Sunday, April 19, 2009

Not so much rest

I'm playing with the idea of sabbath. Not because I think someone else wants me to do it, but because I really like the idea of devoting one day a week to rest and family.

So far it goes like this: Saturday I go to the store anyway, thinking "Really the sabbath is tomorrow." Sunday I do the laundry and tell myself, "Really the sabbath was yesterday. Maybe I'll do it next week."

Monday, April 13, 2009

Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been

This week I decided I was going to have all the religion I wanted. There's a lot to be had: Two seders with three hagadahs. One Tenebrae service on Maundy Thursday. Two dozen eggs to dye. Two trays of hot cross buns. One Bach St. Matthew Passion (listened to from youtube, since the library copy was checked out). Two loaves of tsoureki. One dawn service Easter morning with three people, then another one at 10 with hundreds. One Bach Easter cantata. Plenty of Morris dancing (arguably pagan). Several lamb dinners.

I loved it. I still don't believe in a higher power, but this season pulls me in. I still don't know if it's somehow wrong to celebrate festivals of religions you find ultimately false. But this year I soaked in it.


Eggs (Cadbury and Ukrainian), Eostre, matzoh, forsythia.

The finished basket.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The secret garden

I'm considering an act of guerrilla horticulture.

This is what I see every morning as I wait for the train. It's a triangle of land wedged between the post office and the train station (which no longer sells tickets - there's just a brick shelter where you can get out of the rain if you don't mind the smell). The cement picnic table does not appear to have ever hosted any picnics, especially given the "no trespassing" sign on the wall next to it. Granted, there are also "no trespassing" signs framing the entrance to the much-used post office parking lot, so maybe what they meant was closer to "no loitering" or "no skateboarding".

This morning I looked at this patch of land with a gardener's eyes. Vegetable gardening is ill-advised, since the soil is probably contaminated with lead. And I have no idea how rich the soil is - right now it's mostly bare with a few dandelions. But with full southern exposure, it could easily support an array of hardy wildflowers. In my imagination, it's full summer and the triangle is bursting with sunflowers, butterfly bush, daylilies, black-eyed susans, and purple coneflowers.

Today after work I went into the post office and asked if I could plant some flowers. (I figured "flowers" rather than "garden" sounds smaller and more harmless.) They said it was a nice idea and to go ask the manager at the larger post office nearby. I biked over there and was directed to the manager. He seemed worried he'd be liable if I somehow injured myself in a horrific trowel accident. He wanted to to know what kinds of flowers I was thinking of and why ("they're hard to kill"). But he admitted that right now they just have a contractor who sprays down the weeds once a year. He said he'd think about it and give me a call.

So now I wait. And if he says no, I think I'm going with the plan anyway. I had never heard of it, but it turns out that guerilla gardening is a widespread movement. The downside, of course, is that I risk the weed-spraying contractor coming and killing everything. And the manager now has my name, address, and phone number, so he'd know exactly who was responsible for any midnight plantings.

I'm thinking of several songs. One is Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land":

As I was walking, I saw a sign there
And that sign said "no trespassing,"
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing
That side was made for you and me.

The other is Carrie Newcomer's:

Never doubt or question the power of love
Or one woman with a shovel.

Saturday, April 04, 2009


Yesterday I read a newspaper article that made me intensely envious. It was about a freelance cellist who earns $36,000 a year and leads what the paper describes as a shockingly limited life: He has no cell phone. He and his wife live in a small Cambridge apartment and own only one car. They share a bedroom with their baby and seven-year-old, whom the wife homeschools. To me, it sounds like paradise.

I've heard people, especially Quakers, say that we should value our time above money and our lives above our jobs. Don't work yourselves to death, they urge. Lead a simple life, and you'll be happier than if you ran yourself ragged chasing status or money. This advice would seem very sensible to me if I were responsible for only myself and my family.

How do we decide what our responsibility is to other people? Peter Singer's classic example: you see a child drowning in a shallow pond. Do you wade in to save the child, ruining your $30 shoes? Of course. To value your shoes above the child's life would be monstrous. Now: do you spend $30 on a new pair of shoes, when the money could provide a vaccination (or small loan, or mosquito net, or whatever) that would save someone's life or allow them to get decent housing, education, or healthcare?

