Bringing What it May


Huck on the stairs

On election day I towed our tractor a dozen miles to the north, to help move material for a foundation job my friend Michael was working on. I drove slowly, as I always do when I’m towing, and as I mostly do even when I’m not towing, and on a little-traveled gravel road I passed a herd of Black Angus walking single file along a well-worn path across a stubbled field. Sun already high and hot on their dark flanks.

Of the election, I have little to say. Like most people, I crave a degree of security and certainty in my life, even as I recognize the folly in it, even as I understand that the only certainty is the tumult of uncertainty. And how little I know, really, about the workings of the world, of the humans who inhabit it, and of the vastness of all that is non-human. How little I know, even, about the workings of my own heart and mind, terrain I find endlessly fascinating, to be sure, but which never ceases to surprise me at twists and turns I could never have anticipated.

I guess that’s why my writing tends to be so personal and, in some ways, I suppose, so small. It’s just what I know. I know the sun on the shit-flecked flanks of those Angus, what it looks and feels like. I know the pleasure of working with my friend. I know how to love an animal and how to reconcile that love with the coppery smell of its blood on my hands. I know the exact spot on the wood cook stove that gets hottest every time, so that my coffee might be ready the sooner. I know that right now my sons are deep in the woods on a week-long solo camping trip, trapping for their food and cooking over a fire, and that when I think of this, I feel a certain loneliness. They need less and less from me every day.

But of the election result – the reasons for it, the motivations behind it, the meaning of it – I know very little, and so I will say very little, except to share the words of Charles Eisenstein, who writes this (you can read the whole thing here):

Dehumanization is a predecessor of war. When you see your opponents as subhuman in their morals, conscience, or intelligence, then you will have to defeat them by force. Moral or rational persuasion won’t do it…

I will not venture an opinion on whether the candidates themselves are hideous. We live in a system that encourages and rewards corrupt and even psychopathic behavior. What I do know, though, is that the vast majority of ordinary people are not the cartoonish caricatures of human beings that political rhetoric has made them out to be. They have an experience of life, a history, a convergence of circumstances that has brought them to their opinions. Just like you…

Dehumanizing narratives are never the truth. The truth can only be sourced from the sincere question, “What is it like to be you?” That is called compassion, and it invites skills of listening, dialog, and communicating without violence or judgment. Now there may be times when such skills fail and there is no choice but to fight. Failure is guaranteed, though, when the surrounding narrative casts the opponent as evil, twisted, disgusting, or deplorable. In that case, war is the likely result.

 The work I did on election day went smoothly; Michael and I were finished by four, and I loaded up the tractor for the drive home, and when I passed the farm where I’d seen the Angus that morning, I saw them again in almost exactly the same spot, but now walking the other way. Headed for the barn. Hay, grain, water.

And I imagined them in the field yet again, bedded down for the night, maybe in part because I know what bedded-down cows look like, and it’s a sight that brings me comfort. There’s something in the solidity of it, the communion of flesh and earth, the unspoken acceptance that tomorrow will come. Bringing what it may.

30 thoughts on “Bringing What it May”

  1. When I read that article by Eisenstein, I wondered if it would inspire or be included in a post from you. There is a lot of humility in both of our work, something I find myself searching for whenever I do take my head out of the sand and pay attention to the outside world. Then, I’m reminded that I can spend the rest of my life focusing on my own sphere of influence and be very busy and, hopefully, sleep well at night, too. Thanks for the words, as always!

  2. ❤ May us all be as responsible and resilient as your boys and millions of others, who stick the landing, who hold a lady bug, who swing on tire swings, who practice to defy gravity. We do what we can, and we CAN more than we think.

  3. I had a similar conversation with my wife. We will get our life in order, live as thoughtfully as we can, and we should be able to deal with whatever comes.

  4. Well said. If only more would listen. “Problem” is there’s no profit in it – the 24-hour news channels, social networks, talk radio shows, most of them anyway, need controversy, friction, resentment, anger to drive ratings and clicks and attention. The outrage business is a growth industry today even as civility goes the way of the wagon wheel maker.

    1. So true. But the media must be selling something people want or they wouldn’t stay in business. The abdication of civility is what feeds the vicious cycle.

    2. It makes me grin when I meet people who have tuned out, who don’t watch the news, who are freezing out the market for angst. It might be a vain hope, but with the millennials ‘killing’ all the other businesses like chain restaurants and mega-department stores, maybe, just maybe,the outrage business will go by the wayside as well.

  5. Nice post. Humans are so flawed, but endlessly interesting. Interesting in a different way from the way animals are interesting of course, other animals, that is, and the rest of nature. Like we’re some kind of weird experiment that went a little awry. And we haven’t yet found a way to fix it.

  6. I appreciate this calm and kind place to visit today, as well as your sharing of the essay. Your home is lovely. It feels like a kindred spirit lives there, as I also built ours with trees. I do believe kindness and love will win.

  7. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t bring myself to vote for either candidate for POTUS, as I felt that both Clinton and Trump were flawed and unworthy of holding such a high office. Even when Bush #43 was running against Gore and Kerry, I could justify voting for the “less bad” candidate, but not this time.

