Sunday, 31 December 2017

The Delightful Blues

I have loved the blues since I graduated from high school.  I think I just realized why.

I don't mean to be melodramatic.  My life is good and fortunate; nothing like the lives of those who wrote the original blues songs.  Moreover, the blues is not a simple wallowing in one's troubles.

Some blues songs are sad; some are happy.  But the divers moods of blues are characteristically expressed through 1) a soulful call and response of voice and instruments, 2) a driving rhythm.

I hear this as an expression of spit and vinegar in response to divers life-circumstances.

The call and response is like our real-life wrestling with our circumstances.  The persistence of the rhythm is like our underlying will to persevere.  Taken together, the blues thus evokes a flexible tenacity, rather than a rigidity, in the face of life's troubles.  In this way, it gives expression to how we must be affected by what we face in life, yet how we can always choose to persevere in the face of what life gives us.  We cannot be a pillar.  But we can be a willow.

That is not all.  The blues sounds good because there is a delight in the music.  I think the reason blues can sound like wallowing to some is that it recognizes that we are not in control.  Perseverance will not always translate to victory.  We all have real difficulties and weaknesses and, anyway, none of us are God.  Blues embraces the fact that we cannot save ourselves or even the people we love.  But it is not a wallowing.  To have delight in life in the face of one's troubles requires a perspective that allows you to get outside it.  My favourite blues always evokes some such perspective in the sheer delight squeezed out of every note.

Let me move beyond blues music a bit.  We are not God, but if Jesus is God then there is reason to take delight in our trouble.  In my experience, one part of the required perspective is knowing that we are doing our best to follow his way.  Things might not seem fair and we may not succeed in every good pursuit.  Furthermore, we have to be humble about how much we are really following Jesus.  We could easily be deceiving ourselves and before God we are all equal.

But, with this in mind, making a few steps in this direction is to enter an adventure.  To defeat resentment in a key moment, to succeed in having a bit of real love for someone, is to act as a character in this adventure.  Our trouble does not go away, but slowly a sense begins to grow in us that this trouble is a part of a fully human life.

It's an adventure and we don't know what will happen.  But we are in the fight.  Even in circumstances that are awful in many ways, this allows us to feel delight: in the call and response, in the rhythm of our tenacity.

Now why don't lets delight in hearing SRV wrestle mightily with the flooding down in Texas.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

My Work Three Months Later: Beauty and Growing Pains

It has now been three and a half months since I arrived here at the Dandelion Community, and three months since my first reflection on my work.  So much has happened; it feels like a lot longer!  

Here is a bit of what I have been up to, and some reflection on it.

Teaching English

Since finishing Korean classes at the end of October, I've been teaching conversational English twice a week.  Every class, I organize the lesson around a "speech act," that is, something you do with language, like promise or warn or congratulate.  I've been teaching students expressions used in everyday English to perform or describe each speech act.  I have a short lecture, followed by activities and games.  I have a lot to learn about teaching English, but I think I hit upon a good way to organize a class about conversational English, and the students seem to enjoy it.

Preparing Fields

Dr. Kim has come up with plans for how to use Dandelion's land.  There will be two large fields devoted to farming potatoes and soy beans which will be sold to Dandelion's customers.  There will be one field full of garden boxes that students will manage individually to learn about farming and to grow their own food.  Finally, Dr. Kim wants to make the field we use to grow food for the community "the most beautiful garden in Korea," by arranging flowers among the crops.  The beauty is supposed to attract people to the community, as well as creating a space for them to rest, reflect and, ultimately, become a part of Dandelion's larger mission of simple living and helping the rural poor.

I've taken on the job of clearing the fields of weeds in preparation for all this.  It is something I know how to do and which I can do to fill my day in-between other work.  It is inspiring to me to have my work be directed toward this end and become a part of the beauty of this place.

Peculiar Beauty

Sometimes I feel like I am living in a painting.  The Dandelion Community is at the bottom of a narrow valley surrounded by high serried hills.   Fields and persimmon orchards cover the valley and parts of the hills, which also have many wooded areas.  There is a village nearby with small, traditional Korean houses. 

It is now late Autumn, and the blanket of greenery that covered everything in Summer has given way to a duskier, more variegated scene. The luscious plant-life on the valley floor, which grew even over buildings, has died or been harvested, turning everything different shades of yellow and brown.  The green arrowroot that smothered the hills has dried up, revealing the more restrained palette of pine, bamboo and by-now-bare deciduous trees.  Nearby persimmon trees dangle their bright fruits against the pale blue sky, as magpies flit quickly through the cold air in anfractuous, arcing lines.  At night, the the dark forms of houses frame the stars, and the moon is visible through the crooked branches of trees.

