It can be difficult to categorize a Carlos Reygadas film as simply “good” or “bad.” The director and the films themselves seem extremely disinterested in questions of easy adoration or dismissal and extremely interested in inviting viewers into a different kind of experience, one of durational and emotional testing. Reygadas’ characters are often in messy situations and, instead of offering clean narratives through the mess, he lets the mess sit, stagnant on the surface but bubbling beneath, and asks audiences to also spend time (and a good amount of time) in the muck.
Our Time, Reygadas’ sixth feature film, falls in line with these expected features, and it will not be for all tastes. The film’s running time in and of itself, nearly three hours, will be enough to turn off some, and the fact that much of that time is spent meandering through a marriage in various states of existential crisis, might turn off more. But for those with the stamina for investigating bad behavior, particularly masculinity in its various shades of emotional and physical violence, will find much to mine.
Reygadas has cast himself and his real-life wife Natalia López as Juan and Esther, a couple in an open marriage who run a fighting bull ranch in rural Mexico. They split duties, her mostly running the ranch’s daily activities and him selecting and raising the animals. Juan is also a renowned poet attempting to balance his creative passions and his practical duties. Few of these establishing facts are explained, with Reygadas characteristically allowing dialogue and imagery to swirl, trusting viewers to glean information from simply watching and listening to the quotidien moments in the first few scenes.
In fact, it takes a while to understand who the main characters are and what the main story is. As in other films, Reygadas opens the film with a long collection of scenes featuring many characters who will never be seen again, namely children and teenagers, all playing various innocent and not-so-innocent games in the muddy ponds and desolate grounds surrounding the ranch. It seems Reygadas wants viewers to delve into what games, particularly games between people who would pursue physical touch with one another, mean, how we manipulate and control the rules, and how we punish one another in animalistic ways when things don’t go our way.
Animals feature prominently throughout the film, all layering on meaning as the winding plot unspools (and though the credits make clear that no animals were harmed in the making of the film, sensitive viewers should take note that the depicted violence against and between animals is incredibly visceral and upsetting). Though Juan and Esther have agreed to their open marriage, Juan is driven to jealous extremes when Esther beds Phil (Phil Burgers), an American horse breaker. The facts that Juan raises fighting bulls and that Phil breaks horses, and that the two go head-to-head in a swaggering battle for Esther’s attention, might seem a bit on the nose. But this combination is also effective. The images of animals in various states of violent interaction juxtaposed with Juan and Phil’s initially human but increasingly beastly treatment of one another adds much-needed poetry to a story that might end up too tediously toxic without such artful commentary.
After Juan realizes how close Esther and Phil are growing, his behavior turns increasingly erratic. He insists that his real problem with the affair is that Esther didn’t tell him about its genesis from the start, but as Esther asserts more agency, it becomes clearer that a lack of control over her is Juan’s main issue. At times, it seems even Juan believes his own actions to be outlandish, but he still disappears into a kind of masculine madness, until it actually seems that, instead of Phil cuckolding him, Juan might just be cuckolding himself. Such is the danger of toxic masculinity, deaf to the nuances of emotion and empathy, and hellbent on grabbing back a sense of power, no matter how fallible and fragile, no matter the devastating consequences.
Reygadas refuses to afford his characters an easy way out, and as the film ends, the lack of resolution will be as vexatious to some viewers as Juan’s own siloed shame and sadness. Breathtaking photography and sound design, often in scenes depicting violence among bulls (and in one instance an ill-fated mule), add to the disorienting beastliness that envelops all three main characters, leaving viewers to ponder what separates the human ego from the animal ego, or whether, especially when it comes to lust and love, there is any difference at all.
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In the 10-part Netflix series The Society, the high school students of a suburban town return from a bus trip to discover that all the adults are gone and their community is totally cut off from the outside world. (See our review of the series for names of the key characters, a plot synopsis, and discussion of some of the themes.)
At one of their first community meetings, the student council president suggests that until they have some answers about what has happened, they should figure out how they are going to live together. One student questions, “Which one of us gets to decide who gets what?” Another answers, “It’s called democracy.”
This Values & Visions Guide is designed to give you and your group opportunities first to discuss the issues the youth in The Society have to deal with, and second to consider how those same issues play out in your own lives.