    We, those of us who live in Omaha, are over-run with undocumented aliens, many of whom are hard working people who are just trying to provide for their families. But they are undocumented and that means that they are breaking the law, therefore I feel that they should be pursued, captured, indicted and, if convicted, punished within the parameters of the law.

      1. Whether he is the one we needed or not may be debatable, but it is an absolute fact that he is one we elected and will be saddled with for the next 4 years.

      2. Will, Jeff, “Brothers, your souls are too beautiful to do this kind of work” as Charles Eisenstein wrote in his latest essay. One of most helpful pieces for me this week was Dr. Lee’s reminder on emotions:
        “Anger. The purpose of this emotion, believe it or not, is to compel us to problem solve WITH others. We don’t usually think of anger as a pro-social emotion, but it is.
        The value of this emotion is that it helps us to share our perspectives with others and to compel in them a mutual discomfort that they too might be motivated to become part of the solution in partnership.”

    1. Well, I sincerely hope that President Trump’s DOJ will develop and implement an effective hard-line policy for dealing with the millions of undocumented (illegal) aliens who are currently living in the U.S. and for stopping them before they can illegally cross the border. I view them, as a group, like I view any trespasser and would start by asking them to leave and, if they don’t, I would ratchet up the response in incremental steps.

  8. The perfect words for people’s rage and angst this week!

    (No comment- tired of the inability of cheerleaders to see the bigger picture and how screwed it was going to be either way with those choices.)

    You comforted me some small way with this essay- because I don’t feel so alone in my thoughts, feelings, world view.

    The new home looks beautifully made, and the ideal refuge.

  9. Thanks, Ben. You brought me back. Been a tough week all around. Today my only thought is adding to the compost bin and hanging clothes out on the line, breathing in all those smells to clear my head. Agree with Olive. A very comforting essay.

  10. Maybe you know more than you suggest about the big picture, Ben. I sense you know that none of us has the power to change the world by ourselves. That each of us changes it by bringing love to the smallest details of our lives. I like the way you do that. It’s why I read this.

    Nice stairs. I’m partial to triple winders.

  11. It’s hard to try to think about that question “what is it like to be you?”.

    Here’s what I find and have experienced first hand: there are reasonable people who are willing to do this. And so they try. Then they are “needled” by the unreasonable people who only want to be listened to. People who are by their nature – or nurture – narcissistic. The reasonable people get “needled” until they, too, explode and that’s when war happens. It happens on the small scale and the large scale. You either get a divorce or you leave somehow or you go get a gun.

    It’s beyond me to know how to speak to people who only want to be listened to. What is it like to be a person who only wants to be listened to?

    All I can say is I hope we can really rise above our natures.

    The problem isn’t solved on the same level of thinking that created it.

    Many of us will not be able to rise above our natures. But if most of us rise above our natures then the illegal Hispanic people who work in the slaughter houses, for example, in my home town Marshalltown, Iowa who are “over running” that little town maybe they will be seen as making a contribution and not just pariahs. We need to put our heads together and find a way to solve the problem. Our economy would be devastated to just ship them all out.

    Here where I live now I can think of no non-Hispanic people who can handle working picking grapes by hand, for example, in the San Joaquin Valley sun. We need these people to stay so we need to figure out a way to keep them and keep them right.

    1. I’m all for legal immigration, but totally against illegal activity of any sort. When I was growing up in New Hampshire, most of the apple crop was picked by Jamaicans who were legally in the U.S. on work visas. From what I have seen, most legal immigrants want to integrate themselves, to actually become Americans, while undocumented aliens are blocked from fully integrating themselves. I would expect that ICE will visit Marshalltown once President-elect Trump gets his DOJ up and running.

      Actually, I think that employers should be severely fined for hiring undocumented aliens, start at $25K for the first conviction and raise the fine exponentially for each subsequent conviction. While most big companies, like the meat packing industry, can afford the current fine level as just a cost of doing business, a fine schedule that started at $25K and rose exponentially would hit $1.6M on conviction #7. $1.6M is a lot harder to justify as just a cost of doing business. Better yet, make the employment of undocumented aliens a felony. That would be a huge disincentive for companies to hire them and, in turn, if there weren’t any employment opportunities, they would have less incentive to enter the U.S. illegally. Or so it seems to me.

      1. Yes, illegal is not optimal. For the rest: Maybe, Jeff. Maybe an idea worth looking at. Don’t know. Would have to look into how that all would work. Can’t really comment further until I look into it.

        We have to keep our thinking caps on. And keep calm.

  12. We need to get these essays out to people beyond our like-minded group. We are “preaching to the choir”. Yes, it’s good that we as like-minded individuals read this and try to put it into practice. However, I despair of these words ever getting out beyond our borders. I will start by sending it to people I know who aren’t 100% in the fold. See what happens. I don’t know any people who are vehemently against the idea of “what is it like to be you?” They’re already on board. I can try people who I think may be on the fringe of that idea or may know people who are against it. If by some miracle they get it maybe they will send it to people they know who are not like our group.

  13. Orthogonal to the discussion, wrt the photo: can you post sometime about how you planned the new homestead to process and store food to get through the lean seasons?

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