical action.

** Thanks, Morning Wilder, for the 50lb bag of flour, Ross Dybvig for the 25lb bag of organic sugar, and both of you for your inspirational enthusiasm for dumpster diving.

Creating Space for Radical Hospitality

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A view of the new bathroom addition. This photo was taken while standing on the site of the new septic leach field, which was constructed in early September.

Poverty is a strange and elusive thing. … I condemn poverty and I advocate it; poverty is simple and complex at once; it is a social phenomenon and a personal matter. Poverty is an elusive thing, and a paradoxical one. We need always to be thinking and writing about it, for if we are not among its victims its reality fades from us. We must talk about poverty because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it. – Dorothy Day

I was filling in as the shelter monitor this morning at the Shalom Community Center, the day shelter in Bloomington where I’ve worked on-and-off for the last nine years. As the shelter monitor, I am called upon to break up fights, retrieve forgotten backpacks, clean up literal sh** in the bathroom, call the ambulance for medical emergencies. It’s a hard job, but it has its delights.

I stand by the front door and greet each person who walks in, often they are people I’ve known since I first started at Shalom. This morning I got to catch up with a friend, a former client who was the subject of The Job, a short story I wrote in 2016. I was happy to hear that life had stabilized for her in some ways: she had an apartment and steady employment at Bob Evans, but she was still living on the edge. Her job only pays $9/hour and during the summer, when the students were gone, her hours were cut.

She asked about our farm project, and I shared our progress. “You’ll have to come out and visit,” I said. “I bet you don’t get out in the woods very  often.”

“I don’t,” she said. “And you know I miss it.”

Later that day I went to the hospital to visit a former guest at the Bloomington Catholic Worker. He too asked about how the farm was going, and expressed his desire to help. “We’ll get you out to visit when you’re feeling better,” I said.

These are the kinds of connections we want to make. After many years living and working with people in poverty, David and I know a lot of people who would benefit from a day’s rest in a beautiful place. And with each passing week, we are getting a little closer to making space for this kind of radical hospitality.

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Farewell to our year in the cabin at Solsberry Hill! Thank you, Bridget and Conor!
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Our stellar moving crew!

* David Watters and his son, Huck, have been living on the land since July. We are renting a friend’s tiny house and they are champions at “making do” with the space they have. When the garden house (“shed”) renovation is complete, our family will move into that home and David and Huck will move into the cabin. The tiny house will be available for respite retreats and visitors.

*We’ve started some of our community routines: Evening prayer by candle light, using the liturgy in Prayers for a Planetary Pilgrim by Edward Hays and Praying the Psalms, a translation by Nan Merill. We have dinner together at least once a week, and finding time for working together: splitting wood, hauling manure, and fixing up the garden house.

The Renovation Update

We have been hard at work getting the garden house (what we usually call “the shed”) ready to live in. We thought it would be fairly simple to renovate the shed 🙂 Not so, not so. But it has been made easier by calling on the expertise of friends. We have such gratitude for the way this project has required us to ask for help, and thus create community. It’s been a wild, joyful (sometimes stressful) ride!

We’ve completed a lot of projects over the last three months, from pouring the foundation for the bathroom addition to insulating the attic to replacing windows. You’ll get a sense for the work we’ve been doing through the pictures below. (Captions pop up for each picture when you move your pointer over them.) Our goal is to move into the garden house by the end of October. Send some prayers our way and let us know if you want to come help out with the final stages of the renovation!

Affection for Drudgery

“If we only want to feast on the big ideas and the grand schemes and are unwilling to give our time and energies to seemingly small and limited tasks, to the thousands of baby steps needed to carry off our high concepts, then we will make little headway. Any calling requires a certain affection for drudgery.” — Gregg Levoy in Callings

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There I am just hanging out in the rafters with the birds and the snakes 🙂

A lot of our baby steps these days appear to be drudgery: digging the foundation for the bathroom addition, scraping putty to reveal old screws, clearing poison ivy and bamboo. There are certain mundane tasks that I love for the satisfaction of completing them and then there are others that are simply necessary to suffer through. As one of the smallest people working on the shed, it was my duty to crawl, squeeze, scrunch myself into the tiniest of spaces in the attic and staple up vents. Most of this work was done on my back suspended over rafters with the hopes that the pointy screws coming down from the roof wouldn’t nail me.

