Piece By Piece

I'm back after four days of teaching a workshop at my house. It was awesome. It was exhausting. It was fascinating. We milked goats (note, very small adorable goats sell themselves. It is not necessary to talk them up, just to frisk people trying to hide goats under their jackets on the way out ;-)). We talked lactofermentation. We laughed a lot. We cooked on the woodstove. We knit stuff (ok, they knit stuff, I didn't knit much, since I was trying to manage everything). We talked about the future and where we think it is going. We laughed a lot. We talked about growing things and how to use them. We laughed a lot. We ate an awful lot. I had a blast.

Doing this was difficult for me. When I first started writing the blog, I felt very strongly that my writerly life and my home life had to be kept strictly apart. I didn't want them to come together - people would ask to come visit and I was very reluctant. I was afraid of my work creeping into everything, and I felt that clear lines between "home" and "work" were particularly important for someone whose work was her home and farm, and whose family were integrated. I spent so much time talking about difficult, stressful things that I just wanted to be able to go into my garden with my kids and not go there in my thoughts. Finding some way to space things apart was really important to me. I turned down just about everyone who asked to visit, not because of them, but because of me.

I also got enough admiring emails to worry that people would simply be disappointed by the reality - that people weren't reading or hearing the disclaimers that said I really am a slob and I really don't get it right all the time. The idea of having people come here and say "oh, I thought it would be better" worried me a good bit. I thought I might open it up to others someday - maybe when all the weeds were out of the garden, when the house was completely clean, when all the improvements were in place, then I'd show it. Of course, that never happened.

What changed? I don't know - gradually I began to feel less freaked out by the idea of crossing the lines. I always liked the people I met. I wanted to be friends with them, and friends have to come to your house, even if they find disappointing. And the more my life and my work became of a piece, the more artificial the division between home and work became. It started to feel false. Finally I started inviting people in - slowly. I'm still careful about our privacy. I still want plenty of space to just be us. But I also want people to see, not just hear about it, because in the end, figuring out what a liveable life looks like is something that it does help to know about in as many ways as possible. Knowing that ours isn't perfect is part of the process. I don't think ours is *the* model for a low energy life - and that's precisely why I love to see other people's lives, why I write about adapting in place and teach it - and if they show me theirs, well, I've got to show them mine.

Gradually, I've met more people through the internet - almost uniformly people I'm grateful that I've met. Some of them have come back to my home and met the kids and the goats. Some have become friends. And this was the next step - inviting people in to really see what we've done and how we do it. The first time was an experiment, and frankly, I've rarely been so anxious about anything. And it went very well. It was tiring, but fun, and we will probably do it again (in May, probably a workshop for families with kids to come for a weekend - I will announce when I get dates organized).

The thing that I liked best about the experience - the thing that drives me most to get over my anxieties about having people in my home was something that I didn't quite realize until I found myself at the table. There were nine women at this event (it just worked out that way) - they ranged from recent college graduates to retired. And most of what we did was talk - knit and talk, do chores and talk, cook and talk, eat and talk. We found we had really different experiences. We were living in different places and different lives. But we had one single deep thing in common, and it was this:

None of us has enough power to fix our situation. Our future is warmer, less stable, poorer and has fewer resources than our present, and as important as it is to look at and understand the big picture, none of us can adequately address the big picture, either as a whole or for our families. We can describe it, to some extent. We can guess. We can predict. We can worry - and we all do.

Our society likes big shiny solutions. It likes answers. It likes to focus on THE SOLUTION that makes everything better, and we tend to think that anything less than THE SOLUTION is giving up and copping out. But sometimes there isn't a THE SOLUTION and even when there is, while some people are looking at THE SOLUTION, a bunch of other people have to be on the ground fixing what's happening already. You can admire the people searching for a cure for a particular disease, while also observing that you need equally badly the people who tend the sick suffering now, and who feed those who nurse them, and those who keep things clean so that the disease does not spread. You cannot devote all your resources to THE SOLUTION - because doing so abandons others to their suffering while you are working on it, and if you fail.

Thus, for me is the importance of the responsive. Instead of becoming fixated on the big picture, we're doing what is most necessary - going at it, piece by piece, softening, mitigating, make it better to the best of our abilities. If our lives cost too much, we find a way to live on less or share with others. If we use too much, we find away to use less. If someone is hungry, we feed them. If someone is cold, we make them something warm, or invite them in out of the wind. If species diversity is declining, we plant more and different things and make space for wildlife. If the eggs all come from factory farms, we put some chickens in our yards, or go head to head with the zoning board to get them, or give up the eggs. If our sister is unemployed, she sleeps on our couch. If something gets broken, we fix it, or do without it. If our kids' friends go hungry, we invite them in for a meal. If we have a little extra, we try and give it away. We make do. We reuse. We use a little less every year. We work on making our community better. We do the activist stuff to change things in our neighborhood, our town, our city, our region. We do a little more every time.

