Still in Alabama, at a hotel which has only one public internet connection. Not good. In any case, waiting around to get on-line in the evenings, I’ve been reading bits from the most recent Atlantic (magazine). Two things caught my eye: first, an article on Yale, describing how their student food services staff is experimenting with using fresh food for the daily meals served (as opposed to the giant bags of pre-chopped, pre-cooked, distance-shipped items that usually make up the ingredients, and which have considerably less flavor and nutritional value than fresh food does). Suddenly I’m having fantasies of BYU turning to the Church’s long-standing position on the importance of gardens, and instead of having the mini-mall of chain food outlets that currently make up the Cougareat, we encourage local growers of produce to provide a variety of regular, season-specific items which are then whipped up into fabulous and affordable meals of delectable delight. The local economy would blossom, student and faculty health would blossom, our example as a people who see healthful practices as a means of treating the body as a temple would blossom . . . well, you see the drift. Aren’t fantasies wonderful. But wait, what if we began in a small way, as Yale is . . .
The second item that caught my eye is an article on Francis Crick which mentions the fact that we share 75% of our genetic makeup with the pumpkin. This second article makes a related point which for some reason delights me. It Quotes Monise Durrani, a BBC science correspondent, who writes about how the genetic blueprint of the humble worm is proving useful in the study of Alzheimer’s. Says Durrani, “Although we like to think we are special, our genes bring us down to earth.” I like the ring of Genesis in that: attention to our humble beginnings (dust-humus-human) may be the strand of thought that heals us, literally, as we search for new ways of treating and preventing a variety of diseases (I also like the paradox of those humble beginnings: humus, after all, is soil rich with decay that makes possible a variety of new life). The Savior seemed to be constantly reminding his disciples of the importance of that kind of humility with respect to spiritual healing as well. I gave a talk in stake conference a few weeks ago in which I asked members to think about the Savior’s hands: the hands of a carpenter, who made beautiful and useful things; the hands of a teacher, who wrote in the sand and asked those who would judge others to first carefully and honestly judge themselves; the hands of a healer, who touched the eyes of the blind and made them see; the hands of a supplicant, as he prayed that he might not have to sip the bitter cup if there were some other way; the hands of one nailed to a cross, crippled and helpless as life ebbed away. I am thinking about those hands in relation to gardens, and fresh vegetables, and DNA shared with pumpkins, and the sense of wonder and delight I’ve had with my own garden, when my tomatoes come in, or when I dig up a baby carrot, wipe the dirt off and pop it in my mouth to see how things are coming along. Gardens encourage us to nurture life, taste life, be filled with new life, an abundance of life. I’ve often thought that when Mary mistook Jesus for a gardener, it was nevertheless an inspired (and no doubt tear-caused) view: the risen rabboni was indeed the Gardener, the same who had walked in the Garden of Eden with new-made humans, and who now stood in another garden to mark yet another beginning. What a triumph of gardening, as decay yet again gave way to new life.
And so, via the role of decay, I return to my thoughts about what seems to me a growing crisis of civic faith. I don’t think the decay of civil discourse so easily noted in so many instances of political exchange is itself the kind of humus that nourishes a thriving democracy (too much iron). But I do believe that, if judiciously strewn with other things, we can take advantage of that decay — with some intellectual perspicacity, focused attention to facts and reasoned argument, a careful sorting of important commonalities, and a willingness to get back to some common- sense horse-trading, it is possible to set things flourishing afresh.
Which, weirdly, brings me back to my previous thoughts on flow (see mountain biking blog), and how we sometimes become aware of being partly our bodies and partly more, attuned to things around us as both radical Other requiring our purposeful attention, AND intimate extension of shared qualities or essences that make possible a fundamental empathy (or even unity?). I wonder if part of what I’ve been trying to get at with my thoughts about civic faith and its role in bolstering yet modulating religious faith within a democratic republic, has something to do with the work we do in gardens (something to do with planting, and watering, and weeding, and tasting, and harvesting, and taking it all into ourselves with both wise preparation and happy gusto). Or with the way we let ourselves fly down mountains (something to do with hard falls, and effort, and blood, and aspiration, and sudden moments where my self is involved in a broad embrace of the landscape, where the short view and the long view are twined in simultaneity).
At the risk of souding goofy, there is a kind of heaven, I think, in the ability humbly to recognize in pumpkins (or in those we might think have pumpkin mash for brains) a kinship that is a perpetual basis for potential faith in one another. If we can’t find that strand of possibility, that admittedly tenuous thread that nevertheless has often been the means by which crazily differing viewpoints have been stitched together to form the patchwork we call the United States, I think we’re in trouble. In other words, it seems to me that what is true of spiritual life is true of political life as well: communion has transformative potential while isolation so often breeds contempt and a self-involved spiral into foolishness. Thomas Merton wrote that “isolation in the self, inability to go out of oneself to others, would mean incapacity for any form of self-transcendence. To be thus the prisoner of one’s own selfhood is, in fact, to be in hell” (yes, I memorized this precisely because I worry that I’m prone to it). Heaven, he goes on to note, is a divine mix (and paradox) of an integrity of self that extends outward towards others, allowing others their integrity as well. Too abstract? Not in terms of gardening and mountain biking. So to conclude this blog, I lift my bottled water in a toast to my faith in humus and our creative potential to make beauty out of ugly things (as Bono puts it in “Grace”).