Thoughts on Literature, Food, Faith and the Subversive Power of Living Small

Click here for information about Charlotte's novel, Place Last Seen

Current Reading

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kimmel
In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner
Fools Crow by James Welch
What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt

Daily Blogs

Body and Soul
Rittenhouse Review
Making Light
The Julie/Julia Project
Struggle in a Bungalow Kitchen
Real Live Preacher
Blog of a Bookslut
Moby Lives


E-Mail Me


Fourteen Precepts in Fifteen Days
LivingSmall lived a little large last night -- between drinking with the "emerald dealer" from Columbia (by way of Fargo), and the guy who dragged me out of the party at midnight and pulled his mother's old shotgun out of the back of his pickup truck in order to show me how nice and small and light it was (we'd been discussing bird dogs), well, LivingSmall has a bit of a head on her, and will resume pure, zen-like thoughts tomorrow, once she's cleansed the toxins from her body.

posted by Charlotte at 3/29/2003 10:13:00 AM


Fourteen Precepts in Fourteen Days: Day Five Do-Over
Fifth: Do not accumulate weath while millions are hungry. Do not take as the aim of your life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure. Live simply and share time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need.
Being Peace, by Thich Nhat Hanh

Some days a girl just wakes up groggy and out of sorts, particularly after a night dreaming that she's being chased through Baghdad by threatening Baath Party officials, dreams that she couldn't shake even after the world's best puppy climbed in bed for a snuggle at three am. After a night like that, sometimes it's hard to get your brain to figure out what it wants to write about a precept, even if it's one of the precepts you'd really looked forward to writing about. So I'm going to take a do-over on this one (although in an effort to be zen-like about it, and to own all my stuff, I'm leaving the other post, the post I won't refer to as "the stupid post," down below).

Okay, here's the personal challenge for me on this one. Renouncing wealth isn't the hard part -- anyone who decided, as I did, to spend a life writing novels, literary novels, in my case, dark literary novels pretty much gives up early on on the idea of being wealthy. Sure, some people get huge advances and movie deals, but some people also get hit by busses. I've been broke until about the last year or two, and I'm okay with that.

Here's what has been a challenge, particularly since I've moved to Montana. I have these friends in Bozeman who I met when we were all in our early twenties. We were out of touch for a number of years, but when I came up here last year looking at houses, I looked them up. Now, I grew up in one of the wealthier suburbs of America, among, shall we say, the haute bourgoisie. I went to school with kids whose surnames were also the names of major corporations, and among people for whom having to work at all was often an option. Then I left that world, and worked my way through graduate school, and somehow wound up out here in the regular world where it's simply a given that one has to earn a living. And that earning a living isn't something one should be pitied for. And then I got back in touch with these old friends, and realized that they live in that other world, that world in which I was raised. When I told my girlfriend that I was looking at houses in Livingston, her immediate reaction was "Oh! You don't want to live there"

And despite myself, I knew exactly what she meant by there. She meant out there in the world outside that carefully-defined bubble of "people like us." And as I explained that yes, I did want to live in Livingston, not Bozeman, precisely because Livingston is funky, and a little rundown, and populated by weirdo artists and painters, I could see that my friend was not believing me. I could see that she assumed I was simply making the best of my "poverty," putting a brave face on it. This is the same friend who looked at me with tears in her eyes and told me how proud she was that "you've done this all by yourself." Which was sweet. But was also maddening. Yeah, me and about 95% of the rest of the world have gone to school, gotten jobs, bought houses "all by ourselves."

So the challenge for me is to somehow stay friends with these people, when I feel like I'm always holding my breath to avoid losing my temper and accusing them of hoarding wealth, of living off trust fund money they didn't earn themselves (which brings out the little tiny Karl Marx in me, ranting about living off the labor of others), of pretending to be environmentalists while driving two SUVs, of buying an enormous suburban house and turning what was ranch land into an acre of lawn, lawn that their kids don't even play on, and most of all, of thinking that their excessive lifestyle is "normal" and just the way "nice" people live, and pitying me for "having" to live in a little house up here in funky town. The challenge for me is to somehow find a way to maybe start speaking my truth with these friends, who are really good nice people, with great kids, find a way to start speaking my truth about how I feel this "normal" bourgeois lifestyle is a danger to our nation and our world, find a way to start speaking this truth without sounding accusatory or judgemental.

