The Big Rest (Guest Post by Kelley Nikondeha for #SpiritofthePoor)

Yep, you read that right. Spirit of the Poor is back. Welcome back! Some things are the same. Still a once-monthly blog link-up held loosely at the intersection of spiritual matters and economic justice, we still have a theme each month, and anybody is welcome to join. Some things are different. The link-up will no longer roam, but just hang out at my place (so people can find it) and will stay open the entire month. Our hope is simply that those of us who want to talk about this stuff can do so here. 

Kicking us off this month is Kelley Nikondeha, on “Sabbath.” (Check back for my own words on the same topic, which I’ll post soon and link up here.) Even if you don’t know Kelley — and I hope you do! — you might remember that I did a book club this spring, on Walter Brueggeman’s Sabbath as Resistance? Remember? I constantly tweeted things like “this book validates my entire life.” That was Kelley’s book club. Here are some of her own wise words.

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Recently I’ve been considering the poverty of our discipleship. It all began when I stumbled over the word discipleship in my Twitter feed one afternoon. I recognized the word, of course. But what came to mind was how little I ever use it anymore, though I remain an ardent follower of Jesus.

This wasn’t always the case. In my youth discipleship functioned as load-bearing word in my vocabulary. This word held pride of place in youth group conversations and on into discussions in my college years. My bookshelf teemed with books on discipleship – how to be the best Christian I could be by various authors taking a variety of approaches. In my early years, it would be fair to say discipleship was a preoccupation of mine. So how is it, all these years later, that I stare at the word as a relic from my past instead of common currency?

Weeks later, I recognized that my practice of Sabbath might be the holy culprit gradually undercutting my preoccupation with discipleship, at least as I had come to know it.

In all the books and all the sermons I’d encountered, discipleship was a rigorous series of activities for me to do to be more like Jesus. Chief among them were Sunday church attendance, daily quiet times, the memory of Bible verses, participation in weekly small groups and periodic mission trips. In seminary I would learn about the spiritual disciplines, Lectio Divina and praying the hours – more activities to increase my discipleship capacity. Scheduling all of these into my life over the years kept me very busy and, to be candid, quite exhausted. I wanted to be like Jesus, but this discipleship treadmill was killing me.

I believe that Sabbath is the cornerstone of healthy and sustainable discipleship. When we begin to practice Sabbath our theology and praxis are challenged and gradually changed, moving us away from a consumer-driven Christianity, the endless activities of discipleship programs and perpetual burnout. Holy practices find their way into our lives, gently integrated into a life recalibrated by rest and retrained to discern more deeply what is necessary (and what is not). Sabbath came as a salve to my weary soul. It allowed me to get off the treadmill and collapse onto the green pastures where I could rest and be refreshed.

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The first thing the practice of Sabbath did for me was to call me to remember that YHWH is the God who creates, then rests. God trusted creation to continue in good stead while God rested on the seventh day, according to Genesis. This God invites me to do likewise, to join in regular rest. I began to understand that part of bearing the divine image meant I needed to participate in the divine rhythm of creating and resting. I cannot be like God when refuse to rest. It might be that my lack of resting indicated how little I actually knew God at all.

The second thing Sabbath did was remind me that I was once a slave to Pharaoh but I’ve been delivered from such taskmasters. At the foot of Sinai, according to Exodus, God gave the 10 Commandments, including the command to keep Sabbath. The Hebrews were free to rest an enter in God’s new regime – and so am I. Part of my new identity as a member of God’s family is one who is now free to rest and worship.

One a-ha moment was my realization that Sabbath is first about work stoppage. You stop all your work – then you can rest. With Egypt in mind, I saw Pharaoh’s brickyards, taskmasters and endless quotas for more and more bricks. There was no stopping or resting allowed. And YHWH demonstrated that the world can be ordered otherwise, that under God’s reign people stop working and partook of regular rest. I discovered that I’m not made for endless work and ever-increasing productivity; I’m invited to back away from the brickyard. Now I stop and rest because I’m no one’s slave anymore.

