Sunday, February 3, 2013

To Make

As I was walking down the hallway of the dormitory where I live and work, a student had left outside her door one of those very fine reusable shopping bags. On it is printed, "Improving lives with every purchase-- WholeTrade," from the WholeFoods empire.
I visit with the primary grade weekly for a half hour as part of my job. We've been working on learning about waste, and where trash goes, starting and maintaining a compost system in the school garden. In this class, however, I start by asking where do things come from? We know the 3 places our trash goes-- dump, recycling plant, compost-- but where does our stuff come from? I read Ox-Cart Man, a book about a 19th century farmer in New England, and the process he and his family go through every year, growing and building what they need, selling their excess, slowly purchasing what they cannot make themselves (primarily forged items, and candy).

I then ask-- what do you make at home? One student makes salad from greens she grows with her family. Another student sews sweatshirts from purchased fabric. Three students make go-carts or tree houses. When I ask where does the wood come from, one child says, From the garage. I pull from my bag items from my house-- a piece of pottery, a candle, a knit scarf, a bottle of ibuprofen-- and ask, Could ox-cart man make this? The children are not convinced when we answer Yes, to most of the items.
I am out to dinner with friends, and my son. My partner is away, and I am grateful to have the company and our dinners made for us. We are all teachers in different capacities, all live on the same floor of the dormitory. We discuss the importance of assessment in our roles, and one colleague and friend says, As someone who has worked in the least legitimate area of study, the arts... And I interrupt her,  No, no, no I would say that my area is seen as the least legitimate area of study in this school-- sustainable agriculture and Earth Literacy. None of the work I do is connected with assessment, and though this is not my value, I don't want to focus on this, our students are trained to value only what they will be graded on-- and so it makes it very easy for students to see what I do as meaningless, or tangential to their learning.  My friend says,  Why yes, most schools don't even have your job at it..., and we all laugh. And we move on.
News of rising food costs and instructions to purchase as a form of service give me pause these days. From a vantage point of self-interest, being a net consumer is a bad place to be in a constantly shifting and uncertain economic and environmental landscape.

From the perspective of values, I wonder at the values imparted in the messages above. I struggle for value in the work that is closest to my heart, that does not conform to traditional educational forms-- forms that focus on intellectual hoops and symbolic production. I bring lessons of self-sufficiency to children in a dominant culture that does not teach the value of making things useful to life in the human community.

On one level this obvious model of interdependence is really great! We rely on farmers from other countries, fabric makers from far away-- so many goods, as one of my young students said-- Everything comes from China these days!  We can see that we rely on each other. 
But the equation is unbalanced. Net consumers consume too much, and we forget what it means to make. We forget that we are meant to contribute to this world in a way that is more than symbolic-- symbolic money, intellectual property. And those who create, who build and grow and weave and construct, are debased and reviled, oppressed and exploited. Yes, in this country too.

We are meant to look out over a yard, a field, a house, and see something that wasn't there before, something made of our hands and hearts. Perhaps it's a meal, or a harvest, or a piece of art. Perhaps it's a child, or a community. We are meant to create in the world and for the world. We are meant to be of real service to each other, beyond (or in spite of, or in direct contradiction to) the exchange of money for goods.  Our souls depend upon it. 
My son is in the other room with my partner, trying to get snacks during meal prep. My son wants maple syrup, honey, jam. My son wants pancakes. My son wants parmesan cheese and pita bread. He and I have weekly rituals of making bread, pancakes. We try to use eggs, milk, flour from our local community, though he is 2, it is meaningless to him. Until I remind him of the farm where we see the goats and chickens, and buy our milk. Until I remind him of the chickens at Pete's farm where we buy our eggs. My hope is that he keeps these pictures in his head, and these pictures change his understanding of what we are doing when we bake together.

We have started to tell him stories about a mouse living in a house in Vermont with a family.  The family happily lives there, growing and making their food and storing it for winter. The mouse finds some of the food and starts to eat it. Depending on who tells the story, the mouse either gets a house in the barn, or the family gets a cat. We say the family is Forrest, Mommy, and Daddy. This is the story we want to make real. This is what we want to make.


  1. I love reading your excellent writing and lovely thoughts. So glad I get to!

    1. thanks for reading! i am glad you like it. it's a discipline i hope to do more over time.