We are so fortunate

I usually read two or three books at a time.  There is no good reason for this, except that I find I desire different types of books at different times of the day.  Maybe the nonfiction I enjoy in the morning helps prime my mind for the day while the fiction in the evening helps me bridge the transition between consciousness and dreams.

 

Two of the books I am currently reading are “One Man’s Meat” by E.B.White and “You Learn by Living” by Eleanor Roosevelt.  I read both in the morning with my first cup of coffee.  This time of year, I read my morning books as I wait for the wood stove to warm the room and by extension, the house.

Both excellent books were written in the mid-1900’s; White’s in the early 1940’s and Roosevelt’s in 1960.  Life lessons of 80 years ago are still applicable today indicating certain immutable traits of humanity.

What is truly eye opening to me are the descriptions of daily life in both books.  In White’s 1939 essay, The Flocks We Watch by Night, he describes entering a friend’s house to sit in the kitchen one evening:

“‘Come in, won’t you?’ said Charles when the ewe was tied.  ‘I’ll show you my new cat.’ …

“The boy and I groped along, and Charles struck a match and lit a lamp.  I sat down in an old rocker by the stove and the boy stood beside me, his arm around me.  Charles put the black kitten in my lap and it settled there.

“‘What’s the iron pipe out back?’ I asked.

“‘I’m going to pipe water into the house,” said Charles.  ‘Sarah wants it and I guess she ought to have it.  I got a pump from Sears a year ago, but I never put the pipe in.  I don’t like to get things too handy around here.'”

And from Roosevelt’s essay, Readjustment is Endless,  (Emphasis mine):

 “For many generations there was no particular change in the family income.  From father to son the situation remained approximately the same.  But wars, depressions, and the – perhaps I could call it the invisible – revolution in the United States have all had their effect on income.

“As young people advance in their jobs and earn more money, they have an important and difficult adjustment to make.  They must learn the best ways in which to use this larger income.   Will they have more education?  Will they add certain things to their homes they never thought of having, such as music or pictures?  Will they have more service?  They must make the decisions.”

These books are less than 100 years old.  For me, these books don’t seem that old at all.  You see, I was born in that odd space that demographers find problematic describing – the exact end of Gen X and the Millennials.  Depending on who you believe, I fall into either camp.  These books were written a little over one generation prior to my birth.

Both of these passages reinforce in my mind how fortunate we are today.  We take running water inside the house for granted.  We flick a light switch and our whole room is illuminated.  We have multiple sources of entertainment – musical, TV, internet, movies, etc.  Over 33% of the adult population has a college degree.  Today, people consider the Amish conservative for not having electricity in their homes – but they still have running water.  Even these ‘backward’ people live a more advanced life than did White’s neighbor.

We take so much for granted.

We should take one moment away from our list of wants and simply be grateful for what we have.

You know what – do that for me.  Take one minute to look around you.  Silence the small voice telling you everything that is wrong or that you need or what the Jones’s have.  Look at something in your house that you take for granted – central heat, electricity, water, your computer, mobile phone(s), photos, art, your spouse, your child; even those people that have passed out of your life, for they were in your life to begin with.

Be thankful for that one thing – many people, including some of your grand parents, were not fortunate enough to experience that one thing.

But you are so fortunate.

        

 

On being a dad

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Being a dad has many fine points: pushing the swing just high enough that BOTH dad and daughter are a might nervous; telling the stories of Wanda the Wolf (who lives at 1 Cave Road in Circleville PA); encouraging the toddler to coast just a wee bit fast on her Burly MyKick Balance Bike and then convincing her the resultant skinned knee makes her look tough.  The list can go on.

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Photo taken 30 seconds prior to said skinned knee.

Perhaps though, the best part of being a dad is being able to better know my own father.  No trigger I can yet identify causes me to be thrown back to my own childhood, though from the vantage point of my dad:

  • Once, when holding my daughter’s hand I felt oddly nostalgic.  Seeing her hand in mine, I could see my hand in my dad’s when we would walk to the local diner for hot chocolate with whipped cream (now the Bistro at Haddonfield).
  •  Walking down a path in the woods, some combination of roots, rocks and ferns enables me to see myself, three decades prior, running down a similar path.

Just as my dad helped guide me as a child, these rare moments of role-reversal deja vu continue to guide me as a father.

Just because it’s hard

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Gnarly road rash from super aggressive sandpaper.