In the overview to The Practicing Democracy Project on S&P, we write: “Democracy is more than the system of government. It is a way of life based upon citizens’ commitment to the common good. We can assess the vitality of any democracy by looking at its history, its current state, and its potential to serve the hopes and dreams of its people. But the truest measure of its health is how well it is practiced.”
- What are the most critical issues and decisions the youth in New Ham face? How do the different factions deal with them? How well do you think they practice democracy? Give a specific example.
- What do you think are the benefits and challenges of living in a democracy in the modern world? Is democracy a way of life for you? How do you practice it?
Byron Katie writes in A Thousand Names for Joy: “I don’t know what’s best for me or you or the world. I don’t want to change you or improve you or convert you or help to heal you. I just welcome things as they come and go. That’s true love. The best way of leading people is to let them find their own way.”
- Discuss the different leadership styles of Cassandra, Allie, and Lexie. Which other characters do you consider to be leaders in New Ham?
- What character qualities do you admire in a leader? Do you think, as Byron Katie suggests, that leaders need to let people find their own way? What do you think would happen?
Wayne Muller in Legacy of the Heart writes: “When we are in fear, we focus all our attention on the point of danger and lose our capacity to find a courage, security, or peace within ourselves. We become so obsessed with what threatens us that the inner strengths of the heart become inaudible. . . . When we are afraid, we lose our ability to feel our own inner strength, and things precious and vital within us are smothered by our anxieties. When we spend all our days worried about how things will turn out, planning for whether we will have enough food, clothing, money, or love, then what kind of life have we protected? In spite of our plans and strategies, we never feel at peace.”
- Many of the youth in New Ham are fearful. What are their biggest fears? What strategies to combat fear seem to work and which don’t help?
- As you watched the series, what gave you the creeps? What did you find yourself worrying about? In terms of your own community life, what do you fear most? What is your most effective fear-buster?
4. Chores and Challenges
Sociologist Amitai Etzioni, author of An Immodest Agenda, writes: “We must balance the desire to focus on one’s own interests with some obligation to the commons. True, duties are not fun, otherwise there would be no need to impose them. But a civil society cannot do without them.”
- In The Society, the young people don’t have to deal with money, conflicts with their parents, and school pressures. But they do have work assignments. Do you understand the resistance to the community work that emerges? How do you explain it? How you ever run into this phenomenon?
- How do you think you would fare if you were thrown into a situation like the one depicted in The Society? What would you find to be most challenging? What could you contribute to the community? Share an example from your own life.
Historian Henry Steele Commager wrote: “If our democracy is to flourish, it must have dissent.”
- How is dissent handled in The Society? What steps would you suggest to encourage constructive criticism and the honoring of different points of view?
- Have you ever felt shut out of a community discussion, discouraged to offer a different point of view? Share your experience. What change could have made a difference in your particular situation?
In Making the Connections, Beverly Wildung Harrison says: “I believe that our world is on the verge of self-destruction and death because the society as a whole has so deeply neglected that which is most human and most valuable and the most basic of all the works of love — the work of human communication, of caring and nurturance, of tending the personal bonds of community.”
- Which characters in The Society are the best at communication, caring, and tending the bonds of community? Point out specific moments when they are engaged in these works of love.
- How can you nurture and strengthen the bonds of community where you live or work?
In Choices: Making Right Decisions in a Complex World, Lewis B. Smedes writes: “We all make choices that touch other people’s lives, as well as our own, in ways that leave us wondering whether we are really doing the right thing. A strange inner force now and then trips us into asking ourselves, ‘But is it right?’ This force, this hormone of our conscience, does not let us stifle it for long; it may sleep for a while, but eventually, when doubt lingers on after the act is done, it wakes up and sneaks into our minds as a creeping disquiet, a vexing misgiving that we might have done the wrong thing. Sooner or later, most of us have a personal rendezvous with a trembling hunch that we have made a wrong choice.”
- As of June 2019, Netflix has not announced whether there will be a second season of The Society, but given the audience and critical support for the series, one is expected. And, we predict, a major theme going forward will be the question of whether the choices the characters have made are the “right” ones. Doubts about what they are doing and have done creep up on several characters in season one. Which choices and reactions to them surprised you? Which did you expect?
- Would you have made the same choices as Allie and the other leaders in New Ham? Which would you question? How do you usually react when your “hormone of conscience” sneaks into your mind as a vexing misgiving that you might have done the wrong thing. If you feel comfortable doing so, share an example with your group or a friend.
