Nothing indicates the “depth of the disorder of the world” like juxtaposition. Here we are in America, so many of us literally eating ourselves to death, while hunger afflicts whole portions of the earth, whole sections of our cities. The relationship is symbolic: the rotund do not actually snatch food from the emaciated. But it remains true that some in this world suffer from too much, while others suffer from too little. This strange economy of material is reflected in an economy of spirit.
There is a story told by Abdalhaqq Bewley, a companion of writer and Muslim convert Ian Dallas: in the sixties, a couple of world-weary westerners go to Morocco in search of another way. They spot a shepherd on the outskirts of town and ask him where he has come from. The shepherd, a simple man, says “I come from God and to God I shall return.” It would be difficult to find such wisdom as this on an American university campus; it would be impossible to find it on Wall Street. Bewley doesn’t tell the story to show us that poverty correlates to wisdom. He means to show that before the onset of modernity— which creates the material conditions of global poverty and nuclear war, as well as the spiritual conditions of secular sentimentality— there was a world that humbly carried on its earthly work while orienting itself within a cosmos of truth and meaning that extended beyond birth and death.
This is, I think, a more general template of the “philosophy so old it looks new”. But it is not merely a set of ideas about the world: by its very nature this “philosophy” calls man to live in a particular way. (I have learned to be skeptical of great theorists whose theories do not make them live greatly!) I have been reading good stuff for several years now, nestling chapters written by Dorothy Day between benders. I somehow expected reading to have a magical effect on me: reading good stuff would make me do good stuff. But I did not understand how to get from idea to action. As far as I can tell, no words have the power to convey that wisdom. So I’ve carried on like a hamster on a wheel the last several years: wait tables, go to class, drink beer, go out to eat, read something hopeful, smoke pot, tell jokes, dream of a better way, repeat. This spring I realized that the contradictions between my ideals and my activities could not longer be explained away. In the evening, reflecting on the day, I could not make any sense out of what I had done. I decided not to go back to school (where I was working on getting my Upper Class Membership card). I decided to go for a long walk. I decided to look harder for another way.
On a whim, I shot St. Francis Farm an email. May I come by for a few days? And what a few days it was! Since returning home I’ve had a hard time explaining it to friends and family. It wasn’t particularly fun (nor was it un-fun). It wasn’t a “neat experience” (like studying abroad or traveling). I didn’t make any money. I didn’t learn any new skills. I didn’t learn any new lesson I could articulate in words. Mostly I just weeded. I pulled willow leaves off of branches for rabbit food. I ate healthy, home-grown, home cooked meals. I woke up at 7 and went to sleep at 10. I talked with new friends about all sorts of things (except TV shows). I washed some dishes, picked some peas, sprinkled some sawdust around a goat pen, went for a few walks, tried my hand at goat-milking and wood-splitting (and gained a great deal of respect for those who can do these things in the process!).
There were no fireworks, no strippers, no crowds, no all you can eat buffets, no booze and no cash prizes. In some ways, my visit to St. Francis Farm was the opposite of a visit to Atlantic City I once took. I was there for the week instead of the weekend. I spent nothing. I left feeling spiritually recharged instead of hungover. I don’t regret it in retrospect. I saw healthy, happy people living reasonably instead of hopeless, broken people caught up in an insane society. I discovered during my stay what it feels like to perform the various boring, mundane activities which sexy, revolutionary ideas (like the vision of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day) call us to undertake; I discovered that I can live my days in harmony with my dreams. There is, after all, another way.
For friends reading this who have decided, like my hosts— like Lorraine, Joanna and Zachary— to do the hard thing and try to live an alternative life in the midst of a chaotic and unsympathetic world, do not forget how helpful it is to folks like me, folks who suffer from too much, folks who have ideas and are trying to find ways to live them.
I imagine such a life is difficult, mostly because it builds little walls between us and our old friends, our family members who look on us with confusion when we talk about going back to the land. The farms must get lonely from time to time. You endure these things in order to prove to the world that there is another way to live, here and now, that if you want to, you can take it up today. What hope that inspires we cannot know or measure, but I may claim some portion of it. The capitalists, the Marxists and the socialists are all alike in this: if you want justice you must wait for the world to arrive at it—take up your business, your gun and your ballot in the meanwhile. After five days on St. Francis Farm, I’m searching for a shovel, a pitchfork, or a ladle to take up. With persistence, a bit of “luck” and lots of good company, I may learn to more readily find joy in the work of living good.