Consumerism ≠ cultured

Wonderful observation made by W.H. Auden in 1967, quoted at Opus:

Again, while it is a great blessing that a man no longer has to be rich in order to enjoy the masterpieces of the past, for paperbacks, first-rate color reproductions, and stereo-phonograph records have made them available to all but the very poor, this ease of access, if misused — and we do misuse it — can become a curse. We are all of us tempted to read more books, look at more pictures, listen to more music than we can possibly absorb, and the result of such gluttony is not a cultured mind but a consuming one; what it reads, looks at, listens to is immediately forgotten, leaving no more traces behind than yesterday’s newspaper.


Christmas Eve

Mary arrives in Bethlehem

TITLE: “他們沒有地方投宿” (“There was No Place for Them to Stay…”)
ARTIST: 白慧群 (Bai Huiqun, Pai Hui-ch’un)
INSCRIPTION(S): 白慧群敬寫 (Drawn by Bai Huiqun)
MEDIUM: Chinese watercolor on silk; mounted as hanging scroll
DESCRIPTION: An innkeeper turns away Joseph while Mary waits on the back of a donkey.
DIMENSIONS: (Painting [Mounting]) 43×28 cm [55.5×124 cm]



Wait for the Lord (Taize Community)

Wait For the Lord, whose day is near
Wait for the Lord, keep watch, take heart

Wendell Berry: Accept local responsibility to affect change

Via this YouTube video:

I don’t think that I know anything that’s reducible to a last word. Our people like to trade in that kind of stuff, but it’s stuff. It really doesn’t amount too much.

What’s really interesting is the possibility that we humans can make sense. This is an issue, this is a formal issue [of] the greatest urgency and gravity. What are the conditions within which we human beings can make sense? Within what limits can our minds be effective?

I’ve been griping about this to some of my friends lately. We’ve had two generations of college-bred people now who have really been indoctrinated now that every big problem has a big solution, and I just don’t believe it. The big problems we have now are going to be solved, if they ever are solved, by hundreds of people accepting local responsibility for small problems. They ain’t never gonna get famous, they ain’t never gonna get tenured for this. But this is the way it has to work.

We’re not really very smart we humans. And the idea that someone could come up with a big solution to a big problem is always dangerous. It always come down to the simple, the simple solution. People who make simple solutions always make trouble. And they’re always surprised by the trouble they make.

So, to hell with the last words. Let’s try and make one sentence that’s rightly positioned within a manageable context so that we can utter it to somebody else and they’ll understand it. And then we would be on the way to define a job of work that we can actually do.

Thoughts 1 & 2 on American culture

The past few years I’ve been thinking about family legacies and family culture here in the US.

ONE – Legacy might not really be the proper term as it will likely conjure up thoughts of Kennedies and nepotism. My thoughts have been more along the lines of passing along a family business or craft. Your grandfather was a carpenter, your father was a carpenter now you’re a carpenter.

TWO — On family culture, why is it frowned upon here in the US for children to live with their parents beyond college age? This is not the case in so many other cultures, even other cultures within America’s geographical bounds. Is this sentiment related to our nation’s individualistic streak? Is it related to industrialism or economic wealth?

These have been on my mind for two obvious reasons. One, my dad finally fulfilled his entrepreneurial spirit by opening a store of his own roughly four years ago. Two, I moved back in with my parents two years ago — out of necessity — after I had already owned my own home and after I was 30 years old.

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I like the idea of a family business, something that is still a part of our culture, though perhaps not as much as it should be. Further, the less I like the stigma attached to families living under the same roof, children with their parents.

More thought is needed on these subjects. Feel free to add your own two cents

unHurry: Rehumanize by accepting limitations

Author Sara Zarr cites an interesting New York Times article talking about the limitations of our ability to make an infinite number of decisions during a given period of time, otherwise known as decision fatigue.

If you feel, somehow, that you’re a slacker if you’re not writing six to eight hours a day, and that if you only had more willpower, you could just do it, science says you’re wrong.

