‘Grassland’: The Power and Flaws of the American Environmentalist Movement

This week, on Imperial Geography… my conflicted thoughts about Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie by Richard Manning. Let’s dive in!

grassland - richard manningSo, I was actually really excited to read this book, because compared to Prairie, which seemed a lot more scientific, this book seemed like it was going to be really political, and I was excited for an alternate viewpoint. What I got was half a book of pretentious white liberal nonsense and half a book of excellent enviro-economic insights about American culture in general and the American environmentalist movement in particular.

Let me explain.

The Bad News

The book is written as a sort of creative nonfiction travel memoir, from the point of view of the author, as he travels through (mostly) Montana. The first half of the book is devoted primarily to exploring the history of the prairie — mainly the western prairie, since he’s based in Montana — through the people he meets as he drives around to talk to them. This sounds fine and harmless, but I was consistently frustrated by a couple things:

1. No Native people

Despite the fact that the first part of the book is all about the history of the prairie / Montana, Manning talks to a total of ZERO Indians! I kept waiting… and waiting… and waiting… and there was some mystical Indian hearsay (“I once heard a Native man quoted as saying…”, p.34)… and there was one part where he talked about talking to this old white rancher lady about an old Indian who used to live nearby but left… but that was the closest he got. SERIOUSLY??? Dude — yes, the original inhabitants of what is now Montana were forced off their land and into reservations, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ANY left! I just Googled “Indian reservations in Montana” and there are seven scattered throughout the state. Seven! According to the state of Montana’s video about Indian nations (which I would recommend, BTW), there are over 65,000 Native people living in Montana. That means, Mr. Manning, that in a state of about a million total people Natives make up over 6% of the total population. And you couldn’t even find ONE to talk to about the history of the prairie???

Considering my previous reading — and my own blind spot with regard to including Native voices in said reading project — I get it. It’s easy to be a part of the national “leaving out” of Indians and Indian history, because “every(white)body does it”. BUT here’s the thing. Manning does include a pretty substantial bit about Native people at the end of the book, so you’d think he would have thought to question (or ask for input about) the lack of Natives in the rest of the book. We can’t personally check all our flaws — but we can and should surround ourselves with people to help us check them, and Manning missed a big opportunity here and contributed to the continued erasure of Native voices from the national discourse.

2. Unquestioned manifest destiny writing

In addition to literally leaving Native voices out of the first half of the book, I was frequently frustrated by the author writing things that seemed really pro-colonization or Euro-centric and leaving them completely unquestioned within the narrative. For example, after quoting US General Sheridan’s opinion that buffalo hide hunters who were exterminating the buffalo herds “have done more… to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years” (p.85), Manning then attempts to soften the impact of this quote on the readers: “It is easy to make too much of a statement such as this, as if the extermination of the bison were the product of a willed agenda” (p.85). Clearly Manning anticipates reader outrage at the government / army and is proactively deflecting that outrage and explaining it as “Industrialization drives extermination” (p.86). I agree with that statement in the context that industrialization dehumanizes people and incentivizes production over humanity, but that doesn’t take away the fact that the “vexed Indian question” was one that both the US government and the people who comprised it all were bent on “settling”.

Then on top of defensive language about white settlement, we see a double standard emerge. In a section explaining the irony that white settlers decided to teach Native people how to farm when many Indians had been farming the land long before white settlers came, we read this: “William Least Heat Moon, in PrairyErth, speculates: ‘Surely, lore must have been deliberately withheld from a people taking away the land, so that the thieves got the big machine but not the operating instructions’” (p.98). While Manning is uncomfortable with readers extrapolating any sort of larger intention from General Sheridan’s statement, he’s apparently fine with implying that Indians conspired to withhold information from white settlers. Yes, the conspiracy of the Indians could reflect more favorably on them, since it would be an act of active resistance — but STILL. The evidence for this is (a) described as “speculation” and (b) not given any particular source. In contrast, the buffalo hide quote is from a general in the US Army — by name – in his exact words. Seems like a lot of acrobatics to keep the US government clean.

3. Land / Science > Native people

It’s weird, but as I was reading through this book, I kept feeling like Manning was trying so hard to personify and dignify the land that he eclipsed Native people. Like he’d throw in a mystical Indian quote in order to serve his personified land thesis, but not talk to Indians about the history of colonization of them and the land. Or he’d talk about the land teaching us (Americans / white colonists) stuff, like science, but completely skip over any discussion of Native people’s learning from and relationship with the land. It just felt like there was this weird huge gap where Indians SHOULD be in this book.

Additionally, this book (especially the first half) is full of that particular science-worshiping humanism that I find frequently coincides with white male privilege, especially in nerds. This could be a whole blog post in and of itself, so I’ll just summarize by saying this: Go watch Star Trek: The Next Generation — even just the first episode — and watch Picard defend the “nobility of humanity” and the progress associated with science and the ever-present expansion of the “frontier” (which, by the way, implies that space exploration is a moral and natural outgrowth of westward manifest destiny expansion in the US). That’s what I’m talking about. In this book, it shows up in little side comments like “Science is eventually self-correcting” (p.100) and “eventually the wanderings of the plains built a national tradition of science. Credit this to the power of the land” (p.100). It’s as if Manning is implying that the genocide of Native people was just “part of the circle of life” and “the Native people were gone, but at least the land remained to teach us (white Americans) things” and “at least we ended up at science”. Just plain false and bothersome, not to mention icky-feeling.

So basically, the first 150 pages of this book were like pulling teeth for me to read. Let’s just say there are many all caps sentences scrawled furiously in my notes. But thankfully for my investment in reading this book, the last 130 pages were a lot more positive.

The Good News

It’s clear to me as a reader that the second part of the book, in which Manning begins his diatribe about modern environmental degradation, is where he really begins to hit his stride. To me, it felt like he had always wanted to write the second half of the book and he tacked on the first half to add length and/or make it cooler and more pretentious.

Anyway, the last 130 pages — especially the last 50 — of this book yielded some FANTASTIC insights about our national relationship to the land and the history of the American environmentalism movement. Here are the highlights:

1. Nature is not meant to be pristine

Through a brief history of the creation of the first national parks and forest preserves, Manning effectively argued that the early American environmentalist movement grew from a dualism that separated humans/civilization from nature and preserved nature by keeping it in a pristine little roped-off area for humans’ enjoyment. This coincides with the popular romanticization in the early 1900s of nature, Indian “noble savages”, and childhood — as the author notes, literature at the time frequently equated childhood with “savage” freedom in nature, “as if the state of nature is appreciated only by the unschooled and unspoiled minds of children and Indians” (p.201). In reality, however, nature is not pristine, Indians are neither savage nor uncivilized, and all we humans are a part of the natural world and not its observers in some sort of nature park museum gallery. This point really hit home with me, and I find myself still turning over in my “rock tumbler” of a brain because it’s just so deep into our national narrative.

