Friday, March 6, 2009

When Any Trouble Is Too Much

A friend of mine called the other night and asked "How do you cook?"

It's not that she can't. But she's a now-and-again, big-occasion cook, and she had decided that for Lent, she'd cook from scratch every day. She was finding it a chore and a time sink.

There wasn't much I could say; for one thing, she's a vegetarian, so the slow-roasted meats, followed by multiple and varied use of leftovers, that I depend on wouldn't work for her. And for another, I've been doing this so long I don't really think any longer about how I'm doing it.

But the conversation made me realize, not for the first time but perhaps more immediately than I've ever thought of it before, how difficult much of what's involved in sustainable living looks to those who haven't tried it. We've lived in a labor-saving economy so long that we've entirely forgotten how to do what were once everyday, ordinary jobs.

I realized this first-hand when I was visiting a friend - a priest, as it happens, and now an Anglican bishop - in South Africa. I had brought a power strip with detachable plugs, and attached to it what the maker swore was the right plug for South Africa. Only it wasn't - not for this part of South Africa, anyhow. It wouldn't fit into a single outlet in the whole house.

Presented with this problem, Steve pulled the right plug out of a drawer, and using a kitchen knife as both scissors and screwdriver, cut off the old plug, attached the new one, and gave it back to me. It was no big deal. And while I was very grateful (my BlackBerry was quickly running out of juice), I also felt like an incompetent idiot. I know nothing about electricity. Or, for that matter, plumbing, locks, or how to find the studs in a plaster wall. I'm a mechanical dummy.

I am old enough to have seen this societal incompetence develop. I can still remember my mother's delight when Pepperidge Farm came out with a stuffing mix, and she didn't have to cut up the bread any longer. And every Christmas (as I cut up the bread for the stuffing), I wonder how much time did it take her, really? 15 minutes, maybe? Which is worse, 15 minutes with a bread knife or the manufactured taste of packaged stuffing?

We as a society have had all those advertisements that promise home-made goodness with no work at all drummed into us so long that we've come to believe them. And because we have bought into the spin that makes any trouble feel like too much trouble, we've also forgotten what food really tastes like. (And how to do a little electrical splicing.)

So when trouble really is called for - as when my friend decided to cook from scratch for the six weeks of Lent - it seems insurmountable.

I spend a lot of time reading sustainable living blogs and websites, and I've drunk the kool-aid. I get excited about having a worm bin (which is, honestly, a lot more work than a garbage disposal or even just a trash bag). I enjoy hanging my laundry on the line; it's a contemplative moment.

But in the context of American society as a whole, I - we - are prety weird. And the question is, how does sustainable living become the new normal?

I don't know, but I hope for the sake of the earth that we figure it out. Soon.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew up on a farm. We had gardens, cows, pigs, chickens and grew light and dark tabacco. This was a large farm, the whole street belonged to my Granfather and all his children and thier children lived there. So we all knew how to cook, grow veggies, hunt. You get an inner self satifaction in doing things yourself and not being dependent on others to survive. I no longer live on that farm, but the things I was taught while young have stuck with me in life. I truely miss that life, but I feel I am a better person for it. I do not take others for granted. I understand good things take time. So I get take out occasionally, but I save alot of money doing things for myself, and I feel good about doing them.(most of the time)So is it worth all the trouble to cook and do things for yourself? The answer comes from within the individual. To me the answer is simple, Yes!

March 27, 2009 at 10:10 AM  

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