As she points out in her post, writing is a creative act that is filled with countless decisions. Other crafts are not quite the same in this regard as they are made up of time consuming handiwork where decisions on the way to a finished product are not continuously required, but the same principle applies.

What Sara’s post and attendant article reminded me of again is the way in which our culture as a whole — in both work and [supposed] leisure — with its pace, its impatience, its demand for immediate answers (decisions) dehumanizes us. I read again this week a quote from Kathleen Norris, talking about her move from New York City to the rural prairie, where she says “I have learned to trust the processes that take time, to value change that is not sudden or ill-considered but grows out of the ground of experience.”

Much of American culture has no use for human limitations, the limits of time. We want things now-now-now. We expect the economy to grow-grow-grow infinitely, at an exponential pace. It dehumanizes in many ways.

How do we change the culture so that we can be ourselves again?

The economics of color in local culture

I’ve been reading a bit more on distributism at The Distributist Review. This quote captured my attention last night:

Local production for local consumption is a policy enabling the flow of an extensive variety of goods and services created by and sustaining the very community that makes them.

Mass production makes for very little local color. Everywhere, America ends up looking the same. Local culture looks like the variety of goods and service created by the locals. A Grand Island, Nebraska craftsman might use a different lumber, different joinery and different finish — in response to the land and weather around him – than one in Tennesee. Objects coming out of a factory respond to one thing by comparison: Market potential.

Haven’t we been here before, Rocky?

unHurry: Time to process

Do you have popcorn brain? If so, perhaps you need to take control of your online activities.

A CNN article looks at how we’re constantly drawn to the interwebs but need time to process. The constant stimulation of the internet, the ease with which we reach for our laptop or iPad or Blackberry, actually reduces the amount of gray matter (the thinking part) in our brains according to one study. Yet we’re drawn to the constant stimulation, the instant gratification of the Twitter Stream, Facebook News Feed, our email and instant messaging.

The CNN article offers some obvious responses to this addiction — yes, it does call it an addiction. It also suggests staring out the window, which I imagine is a bit less obvious to most Americans.

I’ve always enjoyed staring out the window. I loved having a 9th floor dorm room in college the looked over the entire campus. I would watch the sun set, people stream into the stadium for a football game or simply stare out into the dark before going to bed. I do the same thing, though to an unfortunately lesser degree, out of my home. Recently my wife, who has been increasingly cultivating her creativity over the past few years, admitted she didn’t used to understand why I did this, but from a creative point of view it’s making more and more sense to her.

It’s tough for us Americans to let our minds rest, or let ourselves think freely, uninterrupted. Even without the allure of the internet we’re a go-go culture that has a hard time being still — physically or mentally — for any length of time. I’ve never forgotten eating lunch with a PHD student in philosophy as a college student. We were talking about art and theology, and multiple times during the conversation he said simply “I have to think about that some more.” The phrase and idea with it stood out to me. That just wasn’t something I’d heard an American say before (Generally we have our opinions and don’t hesitate to blurt them out, no matter how well-formed or informed they may be.).

We need time to process. “The greatest thinkers in history certainly knew the value of shifting the mind into low gear.” unHurry yourself.

Carry a box; it’s good for your depression

I’ve never known someone to do a full 10-hour day of moving and be depressed. You have a very clear, tangible sense of what you’ve accomplished. You took one apartment full of stuff and emptied it. And then you filled a new one and helped people start a new chapter in their life.

Matt Wixon in the Washington Post

One of the frustrations I’ve discovered working office jobs the past eight years is that I often don’t have a real sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. I may have had my hands in 10 different projects in one day at the office, but when the clock strikes 5pm I often can’t tell you exactly what kind of progress was made — which might actually be in part because I was working on so many different things according to recent research (multi-tasking is actually bad for your brain). I wasn’t expecting this coming out of college, planning to work as a graphic designer.

