Warning: it’s about to get a little real up in here. Normally we keep things all light and jovial because it’s part of our plan to stealthily take over the world, one heritage crafter at a time. But we’d be lying if we didn’t tell you what’s going on behind the wood shavings and natural dye stains. And if we’re serious about building community, starting with the truth is always a good idea. So, grab yourself a cup of tea or coffee and tuck in for the ride. Don’t worry, it has a happyish ending...
I recently returned from a primitive skills gathering where lots of friendly folk were digging deep into the history of the collective human experience to excavate skills and crafts most Americans haven’t even considered for a number of decades if not centuries. As I wandered around the spacious grounds, people were clustered together learning everything from hide tanning and bow making to spoon carving and cordage techniques - thanks to which I’m now proudly sporting a fetching dogbane anklet (get it?). What caught my eye, though, was a group in a half-circle, the teacher in the center kneeling and demonstrating the use of a bow drill to start a friction fire. I couldn’t look away: there’s something satisfying to the deepest centers of our animal brains to watch the creation of fire. It’s a little bit magical every single time.
Last week, I happened to see the short film version of the movie, Midway, floating around in the social media current. It’s essentially March of the Penguins meets Requiem for a Dream and chronicles the death by starvation of countless albatrosses on the Midway Atoll who mistake floating plastic in the ocean for food. (Side note: the trailer for the feature length film seems to have tried to soften the blow a bit with impassioned ladysinging and limited carcass shots, if you’re curious but not ready for a one-way ticket into the void.) And after seeing it, I just sat. Not because this fresh horror shocked me – I almost wish it had – but because I found myself back on the Looping Insignificance Machine, or LIM for short.
You know the LIM. It’s what happens when you find out about some terrible atrocity happening in the world as a byproduct of our cushy lifestyle, so you decide to end your contribution to the madness. In this case, for example, I resolved to give up plastic once and for all. Then you play out what that involves in your head, and as soon as you feel confident about your game plan, you hear that familiar creaking - the sound of the LIM cranking up: “You know, your doing this isn’t going to fix the spiraling gyre of trash in the ocean. You’re not going to be able to convince other people to live this way because they don’t have time and it requires a serious commitment and too many people make money from it. And even if you did, do you think saving dying albatrosses will make it all ok? What about all the other animals dying from human causes – what about all the other HUMANS dying from human causes? What about climate change and the population capacity of the planet? Does your vowing to stop using plastic fix that?”
Suddenly the wind is out of your sails, the ferocious idealist beast within you retreats into the depths to lick its wounds, and you find yourself in front of the TV or surfing Facebook to laugh or “like” your way out of the mire. And with the news of each atrocity, the grooves of the LIM are worn deeper, and you’re a few seconds quicker to reach the “what could I really do about it anyway?” space. And eventually, for lots of folks, the LIM wears them down to the point that what could be deep despair is only a mere pang answered by a quick grab of the smartphone or trip to the mall.
The systems that are put in place to produce the lifestyle we enjoy are brilliant in some places and broken in many. They have also evolved their own means of protecting themselves: nonstop entertainment, the neverending race of busy-ness around the altar of productivity, bright and shiny newness to possess, an ever expanding network of friends and pictures of what they ate for lunch. And while none of these is inherently “bad,” they can be - if we let them - easy outs, ways to ignore the very real troubles facing us.
If you’re still reading this (bless all three of you), then chances are you’re the kind of person who knows about the broken places, who has had some personal experience with the LIM; there is no lack of news stories and documentaries and everyday experiences that are waking people up to the modern condition. But then what? We pull back the curtain to a host of troubles we don’t know how to solve. We enter into a space offering few support systems with guilt and insignificance for bedfellows. It’s no wonder most folks hit snooze and try to go back to sleep...
I shared my recent frustrations, specific and general, with one of my favorite people on this earth and the greatest teacher I know – you know the kind of people who just seem to “get” things? He’s heard my high and low points thus far with trying to establish The Homestead and has cheered me on through all of it. I’ve lamented that in the face of big ag and looming peak oil, offering people a way to learn how to make a bowl or lip balm isn’t enough. I explained the LIM and the paralyzing conundrum: being caught between staring a seemingly immovable misery in the face or opting out of it through distraction or distance (trust me - the desire to flee to the mountains is strong up in here from time to time).
And then he made a simple analogy, and I could feel the machine creak to a halt and begin to dismantle in my head. “When people open their eyes from a dream,” he said, “it’s dark. And you’re frustrated that you can’t eradicate the darkness, but you’ll never be able to. Since the beginning of time, there has always been darkness, and there will always be darkness. But what you can do is light small fires to see by. That’s the best anyone can do, and it’s always been enough.”
I still don’t know how to repair all the broken parts of the world. But I do know that when a couple of us who have seen those cracks and felt too small to fix them get together and use our hands – to sow, harvest, preserve, cook, ferment, spin, weave, hammer, or simply hold – something changes. We respect the bounty this world still has to offer and the people with whom we can share it. We transform a culture of powerlessness against destruction into one of empowerment through creation. We band together against the darkness like we always have.
So next time it gets a little heavy and the LIM begins to whir into motion, remember: it takes friction to start fire. If you let them, the things that horrify you and scare you and disappoint you will begin to smolder in you. The option to let that puff of smoke disperse and float away is always yours (and we all need to take it from time to time). But when you’re ready, rest safe in the knowledge that through the discomfort we usually relegate to the periphery, we gain energy. And when we reach for the tinder of friends and community, an ember begins to glow – and soon there’s light to see by and a path through the darkness.