2. Farming was/is viewed as war with the land

Manning frames settlement as an effort of Europeans to impose an unnatural, measured logic on the land, symbolized by the attempts of early American surveyors to literally map the land into squares (aka “rectilinear cadastral grid”. Look it up, I had to!). Additionally, Manning notes that “throughout prairie literature [e.g. Willa Cather], the landscape is the rock on which European pieties founder” (199) and paints a picture of imposing monocultural wheat (European grass) farming onto the prairie as unnatural, dominating, unsustainable, and even violent. To support this endeavor, government agencies were created to be “in the refuge business” and bend nature to our collective economic will. Manning argues that the Fish and Wildlife Service preserves “have amounted to little more than duck farms,” while “the US Forest Service exists to produce trees; the Bureau of Land Management, to produce grass for cows; and the National Park Service, to produce scenery and rubber tomahawk stores for tourists” (p.248). In this way, the environmentalist impulse in the United States has grown from the dualist view of nature as pristine entertainment into nature as commodity made to serve our economic engine of environmental exploitation even in its preservation.

Interestingly, and in probably the most powerful section of the whole book, Manning uses this idea to challenge the animal rights movement, who questioned the revival of buffalo ranching as a more sustainable alternative to cattle ranching:

The animal-rights movement is urban and derives from people who follow civilization’s idea of progress as it is removed from nature. In their epithets aimed at [a buffalo rancher], we can hear an ancient accusation, the same the Chinese leveled at the Mongol nomad and the same the Jeffersonian yeoman [farmer] leveled at the Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Sioux. We hear the epithet: “Barbarian.”

…Why is it unethical to kill and eat a bison when all the rest of the bison and all the prairie life they stand for will go on? Why is it ethical, in the name of rights, to save a few bison in parks and zoos and eat instead wheat, to turn loose the plow that ensures, above all else, that nothing goes on? Why is the plowman not the barbarian simply because no one sees the blood on his hands? (p.245-246, emphasis added)

Essentially here, Manning argues that mass industrialized farming, which completely destroys the prairie ecosystem, is simply a more palatable and “civilized” destruction parallel to but less visible than the European settlers’ destruction of bison herds in the first place. We are appalled at the images of bison hunters standing on mountains of buffalo skulls, and we are appalled at images of mass graves at Wounded Knee, but we’re not appalled seeing images of farmers plowing up the prairie. Manning, I would argue, views them as inextricably linked pieces of the same destruction. He goes on to advocate a new kind of ethic:

The “ethic” that civilization would impose on the land is as artificially derived as the chemical fertilizers it would impose on a corn field. Aldo Leopold began tackling this notion a couple of generations ago with a call for a land ethic, which we took to mean an exhortation for an ethical treatment of the land. This has been the impetus for conservation.

But I think he meant to call for something deeper: an ethic derived from the land. Harley Frank [chief of the Blood Blackfoot, who celebrated the return of the buffalo to their land] had it right to assert that the return of the bison marked the return of the power of his people. Power, when it derives from the land, is a land ethic. (p.246, emphasis added)

Conclusion

So, while this book started out pretty shaky and questionably for me, it came home to end in some pretty thought-provoking and challenging ideas. All in all, a powerful reminder that humans are just a part of God’s creation, not separate from it, and that we are called to live with the land and all creatures, not divide it into boxes for our exploitation and profit.

Next up - All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life by Winona LaDuke. And I’ll try to finish this one a little faster! …especially since I’m already brewing my next reading project… =)

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Posted in Imperial Geography

What to Watch Wednesday: My Favorite Miyazaki Movies

After watching a documentary about iconic Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, I decided I wanted to watch all of Miyazaki’s feature films in order. So I checked them out from the library and thus #Miyazakiathon 2015 began!

The Quick Summary

If you don’t want to scroll through all 10 films, here’s the bottom line: If you want to watch an excellent Miyazaki film, I’d recommend either Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind or My Neighbor Totoro. Those were by far my favorites because the characters were so real — I legitimately teared up watching both of them because I was so invested. And if you like a little magic, Howl’s Moving Castle is my next favorite, just because I’ll always have a little special place for it in my heart — not many successful kids’ movies have a hilarious old lady protagonist!

The Play-by-Play

If you want more details, here are my brief thoughts on each film, in the order they were released (which is the order I watched them). Enjoy!

miyazaki nausicaaNausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984): WATCH IT!!!! Right now!

[Trailer]

I LOVED this movie! I loved Nausicaa’s confidence and authority, but also how those traits (which usually show up in spades in kickass heroines) grow from her compassion and peace. Plus the world — with all the forest creatures and the different kingdoms — is really cool. SUCH a good film. So many cool plot twists, great characterization of multiple characters, cool flying scenes, beautiful animation of plants and critters — plus Patrick Stewart!! But seriously — I loved this movie so much and was so invested that I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. I *may* have cried. And moped around the house after I finished because my insides were all feelz-y. This is an amazing film. Go watch it right now.

miyazaki castle in the skyCastle in the Sky (1986): SKIP IT

[Trailer]

WUT. This one was just a miss for me. There were so many cool ideas here — more cool airships, a race between pirates and the army, a magical flying city in the clouds — but it just didn’t come together. I felt like Miyazaki had a cool plot idea and then wrote a whole movie driven by the plot with characters thrown in to go along for the ride. The people all felt flat and lifeless, and by the end of the movie I still didn’t really know what was going on. Not to mention the pirates somehow went from menacing to bumbling and friendly at the drop of a hat. Not my favorite, but I liked the robots.

miyazaki totoroMy Neighbor Totoro (1988): WATCH IT

[Trailer]

From the first minute of this film, I already loved it. Totoro is a great movie for the reason that Castle in the Sky was not: it’s all about the characters! Mei and Satsuke are SO precious and relatable and ALIVE — they carry the film. And random and adorable forest spirit creatures are just icing on the cake. This movie is a most wonderful combination of human and bizarre. Love, love, love!

miyazaki kikiKiki’s Delivery Service (1989): MAYBE WATCH IT (if you are a kiddo)

[Trailer]

This one was pretty good — a little simpler, but entertaining enough. It follows the adventures of Kiki, a young witch who flies her broom to a new city to begin her year of training. It felt kinda shallow to me, but there are some entertaining bits, including some cool flying scenes and a sassy black cat sidekick. Daniel (who watched it with me) said, “This is a great movie for kids!” I concur.

miyazaki porco rossoPorco Rosso (1992): SKIP IT… and pretend it never happened!