Thank goodness that good company transforms drudgery. That day we dug the ditch, Chris Colvard and Landy were there sweating with me all day. When I was up in the attic, Jeff Mansfield and David were cheering me on. Our workdays are both struggle and triumph, and not always in the same proportion.

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Chris and Landy set the first form for the bathroom foundation.

David and I are not builders. We don’t have the budget to hire out most of the work we need to do, and we want to learn how to do more for ourselves. Still the work must get done and it must be done correctly and pass building inspections. We’re relying on the good-will and generosity of friends to advise us and work with us. I find my lack of knowledge and skill to be maddening. I find the work to tax my body – lifting heavy sheets of drywall, digging and shoveling clay, holding heavy drills. I am not accustomed to the physical toll of construction work. But I’m grateful to experience it personally so that I know, in some way at least, what the cost of construction is to those who do it day in and day out. Manual labor is not just the path to creating Common Home Farm, it is a core value of Catholic Worker farms. From The Aims and Means of the Catholic Worker:

— We strive for practices of manual labor in a society that rejects it as undignified and inferior. “Besides inducing cooperation, besides overcoming barriers and establishing the spirit of sister and brotherhood (besides just getting things done), manual labor enables us to use our bodies as well as our hands, our minds,” (Dorothy Day).  The Benedictine motto Ora et Labora reminds us that the work of human hands is a gift for the edification of the world and the glory of God.

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Middle School volunteers break up an old concrete slab outside the shed.

The struggle is not just in the physical work, it’s also trying to stay ahead of the voices of doubt and fear that threaten to overcome hope. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt like every day contains real struggle (besides that of raising small children!). Sometimes that struggle is overwhelming. Like the day we found out that the small cabin (the one we are NOT renovating) needs a new septic leech field and we have to replace three windows and rebuild the stairs in the shed. When the work already feels hard and then it becomes harder, those are the days when I wonder if we’re really on the right path. Those are the days I get out Callings and read:

“If the sacrifice doesn’t put you out, doesn’t hurt a little or even a lot, it’s probably insufficient to bring on the changes you’re after…We need to give it all we have on one level and surrender completely to the way it is on the another…Sacrifice isn’t something we do once. It prompts our following a call, but it is also a component of living out that call.”

I also “zoom out” and think of all the people in the world who struggle in serious ways. I think of friends who are homeless in Bloomington, enduring a hot and rainy spring with nowhere safe and dry to sleep. I think of the guys I work with in the jail who are excited about the vision of Common Home Farm and ready to come for a retreat. Then I return to our project and our problems and realize that it’s simply a matter of money, time and perseverance. We are on the right path. The obstacles are there to teach us how to cope with the unexpected and to remind us to stay open and flexible. It’s my job, during this time, to learn a new level of resilience – and like all growth, it’s painful. Please hold us in the light as we take little step after little step toward making a beautiful, hospitable space at Common Home Farm.

**Fundraising update: We are still $6,200 away from raising enough money to complete the shed reconstruction. We are looking for six people who could contribute $1,000 each or 12 people who could donate $500. But no amount is too small. Please consider supporting our work with a donation.  We are also actively seeking no-interest loans up to $6,000.

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David is hard core about this building project.

P.S. While I’m talking about the construction work I’ve been doing, I want to give proper recognition to David who is out at the farm 3-4 days a week getting things done. He’s just not writing about it! I lift up gratitude for him and for all the many volunteers who have come out for our workdays. We will continue to have workdays most weekends this summer – please reach out if you’d like to come share in some manual labor!

