Tuesday, December 14, 2010


I am blessed beyond sense in so many ways. Though I often trudge through my days, dragging my feet (and other body parts), there are moments in which the whole of my being is flooded with gratitude for the abundance of love and amazing people in my life.

"How will you use your leisure and fortune today?" This is written on a card that sits on my dining room table, again on my kitchen cabinet, and, in a slightly different formulation, on the mirror in my bedroom. I was asked the other day what it means, and was reminded that, what can seem so obvious to one is not clear at all to others.

If you are reading this, you are blessed by leisure and fortune. If you did not go to bed hungry for lack of food, you are blessed by leisure and fortune. If, indeed, you went to bed in a bed in a house, you are blessed by leisure and fortune. If you had a break from work today, you are blessed by leisure and fortune. If you own a TV, a radio, a phone, a car, more clothes than you need, have heat, indoor plumbing, and electricity, you are blessed with leisure and fortune.

So often, however, we take all this for granted. We don't think about the fact that the water that comes out of our faucet is a small miracle unavailable to a sixth of the world's population. We hate our jobs. We bemoan our bills. We complain about the cost of holiday presents. We complain about gas mileage, mortgage payments, and our schedules busy with engagements, meetings, errands, parties, and concerts. We pay money for the gym, and whine about having to go take our flaccid, overfed, underworked bodies to "work out."

Please understand that I'm not in anyway saying these things to stir up guilt. I don't feel guilty to have any of these things. That they are in my life is an act of grace and the result of karma. The question is not whether I should feel bad about my blessings (how ridiculous), but  how I will use them. Whether I will cherish them and employ them in the service of others, or if I will twist them into burdens to be grudgingly borne? Think about it--a billion people in the world would probably die of gratitude if they could walk from their heated, comfortable bedroom into a bathroom where they could relieve themselves in a sanitary toilet, wash their hands with soap and clean water, brush their teeth and swallow water that would not give them dysentery. Yet we drag ourselves from bed, complaining that the room isn't warm enough and that the gas bills are so high, thoughtlessly go through the motions of our morning rituals, complaining that it takes the water too long to get hot, thinking about all the rest of the crap we have to do today, dreading donning our multiple layers of clothes, shoveling our sidewalks, and getting ourselves to work.

I'm not saying that I like paying my bills or coming to work. I most certainly do not. I'm not saying that I don't have real problems and that addressing them isn't a struggle. But relative to many, many people, I am rich beyond belief. My modest American standard of living far surpasses that of billions of people. Billions. So what will I do with it? Is my life really so hard? Really?? Beyond the physical comforts I enjoy, I have had access to an education, to spiritual teachers, and to an abundance of undeserved love. I am a woman who can read, who can work, who has never backed down to a man, never been raped, never been hit, never been degraded for my sex, never been told that I could not ________ because "women can't do those things." To write those words breaks my heart because I know there are billions of women around the world for whom ignorance, domination, abuse, and humiliation are just the way of their lives. So how will I use my knowledge, my freedom, my voice?

Gratitude is the greatest antidote to feeling small, useless, angry, exhausted, put-out, deprived. Gratitude, when it floods the heart and soul, begets generosity, and it is generosity that gets us everything else. Abundance comes from a lack of attachment, so if you want to be full--give of yourself. Give it away. Unclench your fist--it can only hold but a tablespoon of water.  Hands open in praise receive the entire river in its passing. 

So how will you use your leisure and fortune today? How can you use your blessings to bless the world?

...all that has come to us
has come as the river comes,
given in passing away...

No comments:

Post a Comment

Why is this place called Rough Branch?

Rough Branch is a reference to Wendell Berry's "mad farmer" poems. Berry is an agrarian populist poet, and advocate for sustainable agricultural practices. I don't agree with every position he takes, but his reverence for the beauty and balance of the natural world, for the preciousness of the life that runs through it (including our own), and of the community that sustains both the land and each other, speaks to my heart.

Over the past few years, I have sunk myself into the soil in my back yard, and into the community of neighbors that surrounds it, and it has begun to restore me. My garden is not just a plot of dirt providing vegetables for the salad bowl, it is an act of love, a place of profundity and awe. If you knew about the ecosystem that lives in but one gram of good earth, you would be humbled, literally, to the ground.

Berry's poems are passionate calls to live--deeply, profoundly, fearlessly. To step out of narrow-minded egotism, to secede "[f]rom the union of self-gratification and self-annihilation, [to] secede into care for one another, and for the good gifts of Heaven and Earth."

And so I have made my own nation small enough to walk across. I have named the small corner of the earth I steward Rough Branch. I have declared myself free of ignorant love, and I secede...

From the union of power and money,
from the union of power and secrecy,
from the union of government and art,
from the union of science and money,
from the union of ambition and ignorance,
from the union of genius and war,
from the union of outer space and inner vacuity,
the Mad Farmer walks quietly away.

There is only one of him, but he goes.
He returns to the small country he calls home,
his own nation small enough to walk across.
(From "The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union")
The Mad Farmer challenges us to reconnect, to resurrect our land, our communities, and our souls.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion -- put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
(From "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front")
All quotes from Wendell Berry.