So far, I haven't done very well at this. So far, I've pretty much just been avoiding them. Which I don't think is what the spirit of this precept is asking us to do.

posted by Charlotte at 3/28/2003 09:59:00 AM

Fourteen Precepts in Fourteen Days: Day Six

Sixth: Do not maintain anger or hatred. As soon as anger and hatred arise, practice the meditation on compassion in order to deeply understand the persons who have caused anger and hatred. Learn to look at other beings with the eyes of compassion.
Being Peace, by Thich Nhat Hanh

A little note about this precept project. I worry that I'm coming off like someone who knows something about all of this, which is really not the case at all. The purpose of this project was to keep me from the brink of despair. To give me a little piece of text to riff about and to try to put something out there into the cybersphere that was about peace, forgiveness, love. And to try to remind myself every morning, that peace must start in our own hearts. It's Lent, when we're asked to look inside ourselves and to acknowledge our personal failings. Believe me, my heart is not a peaceful place, and I am a long way from living in right speech (my love of gossip, a fatal flaw). I'm still failing to generate any lovingkindess energy for Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney ... although this meditation on the precepts did help me refrain from getting in an email spat yesterday with a tetchy co-worker. So that's something I suppose.

Annie Lamott writes about this subject beautifully in this morning's Salon. I don't know if she's still in the subscriber-only section, but this was the quote that really struck me (since I continue to fail at this project):

I am going to pray for George Bush's heart to change, so that he begins to want to be a part of the human family. He really doesn't want to gather at the table with God's other children, because he might have to sit with someone he hates. Iraqi soldiers, or someone like me. I really, really know this feeling. It is something he and I have in common.

Maybe that's today's inner project. Try to sit at the table, if even only in the imagination, with someone who is driving me crazy, someone with whom I really really disagree. Or maybe just try to watch the President on tv without hitting the mute button. Without hitting the mute button and without thinking about how much I despise and fear him.

posted by Charlotte at 3/28/2003 07:40:00 AM


Fourteen Precepts in Fourteen Days: Day Five
Fifth: Do not accumulate weath while millions are hungry. Do not take as the aim of your life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure. Live simply and share time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need.
Being Peace, by Thich Nhat Hanh

Again, where to start? It seems that as a culture, our instatiable desire for wealth, fame and sensual pleasure is what's gotten us into this mess in the first place. And there seem to be two camps, those who think that perhaps we could dial it back a bit, perhaps we don't need so much stuff, perhaps we could even share our wealth not only with the poorer nations of the world, but with those folks who are struggling so hard here at home. And another camp that is outraged by even the suggestion that their lifestyles may in any way be contributing to the problem. A camp who sees sharing resources not as something that helps us all out, but as something that takes away from them personally. Why is it, I wonder, that so many people feel that criticism of their SUVs is a critical civil rights issue, that to suggest that these behemoths are bad for society and the environment is suddently perceived as a direct assault on their "right" to drive whatever they want? (And why aren't these same people outraged over the assault on our actual civil rights being led by John Ashcroft?)

Buddhism posits that we are all connected to one another, that none of us is separate, apart, individual in the classic Western sense of the lone individual. If we are all in this together, then yes, hoarding resources for you and your own family is a problem. I would imagine going to war in order to "protect" "our" economic interests would then too, be seen as a problem.

I started this weblog because I wanted a place to explore some of my ideas about why choosing to live small, choosing to live a few rungs lower on the consumer food chain might be a good idea. Hence the gardening, the cooking, even the discussions about literature. It was my hope that if I could get off the wheel of consumerism, if I could get out of debt and into a house I can afford, then I could begin to clear some space in which to write, to garden, to have a life. To enjoy life. To take an afternoon and go paddle the Yellowstone, or hike Suce Creek with the dogs, or volunteer in my community. I'm still working on getting financially clear, but at least thus far, choosing to live small has been much more satisfying than those years I spent in the Bay Area trying to keep up. I only wish our nation could figure this out a little bit.

posted by Charlotte at 3/27/2003 10:52:00 AM

There's nearly a foot of heavy spring snow out there this morning. The kind that outlines every tree branch, link on my chain link fence, and completely buries all the new beds I dug out in a blanket of heavy wet lovely spring snow. A beautiful sight.

posted by Charlotte at 3/27/2003 06:25:00 AM


Garden Update
I have sprouts! Two of the five tomatoes have sprouted, and the thyme seems to be coming up as well. The grow lights are on and as always, I'm weirdly surprised that seeds actually sprout.

