Tag Archives: ideologies

Remember Community Gardens?

Rhubarb

Dear Reader:

In recent posts I have strayed from my original plans for this blog–advocating “going local” in place of spending hard-earned dollars at big-box retail stores with questionable business ethics and negative impact on community economics.

One of my passionate causes a few years back was the attempt to create a community garden in my, er, planned neighborhood which I will nickname The Contrammunity. If you have been following Outside the Box for awhile, you will remember that the struggle ended in defeat . . . mostly because some members of The Contrammunity thought that a run-down, unusable tennis court was preferable to a garden in their neighborhood.

But who am I to say what is or isn’t more valuable? I gave up the fight, deciding that if a community garden stirred up so much controversy and bad feelings, it wasn’t anything I wanted to pursue further.

Anyway, I still have a soft spot in my heart for community gardens. In the right kind of neighborhood, a shared garden space can be an oasis, a gathering place, a teaching/learning tool for newbies and kids, and (I truly believe this) a positive selling point for real estate nearby (unlike a broken, unused, cracked tennis court, for example.)

Waiting . . . waiting . . . waiting . . . for spring!

So when I read “If Every Community Had a Garden” in the Significato Journal this morning, my heart warmed. I was especially interested in the rainwater-catching system used for irrigation. Click to take a look at this short piece about a community garden started in Norway, Maine . . . incidentally, a town I lived in, worked in, owned a home in before moving further south. Norway is a wonderful, small, Maine town with a vibrant Main Street of small, locally-owned businesses including an impressive co-op store/space called the Fare-Share Co-op.

This video says it all!! Click Alan Day Community Garden Video. (Honestly, I’m watching this, and I can’t believe I moved away from this place!)

I don’t see myself ramping up the necessary energy to try to create a community garden again here The Contrammunity again. Sometimes you just have to admit you are living in the wrong place, make the best of your own backyard, and find a good co-op group and/or CSA farm–by looking at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) website.

Wild Plant with Old Leaves in Background

Spring is just around the corner, and I’m looking forward to getting new garden boxes set up, ordering seeds, and planting–just as soon as the snow melts and I’ve raked up the leaves I left moldering on the lawn over the winter.

What about you? Does your community have a shared-garden space? Do you have plans for spring planting? Drop me a line . . . Outside the Box.

Day 13: Museum of the American Indian

Outside the Museum

Dear Reader:

After another slow start to our day (this has been a lazy summer schedule for sure) the Teen and I visited the Museum of the American Indian. The curvy, light-colored stone exterior is surrounded by native plantings and some outdoor structures that look like teepees and other dwellings. When we entered the building, we were struck by the sense of space and roundness, very welcoming and soothing and wonderful. The rotunda is open all the way past the four floors of exhibits to a center dome with a sky light and displays four examples of boats–birch bark and seal skin kayak and woven reed and a beautiful wooden example from the Hawaiian Islands.

Boats "Floating" in the Rotunda

I loved this carving “The Beaver and the Mink, Susan A. Point (Coast Salish), 2004.

The Beaver and The Mink

Our travels have this way of connecting. When we visited Seattle, we were exposed to the Northwest Indian art like this carving. When we visited Hawaii, we saw examples of native Hawaiian boats. Now in D.C., these and many, many other examples of American Indian culture are brought together under one dome.

Allies in War, Partners in Peace

I was struck by how important this city is as a repository of American culture and history–defining history in this case as the history of the land. We can go all the way from prehistoric mammals of North America in the Museum of Natural History, through the history of the native peoples who have been here the longest of all of us, up to the pivotal (and certainly destructive for the American Indians) moment of discovery and exploration and settlement by the Europeans here in the Museum of the American Indian, and on to the birth of our nation and the subsequent timelines and historical moments in the American History Museum–including the lives and times of the colonists, the founders, the African peoples brought here as slaves, the immigrants who came here for more opportunity, and even the current popular culture that we all swim in today regardless of when or how our ancestors arrived on these shores.

