Hinds’ Feet on High Places

June 14, 2009 at 12:56 pm (Asperger's Syndrome, Book review, God, Lectio, Literary spaces)

alps

I just finished my annual re-read of Hannah Hurnard’s Hinds’ Feet on High Places. I first encountered this book when my sister was in college and I was still in high school, and the first time I read it I was working at a camp in the middle of the Adirondack Mountains. The copy I own is the 1977 edition; I bought it from Amazon Used to make sure I got the edition that I originally read.

Anyone who knows me well would be very surprised to hear how much I love this book and that I have probably read it at least 20 times.My love for this book is surprising even to me because I often do not like “Christian fiction”: I finally broke down and bought The Shack in the name of cultural literacy and had to force myself through it. Actually, I skimmed most of the second half, muttering “Yeah, yeah, yeah” as I flipped through the last fifty pages.

I know that my literary tastes expose me as a bit of a Cecil Vyse in A Room With a View. As Lucy explains after he walks out on Freddy singing: “It’s ugly things that upset him. He’s not uncivil to people.” Her mother replies, “Is it a thing or a person when Freddy sings?” I find myself in this bind when reacting to some spiritual novels, and I don’t like myself very much. I am sure all of these writers are much better people than I am, and I admire that. I just don’t like the writing. Much of it feels like eating a Twinkie when what I want is wheat bread.

ladderAnd Hinds’ Feet on High Places is wheat bread for me, and I read it every June as I get ready for summer vacation. It is a completely unapologetic allegory, in the tradition of Everyman. Each character is named after a trait: Much Afraid, Craven Fear, Resentment, Suffering, and therefore the book is more like an icon than like a badly written novel sneaking spirituality in the back door. It reminds me of The Ladder of Divine Ascent. This is a painting I heard of in another of my re-reads: In the Spirit of Happiness by the Monks of New Skete, a Russian Orthodox Monastery near Albany. They are the same monks who raise German Shepherds and write the dog obedience books. The icon shows a group of monks ascending toward Christ while devils shoot arrows at them on the right and a group of angels cheers them on at left.

Hinds’ Feet on High Places is similarly and unapologetically allegorical. The premise of the book is that Much Afraid, a young crippled shepherdess in the employ of the Shepherd, asks to be taken to the High Places away from her Fearing relatives, where “perfect love casteth out all fear.” The Shepherd is overjoyed to grant this request, has been waiting for Much Afraid to ask, and gives her as her companions on the journey Sorrow and Suffering to help her up the mountain.

Here I stop and say “Thank you, sir. May I have another” because I need this God Smack. Asking to walk a spiritually evolutionary pathway is not buying an airline ticket to Jamaica. It is taking off your shoes and heading over the hot coals. We are “too, too solid flesh” and the only way to get it in shape is through training, which is another reason I love this book: it reminds me of the summer of 1988 when I backpacked through Europe alone. I lived on $20 a day, filling my pockets with bread and cheese at the Youth Hostels and hiking everywhere. My trip included a week in a tiny hostel in the Austrian Alps, far enough up that I could hike up to the snowline. By the end of the summer, I was a Lean Mean Hiking Machine and also quite able to handle myself in just about any strange circumstance.

The allegory is both so true and so overt that it allows complete entrance of the individual reader into the tale. Nothing blocks the reader from inserting the self: no silly plot devices or clever new metaphors that distract. Just a nearly skeletal rendering of the indeed harsh reality of the spiritual journey. Very few butterflies and rainbows but plenty of drear landscapes and difficult delays.

