The Essential Goodness Of The Nation

If you are, as I am, a sentimental middle-aged person who cherishes certain Coplandian notions about the essential goodness of the nation, seeing this kind of thing in person—adults shouting wrathfully at one another with no intention of persuasion, invested only in escalating spite—will inject a palpable sadness into your thinning, under-exercised legs, and you may find yourself collapsing, post-rally, against a tree in a public park, feeling hopeless. Craving something positive (no more fighting, no more invective, please, please), forcing yourself to your feet, you may cross a busy avenue and find, in a mini-mall themed like Old Mexico, a wedding about to begin. Up will walk the bridesmaids, each leading, surprisingly, a dog on a leash, and each dog is wearing a tutu, and one, a puppy too small to be trusted in a procession, is being carried, in its tutu, in the arms of its bridesmaid.
        And this will somehow come as an unbelievable relief.
        LeftLand and RightLand are housemates who are no longer on speaking terms. And then the house is set on fire. By Donald Trump. Good people from both subnations gape at one another through the smoke.
         From the beginning, America has been of two minds about the Other. One mind says, Be suspicious of it, dominate it, deport it, exploit it, enslave it, kill it as needed. The other mind denies that there can be any such thing as the Other, in the face of the claim that all are created equal.
        The first mind has always held violence nearby, to use as needed, and that violence has infused everything we do—our entertainments, our sex, our schools, our ads, our jokes, our view of the earth itself, somehow even our food. It sends our young people abroad in heavy armor, fills public spaces with gunshots, drives people quietly insane in their homes.
        Although, to me, Trump seems the very opposite of a guardian angel, I thank him for this: I’ve never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail.
        But I imagine it that way now.
        –George Saunders on Donald Trump for The New Yorker
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Edmund de Waal and the Strange Alchemy of Porcelain

De Waal does all of his making (he calls it, invariably, ‘‘making’’) on an old, uncomfortable, paint-covered, backless wooden stool that he inherited during his apprenticeship in the 1980s. The stool and the wheel are very low, so he has to fold his long body over, basically in half, as he sits. Shaping a pot is still more or less an ancient activity: wet earth yielding to human pressure. De Waal prefers to be slightly distracted as he does it, by music or conversation, so that his conscious mind can get out of the way of his hands.

De Waal worries that modern humans are beginning to lose our fluency in touch. He thinks that we live in a world impoverished by a lack of attention to tactility. Our culture has a deeply embedded shame of the body, shame of skin, shame of ‘‘mere’’ sensation — a desire to transcend the animal coarseness of nerves, hair, blood flow. To live in clean, noble abstractions: things that we think will last. All of our digital technology, all of these portable virtual worlds, only make it easier to live in touchlessness. If you put on virtual-reality goggles, there will be plenty to look at and pretend to touch, but nothing to actually feel. But touch, de Waal insists, is fundamental to the human experience. If we can’t fully inhabit and value the world of touchable objects, de Waal told me, then we can’t fully value other human beings.

— Sam Anderson, for The New York Times

The Fine Art Of Doing Nothing In Particular

It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone. The fine art of doing nothing in particular, also known as thinking, or musing, or introspection, or simply moments of being, was part of what happened when you walked from here to there, alone, or stared out the train window, or contemplated the road, but the new technologies have flooded those open spaces. Space for free thought is routinely regarded as a void and filled up with sounds and distractions.

–Rebecca Solnit, from We’re Breaking Up: Noncommunication in the Silicon Age; quoted in Brain Pickings

The Mother of All Questions

More fundamentally, the question assumed that there was only one proper way for a woman to live.

Questions about happiness generally assume that we know what a happy life looks like. Happiness is understood to be a matter of having a great many ducks lined up in a row — spouse, offspring, private property, erotic experiences — even though a millisecond of reflection will bring to mind countless people who have all those things and are still miserable.

We are constantly given one-size-fits-all recipes, but those recipes fail, often and hard. Nevertheless, we are given them again. And again and again. They become prisons and punishments; the prison of the imagination traps many in the prison of a life that is correctly aligned with the recipes and yet is entirely miserable.

