Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."


Goodness is a vision
     A happy person is like a garden

Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.
Proverbs 29:18

I suppose the purpose of our life is to find our way back to the garden, where we are told we began. In the beginning, we did not need to care for the garden–it was a gift. So it wasn’t really ours. We couldn’t stay there, except at the cost of never being fully human.

The way back to the garden is to create it around us. Then it will be ours, and we will be able to keep it because we understand it.

When God finished creating the earth, he said that it was good. What did he mean by that? I’ve been thinking quite a lot about what “goodness” means, or how to talk intelligibly about what it means, because I meet a lot of young people these days who do not have any very useful understanding of what it means, who are not even sure it is something they should want.

They often confuse “goodness” with obeying a list of rules. This is understandable, since teaching an understanding of goodness often includes teaching rules.

But goodness is something much larger and more important than a list of rules. Mainly, it is a vision of the world as it has been and can be, a vision of people living in all the little and big ways that support happiness. Fully realized, the vision is a vast and complex ecological order, quite beyond the comprehension of children.

And so with children we teach little rules that both preserve the order and make visible its principles. Our rules are not meant to deprive our children of freedom. Quite the opposite–they are meant to be the stepping stones that keep us out of the cold, swirling forces we traverse moment by moment and that lead us to freedom.

When our children were small, exploring the world with hands and mouth, my wife and I kept a philodendron on the coffee table. For a time the poor plant got dumped on the floor or had its leaves torn off before we could intervene. Over and over we gently stopped little hands and said “No!” It would have been easier, no doubt, to simply to move the plant out of reach until the children were older, but that would be a controller’s strategy–to turn our home into a huge cocoon in which everything was either child-proof or out of.

Sure, we put cleaning solvents, prescription medicines, and other items that could cause genuine danger out of reach, but the philodendron was sacrificed to an ideal: it is better to awaken children than to pad the rooms where they are sleepwalking. And what we awaken them to is the order that surrounds them, which is the order of our lives, which is our best approximation so far of our vision of goodness.

So it was that we would sometimes encounter a gleeful daughter wildly shredding the leaves of our forlorn-looking philodendron. Such actions are teaching opportunities. So when a lightly slapped my daughter’s hand and said “No!” what did I want her to learn?

Obviously, I would have been disappointed if she had learned that plants are never to be touched, though from her child’s perspective that must at first have seemed to be my intent. In fact, I wanted her to learn things she could not then understand. “Thou shalt not touch the philodendron” was a little rule that didn’t express our final will. Rather, it was a means to a deeper law that might be expressed “Thou shalt respect living things,” or “Thou shalt live in a house of order.” And beyond these laws was a higher reality: “Thou shalt love plants.”

What we really wanted was for our children to learn to live in a garden, which is to say we wanted them to understand the earth and the processes of life, and we wanted them to care for the world in wise ways. We wanted them to recognize and desire goodness.

That’s quite a bit to learn. So let’s start with simple things: don’t touch the philodendron. We knew our daughter would question the rule, and we knew that as her questioning spirit became more mature, our answers, both implicit and explicit, would lead her toward understanding what we really wanted. Soon, we allowed her to help with such tasks as watering the plant. As she grew, we negotiated with her, gradually increasing her responsibilities and freedom to keep pace with her understanding.

In time the philodendron rule became irrelevant as she learned that plants not only could be touched, but they could be pruned, re-potted, fertilized and enjoyed. Beyond the philodendron rule lay profound principles, more difficult to understand but more liberating to live. Beyond the philodendron rule lay all the principles of wisdom, which are identical with the principles of goodness.

Wise traditions teach goodness by giving rules, because life is complicated in much the way ecosystems are complicated, and inexperienced people are likely to make decisions that damage or destroy their chances at happiness without understanding the long-term consequences of what they do. Good rules help keep people safe while they are still learning how life works.

The rules of morality are guidelines to long-term practicality. In many cases, they are summaries of centuries of experience about what sorts of actions tend toward misery, and of what sorts of actions contribute to happiness.