The third thing Sabbath did was recalibrate me with rest. Regular work stoppage and rest slowly reshaped me with a different rhythm. I noticed the world continues quite well without my productivity. Rest gently teases out the knots I’ve gotten myself into and allows me to experience a full-bodied freedom that I won’t willingly relinquish now.

Recalibration by rest remains an on-going process for me, forming me in the most fundamental way — into someone who is more fully human. I believe God intended me to be a person capable of creative work, stewardship of the earth and a rotation of rest to embody a sustainable humanity. Sabbath moves me in this direction, allowing me to reclaim some garden goodness.

As I became more intentional about Sabbath practice, I thought more about refraining from activities rather than piling them on. I opted for time to read poetry and the prophets, choosing imagination over memorization. I decided to participate in a quieter midweek Eucharist service instead of the frenzied Sunday worship service that boasted of loud music, frothing coffee machines, crowds of people in and out with a traffic jam in the parking lot each week.

Over time I noticed Sabbath stretching out into other days of the week, shaping other choices and forming me into a less frantic person. Some Sundays we do a stay-in where we stay in our pjs and stay in the house and stay together. My daughter calls this ‘The Big Rest’ and often is the initiator, telling me that The Big Rest allows her to enjoy the school week more. Our weekends are often about doing less, not more. Our midweek activities tend to be bike riding and park visits over the demanding soccer schedule that whips so many good parents into a weekly frenzy. They are small choices and personal ones, but they help me embrace Sabbath rhythm to my core.

I’m only beginning to notice the profound change Sabbath has wrought in my life. There is more to consider and parse as I look at the connections between Sabbath, discipleship and our humanity. But this much I can testify to – Sabbath has become the cornerstone to my own praxis of discipleship. Sabbath enriches the soil, allowing a deeper discipleship to emerge.

This is only the beginning of many more conversations… but now I have the time!

Unknown-5Kelley Nikondeha is co-director of Amahoro Africa and international staff member of Community of Faith with her husband Claude. She’s a thinker, connector, advocate, avid reader and mother of two beautiful children. Kelley lives between Arizona and Burundi. She loves handwritten letters, homemade pesto and anything written by Walter Brueggeman. She writes a blog called Theology in Transit and is a columnist at SheLoves Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @knikondeha.

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To join the link up, write your own blog post on “Sabbath Discipleship”–or “sabbath” or “rest” or really whatever related issue you are chewing on – and enter the URL of your post in the linky tool below. (Find the blue text that says “click here to enter.)

It’s quite hard enough, I think, to live into countercultural attitudes like this one, without having to do so all by ourselves…



On Being a Contemplative Who Is Also a Mother

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I’m over at A Deeper Story today, talking about my now five years of meditation practice while being the mother of small children. 

(Sounds impossible. Feels impossible. Isn’t impossible.)

I am a contemplative Christian. But I am not the kind with a cloister. I’m not even the kind with a door that locks. I’m the kind with a toddler who gets into the trash. I am a homeschooling mom with three children under the age of seven. And I’m a contemplative. Don’t tell me, this sounds like the set up for a joke.

I used to believe, along with the jokesters, that it would never work. I suppressed my desire for solitude. I ignored my pesky and recurring craving for silence. Even before I had kids, I apologized for skipping parties, failing to return phone calls, dropping out of clubs. I called myself bad friend, bad family member…bad sister, bad wife, bad woman.

I was nearly thirty when I realized that it wasn’t nothing that I craved so deeply. It was Nothing. Nothing with a capital N and it stands for a deep communion with God. I was nearly thirty when I finally came to answer this craving of my heart, intentionally developing a practice of contemplative worship, guided by a community of contemplatives.

Then it no longer felt impossible. But it still felt selfish. How can I take this time just for me? I had a baby and a toddler; I was breastfeeding. Surely this call, this deep desire for solitude and internal seeking…was meant for someone else?

[…]

Come on over. The rest is here.

“Fouchomatic Off Grid” and the Bike-Powered Washer (VIDEO)

Nick and EstherThis is just a quick note to let you know that we made a fun video of our bike-powered washing machine! If you’ve been wondering what that looks like? Cool beans. We can show you.

