Plain and Maintain

DSC01152When I became Plain, friends asked me how I could give up the “fun” of fashion and shopping. I didn’t think of it as giving up fun, but as finding peace. I was no longer bound to the anxiety of styling my hair, buying clothes, managing an extensive (closets, people, CLOSETS) wardrobe, and “watching” my weight. I had the fun of sewing, choosing fabrics that are suitable and of good quality, and of being confident that in all occasions, I was appropriately dressed. I no longer worry about the ups and downs of weight gain and loss triggered by a chronic illness. My hair is gloriously long and gloriously weaving silver strands amongst the chestnut red and brown. I don’t spend anything on cosmetics and jewelry. I have no valuables to lose, I don’t have to replace clothes because they are no longer suitable to the fashion. I have freedom. The price of being a clotheshorse was not only the hit to the credit card, but the constant level anxiety of trying to look good. That anxiety is gone, and I resent it when people tell me I should have it back, and give up Plain in the way I express it. Am I sometimes “mistaken” for a nun? Yes, but that isn’t really a mistake, as I belong to a religious order. Am I sometimes mistaken for Amish? Yes, but that is no insult, to be “mistaken” for a woman of peace. To be a woman of peace is my goal.

Currently, I have to wear a uniform at work. I don’t really like the uniform, but it is part of restaurant culture. I do it. I keep it as simple as possible. It seems to be an accepted part of modern life, that many of us require special clothes for work. And then I do wear a “uniform” the rest of the time – the simple Plain dress and kapp, or the habit. Plain is more than having just a few choices of clothes. Jeans and a sweater are not Plain, unless that is one’s expression of Kingdom living. Mere simplicity is beneficial, yet there is a deeper spirituality to Plain.

Hermosa House Julie Larry and Iska May 2014

I have come to love the habit. It is what I have been longing for, in my heart, walking under the protection of the roof of the Church. It tells people who I am and what I am at a quick glance, just as the architectural vernacular of “church” is expressed in formal ways. The form follows function, in that it is modest, easy to make (really), and yet complicated enough to remind one that in essence, the wearer is cloistered, set aside, protected, while still serving God in the world. The head covering is our protection, and the sign of prayer, much as a bell tower or steeple is. The scapular is a narthex, covering all that is within, and our yoke to bear for Christ. The long tunic unites all dedicated religious, the nave of the church. No matter what we are inside, no matter what tribulations and wounds we have borne, we are included in that body. Whether we wear shoes or we are discalced (wearing sandals, or barefoot), we do so with simplicity and practicality. My shoes are all functional and very plain, good quality, and bought to last for years. Every piece of jewelry I wear now has religious significance – cross, St. Michael’s medal, holy images. Plain is how I express living in God’s Kingdom. I have left this fallen world, and while I am still in battle to keep it from overwhelming my one small castle, I am secure within its walls.

Teresa of Ávila, Roman Catholic saint and mystic, wrote extensively on mystical union, once writing, "If Christ Jesus dwells in a man as his friend and noble leader, that man can endure all things, for Christ helps and strengthens us and never abandons us. He is a true friend."

 

Once Plain (On Avoiding Mirrors)

I do not think I will be leaving my Plain life. I am at home in Plain. I am comfortable Plain. My husband, house and way of life are Plain. There are moments of dissatisfaction. I wondered last night if I would ever consider a dishwasher, for instance. But since I had the supper dishes washed in less than ten minutes, I think I answered my own question.

But people I have known over the last three or four years as Plain have been leaving the life. Some attend traditionally Plain churches, but are shifting to a faith community where Plain is less accepted or known. They are timid of taking their Plain selves there. Sometimes the shift is because they are disenchanted with Plain.

I feel sorry for them, and sometimes a bit frustrated, especially when they sought deep advisement about being Plain. But apparently it was not a leading for many, just a notion. A reverse vanity, even a real vanity – Plain but vain.

I was surprised when one young woman dedicated to her Anabaptist way of life changed churches, dropped her prayer kapp and full aprons, and started dressing in modest but fashionable outfits, “covering” with nothing more than a folded scarf or a hairband. She started wearing make-up. She painted her walls bold colors and bought room accessories. She let all of us know about it. In effect, she left behind what her ancestors had struggled to keep. I sadly relinquished her friendship. She was too vain to be Plain. She courted having hundreds of friends and acquaintances through writing and publicizing her new-found fashionable Christian life.