We decided to start on the fourth floor in the Our Universes exhibit which focuses on Native belief systems. Most of these beliefs revolve around the idea of connectedness between the Earth and everything on it. Communion with nature, not conquest.

Mayan Calendar

The Mayan Calendar on display was beautiful and fascinating. . . and I’m thinking this must be drawing more interest as we head toward the year 2012 and the supposed “apocalypse” or “change” that is to come based on this calendar. Click HERE to read a basic article about the end of this particular Mayan “era” in 2012.

Beautiful Drum

The objects on display were so beautiful and artistic, from exquisitely embroidered clothing to drums such as this one.

In The Garden quilt by Marie Watt, 2003

The third floor houses the Contemporary Art exhibit.

"Weh-Pom and the Star Sisters", Judith Lowry, 2004.

We were struck by the beautiful blue color against the dark background and the swooping lines of the images.

Foods Based on Native Plants

Downstairs on the first floor, just outside a cafeteria offering Native foods, was this case full of food products based on plants native to North and South America.

Another Outside View

We browsed for a bit in the museum store (I found a pretty red glass bead/juniper berry necklace) and then headed outside to look at the fountain before going home for the day. Of course, I want to go back and see some more exhibits. There is so much to learn!

Precious Substance: Water

I came away with my convictions about the need for sustainability, the interconnectedness of life, and appreciation for the world with all its diversity strengthened. If you are ever in D.C., put this museum on your “must see” list.

Day 5: History . . . Naturally

View from 2nd floor rotunda

Dear Reader:

Another hot and sunny day in D.C. After a morning workout, the Teen and I ventured over to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History to see the lions and tigers and bears and . . . the Hope Diamond.

What every girl "hopes" for

The Hope Diamond has a fascinating–if mythologized–history. It is said to bring bad luck to its possessors, possibly because it was stolen from an idol of the Indian goddess, Sita. According to at least one website, Sita is a goddess of tolerance, so I have a hard time believing she would curse anyone who possessed her pretty blue stone, but there you have it.

Before making our way to the second floor where we found the blue gem, we went on safari in the Hall of Mammals, where we saw some animals that were quite familiar . . .

Moose

. . . and some that were not. This tiny antelope is just a little bit larger than a rabbit.

Kirk's Dikdik

Many photographs later, we took a trip back in evolutionary time in the Hall of Human Origins. Here we viewed some cave paintings, a prehistoric flute, and skulls and replicas of Neanderthals and other human ancestors. We learned that all modern humans share 99.9% common DNA. In fact, the concept of “different races” is an idea that is facing extinction. The museum is offering an exhibit and programming called Race: Are We So Different? I encourage you to click HERE and see what science tells us about our concepts of race.

Replica of cave painting

For me, throwing away our old schema of “different races” and embracing a schema of “one human race” is a powerful step in the right direction. Maybe once we get that roadblock out of the way, we can begin in earnest the hard work of maintaining our environment, reducing population, developing renewable energy systems that work as well or better than the old petroleum economy.

The “Humans Change the World” area of the “What Does It Mean to be Human” exhibit was a powerful reminder of how we humans affect our environment. Between 1959 and 1999, the human population doubled from 3 billion to 6 billion people. If we keep up at this pace, we will be at 9 billion by 2042. Can you imagine the consequences of that on our planet? On our food and water resources? On health care resources?

Prehistoric flute

Talk about “paying the piper!”

Leaving prehistoric humans behind, the Teen and I headed upstairs to see the diamond, the “bone” exhibit, and a beautiful gallery of nature photography–the Nature’s Best Photography Awards 2010. These were fabulous photos. My favorite was Land Crab by Cristina Mittermeier from right here in Washington, D.C. If you go to the link underlined above, you can view the photos. Better yet, send in some of your own great nature photography and enter this year’s contest.

"Four-sided Pyramid" by Sol Lewitt

I had to stop by the outdoor sculpture garden beside the museum. This one is directly across from the Hirshhorn’s. There are free outdoor jazz concerts in this garden on Friday nights. Hope to catch one or two before the end of the summer.

