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He’s incredibly awkward and unaware of the sticky kind of privilege that covers him, but in many ways, Lloyd Dobler said it best:
I, too, come from a place of privilege. Over the years, we’ve been able to make decisions that have provided certain freedoms, one of which is that I can opt out of regular employment to do this work, this “job” of becoming a writer, knowing that it cannot provide an income. At least not yet. And likely not ever.
I live in a world where soccer cleats still have to be bought and tuition still has to be paid, and those things (and many more) still require money. But. BUT. I also live in a world where the tomatoes I grew are about to get turned into sauce for tonight’s spaghetti, and where I give my son a haircut when he needs it, and fabric scraps and spare buttons are always on hand for whatever needs to be mended.
I haven’t yet figured out how to opt out of the market economy entirely, but there are seasons where I see just how far I can stretch the things I already have. In some ways, this notion lines up with a traditional agriculture model: work through the spring and summer to grow, harvest, and preserve what you can, and then make it last through the winter.
It’s not just tomatoes, however. For me, it’s also things like books. I have so many books, a ridiculous number of books, and a large number of them remain unread. What if I looked at my unread shelf like the root cellar or freezer? What if, this winter, I bought no new books and “ate” only from what I already had stored? I cancelled my New Yorker subscription this fall, but I’ll still have magazines to read at least until Halloween.
The pandemic has brought some of this thinking into the light, but not always in helpful ways. Loads of people are making their own bread now, which I admire. Many more are cooking more at home, sometimes even from things they have grown themselves. But too often, that kind of creative work remains slotted as a hobby, even though for many, many years that kind of work meant your family didn’t starve.
In the September Better Homes & Gardens, editor Stephen Orr wrote about quarantine and the “boredom of our restricted routines”:
“I realized I had to consciously identify ways to make myself happy. I learned to make overnight yogurt. I tried and failed at sourdough. . . .I find that I need little self-invented tasks and projects to make myself feel like I am accomplishing something, especially in a time when so much in the world is beyond my influence.”
In one stroke, Orr manages to belittle a whole class of people, most of whom are women, many of whom might be readers of his magazine. The work of tending a garden or making yogurt or keeping a bread starter alive is vital work. To call these “little self-invented tasks” is to negate the powerful work being done in homes every day. The people (again, mostly women) doing these tasks are not just bored, hoping to feel they accomplished something. They are working. And, I hope, the work is giving them life.
The culture we have built has a relationship with work that is profoundly broken. The consumer culture insists that your value is in the money you spend not in the things you make. So you go to work to make money. And then you spend it. That’s the cycle.
For most of my life I’ve danced on the outer edges of that cycle. For most of my life, I’ve wondered what it would look like to aim for something better. Even as I write that, I worry you are picturing some version of Cottage Core. I’m talking about something deeper than aesthetic instagram posts, and I’m definitely NOT talking about that all-white version of “living off the land” where all the women are blond and braided and all the dogs are golden retrievers. There’s a version of opting out that hasn’t yet been captured, and it’s the one I’m chasing.
Part V of the Bittersweet series with Walter Brueggemann: Reckoning deals with this idea, claiming that “the market used to be the place where we gathered on Saturday mornings and exchanged goods. Now it has become a religion.” Also this:
“Profit is not a worthy enough purpose for all this organized effort.”
And while this conversation between Breueggemann and Peter Block focuses on a biblical model of contentment, the concept of “enough” should resonate regardless of your beliefs:
“Enough is the counter, the alternative and freeing discipline. Enough calms our rush and striving for more, drawing out an attention to and accountability for the world through our being and even our buying.”
I’m going to go get the sauce started. For today, that is exactly enough.
It’s been a quiet couple of weeks, but here’s what I’ve published lately:
Beth Kephart’s latest for young readers (Cloud Hopper) launched this week, and as usual, she has created a wonderwork, a marvel, and a delight.
I also published my first negative review, something I originally thought I wouldn’t do. But Matthew B. Crawford’s Why We Drive raised my hackles in unexpected and important ways, so I felt compelled to respond to it.
Thanks as always for reading and thinking with me. Have comments, suggestions, or questions? Reply to this email, and I promise a response. And if you can think of someone who might appreciate this sort of weekly musing, please consider sharing this post with them and encouraging them to join us. There’s always room for more around this odd table.