Fundraising with Heart

 The Earth and her children depend on each of us to be wise, to have vision, to speak in joy, to extend love and compassion, to own our power, to accept our true natures, and to allow others to share our bounty.  If our capable hands and steady hearts shift ever so slightly in the direction of loving, we move the planet in an entirely new direction from where it has been in the past.                                                                                         

IMG_7057Meredith Young-Sowers

After the fundraiser on Friday night, I had an acute case of fear and trembling. After opening the colorful donation box and pulling out the offerings, I found myself feeling heavy with gratitude and responsibility. It is no small thing to ask people to give you money, to take from what they have and share it with you.

We knew when we started this journey that we’d come to this point. Starting in August 2017 I began drafting fundraising letters. Then again in December 2018, I dreamed up another fundraising scheme. All these plans came about due to my anxiety about how we would purchase land without having any money. I felt a strong urge to act in a time of difficult waiting. Neither plan made it out in to the world, thank goodness. The timing was not right.

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Josh looks on as David and Leo talk with Hugh and Mia

We began dreaming of this fundraiser in mid-March. The specific needs of our community had come into focus and we felt empowered to ask for financial support. We could show all the work we’d done thus far and offer a long-term plan for building and financing our community. We could articulate exactly how much money we needed to raise, what we needed money for, and why we were asking for donations as opposed to seeking a bank loan. On Friday night, it was a joy to share our presentation, which included many pictures of the property, the story of the land, our long-term plan, and the motivation for creating Common Home Farm. We opened with song and closed in song and took time to read the epigraph and poem posted here. These rituals helped create a space in which people were invited to join their hearts and minds with us and to consider what they have to offer.

We were humbled by the generosity of the group gathered, as well as the many people who sent well-wishes and donations but could not attend. Our goal was to raise $5,660 – the amount needed to bring our total donations to $15,000. We raised $11,600 on Friday. One anonymous donor contributed $10,500 – the exact amount needed to install a septic system. Holy smokes! Can you believe that?

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Laura and Alice

On top of the money, our community was delighted by all the other offers that came our way – a hauling van, some chickens, building help every Friday, connecting with IU’s service learning programs. So you can see how at the end of the night this outpouring of generosity would also come with a deeper understanding of our responsibility to our growing community of supporters.

We also ended the night with deep satisfaction and wonder at the journey. I remembered back to a moment in September 2017. I was standing at the sink of our old house, washing dishes and telling Chris Elam that I could feel the call to life on the land but I couldn’t see the path to get there. If I thought about all the things that needed to happen to get there, I’d most likely just stay put. “You can’t think about all that,” he advised. “You just have to see the most immediate step and take it.” Fundraising was the next obvious step, and we took it! And so the journey continues. Many thanks to everyone for making this all possible!

I’ll leave you with the poem from our gathering:

Dandelion Greens

You must come back, as your grandmother did,
with her basket and sharp knife, in daffodil light,
to the pasture, where the best greens spring
from heaps of dung, dark in the still brown
meadow grass. Cut them close to the root,
before they flower, rinse them in rain water
and bring them to the table, tossed
with oil, vinegar and salt, or homemade dressing.
They will be bitter but rich in iron—
your spring tonic your antidote to sleep.
Eat them because they are good for you.
Eat them in joy, for the earth revives.
Eat them in remembrance of your grandmother,
who raised ten children on them. Think
of all the dandelions they picked for her,
the countless downy seeds their laughter spread.
This is the life we believe in—
the saw-toothed blades, the lavish, common flowers.

Jane Flanders

 

 

 

 

 

A Home for Common Home Farm

“In any moment we are as much about softness as fortitude. Always in need of care and tenderness. Life is fluid, evanescent, evolving in every cell, in every breath. Never perfect. To be alive is by definition messy, always leaning toward disorder and surprise.”

— Krista Tippett, from Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living

We found a farm! So what I need to say first is thank you. Thank you.