You can also subscribe to the channel. I can’t promise that videos will be frequent, but I can promise they will be awesome. Actually, future videos will probably be mostly Nick talking, telling the nitty gritty stuff about how things are made and how they work. We’re always looking for ways to get the right content to the right people, since although there is some overlap between the faith folks and the permaculture folks — and in my head it seems it seems ought to be a lot more  – in truth most days y’all are not the same people.

Anyway. This name, “Fouchomatic?” Well…Nick is Nick Fouch. And he picked up that nickname way back when he was a super hot-shot college-aged theatre technician who drove his 1979 VW bus with a smiley face on the front down to work the summer at the Utah Shakespearean Festival. He built a big box set with a number of bells and whistles with impressive flair (and, of course, attitude to match) in three weeks. They called him Fouch-o-matic.

Which he still is. Clearly. We hope you enjoy the video!

(If you’re on email or rss you’ll probably have to click through to my site to watch it. Or find it on my FB page. Enjoy!)

When Starting to Write Again Is Like Wrestling a Bear

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I’ve been fighting writer’s block this week. Fighting, let me tell you. Fighting, like wrestling a bear.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. These writers, these artistic types…always predicting our own deaths. It’s insufferable. It does look namby-pamby enough from a distance. Me, sitting at the keyboard, eating chocolate chips and making facial expressions like I’ve got a bit of indigestion.

But not every truth is visible. On the inside, I am wrestling a thing with claws.

Today I say thank goodness for it. Thank goodness that I can see the bear, because at least the writer’s block is in a place where I can reach it. Like an air bubble shifting through a water line, like a spirit energy rising through the shakras, the bear has shifted out from the silent pit of my belly and into the light of my mind, where I can maybe do something to fix it.

May the spirit of the bear be free. May it do as little possible damage to my pretty face on the way out. May I start writing again.

It has been a difficult summer for my delicate muse. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong exactly, as I continue to trek the slow road of a writer aimed towards publication. I have not been told by my literary agent to give up and go home. I have not had my work stolen from me. I have not been told that I will never write again. I have not been diagnosed with any disfiguring conditions. There is nothing wrong, exactly.

However, I also haven’t won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I also haven’t received any honorary degrees, which is particularly aggravating, because I’ve always been a bit competitive with my nearest brother, and he has a Ph.D. And I haven’t been invited to meet the Queen of England, which is a travesty. 

You laugh. I see you laughing. But I am not joking. For what I have put into the writing life? I should cash it in for nuggets of pure gold. I should be lifted up to dance on rainbows with leprechauns. I might say I should be paid back in blood, but that sounds actually sort of creepy.

It makes perfect sense, to expect great things in return for writing. It makes perfect sense, after typing the words THE END at the close of the manuscript, for the mind to run immediately to the wild applause and the acceptance speech, the place on the Bestseller List, the special seat in Heaven. Writing the darn book has asked exactly that much of me.

I know perfectly well that all this is a confusion in terms. It’s like going to the bank and trying to cash in a vast collection of tiny snail shells painstakingly searched out from the bottom the lake. Treasure for treasure, yes, but the bank teller is still looking at you like you’ve gone off your rocker.

I don’t regret that I am trying to get published. I don’t regret that I wrote the darn proposal or signed with the agent. I don’t regret that my book will travel through certain normal channels, even if that means that everything takes forever and I have to cut that one single usage of the F-word. I do think it’s worth it.

But I do regret that I let the bear gnaw at my insides. I do regret that I so often confuse my love of writing for my love of looking at my reflection in shiny mirrors. I regret that I still, after all this, always keep getting mixed up.

If you were to ask me why I do this…? Let’s pretend you did. Let’s pretend you said, “Esther, why do you do this?

I do it for the emails. They come here and there, one at a time, occasionally in bursts and spurts. This is not a famous writer reads fan mail situation — no, not at all — but it is occasional human connection. If I say something here that is true — if I am brave enough and humble enough to excavate some territory of the human heart, and then brave enough and humble enough to offer up my discovery — people will respond. They will say, “Me, too.” They will say, “I never thought of that before.” They will say, in no uncertain terms, “I see you.” I will feel the heat of contact.

