Monday, May 17, 2010

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

I picked up Mennonite in a Little Black Dress at the same time as Acedia and me and Shop Class as Soulcraft because the first page I read had me laughing out loud in the bookstore.

It's a story about revisiting in weakness the culture you fled from and being healed by the experience. The description on the back cover is pretty good:

"Not long after Rhoda Janzen turned forty, her world turned upside down. It was bad enough that her husband of fifteen years left her for Bob, a guy he met on, but that same week a car accident left her seriously injured.  Neding a place to rest and pick up the pieces of her life Rhoda packed her bags, crossed the country and returned to her quirky Mennonite family's home, where she was welcomed back with open arms and offbeat advice."

Despite the universality of the themes of loss, aging, family, love and faith I'm not certain that it translates well across cultures. I was reading this while on the plane, sitting by a Frenchman, an aspiring romance novelist in his spare time who was reading something Serious and Important that he reads every 10 years. (I can't remember the title, only his tones about it.) He couldn't help but notice me laughing so much while reading this book so he asked me, "Why is that so funny?" I found it hard to explain. But that didn't stop me from laughing for several more hours on the plane.

If you are an adventuresome cook, there are also traditional Mennonite recipes in the back for things like Platz and Borscht.  Enjoy!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Shop Class as Soulcraft

purchased Shop Class as Soulcraft at the same time and airport bookstore as Acedia and me. Perhaps because I was looking for inspiration on a particular issue, both books turned out to be about the same things written from deeply different perspectives.

Matthew B. Crawford has a duel career path, that of motorcycle mechanic because he loves it and philosopher because he wants to make sense of it all. Kathleen Norris is a poet, an oblate and theologian, likely for the same reasons.

At first, I didn't think Crawford answered the relation between the manual trades and soul craft but after mulling it over, I realized he made some of the same points as Norris regarding persistence, agency and the need to inhabit your own life.

Crawford and Norris agree on the pressing need for individual agency. She calls the result of a lack of agency in work "industrial acedia" (121) or inability to care and be present as an actor, and Crawford says that "meaningful work" and "self-reliance" are ideals tied to "a struggle for individual agency" (7).

Crawford looks into the causes of lack of agency in today's world. The "separation of thinking from doing" makes us unable to "be master of one's own stuff". Crawford takes technical manuals for example. The tech writer doesn't know how to assemble the swing set or repair the bike. They just know how to translate from Japanese and write instructions. The illustrator knows how to run CAD drawing program but not how to put the product together. The loss in translation caused by this separation of thinking tasks (translating, writing, illustrating) from doing tasks (of putting it together) mean the resulting manual is not as excellent as it could be. This gap makes it hard to be the master of your own stuff by doing it yourself, throwing a monkey wrench in agency.

Crawford and Norris both talk about the need to live up to our full potential.

For Norris acedia "allows us to settle for being less than we can be, both as individuals and as a society." (113) And "If sloth means, as the pastor John Buchanan contends, 'not living up to the full potential of our humanity, playing it safe, investing nothing, being cautious, prudent, digging a hole and burying [our treasure],' it is critical that we take into account what this means for society at large."

Crawford approaches the same territory from another angle. Praise removes intrinsic motivation for doing something because you attribute your interest to the external reward (194-5). This suggests that if you turn a hobby into work it will lose its appeal but this doesn't happen to everyone. Crawford posits that people who keep enjoying their hobby as work do so because they progress in excellence, implying the presence of standards.

Both authors point out the role of community in banishing acedia and achieving agency. Crawford points out that you find out more about what is excellent by connecting with those who can best judge how well you've achieved the functional goals you're aiming at (increasing agency). Crawford explores the role of community in excellence through the example of bankers. Years ago, I sat with my grandmother at the Agra bank talking to her banker who lived in Agra (306 people, 131 households, and 89 families) with her and her grandson's wife who worked there as a teller. Excellence in the knowledge of risk and the accountability of paying off loans in the context of close community is far different from that of the quanticled mess of sold, bunched, factored derivatived and whatever else they do to loans today.

Norris looks at freedom from commitment vs staying in place over time. Not trying to get out of here or move on to anywhere but here but staying right here and persisting until.

Both authors agree on persisting in doing.

Crawford: "Trying to get past things with haste is incompatible with dwelling in things and giving them their due. But Tocqueville also suggests that the kind of attention demanded by practical involvement can serve as a corrective to this tendency." (227)

Norris: "how I perform those often dispiriting duties, from the changes of a baby diaper, to the bathing of an aged parent, reveals what kind of God we worship....That faith and love operate best through humble means of boring everyday occupations is a thoroughly biblical perspective, for its stories repeatedly remind us God's attention is fixed on what we regard as unimportant and unworthy."

