The 80s, the “greed is good” era, was the period where our lust for owning things began to really take root, and my friend, though raised on the clean and beautiful Island in nearly pristine and smog-free Victoria, said only, “Well, it’s convenient,” as though that were reason enough for anything.
That was the first time I noticed how that particular word was increasingly being used. It didn’t matter that he was contributing to a serious problem that may someday blight the town we all loved. It didn’t matter that he was a young single man with no family to drive around in a small city that was well provided with cheap public transport. It didn’t matter that he had a job downtown, in the area most served by the city’s buses. It didn’t even matter that his car was costing him the bulk share of his rather meager salary. It was convenient; the new blanket benediction for, to put it simply, laziness and self-indulgence.
The car was my friend’s favourite toy and, like any small child, he didn’t want to give it up, or even restrict its use to necessities, for any reason, good or bad. In fact, he had modified his thinking so as to be dependent upon this convenience and had come to the point where every use of his car, no matter how trivial, had been in his mind labeled a necessity.
At the time I found it curious that a young man whose moral sense I admired – he was an avid environmentalist, as we all were in that place and time – was completely unwilling to act on his convictions, even in a small way. It was an early lesson in human failings and, more pertinently, in the general direction our culture was taking.
I’m starting to learn that inconvenience is really nothing to fear. It turns out, in fact, that I don’t need quite a lot of things that I was used to, many of which were little more than expensive tools for avoiding reality. Lately I’ve been asking myself, “How would my great grandmother have done this?”
I was raised in part by my grandparents, who were born in England in 1903 and 1897. So there’s a sense in which I have lived my life with a foot in three centuries. I don’t know for sure, but I figure my grandmother’s mother would have been born around 1880-something. What did people do in the 1880s? How did they spend their days? How did they deal with the various requirements of daily life? How did they wash their clothes, for example?
A friend of mine appears to live in constant fear that I’m going to hurt myself doing the laundry by hand, and keeps threatening to buy me a washing machine. I respond by telling her that I could not afford to use it if she did. I moved to Norcia about a year and a half ago from a small seaside town north of Rome called Santa Marinella.
S. Mar. doesn’t have a commercial laundry so there is a bylaw – that for once is more or less adhered to by the local landlords – that all rental places must have a washer. (No one in this country of year-round sunshine has a tumble dryer at home.) So when I lived in S. Mar. I had my washer out on the little porch off my kitchen. It was fine. I did a lot of laundry and had what everyone in Italy has, a plastic fold-up drying rack.
But electricity and gas in this country are hugely expensive, and water isn’t free. I didn’t have a water bill in S. Mar., but I’ve got one in Norcia. So I didn’t get a washer for the new place. I have a nice big bathtub and do laundry in it once a week or so reusing the bath water. It turns out that it’s not very difficult to wash one’s own clothes without a mechanical servant. It requires time, effort and organisation and when it’s finished, I know I’ve done something. But it isn’t convenient.
I think about how my grandparents did things. My grandparents lived in a house they built themselves on a small plot, off the mains, 50 feet above the sea, on a little inlet on Vancouver Island, about 2 hours’ drive north of Victoria. At the time, Nanoose Bay (see photo) was the wilderness, and the little community of expatriate retired English and Scottish people who had built their houses there in the early ‘60s, chose that spot in order to be mostly well away from everything else. There wasn’t a shop or a gas station or any other commercial thing within walking distance, and there was no bus. The nearest laundromat was a 25-minute drive into town. They didn’t think about convenience in their choice of place.
They didn’t mind it being a little out of the way, and they knew how to do things for themselves. My grandfather decided that the area needed its own branch of the municipal library, and so he simply built one. My grandmother decided the time had come to teach local young people painting and drawing, so started a group for the purpose. To this day, though I have not been there in nearly 30 years, deep in my brain, that place stands for Paradise. When I die, I only hope I go to heaven and that heaven is as good as Nanoose Bay.
Grandma had a small washer that lived in their car port. Once a week she would wheel it into the kitchen, hook its nozzle up to the kitchen tap, and do all the laundry, hanging it up on a line in the little garden courtyard off the kitchen doors.
That little washer was not the sort on which you could just push a button and walk away. You had to tend it, make sure it didn’t unhook itself from the tap. It took about ½ an hour to go through a cycle, and then you had to take everything out and hang it up and put in the next load. Grandma always did the linens first, then the clothes. Now and then she would take the covers off the upholstered furniture and wash all that. It was Washing Day, a normal part of the cycle of daily life. It wasn’t arduous, there was no banging with rocks down on the beach, but it wasn’t convenient by modern standards.
