The Half That Really Matters

July 15, 2013 § 20 Comments

Stalking the wild woods nettle

Stalking the wild woods nettle

Late yesterday afternoon, the boys and I climbed into the cab of Melvin’s big New Holland tractor and gathered bales while he tended to evening milking. Melvin hays a number of small parcels on this hill, and to wrap the bales they must be congregated in a centralized location. This location just happens to be at roughly the end of our driveway.

The boys do not miss a chance to ride in Melvin’s tractor, and I understand why. It’s an amazing piece of power and ingenuity; at 100 or so horsepower, it’s pretty small and relatively basic by the standards of modern farm tractors, but compared to our relic, it’s a dangblam Cadillac. There is something inherently fantastical about plucking 1000-pound round bales off the field with no more than a flick of the wrist and a squeeze of the button that operates the clamshell bale grabber, to stack them two and even three high atop the wagon until the poor things looks as if it’s about to fold in on itself. Then the boys, uncharacteristically eager to help in any way possible, stumbling over themselves to hitch the wagon to the drawbar, and finally, pulling the whole heaping mass – 12,000 pounds or more – to the bale wrapper, unloading, and doing it all over again. And the whole while, 107.1 Frank FM thumping from the stereo (Remember “Twilight Zone” by Golden Earring? Yeah, I’d forgotten it, too, but darned if I didn’t know every freakin’ word).

Anyway. You can see how it’s not the worst way to pass a couple hours on a Sunday afternoon.

And that was good, because earlier in the day, I’d made the mistake of checking on my reader reviews on Amazon. Well, now. I kinda figured $AVED would be one of those love it/hate it sort of books, but still and all I wasn’t quite prepared for the distaste it seems to have left in some people’s mouths and minds. “A very dangerous and subversive book,” wrote one reader. “One of the few books I took pride in burning in my wood stove.” Another wrote: “… as I went through the book I began to count how many pages I had left to slog through before I could liberate myself from his trite musings.” You can read more of the blood-letting here.

Naturally, this threw me a bit. I’m only human, after all. I never expect everybody to love or even like anything I write, but I wasn’t quite prepared for this level of rancor toward and simple distaste for my work. What’s more, I’d just finished up a series of by far the best-attended and liveliest readings I’ve experienced, and had recently received a number of emails and even a couple hand written notes (!!) from folks who hadn’t seen fit to burn the book, or even felt as if it were a slog. Why, I was starting to get the impression that some people had actually liked it.

To be honest, I think the negative reader reviews, while somewhat painful, are healthy for me, if only because they remind me that my life is in part defined by a strange duality. There is my life on this little hill, carried out amongst my family, friend, neighbors, animals, and nature, all of this far outside the public eye but for what I choose to share here, which of course is only a fraction. In this life, no one judges my work except for the people I am closest to (and perhaps our animals: Who knows what they might be thinking?), and because they love or at least like me, they generally cut me some slack. I remember the time I mowed a crop of hay for Melvin, and I was nervous because it was the first time mowing with his equipment, and being distracted by my nerves and not yet experienced enough to have these things be ingrained in the fibers of my being, I mowed the whole damn field counter clockwise, which meant I was driving over the standing hay. And second cut, no less. Melvin just shrugged and grinned. “No big deal,” he said.

And then there is my life that is very much in the public eye. That is the nature of my paying work: I write so that others will read what I write (that’s not the only reason, of course, but if I’m going to get paid, I damn well better hope others read what I write). And with that comes the vulnerability of exposing myself to the judgement of people who don’t love, like, or even know me, and are therefore disinclined to cut me any slack. I don’t bemoan or begrudge this; it is an essential facet of my job. Nor do I think these people are wrong: If someone says that $AVED is trite or subversive, or just downright boring, then it is. And if someone writes to me saying it has radically changed their outlook on life for the better? Well, that’s true, too. As I’ve mentioned before, there is room for more than one truth in this world.