As I said, I cannot imagine giving up Plain. Maybe it’s because I am so aware of how fragile life is. I want to live close to its roots. A life stripped down to essentials, a life lived under an open sky, a life full of challenge and opportunity to know God, not just know about God. I don’t think that can be found in an elegant house, with elegant friends, pre-occupied with career and the frivolities of modern distractions. It’s a way of being at sea while living ashore. I love that about life at sea. It is basic. It is all sky and water and distant land to be sought. It is birds overhead, fish flying from wave crest to wave crest, whales and seals. It is the wind for a tutor, and the sea itself as a home.

One cannot take anything extra to sea. There is no room for superfluous baggage. Before the voyage, one has to plan minutely what to take. There is no shopping mall, no easy way to refuel, restock, take on fresh water. There must be enough, and what is packed aboard must be of use. Potatoes and canned food, certainly. Repair kits for clothing and sails, medical equipment and supplies. Warm and useful clothing. Charts, sextant, radio, GPS, books of nautical and natural knowledge. Bedding, soap, dishes, pots and pans. The barest of basics, and if there is extra space left, a bit more of those basics. (I once sailed with someone who had insisted on bringing her glass coffee maker. Everytime we hit a patch of rough sea, the first thought was to go stow the coffee maker in someone’s berth. A Chemex coffee maker does not make a good bunkmate.)

And that is Plain life to me. It is carrying just what one needs for the journey. To give up on it from insecurity, vanity, or the desire to please someone else, is the same as swallowing the anchor. It means giving up the life lived as to drink it down to the lees. It is to accept the cosseting and spoiling that numbs our souls.

I worked in the marine industry for a couple of decades. I lived on the waterfront, worked on the waterfront, and traveled across the water itself almost daily. I knew many sailors who lived aboard. Some had made the great sacrifice and divested of the extraneous, the merely pleasing. They sailed. They traveled. They called from far distant ports in other countries, on other continents. And others had not divested enough. Their decks and home-wharves were cluttered with effluvia – the extra bicycle that needed a new tire, the lockers of old clothes and mouldering books, the hoses and lines and chains that never found a home. They crammed their small living spaces with shirts, jeans, running shoes, notebooks, mementoes, odd china, cookware, cookbooks, torn sails, artwork, broken computers. All of it was to be used – someday. But in the meantime, they were held back. It is impossible to really sail with loose goods on deck or below. It is dangerous. It is frustrating. One might motor on a calm day from harbour to harbour, but it is not possible to successfully set sail and heel the boat. Some vessels end up so overcrowded with the retained flotsam and jetsam of the owners’ lives that they would simply capsize.

Plain is the sailors’ life. It is the life that can travel to new spiritual ports of call. The early Quakers and Anabaptists knew this. They kept their possessions to a minimum. They might have to up anchor and away in t he night. They at least knew, deep in their bones, that any of us can be called away on a moment’s notice, leaving behind everything earthly. They did not want their souls weighed with the baggage of regret for what was lost.

From dust we came, to dust we shall return. Anything that is traveling with us is merely dust, no more, in even a few short years, anything more than its compounded elements.

So the mirror – liar, that it is, is our enemy. It tells us what we think we are. It is merely an image, not the woman or the man. Avoid mirrors. They will provoke discontent, insecurity and vanity. They will make a Christian envious, because the image is not that of what the mind wants to be true. The mirror can be left behind on the long voyage. How the sailor feels in the face of the wind, what the muscles of the body say, how warm and comfortable the skin is in sun and breeze and water is the real living being. The mind at rest and the soul that can answer its Maker without hesitation are the  true image.

Crofting: In Due Season

We are under a mist of freezing rain. While our goats are in the barn and eating hay, and the chickens snuggly in their pens, out of the weather, it is a difficult condition for wild things to face. Once the layer of rain freezes over the veil of snow, deer and other animals that paw to find grass, lichen and barks will not be able to get to that source. Small wild birds become saturated and freeze if they can’t find shelter. There isn’t much snow cover, so burrowing animals will feel the freezing cold. Weather like this is a killer for wildlife.

A warm spell in winter also may force the swelling of tree buds, which then freeze in the next cold snap. New growth for setting flower and seed is lost.

Uist croft

Some of this cycle may be the vagaries of nature, culling the weakest in the harsh winters, but some of it is most definitely the result of the unnatural patterns of modern life, warming the atmosphere, dumping high levels of carbon and other elements into the air and the water. Tree cover is gone in parts of the world that for millenia have been the lungs of the earth. Polar ice is melting, old glaciers that predated the last ice ages and the appearance of humanity on the earth are gone. The reindeer may leave the tundra, which will dramatically alter its life cycle. The great bears and marine mammals of the north are disappearing or shifting their territory. The bio-mass of great shoals of fish in the oceans are dwindling. The loss of movement and interaction of these creatures will, in a short time – less than centuries – adversely affect the weather and the flora of the north. If the equatorial rainforests are the lungs of the planet, the polar regions are the brains. Once their delicate functioning starts to shut down, the whole bio-system will fail.

