Whining about Writing, Writing about Whining

May I whine for a moment, please?

I shouldn’t pay attention to my stats, I know that. I shouldn’t even look at them, because I will write what I’m going to write no matter how popular or unpopular that’s going to be. One of my favorite authors, Beverly Cleary (yes, the creator of Ramona!) early decided that she

“would ignore all the trends…and would not let money influence any decisions about my books.”

Sage advice from one of the most popular and acclaimed children’s book authors of the 20th century!

Ready for my whine?

Posts about hunger and poverty are far less popular than posts about, say, Audrey Hepburn or Victoria’s Secret Angels.

Or, for that matter, posts pointing a finger at what’s wrong within evangelicalism.

I don’t think it’s because people don’t care about poverty, or hunger, or preventable disease, or fair trade.

I think it’s because we feel powerless and/or desensitized.

But we’re not powerless. Nor should we let ourselves be desensitized.

Two readers shared snippets of poetry that relate to this:

First, via Joyce, Audre Lord:

“How much of this truth can I bear/ to see/ and still live/ unblinded?/ How much of this pain can I use?”

Second, via Ellen, Wendell Berry:

“Expect the end of the world./Laugh./Laughter is immeasurable./Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

I love these.

And so I propose to try to ignore all trends, all stats.

I just wish that the 15 children who died of preventable disease while you read this post would get a fraction of the attention that goes to Mark Driscoll, Lady Gaga, or Madonna’s Halftime show.

Know what I mean?

Plagues and Famines: better not to know? (part 1)

Have you wondered if maybe it’s better not to know about great suffering? After all, does knowing help?

Maybe it’s happened to you: you read an eyewitness account of famine, perhaps visit a developing country and see firsthand what extreme poverty looks like, and, turning back to your own life, you’re not sure how to go on as you have been.

You have a fridge. And it’s big. And full.

And not only do you have shoes, but you have more than one pair. And they fit you properly and are in decent repair.

And what you spend on your daily coffee is more than what 75% of Africans have to live on each day.

When you go to the grocery store, you feel overwhelmed by how much food there is. And how much plastic. And excess packaging. And things meant to be used once and then thrown away.)

This weekend, I read William Kamkwamba’s book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. When he was just 15, William built a working windmill out of scavenged scraps and junk complete with a functional circuit breaker, to power his family’s house in their Malawian village. He also built a solar powered water pump, giving his village its first source of drinking water and enabling his family to have two plantings of maize, their staple food crop.

William taught himself everything he needed to know to build the windmill from a discarded American textbook called Using Energy, and through extensive experimentation. And he was motivated to do it–at least in part–by the terrible famine that killed many Malawians in 2002. In the book, William tells of seeing starved, skeletal people walking from place to place, begging for some work to do in exchange for something to eat. At the worst point of the famine, William and his family got three bites of nsima–that’s the Malawian staple food, a cornmeal mush–a day.

William’s ingenuity and determination was motivated by the hope that his invention would protect his family from going hungry.

Because where William lives, “hungry months” are a regular feature of each year.

Where William lives, most people get malaria quite a few times in their lives, and cholera is not an anachronism.

At this point, I want to acknowledge that compassion fatigue is a real thing. How much suffering can we know–and summon the energy to care–about?

Is it better simply to not know about famines and other kinds of suffering ‘elsewhere’ since we can’t do much to help anyway?

I want to discuss this question in more detail tomorrow. For now, I’ll leave you with this:

“The righteous know the rights of the poor;
   the wicked have no such understanding.”
 (Proverbs 29:7, NRSV)

What might that mean?

These are a Few of Life’s Crappiest Things! (Reading Ecclesiastes)

Did you know that this blog got its name more-or-less straight out of a Bible verse?

Don’t feel bad if you didn’t catch that; it comes from Ecclesiastes, which, being a frequently-neglected book of the Bible, is, naturally, one of my favorite books. (I enjoy rooting for underdogs.)

While some writers and preachers like to say that Ecclesiastes is all about how bleak life is without Jesus, it seems to me that the little book pretty well sums up many of the crappiest things about life:

1. Where there ought to be justice and righteousness, there’s injustice and wickedness.

2. Even if you’re strong, beautiful, brave, ambitious, and rich, you’re going to get painfully feeble and old, and, eventually, you’ll die. And, by the way, you can’t take all your stuff and money with you.

3. Everything people do can, much of the time, be chalked up to pride and competitiveness.

4. Rich people just can’t ever get enough money. They always want more.

5. It’s not the most deserving, or strongest, or wisest, or most knowledgeable people that get the recognition. Time and chance have everything to do with that.

6. More knowledge is usually a depressing thing.

So, yeah. Any of these could’ve come from a blog post or op-ed written, well, yesterday, but they’re from this funny little Ancient Near Eastern book that’s part of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Scripture.

By now you’re wondering what all this has to do with the title of this blog. Well, there’s this refrain (of sorts) throughout Ecclesiastes that goes something like this:

There is nothing better for a person than that she should eat and drink and find enjoyment in her work. This is from the hand of God,  for apart from God, who can eat or have enjoyment?

Because here’s the thing about eating: obviously it’s not the most important thing in the world–aren’t things like doing justice, working hard, loving God, loving neighbor, taking care of your family much more important?

Well yes. And no. Because if you don’t eat, you can’t really do anything else. It’s easy to miss this in an overfed culture, but “give us this day our daily bread” is talking about the literal stuff that keeps you alive & kickin’.

Yes, life is marked with death and sadness and injustice and unfairness and depression and general crappitude.

Yet. Yet–

This world is still a beautiful place; there “lives the dearest freshness deep down [in] things.” There is love, there is laughter, there is community, communion, companions–there is the joyful, jovial fellowship around the table and thousands of things to delight our senses.