Where does all this leave me? I’d be lying if I said I don’t want people to like my books or anything else I write. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t discouraged by those negative reviews. But last night, as the boys and I chatted and sang as we worked to gather Melvin’s hay,  I was again struck by how the things that feel most important to me, that feel as if they feed some deep, interior part of me that cannot be fed otherwise, have nothing to do with the part of my life that is visible to the broader world. Unlike the portion of my life that exists in the public realm, these things are free of ego and acknowledgement, and remembering this, I felt instantly grateful that so many of my days are filled with the quiet rewards inherent to doing and being solely for the sake of doing and being and for the gentle, unheralded satisfaction of an essential task completed.

§ 20 Responses to The Half That Really Matters

  • Kent says:

    Both your “public” and “private” lives are fascinating . . . inspiring . . . and truly in harmony with each other. It is amazing how adroitly you balance and live both! It is one enormous gift that you share all so generously.

  • Kent says:

    Hey, Kent, you’ve got that right!

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Wait a sec did you just reply to your own comment? And aren’t you my uncle? I think that’s called “stacking the deck”

      Even so, carry on.

  • Judy says:

    Your post and your book are awesome. I’m not sure what people expected by the title, summary, etc. Maybe they bought it mindlessly at Walmart? At least they’re reading.

    Your book and blog are very inspiring to me to try for a better life: less consuming, less complaining, doing harder and more challenging work physically and mentally, doing more of what I love to do. I’ve been on a path to simpler and cleaner living, your writing helps with that and gives me perspectives I need. Am I going to sell my half acre in the desert someday? Possibly. But it’s paid for and I love my neighbors and I’ve made it mine and continue to do so. Can I have a tree house? Unfortunately not, the mesquites aren’t big enough to support it. Do I have a stream? Well, there is one across the street in the form of a wash that occasionally will run. I do have mountains and canyons a mile away, sun everyday, warmth, and flowers/vegetables year around. I have dogs and chickens and fish and a job I love.
    Keep up your work. You are a role model and an inspiration. I feel a disturbance in the force….and by “disturbance” I mean “breath of fresh air” and by “force” I mean “crazy obsessed debt driven consumer crazed country we live in”.

  • Kent says:

    Hi Ben – Yes I am your uncle and am the author of the 7:54 AM comment, but did not post the 8:58 AM comment. (I suspect there must be a “Kent imposter” in our midst and am amazed that anyone could want to pose as the old goat that I am!) At any rate, THANKS for your abundant sharing. (I do hope some day to ride with you in the cab of Melvin’s big New Holland tractor!)

  • Chris says:

    Why DO you write?

    Aren’t we exploring right and wrong?
    Aren’t we trying to move wrong to right?

    If WE are wrong, WE want to know it. Don’t all people?
    The answer there is no. They don’t want to…take the red pill they like the taste of the stake.

    Euell Gibbons reference duly noted.

  • Tanya Hickman says:

    I just purchased your book and are a few chapters in. I am enjoying your writing very much and can’t understand the negative comments at all (btw read them before purchasing and thought “whatever, suck it up you big cry babies?!”). I think what you say will make some folks uncomfortable and that it is more of a reflection of their inability to see outside their current belief system. But isn’t that what we are doing when we read, learning new ideas, challenging (or reaffirming) what we believe? But maybe I am not the best critic, my family and I just sold our home and are currently “diversifying our wealth”. Translation – we are moving into a bus on a much cheaper out of way section, going completely feral AND taking 3 months every year to travel with our kids on the difference (we have a business which we have just shut down for 3 months over winter – we live in New Zealand). So from Berlin currently, keep it up, you have my vote.

  • handmadebyjo says:

    I recently found this blog and downloaded your book and read it. I think you have to take those reviews with a grain of salt. Many people complain just to complain. Another group cannot fathom being happy doing what you are doing. I find your views to be quite similar to mine, I am just not living the dream at this point in time. Baby steps, we will get there.