This journey is teaching me to confront the messiness, the imperfection, the surprise of life. These last six months I have felt so fragile, so broken, so in need of care and tenderness. Fear startles me awake in the early morning. I dream of snakes. I speak of this time of uncertainty through metaphor: we are feeling our way in the dark, hands pressed to the cold, wet stone of cave walls. We’ve been looking ahead into black space and wondering when we’ll be able to see the home for Common Home Farm. And then surprise. Disorder and surprise. Now we can see it.

Let’s backtrack a bit. It’s October 2018, the leaves are fiery and the sky a deep blue. David runs into Amy Countryman at Kleindorfer’s Hardware Store. “Hey!” she says. “I was just thinking of y’all. We really want to help with your community but I’m not sure how.” Pause. “Unless, well, we do have some land north of town. I don’t know if you’d be interested … it’s only 10 acres…  but you could check it out.”

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The Garden “Shed” includes a green house on the front, lean-to storage on the back, a workshop, and garden storage space. This is the building we will be fixing up this spring.

We check it out. We take a long time to think about if this is the right land and the right situation for Common Home Farm. We talk to the planning department, the building department, our farmer friends. We seriously consider buying a different piece of land. We make many lists of pros and cons and on and on and on. We meet with Amy and Jeff many times. We sit with the decision in quiet and we listen. What we hear moves us forward:

  • Starting on Amy and Jeff’s land brings us land AND community. Though Amy and Jeff won’t be living on the land, they will be members of the community and intimately involved in decision-making.
  • It solves two problems beautifully: Their land and structures need tending. We want land and structures to tend.
  • We will be able to buy into the property through our labor on the land and buildings. This means we can spend more of our time working on the land as opposed to jobs in town.

What the pictures don’t show you is the place this land has in Amy and Jeff’s hearts. It’s a big deal that they want to share it. They’re not sharing it in a simple way either, like renting or selling to us. They are sharing it in a big, complicated way, like let’s figure out how to own this collectively or put it in a land trust for the ongoing benefit of the community. This is a courageous move that demonstrates their trust in us and this vision. What we are choosing here is not straightforward and it is not simple. But it upholds our values, brings amazing people into this work, offers us joy, and we are grateful.

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Amy poured her love (and hard work!) into this land for ten years as a market gardener.

We have a lot to still figure out organizationally. Some of those questions are: how do people join the community, how do they leave, do they build equity, what IS the organizational structure, how do we hold land in common? We also have a lot to figure out about rehabbing the garden shed and getting to know/clearing/regenerating the land. We plan to draft a long-term “land plan” in the next few months which will help us map out garden and animal space and building sites for future homes.

We had our inaugural workday last Saturday. We joyfully cleared out rotting wood, old garden supplies, rusty lawn chairs, and lots of vines. We plan to have workdays most Saturdays. We welcome any and all who might enjoy a day of light physical labor and laughter. We provide lunch, drinks, and a tour of this beautiful place we are grateful to call Common Home Farm.

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Amy and friends built this charming octagonal house. It’s currently being rented but will be available for community use starting in August.

 

 

 

 

 

Doing Things That Change You

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“Diamonds in the Snow” original mosaic by Christopher Warren Elam (see note below)

“…in most traditions, faith [is] not about belief but about practice. Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave a certain way, you will be transformed. The myths and laws of religion are not true because they conform to some metaphysical, scientific, or historical reality but because they are life enhancing. They tell you how human nature functions, but you will not discover their truth unless you apply these myths and doctrines to your own life and put them into practice. The myths of the hero, for example, are not meant to give us historical information about Prometheus or Achilles – or for that matter, about Jesus or Buddha. Their purpose is to compel us to act in such a way that we bring about our own heroic potential.”

  — The Spiral Staircase, Karen Armstrong

On the tree-lined, windy road between our home and Bloomington, I replayed this section from Karen Armstrong’s memoir, The Spiral Staircase. The next day I typed up the passage and posted it on my bedroom wall. It resonated strongly with my own ideas about religion, and captured some of the motivation behind calling our community an interfaith Catholic Worker.