This was one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen. It’s about an Italian WWI pilot who is cursed by being turned into a pig… and then there are a bunch of seaplane pirates… and a couple random women… and there’s no real clear point or plot or resolution. And a monotonous Michael Keaton voices Porco Rosso, so it’s like the boringest dialogue ever. …Let’s just forget this movie ever happened.

miyazaki mononokePrincess Mononoke (1997): WATCH IT

[Trailer]

Wow. I’ve heard of this one before (and maybe watched it in high school and didn’t really get it, lol), so I began watching with great anticipation. I have to say… this is one of those films that at the end you can only say “…Wow.” Now, I will warn — this movie is very steeped in the culture and spiritual traditions of Japan, and it can be grotesque and violent at times. So if that’s not your deal, don’t watch. But if you can keep that in mind, I think this movie is well worth its 2+ hours. This movie weaves a complex web of deep stuff — feminism, industrialization, violence, deforestation, tradition, revenge, spirituality, nature, anger, healing — you can’t help but feel like you’ve seen and taken in more than you can understand. Powerful and mysterious.

**NOTE: Just for the record, the princess’s name is NOT Mononoke — mononoke means “spirit”, so the title is loosely “Spirit Princess.”

miyazaki spirited awaySpirited Away (2001): WATCH IT

[Trailer]

It’s really hard to explain this film. Basically, a girl and her parents wander into an enchanted bath house where they get trapped, and the girl has to figure out how to survive and try to rescue them all. That’s the plot, but what was the most interesting to me was the depth of interesting spirit-y stuff — what I can only assume is a lot of folkloric references. And the determined, spunky good-heartedness of the protagonist is very heart-warming. The one thing I will say is I wasn’t a huge fan of the ending. But definitely worth a watch if only for its imagination and introduction to Japanese folklore, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

miyazaki howlHowl’s Moving Castle (2004): WATCH IT

[Trailer]

This is the first Miyazaki film I ever saw, and it’s still one of my favorites! Based on a book by Diana Wynne Jones, this movie follows Sophie, a plain girl who gets cursed and joins a mysterious sorcerer, Howl, to try to undo her curse. Not only is this film creative and fun, but it also features Billy Crystal as a sassy fire demon. SO GOOD!!! You can’t help but enjoy this one. =)

miyazaki ponyoPonyo (2008): WATCH IT

[Trailer]

This film, which is sort of a Japanese Little Mermaid (only with little kiddos, and wayyyy cuter and less angsty) is pretty good. Not super deep — but despite spending most of the film just thinking “Well, okay, this is pretty cute” I actually felt kind of emotional once we got to the big climax scene. I think there’s just something about how good-hearted Miyazaki’s characters are that is especially on display here. Definitely geared more toward kids, but a fun watch.

miyazaki wind risesThe Wind Rises (2013): SKIP IT (unless you’re a history buff)

[Trailer]

I was really excited to get to this movie, because in the documentary I watched Miyazaki said he partially made this film in memory of his father, and after the first screening he said this was his first movie where he moved himself to tears watching it. But I think the emotion must be beyond my grasp, because I found it interesting but not particularly compelling. Basically this is a movie based on (but very much embellishing) the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the aeronautical engineer who designed the Japanese Zero fighter plane. I found it interesting just to learn a little about Japanese culture at the time, and it also includes the Tokyo earthquake of 1923 — and there’s a love story that they added in – but by the end, I felt like it was a little long and dry.

Well! Miyazakithon 2015 is now officially complete! There were a couple lemons in there (mainly just Porco Rosso…) but overall when I think about it, I’m just really impressed that one person could create so many films that are so creative and powerful and touching and enjoyable. I really enjoyed my favorites — and I hope you’ll give them a try sometime! =)

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Posted in What to Read Wednesdays

‘Prairie’: How the West Was Won (with Trees)

This week, on Imperial Geography… Prairie: A Natural History by Candace Savage. And I finally get to the bottom of my question about trees! Let’s dive in!

Finally, the prairie!

prairie - a natural historyThis is the fifth book in my project, so I’m thrilled to finally get to actually read about the prairie, since that’s where I live! This book was primarily a book about nature and wildlife — like a naturalist’s guidebook to the prairies — so I learned a lot of “Discovery Channel” facts about the prairie. Here are some of my favorites:

  • I knew that much of the Midwest region is/used to be prairie, but it was fascinating to see that quantified a bit: “Globally, grasslands are the largest of the four terrestrial biomes… more than tundra, desert, or woodlands. (At least, …if natural conditions were allowed to prevail.)” (p.117-8). (More on that in a minute.)
  • Here, in southern Minnesota, we live in the “prairie-and-oak transition area” — basically the place where there hasn’t been enough water for a full forest to grow, but there are a few oak trees growing scattered throughout the prairie grasses.
  • The largest organism in the world is a tree: “The largest known aspen clone — and the largest organism currently alive — is a stand of 47,000 male stems in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah” (p.194).
  • Dirt is wayyyy cool and full of little critters: “Recent estimates suggest that the total weight, or biomass, of the invisible organisms that live in prairie soils is greater than the  mass of all the visible, above ground animals put together. … Together with the plant roots around which they live, these little creatures are the powerhouse of the prairie, responsible for anywhere between 60 and 90% of all the biological activity in the Great Plains grasslands. … A single teaspoon of dirt typically holds around 5 billion [critters]” (p.22-23).
  • Prairies have incredible biodiversity: “In the entire world, only about 70 species of plans are commonly grown as crops; by comparison, there are 5,000 wild plants in the Great Plains alone” (p.232).

Basically, even though prairies and grasslands aren’t as flashy as, say, rainforests or the arctic, they’re pretty awesome! There’s a lot going on inside those waving fields of tall grass. Unfortunately, about those waving fields…

The Decimation of the Prairie

Actually, decimation is factually inaccurate. Decimation would mean the death of one-tenth of the prairie when in fact, the reverse is true:

Taken as a whole, the Great Plains grasslands now rank as one of the most extensively altered ecosystems on Earth. … In the mixed grasslands, …the percentage of land under cultivation rises from 15% (in districts with scant precipitation) to over 99% (where conditions are most conducive to crop production). And in the tall grasslands, with their relatively generous climate and deep, black earth, as much as 99.9% of the native grasses have been plowed under to make way for agriculture. (p.28, emphasis added)

Yes, you read that right: 99.9% destruction in some places. So, to refer back to our study of the impact of colonization on Native peoples, where a 90-95% death rate is the baseline assumption, this is pretty similar.

There are really two sides to this story of prairie decimation — trees and farms.

So what about the trees?

You may recall from my initial post in this series that what initially started me on this line of questioning was a weird passage about government-supported forestation in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s These Happy Golden Years:

“These government experts have got it all planned,” he  explained to Laura. “They are going to cover these prairies with trees, all the way from Canada to Indian Territory. It’s all mapped out in the land offices, where the trees ought to be, and you can’t get that land except on tree claims. They’re certainly right about one thing; if half these trees live, they’ll seed the whole land and turn it into forest land, like the woods back East.” (THGY, p.170-1)

I theorized that this was an intentional part of the colonization process and not just a useful toolkit (of wood) for farmers. And turns out, I was right.

