Betty Duffy

Thursday, February 3, 2011

On Modernity and Questions of How to Live

I left home for the storm. We don't have a fireplace, and I had been warned by many concerned relatives that we were in a dangerous position should we lose power with the approaching ice storm and subsequent below freezing temperatures. Everyone gets excited about a storm, the weathermen, grandparents, my four-year-old. Even I felt invigorated with a delightful sense of new purpose.

Storms are an event, a call to action, in which the rightful occupations of one's time are self-evident. There are things to do in preparation: wash everybody's hair in anticipation of days without water, go to the store for trail mix and bananas, charge the batteries, fill the tanks. I did all those things, and then, since my husband had pneumonia and longed for quiet sleep, I piled the kids in the car and went to my parents' house. My husband assured me that when and if the power went out, he would join us there. They have two fireplaces, and lots more space for stir-crazy kids.

Tuesday morning we awoke to a world encased in ice. Like opening up a geode or a jewel box, so we took the kids for a walk down in the lower field and up through the woods. The air was surprisingly mild and our boots broke through even the ice-glazed cowpie like the sugary crust of a crème brulée.

My husband, fever averted and by afternoon, sufficiently bored with our quiet house, drove on out to my parents' and we toasted the remainder of the day with hot chocolate, books, and chicken noodle soup. It was one of the better February afternoons in recent memory. And the icing on the cake: after we cleared the table, but before the washing up, the power went out--the moment for which we'd been waiting. We gleefully lit the oil lamps and nearly every candle in the house, and sat down on the couch, listening to the wind. Now what?

It was time for pioneer stuff.

Sometimes my husband and I play Euchre with my parents, but the old-timey movies and Little House on the Prairie episodes really deceive viewers about the amount of light a few oil lamps and candles provide. One lamp might provide light for one reader--but it doesn't illuminate a room, so my mom read some Cautionary Tales to the children, we said the Rosary, and then we went to bed, not much after eight o'clock.

My husband and I slept on the pull out couch by the wood stove--children nearby under heavy comforters. Every two hours, someone had to put a log on the fire to keep the house warm--and I passed a large portion of the night reading Gilead by lamplight.

On the following day, there was less sun. We heated water on top of the stove for instant coffee, which I must admit was terrible. Throughout the morning, people carried buckets from the bathtub to the upstairs toilets where gravity did the flushing. We washed our faces with baby wipes. My dad brought in more wood. And getting fidgety, the kids started to fight with one another.

I have always harbored fantasies about moving off the grid, becoming self-sufficient, embracing a more difficult way of life. It's one of those fantasies that floats in an evanescent halo of unreality, in which I always appreciate life's beauties and bounties because they have been hard-won by the toil of my own hands. See the wisp of hair fall out of her bun as she churns the butter. See the children assist their father with the milking. See the family gather around the fire in the evening with a banjo to sing songs about dewy meadows and broken hearts.

As my father said, living without power is fun for about twenty-four hours. But after jigsaw puzzle and book, after roasting hotdogs in the living room for lunch, after half-dozen arguments with the kids about keeping out of one another's space--there's not much more to do than wait. For a moment, I recognized the fulfillment of a dream of simpler living and forced togetherness, and I felt just as superfluous as I do in my ordinary life.

The other night in the car, NPR broadcast a talk show called "Humankind." I'm not one to change the dial when soothing disembodied voices talking about religious experience come roiling out of the ether. It was an encore broadcast of an interview with a long-dead Taoist from Kansas. He talked about the symbol of the yin yang and how being is a flow of opposites, light/dark, rest/work, etc.

I think this is a concept that the Church and Christianity decidedly "gets," considering liturgical cycles of fasting and feasting, and the elevation of suffering in the work of redemption. I know it's the conclusion I'm supposed to reach after being forced to live without--that modernity has its perks and I'm as dependent on them as the next person, that systematic and voluntary deprivation, abstinence, in short, makes the heart grow fonder. I already knew all that.

Midway through my life's journey--I'm faced with a question I didn't know I'd be asking at this stage in the game, because it's a question to which I thought I knew the answer. After addressing relatively early in life Whom I would worship and what parameters would apply to my life because of that decision, I still at times find myself wondering exactly how I should live. Certain decisions I've placed in the hands of God, like "How many kids will we have?" and "How will we sustain them?" Those central questions have been answered, for today.

Now it's the relative trivialities of life that baffle me, like "Is how I'm spending my time worthy use of a finite life?" Is it enough to spend my free time reading books and writing a blog? Should I spend another afternoon baking cookies for my precious babies when other mothers have been forced to sell their children into slavery in order to survive?

