Monday, October 5, 2015

On being small and temporary

I haven't been to church in years. Aside from the occasional wedding or funeral or Christmas mass. 
Growing up I went to mass every Sunday. Early. Seven or 7:30. The parking lot at the later services tended to inspire somewhat less-than-Christian sentiments from Dad. Ditto for the Costco after 10 (you had to get there before the Methodists got out). 
Sunday mornings were about the soapy smell of candles and the acrid scent of Dad's black coffee. The echoing thud of the pew kneelers hitting the floor in a near-empty church. Hymns sung acapella because most of the time the organist didn't get up that early. Cold, hard benches. Squeezing Dad's calloused woodworker's hand during the Lord's Prayer. His kiss on my cheek and a "peace by with you." How I looked forward to those moments with my father. In my mind, he was always so stern and stoic. But on Sunday mornings he was softer. Warmer. He even sang a little. 
I fell away from church in college. Because I was a disenchanted 20-something-year-old Catholic kid. It's kind of what we do. Sometimes I went to a Methodist service with my roommate. It was good to be around regular families. The pastors always spoke to my heart. There was warmth and homeyness there that I rarely observed during Mass and all its ceremony and ritual. Though as time passes I appreciate more ceremony and ritual. It's not terribly original to be an ex-Catholic. But I'm a woman raising two girls who I want to feel empowered and valued and respected and strong. I can't really square being Catholic with all that.
I haven't been to church in years. So I found a new ritual for my Sunday mornings. I wake up and pull on a pair of weathered, holey jeans. Shoes covered in mud and straw. I drive up the interstate, which is deserted, heading north to the farm. To church.
On the way there I listen to NPR. At that hour it's "On Being," perfect for a Sunday mornings designed reflection. Yesterday, the guest was author and anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson. toward the end of the interview, the host asks Betson to reflect on the question of what it means to be human (you know, a little light conversation for 7:30 ...).
"MS. TIPPETT: Let me ask you this. This large question, what does it mean to be human? Which is a philosophical question, it’s a theological question, and it’s an anthropological question. It’s a question your mother, Margaret Mead, and your father, Gregory Bateson, were asking. I know it’s also a huge question. How would you start to talk about how your sense of that has evolved in the course of this life you’ve lived? Perhaps in ways that have taken you by surprise or not.
DR. BATESON: I was going to give you an excessively intellectual answer about having to do with consciousness. And you made it a much more personal question. Consciousness is important. Reflection is important. Thinking about what you’re doing, and what it means, and the search for meaning. One of the things that I came to believe when I wrote that piece you referred to about my father’s death is that death is a very important part of life that we shouldn’t deny. That in spite of our terrible hubris, and greed, and competitiveness, that we can learn to see ourselves in proportion and realize that we’re small, and temporary. And don’t understand as much as we need to. And we live in a time of real urgency where we have to mine the insights of the past. I guess one way of saying it is we have to learn to use the word “we” to include all of life on earth. We have to learn to experience that as a terrible and tender beauty. And shape everything we do to protect it."
"We have to learn to use the world 'we' to include all the life on earth. We have to learn to experience that as a terrible and tender beauty. And shape everything we do to protect it."

There's no better place to learn to love the creatures great and small than on the farm – a place of endless rituals. Hauling and watering and picking and feeding and coaxing and patting. The feathered congregants are always singing. The pigs often reluctant to emerge from the cozy burrows they've dug under the straw. If they must get up on cool mornings, a back scratch or belly rub is necessary. The hooved devotees are anxious for breakfast. 
I'm empathetic. This is familiar territory.
It's just like when I was a kid. Except I'm left to derive my own homily from the sun rising over the hillside, the way Bear the cow leans into me as I scratch his back, the erratic flock of birds flying and landing and flying away, moved by the invisible rhythms of their clan. 
I am small and temporary. And grateful for the gift of all this life. Grateful to be be conscious of all the wonderful souls surrounding me. Even as the cow tries to steal my feed bucket and the turkeys peck at my ears and dust stings my eyes. 
Life is both terrible and tender. 
That's as it has to be.
My hands are becoming rough like my father's. Like him, I've been baptized in sawdust.
If we go to church to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in our community – to learn compassion and form connections and find meaning in this whole capricious, predictable endeavor – than this is a cathedral. 


  1. GREAT piece of writing. (As is "The part-time farmhand" and, really, everything you've been doing here.) You've packed so much of yourself, past and present, into this short essay that makes some beautiful points about our residence here, and the need to specifically find time to reflect on it.

    In a way, I think I've also found some farm contentment. I like to go early and stay late at the alpaca farms on days when Sarah has practice or meetings. I find doing all the dirty-work chores alongside the alpacas, llamas, chickens and farm cats to be ... relaxing. I've offered to help even more and maybe I should offer more aggressively. (On the other hand, any extra free time I have should probably be focused on the necessary dirty work in my own out-of-control yard. The fauna there is far less interesting, though.)

    Also, a very tangental note, the article I read before your post was titled -- "Man Builds 'Dog Train' To Take Rescued Pups Out On Little Adventures" ... But I think there's a connection there. It is, of course, part of the life on earth that we need to do more to protect during our time here. Otherwise we're just taking up space.

  2. Thanks so much Chris. I'm glad you've been able to find time to commune with some furry and feathered friends. I was talking to my sister the other day about how, not only is it nice to be around the animals, but it's also good to do work that immediately benefits something tangible – when so much I've what I do is based on the computer, it's a good reminder that what's truly important remains grounded in the physical world. I did see that puppy train video last week – love it. And yes, you're right, it is connected. We want to think that because we're human we are the only residents here that benefit from silliness and play and meaningful attention, but it's just not true.

  3. Wonderful read, Susan! You certainly know how to make people feel welcome to join you on your journeys.

  4. Wonderful read, Susan! You certainly know how to make people feel welcome to join you on your journeys.