To arriving European settlers who grew up in generally wooded Europe, a “lack of trees on the prairies was widely seen as a mark of deficiency: no lumber, no fuel, no rain. No nothing” (p.218). This is a direct ecological parallel to the terra nullius, plant-your-flag ideology espoused by European invaders following the Doctrine of Discovery, as explained here by Mark Charles (Navajo):

It was the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed European Nations to colonize Africa and enslave the African people. It was also the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed Christopher Columbus to get lost at sea, land in a “New World” inhabited by millions, and claim to have “discovered” it. Because his doctrine informed him that we, the indigenous peoples, were less than human, and therefore the land was empty. (emphasis added)

No “civilization”, no European recognition of the rights or humanity of the inhabitants: a “blank canvas” for Europeans to paint on. No trees, no European recognition of the existing ecosystems: a “blank canvas” for Europeans to plant trees on.

Charles Bessey, a Nebraska naturalist, theorized in the late 1800s that the “Great Plains grasslands represented the ruins of a prehistoric forest that had been brought low by bison and grass fires. If only the trees could be restored, he thought, the climate would improve — precipitation would increase — and life on the plains would be easy” (p.218, emphasis added). Toward this goal, Bessey made it his mission to personally plant trees all over the prairies. There is even a section of the Nebraska State Forest named after him. (Ironically, it cannot survive on the prairie and needs human replanting in order to sustain its numbers.)

Listening to Bessey’s beliefs about the supremacy of trees and the need to restore the “fallen” prairies to their glorious wooded state, it is not difficult to see the parallels with the cultural imperialism espoused by European settlers through their focus on Manifest Destiny and militant Christianization of “heathens”. Rather than the “pagan heathens” needing to be converted and “elevated” to a “higher level of civilization” (aka European whiteness) here we see the “empty” grasslands needing to be seeded and “elevated” (literally!) to the “higher levels of vegetation” (aka European woodlands).  In fact, the Prairie book even notes this disturbing comment:

Ever since the first Arbor Day was celebrated in Nebraska [note: Bessey's home state] in 1872, the people [sic*] of the Great Plains have eagerly bent to the task of cultivating what one prairie arbori-enthusiast referred to as “missionaries of culture and refinement.” By which he meant woody plants. (p.218-9, emphasis added)

Holy crap — THE TREES ARE THE BAD GUYS. European settlers (and their descendants, in this case!) and even the US Government used trees as physical, living, growing emblems — even agents — of land theft and domination. I always thought of trees as friendly, but if you look at this from another direction (e.g. facing east) trees could also be seen as harbingers and then grave markers of cultural genocide. Especially for Plains peoples, whose carefully-managed hunting grounds were literally infested and perforated with trees.

This seriously just blows my mind.

Farms, farms everywhere…

As I continued to read about the sheer destruction of prairies, I hit this page and just felt sad:

prairie destruction stats from Prairie: A Natural History

That’s a lot of former prairie land, mainly plowed under to create more farmland — 99.6% in my state of Minnesota, 82.6% in my former state of Kansas, and 99.9% in Iowa, where my mom’s family is from. Why does that matter? Well, the book puts it pretty succinctly: “The more the agricultural landscape is simplified, the fewer species of birds [and other creatures] it can support. It’s not exactly rocket science” (p.256, emphasis added).

After making it through most of the rest of the book, I hit this chart above and just felt really sad — so I shared it on Facebook. I got pretty quick push back from one of my good friends from when we lived in Kansas, who is a farmer: “May I ask why it is so sad? There is an ever increasing number of people to feed in this world and having cropland is how that is accomplished.”

He makes a good point** — there is nothing inherently bad about farming. In fact, there are lots of amazing things about farms and farming and farmers! Here’s how I clarified: “It’s sad because prairies and their critters are beautiful and unique, and in most places have been nearly wiped out. I like food, but I like the parts of God’s creation that I can’t eat, too. Said another way, farming is a beautiful thing. But it’s not the only thing.

Farmer Friend and I went on to have a very interesting discussion about his farm, where he uses a no-till method to maximize moisture retention and minimize soil erosion — in other words, he is trying to find the best combination of high yield and good-for-the-soil farming methods. And there are many farmers that do this! The problem isn’t farming, or land development, or people affecting the ecosystems they live in — it’s the excess of this. It’s the hubris of taking land from other people and other creatures carelessly. And that carelessness — reflected in both private actions and public policy — has led to a lot of destruction.

Conclusion: “Not dead yet…”

The book tried really hard to strike a hopeful note at the end — and there are some things to be happy about. People are more aware of ecosystem destruction, plants and animals are finding ways to adapt and survive even in the little borders of prairie between fields and freeways, and farmers are learning ways to be kinder to the land. But I couldn’t help but read the book’s conclusion and hear “It’s not dead yet… It’s getting better…”

I’ll say this — I disagree a little bit with traditional conservationism, which seems to think that preserving every subspecies is paramount, even to the point of preventing two divergent bird species (east and west coast) from meeting and mating and recombining into the one species they once were before they diverged (p.I-can’t-find-it). We as humans are going to affect things — and that’s okay. We’re a part of all the natural systems in the world. We take up space just like any other creature, and we will leave our footprints on this earth.

BUT.

We can choose how we relate to the rest of nature. We can choose what kind of an effect we have. We can choose to prioritize domination or we can choose to prioritize sustainability and ecosystemic balance.

Tune in next time for thoughts on Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie by Richard Manning.

————

*In this case, the general noun “people” seems to actually be referring to the non-Native inhabitants of Nebraska. I doubt most Native people would “eagerly” support the cultivation of “missionaries of culture and refinement” in their lands.

**I do, however, disagree with any implication that we need more farms because we don’t have enough food — studies show that we currently produce sufficient food to feed the people on the planet. In other words, poverty — inequality in the distribution of said food — is what leaves millions hungry.