Over the past two years David has been leading the way down a curious path. Like freshmen do in college, he began again to ask the big questions: Is there a God? What about miracles? What is the origin of the universe? In other words, he was taking time to intentionally examine the supernatural beliefs handed down to him. The questions had been there a long time, but he finally got around to looking them in the eye.

To be honest, when he started asking those questions, I could see little point in taking time to answer them. Why bother when there are no objective answers? Even if there were, I would still believe in the Catholic Worker way of life. I had lived its truth, and felt the abundance, love, and struggle that led to wholeness. That’s why I liked what Karen Armstrong wrote. It was by enacting values that I have been changed, not by a belief in a literal resurrection or incarnation or deified God.

David may be a secular humanist or a religious naturalist or a non-theistic Christian – or some combination of all of those things. I may be a Jesus-follower, God-Is-Love, Catholic Worker. We’re different so we understand the world in different ways. And that’s okay. From our diverse theological beliefs we still come to the same place, a place that is well represented by the Catholic Worker movement, with its focus on radical collective action and social justice.

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The Works of Mercy and The Works of War

Despite its name, the Catholic Worker movement is not part of the institutional Catholic Church. It is full of people who hold a variety of religious beliefs and practices. Some Catholic Worker communities are composed of Catholic members and some are not. The founders, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, were Catholics who discovered in the gospels and the social encyclicals of the Catholic Church instructions for how to live out their faith. They followed those instructions, particularly the Sermon on the Mount and the Works of Mercy, and started a movement that had a three-part program: round table discussions, the establishment of Houses of Hospitality to feed and shelter the poor, and farming communes to create an alternative to industrial, capitalist society.

Perhaps it is more confusing to be an ‘interfaith Catholic Worker,’ but our hope is to communicate our welcoming of diverse religious and theological beliefs and also name the way of life and the values that unite us. It’s helpful that the Catholic Worker movement already tends to emphasize practice rather than adherence to theological belief. As a decentralized movement with anarchist roots, it is a better example of orthopraxis than orthodoxy. Telling Catholic Workers what to believe will be met with resistance. But telling them what to do (feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, love your enemies, care for creation, resist violence and work for peace) will unite them in action. Whatever theological, religious or supernatural beliefs people hold, our hope is that we will be unified by the intentional way we live together at Common Home Farm. We don’t pretend it will easy to find language and rituals that resonate with diverse beliefs, but we think it is important to try.

A note about my own beliefs:

I was raised Catholic but wandered out of the Church while in college. I never found another spiritual home so I stayed out of religion for the next ten years.  When I moved into the Bloomington Catholic Worker, I saw a lived expression of Christianity that helped me become a truer version of myself. I call myself Christian because my path towards transformation has been primarily guided by people from the Christian tradition — Jesus, Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin and all the ordinary radicals in the Catholic Worker and intentional communities movement. I remain a Christian because the practices articulated in the gospels, and in the Sermon on the Mount in particular, have proven to lead to wholeness. They are not easy, but they are not harder than what modern society demands of people. And they are deeply satisfying.

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“The Cloud of Unknowing” original mosaic by Christopher Warren Elam (see note below)

I am still figuring out what my relationships is with Christian myth. The resurrection has a lot of meaning and symbolic power for me. But it does not matter to me whether or not it actually, literally happened. The same is true for most supernatural stories from the Bible. As for God, I believe in God but not the father-almighty-creator-of-heaven-and-earth. What I believe in is God as love. Not God as supreme being, but rather God as “The Spirit” or “The Mystery,” the nameless presence of a loving power. Nancy Ellen Abrams, in A God That Could Be Real, proposes that God emerges from our collective aspirations. In other words, all our hopes, ambitions, and dreams give rise to an emergent phenomenon we might call God. We create God rather than God creating us.

On good nights, I light a candle and pray before bed. I read an evening liturgy from Prayers for a Planetary Pilgrim, not because I think God will answer my prayers, but because reflecting on my day grounds me in gratitude and concern for others. Sleep comes more easily after I take time to put my mind and heart to rest.