As Much Afraid makes her journey, here are the places she must traverse:

Detour Through the Desert, symbolizing long and difficult periods of bleakness and hardening to difficulty

On the Shores of Loneliness, symbolizing long periods of aloneless and solitude

Great Precipice Injury, symbolizing the truly treacherous task of attempting holiness

The Forests of Danger and Tribulation, symbolizing the hardships that will intensify once you get closer

The Mist, symbolizing periods of confusion and tedium

The Valley of Loss, symbolizing the seeming destruction of all that has been gained

The Place of Anointing, symbolizing the times of peace allowing preparation for great tragedy

Grave on the Mountains, symbolizing the requirement to give up all you had hoped for

Healing Streams, symbolizing the grace that comes after complete surrender of personal will

High Places, symbolizing the freedom and clarity of spiritual life beyond personal dreams

This book knocks me flat every time I read it. It is the astringent reminder of just how difficult a task it is to set oneself on the spiritual path. Along the way, Much Afraid’s enemies attack her repeatedly: Self-Pity, Resentment, Bitterness, they all make an appearance and try to divert Much Afraid from her goal. I have been there, and these vile enemies, which of course come from within, do try their darnedest to halt my progress.

I re-read this book every year as an assessment: Which of these places have I recently traversed? How did I handle it? Where am I on this journey? Which of these enemies am I listening to?

This year, with all the knowledge about Asperger’s I have gained in the past twelve months, one scene jumped out at me in starker contrast than in my previous readings. Much Afraid is told she is very close to her goal and is directed to go alone to a rocky crag where a silent preist stands at a grim altar. The Shepherd tells her, “Take the natural longing for human love which you found already growing in your heart when I planted my own love there and go up into the mountains to the place that I shall show you. Offer it there as a Burnt Offering unto me.”

Much Afraid, knowing that she hears aright, proceeds. She accepts that 1) she may have been deceived by the Shepherd all along 2) she is giving up her heart’s desire 3) her enemies might be right that she will be abandoned on “some cross” 4) she will do it anyway because she wants the Shepherd more than the promises. Fearing she cannot do it, she asks the preist there to do it for her and also asks him to bind her in case she struggles to prevent it.

EmptyTombWhen Part One ends, she has suffered her all, given her all, and accepts that “It is finished.” This part is so important and struck me so this time through. I can trace my own path through every one of those parts of the journey: suffering, loneliness, injury, confusion, danger. But I am not sure that I have made this final sacrifice.

Many of the Asperger’s books say that the hardest part for a spouse is to accept that you might never get the kind of love and empathy one would wish from a partner. Many women cannot accept this and leave to find it elsewhere. Other women take the gifts that are offered and find that empathy elsewhere, in friends or family.

Perhaps this is Summer 2009’s leg of the journey. I know I am not leaving, and I know I am currently seeking empathy and love in other places such as friends. But I also know that I have not yet really made that sacrifice and it lies before me.

For all she knows, Much Afraid has accepted her own death on that altar. And yet when she awakes after three days, she bathes in Healing Streams, is healed of all deformity and disfigurement, and is finally able to leap like a deer. She is turned into Grace and Glory, and her companions Sorrow and Suffering become Joy and Peace. These are the promises of the High Places, and yet here’s the rub: they lie the other side of that grim grave.

I know I’m not there yet. I know I’m closer to it. I know I fear it. Tough as I appear, I don’t like pain. I know that this event will be unseen, unknown, because it will happen inside.

The other annual event linked with this book is my climbing Bald Peak, which is in the Berkshires, an hour’s hike from the Bartlett Camp. I go there to steel myself and to physicalize the truths of this book and of every great spiritual tradition I have ever encountered. I also steel myself by listening to this beautiful album: Doug Howell’s settings of the poems from the book, which are all from The Song of Solomon.

album

Maybe this is the summer I finally get beyond the reach of Resentment and Bitterness and Self-Pity by ripping that human-love plant out, but maybe it’s not yet ready to be uprooted. In the meantime I will at least once again set my foot on the path, because the invitation is always there.