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my field

I had sort of forgotten my “field”.
“Unselfishness” is my field.
I see people in the fields of renewable energy, political transparency, racial justice, etc., and I’m like, man… that’s pretty sweet. I should be an engineer, or politician, or activist.
But somehow this morning, I remembered my “field”.
Unselfishness: making decisions without making the assumption that my well being is more valuable than that of others.
Not the same as altruism, which is more narrow and surface-level: taking actions with the betterment of others as the immediate goal.
Altruism, if practiced completely, will cause you to die of thirst in a week’s time.
Unselfishness, if practiced completely, will generally cause you to be fairly helpful in the world.
— Altruism: to the other. Positively implies a directing outward. I am not being altrustic when I take a drink of water. The water is directed inward.
— Unselfishness: I can certainly take a drink of water without assuming my well being matters more than others’!
So…
That’s my field. Exploring how to invite and facilitate people (including me!) in exploring and practicing philosophies of unselfishness.
It’s a field that can have bearing on all the others. Folks practicing unselfishness are better equipped to support renewable energy, etc. I don’t have to feel like I’m “missing out” or “leaving behind” those other fields by focusing on this one.
And it’s a field which makes it make sense why I’m in web-comm as a trade-skill… because unselfishness is a philosophy, a concept… one that requires communicating about, and facilitating with communication tools.
So… I should probably keep being in web-comm (at least for now)… AND,  I should remember to write and converse and maybe even speak about such topics every now and then!
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Posted in Deep Life Thoughts

‘Names on the Land’: The Book I Should Have Finished Months Ago…

If you’ve been counting, dear readers, you will have noticed that it’s been FOUR MONTHS since I posted my last Imperial Geography post. And for someone who is still quite excited about the rest of the reading list for that project, that’s a long time!

names on the land stewartThe culprit: my current book, Names on the Land by George R. Stewart.

You know how sometimes a book sounds really interesting, and then it turns out that the interesting-sounding part is only like 5% of the actual book? This is one of those books for me.

I was really excited to learn more about the social dynamics behind name-choosing — but it turns out much of this book is very detailed, very place-specific historical (or legendary) anecdotes about why such-and-so town and this-and-that river were given the names we use today. While bits of this were slightly interesting — learning why there are so many “brooks” and “vales”, for example — I just couldn’t make myself slog through another 300 pages. (Yes, this book is FOUR HUNDRED PAGES LONG.)

So I gave up.

I used to be a purist about finishing books I started, but when one’s reading list is as long as mine is, you learn not to waste time on books you don’t enjoy.

To be fair, though, there were a couple interesting things I learned from this book. So I’ll share those, and then we’ll be on our way!

Interesting Things I Learned from Names on the Land

1. Americanism vs. Americana

Stewart defines this binary as the conflict between “two primal forces in the American mind” (p.x): Americanism, which represents the large-scale, manifest destiny-like grandiosity of American character; and Americana, which is small-scale, local, and handmade. I think this contrast helps me to have a little more understanding for the “flyover zone” of the country — many of the people I know who live in rural areas seem to have a distant (but still fervent) relationship with Americanism, but are intimately intertwined with their immediate world of Americana.

2. Names, religion, and empire

Stewart notes at the start of the book that “naming was a part of holding empire” (p.12), which makes sense. But what surprised me a little — and sort of creeped me out, as a Christian — were the religious overtones: “The Spaniards, with their love of pomp and solemnity, sometimes took possession of a new country with high formality…. They set up a cross, and held mass; the soldiers paraded and fired guns. …sometimes water was taken from the ocean or a river, and poured upon the dry land as a kind of baptism” (p.13). This really fleshes out the ideology of the European conquerors that they were agents of a militant Christian campaign to claim and baptize “pagan” lands and peoples for the Christian empire.

3. Fake, romanticized Indian names

At the start of the book, I was annoyed that Stewart didn’t spend much time talking about how Native peoples named the land. So when I skipped ahead to the part about Minnesota (I had to at least skim it before I gave up…) I was glad that he at least addressed the wacky European appropriation and romanticization of these names. (Though I wish he did a better job of contextualizing some of the negative things he says about Indians. You’ll see what I mean.) Here are excerpts from the story of European attitudes towards Indian names, according to Names on the Land:

The earliest English explorers, like the Spanish, had recorded Indian names with respect; they were still hoping to discover another Mexico or Peru. The settlers soon came to look upon an Indian as a treacherous savage, dirty, ignorant, poor, and heathen. Indian names fell into the same disrepute. After the Revolution the Indian menace was wholly removed from the sea-coast areas, and at the same time the new doctrine of the noble savage was growing popular. …

The admiration of Indian names as such began with the new love of the strange, mysterious, and primitive. … The forties [1840s] indeed really saw the revival under way. New Englanders in the middle seventeenth century had been seeking an illusion of peaceful civilization by replacing Agawam with Ipswich; two hundred years later, their desires were reversed, and a new town was established as Agawam.

…Most of the contemporary literary figures either by practice or direct advocacy favored Indian names…. Whitman beat the drum [wow, thanks for that] loudly in his American Primer: “I was asking for something savage and luxuriant, and behold here are the aboriginal names…. What is the fitness — What the strange charm of aboriginal names? … They all fit. Mississippi! — the word winds with chutes — it rolls a stream three thousand miles long.” …

Although the revival of Indian names rested basically upon a genuine enthusiasm, it picked up much shoddiness and dishonesty. As the religious mind has often been too ready to admit a pious tale without questioning its actual truth, so the romantic mind accepted a pleasing story and shaped facts to its own wishes. With an old-established name, therefor, the romantics merely declared it to be beautiful anyway…. With other words they selected the least ugly forms, and shifted consonants as they preferred. Nibthaska became Nebraska. …

The romantics also desired names with a suggestion of poetry. The simple primitive descriptives supplied almost nothing of this, but such people generally know next to nothing of Indian languages, and so suffered little restraint. Mississippi, “big river,” was a simple Indian name, but a Frenchman’s false translation “vieux Pere des Rivieres,” led to millions of American schoolchildren being taught the falsehood that Mississippi meant “Father of Waters.” It was a falsehood not only about a single name, but about Indians in general — for such a figure of speech would hardly have been used for a river.

The closest American equivalent of Minnesota would probably be “muddy river.”  That would never do! But -sota, the scholars admitted, might mean “cloudy.” Given an inch, the romantics took a mile. “Cloudy” suggested “sky,” and “sky” suggested “blue.” In the end  Minnesota was said to mean “sky-blue water”!

The fanciful interpretation of [a] Florida name supplied perhaps the height of the romantic. Itchepuckesassa, “where there are tobacco blossoms,” was probably only the Seminole’s equivalent of “tobacco field,” but it was rendered: “where the moon puts the colors of the rainbow into the earth and the sun draws them out in the flowers.” …

When such translations were circulated, it is no wonder that people believed Indian names to be sometimes remarkably descriptive, sometimes remarkably fanciful, poetic, and “full of meaning.”

The great majority of our present Indian names of towns are thus not really indigenous. Far even from being old, they are likely to be recent. Ipswich is two hundred years older than nearby Agawam. Troy or Lafayette is likely to be an older name in most states than Powhatan or Hiawatha. The romantics of the mid-century and after applied such names, not the explorers and frontiersmen. (p.275-279, excerpts; emphasis added)

Fascinating. From the Romanticists’ obsession with the “savage and luxuriant” exoticism they projected onto Indians, we get Longfellow’s made-up “Song of Hiawatha” and lots of random, relocated, and often outright false “Indian names” across our country. Not to mention some of the most RIDICULOUS falsehoods about what the words actually mean! As a Minnesotan, I’m glad to learn why I’ve always been confused about the name of our state. And that Florida one — my goodness! Go home, Romanticists — you’re drunk!