Goodness is closely related to wisdom, since happiness in this world will be fleeting unless our thoughts and actions are in harmony with the way things really are.

“Truth” is our name for such harmony.

A happy life is similar to a garden–it is a thing of beauty made out of the materials of this life, arranged in harmony with both the laws of science and the principles of beauty. It is an emblem of care, and an embodiment of joy. It includes a long history of things learned and remembered, and a long future of things desired and hoped.

It is here. It is now.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2010 Michael L. Umphrey

We are stronger, wiser for having read James Welch
     Re-reading "Fools Crow"

Through the summer I have been re-reading James Welch’s books, because there were things there I wanted to feel again and think about some more. I wanted to continue being taught by this gifted writer. We have many books about the individual pursuit of success and significance. We have fewer that explore the practical and spiritual realities of belonging. Of these, we have none better than Fools Crow.

Montana is at a critical juncture, and we have all sorts of important decisions to make that will have ramifications long into the future. At such times, nothing is more useful than the right stories, because the right stories educate our desires. Our best writers teach us what we need to consider to live well, and James Welch stands among our best writers.

At the beginning of Fools Crow, the young man who has not yet earned his name is longing for a vision and a song that he cannot find. But he believes in visions, and he desires one. Desire supports him, sustains him, and guides him through all manner of trouble.

The book is a story about the education of that desire. Fools Crow lives at a time of great change, when learning is critically important. The old ways are beginning not to work. His people are facing fundamental choices. Though the destiny of the people as a whole is at stake, all the choices must be made by persons, one by one.

Some turn their backs on their people, choosing the adventure of pursuing individual rewards. Fools Crow’s childhood friend, Fast Horse, chooses to set out on his own, and in so choosing looks back on the village. It has come to look small and insignificant in the blue snowfield. As he moves farther and farther away, Fast Horse comes to despise the old economy of his people--its rewards seem too hard-earned and meager. “The thought of hunting, of accumulating robes, of the constant search for meat seemed pointless to him. There were easier ways of gaining wealth.”

The new economy offers easier money, but its cost is that he must renounce his family’s values. He can no longer be among them, even when he sits his horse at their Sun Dance. At one point, while searching for him to ask him to return, Fools Crow understands what attracts him. It was freedom from responsibility, from accountability to the group. . .As long as one thought of himself as part of the group, he would be responsible to and for that group. If one cut the ties, he had the freedom to roam, to think only of himself and not worry about the consequences of his actions.

We see that Fast Horse’s freedom is full of deception. His actions become increasingly desperate, until he and his comrades provoke the retaliation known to history as the Baker Massacre, where nearly 200 of his people were killed by the U.S. Army.

The last we see of Fast Horse, he is riding north toward whiskey country, toward the companionship of solitary men and the faint comfort of prostitutes, as lonely and hopeless as Boone Caudill in A. B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky or the regulars at the White Sulphur Springs bars in Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky.

Though Fools Crow also desires some of the benefits of the new economy, such as a many-shots rifle, and though he too tries to figure out what adjustments he needs to make, he decides--not once and for all but over and over through crisis after crisis--to face these troubles in ways that keep his family and his tribesmen together. He submits himself to the demands and worries and disciplines of living fully with other people.

Even when he acts against a violent man who is stalking his wife, he goes directly to the council of old men and relates the story in its entirety, so they can discuss it and come to agreement about what it means and what they should do. He submits himself to judgment. His self-defense affects the community and thus requires community deliberation and judgment. Through arguments and stories, various individuals and subgroups slowly negotiate their way toward a temporary understanding. It is not clear but it is all they can do and, doing it together, it is enough.

Fools Crow learns and teaches that the important thing is not winning honors or gaining wealth. The important thing is staying together. Because of this, it is not his honors or his accomplishments as a warrior that come to matter to him. Rather, it is his fulfillment of his roles as husband, son, father, and friend. He comes to assess himself as a blackhorn hunter, a provider of meat and skins, nothing more. But again, it is enough.

