Seventeen years of Treehouse talk

Seventeen years of Treehouse talk

Monday, August 20, 2018

From the archives: Old habits and diehards

First posted August 2015. Edited slightly.

I like it when good things turn up in strange places.

The final Brother Cadfael novel centers around his making a very hard decision. For complicated reasons, he chooses to go AWOL so that he can help someone he cares about. He knows that if he does this, he may never be allowed back in the monastery. The identity he has shaped for years can be torn away by a quick decision. At an earlier point in his life, remaining in the cloister would have meant everything to him, might have been the right choice; but now an act of love is more important than hanging on to position and approval. In the end (spoiler), all is resolved and he is, happily, welcomed back. But even if he hadn't been, we get the impression that it would have been okay either way. He was who he was, whether he had his hair tonsured and wore a habit, or not.

I've been working through William Zinsser's Writing to Learn, and last night I got to his chapter "Man, Woman and Child," about writing in the social sciences. All through the book Zinsser includes examples of good writing in each academic area; but in this chapter, he tells about how his own interest in anthropology began. In the 1950's, he was working as a journalist and was required to attend Broadway performances as part of his job. (What a hard-knock life.) One night he saw a performance by some Balinese dancers, and he was so fascinated that he decided to take his next vacation in Bali. This is what he found:

"...I made my way up into the hills to the village of Pliatan. The musicians and dancers who had conquered Broadway had long since come home and were back at their everyday jobs in the rice fields. That's how I found out that the Balinese have almost no concept of 'art.' What I had assumed was their art turned out to be organic to their life...Art, life and religion were intertwined. Children and chickens were everywhere...That was my first view of a unified culture, and I remember how resentful I felt that my own culture didn't have such an enviable wholeness."
 Zinsser says his point (as he sees it) is that we can't take any culture as just "quaint," and that writing about anthropology is serious business. Unfortunately, that leads in to a skippable "cultural" example about evil spirits, but we'll let that go; I'm more interested in his story about Bali.

That word "organic" has popped up more than once over the last couple of years, and not in a health-food sense; it means a wholeness of life, and (to put it in educational terms), a unity of knowledge and thought. I've said this before, but it's why homeschool "retirees" don't stop thinking about learning, whether we're surrounded by Balinese dancers, children and chickens, or by just keeping up with the laundry and our young-adult offspring. Brother Lawrence had the right idea--prayer functions in the midst of bustle and clatter...and also in the quiet times. Our lives are as real in the supermarket and in a chance to talk with the neighbours, as on the stage, in the monastery, or (for some of us) in or out of the schoolroom. None of it is perfect, but it is all what we are given to do.

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