For most of 2016 (and really, for most of the past 20+ years), I’ve been pondering my future: who I want to be, what I want to do, where I want to live.  Pondering one’s future is not an easy task because it requires a person to review their past as they plot their next steps.  Pondering the future takes time and energy; time and energy that may be devoted to other pursuits.

In fall 1997 or 1998, Outside Magazine ran an article with the 100 things to do to have a successful life.  The activities I remember include: getting marooned on an island (and escaping a week later), bungee jumping, and spend a night in the Sahara.  I’ve tried, with no luck, to locate the original article (update: Here is the article, sent to me by a reader).  Every few years Outside compiles a new, though similar, list.

It must have been fall 1998, because I was dating my high school girlfriend at the time.  Anyway, Outside Magazine inspired my 17-year-old self to write my own list for a successful life.  I spent a teenage eternity of four hours developing my own life-list.  Only 48 goals could spill out of my mind in those hours, but I remember reviewing the list and feeling good about the direction of my life.

The notebook got lost as I moved from home to college, then college to my permanent residence, but one goal really stuck with me: “Be respected in life”.

I wrote those simple words as a 17-year old because of two events that greatly affected me.  I will try to condense those stories here:

  1. When I was 12, my grandfather died unexpectedly.  As the story goes, at the service one of my grandfather’s friends mentioned my grandfather’s height – he was 5’6″.  Astonished, another of his friends disputed the fact stating “Bill [my grandfather] must have been taller!”
  2.  A high-school teacher of mine did his best to mingle with the high-school kids.  He tried to be ‘cool’.  At this point, I am unable to recall specifics, but rather than elevate the students to an adult level, he lowered himself to the student’s level.  As an adult, I’m now aware this particular teacher was experiencing some personal stresses at the time, but this ‘lowering’ behavior disturbed me.

Combined, these two stories demonstrated to me the type of person I wanted to become.  I instinctively knew the ability to elevate others, as my grandfather did, took steadfast personal energy while lowering oneself, as the teacher did, required no energy.

My original journal surfaced a year ago.  Rereading the writing of a 17-year old, the clarity of the 17-year old’s vision astounded the 34-year old.  The list included not only activities: see Mt. Everest from base camp; go skinny dipping; and see a full moon from each continent, but also lifetime milestones: get married; start a family; never stop learning.  The day I reread the list, I checked off nearly one quarter of the entries.

I realized, of the activities I had accomplished, the more difficult the activity the more satisfying the memories.  Wendell Berry alludes to this in his book The Unsettling of America.  While Berry does not outright say “difficult work leads to satisfying memories”, he does argue for a return to a more settled, agrarian society rather than the fragmented, unsettled, city-based society we have today.  Yet he acknowledges that the work he advocates for is not easy and maybe not even enjoyable on a granular scale.  However, when taken in its entirety the work is satisfying.

All of my farmer friends confirm Berry’s thesis.

A minuscule ebb tide of people from cities to agrarian wilds exists today.  Authors such as Wendell Berry and Ben Hewitt actively pursue this lifestyle.  Others, such as The Frugalwoods, want more meaning out of life, so they leave cities such as Cambridge, MA to head to rural locations.

A pall of dissatisfaction hangs over America today.  We are wealthy and the work is easy, but neither appear to bring satisfaction.  Yes, a growing rift between the wealthy and poor does exist in this country, yet some of the most satisfied people I know do not live on the wealthy side of the rift.  Farmers, sawyers, and contractors predominate this satisfied-but-not-wealthy clique on the ‘have not’ side of the rift (which begs the question: What does it mean to ‘have’ or ‘have not’?).

What do all of these people have in common that a large portion of the US seemingly does not?

These farmers, sawyers, and contractors embrace hard work and the satisfaction that follows.  In his book Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting off the Beaten Path, Unschooling, and Reconnecting with the Natural World (a spectacular read if you haven’t already), Ben Hewitt discusses both the struggles as well as the satisfaction of a hard-work life.

I have trouble explaining why I enjoy lifting a 120-pound drum sander out of my car only to give myself gnarly road rash on a Saturday morning, but I do.  Is it easy to elevate people as my grandfather did?  No, but my grandfather did so and based on conversations about him, he led a satisfied life.  My farmer friends would “absolutely not trade the financial and physical hardships of this life” for easier work and a larger paycheck.

The older I get, the more I am convinced the answer to the riddle is simply “Just because it’s hard”.