Shop Class as Soulcraft has an interesting subtitle: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work. The fact that this book won 4 best book awards in 2009 means it's a popular topic. The fact that there are 2 books out addressing the same issue means it's pretty relevant. Crawford provides a philosophical perspective over time and history on our attitude toward manual labor, liberating our thinking that the current attitude is the only one. Norris provides the theological perspective. 

Friday, May 14, 2010

Acedia and me

I was complaining to my husband that no one was writing about the experiences I wished to read about. I systematically picked up and put right back down books about ill-fated lovers, civil strife, war torn lands, historical romance and the immigrant experience.  I yearned to read about my particular quandaries...a life without dramatic events, lived in the day after day every day, confused by the futility of the never ending -  making my bed, picking up the mail, cooking - all things that had to be done again the next day.

My husband didn't have anything to suggest though he did promise to keep an eye out. Two days later, while I was doing the same while picking up and putting down titles at an SFO bookstore in the international terminal, I stumbled upon a new book, Acedia and me by an American author, Kathleen Norris (sometimes you have to go far to find what's right next to you.)

I had read and enjoyed Norris before.  Her deeply meditative approach in The Cloister Walk had done much to introduce to my essentially Protestant mind a more catholic appreciation of Catholic ritual. Her extended exploration in Acedia and me of acedia, the 8th of the 7 deadlies, gave me a better understanding of the peculiar perils of the everyday day after day day to day and weapons to fight back.

Acedia often occurs where "The rewards are slow to appear if they come at all", where we are "watering dead wood with tears and very little hope" that the wood becomes a tree. Acedia is a "weariness of soul". All human efforts are futile because we all die and this fact can be quite wearying. But Norris gives diamond faceted treatment to the weapons to fight back.
  • It's my soul that needs to change, not my life
  • My participation is key - become an agent/actor in my own life and live fully
  • Discern what sadness I have caused within myself and what is out of my control
  • Staunch persistence, or as a friend of mine likes to say, "persist until...."
  • Begin again, anew like a child, every day
  • Turn drudgery into play
  • Shortcuts (like this list of weapons rather than the experience of reading Norris' book) will short change you
More importantly,

"how I perform those often dispiriting duties, from the changes of a baby diaper, to the bathing of an aged parent, reveals what kind of God we worship....That faith and love operate best through humble means of boring everyday occupations is a thoroughly biblical perspective, for its stories repeatedly remind us God's attention is fixed on what we regard as unimportant and unworthy."

This exalting of the low and lowering of the exalted is the same chiastic or X shaped structure in Philippians 2. Christ, the exalted one, humbled himself even to becoming a man. He died for our sins and after his humbled duties he was exalted to the right hand of God. And we're made a little lower than angels, and humanly living the day after day, and later will take our place in heaven.

Norris administered the smelling salts of possibility and hope rises again within.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

RHS Chelsea Flower Show, 25-29 May 2010

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show, 25-29 May 2010 is "the world's most famous flower show" according to the Royal Horticultural Society web page and I'm tickled pink to be headed there again this year for the 4th time in my life.   

Last May I wrote Jenn's Guide to Surviving the Chelsea Flower Show to help make the most of this wonderful event.  This year, I'll likely take the risk and shed all my professional camera gear weighing what seems like 25 pounds and carry just my new Canon S90, a very compact multi-featured camera. Traveling lighter will help me last longer and enjoy the day much more.  The tickets are wicked expensive so squeezing every Great British Pound of value out of it is very very important.

Here are a few other posts from last year's show:
Lady Phalaenopsis Teabags
Entente Cordial
Brand You
The Early Bird
Co-Branding the Chelsea Flower Show

If there's something in particular you'd like to know about this year's show, please leave me a comment about it and I'll see what I can do.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Blog Header Log

A little blog header history.





Sunday, May 2, 2010

Blog Header Using Picasa

It's time for a new blog header to welcome a new month. These are all new photos from a wonderful April spring. Lots of lovely flowers out. I took all these with my new Canon s90 and collaged them together using Picasa.

May promises to be another beautiful month. Enjoy the sun!
Posted by Picasa

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Bloom Where Planted

Bloom Where Planted
Originally uploaded by thyme2003
There's something about taking a photograph of a flower in situ, in the environment, that says completely different things than taking a closeup photograph of a flower itself.

The macro tends to say, "look at this amazing flower".

The in situ tends to say something about the relationship of the flower to the surroundings.

This one says, "Here's a tenacious flower that has managed to bloom in an industrial setting next to diamond or check patterned steel plate, a contrasting juxtaposition if there ever was one. But metaphoric.

Every day we're trying to bloom in a steel plate world. The image resonates with the struggle to bloom where we're planted no matter how inhospitable the surroundings.