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Down the Up Staircase

June 7, 2009 at 5:56 pm (Childhood, Family, Farming, God, Rant)

graduation

For many years after we moved to our farm in rural upstate New York, I had a recurrent nightmare that I had not really graduated from Amherst College. In the dream I would be my waking age of 24, eventually 30 and later still 37, and yet I would have to return to Amherst for three more semesters, leaving my husband and child – then later two and three children – back at home. In most cases the dream began mid-semester, and I was very behind in my Religion course, owing a paper I had not yet started, nor had I even attended the class, leaving me unable to even start it.

This dream, needless to say, bothered me quite a bit, so much so that I dug out my Amherst diploma and my Phi Beta Kappa key and placed them prominently above my desk to remind me that I really HAD graduated. I also hung my Master’s diploma and my permanent high-school teaching license. But this did nothing to stop the dreams, which continued to recur once a month or so.

I am sure my mother and father, watching me receive my Amherst diploma in 1990 and then leave Massachusetts with my fiancé to buy a farm in Central New York, must also have wondered if I had really graduated. Or if I had, with a degree in what? Tractor Operation?

DadMy father had grown up in Western New York, youngest child of second-generation Irish immigrants on both sides, on a small farm, hating it. He hated killing chickens and he hated milking the cow and he hated the No Irish Need Apply stories he had heard, and so he embraced America – the jazz and the City, and he dreamed of nights in a Harlem club, ringed in cigarette smoke, writing. Thanks to the GI Bill, he had just matriculated at Columbia’s Journalism school when his father’s death put an end to his dreams. He instead attended nearby Canisius College, studied accounting, cared for his widowed mother, landed a post in the GM executive building, and married the sparkling platinum blonde at the water cooler.

Meanwhile, my mother had also moved up in the world, from the ten-year-old whose mother (my grandmother) had snatched her and her brothers from beatings by her alcoholic father and evictions from apartment after apartment and had found respect caring for the children of the well-to-do, and my mother grew to become a popular high-school socialite. Later, with her high-school secretarial diploma in hand, she spent two years working at the Vatican and then returned to Western New York, the world-traveler and eye-catcher in the secretarial pool at the radiator plant.

Helped by America’s post-World-War-II prosperity and GM’s solid position in the Big Three, my parents managed to gain a firm toe-hold in the middle class, with a house and car and three healthy children. Even so, my mother always feared her own exposure as the sole non-college-graduate at Mothers Club, and my father’s unspoken dreams and unwritten books eddied around our feet like discontented waves in that house on Harrison Avenue.

We three children all felt it and sought to climb beyond the middle-class staircase landing, especially when our academic shining also served to blind others to the dark issues muddying the dull glow of the existence my parents had hacked out of their respective pasts. The Irish genes carried intelligence as well, and my siblings and I had a clear and unobstructed path to most any college we chose and beyond. My sister eventually earned a PhD and a prestigious educational consulting job, and my brother added an MBA to his engineering degree to move far above my dad in the GM hierarchy. By the mid-80s we all three were riding the up escalator of the rising middle-class.

preppy In 1985 I was catapulted from my GM hometown into Central Massachusetts to land among the nation’s elite at Amherst. A veritable conspiracy of forces had propelled me there. In 1980 The Official Preppy Handbook hit my junior high school like contraband. We Italian and Irish immigrants’ children, still virtually loam-footed from digging the Erie Canal, pored over this book like a National Geographic full of naked bushmen, as stunned and confused by what we saw as by Papua New Guinea’s painted tribes.

Oddly enough, my best friend that year was suddenly plucked out of our canal town by the remarriage of her divorced mother to a movie magnate in DC. Her new life bestowed upon her a stone mansion in Georgetown and attendance at a prestigious all-girls prep school. She was the real thing, not the pseudo-preps my friends and I were at Lockport Senior High School in our K-Mart Oxford cloth shirts and Dickies.

The three prongs of that mighty trident – parental dreams, best-pal jealousy, and my own intellectual inheritance – prodded me to apply to the Little Ivies, and the Amherst acceptance clinched it by topping 1983’s US New and World Report listing of Top Liberal Arts Schools. The world was my oyster, and I was invited to sit smack in the middle of that pink cushiony mollusk.