In our small way, we are finding it easier to live the life of boreal herdsmen. Consciously and unconsciously we are reducing our need for the worldly system in which we have swam as little fishes for  a long time. It has meant giving up some of the trappings of civilized life such as fashionable clothes, social expectations, luxuries of food. We are tied to the small house because we heat with wood and cannot be gone for 24 hours without risking a complete freezing of our water supply. We have animals under shelter, so we need to make sure they have adequate supplies of food and water.

It is winter. We are sheltering, rarely journeying far. I have to go out about once a week now, but in the next month we plan to be snugged in for most of the rest of the season. We can’t afford to keep the truck in legal registration with the province. Repairs, taxes and fees are beyond our income right now. I will need the money we put into truck expenses for more vital expenditures such as medical care and my immigration fees. So I have to make sure we have food, firewood, medicines, grain and hay to last three months or more. I do hope we will be able to get some alternative transportation this summer, or we will gain enough extra income to license a vehicle again.

This is how poverty affects many here. Gradually, they lose the accoutrements of civilization – vehicle, appliances, even electrical and phone service. Some cope well. I think we do. Some fail to find a way to make up the difference. They run cars illegally, often dangerously decrepit vehicles with bad brakes and no headlights. If they get caught, they ignore the fine and even the court dates until they are picked up by the law for another violation, and then they spend a little time in jail. Some turn to petty crime to get by – a spot of shoplifting, stealing items from barns and garages to resell, cutting their firewood on a neighbour’s woodlot. I would rather starve than steal.

So this coming year we will have another go at small scale crops, get more chickens, perhaps get a few sheep. We are getting farther away from the demands of civilized life that drive people to keep an eye on the clock and calendar.  I hope to do more reading in how to manage a small isolated croft. Oddly, we have neighbours – near neighbours, too – who live a life no different from what we lived in the suburbs of a large city. The commute to scheduled jobs, have two cars, go away on vacation, decorate seasonally. They could in Richmond Hill, outside Toronto, or Silver Spring, Maryland. We are not isolated in being cut off from all human contact, but it is still rare, as they live the artificial day of electric lights and shift work. This is not to say that they are wrong, but to say that I expect that the nearly neolithic life of herders and shepherds will have to find a co-existence with the dominant American culture of supermarkets and malls. There will have to be a heightened and mutual accommodation and tolerance.

It could all fall apart quickly. Or it could all improve quite a bit. If we can discover the root of my health problems (possibly thyroid) then I will be able to put more time and energy into the croft work. If I can increase our income a bit we will be able to make other improvements. We are exploring, via internet, the 21st century’s equivalent of a monastic library, how to live closer to the old ways.

Shepherds and Pastors

I kept a flock of Shetland sheep for ten years. I got out of shepherding reluctantly, for the good of my remaining sheep. We intend to start a new flock this spring, here on the croft. We will keep a couple of goats for milk and kids, but I believe at heart I am really a shepherd, not a dairy maid.

I learned, as a shepherd, that when Jesus told his shepherd parables, He knew what He was talking about. I wonder if His growing years were spent in the Galilean hills, working with family who were shepherds. It wasn’t an unusual event in a boy’s life then. While shepherds had sort of a rough reputation in first century Palestine, that applied to hireling shepherds, men without resources, who would work for a few pennies a month, along with rough barley bread and rougher beer.

I don’t know if it is evolution (probably not) or cultural training (most likely) but humans respond to lambs very strongly. Humans are naturally attracted to and protective of neo-nates (newborns) of mammal species; it’s the squished up face and big eyes. Lambs, though, seem to be especially winsome. Our species have been keeping company for 10,000 years or more, so it is no shock to realize that humans and sheep have many good traits in common.

I know that the modern political attitude is to compare people to sheep in an unflattering way, but a shepherd sees it differently. Sheep aren’t stupid, or identical, or blind followers. Nor are humans, really. One trait sheep and humans have in common, though, is a need to gather, and find a leader of sorts.

Sheep may be smarter about that than humans. Sheep are never influenced by how pretty another sheep’s fleece or face is; they are not swayed by the vocal prowess of another sheep; they don’t care how many of the other sheep like one certain sheep. Sheep have a need for a leader in the flock who can find food and water, who senses danger, and who can remember how to get to the safe and warm places. That leader sheep also must have a strong parenting instinct and recognize the lambs of its own flock.