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According to the statistics on the screen at the start of this film, there are more than 100,000 wild mustangs roaming the American West. Each year thousands of them are rounded up, presumably in order to prevent over-population, but also because ranchers want to use the land for their cattle. Some are euthanized or kept indefinitely in enclosures, but a lucky few are sent off to be trained by prisoners in correctional facilities for auction to ranchers, border patrol agents, and experienced riders.
Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a prison inmate who admits to being silent and antisocial. The authorities have decided to move him from his solitary confinement in a maximum security prison to another prison situated in the Nevada desert. He doesn’t fare too well in this place. He slams his fists on the table during an introductory chat with an anger-management therapist (Connie Britton). When his daughter (Gideon Adlon) visits to get him to sign some papers, he screams at her and asks her not to visit again.
Assigned to do “outdoor maintenance,” Roman observes some of the other inmates working with wild mustangs. Myles (Bruce Dern), the crusty and critical trainer in charge of the program, explains that they have 12 weeks to break and train the horses before they are auctioned off. He senses a connection between the wildest new horse on the lot and this angry convict. Henry (Jason Mitchell), a jovial prisoner who already knows the ropes of working with the dangerous horses, decides to help Roman with a horse he names Markus.
First-time feature filmmaker Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre brings to The Mustang a refreshing admiration for the plight of the wild horses who for centuries have roamed freely over the Western prairies. In thematic sync with this story is her uplifting dramatization of the bond that develops between Roman and Markus. The inmate soon learns that if he is to control the horse, he must first control himself. In a very moving scene, Markus finally comes close, seeming to sense the struggle his human companion is going through.
In our spiritual perspective, the mustang serves as a teacher to Roman. He helps the pent-up outsider get in touch with the emotions he has eschewed for years.
More Horse Movies
We have a batch of favorite films about special relationships between humans and horses, including Buck, The Black Stallion, The Horse Whisperer, Seabiscuit, Secretariat, and War Horse.
More recent releases are Lean on Pete and The Rider, both ofwhich made our list of The Most Spiritually Literate Films of 2018. The first focuses on the camaraderie of a teenager and a downtrodden racehorse and the arduous journey they take together. The second revolves around a rodeo cowboy and the hard road he travels after a fall from a horse.
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Margaret Bourke-White (1904 – 1971) was a breakthrough photojournalist who took her first photography class in college. In a largely male-dominated profession, she made her mark as the first woman to photograph for LIFE magazine, the first accredited female war photographer in World War II, and the first Western photographer allowed into the Soviet Union to take pictures of industry there.
Bourke-White said of her profession: “I feel that utter truth is essential, and to get that truth may take a lot of seeking.” Her restlessness and yearning for adventure took her around the world, first doing industrial photographs and then working as an associate editor and staff photographer at Fortune. Bourke-White earned her reputation as “the swashbuckling photojournalist” by being torpedoed in the Mediteranean and enduring the bombing of Moscow during the siege of the city. She was shocked when she visited Buchenwald on a tour of Germany, and was in India where she photographed Mahatma Gandhi hours before he was assassinated. She took some of the most poignant and horrifying photographs of the violence that erupted upon the partition of India and Pakistan.
When Margaret Bourke-White died in 1971, her friend Alfred Eisenstadt said of her: “She was great because there was no assignment, no picture that was unimportant to her.” It is that ethical perspective that made her such a remarkable photojournalist.
To Name This Day . . .
Here are some quotations from Margaret Bourke-White about photography. After reflecting upon her view of this art from, see how you might incorporate one of her views into some pictures you take today.
“Photography is a very subtle thing. You must let the camera take you by the hand, as it were, and lead you into your subject.”
“If you want to photograph a man spinning, give some thought to why he spins. Understanding for a photographer is as important as the equipment he uses.”
“As photographers, we live through things so swiftly. All our experience and training is focused toward snatching off the highlights. . . . That all significant perfect moment, so essential to capture, is often highly perishable.”
“The very secret of life for me was to maintain in the midst of rushing events an inner tranquility. I had picked a life that dealt with excitement, tragedy, mass calamities, human triumphs, and suffering. To throw my whole self into recording and attempting to understand these things, I needed an inner serenity as a kind of balance.”
Spend some time today looking at photographs by Margaret Bourne-White. There is a good collection of them at Google Arts & Culture; you can find others in online galleries and museums. Here are two ways to deepen your encounters with the photographs.