  • Audie Jean says:

    I bought two of your books a couple of weeks ago and am dying to read them, but I WILL finish John Irving first!

    In the meantime I am reading your posts as soon as they come up. I hug myself and smile as I read them. Your writing is great. I love both the content and the style. :-)

    I’ve learned with blog-reading and writing that there are all different levels of “education” that interfere with people having a common reaction to writing (or anything else actually.) Even when the movie/song/text/book/news/photograph is fabulous, because the audience comes from “everywhere,” there will always be those who “don’t get it.”
    I have 10 pages to go in Irving and then will delve into $aved. I can’t wait to get my teeth into it. :-)

  • Ellen says:

    I’ve just finished your book and greatly enjoyed it, both the substance and the style. I had mentioned it to a good friend, saying I would loan it to her next time we saw each other as I thought she would enjoy it. She just emailed this morning to say “I saw $aved at the bookstore over the weekend and after reading a short bit I couldn’t wait and bought my own copy!”

  • Angela says:

    I haven’t read the book yet (although I plan to as soon as that extra twenty dollars shows itself) but I’m certain I wouldn’t describe it in such negative ways. You change peoples lives every day, I know I feel inspired to look at my life each time I read your blog, and it is always for the better. Keep doing what you do. Thank you!
    Angela Kelly

  • I am half way through your book-love both the book and your blog. I always leave your blog posts with lots to think about. The things that really matter to you speak to my heart. Thanks for sharing all that you do.

  • Trish says:

    I am waiting for my library copy to come in. I work in a university library and always get my books that way. If I want a copy then I go and buy it. Anyway, I haven’t read your book yet but if it’s anything like your blog, I’m going to love it. I find your blog so honest and inspiring. Keep up the great writing! :)

  • Cindy says:

    I just read “Saved” and found it profound and enlightening — the idea of being freed from the worry of money. Of understanding what money is — and what it isn’t. Of the richness of community. I work in publishing and have learned no matter what the book, there will always be negative reviews. In some cases, they’re very valid and we learn from them. In others, they reflect a reader’s right or wrong expectation as they approached the book. “Saved” is excellent and important; you should be proud of it.

  • Frank says:

    I am impressed with the reviewer that managed to burn your book in his wood-stove … I’d be really curious to find out how one does that with the Kindle edition ;)

  • Dawn says:

    I think the subject of money is just so emotionally charged, as you have pointed out, that it brings out the worst in some people. Just like meat-eating or homeschooling or farming, I have found money to be a subject that seems to make people feel judged if they live differently than you do. Never fear, Ben. The main thing is you have people talking and that is the important part. Keep on keepin’ on!

  • Dave says:

    A lot of what you write strikes a chord deep within both my wife and I. We are limping belatedly towards the kind of life you are modelling. Thanks for the inspiration and the privilege of not feeling utterly alone with our lifestyle choices.

    As far as the backlash against $aved, I think that in order for some people to even consider what you’re saying, they would have to face the possibility that everything they have, have done and have believed about the purpose of life in North America is predicated on a really pernicious lie. Lashing out is a way to hide from that fear. Keep up the good work!

  • Elizabeth says:

    I just finished reading $aved and looked for your blog in search of more. Sorry to hear about the bad reviews (I read a library copy, so was spared the Amazon bile), but I wanted to encourage you to keep up the good work. My husband and I talked several times as I was reading about how heartening it was to hear (…er…read) someone else laying out our lifestyle philosophy in such matter-of-fact terms when sometimes it feels like we’re the only ones thinking that way. All our best to you and yours!

  • Paul Weltzin says:

    I have read all of your books and enjoyed each one. Saved really resonated with me and I have been passing it on to friends and family.
    I would consider “dangerous and subvervise” compliments. To me it indicates your work has meaning and deserves attention. It would have been much worse for your work to be described as dull or mundane.

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