I have done what I set out to do in my life, and what I set out to do was not what the interviewer presumed. I set out to write books, to be surrounded by generous, brilliant people, and to have great adventures. Men — romances, flings, and long-term relationships — have been some of those adventures, and so have remote deserts, arctic seas, mountaintops, uprisings and disasters, and the exploration of ideas, archives, records, and lives.

–Rebecca Solnit, “The Mother of All Questions,”  from Harper’s Magazine

The World Will Be Saved By Beauty

With hopes of saving the world I went to graduate school to earn degrees in social work and theology. I was starting my career of full-time social work when I was invited to audition for a modern dance company.

Here I was, helping the elderly and the forgotten, working for justice – receiving full benefits and a hefty salary. But dance called me to unite my mind and body, to escape the partiarchial heirarchy of agency work and stretch my creative side. What was I to do?

Dostoyevsky said, ‘The world will be saved by beauty.’ I read this in the context of a catholic worker books study. I expected to hear that the world would be saved by feeding the poor and protesting the war. ‘the world will be saved by beauty?’ What does that mean? The mystery of these words invited me to dance–they blessed me in leaving social work.

In the past four months, I have discovered how dance can be an an art of hospitality and peacemaking – of protesting violence and making space to share joy or deep lament.

Dance can express truths and emotions that are deeper than language, allowing us to envision a more peaceful world. And yet, sometimes as a I watch a dance performance, I think, ‘This is ridiculous, all this time rehearsing for such a brief offering on stage.’

Maybe dancing doesn’t make sense in a time when our country is at war, or a time when there is great disparity between the rich and the poor. But for me, the act of dancing has become an act of resistance. An act of hope. A way of praying a new world into being.

–Katie Brennan, “Dancing Protest” from Geez Magazine

The Alluring Danger Of Dilettantism

I’ve been puzzled by the popularity of the game Guitar Hero, for what seems to me like obvious reasons. It’s like karaoke minus the trouble of having to hear the sounds you make. If you want a more interactive way to enjoy music, why not dance, or play air guitar? Or better yet, if holding a guitar appeals to you, why not try actually learning how to play? For the cost of an Xbox and the Guitar Hero game, you can get yourself a pretty good guitar. I assume I am missing the point of it, the competitive thrill, but I can’t help but feel that Guitar Hero (much like Twitter) would have been utterly incomprehensible to earlier generations, that it is a symptom of some larger social refusal to embrace difficulty…A society that requires such short cuts and preemptive blows in the name of the short-attention span surely must be deeply broken, our progenitors probably would have thought.

To take a trivial example, let’s say you decide you like psychedelic music and want to “master” it by having a deep familiarity with the genre. But then you stumble on the hardcore psych MP3 blogs, and you are probably at that point discouraged by the impossibility of ever catching up and listening to it all. There is simply too much that’s now available too readily. You might still download everything you can get your hands on—that costs nothing but disk space and a minimal amount of time—but you’ll never make significant use of the larger portion of what you acquire. Acquiring has supplanted inquisitive use as the self-realizing activity. You have become a collector of stuff as opposed to a master of psychedelic music.

This seems to happen generally, as what Elster calls “the marginal disutility of not consuming” grows stronger—i.e., we have a harder time giving up the thrill of novelty, of exposing ourselves to new things. We end up collecting things rather than knowing them, and we display our collections in the hopes that others will recognize us as though we actually do know them.

Dilettantism is a perfectly rational response to the hyperaccessibility of stuff available to us in the market, all of which imposes on us time constraints where there was once material scarcity. These time constraints become more itchy the more we recognize how much we are missing out on (thanks to ever more invasive marketing efforts, often blended in to the substance of the material we are gathering for self-realization). We opt instead for “diversity,” and begin setting about to rationalize the preferability of novelty even further, abetted by the underlying message of much our culture of disposability. Concentration takes on more of the qualities of work—it becomes a disutility rather than an end vis-a-vis the stuff we acquire. If something requires us to concentrate, it costs us more and forces us to sacrifice more of the stuff we might otherwise consume. In other words, consumerism makes the will and ability to concentrate seem a detriment to ourselves. The next thing you know, everyone touts Guitar Hero as a reasonable substitute for guitar playing and mocks the fuddy-duddy nabobs of negativism who are still hung up on the difference.