1. Identify the benefits you experience from looking at the world through Margaret Bourke-White’s eyes. Here are a few things a photograph can do:
- It directs our attention to the extraordinary in the ordinary.
- It enables us to see and appreciate the connections between people, animals, plants, places and things.
- It draws out our empathy and compassion in the face of suffering.
- It respects the mystery of all things and, in so doing, paves the way for a reverence of life.
2. Practice Visio Divina with one of the photographs. (Visio Divina is similar to Lectio Divina or Sacred Reading, but instead of working with a text to discover its meaning to you, you work with an image.) Here are the steps:
- Look closely at the photograph. What do you notice about it? Does some aspect of it stand out for you? A shape, its construction, a particular figure, etc.
- Narrow your gaze to what you noticed. Be attentive to what speaks to your heart as you reflect upon that part of the photograph. Ask yourself, “What is this picture telling me?” Or “Where is the sacred in this picture?”
- Respond to the photograph. What does it call forth from you? A prayer, words on a notepad, a drawing, a commitment to an action?
- Just sit with the photograph until you feel you have gotten what you need from your encounter with it.
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The Oscar winning documentary film The Cove made the Japanese town of Taiji a notorious place because of its prominence in trapping dolphins in a small bay and then slaughtering them. This place is home to 3,400 and many of them are whale and dolphin hunters. One seasoned fisherman is angered by the Westerners who arrive in town and insult or condemn what they see as a vile and barbaric practice. Caroline Kennedy, a former ambassador to Japan, is on record for calling the hunt “inhumane.””
The most aggressive protesters are from Sea Shepherd, a band of deeply committed environmental activists. Although they have been trying everything they can think of to save the dolphins, the politicians and citizens of Taiji cling to tradition and point out that they fully intend to pass on hunting to their sons. The community leaders and others are upset over the arrogance of the non-Japanese protesters telling them to get rid of this part of their culture.
After being penned dolphins face two terrible fates: they can be sold to aquariums to become performers or butchered for meat. Defenders of the dolphin hunt do cherish as special these graceful and playful creatures. As a classroom of children eat slices of whale and dolphin meat, they chime in what their parents have taught them to say about this controversial issue.
Megumi Sasai directs this thoughtful documentary without taking sides.
Encouraging us to listen to different points of view, she sums up her perspective:
“There are universal themes about how we coexist. Things are so divided in the world, we don’t listen to each other, we demonize the other side of the argument. This is just a microcosm of that.”
The story she tells gives us ample opportunities to stretch our souls and minds.
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Jacques-Yves Cousteau — a French naval officer, oceanographer, conservationist, filmmaker, inventor, photographer, and author — was born on this day in 1910. His marine explorations on a minesweeper that he converted into a research vessel, the Calypso, drew people all over the world into his sense of wonder and the urgent need to protect Earth’s waters.
Cousteau loved the feel of water from an early age but had intended to become a navy pilot. Then in 1933 a terrible car accident, which nearly took his life and in which both his arms were broken, altered this trajectory. He started swimming in the Mediterranean Sea for rehabilitation, and one of his friends gave him swimming goggles, starting his love of underwater adventures.
During World War II, Cousteau served as a gunnery officer and later as a spy for the French Resistance, for which he was awarded the Legion of Honor. During the war he met Emile Gagnan, a French engineer; together they co-developed the aqua-lung, enabling divers to breathe under water for extended periods. Cousteau also helped invent underwater cameras, a maneuverable diving saucer for seafloor exploration, and other useful equipment.
After Cousteau started expeditions on the Calypso in the 1950s, his books, documentary films, and the television series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau brought him to the attention of millions of people eager to learn from him about marine creatures and habitats. In 1973, he founded the Cousteau Society, a nonprofit environmental group which quickly grew to 300,000 members worldwide.
Cousteau became increasingly concerned about ecological sustainability and climate change. In The Human, the Orchid, and the Octopus, which he co-wrote with Susan Schiefelbein, he remembered: “In 1946 [we visited] a rock called Le Veyron, around which sea life swarmed … an undersea paradise. … About thirty years later I returned … to the same depth, to the same caves, at the same time of year. The grotto was empty. Not one single fish lived among the rocks. The verdant gardens were gone. … When I saw Le Veyron, I believed that the sea’s most monstrous force doesn’t live in Loch Ness. It lives in us.”
