Friday, July 7, 2017

Comfort's Discomfort

Kevin loves landscaping long, muddy days in pouring rain. Bonus if it's cold. He's obviously a weirdo but he actually has some reasons for his preference-- among them, days like that make him more easily satisfied.

It seems counter-intuitive, but I've learned this to be more universal than his personal quirk. When he comes home soaked to the bone, cold, mud plastered to his boots, his hot shower feels like manna from heaven. Sitting, doing nothing, eating some food is a miracle.

When I've comfortably worked inside the shelter of my home, my shower, meal, and sitting are far less noticeable.

Recently, whenever possible, I go as remote as possible. It's hard to find truly uncultivated places these days, but I try. West Virginia is always a strong candidate. There are parts of West Virginia that are largely undeveloped, in fact, seem practically impossible to develop. I sat outside under a cool drizzle watching state park workers. Kids had set off fireworks from a trail and kicked off a fire. which closed the trail. No trail, no sun, no problem. I bummed about, ultimately swimming in an unlabeled swimming hole, found after multiple queries. I watched the workers reestablish the trail. I watched the workers navigating traffic, in the rain. Everything felt quiet. Our expectations, collectively, were pretty low.

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I'm curious what happens to your mind and outlook in those environments. I drove through more Christianity than I can remember. Christianity of every sort but Catholic! Tons of Baptist, even Mennonite. I saw country stores hanging fox skins and signs that said, "We're broke, we believe in Jesus, we know who we're voting for, leave us alone." There were proud Trump signs next to iconography and symbols of Indigenous people. Not one country store had any cheese apart from American though goats would be grazing nearby. There were plenty of jars of pickles and mayonnaise next to the white bread.

I've written before about how in these environments I get read as a WASP really quickly. I've also had a year. During it, I've sort of shifted how I encounter others and it's working better. I used to trust first and be surprised later. My current mantra is "trust no one and love everyone." I know it sounds dark, but it actually works way better. It means I'm more self-protective and more at home with myself. I'm responsible for myself and aware.

I saw a flicker of recognition in this worldview. I started noticing that with this as my outlook, I fit in better. In this neck of the woods, being polite doesn't mean being stupid.

I saw sign after sign urging us to humble ourselves before God as mountains soared overhead and trucks nearly ran me off curving mountain highways. This is a part of the country where humans are in context and proportion. Human power is very clearly limited.

I have various fantasies about living in the country but also an ethic that says, "don't move there unless you have a remote job." Jobs are hard to come by in all parts of the country. Moving to a poor part of the country and taking work is poor form.

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Kevin and I were fantasizing about living somewhere rural and I confessed that I'd likely want to build cabins to rent on airbnb and various projects like that. "I'd be developing what I love for being undeveloped." Kevin paused, "It's a bit different here. Yes, you're developing, but on that scale the forest takes it back quick. At home, when you build, it's permanent. No one is under that illusion here."

Life is a mandala, a moment of impermanence. Standing in the rain, under the shade of tremendous cliffs, directing traffic through nowhere.

The poet Morgan Parker wrote a beautiful book called Other People's Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night. A Black poet, Parker writes clearly about race relations in the US. Many of her poems illuminate the priority many white people place on their comfort and sense of well-being over truly understanding the functioning of racism in the US. I've had more conversations than I care to remember with fellow white people, trying to work through race, and hearing, "It's uncomfortable."

Yes, it is.

It's also more uncomfortable to brutalized or discriminated against.

When I travel, my comfort becomes significantly less important. I go longer without eating, I curl myself into tiny bus seats, I pack layers. My excitement over the adventure outweighs any temporary discomfort.

I've watched this tendency and tried to transfer it to my daily life. Why do I need to be so controlled by access to the food I want, when I want it? The sleep I want, when I want it? Why is my contentment so conditional?

Kevin's theory is that we need to be far less comfortable. He thinks the modern priority of convenience and comfort is making us sicker and sadder. Anytime he's by a body of water, in any season, he jumps in and swims in it. I've seen him swim in water with ice on the surface. He'll lose his breath and gasp for a minute, but as he recovers himself he smiles broadly.

I used to be very hesitant about getting into water. I'd walk very slowly. I wanted my body to gently acclimate.

This past winter in Mexico, I stopped that. I started jumping in without hesitation. It's better. My body is rushed by the surrounding water and then I surrender.

I'm curious: the more uncomfortable I am with myself, do I seek proportionally greater comfort in the world? And inverse: the more comfortable I am with myself am I then more willing to let the world be no matter my perceptions of how it affects me?

I'm watching out for where else I resist.


