Friday, August 31, 2012

Trick chickens and dead chickens

Yesterday, we had to kill one of my chickens.

I had three, all happy in this little wire box called a "chicken tractor" which we'd wheel around the garden to give them new tasty bugs and grass every day. In exchange for this pampering, our gardens eat the nitrogen in

I had decided from the first day that I was not going to get attached to them: They're chickens. They're egg machines, and, I thought, they will stay egg machines. I am a farm woman; I will not have pet chickens.

So I didn't name them. Other than filling up their water, wheeling them around, and feeding them, I spent no time with them. I was thankful for the egg which would show up every day, but that's as far as my emotional attachment went. I remained cool, aloof.

That is, until the stupid little birds decided they liked me.

The first week, they huddled away from me every time I opened the top trap, making concerned little noises and jumping out of their feathers as bits of feed rattled down. Gradually, however, they got used to me. Even my hat falling in did little to ruffle them. I could practically drop a jar on them and they'd look up with thankful, beady, greedy little eyes. They started making soft cooing noises whenever we'd weed near them, little chickens songs and contented clucks.

The end of my emotional disattachement came, however, when they started coming to me. The backtrap swings open sometimes; the latch isn't too tight and I'm too lazy to fix it. So one or two mornings a week, I walk past or we drive up to pick lettuce, and they're meandering around the bean patch eating beetles. The first few times this happened, I had to chase them a bit. Then they'd let me walk up to them.

Last week they started walking up to me. I didn't even have to train them; take that, Flannery O'Connor. They'd perk up their little heads, see me coming, and one of them would scamper over and squat down so I could pick her up. Another one would pretend to run away from me,  but while I scooped up the third and hopped over the bean rows to their tractor, a chicken under each arm, she's sort of mosey over as if the whole thing were her idea. I imagine she wanted to maintain some pretence of independence--and there I go, anthropomorphizing. But she'd mosey over and sort of scoot away from me as I tried to pick her up. I'd fold my arms and pretend not to care, and she's come back and cluck a bit as I grabbed her between both wings and dump her through the top trap.

But then on Friday one of them, started hunkering down in the corner with her eyes half shut. The side of her neck was plucked and damp. The other chickens never bothered her; she worried herself, plucking feathers and dribbling herself with water. I don't know why or what was wrong.

All I knew was that I couldn't kiill her.

I've been here for 3 months, and though I've helped butcher a couple animals, I've never killed one. I didn't want my "friend-chicken," as Nii'Anang called her, to be the first. Sillier yet, I didn't want the other chickens to know that I was involved in killing their friend, which is probably absurd, but that's how I felt. So I had Nii'Anang slit her throat quietly in the woods. That was yesterday, and by then she had developed a little cough, like pneumonia, and looked terrible. I couldn't look at her when I went to feed them.

I was talking to a friend on the phone the other evening about the joys of farming, and he used the term "man's mastery over nature." Maybe it's because I hang out with feminists, but I winced. Just to prove I'm not a feminist (though I respect them), I corrected him with the term "husbandry."

The truth is, we don't have very much mastery. We have to remove ourselves via technology and urbanization before we can afford that illusion. Heck, I can't even control my own heart when I get all tore up over a little chicken's suffering. Much less can I control the rain, seed germination, and the chicken herself. Some years are good bean years; the next, though, the beans all die. Why? We don't know.

We lost our onion crop to tiny little insects called thrips; everyone was in a black mood for two weeks after that. Deer ate all of our lettuce, and no deer fence seemed able to stop them. That same week, the racoons completely destroyed our corn crop. Yeah, we're organic--but you don't think conventional farmers have the same problem? They can manufactor all the petroleum-based nitrogen they want, but when it doesn't rain, they hurt. We're not in control. We just work with the world, within the world, and we'd best not forget that. We learn some, we cajol things into flourishing, but consider the lilies and the sparrows. We're not too far removed from them, despite the fact we can fly in cucumbers from Mexico or wherever in December.

And then that little chicken I didn't want to like has to die, and I can't do anything about it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Golden Anniversary

We've been jabbering about contemporary poetry for so long, it's about time for an example of somethin' real swell:

Golden Anniversary
by Wislawa Szymborska

They must have been different once,
fire and water, miles apart,
robbing and giving in desire,
that assault on one another's otherness.
Embracing, they appropriated and expropriated each other
for so long,
that only air was left within their arms,
transparent as if after lightning.

One day the answer came before the question.
Another night they g uessed their eyes' expression
by the type of silence in the dark.

Gender fades, mysteries molder,
distinctions meet in all-resemblance
just as all colors coincide in white.