While avoiding war coverage last night, I stumbled across a rerun of my new favorite show, Ground Force, on BBC America.The conceit of Ground Force is that loved ones write in requesting a surprise garden makeover for someone, the show gets the recipient out of town for a weekend, and makes over their garden. So imagine my surprise when flipping channels to discover that they flew to South Africa and made over Nelson Mandela's garden!

It was so astonishing. Apparently, for the millenium, BBC asked them if they could do anyone's garden, whose would they do? And they chose Nelson Mandela -- he'd just built a new house, and there was no garden outside his office. The team was very clear, they wanted a lovely space outside his office, where he could see plants, and a water feature (using the millstone upon which his mother milled corn), and have a space to walk around, and to sit. There was a really touching segment on Robben Island, where apparently Mandela convinced the jailors to allow the prisoners to grow a small vegetable plot, and this was one of the things that kept his spirits up during the twenty-seven years that he was imprisoned there. So these three cheerful gardeners descended on his new house, and with much reverence and awe, built a lovely garden for Mandela. Who loved it. Who gently chastised his wife for tricking him saying "We agreed that we would have no secrets." She hugged his head and said that the secret just made the surprise more joyful. I was all weepy.

It cheered me up in light of this current war, and the terrifying assault on civil rights, to remember that it was only in 1990 that Mandela was freed, and to remember the many many years during which it seemed he would never be free, that Nelson Mandela's freedom was too much to hope for, that apartheid would never crumble. And to think about how strange that seems now. And how even though there is this enormous cloud of darkness, Nelson Mandela is free, and has a beautiful garden in which to formulate the words that may help us all to see that freedom is the only way.

posted by Charlotte at 3/26/2003 02:48:00 PM

Faith, Peace, Pacificsm on other blogs

I'm in the shallow end of pacifism here, folks, and my little blog entries are just the beginning of exploring these ideas. Here are some links to other people out there who have though about this stuff longer and harder than I have, and who have some interesting and related things to say.

Le Pretre Noir has an interesting account of his trepidation at having to preach about war last Sunday, and some particularly interesting things to say about the divisive nature of evil.

Eve and Jeanne have been asking good questions about whether nonviolence can effect change in the face of totalitarianism. And Lynn Gaziz-Sax has an interesting response about the experiences she and her husband had in the nonviolent peace movement in Serbia.

posted by Charlotte at 3/26/2003 01:07:00 PM

Fourteen Precepts in Fourteen Days: Day Four

Fourth: Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering by all means, including personal contact and visits, images, sound. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.
Being Peace, by Thich Nhat Hanh

That there is a global struggle for peace being waged simultaneously with this war seems to me a new phenomena, as though the world has realized that despite all assurances from the American command, wars cannot be "clean" or "surgical", that the expectation held by the hawks that the Iraquis were simply going to lay down their arms en masse and surrender is of course, a false expectation. That there is a large voice out there, insisting that wars cause suffering, human suffering, that the front page of the Livingston Enterprise yesterday afternoon, a small-town paper in a conservative Republican state, carried a terrible photo of a wounded Iraqui girl, with a caption that told us that she didn't know yet that her mother and sister had been killed, this seems new.

This war is a terrible thing, but that we are seeing it "live", so to speak, that as a culture we are not turning away from this suffering, that voices have been raised to protest that violence is not the means by which to relieve the suffering of the Iraqui people, that violence cannot be the means by which to stop violence, can be the seed for a tiny hope.

And if you want to join the effort to acknowledge and relieve the suffering of kids with autism, go read Wampum's account of the newer, even worse legislation Bill Frist is proposing to protect Eli Lilly from the consequences of using the mercury-based vaccine preservative Thimerosal. Make the calls. Write the letters. As Jim reminds us at The Rittenhouse Review, bloggers had an enormous effect on the Trent Lott situation, so now, while the nation is distracted by the war, a war Senator Frist seems to be using as cover for this legislation, we need to beat the drum, need to make the calls, need to send the faxes. Need to engage with suffering.

posted by Charlotte at 3/26/2003 06:59:00 AM


Fourteen Precepts in Fourteen Days: Day Three

Third: Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education. However, through compassionate dialogue, help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness.
Being Peace, by Thich Nhat Hanh

I suppose waging war against others in order to force them to adopt our views might fit under this heading, wouldn't it? I don't really know what to say here, it seems so obvious to me that forcing one's beliefs on others is wrong, and goes against our core values as Americans as expressed in the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. And of course this is the big divide right now, between those who feel justified forcing their beliefs on others, and those who feel that forcing their beliefs on others is wrong.