Welch helps us see that beyond the realm where horses go lame, where warriors miscalculate, and where violent intruders enter one’s lodge at night lies another realm--which we first learn of only through stories told by those who have visited it. In this realm, despite sorrow and heartache, we catch insights that help us understand things are as they should be.

I imagine that James Welch as a young man dreamed, like Fools Crow, of finding a vision and a song. He did find them.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

The best thing about living in a garden

Bryce, Jenna and Daij.

On a church blog a few days ago, people were wondering whether it were doctrine that people should have a garden. I don’t know, but it does seem to me that we are meant to live in a garden. Living in a garden is quite different from having one. It may be the destiny of human beings that they come to understand that earth is their garden.

For now, five acres gives me plenty to think about. Though most of my effort goes into flowering plants, we do grow some things for the kitchen--tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, peppers, peas, beans, pumpkins and potatoes.

The thing I like best in my garden, though, is grandkids. Here Bryce, Jenna and Daij harvest some potatoes. I get more pleasure out of their discovery of the wonders of nature than I do out of the food itself.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Paying the piper: fragmented families cost billions
     The good life and the market state

In the old republic of virtue we had moral crusades to try to get people to do the right things for the right reasons. In the new market state in which we more and more live, moral crusades seem too, well, moralistic.

So we get economic crusades. We are lectured not about the content of our character, but about how our actions impact the public purse.

Though it’s never been hard to see the connection between good marriages and the good life, those people whose attention has been on other things, such as fighting the threat of morality (judgmentalism} in the public discourse, may still believe that such practices as divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing are merely private matters.

They would be mistaken. The market state is also a nanny state. As more of your behavior can be tracked through the miracle of computing, many things that were once in the private real have become public. If you over-indulge your fondness for hot fudge sundaes, for example, you increase your chances of saddling your neighbors with the medical costs of treating your obesity or diabetes, and we can track just how much your indulgence is likely to cost us.

So now we have moral crusades about fast food. The school where I work just paid all staff members $25 to complete a risk assessment survey. This survey allows the health insurance company to target specific interventions to people who are at risk of increasing medical costs for the group. It’s all quite voluntary and pleasant, for now. As with all modern bureaucracies, they speak as though they care about me, but their presentation led off with lots of charts about how some bad habits are affecting the bottom line.

In the market state, the only measure we have in common is dollars. So it makes good sense that a new report calculates the financial costs associated with divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing to be $112 billion per year. Georgia State University economist Ben Scafidi completed the study with sponsorship by the Institute for American Values, the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, Families Northwest of Redmond, and the Georgia Family Council, an ally of Focus on the Family.

“Marriage is more than a moral or social institution,” according to the study. “It is also an economic one, a generator of social and human capital, especially when it comes to children.” The figures will be unsurprising to ordinary people. Most people try to organize their own lives around stable marriages, understanding that this has obvious practical as well as spiritual benefits.

The practical and spiritual are not, after all, unrelated. In his important essay ”Discipline and Hope,” Wendell Berry shows some of the linkages between moral values and ecological values and economic values. “Morality is long-term practicality,” he concludes.

Unfortunately, we now live with millions of people who feel empowered to make up their own rules when it comes to morality. Unsurpisingly, many of them make costly mistakes. Fortunately, most of them remain very interested in money. Therefore, we share enough common ground to permit a conversation to continue.

Because talking about money is safer and easier than talking about morality, I expect more and more conversations about such topics as casual sex and cohabitation to be grounded in dollar talk.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Living or artificial?
     Are Christmas trees green?

A few of us head out in search of the
perfect tree. This year, all five of children
managed to make it to this annual tradition,
along with their spouses and seventeen
of the eighteen children. The eighteenth
grandchild is fifteen, so sometimes other
obligations seem more important to her
than yet another family gathering.