One morning, shortly after I moved to Italy into a flat on the top floor of a small apartment building, I was idling outside on the terrace and noticed a lady in the next house doing laundry. Italian houses often have a big outdoor sink on the terrace and she was leaning over this, scrubbing her husband’s shirt collar with a large soap stick and a brush.
As I watched her, I thought, this is an act of love. Putting a little extra effort into this mundane task so her husband could wear his shirts with pride and the knowledge that his wife cared about him. This sort of thing, though nearly dead in the Anglo world, is still fairly common in Italy. Housewifery is still a thing here, and ladies work quite hard at it, retaining with pride much of the old know-how. But it certainly seems inconvenient.
When the domestic appliance and processed food manufacturers in the ‘50s started telling us that we would be as gods once we had homes where everything was done automatically by a shiny machine, did no one stop and ask themselves if that was what we really wanted? A life of godlike convenience in which we have television to tell us what we want, and everything we want is given to us at the touch of a button or, as now, the click of a mouse? Do we really still think we want to live like the Jetsons?
The trouble is, I think instead of the fun-loving Jetson family, the experiment in total convenience is turning out more like that Disney cartoon film, Wall-E. The last remaining humans (who were presumably conveniently artificially conceived and grown in little tanks, avoiding all that messy and inconvenient “family” business) live on an orbiting space ship above a ruined earth. They spend their lives lying helplessly flaccid in their floating chairs, fed a constant mental diet of vapid entertainment on their personal screens and a physical diet of artificially processed food-substitute, completely dependent on a mechanical system which they cannot control. I watched it and thought, errr… isn’t this about where we are now?
In fact it is a common cautionary theme in science fiction: we abandon our free will and become helpless and often willing slaves of our own creations. A very early version of exactly this theme was written by E.M. Forster, in which he predicted that the human race would live in hermetically sealed underground communities and spend all their time immersed in an artificial, “virtual” world that very closely resembled Facebook. At the end of that short story, they had come to worship “the machine” that controlled all their lives, but that had in fact, unknown to anyone, broken down. The story ends with the helpless population being forced to flee to the forbidding and profoundly inconvenient world of the planet’s surface.
But this does seem to be the world we want. We want, to quote a line from a Star Trek episode on the same theme, “to lie around like a big blob of nothing” and have things done for us. In fact, says Modernity, why do anything at all? Why don’t we just all lie down in a nutrient bath, get ourselves hooked up to a system of catheters and allow the Matrix to tell us what is and isn’t real? Isn’t that what we really want? To save ourselves the bother and risk of being engaged with reality at all? As the song by the Irish folk band Clannad said, “You can learn to love your lifetime of distraction.”
But it’s a funny fact of life that we still idolize inconvenience. We hold up the perfectly healthy, buff body as the human ideal. We are obsessed with organic foods and dieting. We buy a membership to a gym where we are presented with machines and free weights to help us inconvenience our muscles so they will continue to function. We visit doctors to tell us how to inconvenience our taste in food so we don’t become morbidly obese and die of diabetes. And here’s the punch line: we don’t do it. We don’t actually go to the gym, and we “cheat” on the diet.
It’s a joke until we learn just how far we’re willing to take it. Marriage is inconvenient, so we no longer even bother with it. Divorce is passé, so we just “cohabit” with our temporary “partner” instead. Parenthood is extremely inconvenient so we abort our children, infanticide for the sake of convenience. Religion is terribly inconvenient so we either ignore it completely or alter it to suit our preference for continuing our convenient sins. We are ending up in hell as the price of convenience.
Lately, I’m finding that I like inconvenience more and more. Inconvenience slows me down, it forces me to think about how I spend my time, how I organise my day. I have discovered, for example, that writing becomes vastly easier if I do not have the constant distraction of the internet at home. I canceled my account last month after I found that my entire list of daily activities had begun to revolve around sitting and looking at the screen. Now, if I want to use the ‘net, I have to put on my shoes and coat and walk 15 minutes down the hill to town where I can use the city Wi-Fi. My books have begun to be used for more than coasters once again. Maybe I’ll dust off my typewriter and see if that improves my writing. (I would welcome suggestions in the commbox as to where one can buy a typewriter ribbon.)
Yesterday, the sun came out and I could not stand to be indoors typing. So I put on my boots and my favourite ratty old cardie and my sun hat, and went out with my tools, a flask of tea and an expression of happy determination to find some hazel rods. I’ve got an idea to make a bit of hurdle fencing for my little vegetable patch. I saw a YouTube video on how to make a hurdle – that is, a woven fence – out of hazel rods, and I know there is a lot of hazel growing wild around here. For Christmas, a friend gave me a billhook, a curved and bladed peasant instrument, used for about ten thousand years to cut small branches and shrubbery. I packed it, a small hand saw, my pocket knife, leather garden gloves, my nice new secateurs and some plastic bags, into my day pack.