I've been told that one should never ask for suffering because life supplies plenty of suffering without our asking for it--but that has not been my experience. My life is easy; and my suffering, if truly I have any, is typically the result of my gluttony. Sure I have the responsibility of rearing these five children, but I'm not the first woman to have children in a difficult culture with discouraging spiritual odds. My greatest challenge in a day's work is to find ways to move against the current of an otherwise blissed-out life. I often do so with arbitrary conflict and self-seeking.

I could shut off the power in our house; I could get a goat and milk it; I could play Parcheesi in the dark every night with my kids; I could find a million ways to add more work to my life without adding intrinsic meaning. Mine is a life marked by abundance and blessing--with or without electricity--and I feel convicted, for the time being, that I need not ask for suffering so much as I should freely do penance in efforts to add a little more yang to my life. Systematic and voluntary deprivation, not only make the heart grow fonder, but they are a balm for the burden of having been so blessed that deprivation is a little fiction I create for myself.


Shorty said...

Yes, you read books and write a blog, and maybe life isn't particularly "hard" for you, but you also inspire others through your writing and your knowledge. Sounds like you're doing okay. :)

Karly said...

Wow. And amen to what Shorty said above.

Peter and Nancy said...

You've just described many of the reasons I feel irritated with those who seem to feel virtuous about *choosing* the so-called simpler life. The mere fact that we have the choice removes much of the virtue. When I think of my adopted children's birthparents, I sometimes feel guilty that their life circumstances made it impossible to raise another child. While I'm watching my kids grow, I often wonder how their birthparents are doing.

Julia said...

For many years I wondered at God's response to Moses request for his name with "I AM who I am". It seemed really strange. But as I've grown older I've realized that so much of life is about growing into being as Julia as God created me to be.

In those times when I'm not quite sure what God wants next, or whether I'm doing enough, I revert to a very simple prayer: Just make it clear, Lord. I'm willing to do what You want, stretch how You want me to stretch, give what You want me to give. But I'm kind of dense, and easily distracted, and overly attracted to foolish uses of my time. So please, when You want me to pivot or shift directions, make it clear.

Often a week or two later, a hunk of rock falls from the sky and flattens me. Other times, nothing. YMMV.

mrsdarwin said...

Well, people did plenty of sinning in the days before electricity and hot showers, so I don't think that lack of technology automatically leads to virtue. Also, rusticity does not equal simplicity -- it's vastly more complicated to get simple tasks done when everything is manual and all the water heated over the fire place.

I sometimes wrestle with the fact that I live an easier and more cushy life than most royalty throughout history, but on the other hand, these are the circumstances that God has placed me in. The thing that nags at me is that I really ought to live a life of greater discipline against the day when discipline is a necessity, not a luxury.

el-e-e said...

I've often marveled at exactly how blessed I am - I think most of us have - but the way you put it here is poetry. I am anxious to read this post again and again, and get even more out of it each time. Thank you.

Living for the Lord in 2011 said...

Beautifully written...

Timeless truths...

karyn said...

Maybe the thing is to not get too attached to our conveniences and luxuries, to continue to give thanks to God for them, and to share them with others as much as we can. Give thanks that you can bake cookies for your children - and then bake some extras for the women working at the pregnancy center or the firefighters down the road. This isn't directed at you - I struggle with this all the time.

Anonymous said...

Nancy (of Peter and Nancy) -- my 5 yr old, adopted from India, has started watching the videos we have of her that were taken in her orphanage. She doesn't remember any other life, and takes everything she has now for granted (as she should, of course). But I was struck a few days ago as she was watching her video and suddenly asked "is that my birthday party?" She just had a birthday here, but I don't know know what in the video made her think of that. No birthday parties in India for her or any members of her family. Nothing but the most extreme poverty. As far as my daughter is concerned, life is all about having birthday parties. So very strange to think about what her life would be like if she had not been abandoned.

Enbrethiliel said...


When I was younger, power was rationed where I lived and everyone expected the power to be cut for several hours every night. Sometimes it happened in the early evening, sometimes a few hours before dawn, sometimes anywhere in the middle. It was nothing to compare to what you had with all that ice, but it helps me get your meaning.

It was also not much fun (The dark was easy to stand, but not the heat), and the only thing I ever got out of it was the ability to hold a stoic expression when splashed with hot wax and a healthy fear of the dark.

Your post also reminds me of Madeleine L'Engle's Meet the Austins. This fictional family--based very strongly on her own--expects at least one big storm a year to cut their power and force them "to rough it" for a couple of days. I can't recall if she comes up with any meaningful reflections (and anyway, her narrator is about twelve years old), but I do remember the same optimistic sense of adventure at the hint of a big storm and the inevitable weariness after it has worn out its welcome.

TS said...

Cut & paste from the journal: (I can't believe Betty Duffy feels superfluous, she a mother of five kids! I'm the one who should/does feel that way, given how my much less important role in the Body of Christ. It was really eye-opening, although I think part of it is just that she feels (understandably) like she's underachieving given her talent in the writing department.)

berenike said...