None of us is perfect. None of us has mastered this. None of us know what is going to happen next - different things will happen to all of us. All of us use too much and give too little, all of us try and fail and make terrible mistakes. And it would be easy to say that all this small stuff, all this responsive stuff is little, it isn't enough. It can't stop climate change. It can't bring back all the oil and other resources we've consumed. It can't make it all better.

And that's right. All of those painful and ugly truths are absolutely correct. None of it is enough to do all the things we change if we could, none of it is enough to soften all the pain, none of the safety nets we try and put in place for those we love and those we do not know are sufficient to catch everyone. It is all true - and that's terrible.

And yet, it would also be a wild and radical understatement to say that simply because you cannot fix the vast problems of the world piece by piece that that doesn't matter, because of course, it does. We'd be better off if we could come to really good overarching solutions, but since those aren't present, since we are in many cases past the time in which they could be enacted, we have what we have - our responses. Our most pressing problems have changed, as John Michael Greer points out, to predicaments. Predicaments are ultimately insoluble - but they can be responded to. The archetypical predicament is death - it is insoluble, no one gets out of here any other way.

But accepting that there is no way out does not mean accepting a single outcome. The difference in ways we can respond to death's presence is enormous. We can accept it, and ease the transition of the person facing it. We can reject death for a while, and say that the dehydrated toddler will live a long and full life - before someday, death takes her in her proper time. We can fight death to the last breath, even when we know we will probably lose, because it is a battle worth fighting, or we can welcome death as a friend and a new experience. We can respond to death by easing pain, by providing moral support, by delay, by healing, by protection, by mourning, by loving.

We can make the difference between a hell and - not heaven, just a good life with no more than our share of unhappiness - in our response - not always, not for every person, but for a vast number - and more if more will help. And we do these things responsively - when someone is ill, we care for them. When someone is afraid, we comfort them. When they need nourishment, we feed them. When they are in pain, we do what we can to ease it. When there is a fight to be fought, we fight it. When the fight is over, we stop and hold a person's hand. When death comes, we mourn and comfort others, pray or contemplate, get out the shovel and dig, and then get up the next morning and look again to the next need.

When I sat at my table with eight other people, ones I'd been afraid to have here, talking about everything under the sun, I was struck by the realization that all of us were in some ways focused on response. That does not mean we opppose all attempts to solve our problems, but none of us truly believe they will be fixed, and in the meantime, well, we're living daily in the world of predicaments. What matters is how we respond to what's in front of us, how we reach out and make sure we see those in the grips of our collective crisis. Piece by piece - each of us doing different work, we're responding. Maybe some solution will come. Maybe it won't. But in the meantime, we do the work that needs doing, as much as we can, and a little more each week. It is easy to underestimate the ordinary contributions of responsive work - but it is the work, in the face of the insoluble that makes all the difference in the world.

When I began to write about climate change and depletion and their consequences, I was laboring under a deep misapprehension - I thought that I could keep my life and my work apart because they were not one thing. I was a writer here, and a farmer, wife and parent here. I have gradually come to understand - and saw in a moment of blinding revelation this weekend - that this was always false. All of what I do is a response to the world I live in - get up and clean the messes, because they need cleaning. I get up and tend the sick kids because they need tending. I get up and write my pieces because they need writing - because internally, I need to write them and because they might be of use. I make things because we need them. I weed the garden because it needs weeding. I try and reduce emissions because they need reducing. And I bring other people back to my home, because they need to see and know what I know, and I need to know what they know. I do it because in the end piece by piece is the only way to mend what is broken, the only way to make a future. I once thought I could live my work and my life in separate pieces. Instead, I found that, piece by piece, I was building a whole - and that the future is built the same way.


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Thanks for sharing this, Sharon. For a few moments I was at that table with 9 other people who are doing there best to make sure it won't be as bad as it could be -- and that is a great comfort.

Hi, Sharon - I've got your book A Nation of Farmers and I have been reading your blog for the last several weeks and I am enjoying it. You're very thoughtful and analytical, which I appreciate.