I also knew that during our unusually mild winter this year, most of the rose hips had not been blighted by the frost. I’ve been picking them off the hedge roses all winter and eating them. Rose hips are a delicious fruity treat and the science people tell us that there is only one fruit known to man with higher levels of vitamin C (some Southeast Asian thing I can’t remember the name of and probably doesn’t grow wild in Umbria), so I thought the time had come to go collect some. I knew where a large collection of wild rose bushes grew on an old country trail about 500 yards up the road from my house.
Sure enough, not only were there lots of hips left, but the long, gracefully arched rose canes gave me an idea. I collected enough hips to do a small batch of rosehip wine, and then cut a dozen of the canes, de-clawed them and tied them together in a bundle with some ready-made cordage provided by the wild clematis vines that grow all over everything. While I was clipping hips off the branches, I also found a big patch of wild parsley, so dug some of that up and put it in a plastic bag in the backpack to add to my herb pots.
I spent about three hours out in the sun, saw that the early signs of spring were up already in the form of the little violets poking their faces up over last year’s leaf litter. Lesser Celandine, ranunculus, hazel catkins and the early little pink blossoms of Damsons were all blooming along the hedges. I got a little sunburn on my arms, sat and drank my mint tea (that did not come out of a packet), and remembered to thank God for all that I was seeing and doing.
When all was ready, I picked up my big bundle – about nine feet long but surprisingly light – balanced it on my shoulder and hiked back up the trail and down the road as the sun was lowering towards the hills behind me. I figure they’re going to make a fine natural rose trellis for my beans. And I have read that wild roses, Rosas Canina, are very easy to grow from cuttings, and that an effective and non-toxic rooting compound can be made from spring willow shoots, which grow abundantly in the marshy parts of the valley.
Later today, I will go down to the garden centre and see if they have some pots big enough to start propagating my rose canes.
All of which is really, terribly inconvenient.
But really, why grow vegetables and herbs and cultivate wild roses in the garden? Why dig over beds every year and construct bean trellises and tomato supports? Why learn about composting your kitchen scraps and leaves? Why teach yourself to recognise weeds? Why learn about canning and drying and preserving? Why do any of this work when you can drive to the convenient supermarket in your convenient car and buy vegetables with your convenient credit card? If you save all that time and effort, just imagine how much time you would have for surfing the ‘net and arguing with strangers on Facebook and watching TV! That five seasons of Dawson’s Creek on DVD isn’t going to watch itself, you know.
Learn a language or to play an instrument? Learn to draw? Visit relatives? Comfort the sorrowing? Instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful? But the Oscars are on tonight!
And all that business of religion… really… who needs all the extra work of the Traditional end of things, am I right? The Monastic Divine Office… it’s, well, so much work. In the old-old days, if one wanted to be a monk or a nun one was expected to memorize the entire Psalter! In Latin! It took years! And getting up to pray at three in the morning? Imagine the inconvenience! Things are much better now, don’t you think, that we have the truncated version of the Novus Ordo Liturgy of the Hours, conveniently given to us in our own languages with those nice singable Jesuit hymns. And all that business of the pursuit of holiness, the mental prayer and contemplation, it’s exhausting! All that stuff must have been mighty inconvenient! Now we’ve learned that God loves us just the way we are. Convenient.
I thought the end of Wall-E left out the inevitable result in which the human race, their muscles, minds and souls hopelessly atrophied, inconveniently died of starvation and exposure on the newly re-claimed Earth. The End. It’s OK though. Clearly the robots in that movie were meant to inherit the earth.
This Lent I’ve been reading the Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict by Dom Paul Delatte, and paying special attention to the chapter called the Instruments of Good Works. Numbers 10 to 13 seem especially pertinent:
10. To deny oneself, in order to follow Christ.
11. To chastise the body.
12. Not to seek after delicate living.
13. To love fasting.
Dom Delatte says that when Man attempted to make himself equal to God, and thus fell below himself to the level of the brute, “the worship of self prevails, self-love in all its forms, whether the worship of the body in luxury, gluttony and vanity, or the worship of thought and will. And whatever is loved, whether person or thing, is loved only for self. Self-love is the one universal trace of the Fall; it is the one antagonist of our charity and our salvation.”
I can’t say I love fasting, but I’m starting to understand the thing about “delicate living.”
In addition to Dom Delatte, I am reading a book I bought here at the garden centre called “Autosufficienza,” all about how to grow and can and preserve your own food, keep bees, chickens, pigs and ducks, and make your own wine and grappa. It is rather slow going since it is in Italian, which I find gravely inconvenient. But it has pictures, so I’m catching on slowly.
Don't miss the kick-off of Hilary's new series, "The Chronicles of Norcia", available only in the print/e-edition of The Remnant.