I peeled the sticker off my lunch pear, then ran it under the faucet, frustrated. It wasn’t a real piece of fruit. It was only a shadow of those knotty old fragrant pears Mom gathers every summer from Mrs. Janson’s hundred-year-old tree.
I shook it dry, scratched the skin with my thumbnail, and inhaled. The smell was faintly sweet, but a supermarket pear can’t fill a room with perfume. I could expect a watery crunch, not that honey-dripping mess of food you’ve just pulled out of the sun.
Later that night I prepared our beef for dinner. I had to cut away a sheet of plastic wrap before I could even touch it. I never saw the animal of origin. I didn’t know its farmer or its butcher. I didn’t know the state (or even the country) in which that life or its taking took place. Meat nowadays is stripped of all meaning. It has become an ingredient.
Anyone who has removed the head from a chicken will understand the difference between taking in a tray of meat and taking away a life. I remember being eight or nine and holding the body of a hen still as I could while Mom swung the axe. It was too much for me. At the last second I looked away and fell on my rear end in the Kentucky dust, overcome by the nerve force of death. The hen’s opened neck flung blood on my shirt, and I was too shocked to catch the body to stop it flopping.
The rearing of living food is a close and sober thing. It is one of those intimate jobs that has grown foreign because it’s too close and too sober. Chicken goes down easier when it’s shaped into dinosaurs and dipped in chemical sauces. Satiating our hunger has become numbingly easy.
The same has become true of my social hunger. Most of my family members have Facebook pages, and our lives have grown so busy and full that I see only whatever bits they offer online. They post pictures of children who are strangers to me; and when we intersect in person, it is awkward. At our gatherings we muck around smiling for an hour, thinking up questions to ask one another. I always feel like apologizing, “Oh, you. I used to actually know you.” Instead, we slip into the bathroom and click our phones, looking for community at arm’s length.
Criticism for all of this is so abundant I hardly need to summarize it. Experts say we need to return to our agrarian roots. Humans were made to live close to the earth and to one another; therefore, we must relearn the raising of bees, the growing of our own vegetables, slow time, local markets, and communities made of people we know who know us.
People need real people.
Besides, it’s dangerous to pump your private life into the cyber “out there.” To throw sincere ideas out into the e-wild is as carcinogenic as Red 40. After all, people might misinterpret. Openness can isolate. Truth can offend. There are safer ways of doing things.
Wendell Berry is my favorite living author, and I have savored nearly every book of his that I have ever read. I grew up in central Kentucky, so I remember the world he describes. He makes me miss it.
Yet, a truer truth is that I miss only some things about it. I don’t miss the apathy that ran like an epidemic through our county high school in the 1980’s. I don’t miss pockets of laziness, suspicion, abuse, religious manipulation, sexism, or ignorance. There were beautiful aspects of my world during those years, but at seventeen, these were the flaws that choked me. They made me want to shake the dust of that dirty little town off my feet and see the world.
Time has passed, though. My memories have softened. Last week I drove through those same hills again, and I was warmed.
I suppose the contrast of modern life has enhanced my nostalgia for old ways. I spend too much time staring into screens and too little engaging reality. I long for porch swings, Rook cards, a grocer I know, and Mason jars sealed up in neat rows in the cellar. I hunger for food that looks and smells like food.
I love those things because they were once close. I love them even more because they are now distant. The old world has become a sort of Platonic ideal to me. It is the perfect good that I can never fully regain. I am left with shadows of things. Shadows of relationships. Shadows of dinners. Shadows of community.
Sometimes I read Thoreau and vow to rid myself of electronic distractions. Or, I will decide to try my hand at an old craft. A few years ago, determined to return to simplicity, I bought three chickens. Predators broke through the fence and ate two of them overnight. (Predators! Wild beasts still exist?) I chased my surviving hen into a woods full of poison ivy, suddenly realizing my paradise regained had left little room for Calamine lotion. The next year slugs ate holes through all our root vegetables. Deer flattened the corn. A vague memory resurfaced. You had to be careful when you bit into those old pears. They were full of worms.
I was so irritated about the chickens, I blogged about them.
Perhaps my idealistic, Platonic tendencies are what make Aristotle’s teachings such a breath of fresh air. Truth isn’t just out there, it’s also here in the present thing. We must look down around our own feet sometimes, so that we might attend to what is close.
What then is close? Here is where you will begin to disagree with me, I think.
What if the close transcends the garden soil I tend so carefully? What if it transcends handmade meals and board games? What if it transcends every good, old primitive thing?
What if—along with these good, old things—my close also includes a group of six-hundred-something cyber relationships? What if there is good to be done among these souls collected from around the world; souls full of needs, hurts, loneliness, and dreams, drawn like moths to a glowing screen?
What if, instead of fighting the new world we have been given, we realize that these particular social intersections have been entrusted to no one in history except us? Society has changed, and still, we have been given to one another. Why? Are our imaginations big enough to step away from nostalgia and guilt to see that there could be a higher purpose, even in something so plebian as Facebook?
I am as ashamed to call Facebook my community as I am to call a dinosaur nugget chicken. Such a thing is not in vogue.
Besides, there are days when taking social media seriously exhausts me. People hurt me. I hurt people. There are gaps in communication, political volatility, pet peeves, and strangers who slip in side doors. There are weeks when I grow weary, shut the whole thing down, and hide.
But after a few days of quiet, it seems like I always come back to one question: What sort of good might there be in daring to walk among those who walk with me, giving them everything I have? What if I freely give them my best art? What if I freely give them my best honesty? What if I spend time pouring my imperfect love through these channels that exist, leaning on God to speak this new language through me? Am I willing to paint my masterpieces (or as close as I ever come to such a thing) on cyber-alley walls?
Secretly, many young writers believe that success occurs when a respectable publisher wants their material. (If yours is a different art form, please translate. A show in a gallery. A role in a ballet.) That “published” label somehow nails down our worth into something legitimate.
This is why it seems to be a running joke among better writers that blogs are full of low-quality work. I’ve heard industry professionals snicker through nasal whines that anyone nowadays can be published with a push of the button: the kvetchers, the try-hards, the regular Joes, the fakers.
I get that. I’ve read crappy blogs, too. Yet I have also seen common writers who are humble enough to give away the work of their hands in faith. God uses these people and their simple words written imperfectly. Their creations tend to enter my mind at silent, crucial, ordained moments. After all, Jesus has never been the sort to scoff at two mites.
My point is that there is a tremendous opportunity at hand, and I wonder sometimes if elitism and nostalgia might be causing us to miss it. Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. These are the art forms of the common man. They are untidy, coarse, dangerous, and unstructured. Yet, just sit and listen a moment. Don’t you hear in all of this flutter the poetry of the daily flux of humanity?
If you do, imagine this with me. What if some element of the incarnation involves coming down into our own skin and living amid the crass humor, the sadness, the grand ideas, the struggles, the waste, the normalcy, the formlessness, and the void of the grind? Do we have faith enough (humility enough) to kneel down to the earth, into this opportunity that is waiting for us, and make something meaningful of it? Are we willing to be so imperfect? So honest? So present? So woundable?
The idea of this has been turning round in my heart for years. I felt it on that first day Facebook became a reality to me. I sat in shock, clicking from page to page, thinking, “This changes everything. We can touch the world now. All of us can.”
I long for the old world like a pear that would run juice down my chin. Yet you, staring right now into your little lit screens full of unspoken groanings, I think you are my greater longing still. Sometimes I can barely sleep for thinking about what we could become.