However, something happened once I got there. Very few people are able to analyze their own historical context clearly, much less a young woman way out of her league among peers who were comfortably inheriting positions at the top of the heap. I was so stimulated by the rarefied intellectual atmosphere that I did not recognize the signs of decadence and over-consumption that were sweeping the national economic landscape and intensifying my culture shock.

Once the novelty of it all wore off, some underlying sense of unease set in. I am sure I stuck out like a sore thumb at Amherst; after all, it was not hard for me to pick out the other scholarship/work-study students. I remember my shame at how easily my name was forgotten or never learned by my wealthier classmates. I remember one in particular who wore his Exeter legacy like his own skin and another who co-opted our student art exhibition into her own personal soiree. I was shocked by this, though moral indignation took a back seat to intimidation and insecurity.

Nevertheless, by the time I met, fell in love with, and accepted the marriage proposal of a UMass Ag School graduate in my junior year, I was quite happy to turn around on the lingerie floor and take the down escalator past my parents and even further down, to our economy’s basement: farming. It is true I had fallen in love with an Ag major, and it is true that he was also a borderline Marxist, but it is also true that the chance to buy a farm and work very hard at manual labor struck a deep and resonant chord already vibrating within me, where law school or marrying a future Wall Street executive did not.

povertyIt wasn’t until years later, when I ran into Dr. Ruby Payne’s 1998 Framework for Understanding Poverty, that my subconscious collegiate reasoning was clarified. In the public education world, Dr. Payne’s theory is used to explain why it is so difficult to help students rise out of generational poverty. Personally, I was not so much struck by the “hidden rules” of the lower class (which engulfed me both in rural Central New York and my hometown) as I was by articulation of the hidden rules of the upper class, which I had divined in college but not previously seen articulated so clearly. This very prize had been right there, tantalizingly just inches beyond my fingers, and I could have quite easily ridden that late-Reagan/early Clinton wave right into fortune and luxury, but I did not. There was something in that glittering mirage that turned my stomach, that made me turn around, that made me run down that up staircase as fast and as far as I could.

Dr. Payne differentiates among the three sets of “rules” followed by the generational poor, the middle-class, and the wealthy with regard to seven different value sets. In terms of possessions, the poor focus on relationships, the middle-class on material items, and the wealthy on one-of-a-kind objects, legacies, and pedigrees. With food, “having enough” is the hidden rule for those in generational poverty, “quality” is important to the middle class, while the wealthy focus on “aesthetic presentation.” Regarding fighting, the poor resort to physical means, the middle-class to discussion, and the wealthy to social exclusion and lawyers. The poor focus on present time, the middle-class to planning for the future, and the wealthy to preserving past history and traditions. While the poor base their acceptance of others on liking, and the middle class judges a person’s achievements and success, the wealthy consider connections and social standing.

Of course these are generalizations and the many exceptions mock any indication of this theory’s irrefutability, but reflecting back on my Amherst days, this theory resonated with my own take on the unspoken social forces that caused me considerable unease in college, even granting the excesses of the era. I saw and heard and experienced these rules that guide the wealthy, and I turned and walked away from them. Social exclusion, preservation of tradition and legacies at the expense of justice, social standing as more important than people – these were not values I was raised with, and they were not values I aspired to adopt.

escaltor

My husband and I chose instead one of the hardest rows to hoe, literally, and have sacrificed literal blood, sweat, and tears to dig our way out of the debt required to buy, equip, and stock a dairy farm. And yes, I felt foolish sometimes, and yes, that subconscious need to return and “finish” my Amherst degree seemed to indicate my doubt that I was right to turn and descend, my underlying sense that I had missed something that Amherst could have taught me about success and comfort and the easier life. Perhaps I just needed a few more semesters to get used to the idea.