But in that same book, he reminded us also of our power to heal and restore: “To enlarge the human perspective, to build on knowledge for future generations, to identify dangers, and to chart the course to a better world: If these are the goals of the explorer, then everyone — voyager, scientist and citizen, parent and child — is engaged in humanity’s momentous expedition.”
To Name This Day . . .
Which of these quotes from Jacques Cousteau most moves you to act on behalf of preserving the treasures of the Earth? Carry that quote with you today as an inspiration.
“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”
— in Life and Death in a Coral Sea
“Learning science, learning about nature, is more than the mere right of taxpayers; it is more than the mere responsibility of voters. It is the privilege of the human being.”
— in Jacques Cousteau and Susan Schiefelbein, The Human, the Orchid, and the Octopus
“Human blood is a testament to life’s origin in the ocean: its chemical composition is nearly identical to that of sea-water.”
— in “Ocean Policy and Reasonable Utopias,” The Forum (Summer 1981)
“Without ethics, everything happens as if we were all five billion passengers on a big machinery and nobody is driving the machinery. And it’s going faster and faster, but we don’t know where.”
— from CNN interview (February 24, 1989)
“Truly, we do live on a ‘water planet.’ For us, water is that critical issue that we need. It’s the most precious substance on the planet, and it links us to pretty much every environmental issue, including climate change, that we’re facing.”
— from an interview by Kathleen Walter, Newsmax (September 28, 2009)
In retrospect, far from bemoaning the car accident in which he nearly died, Cousteau saw it as a turning point in his life. In The Silent World, co-written with Frederic Dumas for the National Geographic Society, he observed that “sometimes we are lucky enough to know that our lives have been changed, to discard the old, embrace the new, and turn headlong down an immutable course.”
Chart some occasions when your life has taken a sudden turn. Could you tell at the time where things were leading? How did you take advantage of hidden opportunities to move in a different direction? How might you use these same skills of transformation in your life at the moment?
Enjoy this CNN video about Jacques Cousteau’s legacy.
You can also celebrate Cousteau’s birthday with this music video, “Calypso,” by John Denver:
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Hurray for the Average Child *
Let’s hear it for the “average” child who receives no special award on honors day: the one who stares out the window in geometry class and dreams of faraway places, having mastered the art of reverie; the one who feels abandoned by her peer group but stands up for her own convictions; the one who spends the night listening to a friend in need rather than studying for a history exam; the one who manages equipment for a football team but doesn’t play football or receive recognition from the crowd; the one who studies hard and shows up for all the extra sessions but makes a C on the exam, all the while doing his best; the one who opts out of biology lab because he doesn’t want to dissect frogs, knowing they are too beautiful to be murdered for dissection; the one who stays seated during the awards ceremony and somehow musters the strength of soul to clap for all the “special” people even as she feels unnoticed. Yes, let’s hear it!
Aren’t these the kinds of students who partake of spiritual depth, of closeness with God, all the while hidden to the lovers of merit-badges. Aren’t the qualities of heart and mind that they exemplify, in quiet and unnoticed ways, the very qualities that wise people rightly admire:
Attention – Beauty (sensitivity to) – Being Present – Compassion – Connections – Devotion – Enthusiasm – Faith – Forgiveness – Grace – Gratitude – Hope – Hospitality – Imagination – Joy – Justice – Kindness – Listening – Love – Meaning – Nurturing – Openness – Peace – Play – Questing – Reverence – Shadow – Silence – Teachers – Transformation – Unity – Vision – Wonder – X (sense of Mystery) – Yearning – You – Zest for Life
And while we’re at it, let’s hear it for their parents, too, who love them so much, think they are eminently “honorable” in the ways that really count, some of them sitting in the stands on honors day, also clapping. Let’s hear it for father who says: “It doesn’t matter to me one bit if you never played football, you are a sensitive and wonderful soul and that’s what matters to me.” And to the mother who says: “Being yourself, in your generous way, is so much more of an achievement than making an A on a history exam. You are an angel.”
And let’s hear it for parents, mentors, preachers, coaches, teachers, and priests who have the wisdom to see past the glitz and glory to the soul of things: to the place where, in the words of Frederic Buechner, gladness of the heart meets the hungers of the world. Let’s hear it for those who emphasize depth, not “achievement.”
