Sustenance and Change

"Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day
Vision help open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat."

—Wendell Berry, "Sabbaths" (1979, X)

In each system, some actions work toward sustenance (stabilizing the status quo) and others work toward change (pushing to a new status quo).

Sustenance actions and change actions are both necessary. Sustenance actions make the system more comfortable, dependable, and relaxing; while change actions make the system more adaptable and exciting, and push it toward higher ground. Both are necessary for sustainability. Without adequate attention to sustenance, the system can neither survive nor meet the goals it was intended to meet. Without adequate attention to change, it cannot adapt to new circumstances and it may become stagnant or morally complacent.

I live in a tiny house. I built it, and am still building it. In such a small space, any construction project creates a mess, a disturbance in my day-to-day life. Dangling unfinished projects make it hard to function—hard to move around, hard to prepare and eat food, hard to think straight. But when they're done, they improve my life, often substantially.

Then there are the housekeeping tasks—washing the dishes, tidying up, dusting, vacuuming, emptying the greywater bucket. They'll never be finished. They're not projects. They don't change my life in this house—they sustain it.

Apparently, home improvement impedes housekeeping, and housekeeping impedes home improvement.

Whenever I follow my discontentment, tracing down its roots with my fingertips, I always arrive back at the same hunger, the same lack. I cannot escape that hunger. I want impossible love.

I want a love that embraces me as I am, the Mother's nurturing, the love that sustains me. I want an open door. I want to be welcomed like the prodigal son. I want the best robe wrapped around my clinging pig shit. I want to set down my burdens and know that I'm already good enough. I want to bathe in grace. I want the love that says the work is done and the party has already begun. I want the love that holds me close like a child, rocks me to sleep, shh, shh, shh. I want the love that calms my stormy waters.

Yet somehow I also want the wrathful love, the Father's discipline, the love that changes me. I want to be loved like Socrates loved Athens, a gadfly's love, giving his life for one last chance to criticize his beloved, one last chance to sting his beloved into action. I want the love that's never satisfied with me, the love that knows I could be better. I want sermons that make me squirm, unavoidable altar calls, bullseye truths. I want the lover who will look into my eyes and rip off my band aids, who knows how to handle a scalpel. I want the lover who wakes me up at six and sends me to work—inside and out, the work is never done. I want prophetic love, a love that holds me accountable as an adult. I want the love that stirs my stagnant waters.

I'm losing faith that such a love can ever truly exist.

"Of necessity and without apology, the preserver of seed, the planter, becomes midwife and nurse. Breeder is always metamorphosing into brooder and back again. Over and over again, spring after spring, the questing mind, idealist and visionary, must pass through the planting to become nurturer of the real. The farmer, sometimes known as husbandman, is by definition half mother; the only question is how good a mother he or she is. And the land itself is not mother or father only, but both. ... The farmer crosses back and forth from one zone of spousehood to another, first as planter and then as gatherer. Farmer and land are thus involved in a sort of dance in which the partners are always at opposite sexual poles, and the lead keeps changing."

—Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America

It took me a while to realize, but you're a very angry person. You see the world stereoscopically—things as they are, and things as they ought to be. In your eyes, everything falls short. Everything. Me. Yourself. Indignation is always waiting just under your collar.

When you get angry, I've noticed, your instinct is to act. Fix it. Do something about it. Such a typical man. Yeah, sometimes you can change the world for the better. But lots of times you cause collateral damage. And by the way, you're stubborn.

Did you ever think, maybe, your anger is like a crying child? Yes, sometimes you need to feed it or bandage it or discipline it. But other times there's nothing to be done. You just hold it close, shh, shh, shh, cradle it, rock it to sleep. Kids don't grow up overnight! Neither do adults.

Change isn't always the answer. Just manage. Keep it together. Hold steady. Batten down the hatches and wait out the storm.

"Let me wake in the night
and hear it raining
and go back to sleep."

—Wendell Berry, "Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer"

These two types of actions must complement and counterbalance each other: a system that changes too fast (i.e. not enough sustaining care) is doomed to crash sooner or later. A system that is stagnant for lack of change is doomed to either fizzle out or crash when it fails to adapt to changing needs.

Love stories are full of chance meetings, tragic misunderstandings, life-changing kisses, shouting matches, third-act apologies. They focus on the dramatic upbeats and downbeats and "yada yada" over the best part—the Eskimo kisses.

If thunderbolt attractions and near-breakup breakthroughs and nick-of-time airport terminal declarations are the muscle in a relationship, the force propelling it forward and through the hardest work, then Eskimo kisses are the bones giving it structure. Improvised grilled cheese lunches are the skin holding it together and warding off infection. Silly voices are the heart that pumps it with lifeblood. Affectionate sticky notes are the liver, corny jokes are the kidneys, accidental tickling and its subsequent escalation are the stomach, meandering conversations are the lymph nodes, board games are the lungs, and falling asleep while cuddling is the esophagus. Reassurances, tiny affirmations, acts of gentleness scattered across the days and months like seeds, are the ligaments. And those moments when you pause, distracted from washing the dishes, together transfixed by music, swaying a little, surrendering your wills to the currents—those are the nerve endings.

If you want your story, this world's story, to end in comic matrimony, then your love-muscles have great work to do. They can do it only as long as they are daily nurtured and supported.

"And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we're asleep.

When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good."

—Wendell Berry, "Sabbaths" (1979, X)