Of course, this isn’t to say that the work done in an office isn’t necessary, or that there is never a sense of accomplishment working behind a desk opposed to in a wood shop or on a farm. There are times in an office where you’re working on one project for an extended period of time (within the same day) and can better articulate what you got done on this particular Monday. And I actually love planning meetings where we expand on an organization’s vision. However, paperwork and phone calls just aren’t measurable in the obvious way that, say, painting a house is. When I work with my hands, progress is obvious. “We primed that house today, all six rooms.”

Hat Tip to WordLily for the Washington Post story.

Are small towns worth saving?

Abbot, Albaville, Burkett, Berwick, Cameron, Easton, Home, Junctionville, Loyola, Marengo and 10 more. These were the towns in Hall County, Nebraska, that didn’t make it. Each one had its own post office. Some were personal ventures, other cooperative and still other were business related. Many were around for a very brief period of time, hoping the railroad would come through. When it didn’t, they died off. Some were around for 50 years.

In the scheme of the developing western United States, the challenges small towns face now look a little different. The rails have already been laid for the most part, trucks allow people to live in remote places without growing all of their own food. The internet allows people in rural America the option of living with the same luxuries, if they have the money, as the people in large cities.

Small town America as a charity case
Last week, Damaris at the Internet Monk suggested the church in America make small towns a new mission field. She lives in a small town that just lost its grocery store. The owner retired and there was no around to replace him. “Where are the wealthy churches willing to back a small business operator in a rural area as their mission project? . . . running a doctor’s office or grocery store in rural America isn’t typically considered missions by many Christians. But if caring for people’s daily needs is a means of mission work in Burkina Faso, why not here?” That in itself is an interesting question, but it’s not the question that really prompted this article.

In the comments following Damaris’ appeal, a few people began to question the validity of saving small towns in the first place, let alone with church monies. Some people were suggesting we should, perhaps, just let them die — maybe even help them close up shop.

Should a small town try and be revived, or should it die?

Life in a small town — and by small here I’m thinking 2,500 people at the very most — wasn’t something I ever really wanted in life. My idealized space was always the countryside outside of a large city or the actual core of the city. Living in Siloam Springs, Arkansas for more than six years (not exactly small by rural standards at 14,000 people, but half the size of anywhere else I’d lived at that point) probably opened the idea up to my subconscious. Giving serious consideration to Hazelton, Kansas was the first active step in my considering life in a small town, very small. The past month I’ve been pondering a property for the arts center in the even smaller Kansas community of Ada, which appears to be made up of all of 8 named streets.

Who makes the call?
If we say that we think small towns should die, who makes the call? How small is too small? Do some small towns have cultural value that gives them precedence over their peers that might not have a museum or small college?

The debate over the value of rural America is actually already underway. A few weeks ago I heard a news bit about whether or not road maintenance in some of the more the rural parts of Nebraska should continue to be funded, or simply be forgotten at the state level. Fuel taxes are among the highest in the country in Nebraska and they still don’t cover the cost of highway maintenance.

Even if current sentiments and economics seem to suggest certain small towns are not worth keeping around, these may not be the best way to place value on rural communities. Some things about rural life can and have been argued for even as the world becomes more and more urban, and these ideals are worth fighting for.

When I was in college I took a community planning course — unfortunately I only had time for one. One of our projects was to anticipate the growth of our own city, Lincoln, Nebraska. The projects were then evaluated by a professional planner, and after the critique our professor pointed out that we all assumed the city would get larger. Why do we always assume our communities will grow?

What happens if we decide we need to shut down small towns now and then in 100 years see a need for them again?

The new small town
Is there an in between, does it have to be all or nothing? Is there a new look for small towns, can they persist, indeed flourish in a new way that hasn’t necessarily defined yet?

When thinking about Hazelton and Ada, I’ve realized quickly that the internet presents business opportunities that were formerly not an option in rural communities. Hobby farms or organic farming might work as Americans (thankfully) continue to become more and more aware of where their food comes from. Rural places will have to find ways to leverage their less-considered natural resources in order to attract outsiders. A good example of this is the Star Party in the Nebraska Sandhills.

Some sacrifices will inevitably have to be made, but I believe creative individuals — people who think outside the American lifestyle box — will be able to make it work. How would you make life in a small town work?