And, yes, let’s hear it for the Soul of the universe and who quietly whispers in each heart: “No need to receive applause. No need to receive trophies. Live simply and lovingly, enjoying life and being kind. Reach out to strangers. Give without expecting anything in return. Learn to live with less so that others can simply live. Then, by any measure that counts, you will be a ‘success.’ You will be a channel of my love for the world. Blessed are the Average, their theirs is the kingdom of God.”
Note: The title for this blog was inspired by a New York Times Opinion Piece “Let’s Hear it for the Average Child” by Margaret Renkl and by “The Kid” by the folk group “Cry Cry Cry.”
Next Post: “T” is for Transformation
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John and Molly Chester are middle-class professionals living in an apartment in Santa Monica, California. He is an accomplished documentary wildlife cinematographer, and she is a chef and organic food blogger. They decide to try a new career path, thanks to their rescue dog Todd. They can’t get him to stop barking whenever they are away from the apartment, and their landlord evicts them. They will remain grateful to their four-legged companion from then on!
Riding the surf of idealism and hope, the Chesters decide that what they really want to do is farm in harmony with nature. They find Apricot Lane Farms an hour outside of Los Angeles and set about creating a self-contained ecosystem on its 240 acres. They raise money from investors who are excited about their plans for an orchard, organic crops, and all the farm animals they had seen in children’s books — pigs, geese, ducks, sheep, dogs, and chickens.
Lacking the practical and visionary overview for this staggering undertaking, they bring in Alan York, a consultant on traditional farming. He recommends one thing above all else: biodiversity. Plant 75 varieties of fruit trees. Bring in lots of different animals. Make a tea out of their poop and use it to enrich the soil. Plant cover crops to protect the soil from wind storms and floods. Make the whole farm a wildlife habitat. Be hospitable to predators who can keep pests under control. His advice is not only inspirational, it is eminently practical. With a team of students and migrant workers, the Chesters begin converting the dry, rock-filled dirt into luscious top soil filled with nutrients.
It is exhilarating to watch this hard-working couple manifest their dreams of an earth-based spirituality that reverences Todd, their sheepdogs, a nurturing mother pig named Emma who gives birth to 17 piglets, and a lonely rooster called Greasy who beds down near her.
In his thought-provoking book Sacred Energies, Daniel C. Maguire calls the religions of the world “great symphonies of hope.” The Chesters exemplify this kind of hope. They practice the simplicity of living advocated by Buddhists, the harmony and balance in Taoism, the nonviolence of Hinduism (note how the coyotes are integrated into the farm’s ecosystem rather than being shot and killed), and the respect for all life at the heart of Native American and Celtic spiritual paths.
Another exciting dimension of The Biggest Little Farm is the sense-luscious cinematography of John Chester as he chronicles life on the farm over a seven-year period. He creatively conveys the abundance and the beauty of the farm land, the trees, the plants, and the wildlife.
He also captures the dismay and occasional despair of the farm workers as they deal with setbacks and challenges. During a period they describe as the “slow disillusionment of our earnest intent,” the Chesters decide that intent alone is not protection. Their chickens and ducks are killed by coyotes; birds eat the fruit in the orchard, so that 70% of the harvest cannot be sold; when the birds are gone, snails arrive; and gophers dig holes throughout the now rich and loose soil and gnaw on tree roots. Alan York had urged them to trust in biodiversity, but will having a mix of predators and prey protect the farm in the long run?
Throughout this hopeful documentary, we see how Apricot Lane Farms itself becomes a spiritual teacher to the Chesters. At one point, John admits, “Our farm is energized entirely by the impermanence of life.” Everything is connected, and one part supports and nourishes another, even as it passes away from one form to the next. This is what Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about in Present Moment Wonderful Moment. He’s talking specifically about garbage, but the same truths apply to all the beings on this natural farm:
“Garbage can smell terrible, especially rotting organic matter. But it can also become rich compost for fertilizing the garden. The fragrant rose and the stinking garbage are two sides of the same existence. Without one, the other cannot be. Everything is in transformation. The rose that wilts after six days will become a part of the garbage. After six months the garbage is transformed into a rose. When we speak of impermanence, we understand that everything is in transformation. This becomes that, and that becomes this.”
Kindred Spirits in Vermont
The Chesters’ experiences reminded us of another couple farming in the traditional way across the country. In their book The Nourishing Homestead: One Back-To-The-Land Family’s Plan for Cultivating Soil, Skills, and Spirit, Ben and Penny Hewittdescribe how they have spent 15 years nurturing nutrient-dense, nourishing food on their small plot of land in northern Vermont. We’re sure the Chesters would appreciate the three skills they have learned through trials and experiments: maintaining equanimity, prioritizing, and organization. They have identified some touchstone principles, ideas, and ideals important for a life committed to the land. (Read the book excerpt for more on each principle.)