Sometimes I’m even more glad than others that years ago Valerie and decided to live in a small town near family rather than near career opportunities. This morning I came across an article in the
Washington Post pondering whether people should put up living Christmas trees or artificial ones. Well, “pondering” is actually too impressive a word. Fiddling with the concept would be more accurate.

I do worry though that such fiddling too often passes for thinking among many of us--judging by the detritus of modernity that fills my own inbox each day. There seem to be a lot of people quite busy with not much.

At a superficial level, the question might seem a touch one. On one hand, a living tree gets chopped down. But on the other, most artificial trees are made of nonbiodegradable plastics and metal in China. Cutting a tree. Oh my! Contributing to nonbiodegradable mountains. How awful!

From where I live, no such dilemma appears. Each year, my family gathers to cut our trees on a piece of property purchased by my wife’s father decades ago. The land is in the foothills of the Mission Mountains, more than a mile above the nearest county road. Some years, just getting in there is a challenge. This year there was snow, but it was a sunny day with temperatures above freezing. Stunning.

If any of us had more time or resources to devote to managing the forty acres, we would somewhat aggressively thin the trees, cutting thousands of competing fir and pine and spruce and leave healthy trees spaced every fourteen feet or so. We’d select the trees we left for general health and to preserve the mix of conifers that have grown there as long as anyone knows. I’ve done quite a lot of such thinning in the past, in much the same spirit as I thin carrots once they have sprouted, leaving only as many as can flourish. In any case, we don’t imagine our taking of a few trees is harming the planet.

Many years ago I cut some trees to sell at this same property. I was a first year teacher and Valerie and I were quite poor. It seemed we could either tighten our belts at Christmas or do something to get some more money. We drove a few hundred miles home, spent one day cutting and bunching 500 trees to load on our 1956 4x4 GMC (I loved that truck) and then we drove back to eastern Montana where I worked (and where trees were more scarce). We sold all the trees out of our front yard, charging $1.50/foot. Most trees were seven or eight feet tall.

The removal of 500 trees wasn’t noticeable, but the little difference it made was an improvement, helping the forest renew itself more quickly. Crowded trees can’t grow very fast.

None of which interests me much.

What interests me is the family tradition of going to that place to get our trees each year. We do it on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. We started when Valerie and I had three small children. We’ve done it every year since. This year, there were twenty-seven of us. For a few hours we spread out through the mountains, the toddlers staying near parents and the older kids going sledding on the ungroomed hill that bounds the property on the north. Our kids, who are young adults with families of their own can’t remember not doing it, and their kids experience it as a huge festival involving all their cousins who, for these kids, are nearly as well-known as their siblings.

As it gets dark, we leave the hills and gather back at the homestead for chili. Well, this year it was clam chowder. I usually make the chili, but my son-in-law, Dev, made chili for everyone the day before to serve at his oldest son’s birthday party, where we all gathered. So, chowder. The key to keeping traditions going is being flexible. In fact, several people didn’t even get trees this year. My youngest son cut some fire wood, which he needed at the moment more than a tree, and my oldest daughter, who had a two-month old baby riding in a pack, seemed content to just wander through the woods with us, enjoying the day.

Until a few years ago, most Christmas trees were harvested from wild forests. Today, nearly all commercial Christmas trees are grown on tree farms, where trees are continually planted and harvested. Buying all those trees keeps the land planted to trees, albeit small ones, and it keeps a lot of people working on the land, which I take as a very good thing.

It seems sad to me that about half the trees out there this year will be fake. Perhaps the time will come when my family, too, will switch to synthetic trees, which will for a while try to create echoes of the sort of memories I am rich with. If that time comes, I will indeed face a dilemma, but it won’t have much to do with worry about landfills.

Instead, I will be thinking about how to create new traditions that link family members across generations in reliable moments of togetherness. What else is Christmas for? (Hat tip: Garden Rant)

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2007 Michael L. Umphrey

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