And food is one of them, a delightful necessity. A chance to nourish others, to be nourished ourselves, and to taste just a hint of God’s goodness.

So, yes. Death and greed and decrepitude and turpitude and all manner of crappiness. And still the ancient Preacher says:

“Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart.”

Yes. Life is more than food. But in this life where little makes sense, food and wine are a spot of grace and goodness—

God’s love made edible. And delicious.

Moment by moment, sustaining us by grace.

Weekend Eating Reading: The More-with-Less Cookbook

Oh, the More-with-Less Cookbook! How I love this book! “Green” and globally aware before it was trendy, really simple way before Real Simple; a Christian response to global hunger that involved so much more than writing a check to a relief organization.

Commissioned by the Mennonite Central Committee in 1976 “in response to world food needs,” this cookbook was ahead of its time in its awareness of how personal food consumption is connected deeply to poverty and want in other places:

“we are looking for ways to live more simply and joyfully, ways that grow out of our tradition but take their shape from living faith and the demands of our hungry world. There is not just one way to respond, nor is there a single answer to the world’s food problem. It may not be within our capacity to effect an answer. But it is within our capacity to search for a faithful response.”

(from the preface by the author, Doris Janzen Longacre)

Even as a really young girl, I enjoyed reading the More-with-Less cookbook. It’s full of wisdom and suggestions for connecting your family’s eating to broader ethical and spiritual concerns, and in a lot of ways it anticipates the “food movement” that seems so contemporary. It advocates “lawn gardening” (less mow–more hoe), and recognizes that things like home food preservation can provide “meaningful opportunities for family members to work together.”

Much like Diet for a Small Planet, the More-with-Less Cookbook advocates for a whole-grain, plant centered diet. But it doesn’t advocate for complete vegetarianism. Instead, it suggests a “wise” and “sparing” use of meat; recipes that serve 6 or more never call for more than 1 lb. of meat: a style of cooking that uses meat as a flavoring more than a center-of-the-plate item. (Which is, of course, an anticipation of Michael Pollan’s “eat food. not too much. mostly plants.)

The More-with-Less Cookbook has its faults; it’s clearly within a “frugality-first” mindset, now looks dated when it calls for margarine instead of butter, and has some vintage-style weird casseroles (eg. Spinach Loaf.) But many of the recipes hold up just fine over time (and/or are good for building off of or revising). The Middle Eastern Lentil Soup recipe, for example, is still just about the simplest, tastiest lentil soup I’ve ever had; I make it regularly and it’s a favorite even with my pickier child.

Because I grew up on the recipes from More-with-Less, that food is comforting to me, and that cookbook will always be special to me for first awakening in me the idea that my choices might actually matter to more than just me. They might make a difference in the lives of others.They might matter to God.

The More-with-Less cookbook! Check it out. It’s full of gems like these:

“don’t begin gardening and preserving only out of duty to your budget and the world’s hungry, although it helps. Begin it for joy, for healing. Begin it to receive the gift God gave when He placed us in a garden and said, “Behold, I have given you every plant  yielding seed…”

Oh, yes. It’s all about eating with joy.

Peace, friends! Enjoy the weekend!


It’s Labor Day!

It’s Labor Day!

The last hurrah of summer; the last day to wear white–a day for boating, beach-going, and barbecuing.

And, you, know, plenty of eating.

Labor Day is supposed to be lots of fun. It originated as a day to celebrate “the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

In other words, a day to celebrate–and remember–the people whose hard work has made beloved American celebrations–like barbecuing, beach-going, and boating–possible.

Labor Day was created by workers within the labor movement in the late 19th century–the brave souls who faced down intimidation, abuse, and threats to campaign for ‘progressive’ measures like 8 hour work days, bans on child labor, and safer factory working conditions.

My heritage is pretty exclusively immigrant working stock. One great-great-grandma came from Ireland in the late 19th century to work as a cook for a wealthy New York family. She met her husband–a horse trainer, also an Irish immigrant–on the steps of the New York Public Library. The other great and great-great grandparents came down from Quebec to work in New England factories, and from Eastern Europe in the wake of early 20th century pogroms to work in New York City factories. They were the men and women whose labor and courage helped build American prosperity.

And they are the people who died in tragedies like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. They are the people who suffered the unspeakable abuses fictionalized in The Jungle. They are the people whose efforts to organize helped transform jobs in the meatpacking industry from dangerous, starvation-wage grunt work into a relatively safe and well-compensated industrial career.

But you know? A hundred years after the Triangle fire, a hundred years after The Jungle, the immigrant working poor are still the ones whose labor makes possible chicken that can be purchased for less than $2/pound while the CEO of Tyson takes home $24 million.

They are the people who work some of America’s most dangerous, most invisible jobs.

They are the people who are most likely to be maimed or killed at work for which they are criminally underpaid.

They are the people who are treated as expendable, replaceable, disposable by their employees.

They are the people who feed us.

I know that this may sound suspiciously political. But I also know this:

That God said:

You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.

That God said:

“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.”

That God said:

“There shall be one statute for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you, a statute forever throughout your generations. You and the sojourner shall be alike before the Lord.

That God said:

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment…against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner.

But wait? How is this about eating with joy?

Don’t get me wrong. I want you to enjoy your Labor Day just as much as I want to enjoy mine. But this human suffering is a reality. And to paraphrase Wendell Berry:

“The pleasures of eating must be extensive…not dependent on ignorance.”

So please, do go enjoy your beach-going, boating, and barbecue. But please remember that it is not simply the last day to wear white, or the final hurrah of summer.

It is Labor Day, and so I think it is appropriate that in our celebrations, we try to honor the people whose labor makes our celebrations–including all that eating–possible.