Farmer's Market Booty

Since the Crystal City Farmer’s Market didn’t open until three p.m. I waited for Hubby to get so we could bike together over to 18th street to see what was being offered. Jackpot! Farmers were selling everything from goat cheese to eggs to heirloom tomatoes to cherries to basil to bison. We settled for some veggies and a loaf of honey-wheat bread and some super-sweet Queen Ann cherries from a nice guy from Pennsylvania. When I told him we were from Maine, he said, “You guys are probably just getting into strawberries up there.” “Ayuh,” I said, and I felt a momentary pang of sadness to be missing out on strawberries from Dole’s Farm.

Somehow, though, ripe tomatoes in June helped ease the pain.

Not sure what’s happening on Day 6 other than trying to find my allergist’s office by Metro and bus. Maybe a trip to the local library? A dip in the pool? Doing some sketching/writing in the park? Tune in tomorrow to find out what we did . . . Outside the Box in D.C.

We Cambridged, We Saw, and We Concord

For several years now I have wanted to visit Cambridge, Massachusetts. Why Cambridge, you ask? Sometime just before junior high school, I had gone through my parents’ collection of books stored on shelves in the basement and came across a paperback edition of Erich Segal’s book, LOVE STORY. I read it, understanding not much except that she was a young girl who dies. What kind of writer, I wondered, kills off the heroine like that? Stupid book, I thought. I’d go back to my ANN OF GREEN GABLES, thank you very much.

(In eighth grade my teacher gave me a copy of WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS, and I realized that heroes die in some books so I’d better get used to it. Two years later I read GONE WITH THE WIND and discovered that even epic love stories can have tragic endings. Don’t even get me started on ANNA KARENINA.)

Sunny courtyard seen through an archway

Anyway, LOVE STORY was my first literary journey to Harvard and Radcliffe, The Coop, Widener Library, and rowing on the Charles River. After that, I had a fascination with Harvard. For me it has been this sort of ideal–as if all that history and learning and writing and lecturing and studying has bonded into the brick and stone structures, permeated the leaves of the trees in Harvard Yard, seeped into the water of the river down which preppy boys skim in long, thin boats. If only I could get there, I fantasized, perhaps some of that intellectual wondrousness (think Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Adams, Al Gore, Matt Damon . . .) would rub off on me.

Plus it just sounded like a really cool, historical, happening place to visit.

So, last weekend when my friend, Donna, invited me to attend her reunion at Lesley University, a small liberal arts college right next door to Harvard, I jumped at the opportunity.

This is Lesley University’s Admissions building.

The entire campus is housed in these beautiful, renovated, Victorian-era houses snuggled up together on tree-shaded streets just off Massachusetts Avenue. If you Google Map it, look for Wendell Street.

Here I am on the steps of the dormitory hall where we stayed. The three-story house was tall and narrow with five or six rooms on each floor. A wooden staircase wound up from the front entrance hall to the two upper stories. Pretty posh living quarters for undergraduates, I thought.

The Coop Bookstore and Cafe

Refreshed and revived, we didn’t stay in our room for long–just about enough time to throw our bags on the bed and eat a brownie from the fabulous table of food downstairs in the common room. Donna gave me a tour of Lesley and then showed me where she used to cut through Harvard to get to stores and whatnot.

Street performer on a unicycle playing the bagpipes in a kilt

Sure enough, we came out near Harvard Square where you can catch the T, watch street performers, browse for books in The Coop, have coffee at one of the many, many coffee shops, and window-shop for shoes that cost more than I spend on groceries for a month.

Cambridge River Festival

Donna and I were lucky to be here the same weekend as the Cambridge River Festival, a celebration of the arts set up along the Charles. About 2 pm, we slipped into a tent to enjoy a presentation of storytelling by some very talented local teenagers, viewed some performance art (guy dressed up like a giant, slightly creepy, white angel) and then went back to Harvard Square in search of coffee at The Coop.