On a more serious note, interesting to see that the stereotype about Indian names being overly descriptive and poetic actually comes from white people “improving” translations of ordinary, commonplace Indian words. Just chew on that for a little bit.

Conclusion

Well, I can’t say I’m not glad to move on to the next book. BUT I also must say, I enjoyed learning that tidbit about how Indian names were romanticized and appropriated in the 1800s.

Linguists, if you enjoy an anecdote (or 400) and don’t mind a little dry prose, give this book a try! Perhaps you’ll be more successful than I at finishing it. You can tell me how it ends. ;-)

Tune in next time as I FINALLY get to read about the PRAIRIE in Prairie: A Natural History by Candace Savage.

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Posted in Imperial Geography

The Theology of the Chore Chart

At our last house meeting, my fellow housemates and I had a nice chat about that frequent specter of community housing, chores.

For those who don’t know, Daniel and I currently reside in a house with another wonderful married couple from our church. They’re pretty great. =) We have house dinner and meeting night every few weeks, and this time chores was on the docket.

As each person shared their thoughts, feelings, and frustrations, I learned something: it’s nice to have a chore rotation, but it turns out that it’s kind of useful to communicate about whether chores are actually being done. In our shared commitment to keeping our shared space clean, we had thought as far ahead as divvying up tasks, making a chart, and trading off chores every so often. But somehow the communication part just wasn’t working out. This resulted in, for example, no one being sure whether I had wiped the counters yesterday or last month.

This may seem like a rather petty, quotidian worry — but it’s kind of an important question. Knowing that everyone’s doing the chores they said they would do allows me to do my own chores feeling like I’m contributing to the group effort rather than slaving away in isolation. (Not to mention rest safe in the knowledge that the rag in the sink is not the same one that was used to mop up last month’s soup incident.)

The absence of that communication can lead to quite a moral and relational quandary: do I wipe the counter myself? Do I ask Rebekah if she did it? If she didn’t, should I be upset? What if she STILL won’t do it? Even if she did, will she get upset and feel like I’m nagging her?

After a great and open conversation about all of these things (I am in constant admiration of all three of my wonderful housemates for their dogged commitment to honest and loving conversations) we decided together on the following solution: Each Sunday, I will write the date on the whiteboard in our kitchen. And each week when each of us completes our weekly chores, we’ll write our names on the board (under a heading that I’ve dubbed the “Chore Rockstar List”). This achieves the goal of communication about chore completion — but we were clear that it’s about each person choosing to be accountable for their own responsibilities, not about us nagging each other. And when each name is added to the list, we can have a little moment of “yay for you!” to celebrate achieving chore rockstar status that week.

Communication, accountability, celebration. Isn’t that what sharing life together is really about?

Sometimes as Christians, trying to figure out what the heck it means to “be a Christian” or “be a good person” or “follow Jesus” or “be Christlike” or “not be a jerk”, it’s really hard to resist the temptation to define those things as “be awesomer than my neighbor” or “do as many things right as possible” or “point out how my neighbor is a little less awesome and right than I am because I know how they should fix their problems”. Sometimes, we — or at least I, I’ll speak for myself — just want to throw up our hands at our loved ones and say, “Haven’t you figured that out yet? Haven’t you been listening to me tell you why that was a bad idea? Why can’t you just do it like I want you to do it?”

But that’s not the way it works.

That’s not what Jesus did and does.

Can you imagine Jesus responding to Zacchaeus or the woman caught in adultery or the rich young ruler by saying those things? “Geez, Zacchaeus, haven’t you figured out this generosity thing yet? For crying out loud, woman, haven’t you been listening to me tell you why that was a bad idea? Why can’t you just let go of your stuff, young man? — just do it already!”

The only reason I can picture that — and it’s a very strange imagination, compared to what Jesus ACTUALLY does in those scenarios — is because that’s what I would want to do. I would want to lecture Zacchaeus about the injustice of stealing from the poor. I would want to guilt the woman for making poor decisions. I would want to throw up my hands in exasperation at the rich young ruler who still isn’t ready to let go and move on, even though the course of action is CLEARLY right in front of his nose.

But that’s not helpful. That’s not relational. That’s not how the Kingdom of God works.

Just like it’s not helpful for us to focus on whether our housemates have gotten their chores done yet, it’s not helpful for us in the body to focus on whether our sisters and brothers have gotten “saved enough” yet or taken care of that one “incorrect” belief yet or kicked all their harmful habits yet. It’s not my job to ride herd on whether my brother has removed that speck out of his eye yet — it’s my job to work on my own eye-plank. It’s my job to wipe all the crumbs off the counter, put the clean dishes away, wipe the caked-on crud from the microwave, and each week to faithfully write my name on that list (or if I can’t, to write THAT). Yes, I tried to clean up my messes again. See you next week.

But it’s also my job to do this in community — not just writing my name on a list by myself, not just wrestling with God and life in isolation, but doing it next to and with and through my community of neighbors. My fellow chore-doers. We each have our tasks for which we are responsible, but we’re all scrubbing and wiping and vacuuming alongside each other.

This, then, is the beautiful mess of the Kingdom of God — the body of Christ coming together, week after week, to listen, to witness, and to celebrate — even when the mess will come right back, and we’ll have to clean it up again and maybe breathe a sigh of relief when it’s time to rotate to another task. Listening, witnessing, celebrating.

See you next week.

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Posted in Deep Life Thoughts

A Story About a Man

There is a story about a man.

At first, he was a boy with wide eyes — he loved to take in everything he could.

As he became a man, his eyes stayed wide, but they also began to be very full with so many things.

He wrestled to reconcile and integrate everything he saw, felt, and came to believe.

He wanted to love his Creator. But his ideas of how to do that could never sit still… and sometimes neither did his resolve.

He wanted to love his fellow humans. But likewise his ideas about how just couldn’t sit still, and at times, his resolve in this too would wane.

From year to year, or month to month, or day to day, he would remember one of these wild hopes that had come through his wide eyes into his eager heart. In fits and starts, he ran here, stumbled there, and sometimes just laid there in the dust and licked his wounds or played in the dirt to distract himself from pain.

He walked a long time, seemingly trying to find “it” — that just-right task or way of life that let him really love himself and his Creator and his near-loved humans and the faraway-lovable humans… as well and big and thoroughly as his heart hoped to.

His hopes were so big, sometimes because he wanted such good things for others, sometimes because he thought that being smart or energetic would be enough to make him succeed. So many times he would try things with big hopes, and then leave them when he realized that he hoped for something more.

Sometimes along the way, the things he learned and tried were helpful to others. Sometimes less so.