Maybe sheep are smarter than people that way. We are too easily beguiled by promises. You can’t promise to animals – they don’t have a future tense in their language. We are apt to follow the person with the friendliest smile, the most flattering words, the ones who give us a sense that we are special while the other people are fairly wrong-headed and even damned. Sheep don’t have a concept of damnation. If they have a concept of salvation, it is probably a lot like, “Green grass, clean water, cool shade, every day.”

I can stand amongst the flock and say, “I have a vision for your future!” and they will go on eating the same good grass. If I fail to keep them in good grass, they will look elsewhere. It would take Sing-Sing to keep a flock in if they really want out. They push, dig and jump. They stay where they are fed well, or they are gone.

Think of that as an analogy for the church and its leaders. Sheep can’t be bribed with doughnuts and sweets. They get tired of that pretty quickly, and will not make a diet out of it. Entertainment might get their attention for a little while, until they realize that it isn’t connected in any way to getting fed. They are interested in the basics of life – food, water, shelter. If pastors thought more like shepherds, I think their flocks might be coming around the old barn more often.

 

Crofting: The Natural Day in Winter

It is snowing here. It is winter, and we have weeks yet, months even, of this weather. The wind is sharp out of the southwest, bringing cloud cover and precipitation. The ground is frozen, probably until March or April. We had meant to pull some fence posts that had been left along the east field, where our landlord had started a fence, but we did not get that done, so the few in the ground and the pile of cedar will remain another season.

I am hoping for a complete recovery from the mysterious auto-immune condition that has made life miserable for most of the past year. I took my earnings and went to the doctor, and talked him into a new course of medication, beginning with prednisone. The problem with the steroid is that it keeps me awake, even if I take it early in the day. This round left me fidgety and high-strung rather than energetic and ambitious. It takes a few days for the drug to work out of one’s system. Perhaps tonight I will fall asleep in a reasonable way.

We are keeping the natural day cycle as much as we can. We are not up late past sundown, and we switch to low light shortly after dark. I may have artificial light on for a while to finish washing dishes, but then it is multiple candles, gradually extinguished. My husband is ready for bed by 6:30 or 7 pm; I follow within a half hour. Both of us are sleepy and ready to extinguish lights (bedside electric lamps – no candles in bedrooms) by 8 pm. Dreadfully early!

But what are we missing? Some chat online, maybe a phone call, although those are rare these days. We have no television. I was finding make-work to stay awake until 10 pm some nights, although I too was heading for the quilt and pillow earlier if I could.

Nicholas is happy with this. He has suffered from SAD (seasonal affective depression) for years. Partly this is because he worked in businesses that were straight-out busy all through December, and he was forced up late at night, with few periods of rest. It did not suit him. I wonder why we do this to ourselves, why we not only keep an artificial day but an artificial summer? Most mammals settle in to sleep more in the winter, conversing energy. It is a mistaken notion to think that hibernation and the dormancy of trees are for rest. It is because the organism does not have the resources to keep moving, to keep growing, to put out leaves and keep them from freezing. Dormancy and reduced activity are normal in the natural winter cycle.

Sleep, deep REM sleep, is necessary for collagen to be produced. I have not been getting good sleep because of pain and by trying to stay on a worldly day schedule. I am hoping that more deep sleep will heal my damaged skin and immune system.

So we have pulled back from the worldly rush of the holiday season, because it makes no sense to us. Christmas activities for most of the Christian world are about creating a false environment – one that has never existed, a winter wonderland of nostalgia and a fantasy North Pole where Santa and the elves live all year on ice cream and fruit cake. We live in the real North, a harsh environment through the cold months. It is too real at times. We have moved away from the artificial day, the artificial summer, the artificial candy-coated Christian fantasyland.

Mt. Katahdin by Sisley

 

Living the Natural Cycle: Light One Candle

Last night I began moving toward our mutual goal of living a more natural day and night cycle. Instead of turning on the bright artificial lights in the house, I lit candles at the table after supper was over. It simulated a more natural dusk inside while I finished some work and communication. We had supper earlier than we usually did, and that really wasn’t a problem. The work was done by natural dusk. My husband finished a cup of after-dinner tea and the applesauce cake I had baked for him, then went to bed. I wrote a bit, got my email and other digital news, and by 7:30 pm, in the reduced light, my eyes were tired and my mind beginning to relax, despite the family issues that were ongoing and unresolved.