- “The way we think, act, and perceive the world is a reflection of the world we wish to inhabit.”
- “It’s always easiest to do what everyone else is doing. . . . but not necessarily the most satisfying or correct.”
- “We will produce the most nourishing food possible.
- “Real nutrition comes only from vital soils that enable plants and animals to express their full potential.”
- “The labor to produce nourishing food is itself of value.”
- “Do not let the logic of the market dictate the logic of the homestead.”
- “Resilience of systems is the outgrowth of diversity, redundancy, simplicity, and, ultimately, resourcefulness.”
- “Resourcefulness of body, emotion, spirit, and skills is just as important as resilience of systems.”
- “Resourcefulness of body, emotion, and spirit is the outgrowth of health, skills, community, gratitude, generosity, and love.”
- “The manner in which you spend your time is, in fact, the manner in which you spend your life. Time is not money; it is life.”
- “We are not stewards of the land; the land is the steward of us.”
- “The more we mimic nature’s processes, the greater success we will have.”
- “Interdependence, not self-sufficiency.”
- “Choice awareness . . . being proactively at choice.”
- “Living in alignment . . . not only from the perspective of humanity, but also from that of the natural world.”
- “The pebble principle . . . remember[ing] that every decision and everything we do carries ramifications that reach beyond our cognitive powers of observation.”
- “The shore principle.”
- “Observation, not conceptualization.”
- “When in doubt, be generous.”
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In 1991, the American Institute of Architecture (AIA) named Frank Lloyd Wright the greatest architect who ever lived. This honor reflected his masterful skill in design but also his overall philosophy that architecture needs to nourish people, blend into the environment, and be democratic — available for everyone to enjoy.
Wright was born in Richland Center, Wisconsin, on June 8, 1867. His mother, Anna Lloyd Jones, was a teacher, and his father, William Carey Wright, was a musician, composer, and preacher. Anna hung engravings of old English cathedrals in his nursery, already harboring a wish that he would become a builder. The boy fell in love with the Wisconsin landscape, later recalling “the modeling of the hills, the weaving and fabric that clings to them, the look of it all in tender green or covered with snow or in full glow of summer that bursts into the glorious blaze of autumn.”
After two terms at the University of Wisconsin, Wright left for Chicago in quest of work as an architect. The prestigious firm of Adler and Sullivan hired him, and after six years, he left and started his own office. He moved away from European models, when possible eliminating basements, attics, and any unnecessary interior partitions, creating free flowing spaces with walls of art glass.
Over a creative career that spanned 70 years, Wright designed more than 1,100 homes, skyscrapers, churches, offices, and many other buildings, striving for what he called “organic architecture,” buildings and furniture integrated into a seamless whole with the environment. The crowning example was Fallingwater, a house in southwestern Pennsylvania that’s built partly over a waterfall. It headed an AIA list of favorite buildings of the 20th century, but three other Wright structures were also included: the Robie House, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Johnson Wax Administration Building.
Wright was also a Japanese art dealer, a community planner, an interior designer, a writer, and an educator. He created the “Taliesin Fellowship,” a comprehensive apprenticeship program that trained people not only in architecture and construction, but also in agriculture, cooking, dance, art, and more.
In 1953, Wright appraised his own work in this way: “I know well that my buildings see clearly not only the color, drift and inclination of my own day, but feed its spirit. All of them seek to provide forms adequate to integrate and harmonize our new materials, tools and shapes with the democratic life-ideal of my own day and time. Thus do I know work that is for all time.”
Choose one of these quotes by Frank Lloyd Wright as inspiration for your day, and ask yourself how it informs your own creative ventures:
“Nature is all the body of God we mortals will ever see.”
— Quoted in The Duality of Vision by Walter Sorrell
“No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.”
— in Frank Lloyd Wright: An Autobiography
“Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance and have seen no occasion to change.”
— Quoted in The World’s Best Thoughts on Life & Living, compiled by Eugene Raudsepp
“The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.”
— New York Times Magazine (October 4, 1953)
“Every great architect is — necessarily — a great poet. He must be a great original interpreter of his time, his day, his age.”