I might as well admit that I’m a bit funny about friends. Just when you think you’ve finally gotten through to me and we’re BFF’s forever, I will go and hide in a cave for a couple of years. Then, when we see each other again, you might notice that although I am smiling broadly at you while we eat our sushi, also, my hands are shaking.

I am a bit too naked for this world. Writing truth to truth is my way of connecting with others. As deep calls to deep…

Now, let’s pretend you asked me how it happens that I so easily forget all this.

All the hoopla — from publication to the Queen of England to how many hundred “likes” on my FB page — every bit of is a shoddy substitute for the real thing. It does something to me, chemically and emotionally. But it doesn’t feed me, not in the way of true communication — where we hear one another, and we see each other’s hearts, and we’re all a little different for the contact. I am accepting something similar, but lesser. I am seeking something similar, but lesser. It makes me feel tired. It makes me feel spent. It feeds the beast of ambition in my gut instead of feeding my soul.

In my defense, I see that I am not the only one. I see from where I stand that humans are very much in the habit of accepting shoddy substitutes for the real thing. Otherwise a great host of things that exist would not exist. Hostess desserts, out-of-season strawberries…pornography.

I respect if you consider this terrible oversimplification, but this is how it is for me. Every real thing I eat — every real strawberry and every real connection with a human being — strengthens me, while every time I take the sweet false substitute, I strengthen the bear.

Today I wrote the first 500 words or so on my next book. I held my breath and dived down to the bottom of the lake, willing myself to know that my snail shells cannot be exchanged for so many gold coins, and yet they are worth diving for. I planned some things for this blog, too, which is getting ready to ramp up — into shalom conversations, justice conversations, prayer and hope for healing. I will share my heart, but I must not believe that it is true that I can exchange my heart for gold.

May the spirit of the bear be free. May I be released from it. May I begin writing again — every day beginning again, every day free.

When Peacemaking is Not as Easy As I Thought It Would Be

faithfeminismsI found my calling in a dream. Wouldn’t you expect as much from a starry-eyed mystic in the wilderness? It was a dream of war. Old, Biblical war, with tents and spears. At the end of each bloody day, the armies filed back into their camps to drink goat’s milk and mead and lick their wounds.

Sadly, Russell Crowe was nowhere to be seen. Nor Iain Glen, neither. Not a single oiled Hollywood extra in sight. No. My dream was a dream of a war between the people that I love. It was a dream of shared violence in which the perpetrators were all my people.

On one side, the urban progressives who had taken me in and gifted me my voice. My atheist husband. My Marxist brother. The women creatives who lifted me up and taught me to take up space. The gay men who fed me and dressed me and taught me to use my middle finger to protect myself from being colonized by shame.

On the other side, the Christian conservatives of my religious heritage. The sister who changed my diapers and taught me not to pick my nose. The rural towns where I learned to play “Hey, Cow!” The women who gave me chocolate chip cookies and fresh cow’s milk, who despised feminism for undermining their value as full-time homemakers. The pastors and pastor’s wives and LDS visiting teachers who taught me to follow the deepest yearnings of my heart, and seek for God.

One side. And the other side. Each waving their colors. Between them, bloodshed. In my dream I went and laid down in the middle of the field, and found Christ there waiting for me.

I have told this story many times. This is my Christian theology. This is my #faithfeminism. It is not a theology of atonement or righteousness. Nor is it a theology that entrenches my position in one camp or another. It is a theology of peace.

Christ in the space between. Christ as the bridge across the canyon. Christ as the third way.

[fast forward several years]

Of all the maps and visions of a faithful life, the one that fits me best is the image of a spiral. I see myself walking this circle path: both infinite and terrifying in the sheer precision of its repetition. I meet myself, here, again and again. I think, haven’t I been here before? Haven’t I answered this question already?

But I am still myself. And I have not escaped myself. I have not lifted off this earth — no, not even to rest in the lap of Christ. I am still walking.

I am still walking the path of the peacemaker. And today, on this day — on this turn of the circle — the middle of the field is not so clear. Today I am on the turn of the circle that brings me out of rest and into unrest, out of security and into conflict, out of stability and into disruption. This is not the whole path, but is a part of the path. And although I writhe in the discomfort, I also struggle to accept it.