The beauty is so particular, so boldly peculiar: the abundance of the vegetation, the angles of interlocking branches, the movement of the stars and moon.  It's like a great painting or piece of music.  Great artwork also has this beauty-through-bold-particularity, like, for example, Bach's melodic lines.  Only later, through familiarity, does the beauty come to seem less peculiar and more iconic.

Sustaining and Transcendent Beauty

In some ways, though, this place does not feel like a painting.  For example, I could not spend a lifetime in a painting without growing tired of it, yet I do not think I would ever grow tired of the beauty of this place.  I can appreciate great art again and again, over many years.  Yet not even the greatest of human art can I appreciate continuously without taking a break from it.  But the beauty of this place is such that I would not grow tired of it. 

I have thought the same about the forests of British Columbia.

This is beauty that transcends and so sustains life.  It remains constant irrespective of what is going on with me: my successes and failures, my hopes and anxieties.  Beholding it, therefore, is a way to transcend myself and, in Wendell Berry's phrase, "rest in the grace of the world."

Some Growing Pains Being In Community

For this reason, beauty, along with friendship, is a part of my experience for which I am especially thankful.  This is all the more true because of some of the anxieties I've had as I learn better how to work in community.

One of my anxieties has come from realizing I am not wholly well-adapted to a simple, community lifestyle.  It has certainly been useful for me to know how to do labour work well.  However, living here has made me realize that who I am and what I have learned has been shaped by my privileged life in modern Canadian society.  I sometimes feel a little useless.  In particular, skills bound up with the use of the English language and manipulation of concepts, which I have developed in my life, do not appear to be very much use in making a concrete contribution to the community.  I feel lacking in practical know-how having to do with cooking, growing food, and the complexity of relationships that make up community life.  

I am improving slowly, and coming to realize that having weaknesses is OK.  Living in community  means trusting others for basic things like food, health and good relationships.  So, being in community also means being vulnerable to how well others are doing in their own walks.  As far as food and health, there is no danger of not being taken care of here.  Yet there is indeed a spiritual battle to be fought to maintain trust in others to treat you well and to not consider your weaknesses a burden.  If you do not maintain this trust, or others break it, it is all too easy to be tempted with the usual list of vices: jealousy, pride and resentment being near the top of the list.

Some Growing Pains Working In Community

Another anxiety comes from having a schedule that is largely self-regulated.  I get occasional direction and feedback, but, within the framework of regular duties, I often decide how to spend my time.  I set rules for myself and try to keep busy.  I do this partly from love of the work and partly because I would make myself miserable if I were not busy.

I think I have done fairly well at this, but sometimes I am uncertain.  To be honest, it has been disorientating to not have a regular work day followed by personal time.  Some of my anxieties are about whether I am working enough, whether I am around the community enough, how well I am doing my work, whether others consider all the work I am doing as a valuable contribution to the community.  

I also worry that seeing my work through the lens of my previous jobs may be leading me to disproportionately emphasize things like showing up on time and working hard over against things like participating in community activities where I do not contribute anything in particular, like when students go on special trips.  I have tended to choose to stay home during these outings in order to do other work or to rest.

Having this lens also creates a greater risk of under-appreciating, and, God forbid, even resenting fellow workers when they do not live up to the standards I have set for my own work.  This circumstance has meant working on questioning my own presuppositions about work, and, in addition, trying on some humility and the wisdom to know that God gives his children different gifts and different ways to serve him.

Being and Doing

Many SALT assignment descriptions warn potential SALTers that their assignment may turn out to be more about "being" than "doing."  That is, to live well with yourself, with God, and with those around you may be a more important part of your work than accomplishing projects whose good effects are immediately visible and measurable. Such warning is thought to be necessary because the West tends to over-emphasize the value of "getting things done" and under-emphasize "being with others."

Let me use the framework of being vs. doing to conclude this reflection on my work.  In the end, I think both my anxieties -- about being a good community member and doing good work -- are founded in real concerns.

On the one hand, I do need to learn better habits of "being," and some of my ideas about the value of "getting things done" need to be questioned.  Things under the heading of being -- the beauty of the world, friendship, living justly with the poor, and peacefully with enemies -- are indeed what my time here, and life in general, is all about.  Sometimes I am forgetful of this as I busily do things for my own reasons, or when I worry in a selfish way about my own lack of ability.

On the other hand, I know that work directed at a good end and performed with competence is a part of human flourishing, and that being lazy is not an option.  I want to work as hard and as well as if I were earning a wage.  As far as I'm concerned, if I did not do this, it would be a refutation of what this year is supposed to be about.  I am not here to complete an exercise in useless idealism.  I am here to try to figure out how, in a community like Dandelion, good work, done in the cause of things like beauty, love and justice, can be a reality.