The current economic downturn, however, has turned this all on its head. Even the middle-class status my family fought to attain appears to be crumbling. My older brother, whose GM division was sold to Delphi, just lost the retirement health insurance he had worked 40 years to earn. My mother’s generous widow’s pension is in question as GM itself has just teetered into bankruptcy. Many of my fellow 80s grads moved to the Bright Lights, Big City and became Less Than Zero, and the Wall-Street-bound might very well now be without work. Furthermore, the wider world, through the basics of supply and demand – is stealing away, at lower-but-welcomed wages, the very jobs that formerly bought us our large houses and multiple cars and weight problems.

I heard recently that in 2006, the average income of the country’s 400 wealthiest people was $263 million – each. Had it been $263 million total, that would still have been over $657,000 each – surely more than enough. But no, it was $263 million each. This meant that the wealthiest 1% of the population took home 22% of the national income. Picture a room in which there are 100 loaves of bread. One hundred people enter the room and ONE person takes 22 of the loaves for himself, leaving the other 99 hungry to split up the remaining 78 loaves. One person gets 22 loaves; the others each get less than four-fifths of one loaf. That’s the number 22 compared to .78. Would anyone want to admit to being that person? I would not, especially if this amassing of wealth was in the name of “preservation of tradition” to allow for “aesthetic presentation” and “social standing” won through “social exclusion and lawyers.” Hello, my name is Mephistopheles.

00000000CH109_US_ECONOMIC_SNow that two decades of economic growth and over-consumption are coming to a screeching halt, I would love to credit myself with prescience, but I think it was something more like a good grasp of reality. In the environmental world, exponential growth is simply not possible. A species’ population will grow until it exceeds the ecosystem’s carrying capacity, at which point it will drop off. A parasite will thrive only until its host sickens unto death. Even in the nursery school playroom, the other children will ignore the child who takes two toys, but when that same child takes ten toys, the scene devolves into Lord of the Flies.

I would sneer with an “I-told-you-so” smirk were it not for the faces of my own three children. Despite my climbing down economically to live on a farm, I still find myself imaging my own progeny at Harvard and Yale – the next step beyond my own college achievements. However, now that my eldest is thinking about college, I am fearing that schools like Amherst might be nothing but a dream. Like many parents in these economic times, I can only foresee for my kids a lower standard of living than my generation’s. I was expected to go one better than my parents, but there is the very real possibility that our kids will have to go one or two worse. Shrinking endowments, limited post-graduation job opportunities, a big non-American world now demanding its fair share. I suppose what’s coming is exactly what I felt was justified twenty years ago: a more equitable division of the world’s resources. But I find myself cringing at that how that will affect my own three babies.

The most dire and Apocalyptic predictions have us all holed up in bunkers, defending ourselves from rampant flu viruses or terrorists and happy merely for enough to eat. If that is coming, I suppose my husband and I made the wisest choice possible. At least after Armageddon we’ll still have plenty of milk and beef. I keep imagining those I love all ending up here with us, as jobs and economies continue to fall.

Rather than peddling credit default swaps or sub-prime mortgages, we joined the low-paid ranks of those .5% who provide the other 99.5% with their low-priced foodstuffs. I would never suggest that farming is easy: far from it. It takes everything my husband and I have and know to keep this enterprise afloat. Agriculture is a desperately competitive business, not because marketing experts are outmaneuvering each other to sell the “better” product but because high input costs and low prices for product make economic survival near impossible. It takes a profound knowledge of biochemistry, agricultural economics, management strategy, and a vast array of technical and mechanical skills to keep this dairy ship afloat. But we do it because it seems right.

farm

Many a day it also takes an infusion of philosophy to keep us in it. When life seems so much easier in another place, it takes the ideas of Marx and Thoreau and Merton and Willa Cather and Shakespeare and Elizabeth Bishop and Gaston Bachelard for us to carry on. And for this I am extraordinarily grateful to my Amherst years for giving me these.