— in The Future of Architecture
In A Living Architecture by John Rattenbury, Wright is quoted as saying, “Human beings can be beautiful. If they are not beautiful it is entirely their own fault. It is what they do to themselves that makes them ugly. The longer I live the more beautiful life becomes. If you foolishly ignore beauty, you will soon find yourself without it. Your life will be impoverished. But if you invest in beauty, it will remain with you all the days of your life.”
Reflect on three ways you can invest in beauty, and take steps today to follow through with at least one of them.
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Religious holidays punctuate the year to remind us of God’s grace breaking into ordinary time. A good spiritual practice is to notice these special times and express gratitude for them.
One such time occurs when Christians observe Pentecost, which is associated with the Jewish observation of Shavu’ot. A festival occurring fifty days after the first day of Passover, traditionally this was when the first fruits of the harvest were brought to the Temple. It also commemorates the giving of the Torah to Moses, and the day’s reading in the synagogue includes the Ten Commandments.
During one such festival, according to the account given in Acts 2, Jesus’ disciples were gathered together when there came a sound like the rush of wind, tongues of flames appeared to touch each of them, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit. (The fresco above, from Saint Anatasia Church in Verona, depicts a scene of Pentecost; notice the flames over the heads.)
This, then, is a time for celebrating the many gifts of God, especially the ongoing presence of the Spirit. We encourage you to name this special day with appropriate activities — as we have done for many years.
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We were married the Saturday before Pentecost. We chose the date to honor our deep belief that the Spirit had brought us together. We had borders of flames carved into our wedding rings to remind us of the tongues of fire that came upon the early followers of Jesus. During our wedding ceremony a member of the bridal party read us the Pentecost lesson from Acts 2:17: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”
For more than 45 years we have celebrated both our anniversary and Pentecost together, even when the actual dates have been weeks apart. We will do so again this year.
In Encountering God Diana Eck describes the dramatic and creative ways Pentecost was celebrated in the Middle Ages. Some churches had “Holy Spirit holes” in the ceiling to symbolize their openness to God. On Pentecost, doves were released through the holes and bundles of rose petals were dropped from them onto the people gathered inside. Choirboys moved through the congregation making whooshing sounds and playing drums to remind everyone of the rush of the Spirit. What a ritual that must have been!
Our own observation of Pentecost is not quite so dramatic, but it is very meaningful to us. We have a ritual tree made of twisted willow vines. Each year (except when we have foster kittens) we decorate it for Pentecost with silk rosebuds and small red doves. One year when our friend Ieva, a Lutheran minister from Sweden, visited, we spent an afternoon making flames out of red, yellow, and orange construction paper. As we attached these to the branches of the tree, we talked about how the Holy Spirit flames up in our lives.
Ieva recalled a recent visit with a very elderly woman who had lost the sight of one eye but rejoiced that she could still see clearly with the other. Such gratitude amid difficulty is a sign of the Spirit.
We talked about how it seems that whenever we are feeling burned out and wondering if anyone is reading our books or visiting our website, the phone rings or an email arrives. And it will be someone ordering a discussion guide, or telling us she loved a movie we’d recommended that she would have otherwise missed, or thanking us for covering his book, or just expressing support for what we are doing. “That was the Spirit calling,” we’ll say. It’s like the old hymn goes, “Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work’s in vain. But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.”
This Pentecost we encourage you to find ways to celebrate “the shy member of the Trinity” (a term coined by Christian theologian Jurgen Moltmann).
Arts & Photography
Think flames, doves, wind, and movement. Make a mobile using toy doves or images of flames.
Place different sized red candles — one to represent each member of your family or community — in the center of your dining table.
Eat red things: tomatoes, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, chilies.
Prayers & Mantras
Begin your meal by holding hands and saying to the person on your right: “You are the temple of God and the Holy Spirit dwells within you.”
Rituals & Ceremonies
One of the reasons we love Pentecost so much is that it signifies wild freedom and intoxicating joy. The Holy Spirit is always confounding our expectations, slipping out of our restrictive ideas, and opening new doors for the people of God. So on this very special day, we suggest you offer the following toast.
Invite family and friends to bring a special goblet, glass, or mug to a Pentecost gathering. Fill them with celebratory beverages. Then stand in a circle. Have each person share a brief example of feeling blessed by the Holy Spirit. The younger people may want to share visions, and the older people, dreams. After each person has spoken, raise your goblets and toast “To the Holy Spirit”!
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