As a peacemaker, I do not strive for a peace that is only peace for some. 

I am a white woman. I am a married, heterosexual White woman. This year, as I have come around the corner, the path has required me to witness oppressions I do not experience.

I made what seemed to be a pretty easy vow, last winter, to open my ears and eyes to the experiences of women of color. I took what you might think to be a pretty easy dose to start, actually. Basically I just read and supported the writing of some friends. But it was like jumping into a bath of cold water. It moved my eyes. And I felt then that it was time to reconsider the terms of my own peacemaking. I realized that I had passed through a point of synchronicity, that I had come to accept comfort and even a sense of achievement in a peace that was still only a peace for some.

Christ leads me forward, simultaneously out of my privilege and out of my oppression. It is the same outward movement, into Kingdom life, into a faith that conquers fear, into thin air. 

This is my faith feminism. This is the spiritual path as I understand it. It is the path, for me, of faith informed by a yearning for justice for all, and the path of justice work informed by faith.

I come around the corner again, and again. I walk through one camp and then the other. I fall. Sometimes someone is there to pick me up. Other times I have to do the picking up all by myself. I make mistakes, and I have to apologize for them. I overstep and I understep. I shout too loud and whisper too quietly. But I still walk.

I am called out to walk.

I’m participating in the huge link-up and week-long blitz at #faithfeminisms, responding to the theme “a calling out.” It is organized by Christians, but has an intention to be inclusive. I hope you’ll go see the rest of the posts here. Or follow the hashtag here. Maybe you’ll want to post your own! 

Why I Refuse To Teach My Kids To Live By Fear

My mother was terrified of CPS. She imagined the knock on the door, her worst nightmare. As a single mother living in poverty, she was constantly at risk of institutional intervention.

Her nightmare was my nightmare, too. As her female daughter, I inherited the weight. Despite what you might assume, reading here my passion for mental rebellion, free thought and revolution, I was impeccably behaved as a school child and young teenager. I could not afford to be otherwise. The integrity of our family was at risk.

And what were our risk factors? Living in unsafe situations, sometimes in the car, frequently relying on the charity of friends and strangers. Kids often unsupervised, often in unfamiliar situations while our mother worked — and as a writer, no less, which by some was perceived as not working at all. And an absent father, willing to slander her from his position in middle class America.

Again, what were our risk factors? Being outside of the “protection” of a male head of family. And being poor.

I stand with compassion and respect for Debra Harrell, who was arrested this week for letting her 9-year-old child play unsupervised in a public park. Her risk factors? Being poor. Being outside of the “protection” of a male head of family. And being Black.

I cannot imagine what it is like to be Debra Harrell or her daughter. I do not speak for them. But I do know and understand what it is to live in fear of institutional violence. I know and understand how a poor, single mother is shamed not only for her children’s behavior, but for her children’s very existence. I will not be told that this truth of my childhood is not true. It is a defining attribute of my experience. It shaped my psyche. I refuse to perpetuate it on others.

I refuse to be a part of the public shaming of a single mother in poverty.

And I refuse to be a part of the culture of fear that justifies it.

I am now the mother of three children. I live in the woods. I am raising my children wild and free – as much as possible free from shame — in a way I have not been able to accomplish in other situations. This is intentional. It is my refusal to swallow or spread the virus of fear.

Fear would keep me indoors and behind locks, for my own safety. Fear would keep my children behind screens instead of out in the raspberry bramble, for their own safety. Fear would claim that any safety not secured by an institution is no safety at all. Fear would outlaw self-determination.

Yes. Fear would do all this, and it would do so in entirely unequal terms. In common usage, the disenfranchised are called vulnerable. A culture of fear limits a person’s freedoms in reverse proportion to their share of power in an unjust society.

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Believe me, I do not intend to silence the truth of predation and violence. Even these woods are not free of human predators. But a culture of victim-blaming empowers the aggressors.

For the sake of a young black person who is punished for daring to occupy a public park instead of the McDonalds, for the sake of my husband who devises for his family an ingenious living situation quite out of line with the standards set by a culture of overconsumption, and for the sake of my own children and their wild hearts, I refuse to teach my kids to live by fear.

