My mother told me good
My mother told me strong.
She said “be true to yourself
And you can’t go wrong.”
“But there’s just one thing
That you must understand.”
“You can fool with your brother –
But don’t mess with a missionary man.”
The Eurythmics, Missionary Man
I started on this exploratory journey that has become my life just over six years ago now, when my then – partner brought home a copy of the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. I finished the book within an afternoon and became really excited. It wasn’t that there was anything much in the book that I didn’t already know, but the way Dan put it all together created a click in my brain. I had been looking for the answer to the question “what went wrong” since I was in high school… I had planned a major in “The History of Religion” just to find the answer to that question, but pregnancy intervened and I never got around to following through on it. Now I know that I would not have found my answer there, anyway. I was on the right track (I was suspecting institutionalized religion as the culprit), but I was looking too recent.
In any case, once I read the book, my ex and I spent a good solid month in excited conversation, talking about what we could do with our lives differently. What plans we might make for the future that were very different from where we once thought we would go. How we could do things different in the short term. There were grandiose designs in there at first, and then lots of debate as I continued to read more and he gradually got discouraged and played devil’s advocate with greater frequency and passion. Shortly thereafter, I discovered Ishcon.org. The site no longer exists (it has mutated into ishthink.org), but there I found many people I now consider to be some of my best friends. And it gave me a venue to talk with people about these ideas in great depth.
The following spring I attended a real-life conference with many of them. We sat down over the course of a weekend and made real friendships, learned much and discussed ideas endlessly. Over the years since, I have attended a number of such gatherings all over the country. As time has passed, discussing ideas has become less important while experiencing relationship has become moreso. For me, that is partly because I have attended so many gatherings that I have seen the same people over and over – so friendships have had the opportunity to grow and deepen. It is also partly something else, however, and that is really what I want to talk about.
Dave Pollard wrote an article yesterday about a conference he attended this last weekend. He found himself confronted with a group of young, idealistic (and therefore naïve) college graduates, getting ready to embark on an adult life of “changing the system from within.” He found himself unable and unwilling to expend the energy necessary to try and educate and convince them of the folly of thinking that they could really create change in this way. And I very much understand how he felt.
Over the first few years of reading, discussing, debating and learning after discovering Ishmael, I developed a very solid conception of my new world view. I absolutely knew what I believed and wanted nothing more that to educate everyone around me about this new (old) idea I had. I was less of a missionary than most – I tried to focus my attention on those that I thought might be ready to listen, excepting, of course, my family, whom I simply had to make understand. I got my heart broken many times during that period. Because, frankly, the only people really ready to listen were those already headed down this path.
At the same time, tangible changes in my life were few and far between. I still lived in a 2500 square foot home, I still drove to the grocery store, (sometimes fifty miles to go to Whole Foods – so that was a change, but a mixed one at best.) And I still focused on finding ways to live that would change as little as possible for me. Ok… I am probably being harsh to myself on this – but I was very resistant to the idea of losing out on those things I still believed I needed or wanted in my life. Industrial Technology, mostly.
And there really were changes, I guess. I switched to a paleo-style diet, I spent more time working with my garden – especially learning the native plants for my area, exploring the possibilities of permaculture, spending a full year just observing the plants already existing on my property and how they related to one another, how they looked and behaved in different seasons, and how I could expand on what was there with as little disturbance as possible. I also learned to make soda, to work with natural fermentation, to can foods and how to cook with what was available instead of immediately going out and buying what I felt like eating.
When my ex and I split up, the fundamental reasoning behind it, from my perspective, was that I came to realize that we wanted different things from life. Living with him would always be a battle. Every little change being at the expense of hours, days, weeks of intense debate, yelling, crying, eventually giving in on most of what I wanted in order to find compromise. He being far more stubborn than I. So I had to decide what I wanted more – the relationship, or a life I could be proud of. I chose my life.
It was a fundamentally selfish decision, but I also discovered through those years that some things selfish are also right.
Since then, I have had to work a lot on remembering that sometimes selfish is right. It will probably be something that I always fight with, and I have written about this a few times recently – and this is also not what I want to talk about today. But it is part of the story.
In these years since I came to Colorado, I have given up entirely on the missionary game. Sometimes, I have felt like I left the Ishmaelian-inspired ideas behind me. But that isn’t it at all. In fact, I am more solidly ready for this than ever before in my life. But I no longer feel the need to expend my energy trying to sway others. Instead, I discover that I have come to a place where I just talk with people. I naturally discuss things with them that we share an interest in, and when we talk, my worldview peeps out. Over time and many conversations, they start to see a little tiny bit of what I see, without me ever trying to tell then anything. I don’t know if this will have any greater effect on the people I talk to than my earlier efforts to persuade. But one thing it does do – it creates relationship, mutual respect, possibility.
A good example, I have a young friend that came to work on my car for me one day. Between chores, he came in and we talked and somehow it came around to him telling me that he would love to just live in an orchard. Tend the orchard, eat from it, sell its products and just live in between times. A few weeks later, he told me that he was applying for his (marijuana) growers license and could I help him with ordering a book online? Of course I could. A week later when the book arrived, I also handed him my copy of Toby Hemenway’s Gaea’s Garden. The next day he walked into work absolutely bubbling with excitement. He had been reading both books and discovering techniques from each that would be useful. He was amazed at the possibilities opened up in his mind and displayed on the pages of GG.
Where will that lead? I have no idea, but it was the single best response I have ever gotten from “spreading the word” — and that wasn’t even exactly my intention. I offered him a tool that I thought he would find useful to do something for which he had passion.
I still have a long way to go before I can claim to “be the change,” but I have also come a long way from the days of missionary work. And I am proud of that. I no longer feel any need to try — I just do what I am able to do, when I am able to do it. And each day takes me a tiny incremental step closer to what I want to be when I grow up.*
** In the intro to Lierre Keith’s book The Vegetarian Myth, she notes that among Native Americans, growing up entails taking on responsibility for what you do – including accepting the responsibility involved in eating, whether at the expense of a plant or another animal. I found that to be very…. poignant. Soon I hope to read the whole book!