Once we’d had our fill of mocha lattes and book browsing, we walked around the city for a few more hours enjoying the pretty, landscaped dooryards, quaint neighborhoods, campus buildings, and shop windows. Cambridge really is a walkable city, the kind of place New Urbanists claim we most enjoy living in.

Roses gracing the sidewalk

What are the priciples of New Urbanism?
1. Walkability
2. Connectivity
3. Mixed use and diversity
4. Mixed housing
5. Quality architecture and Urban Design
6. Traditional neighborhood structure
7. Increased density
8. Green transportation
9. Sustainability
10.Quality of life

Of course, Cambridge is an OLD urban model. It is the kind of place the New Urbanists look to for inspiration. Cambridge has the elelments we’ve been missing in all our unsustainable suburbs and exurban housing developments.

Here, you can shop, eat, learn, sleep, exercise, work and play all in the same place without having to get into a car. You can walk or bike or ride the T or catch a bus. The architecture is stunning. The quality of life is fantastic–all those institutions of learning, the emphasis on culture and the arts, the plethora of caffeinated beverages. I felt energized just being there for one weekend. Imagine living somewhere even a little bit like that.

Sign at the Farmer's Market

On Sunday morning, Donna and I even discovered a farmer’s market in Charles Square. We bought bread, sampled cheesecake, perused the greens, and admired the booths. I watched people buying bags of veggies, tubs of goat cheese and long sticks of baguettes and envied them their local lunch.

Donna at the Farmer's Market

We ate a small lunch at an outside table in front of a coffee shop and headed back to Harvard for more sightseeing. I was determined to see Widener Library before we left Cambridge, and Donna wanted to find a church she had attended a few times when she was at Lesley.

Ironically, you CAN park your car at Harvard Yard . . . or pretty close to it, anyway. When we had arrived at Lesley the day before, we were given a pass to park at Harvard’s underground Oxford Street parking lot. Now we stopped to see the buildings around Harvard Yard on our way back to the garage.

Widener Library

Widener Library was closed on Sunday morning, but was still impressive in its huge massiveness. The thought of all those books housed in such a beautiful structure makes me giddy!

Memorial Church

We found Memorial Church, and snapped a few pictures. It was built in 1932 as a memorial to those who had died in World War I and to serve as Harvard’s church.

Pretty grounds at Harvard University

The day was getting late, and so with reluctance we found the parking garage and said farewell to Cambridge. Heading home, we decided to swing through Concord–home to some pretty famous writers back in the day. We drove past Thoreau’s Walden Pond. A little ways down the road was something even more remarkable and heartwarming . . . a community garden!

Community garden just outside Concord

Here where a few of our country’s great writers–Thoreau, Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and Nat Hawthorne–penned some pretty amazing American Literature, modern Concordians not only enjoy reading but also like growing their own food. According to the official Concord, MA website, “Concord has long supported community gardens and in 2010 has three community gardens on town land with over 100 plots. The burgeoning interest in gardening and local food production has ensured that two of the three gardens are subscribed to capacity, though there is limited turnover from year to year. East Quarter Farm Gardens, near Ripley School, was established in 2009 and still has plots available.”

Three community gardens on public land! Over one hundred plots! Two are filled to capacity!

There in a quaint, old, respected, historical, classy community we find three community gardens, while here in my exurban subdivision carved out of old farmland we have none because some people don’t want to live next door to a garden. How sad–and stupid. When is my community going to wake up?

Emerson's House

Perhaps if I were as effective a writer as Emerson or Thoreau, I could convince my fellow community members to find a place for a communal garden space, to change the bylaws which allow cutting trees in order to put in a swimming pool but not for a sunny garden area, and to begin changing our subdivision from a car-centric, single-use, unsustainable, exurban backwater into a walkable, mixed-use, connected, sustainable, green community.

Cambridge house on side-street

Or maybe I just need to get out of Dodge for awhile.

Stay tuned in the next week or so as Outside the Box travels to Washington D.C.