In his old age, he spent hours sitting by himself, or talking agitatedly or wistfully with others, scratching his head or with his face in his hands, wondering when or where he should have stopped and sat still and stayed put.

But some other times he smiled, knowing that he had gotten to experience a lot, and that others had loved him, and he had loved others, and that the way he was is okay, and it was okay that his journey didn’t end up sitting still long enough to do anything worth writing articles or history notes about.

He died with some people who he loved — especially his Creator — still loving him back.

And this was a beautiful story.

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I’m loving it: Retrace Health: “family-doc”-styled online primary care by nurse practitioners

Time for a big fat shout out and plug for a really sweet (and cost effective) way to get basic healthcare needs taken care of.

My housemate works for an online healthcare startup called Retrace Health. I feel lucky, cuz I wouldn’t know about it otherwise, and am on-board in a phase of the startup’s growth that’s quite advantageous to me.

TL;DR: $100 yearly fee, then video visits are $50/visit. (12 months of visits are free if you sign up using the promo code I posted on Facebook!)

I’ve been very happy with the video visit / remote-primary-care structure; my video visits tend to be 45 minutes with my primary care provider, whereas my doctor visits generally afford me no more than 15 minutes with a doc, at ~$150 / visit.

So yes, it’s a tradeoff – you’re getting an advance practice registered nurse (APRN) instead of a full-on MD… but you get ~3x as long of a visit, for 1/3 the price… (or 0% of the price through 2015). APRNs can write prescriptions, order MRI’s and specialist care, etc. Affordability has made it a lot easier for me to be proactive about little things as they’re arising, rather than following my usual strategy of “waiting it out” to save money.

I also really dig the convenience of the video visits vs. driving somewhere.

It’s obviously limited, which everybody – including them – recognizes, so they’re good about referring to specialists to visit in person as the needs arise… but it’s a good home-base. I never had dreamed of being able to meet with a primary care (e.g. family medicine) provider as often as every month or two without concern for cost, but during this phase of health issues recently (knee, hemorrhoid, screwed-up-toe, tight right-upper-back) I’ve felt like I can basically get all the primary care I need without that worry.

I also feel really cared about and invested in personally/individually. I feel that I have a really thorough and connected relationship with my primary care provider. The accessibility for frequency of visit, and the ability to directly e-message and call my primary provider rather than just one of their staff – is really helpful to my ability to feel personally and closely cared for — in a way that more than outweighs the distance caused by connecting remotely. Retrace has worked hard to make it easy to get appointments with my main provider, rather than just being assigned random to a provider from an available pool who happened to have time available, which, according to my housemate, is often the unfortunate norm for online care.

(I also think my care provider, Jessica Fashant-Peterson, is pretty legit at this as well, so it’s not just a “systems” thing.)

Once, I actually even received a prompt from them to schedule a followup visit with me, even though it was a free visit. :-) They also post a custom-typed-out care plan into your online portal account after every visit, something I’ve not received elsewhere.

Frankly, as a bit of an entrepreneur myself, I’m not sure how they manage to provide all this at the rates they’re charging (even without the 2015 free deal). It’s a young startup, and time will tell whether they can actually make money delivering so much effort and value at so low a fee… but — at least for the moment — that’s their topic to be concerned about, and not mine…

(Another note: Membership is per-family… so though I’m the gimp right now, Rebekah can get free visits this year as well.)

Retrace is not the be-all-end-all, and like anything it has its tradeoffs. In-person care from MD’s has its advantages over online care from APRNs, there’s no question — but there are plenty of advantages of the Retrace setup as well, most of which I’d boil down to accessibility. It’s very affordable (basically free in 2015) and convenient… from which flows high frequency of care, and subsequently, both high quality of relationship and the ability to be more proactive rather than reactive with my care. The only scenario in which I wouldn’t find something like retrace to be of value as a part of my “care portfolio” is if accessibility was not a major problem for me with conventional healthcare, e.g. if I worked somewhere with amazing, low-deductible, low-copay health insurance… which I definitely do not!

(UPDATE: I now understand you can get free home visits too as a part of the coupon code offer.)

So yeah, I decided to share this because I’m quite happy to have stumbled across Retrace by the luck of a housing arrangement… and figured it was silly to not take half an hour or so to write this up and share it with others.

P.S. Here’s the official blurb I got from their ops director: (emphasis is mine)

RetraceHealth is welcoming people to become Premium RetraceHealth members for $99/year/household. If they sign up using Daniel’s coupon-code, they will get 12 months of free video and home visits. If you are interested, become a member at this link and enter Daniel’s coupon code.

 

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A Note about Fixing Holes and Not Being Okay

It’s been really cool to see the responses to my testimony and tattoo. There are lots of us recovering elder-brother-types out there, I guess. =)

There was one series of comments that particularly struck me:

Facebook shame books comments

I thought this was particularly ironic — as did my co-conversationalist — because in talking about shame and shininess and how I (we) struggle with striving to measure up to legalistic standards of perfection we can’t attain, our go-to solution — and one I endorsed, too, I don’t at all mean to dump this on the other person — was to read two books that One Should Read To Better Oneself. Because what “worked” for me is totally a “rule” that will “work” for everyone else. And because this whole thing is totally “fixable” — right?

The problem with us elder-brother-ish rule-followers is that we think we can just find a 3-step process and make everything better. (Or at least make everything LOOK better.) But figuring out all of this shame and older brother stuff is not about fixing yourself. The fact is, we are broken and we can’t fix ourselves. It just isn’t possible. We cannot attain perfection. Our shiny whitewash can only hide the holes, not repair them.

What this process of dealing with legalism is really about is the continuing, ongoing, neverending struggle to realize and admit and embrace our brokenness. It’s not our job to fill in the hole. It’s our job to stop covering the hole that we can never fill. 

This is a hard thing to do when your life has been about presenting the appearance of a completely intact wall. We can even begin to be legalistic about not doing a good enough job of uncovering the whole. We just switch our legalism and shininess to the new goal of shinily uncovering our faults. And then we beat ourselves up for not being vulnerable enough or not being fixed enough or not healing fast enough.

Let me be clear: We will never “achieve” vulnerability. We will never “achieve” freedom from shame. We will never “achieve” honesty, or healing, or peace. (Short of some sort of Jesus-miracle, anyway.) These are not check-boxes; they are STRUGGLES. They are BATTLES, some days. And some days, they are mountains to be climbed, but off in the distance — later — not today.

It’s good to stop covering up the holes — that’s an important shift to make — but it’s also good to just rest sometimes. It’s good to stop striving for a new standard of “perfect brokenness”.

Or, as a really great blog post put it, “IT’S OKAY TO NOT BE OKAY.”

Or, as Daniel and I tell each other when we’re struggling to be “productive” self-employed workers, “I love you even when you derp.” (aka don’t get anything productive done all day) “I would love you even if all you ever did was derp.”