My Dad was a veritable Hoover of ideas , just a great quiet curiosity vacuum for information and news and thoughts, and I still own the 40-volume Harvard Classics set my father bought in 1938. I also have his college copy of Readings for a Liberal Education. They sit in my study on the bookshelf he purchased to hold them, a bookshelf that sat in his own farmhouse way back. I also know that in his eyes they are not a rebuke of the choice I made to receive the pearl of great value, bought with all my parents had, and to bring it back to the country and hurl it before bovine; the presence of these texts is neither ironic nor anomalous here in my farmhouse in rural New York. They are, instead, the ultimate integration of all my father held dear.  Because I think, really, that this is what he wanted and what he wanted for me: a life of the mind. Not the trappings, not the belief that I deserved more, that the well-educated deserve their 2200%, but rather that the profound and lyrical ideas of the world’s great thinkers are themselves the pearl of great worth.

And in that regard I did continue upward; that is the true height to which I have climbed. I have not used my knowledge to hoard more than my due; I use it to provide food to others – many others. My Amherst legacy is in the vast network of connections I am able to see, the literature to which I have been exposed and continue to seek, and the knowledge and analysis skills I pass on to my children.

Several years ago I stopped having that recurring Amherst dream. Perhaps it was turning forty. Perhaps it was hearing tales of the bubble bursting. I guess in middle age I have found peace with the choices I made twenty years ago. My mother has also, and I am sure my father, were he still alive, would affirm that I have attained that dream he had back on his own family’s farm.

I made a choice to grasp the brass ring of knowledge and bring it back down to the humus, the very root of existence, of humanity, and of humility. I can only hope that if we as a country are forced by world-wide inevitabilities to all do the same, that the wisdom we sought in order to attain our great wealth is enough to sustain us even without the financial  rewards.

harvardclassics_-_classics

Feel free to join my rant in a comment or rant at me.

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A Cold Spring by Elizabeth Bishop

May 16, 2009 at 11:27 pm (Farming, God, Gorgeous Writing)

for Jane Dewey, Maryland

Nothing is so beautiful as spring. -Hopkins

violets-rsA cold spring:
the violet was flawed on the lawn.
For two weeks or more the trees hesitated;
the little leaves waited,
carefully indicating their characteristics.
Finally a grave green dust
settled over your big and aimless hills.
One day, in a chill white blast of sunshine,
on the side of one a calf was born.
The mother stopped lowing
and took a long time eating the after-birth,
a wretched flag,
but the calf got up promptly
and seemed inclined to feel gay.

dogwood1The next day
was much warmer.
Greenish-white dogwood infiltrated the wood,
each petal burned, apparently, by a cigarette-butt;
and the blurred redbud stood
beside it, motionless, but almost more
like movement than any placeable color.
Four deer practiced leaping over your fences.
The infant oak-leaves swung through the sober oak.
Song-sparrows were wound up for the summer,
and in the maple the complementary cardinal
cracked a whip, and the sleeper awoke,
stretching miles of green limbs from the south.
white_lilacIn his cap the lilacs whitened,
then one day they fell like snow.
Now, in the evening,
a new moon comes.
The hills grow softer. Tufts of long grass show
where each cow-flop lies.
The bull-frogs are sounding,
slack strings plucked by heavy thumbs.
Beneath the light, against your white front door,
the smallest moths, like Chinese fans,
flatten themselves, silver and silver-gilt
over pale yellow, orange, or gray.
Now, from the thick grass, the fireflies
begin to rise:
up, then down, then up again:
lit on the ascending flight,
drifting simultaneously to the same height,
–exactly like the bubbles in champagne.
–Later on they rise much higher.
And your shadowy pastures will be able to offer
these particular glowing tributes
every evening now throughout the summer.

grave_fireflies_bluebat

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and THIS is Joy ….

May 9, 2009 at 3:43 pm (Family, Farming, God)

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