I will call them in at nightfall. I will keep them close by me in the wild days of October. I will observe their lives. But I will not teach them to shame or terrorize others. I will not teach them to cut with words like “irresponsible” and “ill-advised.” I will not teach them to carry messages for empire.

Nowhere in this world exists absolute freedom from danger. Everywhere is risk and everywhere is potential for wrongdoing. In my faith tradition we say the Kingdom is here and not yet. But I choose to live into a vision of a world in which every human being has full rights to safety and self-determination, including the right to fresh air and self-respect.

A Newsy Letter From the Yurt in the Woods (Second Summer)

Milo with Fia

I’m sore today. We worked through a ten foot pile of slash yesterday. This is a pile of branches and brush left over from our wild dash to stock up firewood last fall. Anything more than an inch in diameter gets drug out and cut into lengths for firewood. These small pieces are even better than cord wood for the cooking fires. The thin branches are broken up mostly by hand and tied into bundles of kindling. The twigs are raked up and scattered on the paths. It’s a whole lot of work.

Most folks around here burn their slash, but Nick and I are (choose one):

(a) hippie environmentalists
(b) rebels who like to do everything our own way
(c) not organized enough to get our burning done before the summer burn ban
(d) all of the above

Whatever the reason, I don’t mind the work. For a thinking (over thinking) person like myself, simple work is a gift. It is a chance to ease my thoughts off the constant hamster wheel and into this moment. Right now. This one. No. This one.

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Our second summer in the yurt is so different from the first I hardly know where to begin. Our first summer we hadn’t yet buried a pipe to move our water down from the spring. Now we have a sink and a hose, not to mention a shower. Our first summer I kept a whole kitchen garden watered carrying water in buckets. I nearly killed myself doing it. This summer I have only a few greens, a bed of strawberries, and six raspberry plants, all of which I water with a hose.

Our first summer we struggled when the summer heat came on. This year the yurt is insulated. The same insulation that kept us warm in winter keeps the yurt cool at least until the early afternoon. Our solar-powered fan makes the air move a bit. And the hanging house plants help to clean the air.

Last summer we had yellow jackets. I stayed indoors more than I wanted to and kept the front door closed because of the yellow jacket plague. (Okay, it felt like a yellow jacket plague.) This summer we have birds. The same late spring frost that froze the cherry blossoms last year also devastated the serviceberries. I knew we had a few here and there but didn’t realize that we are surrounded by them. Tiny blue fruits hanging down all around us like dewdrops. The birds come and feast. My baby, Sadie, stuffs her mouth with as many as she can reach. Nobody else really likes them.

Sadie in the serviceberries

I am not the ecologist to tell you that there was no fruit and there was no birds and so there were a lot of yellow jackets. [Edit: further discussion brought up that we also pruned and cut back all those fruit trees, so maybe that had to do with fruit explosion.] Anyway, it is only July. The worst of heat and drought and the late-summer reign of insects is yet to come. But still. I was told by neighbors that every year is different, as far as what pests and which pests and how it all works. Between the weather patterns and our level of preparedness both, I would take this July over last July a hundred times.

Milo and Stella don’t like the serviceberries, but they do like the wild black raspberries. We have a gorgeous patch of them just behind the garden, and Milo can spend a happy hour out there. My domestic raspberries are on the slow boat, sadly. Only one cane actually produced this year, although I have hopes for next year. This year’s new canes are vibrant and twice as tall as the ones that dried up while I was out of town.

What most eases our feelings of failure is a focus on infrastructure rather than immediate solutions. We are grateful for the proximity to survival-level thinking, here in the woods, in the wild. It is an inspiration, to put it mildly. And yet, when we think short-term, we wear ourselves out and make little progress. Many of our grand plans from last year (the ducks, the bees, the food-producing garden) were in simple terms a failure. Or you could say a very moderate success. This second time around we are moving with more care and more deliberation. Before we put the garden in again, we’ll have the water tank above it, and now two years’ worth of adding organic material to the dusty soil. It is not the immediate gratification the wider American culture is accustomed to, but I sense that there is wisdom in this way.