Ephemeral Spring

Crabapple Blossoms

Dear Reader:

So we’ve had one of those kind of springs. An overcast, rainy, drizzly, foggy, chilly, turn-on-the-furnace, will-the-sun-ever-come-out, I’m-gonna-stick-my-head-in-an-oven-if-it-doesn’t-clear-up-soon spring. Despite the lack of sunlight, I fell in love with Spring this year. The beauty overwhelmed me.

The budding leaves on the trees glowed neon green. Every window in my house framed dazzling squares of bright, yellowy-green glaze, and every trip into town offered views of wide, verdant expanses from the ridges overlooking lush valleys of oak and maple and birch and beech trees budding out after a long, snowy winter.

My Reiki instructor reminded me that green is the color of the heart chakra, the energy center that corresponds with compassion, unconditional love, forgiveness, faith, receptivity, and acceptance. Either all that green was feeding my heart chakra, or my heart chakra was so energized I was drawn to all that green, or perhaps the energy and the color and the season were all just aligned for me this year so that despite the rain and gloom I was able to feel hope and love and faith for a brighter future.

Later in the season, the light color will deepen into emerald and forest and moss, but this early spring . . . well, it was all golden-green, the color Robert Frost wrote about in his short poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Award-winning poet, Dana Gioia, wrote an excellent essay about Frost’s 1923 poem. In the essay,“On Robert Frost’s Nothing Gold Can Stay,” Gioia contrasts this type of short poem with more the formalized forms of sonnets and epigrams. He talks about the construction of the poem, simplicity of the words Frost chose to use, and the movement from nature themes to philosophical observation about the passage of time.

Exuberant Rhubarb

This poem could be depressing, like the rainy weather, a note on the ephemeral qualities of youth giving way to duller attributes. Okay, true, but here’s the thing about life–it goes in cycles. Yes, this rainy yet somehow bright green spring will yield to summer and heat and dust and shady spots beneath the mature leaves of the trees. And, yes, the leaves will dry up and fall in autumn, and the branches will seem bare and dead through another long winter, but then . . . Spring, once again!

Lamium Maculatum

Nowhere is this more apparent than in my perennial flower beds. Year after year, these plants die back in the fall and then come back to life once again in the spring, bursting out of the cold wet ground and spreading themselves up and out to catch the fall of rain and (theoretically this year) the rays of sunlight.

Most of these plants are divisions from friends’ and my mother’s flower beds, and because I’ve never been too interested in the science of horticulture (I’m more interested in having pretty gardens) I rarely even bother to find out the names of the plants. A quick search this morning for “purple flowers ground covers” brought up pictures that seemed to match my bunchy cluster of purple flowers with heart-shaped leaves that grows on the north-east side of my front steps. If I’m right, this is Lamium maculatum, a ground-cover than does well in partial shade. It has come back bigger and better than ever each year. I highly recommend this hardy perennial if you are more of a putterer and less of a horticulturalist in the garden.

Another Lamium

This is another Lamium, with the more characteristic dark-rimmed silvery foliage and pink flowers. I love the way it looks against the rock, so delicate and pretty.

Trillium erectum

Meanwhile, out in Nature’s garden, otherwise known as “the woods” or “the side of the road,” this red Trillium briefly blazed like the red star she is. My friend Sandi (check out her Waughtercolors artwork on deviantART) and I noticed these beautiful ephemerals while on an early-morning bike ride one cloudy-but-not-quite-rainy spring day. Spring ephemerals are woodland plants that bloom and go to seed very quickly. Like Frost’s spring gold, they quickly fade to something less spectacular, but while they are here, oh boy! Beautiful. And maybe all the more appreciated because of their ephemeral quality?

Like youth and poetry. For me, a poem is an ephemeral thing, capturing a brief moment in time, a fleeting feeling, an impression.