It's more of a hassle if you're not set up for being cut off. Last time I spent -35 celsius without electricity, I was in a little house with a stove set up for heating and cooking, and an outside bog (that took a little bravery, but it was ok). It wasn't much different to living in the same house with electricity. We just carried on much as usual - I moved into a different place to sleep, and we left a door open into the little room someone else slept in, usually heated with an additional electric heater, and we did go to sleep an hour or so earlier. Other than that, life just went on as normal. Having to milk cows etc would be a hassle, but then, there are people for whom cooking with actual vegetables with actual dirt on them is practically cave man territory.

BettyDuffy said...

Nancy, A friend of mine married a man from a third world country. He came here for school, had success in business, and when they had kids, and my friend wanted to cloth diaper--he thought she was crazy. Why would anyone--who has a choice--choose to live like a pauper? He had worked very hard so that she wouldn't have to experience the poverty from which he came. It seems like a great mystery that some people are spared extreme suffering while others are doomed to it even before their birth. Makes me think it's our responsibility to avoid it, if we are able, and to lift others out of it--as you have done.

BettyDuffy said...

On feeling superfluous--I'm just at sort of a weird stage. My continuous presence is required at home--but that does not necessarily entail my continuous occupation. A lot of my necessary work is cut out for me and made easier by technology. I have A LOT of free time--which is not to say I don't know what to do with myself. It's just to say, I'm not always sure I'm making the best use of my time.

And yet there are limitations to higher levels of achievement--like the fact that I am not free to come and go. I have to maintain a standard of interruptibility and readiness for service that isn't always required of me. Does that make sense?

Amy said...

Makes total sense to me - 5 kids of my own, from 13 to 3, and I think about what you said in that last comment all.the.time. That's my life and my wonderings.

Jennifer @ Conversion Diary said...

Wow, this is a quintessential Betty Duffy post. Your talent for writing is staggering. Thanks for the great thoughts, so well phrased.

JMB said...

My area was hit with a black out last March and we were without electricity for 3 days, although some in my town lost it for a week to 10 days.

I was grateful that it was 3 days without heat and electricity. We didn't have to move to a motel and throw out all our food and find a place to deposit the pets. It was really awful. There was no hot water and March in NJ is pretty cold and ugly. When it's freezing out and you have to take a cold shower and you can't blow dry your hair or wash your clothes you get kind of crazy.

We live we suffer. As Buddha says "life is suffering". But don't ask for it, it will find you.

Erika said...

Late to the party here, but I LOVED THIS POST! Thanks so much for sharing your pioneer days with us. I've been totally intimidated lately by Ma Ingalls in the Plum Creek dugout. This helped.

Peter and Nancy said...

Hey Betty and Anonymous --

This is the internet at its best . . . good conversation, thought-provoking ideas, and the knowledge that we're not alone when we struggle with ideas.

I love "finding" other families who are/have adopted from India. :o) We're waiting for another daughter right now.

You're right, Betty -- I feel such a burden and joy to make any kind of difference that I can, just because I know how blessed I am to live an easy life.

Trish said...

Betty, I love the way you write!!! I was smiling the whole way through.


Roz said...

This is a post worthy of reflection. In all humility, may I offer my from-the-hip response to your seminal question, "Is how I'm spending my time worthy use of a finite life?"

I would submit that the answer must be "Of course", simply because it happens to be the life God has called you to live right now. Free-floating uneasiness, at least for me, sometimes comes from (1) awareness that one of my besetting sins is sloth, (2) feeling a tinge of guilt that my life is more carefree than many or most, (3) a foreboding that the "other shoe" is about to drop and wanting to position myself for it, or most importantly (4) a perhaps North American cultural assumption that it's a virtue to be productive during every interval of time.

Sometimes it seems to me that the translation of that last into "spiritually-productive during every interval" can happen to Christians without our noticing it.

My husband's beautifully concise (and probably unoriginal) definition of holiness is "willing acceptance of whatever God's will brings in that moment." The Lord is perfectly capable, I keep telling myself, of bringing to my attention any change of direction or sin that may be influencing my behavior if I ask him to help me hear him and be willing to receive and obey.

So could it be that not performing up to what's possible at every moment is precisely God's will?

What do you think? Am I off base and being lied to by my sloth on this?

BettyDuffy said...

I love the points you make (1,2,3,& especially 4). I think all of those DO play into the feeling of uneasiness at some time or another. And sometimes, it also is just sloth, on my part, and my uneasiness is pure and wholly warranted guilt.
And that's a little cyclical too, and mood oriented, and when it happens, I try to remember to thank God for it--for the gift of my humanity. Because you're right, I think he does allow it--he speaks to us most clearly when we're humble.