The shift I keep trying to practice in my brain is that nothing I do can change my value. Just like nothing I can do can change how long it takes sunlight to reach the earth. God made it that way and it’s stuck. If I went out and murdered a bunch of people (NOT GOING TO HAPPEN, by the way), God would still love and value me the same. If I went out and cured all the world’s suffering (also not going to happen, but less terrifying), God would still love and value me the same.

So when I feel like I should be better at this vulnerability thing, or when I feel like I should have figured out how to balance marriage time and work time by now, or even when I slip back into old habits that I feel are so “elementary” I shouldn’t have to deal with them anymore, here’s what I do: (And feel free to say it with me, if you think this one blog post means I have my poop in a group!)

  1. Stop that. All lies.
  2. Have grace for yourself — don’t feel bad.
  3. Now that you feel bad for feeling bad, give yourself grace for that too.
  4. Say it with me: “It’s okay to not be okay. God loves me even when I derp.”
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Posted in Deep Life Thoughts

Why I’m Getting a Tattoo (My Testimony)

I’m getting a tattoo.

You might find that kind of surprising. So here’s the story of why.

I’m kind of a goody-two-shoes. I’ve been that way for a long time. I’ve always liked pleasing people, as far as I can remember. I always got good grades. I always toed the line (outwardly, anyway). I always avoided conflict. I always achieved. I always followed the rules. I liked following the rules. They told me what I had to do to look shiny, and my shininess was my trophy and my shield.

But on the inside, I didn’t follow the spirit of the rules. Often I pleased people or avoided conflict out of fear. I got good grades because I liked getting everything right and feared the shame of making mistakes. I had perfect church attendance, but it wasn’t motivated by devotion, and it became fuel for me to look down on those whose attendance was less spotless. I played with my younger sister the exact number of minutes I was required to, and then I tricked and bullied her until she went away (or got left behind). I didn’t often directly lie to authorities — too confrontational, too risky, too black-and-white — but I deceived. I twisted and finagled my words and my thoughts and my world to protect my secret selfishness. I sneakily read books with flashlights after bedtime, late into the night sometimes. I learned my memory work then, too, having watched TV before my homework was done (despite a house policy to the contrary), because — I told myself — the real deadline was making sure I had it done in time for school in the morning. I hated when my little sister copied me, and especially when we wore matching outfits, so I would come out wearing one outfit, make sure I was seen, and then go quick-change into something else, only to emerge when it was time to go and there wasn’t time for my sister to change. I did what I wanted, which was a combination of what I wanted to do and just enough of what I didn’t want to do to keep everyone else happy and off my back.

I didn’t technically disobey often, but I wasn’t really obedient either. I was an expert at non-disobedience.

I didn’t really start to come to terms with all of this until I heard a sermon preached about the book The Prodigal God, which reframes the parable of the prodigal son (the author renames it the “Parable of Two Lost Sons”) as a tale about two types of lost-ness: the obvious, rebellious lost-ness of the prodigal son, and the subtle, sneaky, self-righteous lost-ness of the elder brother. I recognized myself immediately. I knew I had to read that book.

…But I didn’t. Life happened, my list of books to read was long, and it slipped through the cracks.

Then, as part of a reading group, I read the book Tired of Trying to Measure Up. I didn’t really identify with the title much — after all, I always could measure up to people’s expectations, for the most part — but I heard it was a powerful read, so I dug in.

I was totally blown away. I FINALLY UNDERSTOOD why I felt so anxious about making a misstep, and why I was so deadline-driven, and why I never really felt like I needed God, and why finding myself self-employed (with no one to please or perform for) was so darn difficult. I was stuck in a cycle of trying to justify myself, and it was motivated by trying to avoid shame — trying to prove my worth with my own two hands.

Looking back, I think the truth of this idea softened my shell just a hair. The armor cracked just enough.

I don’t even remember all what I read that struck me — looking through the book again, I can’t really find anything terribly quotable. But I do remember the part where I read the list of God’s names:

During biblical times, a person’s name was really important. People gave their babies names that described the characteristics they wanted them to have when they grew up. A name wasn’t just a label; it was a description of the nature or character of the one to whom it belonged. Look at some of God’s names:

Elohim, the Strong One;
El-roi, the Strong One who sees;
Jehovah-jireh, He is our Provider;
Jehovah-raffa, He is our Healer;
Jehovah-nissi, He is our Banner;
Jehovah-ra’ah, He is our Shepherd;
Jehovah-shalom, He is our Peace;
Jehovah-tsidkenu, He is our Righteousness;
Jehovah-shammah, He is Present.

All of a sudden I got it. I GOT IT. All those years of knowing about the Bible, of being smart, of giving the right answers to avoid pain, of hiding and sneaking and pleasing and deceiving — and only now, at the age of 26, did I get it. All the work I do to be shiny doesn’t matter. My own name doesn’t matter. The name on me is God’s. It doesn’t matter if I’m shiny. In fact, working to be shiny is counter-productive, because the facade of shine distracts me from reality. My “righteous” deeds were really filthy rags. Rather than fixing the hole in the wall, I had spent my whole life trying to cover it up. I was a whitewashed tomb.

I finally just read The Prodigal God last week. It’s a short book, so it didn’t take long. But the whole way through, I just kept thinking, “Yep, that’s me. This is me. This is what I’m fighting.” The transition from that place to my tattoo action step is well-illustrated by this passage:

Why doesn’t the elder brother go in [to the Father’s feast]? He himself gives the reason: ‘Because I’ve never disobeyed you.’ The elder brother is not losing the father’s love in spite of his goodness, but because of it. It is not his sins that create the barrier between him and his father, it’s the pride he has in his moral record; it’s not his wrongdoing but his righteousness that is keeping him from sharing in the feast of the father.

So I’m getting this tattoo to remind me that I’m not shiny. I can’t be perfect. I can’t earn my way into the big feast in the sky by following all the rules. And not only that — but I need to stop whitewashing my tomb.

This tattoo is risky. It’s (somewhat) counter-cultural. It’s visible. To make sure I can please everyone and keep my “future life options” open, I should remain clean and unblemished. Or at least put it somewhere more discreet, where no one will see it. I shouldn’t get this tattoo.

So I am.

My tattoo will read “YHWH shammah” (in my handwriting), which is Hebrew for “The Lord is There” or “The Lord is Present”. (Found in Ezekiel 45. You’ll also notice it’s at the end of the list quoted above.) And when I look at it, it will remind me that it is physically impossible for me to be without blemish. But the Lord is there. Or, to summarize with a secular quote, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” (Leonard Cohen)

This is my reminder that I’m cracked. It reminds me to stop plastering over the hole and just let the Light in.

——————-

UPDATE: It is finished. Here’s a picture of my tattoo!

tattoo YHWH shammah

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