I believe that in a better world, we would all shoulder more responsibility for each other. Those who had enough wouldn't spend their extra money on a bigger place to live, or the vacation, or the shoes. They would send it to people who need it. It's pretty clear that a small percentage of rich countries' GDPs - or a fraction of our military spending - could end the worst of world poverty. Governments and charities aren't perfect - some money and effort will always be wasted, but most of it will go to its intended use.

In a better world, Jeff and I might give away only a quarter or so of our income. In ten or fifteen years we could have that one-bedroom apartment with a kid or two. I could even spend some years not working a paid job, but taking care of my kids and growing a rockin' vegetable garden. When we were old, we would have young people in our family. These goals aren't wrong in themselves - I think they're quite a good way to spend a lifetime. But leading the life I would find most fulfilling would be neglecting my duty to other people. Having those kids would mean taking away time and money that would be more effectively spent improving the lives of children already alive and in need. A quarter of our income is more than most people do, but it's less than we can do.

I had the very good fortune to find someone who wants to spend his life with a lunatic philanthropist like me. Jeff does insist on some things I consider luxury - a savings account and a small weekly allowance for clothes, travel, and fun. But when I consider our future, I find myself looking at the soul-deadening life Quakers keep warning me about. The two of us, living in a rented room someplace, earning money to send to people who need it more. Spending our lives chasing a paycheck, and sitting in our rented room when we're too old to work. It's a lot better than living in a refugee camp, but it kind of makes me want to quit now before I have to do 60 more years of it.

Am I missing something? I know about only a handful of people who actually live like this. I know more (Peter Singer included) who say "This is what's morally right, but it sounds miserable. I'll make baby steps, but I'm not actually going to live like that." Does the rest of the world have good reasons for living for themselves and their immediate circle, or do we all just find it too scary to do otherwise?

Thursday, April 02, 2009

What changes

At the wedding, a friend asked me if I thought being married was going to change my life. I can now answer:

My relationship with Jeff doesn't feel different, except that we have more free time now because we're not planning a wedding. What does feel different is our relationship to society at large.

This whole wedding thing has made me feel embarassingly status quo. I always hated the words "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" because they sounded so smug and teenagerish. "Fiancee" is even worse, as it sounds like an irritating woman who keeps waving the rock on her left hand at people. I quite liked "partner", partly because it made other people say things like "Wait, are you marrying a man or a woman?"

As soon as we got engaged, people who really only knew one of us started addressing party invitations and Christmas cards to both of us. Facebook was suddenly full of ads for teeshirts emblazoned "Future Mrs. Smith" and "Mrs. Williams In Training". The other day we got our first package addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Jeffrey Kaufman. (As far as I can tell, I'm not a Mrs. of any kind.)

On the more pleasant side, we can file our taxes jointly - Jeff is doing it right now, although he spent the first half of the evening filling out the 2007 forms by mistake. I'm on his insurance. We were actually registered as domestic partners for this purpose last fall, but it's cheaper if the federal government recognizes your relationship. If we end up applying to the Peace Corps, we can go together. We can travel together in more conservative countries and not have to stay in separate rooms. Heck, we can even stay in my childhood bedroom without my father forbidding it on the grounds of being "too awkward."

In stepping into this pattern, I keep thinking about the people who can't or don't. The tax breaks they don't get, the insurance coverage, the cards sent to both of them, the congratulations, the soup pots and spatulas.

The most important part is still the part I was worried about the October night I sat Jeff down under a tree and told him I wanted to marry him. I had tried looking at my life without him in it, and I didn't like how it looked. I wanted him to know I was in it for good, and I wanted to know if the same was true of him. I wanted us to be able to plan where we were going to live, how we were going to live, knowing we could each count on the other being there.

Will you forgive me for closing with a little sentiment?

If truth be told,
It was not priest, who made us one,
Nor finger
circled with gold,
Nor soft delights when day is done
and arms enfold.
These bonds are firm,
but in death-storm
They may not hold-
We were welded man and wife
By hammer-strokes of daily life.

Ellen Sophia Bosanquet, 1938