The harder part of this precept is the "compassionate dialogue" part -- and maybe this is the place to focus our energies. Its so tempting to get sucked into argument, to shout and stomp one's feet and just tell the opposition that they're wrong. Compassionate dialogue entails really engaging with the other side. I think of Jimmy Carter when I think of compassionate dialogue. It seems to me that there's a lot of compassionate dialogue going on out in the blog-o-sphere right now. Sites like Body and Soul, Where's Raed?, and of course Sean-Paul's heroic efforts over at The Agonist to keep us up to date on what's happening in the war while stripping away the interpretive overlay that clogs up the mainstream news coverage (he's running out of bandwidth though, so Patrick Nielsen Hayden at Electrolite is suggesting that people use the mirror sites located here, here and here) all seem to be participating in compassionate dialogue that seeks to make an end run around fanaticism and narrowness. I guess all we can do is try to keep it up. Try not to lose heart. Try to stay engaged.

posted by Charlotte at 3/25/2003 08:19:00 AM


Fourteen Precepts in Fourteen Days: Day Two

Second: Do not think that the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice non-attachment from views in order to be open to recieve other's viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observe reality in yourself and the world at all times.
Being Peace, by Thich Nhat Hanh

Since I'm not actually a Buddhist, although I've read pretty widely in the tradition, and have started sporadically sitting again as my Lenten practice, I asked my friend Wendy, who is a Zen practitioner to keep an eye out in case I go off in a doctrinal ditch, and she reminded me in an email this morning that "we never 'take' the precepts. They are always out there, available, like the Dharma. We choose to open ourselves to them and receive them if we'd like. We never take, get, grab, grasp, or use the precepts." So, let's all keep in mind that I'm just out here sharing my attempts to open myself to the dharma in a time of global violence and trouble.

Here's what I was thinking about this second precept, which is, of course, an extension of the first one. I'm thinking the Oscars provide a little example of this precept -- first of all, everyone looked really uncomfortable even being there. All dressed up in the middle of a war, a gag order on, in the middle of what is probably the most judgemental group of people in the universe, the LA movie community. But there they were, trying to figure out how to proceed. There were two moments where people tried to break through the weirdness and have their say, and although this is a precept about being nonjudgemental, it seems to me one moment was unsucessful, and one wasn't. Skillful means here people. We're talking skillful means.

Now as you know from my earlier post about Bowling for Columbine, I loved that movie. It was a thoughtful and nuanced examination of our culture of guns and violence, and it absolutely deserved to win the Oscar last night. But Michael Moore fell into the trap Thich Nhat Hanh warns about in this second precept. He marched up there "bound to present views" and although it was nice to see someone take a stand, his confrontational approach just kind of didn't work in that context. People were freaked out. He was so attached to his basic premise (which I tend to agree with) that this is an illegitimate presidency, that he lost the audience and everyone started booing and freaking out and didn't hear what he had to say next.

And then there was Adrian Brody. First of all, I think the "present views" were that he wasn't going to win, because he appeared so shocked, and the other nominees appeared so shocked, and then genuinely delighted, and that genuine delight seemed to spread through the auditorium. Suddenly it seemed right to people that this young actor won. An actor who put his heart and soul into a role about oppression and war, in a movie directed by a man who regardless of his sexual history, has suffered unspeakable violence on a personal level and has managed, somehow to go on as an artist. He was charming, and modest, and flustered and about to get shooed off the stage by the orchestra when suddenly he collected himself. And made the orchestra stop (that alone was a shock). And gave a very sweet and tender plea for compassion, for peace, for prayers. He told how he'd learned from playing that part, had gained some insight into how war dehumanizes us all, and he simply asked us all to resist that.

It's really tempting to dehumanize those who frighten us. I myself, am more than guilty of attachment to my views about the men running this current administration and their humanity. I was against this war, and still think that although Sadaam Hussein is an evil evil man, our violation of international law and aggression in starting this war were also deeply wrong. However, we're in it now, and I'm trying to practice non-attachment to my views about the military and the legitimacy of using military force. What can we do now but pray for them all? Our soldiers, their soldiers, the civilians on the ground?

posted by Charlotte at 3/24/2003 07:03:00 AM


Gardening update It was a fruitful weekend here in the garden. I'm building a somewhat elaborate traditional kitchen garden with raised beds, and this weekend I got it all marked out with stakes and chalk line, and then today I dug six of the eight beds. The other two, which I suspect will be heavy with crabgrass roots, as well as with roots from the large virginia creeper I cut down, will have to wait until I can fit them in this week, because my back made it abundantly clear that it had had enough for the day (I hate not being 20 anymore). They look beautiful. I've been planning this on paper all winter, and I'm so thrilled that my design looks like it's going to be terrific -- the beds will be both decorative and practical. And I feel really great about keeping Mrs. Warnik's vegetable patch going. (And should I somehow lose my enthusiasm for farming, they will make lovely perennial beds.)