My spirituality is changing, growing and deepening. I suspect it always will be. I desire to be in a community that values and supports the work of the soul and the spirit. For it is through life with others that my spirit is fed.

P.S. A big shout out to Chris Elam, my former community mate and dear friend, for letting me use these images of his beautiful, spirit-filled artwork. The images here don’t show the entire mosaics. Please visit his website to see more of his work at www.omosaico.com.

Embracing Enmity

“Conflict is woven into the fabric of all life; opposition is normal. Reasonable creatures disagree with each other all the time…Do not be surprised when you encounter resistance. Meet it with grace and skill.” — Frank Rivers The Way of the Owl: Succeeding with Integrity in a Conflicted World 

On this journey, I frequently hear two voices in my head. One says, “Don’t wait for others. Make the decisions you want to make. Move ahead and make this thing happen!” The other says, “Slow down. Listen to the people around you. Include them wholeheartedly in the process.” 

The problem with going ahead by ourselves is that we won’t have others along with us. The problem with having others along with us is that we’ll have others along with us. It’s a question of which difficulties you prefer. I’m a community-oriented person so I tend to prefer the difficulties that come from having others along with us, namely interpersonal conflict.

conflict-clipart-person-9Undoubtedly, the hardest part of living closely with others is dealing with conflict. The question is not will there be conflict but when will there be conflict and how can it be handled well. Most conflict is small, arising out of miscommunication or misunderstanding. Working on the small conflicts helps us grow into people who can navigate relationships with grace. Some interpersonal conflict can be damaging and cause relationships to weaken. However, if all parties involved have the willingness and humility to pursue a resolution, conflict can also bring about great growth and ultimately bring people closer together.

Because conflict occurs in all relationships – whether with friends, children, spouses or siblings – it is wise to find a healthy way to address it. We had some techniques for dealing with conflict at the Bloomington Catholic Worker. We made time each week to gather and name any grievances, to confess any wrongdoing, and to reconcile with one another. When the “nip it in the bud” approach wasn’t enough, we would have a mediator facilitate a conversation between the people in conflict. We tried to take time to examine our own thoughts, feelings, and ways in which we contributed to the conflict. All these things helped to some degree but we knew that conflict would never disappear from community altogether. We could only hope to get better at handling it.

In The Way of the Owl, Rivers offers this suggestion for approaching conflict:

owl-clipart-black-and-white-bTyEyyarc“Give your opponent’s argument some place to go by acknowledging it, especially if you disagree. Instead of countering his outrageous arguments, give them some credit. Illuminate your adversary’s path with acceptance, inquiry, and even encouragement. This will disarm him, leaving him slack-jawed and flat-footed, wondering what happened to the resistance he expected.”

I have been the adversary before, making my point incessantly, fueled by emotion and self-righteousness. Let’s say it’s an argument with David, my husband, about the dishes.

“You never do the dishes when you’re home with the kids,” I say when I come home from work.

“But I vacuumed and took out the trash,” he says.

“But the dishes. I can’t stand to come home to a sink full of dirty dishes,” I say.

And then suddenly, David (who is a better person than I am), from some peaceful place in his soul, manages to say, “You’re right. I didn’t wash the dishes today.”

“But…” is on the tip of my tongue ready to be launched, but now I can’t launch it. What did he just say? I have nothing to argue about anymore. Because he agreed with me, I suddenly feel like a jerk. I have no reason to pick on a husband who vacuumed and took out the trash all the while watching two energetic kids!

It’s incredibly hard to acknowledge an adversary’s point and to really get on their side, even if that adversary is your spouse. But the result of doing so could mean more than an end to the argument but also a substantial change in your relationship. Imagine doing this with someone at work, in your family, or at church.

Imagine doing what River’s suggests here: “You must get inside his skin, feel his sensations, think his thoughts, and dream his dreams. In this way, a curious bond develops; you may actually begin to identify with your opponent and his predicament…Severe enmity can lead to bonding, even friendship and alliance.”

