i’ve finally got a piece of the pie

Posted by on January 20, 2007

The older I get, the more my little slice of life keeps narrowing to a weight watcher’s portion, so to speak, and conversely getting more rich, like chocolate, if that makes sense. Anna asked me to recommend a good book for her to take along on her six-month stay in Africa; she was in the mood, she said, for something real, as in believable, not fantastical, and maybe with spiritual depth. I thought and thought and then The Seven Story Mountain came to mind as a perfect recommendation. I read this book wary of encountering either catholic propaganda or boring piety, but instead loved it. It’s as colorful as any good novel, but autobiographical (real), and spiritually profound. Furthermore, the title is nice, if you like mountains, and Thomas Merton’s story probably deserves such a title.
I associate myself with the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, because I spent weeks out of every summer of my childhood in Montreat, an itsy bitsy town outside of Black Mountain, which is also itsy bitsy. I am absolutely attached to those mountains and I dream of going there to live. In college, there was a guy from Washington State whom a lot of girls fawned over as the perfect embodiment of Seattle grunge and outdoorsy-ness, rolled into sandy blonde hair. I didn’t know him but I was around him once when the conversation was about the outdoors, snowboarding, skiing, etc. He inserted a condescending remark about the Blue Ridge Mountains not being “real mountains.” It actually hurt my feelings, and I had no retort for someone so high up in the social hierarchy of my little college.

I’m not sure a comment like that would bother me now, since I see no reason why the Blue Ridge Mountains should have to compete or be compared with any other mountain range. They have their own unique charm and beauty, which some of us (me) happen to prefer, and I have laid eyes on Mt. Rainier. But anyway, I was thinking about the title of Thomas Merton’s autobiography and decided that I would have to title my spiritual journey something more like The Two Story Foothill, given the puny perimeters of my personal responsibilities, which anyone with the slightest amount of worldly position would probably dismiss as utterly basic. Going to the grocery store, for example, is number one on the recurring necessary tasks that I never feel like doing, despite the promise on the dry erase board pictured above.

I find my basic life challenging. Going back to the mountain metaphor, my life reminds me of this little mountain in Montreat that every able-bodied person in the area seems to hike as often as possible. It’s called, so uniquely, “Lookout Mountain.” It was on this little non-qualifier that I first learned the geological principle of erosion, due to the trails that were always being closed “due to erosion,” according to the signs posted by rangers. All the dozens of hikers who did this easy hike every day of the summer were constantly being rerouted in order to keep the red clay from washing away. But it was still not an easy hike. I was always huffing and puffing toward the end, holding my knees at the final incline like an insect. Maybe getting to the top was a commonplace accomplishment, but I can attest that it still wasn’t that easy.

After my visit to my parent’s house over Christmas, I decided that I will do well in life if I can achieve competency at basic things. My parents, who have countless wonderful qualities, of course, are still really bad at some of life’s basic responsibilities. They are terrible with finances, for example, and also with household cleanliness and organization. I won’t go into details about how these major issues plagued my upbringing like a painful carving on the woodblock of my young nervous system, but suffice it to say that I inherited these struggles. I will probably be spending the rest of my life dialoguing with myself over why it’s important to make my bed in the morning and put my clothes back on a hanger instead of tossing them on a chair, pay my phone bill today instead of tomorrow or the next, and so on. I’ll also struggle with approaching money logically, not letting it burn a hole in my pocket, and keeping tabs on where exactly it goes.

When you get a new cat, the most loving thing you can do is stick it in a small space like the bathroom until it gets used to being in a new, terrifying territory. Maybe, in the same way, God saw fit to confine my life to one husband, one baby, one apartment, no job, no income, mismatching secondhand furniture, a mid-western town (with no mountains, even small ones). No one should trust me to manage their company, for instance, or even one department in their company. But really, I’m happy with my little slice of the pie. I’ll feel like I’m going far in life if I can take responsibility for all my stuff and do things like obey the laundering instructions on Esme’s tiny, pink, velour pants with ruffles around the ankles. All the little things surrounding me beg to be taken care of, not neglected. My temptation is to brush off practical things as if they are shallow (I’m stealing this thought from Anna—hi Anna), but experience tells me that those little practical things can have ripples into the big areas like relationships and emotions. If I can keep dust from accumulating on our mismatching furniture and make our living room a cozy place to be I’m also doing well. If I can plan meals for a week and make a grocery list accordingly then I’m a shooting star.

These thoughts were all inspired by my visit with my family over the holidays, and also a quote I read from Etty Hillesum’s journals a while back, which I’ve been meaning to write about ever since. She said: “I feel as if I were guardian of a precious slice of life, with all the responsibility that entails. There are moments when I feel like giving up or giving in, but I soon rally again and do my duty as I see it: to keep the spark of life inside me ablaze.” Her slice was so different from mine, and to my mind, much more important, since it was dragged under the historical riptide of Nazi occupied Amsterdam—so “other” from South Bend, Indiana, where one of my major passions is now pouncing on opportunities to go to Hobby Lobby. But I get the feeling that for everyone the basic task is somewhat the same, even if some people seem like they’re climbing higher than others and accomplishing more.

  1. Rachel
    January 22, 2007

    I recently told Lucy that if people only knew the amount of sheer will I was asserting to hall myself up the little hill to my apartment that day they would fall down and worship me as God. Thankfully no one knows so we aren’t in any danger of that happening and I am quite content with my little accomplisment. Instead, I will congratulate you on doing a great job getting to the grocery and well, managing to decide to get yourself out of bed today. You are doing great and I wish you had an audience to applaud you adoringly every time you protected your slice of the pie.

  2. anna j
    March 19, 2007

    Julia-dear–
    I am infinitely honored to have a thought “stolen” by you . . . you of the infinite depth and insight. And I am thoroughly inspired to read your recommendation, though I’m a bit at a loss at the moment as to how to find it here in the bush 🙂