— Rob Horning in PopMatters

We Are Living From Mystery

Our kitchens and other eating places more and more resemble filling stations, as our homes more and more resemble motels. ‘Life is not very interesting,’ we seem to have decided. ‘Let its satisfactions be minimal, perfunctory, and fast.’ We hurry through our meals to go to work and hurry through our work in order to ‘recreate’ ourselves in the evenings and on weekends and vacations. And then we hurry, with the greatest possible speed and noise and violence, through our recreation — for what? To eat the billionth hamburger at some fast-food joint hellbent on increasing the ‘quality’ of our life? And all this is carried out in a remarkable obliviousness to the causes and effects, the possibilities and the purposes, of the life of the body in this world.

I mentioned earlier the politics, esthetics, and ethics of food. But to speak of the pleasure of eating is to go beyond those categories. Eating with the fullest pleasure — pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance — is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend. When I think of the meaning of food, I always remember these lines by the poet William Carlos Williams, which seem to me merely honest:

There is nothing to eat,
seek it where you will,
but the body of the Lord.
The blessed plants
and the sea, yield it
to the imagination
intact.

— Wendell Berry, The Pleasures of Eating

This Momentous Giving

Lovers must not, like usurers, live for themselves alone. They must finally turn from their gaze at one another back toward the community. If they had only themselves to consider, lovers would not need to marry, but they must think of others and of other things. They say their vows to the community as much as to one another, and the community gathers around them to hear and to wish them well, on their behalf and its own. It gathers around them because it understands how necessary, how joyful, and how fearful this joining is. These lovers, pledging themselves to one another ‘until death,’ are giving themselves away, and they are joined by this as no law or contract could join them. Lovers, then, ‘die’ into their union with one another as a soul ‘dies’ into its union with God. And so here, at the very heart of community life, we find not something to sell as in the public market but this momentous giving. If the community cannot protect this giving, it can protect nothing.

— Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays

Eating Reverently

Unknown

The world’s largest religion began with a meal. There was a large enough room for the people invited. There was a jug of water. There were bowls and loaves of bread and cups and vessels of wine. There were prayers and speeches; there was a song and an argument. The night before he was killed, Jesus ate supper with his friends. One might argue that there was born a sacrament so central to Christianity, that the Church itself was born that night. The Eucharist, many Christians believe, reenacts both that meal and the sacrifice Jesus made on humankind’s behalf—offering forgiveness and collapsing the divide between God and humanity. For Christians, during communion, all distances are crossed, all boundaries blurred. Life unites with death; spirit with body; meaning with fact; the profane with the sacred; the host with the guest. But also, as perhaps non-Christians more likely observe, the ritual is simply bread and wine. There might be a tablecloth or a candle, there might be a prayer, but the bread comes from the same place as does our morning toast, baked by the same young baker who works at the bakery down the street….

The approach we take to feeding one another in our individual homes, the manner in which we gather around the table, the unspoken dividing and sharing of responsibilities, the inarticulate daily habits, are all bound by ritual and rich with ceremony. Like religious practices, these details reveal hidden graces and express our repeating and consistent gratitude. They can reflect the general peace of a household, or be the cause of divide and discord. These “ways of doing things” are not without controversy because they are specific and savory. Just like religious sacraments, their power to include, to ground and form our identities, to draw an imaginary line around our households, is as profound as their power to exclude. In our house, we are unified by the way we give and receive acts of comfort, the timings of our comings and goings, the type of milk we buy, the type of cereal. At their most basic, these housekeeping details are a simple system of kindnesses holding together the fabric of our families. At their most complicated, they are an intricate web of histories and beliefs, as paradoxical and tangled and esoteric as any religion. To grow bored of our tables and foods, therefore, would not only be sad and unhealthy, it would be, in every sense of the word, irreverent.

–Nikaela Marie Peters in Kinfolk