  1. Kevin is a tapasvi: embracing 'cold and wet' can generate some serious metaphysical heat.

    I think you have adopted a very good strategy, one that I am struggling to adopt as well. God cares far more about how much we love one another than about how much we agree with one another and universal love is, paradoxically, compatible with strategic social engagement.

    Thanks for writing such a nice post.

    1. I like all of this. Yes, I'm working to be a bigger student of what's material than ethereal. In other words, pay attention to the world, to my body. Studying philosophy seems important-- as a tool, not a rule. It definitely is illuminating the animation of the world, putting me in perspective (which is paradoxically freeing), and pushing at the borders of my imagination. Thanks for your comment!

    2. Hey, I like this...definitely one of your best entries!
      This part:
      "I used to trust first and be surprised later. My current mantra is "trust no one and love everyone....
      I saw a flicker of recognition in this worldview....In this neck of the woods, being polite doesn't mean being stupid."
      Really caught my attention...honestly I was still thinking about that passage while i was "reading " the rest.
      The relationship between inherent trust and manners (or lack thereof)seems pretty fertile. I've typically found rural folks to be less trusting but way nicer. The downside is that a lack of trust in others usually leads to what i would consider pretty awful politics....

  2. Thanks for commenting, Barry!

    You totally have me thinking.

    For starts, I'm trying to be careful because I often paint in broad brush strokes and that's often not the whole picture (oh, with the metaphor!) and misses a lot. I've only ever lived in suburban and urban areas, which I think is in large part why I'm so curious about how these environments have shaped me and how rural areas shape others. I'm curious but largely uninformed.

    And I agree-- I bought some water from the proprietor at Yokum's Deli and Motel. He was not friendly. Blank faced and looking out the door but obviously missing nothing. He barely said a word to me and yet I felt like if anything went down he would help me.

    At home, I'm often struck by the pleasantries we exchange and yet someone won't shift to the side to allow me to pass or help me if need be. So there's an interesting thing happening there. I'm not sure exactly what it is... I was thinking about how polite the South is. And yet, that's the American home of slavery... so how much does politeness really get you? (And yet, I come from a long line of Southerners so it means something to me. And some of them were slave holders. Confusing.)


  3. I like the question you pose about trust and politics. I was/am confused there too. Why are there largely respectful symbols of Indigenous culture alongside Trump paraphernelia? I don't really get it. And yet, I'm increasingly aware that when I try to make something cognitively logical it usually is untrue. When I search out *feel* it starts getting closer to lived reality. I'm fumbling here and trying to work this out but I think there's something about feeling connected to land and of land. I think there's a sense of what freedom is outside of man's law. I think it's felt and I don't know how it lives alongside the history of genocide and reservations. And yet, I think there are also probably more real parallels of lived poverty and tragedy. So complicated lines that aren't all experienced intellectually but in the multitude of lens we use to process and experience.

    When I've tried to talk politics with folks from the wilder parts I've noticed a few things. One, we might use the same words but they mean vastly different things. That's super interesting to me. Two, we have incredibly different reference points. For example, federal intrusion and regulation seems to loom large as a threat in that part of the world. Our realities are so wildly different I start to understand, theoretically at least, states' rights folks. In theory. Not at all in reality.

    Early in our marriage Kevin and I realized that at the foundation of most of our most brutal fights was his essential desire for freedom and my essential desire for security. Of course, the two poles of most philosophical discourse too. When fighting about money, I was fighting to feel safe and he was fighting to feel unencumbered. I wanted mortgages and things that made me feel tied to a social safety net. He wanted to eschew all of that and feel free to get up and go when the world economy collapses.

    Over the years we've come to see that what we want isn't so divergent but we view it differently. It's actually helped us translate most of our disagreements to one another and navigate them better.

    Again, unworked out, but I wonder if there's something like that here? Like, in the cities many of us have lost the security of community so we're fighting for that. We're trying to regulate helping one another. We have so many people here that we have choice-- if someone pisses us off we can leave them and find other people, which is great in the case of abusive relationships but has also cost us some of our interpersonal skill.

    I get the sense that in rural areas you can't chose who you ask for help. You have to resolve some of your interpersonal differences, or at least ignore them, if you're going to fix your busted tire or whatever. I think this has, in some ways, helped community (and it's also the restriction that causes many to want to get away). I wonder if there's this sense that security is here, to the degree you can expect it, so freedom predominates. I feel like that's what I hear from the less regulation types.

    And we're living in this completely different reality where we see how quickly people can fall through the cracks so we're trying to regulate a safety net into place. But in some ways maybe we're trying to substitute government for community?

    I don't know. I'm trying to understand. Thank you for making me think.