Which of them is doubled and which missing?
Which one is smiling with two smiles?
Whose voice forms a two-part canon?
When both heads nod, which one agrees?
Whose gesture lifts the teaspoon to their lips?
Who's flayed the other one alive?
Which one lives and which has died
entangled in the lines of whose palm?

They gazed into each other's eyes and slowly twins emerged.
Familiarity breeds the most perfect of mothers--
it favors neither of the little darlings,
it scarcely can recall which one is which.

On this festive day, their golden anniversary,
a dove, seen identically, perched on the windowsill.


I first heard this poem on the front porch of the Donnybrook last spring, read by Daniel Spiotta (ah, I miss those Friday nights). Before I picked up his collection of Szymborska's poetry, it had been a long time since I had discovered an author who completely captured and delighted me. Is she an excellent poet, you ask? one of the greats? I don't know, honestly; I've only read her in translation. But even if she's not, who cares? Since when did we loose the joy of good books in favor of "great" ones?

I remember one evening, sitting in the lamplight outside the library, and talking about writing poetry with a talented friend. He said that he's content to write little sentimental poems and grow old enjoying flowers. I'm content to grow old enjoying little poems like Szymborska's with good friends.

Betsy and I together on the New York Subway.
(Courtesy of Maria Lams)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Stop Complaining About Contemporary Poetry, Because Steve Gehrke Is Probably Brilliant

Disclaimer: I wrote this pretty late last night after I got back from the RNC media party (open bar), and I don't feel like re-writing it for intelligence, so please read charitably. Hah.

First, I'm sorry I'm not writing about my life -- and I only say that because I'm assuming (WARNING: SOLIPSISM AHEAD) that most people visit this adorable little blog because they want to read about Glamorous Life In The Big Apple, and, unfortunately, my life is only describable as None of the Above. So I have to pretend I'm still trying to get a B.A. in English instead.

Now that that's out of the way, here's another little Contemporary Poetry Rant.

It's easy to go off on why all modern poetry is terrible, and it's The Poets' fault that nobody reads poetry anymore, but it's also The English Teachers' Fault, and it's also The People's fault, and our entire society is pretty much screwed because nobody reads verse and that means Western Civilization was basically a cute little failed experiment, and we should all invest in dry beans and plastic emergency blankets as the apocalypse is, for lack of a better term, eminent.

Okay. It's easy to say that.

But it stops being easy when you read Steve Gehrke. I wrote a little bit about him, and Serena wrote a follow-up, but he's not an international celebrity yet, so obviously we need to write more. Seriously, people. Read Steve Gehrke. This is not a drill. Do it. Stop reading this and go read him.

In case you didn't immediately close your browser and boogie on over to the Poetry Foundation's website to check out his work, here's an argument for it:

First, he's seriously good. He knows what he's doing, he does it well, and he accomplishes what he wants to do. Second, what he wants to do is really lovely and brutal and chilling, and it's worth doing, and I don't think I've read anyone who's done it quite as well as he does. Third, I think he really loves English. His lines have a vigor and intensity and (gag) energy that kind of pulsates, and he's hard to stop reading once you start -- in fact, I don't start reading one of his pieces until I know I have time to read it at least three times.

And if you aren't sold yet (which, IMO, is impossible, but this is a contingency paragraph), reading contemporary poetry matters. Especially if you hate contemporary poetry. It's easy to write it off (hah! a writing pun!) and ignore it, and just re-read the same old Hopkins sonnets you've been reading since freshman year when you discovered "God's Grandeur" and decided you'd found the zenith of Western culture. But that's intellectually lazy, and it stops being fun after a while. And poetry is supposed to be fun. And part of the fun of reading poetry is reading new poetry and having to decide if you like it, without the built-in Test of Time Answer Key. Contemporary poetry forces you to make a decision. Its quality is still up for debate. Nobody's concluded that it is or isn't good. And that means that you can pretend you're part of the canonization process -- which, if you think about it for a bit, is really, really, really cool.

So go read Steve Gehrke. You might hate him, and that's okay (actually it's not okay, but I feel like I should say that, just in case). Tell me what you think. And remember that if lay people don't read poetry, it will keep on being just for the elites who have (let's be real) kind of bad taste. And it will stop mattering altogether, and Western Culture might actually take a fractional, incalculable step away from loveliness. And your apathy will have played a role in that sad migration.