Taped to my computer is a little piece of wisdom from Wendell Berry that replicates part of what you were saying above: "The inevitable aim of industrial agri-investors is the big universal solution. They want a big product that can be marketed everywhere. And the kind of agriculture we're talking about that leads to food security and land conservation is locally adapted agriculture. And they can't do that. Industrial agriculture plants cornfields in Arizona; locally adapted agriculture says, what can we fit in this place that will not destroy it? Or what can nature help us do here? That's the critical issue."

Welcome to reality, Sharon. I don't say that sarcastically in the slightest -- I mean it sincerely and truly.

The idea that one thing can be taken separately from the whole in which it exists is a big lie sold to us by Western civilization, I think, after many years of contemplating that very idea. Each thing we do, privately or publicly, has bearing on every other sphere of our lives. As you pointed out so eloquently in Depletion and Abundance, the idea of separate spheres doesn't exist.

I'm glad your weekend went well, and I wish I could have been there!

Sharon, this essay is a really great manifesto, rallying cry, something . . . thanks.

By Susan in NJ (not verified) on 11 Jan 2010 #permalink

Great post! I, too, wish I could have been there.

The sooner people can get sold on the idea that there is not going to be a big shiny solution the closer we will be to a big shiny solution (which, in my opinion, involves everyone doing what they can (rather than what they can be bothered to) to alleviate the problem.

Beautifully said. Once again I want to run around showing this post to everyone I know. Your weekend sounds lovely; wish I could have been there.

This post is very beautiful. I've sent it on to my family; maybe it can help them understand that preparing for an uncertain future is not about hoarding and isolating. Maybe it can help remind me too! Thank you very much.

The weekend was lovely. Sharon is a treasure and I was lucky to be there. She (you) have been my most important support during my realization of the future and what it means for my children and you were my guiding light. No one else was speaking from the point of view of a mother and a farmer with such intelligence and such a broad grasp of the issues. It kept my sanity and gave me hope. Lucky is the person who finds Sharon!!

Karen, I totally agree with you. So many of the leading authors on peak oil and environmental change seem to be childless, or at least write as if they are. And the dominating gloom-and-doom perspective of those authors was quite simply ruining my ability to parent, or perhaps even survive. A friend pointed me to Sharon's blog, and the door opened for me to an alternate worldview the embraces everything I believe, rather than telling me I'm going to lose it all. Those of you who got to participate in the weekend are so blessed!

By Christina (not verified) on 11 Jan 2010 #permalink

The big shiny solution is a sexy idea. With almost any problem, people want a definitive solution--a magic bullet or pill. Unfortunately complex problems require complex responses and we generally don't like complexity. It is an interesting analogy you're putting out--that our real solutions are tied to our daily life, which are filled with minutiae, obligation and commitment. Most of what you describe is often relegated as "women's work" and definitely not seen as sexy or shiny.

Thank you Sharon. You reminded me of what I already know. Live in the moment. Small acts of kindness, in a way the smaller the better, freely given.
I spent yesterday delighted by the prospect of biochar as a potential small scale local solution to CO2 reduction, then disillusioned by the critics and the inevitable "the big companies" will misuse, misappropriate and profit greatly. Yes again.
You made me smile, cry and breathe again.

I think the best part of getting together a small group of people (and I think it needs to be a group, not just a couple, but not too many) is getting the various perspectives of what people find easy and difficult. Some people are in awe of raising goats, others in butchering rabbits, and still others in making good cheeses. It serves as a wonderful example that many things are possible, and each small thing *does* contribute to the whole. All of our small changes add up. Witness the locavore movement - what does it matter how far your food comes? Yet as the idea spreads, and more people adopt it, it begins to matter quite a bit.

We may each be only a grain of sand on the beach of life, insignificant in and of ourselves, unable to individually alter the shape of the beach. But take away enough grains, and the beach itself ceases to exist. Do the best where you are, and then strive to do just a little bit better.

By curiousalexa (not verified) on 12 Jan 2010 #permalink

The critical trick to epiphanies, I find, is that the recipient has to be- receptive.

And it has to hit them at >exactly< the right time. Otherwise, it'll just bounce off as another platitude.

You do a good job of aligning folks to hit that receptive state.

Now you just need to write down the formula for that alignment process...


I re-read this as I needed a pick me up.

The big shiny solutuion has an implied attractiveness -- i.e. beauty for the human mind.

What Sharon is creating with us will have the humbler, subtler, and to my mind more pleasing beauty found in scrap quilts made by those who had to piece together what they had, and made it lovely, piece by piece.