Milo is happy here. He loves the solitude of the woods and can spend an hour or more sitting on the swing in the garden, just letting his imagination run. Sadie is happy where there are serviceberries and where there is water. Our big girl, Stella, misses people, and we’re considering sending her to Kindergarten (rather than home schooling her) this fall.

Nick is happiest whenever he is figuring something out: designing some original solution, some unique, ingenious plan that the world has never yet seen.

For many reasons we will continue to live on the mountain only most of the time. Work and personal needs and social needs will keep us sometimes and sometimes often away. But we will always be returning, to this home where we have put down roots in such an intentional way. And whenever I am here I am with all the people who supported us and encouraged us to take this leap…to move into a wild patch of woods and make a home here. We had little safety net and little self-knowledge, but lots of excitement and lots of love. Thank you for that. Thanks for being with us, and providing for us. Thanks for being our people.

Love,
Esther

Sometimes It Isn’t a Gold Cow: On Money, Working for Free and Christian Idolatry

Stella in the dry hay

I was devastated when I crash landed my thrilling career as a freelance theatre director. One day I was accepting awards and being complimented in the arts section of the newspaper. The next day I was a burnout: a stay at home mom with no public recognition whatsoever, and, of course, no money.

I went through the stages of grief. Denial. Anger. Eventually acceptance. These days I say — rather flippantly, I admit — that hitting bottom was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Thomas Merton: “If I had a message for my contemporaries it is surely this: be anything you like, be madmen, drunks and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success. If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live.” (h/t the life artist)

Hitting bottom taught me how to live. Losing the race put my feet underneath me. Dropping my ambitious career gave me the freedom to imagine something more authentic: a risky, countercultural lifestyle that is better for my marriage, my values and my soul.

Working for free, for both my husband and myself, has translated into freedom. 

It sounds good, doesn’t it? But here’s the bitter pill. It wasn’t working for less money that gave my husband and myself such spiritual freedom. It was living on less money. It wasn’t changing our place in the economic system. It was learning the countercultural values of peace, quiet, and rest.

Charity is a pillar of American Christian culture. That we would volunteer some portion of our time to serve others is nothing less than expected, and for good reason. It feels good to help others. It makes us feel better about the terrible inequalities and injustices of the world. It places us, we imagine, at least, on the good side of history.

But isn’t there also the moment at which you are a terrible, wonderful success at being charitable? Or perhaps you aren’t a success at being charitable, but you are trying to be? Perhaps you are working for free in monetary terms, but you are checking other boxes on the checklist of the good American Christian life…racking up the points for spirituality and generosity?

Then again, maybe you’re just interning. And working for free is paying into a fund you plan to cash out when the opportunity presents itself.

Or perhaps, and this is more common than I’d like to admit, you’re working for free because you are tracked in a category of people who work for free. Much of the female Christian blogosphere is this. We do work similar to journalists, creating content that thrills and pleases the reader, except we don’t expect pay the way that journalists do. We don’t expect pay, and we don’t get any.

Is this a spiritual practice? Or is this simply participating in a system of inequality?

I am grateful beyond measure for my philosophy of downward mobility. I was imprisoned by career ambition, and was set free. But I am also aware, as I share my experiences with others, that the tangle of social expectations is more than one layer deep. The expectation that some will work for free is a part of how our economic system works. And for the exact same reason that I celebrate my own escape from my career track ambition, I celebrate those who escape from domestic track servitude. I celebrate freedom, in the name of a God who set his people free.

Wouldn’t it be great if idolatry was only that one time we made a cow out of gold? We never do that sort of thing anymore. But there are gold cows and there are gold cows. And our love of money, appreciation of accomplishment, and obsession with work (whether paid or not) are things with horns.

I wrote this post for The High Calling community project on “Working For Free.” That conversation is here

Off the Grid With Kids Q&A: How Do You Survive Without Indoor Plumbing?

shower revised

I told you a few months ago that I was going to do a series answering the questions that I ALWAYS get about my off-grid lifestyle. But then I was like “Just kidding, I’m going to go live in an apartment for two months.” Now I have done that and survived it, and now I am back at the yurt, picking up the series again because I still get all the same questions. Here’s another installment.