When I was newly graduated from the University of Maine at Farmington, I got it into my head to write a sonnet sequence. I was inspired by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s SONNETS FROM THE PORTUGUESE.
I was young. I was in love, newly married. I wanted to chronicle that time in my life. So I wrote 48 poems. Three are lost. I think I sent them to a magazine and when they were returned in my SASE, I failed to put them back in the pile. I didn’t know back then that my urge to create poetry would fade, like the browning blossoms I wrote about that spring in 1992. Lately, though, that poetic part of me has regenerated, perhaps part of a creative cycle like Gaia’s seasons?

Anyway, most of the sonnets are horrible (I keep them for sentimental reasons), but I’ll share one not so horrible one that seems appropriate to the season. Enjoy this brief season, Dear Reader. Summer is right around the corner.

A FEW BLOOMS BROWNING

I

I used to climb into the apple trees,
their white-pink blossoms browning in the heat
of waning spring, and dangling dusty feet
and toes in childish peace among the leaves,
I began to dream of love. The breeze
that swayed the branch was new and sweet
with whispers I would blow to meet
the wind. How easily it was to please
the innocence of me until I sighed
another moment at the solitary sound
a songbird made upon an upper bough.
Weighted with the song, I sat and cried
because that sad and sudden beauty tore
from me the child that I had been before.

Mastering the Art of Procrastination

Dear Reader:

I should be a) folding laundry b) finishing the short story I started last week c) writing an article on Reiki I’ve been planning for over a month d) washing walls in preparation for new paint or e) at the very least finishing up the pinky-orange cotton socks in my craft pile. What am I doing instead? Drinking coffee and re-reading Julia Child’s autobiography MY LIFE IN FRANCE. My excuse is Monday’s book-club discussion, but really my reasons are less noble, for while sitting on my butt and reading about boeuf bourguignon I am mastering the art of something besides French cooking.

Call it the Art of Procrastination.

(If you would like to try an adaptation of the Julia Child boeuf bourguignon recipe, I’ve found one at RecipeZaar that looks quite good; however, I haven’t tested it yet so can’t vouch for the end result. Click HERE for the link. If you are inspired to “cook with Julia” and want to check out her book MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING, click HERE.)

Clever procrastination takes a good pinch of self-delusion. For instance, when I’m feeling slothful, I can always turn on the computer and begin to compose a blog post. Then, when someone asks “What did you do today?,” I can truthfully say “Oh, I did some writing.”

Voila! The artistry of transforming Sloth into something approximating Industry!

Self-delusion only goes so far. Like sugar, the rush lasts for a little while and then fades. Conscience eats away at my composure (not to mention my leisure). I am forced to ask myself: Has blogging become nothing more for me than an elaborate justification for laziness?

I try to be as objective and honest in my assessment as possible and come up with a wishy-washy “yes and no.” Much of what I have attempted and accomplished in past fourteen months has been fodder for the blog. Knitting, sewing, gardening, researching, cooking, shopping, reading . . . the blog gives my preference for variety (rather than specialization) a raison d’etre. Hopefully, I am able to turn my obsessions, my preferences, my interests, my questions, my explorations into something informative and entertaining–something of value.

I also like to think that while being thus un-gainfully employed, I have created not only words on a light-screen but also some tangible objets. Like socks. Like yarn. Like bread. Like perennial gardens. Like arugula. While not of great economic value to my household, these things are useful, and so I really can’t consider them a complete waste of time.

Still, once in awhile it is good for me to take stock of my time-management skills . . . or lack of them. What have I actually produced lately? Is the time I spend producing things like socks, bread, and irises “worth” the end results? Am I basically wasting time? Should I be working for a corporate salary or an hourly wage? What (and who) does my work benefit? At the very least, am I mastering my chosen crafts so that my knowledge could some day be translated into gainful production or teaching or both?

I’ve been reading alot lately about the economy, of course: the arguments for and against deregulation, the wranglings in the Senate and House, the size of the federal deficit, the unemployment numbers, and the roller-coaster ride from Hades that is the daily stock market report. A general theme is emerging in my readings. More and more people seem to be questioning our decision as a country to outsource much of our production. Whether this is because a more general idea is taking shape in our collective American conscience or whether I am seeking therefore I am finding, many people are worried that our inability to feed, clothe, and shod ourselves will end up leading to a bleak economic future.