Go read Steve Gehrke, right now. This is not a drill.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Idol of Community

Living as a hilltop hermit for three months has given me a lot of time to think about community. Perhaps it's the circles in which I run, but "community" is a buzzword I hear a lot. In college, my friends and I praised the intimacy which Hillsdale College's small size afforded. Whereas a lot of my peers who went to big schools (read "bigger than 2,000") drifted like life rafts and tethered together for a season or an evening before floating off, we were like shipwrecked sailors crawling up on desert islands: we stuck together. Within our castaway academic culture, off-campus houses developed a certain ethos and their cultures continued and evolved as they were sanctimoniously handed off from one generation to another. We took pride in our loyalty to friends and our intentional community. We made dinner together, read poetry on Friday evenings, fought, apologized, fought again, and then made cocktails. We argued about theology and philosophy, protected each other's reputations, and we always knew who never did dishes and who ate the last cookie every time.

That is all to say, I can't imagine a better place to have spent the past four years of my life and those memories of late-night pots of coffee and Easter jam sessions have helped sustain me through the past three months of solitude.

But I also have a bone to pick, if you'll pardon my cliche. (I've been working for the past ten days straight, so I'm tired.)

 I've lived in a lot of close communities--family, private school, summer stays with various families, college--and I'm trying to come to terms with the bitterness and disappointment which I see so often among people who have tried so hard to live well in community. Pardon me for somewhat limiting my audience here, but you recent alumni should know what I'm talking about: the feeling of loss, of being lost without that community for some, for others anger at the gossip, pettiness, and cowardice which tainted those last months and may have continued past graduation. When I talk to my college friends, one of the most common reactions I hear is disappointment with that community we tried so hard to foster.

I've seen it in churches, too--people who leave because they've been burned, people who get burned out trying to make it all work. As a guy I went hunting with last night said, "Church is great if you take the human element out of it."

I think the problem is with the ideal of community itself. We--and I have to speak specifically to my fellow graduates--have made it our idol.

I know I have. When I think back on the four years of blessing I experienced with the other Hillsdale College Anglicans (or whatever name we finally decided for ourselves), I remember with pain those times--embarrassingly frequent--when I made decisions with more a mind toward preserving our "good community" than the truth of our purpose which was (and is) glorifying God. I didn't want to rock the boat, so I didn't ask questions that needed to be asked and I avoided conversations that needed to be had.

How many times did we as friends just "take care" of each other on some of those excessive Friday nights instead of acting? How many times did we allow words and actions to continue just so long as we could maintain the status quo?

It's a fine line, I know. We want to act charitably towards the weaker member, we wanted to act with care and concern rather than judgement. Those are wonderful intentions, and we did have the best of intentions. I can honestly say that the best thing about Hillsdale is that you are surrounded by people who genuinely care about your soul.

But we also failed a lot. We set a lot of bones that needed to be broken.

I remember going to say goodbye to Dr. Whalen (the College provost for those of you unfamiliar with the school) and talking with him about the common problem of graduates who just want to continue the community they had in college.

As I said before, I think the problem is that we've made community our idol, as if it is the great telos of human life.

This is an easy mistake to make because in fact we aren't as human beings meant to be alone. We are made to live in communities with all their pleasures and pains. It is not good for man to be alone, as God said in the beginning.

But we can't stop there. A really wonderful man, Dr. John Seel, who I had the pleasure of meeting in high school and keeping up with sporadically through college, sent me a few readings about vocation last week which really made me start thinking about community in a new way. Communities, too, have vocations; they don't exist for themselves.

At Hillsdale, I think there's a tendency for us to think about our friend groups as ends in themselves, as part of the central purpose of college. But that's not true. We're in college for a specific purpose, and that's academic. To substitute growth in friendship for this academic goal is just to dress up the deplorable idea in the larger culture that college is a time to "find oneself."

No. College is not a time to find oneself, it's a time that prepares you to serve in the world. That is (was, for me and my fellow graduates) our purpose, and when we substitute "friendship" or "community" for the ends which they are supposed to serve, we will inevitably be disappointed.

"Community" as an ideal easily becomes its own Baal and real communities quickly kindle on their own idolatrous altar.

The purpose of communities is to forward the kingdom of Christ. God put Adam in the garden to work, and it is through work, whether the work of study, family, or occupation, that fulfill our purpose in the world. Communities and individuals must both see this work as their purposes or they will be profoundly unsatisfied. A brotherhood of knights does not exist to "be a community" and "support one another;" they fight for queen and country. We must angle ourselves toward service daily and in all that we do and only that way will we, as a dear friend once told me, make all our work a prayer instead of an idol.

P.S. Jason Peters of Front Porch Republic (a thoughtful blog with many contributors writing about place, limits, and liberty, as it describes itself) wrote an article about the promiscuous use of the word "community" three years ago which, I believe, is still one of the site's top hits because of Peters' humor and the article's poignancy. It's a great read and I recommend it to anyone thinking about this problem.