Do you have indoor plumbing? 

No. We are not connected to a municipal water source or a waste water system or pipes of any kind.

Where do you get your water?

We have a natural spring. A great deal of effort was made (not by us, this was before we lived here) to build concrete underground storage tanks, which contain the spring water and keep it clean. In the non-frozen months, we can use gravity to move the water to a sink outside our yurt and to a hose for the garden. In the frozen months I have to carry it down in 5 gallon containers, about 400 feet, but all downhill.

Is your water safe to drink? 

Yes. We have had it tested multiple times. When we first arrived there was a small amount of coliform bacteria in the water. We used a very fancy filter to make it safe for drinking. But after several months of letting the water flow it tested clean. We still use a sediment filter for our drinking water. But that isn’t a safety issue.

Where do you go to the bathroom? 

We have an outhouse that is about twenty feet away from the yurt.

Does your outhouse smell bad?

No. Actually, it doesn’t. There are a couple of design features and a couple of best practices that make our outhouse as pleasant as any indoor bathroom  (but for the air temperature, which is another issue for another day.) One design feature is that there is an air tight seal between the pit and the room, if the lid is closed. The other is that the pit is vented with a black pipe, which heats up in sunlight and creates an air current, basically a naturally powered fan that keeps air moving in the pit. Our best practices are that there is no paper or trash of any kind in the pit, and that we constantly add carbon to balance the nitrogen, in this case in the form of sawdust.

Do we use the outhouse at night?

We do go outside at night, yes. But usually we take the dog with us. And it isn’t a part of our routine. We send the kids to the bathroom before dark (sometimes this is linked to the chickens going up to roost). By luck or strategy, or some combination of these, I rarely have to carry a kid outside during the night. It does happen, but not very often.

Do you have a shower?

Yes. Our outdoor shower is epic and gorgeous. Y’all don’t know what you’re missing. 

Do you use the outdoor shower even in the winter?

Yes. I learned that I am comfortable showering outside (with water heated on a propane burner plus a wonderful warm towel) down to about 20 degrees. Some days it is colder than 20 degrees. On those days I don’t shower. It isn’t worth it. Also, I did cut my hair short so my outdoor showers aren’t very long. But in retrospect I don’t think that made very much difference.

How do you keep the kids clean? 

I boil water twice a day. In the morning a pot of hot water does the coffee and the oatmeal and the hot water for everybody’s faces and hands. In the evening a pot of hot water does the dishes (sometimes more coffee or tea) and everybody’s face and hands again. In the summer we have cold (warm-ish in the daytime) water flowing freely in the sink. I use wet wipes and hand sanitizer when appropriate. In summer we go swimming a lot and play with water from a tub or from the sink. In the winter we don’t get as dirty and don’t bathe as often. But it is also true that my kids are often very dirty. Honestly, of all the things they could be into, I think mountain dirt is not so bad.

Are you going to install plumbing eventually? 

Mmm…never say never, but certainly not soon. We have other things to do. Children to raise. Lumber to mill. Food to grow.


So…that’s not so crazy, is it? Right? Feel free to ask other questions. The installment on communication and internet use is here. Thanks for reading!

And We Have a Cherry Tree

In our first year on our land, we had a hard freeze in May. All the blossoms fell from our one fruit tree, which was sorry looking anyway. Damaged at the trunk by elk, and one whole side of it was dead and dried up. I wasn’t even sure at the time what kind of tree it was. We did keep thinking we would research it, but who has time? With life to do? And, truly, the distractions.

But we did prune our unknown fruit tree. And gave it an extra deep soaking in the early fall when we first hooked up our hose. Then we forgot about it.

We came back to our yurt last night after almost two months away. The whole place is overgrown and bubbling over with life. Potatoes in the compost bin. Grass knee-high in the meadow. The kids ran from place to place taking it all in. But I first saw the cherries.

And we have a cherry tree.

Thank you, cherry tree. Thank you for this. For the hope of restoration. And for healing. And for the painful beauty that things can grow again.

cherry