To that I offer this intellectual bon mot: Well, duh.

Take, for instance, this informative article entitled DISMANTLING AMERICA from Patrick J. Buchanan posted on the American Conservative site this past March. In the article, Buchanan writes, “Things that we once made in America — indeed, we made everything — we now buy from abroad with money that we borrow from abroad. Over this Lost Decade, 5.8 million manufacturing jobs, one of every three we had in Y2K, disappeared. That unprecedented job loss was partly made up by adding 1.9 million government workers.”

Dear Reader, we once made everything. Now we sit in government offices, pushing papers. Not even that. We file electronic documents. Buzz on the street is that our recent slight improvement in unemployment numbers can be attributed to those oh-so-very temporary US Census jobs.

Until we start making things again, creating them with our own hands, we will not have a truly strong and resilient (not to mention sustainable) economy. Reading Wendell Berry this week, I found myself agreeing with the agrarian philosopher on so many issues, but with none so strongly as this, that our quest to free ourselves from hard work has diminished us in many ways. In his essay “Think Little” Berry writes, “Our people have given up their independence in return for the cheap seductions and the shoddy merchandise of so-called ‘affluence.’ We have delegated all our vital functions and responsibilities to salesmen and agents and bureaus and experts of all sorts. We cannot feed or clothe ourselves, or entertain ourselves, or communicate with each other . . .” (Think Little, Wendell Berry, THE ART OF THE COMMONPLACE, Shoemaker & Hoard, Emeryville, CA, 2002. pp.84.)

Although I make things with my own hands, I cannot honestly say I’m productive. Dabbling is not the same thing as mastering. A master craftsman knows all there is to know about her chosen profession. Housewives of yore were master craftswomen. They knew how to raise chickens, spin yarn, make soap, sew a shirt by hand, bake bread, biscuits, pies, and cakes, grow a kitchen garden big enough to feed the family, store food, save seeds, knit sweaters, darn socks, wash and dry laundry by hand, put up jam, milk the cow/goat/sheep, and provide basic medical care. Girls began their apprenticeship at an early age.

I was lucky to have a mom who baked bread and sewed and put up jam. I was lucky to have a dad who knew how to keep a garden growing all summer. My grandmother always had some handwork going–knitting or crocheting or tatting–when she wasn’t taking news photos or typing up her articles. My grandfather tended a large kitchen garden. But in general it was expected that I would be a careerist and not a farmer/housewife, a consumer and not a producer. Instead, I fell into the crevasse between the two. I swim in the limbo that is the life of a modern, stay-at-home mom. So I blog. Is it enough?

While working on her book, MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING, Julia Child set herself a schedule of testing recipes and typing the manuscript even though she would have preferred exploring the nearby countryside. I am inspired to follow her example. I need to set specific goals. I need to create a schedule. I have mastered the Art of Procrastination. It remains to be seen if I can master the Art of Productivity.

The Great Book Debate–Ayn Rand, Ron Paul, and Judith Levine

flower powerDear Reader:

Can you believe the size of this amaryllis? Four huge blooms burst open on a thick, green stem over the course of a week. When the last of the four reached its fullest I heard a SNAP! and looked over to see the poor stem broken under the weight of such beauty. I was sad, but placed the flower in a pitcher of water where it brightened my late-winter days for another week. What is more surprising and magical than a tropical flower blooming in the middle of winter?

As winter makes way for a surprisingly early spring here in the great State of Maine, I find myself drawn to opposites: salty and sweet foods, hot drinks and sitting in the cool air on my front step, bursts of activity followed by periods of curling up on the couch with blanket and good book. In the spirit of this month that comes “in like a lion and out like a lamb,” I’ve decided that my reading material should be a study in contrasts.