What is required to do this is a putting aside of one’s own ego, one’s own argument. It is another version of the Christian teaching to love your enemy. That is the hardest work that is done in community, the work that has much to teach us about ourselves and others. Had I put myself in David’s shoes, I would have come home from work full of praise and gratitude to him for caring for our kids all day. And then I would have happily started in on the dishes.

Another approach to conflict resolution is offered by Thich Nhat Han. His community, Plum Village, uses a Peace Treaty to handle conflict. The Peace Treaty is signed by members of the community after much discussion and contemplation. It outlines the steps that both people in a conflict should take once a conflict has been named. It includes many reflective, meditative practices that essentially boil down to finding humility for our part in a conflict and compassion for the other person. We never used this Peace Treaty at the BCW, but I know it will be necessary to have a conflict resolution process that is well-articulated and agreed upon by all members of the community.

I learn a lot about myself and other people through navigating conflict. Conflict is always painful – sometimes the pain proves beneficial and sometimes it just hurts. I am not looking forward to future conflicts that will arise out of the creation of Common Home Farm, but I am preparing for them the best I can.

 

The Daily Grind

“Most of us, male or female, work at full-time jobs that seem organized around a presumption that some wifely person is at home picking up the slack— filling the gap between school and workday’s end, doing errands only possible during business hours, meeting the expectation that we are hungry when we get home— but in fact June Cleaver has left the premises. Her income was needed to cover the mortgage and health insurance….In fact that gal Friday is us, both moms and dads running on overdrive, smashing the caretaking duties into small spaces between job and carpool and bedtime.”

— Barbara Kingsolver Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

At our daughter’s parent-teacher conference this week, I described her behavior at home: whining, fighting, sticking out her tongue, nasty under-the-breath comments, arms crossed, brow furrowed. She’s angry about everything. My behavior at home has also been marked by anger, shouting, crying, and muttering under my breath — I hate my life! I don’t hate my life, but boy is my family having a rough time adjusting to “the daily grind.” It has us bickering at breakfast and dinner (which is all the time we spend with each other now), rushing through bedtime routines to get exhausted children to sleep so we won’t hate each other so much the next day.

'Ahh...I see your future. Get up, go to work, go to bed. Get up, go to work, go to bed. Get...'

It blows my mind that most people in this country participate in the daily grind. No wonder we are an insane society! At the Bloomington Catholic Worker, we were busy but still we had more time with our children, more time for ourselves, and more time for serving others. I still struggled to parent my children well, but our daily lives generally felt more balanced. And I never ever uttered the words, “I hate my life.”

The question “Why?” comes to mind when I think about the daily grind. Why do we send our kids to school and rush off to work and then rejoin for dinner (often unpleasant), only to do it all again the next day? Yes, some people are pursuing fulfilling jobs and living out their passions. But even with the most fulfilling jobs, the daily grind asks so much of our lives. Never enough time with our families, never enough time for exercise or leisure or personal growth or other aspirations we’ve tucked away for retirement.

The answer is complex but largely wrapped up in security and stability. The daily grind, full-time work and full-time school, is how people afford housing and save for retirement and the kids’ college. It’s how we have to live to make ends meet. It’s very reasonable and responsible, but the outcome is so wretched. (Or maybe it’s just wretched for me and my family at this point in time….maybe it will get better?)

What does all this have to do with Common Home Farm? Part of our motivation for starting an intentional community farm is because we want a daily rhythm that is life-giving and balanced most of the time. We want to spend our days with our children (and with other people) engaged in meaningful, productive work. We are taking a risk in eschewing careers in favor of community. That risk is to let go of, or at least loosen our grip on the security of money.

This week I’ve been wondering if we are making the right choice. A friend of mine has community-minded parents who traveled the world seeking community instead of careers. Now they have no retirement funds and receive almost no social security payments. My friend and her husband work hard at full-time jobs to help support her parents. Her parents don’t have any other choice but to live with their children, which has been both a gift and a challenge. It makes me wonder if I should be less idealistic and more pragmatic. Should just stop my whining, find a career and start saving?