I also started some seeds in the basement yesterday. I have a flat of herbs started, and the tomatoes and eggplants. Whenever the war really freaks me out, I go downstairs and look at those two flats of seeds warming on their heat mats, at the condensation on the inside of their little clear plastic domes, those seeds in there, warm and moist and sprouting. Summer will come somehow or another, and chances are, there will be tomatoes in my yard.

posted by Charlotte at 3/23/2003 05:30:00 PM

Fourteen Precepts in Fourteen Days
Yesterday, while rereading Being Peace, I came across the fourteen precepts of Thich Nhat Hanh's InterBeing order of Buddhists, and I thought that since it's still Lent, and since we are at war, perhaps it might be a useful exercise to take a look at one of them each day. If nothing else, it'll afford me the chance to keep working toward my goal of starting with peace in my own heart. Which I am finding difficult at the moment.

First: Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. All systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.

Where to start with this one? As someone raised by divorced parents who each held very firm beliefs about their own righteousness, beliefs that were in direct opposition to one another, and since each of them was convinced that it was desperately important that we kids believe their version, it has become second nature for me to be skeptical of ideologies (this was a huge problem in graduate school, it all would have been so much easier had I been more capable of simply marching along in the post-structuralist lockstep). A big part of my recent troubles with the Catholic Church has been the way the church has turned in the past few years away from the open spirit of inquiry fostered by Vatican II, toward an increasingly rigid orthodoxy. There are any number of Catholics out there who would be more than willing to throw me out, to point the finger and tell me that I'm not a Catholic at all because my theological beliefs don't line up with theirs. And I struggled with this for a long time. I even left the Church for several years. But whatever. I'm back. I'm out there in the pews, taking my own odd little faith off to Mass with me and trusting the Big Guy to forgive me if I take a different path to the light.

What is it though, that makes absolute truths so attractive to people? We've just been led off to war by a bunch of people who are convinced that they possess an absolute truth, and that their absolute truth is so much better than the rest of the world's that they can just go out there and do what they want. Weren't those guys who hijacked the planes also fueled by their belief in an absolute truth? Didn't we already spend several centuries fighting the Crusades? While I agree that Saddaam Hussein is an evil dictator who has perpetrated unspeakable crimes against his people, a people who will be better off without him, I also keep thinking of the Dalai Lama, who has led his people in resistance to oppression through peaceful means.

In my heartbreak and confusion over this war, I've also been reading Sharon Salzberg's book, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience. Salzberg talks about something she calls "bright faith" - that stage of belief in which one places one's faith outside oneself, usually in a charismatic teacher. She says that at that early stage in her practice, what I really wanted was for him to give me the definitive word on what was good and what wasn't, what I could trust and what I couldn't. I wanted to find in Buddhism a system I could belong to. I wanted to be able to say "I am a Buddhist, and therefore I am compelled to believe the following fifteen things. That's who I am." I was trying desperately to reduce the range of choices life was presenting every single day by making one controlling choice. A belief system might keep all uncertainty and fear away, keep the complexities and ambiguities of the world away. However, Salzberg spends much of the book discussing that deep faith, faith in the unknown and unknowable aspects of life comes only after one gets past this early stage. That spiritual maturity requires that we change the object of our faith from something external, a set of beliefs, a teacher, to something less definitive and internal. That like intimacy, faith requires us to willingly leap into the unknown.

I have no idea what's going to happen as a result of this war that we are all, as a society, implicated in. Like so many things in this world, I have no control over this, and watching war coverage 24/7 won't change that. But I guess I can try not to be so afraid, look for ways, once the dust settles, to try to effect some positive action. I guess I can try to resist my own ideological belief that everything that comes out of Donald Rumsfeld's mouth is a lie.

posted by Charlotte at 3/23/2003 07:14:00 AM


Powered By Blogger TM