For months now, storms have raged on Capitol Hill regarding health care, bailouts, the role of government in our lives. We hear on one hand that the American people are mostly satisfied with their insurance plans; on the other hand, we learn of outrage over insurance price hikes in the double digits planned for next year. We know our national debt is so hugemongous there is really no way to comprehend the depth of the hole we’ve dug ourselves into. We also know the two biggest entitlement programs–Medicare and Social Security–are ones no one wants to cut. I’ve watched all this with growing alarm, wondering what is the best way out of the mess we seem to be in, wondering if there IS a way out. Wondering what steps my family and I should take as citizens of our town, our state, and our country. I want to be an active citizen, but I want to be sure I’m acting in a positive, helpful way.

So, small steps. First, before you can try to fix a national economy, it is important to take care of your home economy. This month, in an effort to conserve our personal resources, my family decided to relinquish cable television. The kind of programming I wanted to see wasn’t found on cable anyway. Here’s what I’d like: a daily, two-hour program featuring debate on world and national issues or round-table discussions on said issues. I don’t want to hear party propaganda, so no political party chairmen would be invited. Legislators, yes. Party poobah’s, no. It seems to me that the problems we face today are so vast, so important that partisan politics has no place at the discussion table. Next year’s elections are not as important as next year’s employment figures. I want some straight talk from people who have made it their life’s work to study economics, Contitutional law, sociology, world affairs, energy, natural resources, and history.

Since we can’t always get what we want (and apparently I’m in a minority as the television media tends to give the majority what they want and what we are getting is polito-entertainment masking itself as serious commentary), I decided that if I can’t watch a debate, I’ll create my own . . . with books. I’m embarking on a series of print-debates in the privacy of my own home.

So, last week I invited three thinkers (one of whom is dead) into my home via the magic of the printed page. With Big Government having its day in the sun, so to speak, I decided to give ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand another look-see. In Rand’s hefty tome, we see an America that is at once familiar and alien. The economy is failing. Innovative thinkers are either hobbled by government regulations or quietly disappear, leaving chaos and crumbling infrastructure behind. A few stubborn, heroic industrialists hang on. They can’t quite wrap their heads around the “lack of reason” being displayed by their fellow man.

Ron Paul would agree with Ms. Rand on many points. His book THE REVOLUTION outlines Paul’s philosophy of a weaker federal government, less regulation, a free market Austrian economic system based on a gold standard, and more freedom in general. He postulates that government social programs have hurt more than they’ve helped. He wants to audit (and then end) the Federal Reserve, our central banking system. He’s for free trade, but not necessarily for free trade agreements. Thank you, Mr. Paul. And now, Judith Levine. What do you have to say?

Judith Levine is a freelance journalist who, along with her husband, decided to go an entire year without buying anything other than basic needs. No gifts. No movies. No books. No clothes. The idea was to use what they had, make do, or go without. She wanted to experiment with being a non-consumer. She didn’t really get into her politics much, but reading the resulting book, NOT BUYING IT, you get the idea that she’s liberal. Here is the interesting part for me: Levine and Paul have much in common even though they land on opposite sides of the political spectrum. While Paul says, “let the market regulate itself via supply and demand of consumers and producers,” Levine says, “stop mindlessly consuming and start realizing that your choices count.” Ayn Rand, from the great beyond, chimes in with her “Work so that you may consume, otherwise you are looting from those who produce.”

I listened to all of them with great interest and am deliberately refraining from coming to any hard and fast conclusions about the role of the federal government. There are many considerations, many questions. But on one thing, all three of these authors agreed: Individuals need to take responsibility for themselves and their choices. We need to take responsibility for what we value. Most importantly, if we are to continue to be a viable society, we need produce and not simply consume

I encourage you to click on the links provided and give these three authors at least a cursory glance. Everyone–liberals, conservatives, and those of us in-between–will find their ideas challenged by each of these books.

Have you read anything thought-provoking lately? Any ideas of two authors you might read who have wildily diverging views? Stop in and share. Perhaps I’ll chose them for my next great book debate . . . Outside the Box.