I could see that I would not get them resolved by staying up late. Others would work on them overnight, who had that sort of schedule. I could do nothing more. I went to bed, read a short while by the bedside light, turned off the light, and settled in to pray and meditate. I fell asleep despite my anxieties.

I woke fairly early, about 6:30 am, I think, but that is not yet dawn here. I waited until there was clear light in the window, and soon realized we would not have bright light today, as a storm had moved in. I lit a candle in the kitchen for about half an hour as I built up the fire in the wood stove, let the dog out, and made coffee. I feel today as if I have more “time.” Tasks have been done as they have been needed; I do not feel driven toward anything.

Living Off the Clock

I read a beautiful National Geographic story online about the Sami (or Suomi, or Lapps as we called them years ago.) These are the reindeer people, many of them still living their semi-nomadic life above the Arctic Circle. They are very much in tune with the environment around them, with the signs of weather and the ways of the reindeer. Although they once followed the reindeer according to where the reindeer thought to go, they are now confined to certain pasturing grounds. This has affected how they live by forcing them to herd the reindeer more, using snowmobiles rather than their traditional skis and sledges, and it has changed the reindeer, often causing stress and lower birth rates. The Sami believe, and are most likely right, that the reindeer know by instinct and herd decision where they should be, but the government thinks differently.

A friend recently wrote me with a question about forming Christian community, and I posted to him the article about the reindeer people. This is what I want to do; I almost feel compelled to it. I don’t mean move to northern Norway, but live a life according to the seasons. Christians should be good at keeping the seasons, as our church year is seasonal. Yet we are so often driven by the clock and calendar. We are driven by expectations which, when we examine them, are worldly and not other-worldly. This earth is God’s creation for us. He placed us here. And when Eden was brought up from the mist and mud, there were no roofs or clocks or shops. It was just the animals, God, and then the adama – the people of the earth.

So this earth should be our world, not the world of buying and selling, of status and prestige, of power and money. We speak of the two kingdoms because we humans built the second one; that tower of Babel is not finished, nor abandoned in our desires. There is but one true kingdom, and that is the Kingdom of God. Jesus told His followers that it is at hand – meaning imminent, and at His resurrection, that Kingdom was founded.  But in sin and blind ambition, we refuse to fulfill the promise of the Kingdom, and live on in our fantasy world, regulated by clocks, driven by desire, harassed by human, not divine, expectation.

My recent round of  illness was aggravated by worry and the feeling that I needed to get a job, get better medical care, get it all done so that I could rest and maybe recuperate. I can hear my mother’s voice yet in my head criticizing the pile of laundry and the dusty floors. Dear mother, you left this world more than decade ago, with not a dirty dish in the sink and the laundry folded. I most certainly would put up with mountains of dirty clothes and floors that yet needed washing to have you back.

When we work closely with animals, a lot of other things hang fire. Sometimes the herder or shepherd leaves everything – dirty dishes, phone calls to return, sermons to write, checkbooks to balance – because the herd needs their human companion. One animal down can cascade into illness through the whole flock. Things must be done when the time is right, usually not a moment sooner nor a moment or two later. The flock becomes the focus. And I believe this is as it should be.

Shetland sheep via wikimedia

We will not regain Eden before the return of Christ, but we can work at living in God’s Kingdom now. That may seem like an impossibility to many people, who are tied to work hours, with debt to be paid. Nor should our work be other than in the Kingdom; must we work for unethical companies, at soul-destroying jobs? And even if we are satisfied with our work, is it really what God intends for us? Getting free of debt as quickly as possible, planting even a small garden, spending more leisure time in natural surroundings are good beginnings to living closer to the Kingdom. Sometimes our church home stands in the way as well; there’s an issue for all Christians to consider. Is the church itself too much of this world? I know mine is often too concerned with raising money and finding new parishioners, while employing church leaders concerned with their ambition and advancement rather than with the health and well-being of their flock.

I hope to be closer to the Kingdom myself in seasons to come, really closer to our flocks and herds, spending more time as a herder and shepherd rather than as a household manager and professional worrier. I do desire fields and pasture for the animals where they can be what they are, and I can be with them. But we too are constrained by fences and government; we too, as the Sami, must adapt somewhat, even when we see that it is not the best thing. We can always work for change, though. We can work toward restoring something of Eden, a place in which to wait for the Lord’s return. Best that when He comes to us, He finds us at the work He gave us, not the work of the other world.

by Edward Hicks

National Geographic article:http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/11/sami-reindeer-herders/benko-text

More information about the Sami by the Sami: http://boreale.konto.itv.se/samieng.htm