It seems to me that two truths are at play:

  1. We should work really hard now so that we can rest later.
  2. We should live out our values to the best of our ability each day.

I don’t think these should conflict with each other. I know we really want to do both: we want to work really hard to live out our values each day. I don’t know, however, that David and I will be able to rest when we are older. I don’t know that we will have any money in our bank account. I don’t know if we will be a burden on our children. I take some solace in thinking that we may have security on the land. That the place we hope to create – Common Home Farm – could be home to us and others for the rest of our lives. That the people who come to Common Home Farm, and the relationships we form, will be there to lift us up when we need help. We will have to work hard everyday to create this kind of security, but we believe it will offer us a daily rhythm instead of the daily grind.

The Economy of Interdependence

“It will become increasingly important, then, that we find ways to deconstruct the dominance of individualism in our society and to replace individualism with broader ideas of community. This shift will necessarily challenge notions of the centrality of competition for goods and the accumulation of individual wealth as we create persistent images of community well-being in our neighborhoods and reservations, in our cities, in our continental whole.” — Tink Tinker in American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty

Lately I’ve been mourning our exit from intentional community’s economy of interdependence. I turn weepy when I realize that I have personally bought every item in our refrigerator. It’s not stuffed with the donated food from Lucky’s Market or ham bones that Anne Jones dropped by. Extra produce no longer appears randomly on our kitchen table. Instead of living off the waste of the food system (and bulk lentils and rice), I join the rest of America and go to the store to buy my food.

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My refrigerator contents, folks. I bought all that food! Come eat with us sometime!

One of the reasons I’m passionate about intentional community is because it decreases our dependency on money and the capitalist economy. It is a clustering of human and physical resources that are exchanged through personal relationship. At the Bloomington Catholic Worker, I didn’t need to own a second vehicle. I could borrow Chris and Emily’s van for carpooling needs, and they could take our car when they needed a more fuel-efficient vehicle. The four families in the community shared one truck (and lent it out to others) to haul manure for the gardens. We watched each other’s children for date-nights, doctor appointments, and other last minute emergencies. And together we were able to share our homes with people who had nowhere to live.

Our monthly contribution to the community (around $850), covered all our living expenses, the majority of our food expenses, and property maintenance. The community fund that paid for it all was composed of monthly contributions from members as well as some regular donations from people who supported our work. Our low living expenses were also greatly facilitated by an initial $100,000 donation that allowed for the purchase of the first two homes and no-interest loans that bought the second two homes.

What this decreased dependency on money meant is that we owned more of our time. With this time we lived out our values – volunteering in the jail, housing the homeless, welcoming visitors, planting trees and flowers, planning neighborhood block parties, taking care of our children, our neighbors and one another.

In our world, it seems that only the wealthy own their time, with no need to exchange labor for money. But the other way to own your time is to pool your resources and live simply together.

Out here in the capitalist economy of independence, I have to do more for myself by myself, which generally means I have to buy things or hire people to help solve my problems. When we moved, our living expenses increased so I took on a new job. But the new job required access to a vehicle, so we bought a second car, which also increased our living expenses. We are still trying to live out our communitarian values (carpool anyone?), even as it becomes more difficult to do so.

When we look ahead to buying land, we know we’ll have to do it in the economy of interdependence. We spent nine years at the Bloomington Catholic Worker on a path of downward mobility, intentionally avoiding the accrual of wealth. The house we lived in was a community house, and so we have no major assets. No bank will give us a mortgage because we earn below the poverty line. But that’s okay. We don’t want a large debt that would require us to find full-time paid work because that would take us away from the work at Common Home Farm.

We will need your help and your generosity. The financial stability and viability of Common Home Farm depends upon donations and no-interest loans for the purchase of the land. After that initial investment, our part-time paid work will be enough to fund the day-to-day operations. We’re hopeful that friends and family with financial resources will make an investment in the economy of interdependence we will create. Please think about what you can offer, and know that we will offer abundance back to you and the rest of the world.