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IDGAF, by George Watsky

October 4, 2012

In an effort to increase the number of posts on our blog, Faun and I have decided to try to occasionally post songs that are inspiring us in our day to day lives.  I thought I’d start off this experiment.

George Watsky is a rapper and beat poet from San Francisco who gained huge internet stardom from his youtube video ‘Pale White Kid Raps Fast’. And, indeed, Watsky can rap very very very fast.  But he is also a brilliant poet, and one of the few rappers that I can really get my head around.  This is my favorite song by Watsky.  I really like the message that it relates: the shallow bullshit that we parade around is not nearly as interesting as the stuff we aren’t always proud of, because that other stuff is what makes us a whole person.  Let’s share the secrets, the skeletons in the closet, the monsters under the bed. We all have them, and we all have a crack at meaningful relationships with people if we are willing to reveal that part of ourselves.

Are any of our readers familiar with Watsky? What did you think of the song?  Share below!!!


Amish Community

September 29, 2012


Liberation is a peculiarly American love. And these days it seems particularly beloved when the liberation is one from the tyranny of faith.

Mainstream culture prizes those who convert to secularism, the side of the thoughtful and the free. We read of their escapes—books in recent years include “The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance,” by Elna Baker, and “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots,” by Deborah Feldman. And we watch their oppression by religion on movie screens and television—”Jesus Camp,” “Sister Wives,” “Big Love—and are relieved by the distance between their lives and our own.

And now we have TLC’s new series “Breaking Amish,” a reality show that follows the lives of five young Amish and Mennonite men and women as they “forgo horses and buggies for New York City’s taxis and subways.” The Hollywood Reporter lauded TLC for acting “not only as documentarian but as liberator.”

The show’s drama is certainly intended to come from watching people who were formerly locked away in a small, insular sect as they try to find their way in the “real” world—unshackled, free to sink to the level of “Jersey Shore” if they’re so inclined. But the grand irony here is that the Amish and Mennonite communities that the “cast” has left behind don’t want to be on camera. And thus, even from the outset, the show omits the possibility of ever truly entering these religious lives.

Twenty-year-old Rebecca, whom the show tells us “grew up on Hillbilly Lane in Punxsutawney, PA” but is now “looking for love”—tries to visit the grandparents she loves but has their door closed in her face. Yet the qualities of these grandparents are utterly absent here—their response is presented as cruel, final and unexplained. They have, in a sense, no past, and seemingly no love.

The words of the show’s protagonists as they leave their hometowns—”I just lost my family” or “If I sacrifice everything I have, and it doesn’t work out, I’ll have nothing”—aren’t comprehensible to the viewer, for we don’t see the families or get an understanding of the nature of their faith and home life. Yes, we think, leave. Why would you want to stay?

I am an ex-fundamentalist myself, but this loaded presentation leaves me rather uneasy. My own church—a stringent, Finnish Lutheran one—would have been less interesting, dramatically speaking, to a television producer. We attended public schools and dressed normally (if modestly). But still, it was a fundamentalism that meant I would be the mother of as many children as God gave, never color my hair or nails or face, and keep my children away from Halloween festivities, popular movies and music deemed “too rhythmic.”

But my childhood, as a believer, was happy. I adored my large family, the constant reading (we had no television), the ritual of worship services. I found comfort in seeing the same families on Sundays, found beauty in the minor-key hymns of the Finns. Most of all, I felt unshakably tied to these people. For it was true then, as it is now, that the believers didn’t always agree, but when they argued they ended the discussion always in forgiveness, in a reminder of the greater hold they had on each other.

In leaving the church when I was in college, I soon saw I had not stepped into anything else. My admittance into a dubious form of atheism merited no special membership. Atheism seemed, if anything, a community that eschewed community, that strove to preserve the strength of the individual. Thus I clung to anything that might provide stability—a boyfriend, school friends, professors. But these relationships, good as some were, were largely transient—friendships that swelled and faded in response to the changing mileage between us.

This isn’t to say the world has not been kind to me in its own fashion, that I have not found my own freedoms valuable—but it is a lonely place, bound to nothing but what I bind myself to. And I find myself worrying, always, that these ties will not be lasting enough.

And thus I am saddened to see these five young people of “Breaking Amish,” these wayfaring strangers, made to dance for us in the most public way possible. And I fear that as viewers and supposed liberators, we will only harm them the more in the watching.

Instead of cheering uncritically for their independence, take a moment to mourn with them what they are losing—and how long it may be until the freedom feels like a gain.


This article is very interesting to me because I, of course, come form a Mennonite background, and therefore feel some attachment to the Amish.  I was not brought up conservative at all, but I did grow up with appreciation for some Amish values, such as the value of community and of some suspicion towards the ‘worldly’ way of life.  

It greatly saddens me to see a reality show openly mocking the Amish way of life without knowing very much about it.  Here’s a shout out: for anyone seeking a much more respectful and thorough look at the Amish, I recommend “Amish: A Secret Life” by the BBC.  At the very least the documentary crew don’t go in assuming all Amish are stupid and oppressed. 

Something I like about this article is that the author has taken the time to look at the other perspective, to see what there is of value in an Amish upbringing.   The biggest thing I see her bringing up is the importance of community.  This is a concept we have discussed on the blog before, and one I feel very strongly about, both from my upbringing and from my focus on community development.  Faun and I had an interesting discussion about community only this morning, about its merits and shortcomings (in terms of individuality).  Faun, if you feel like responding to this article I would be very interested in that!  

So these are my thoughts this Saturday afternoon. What are your feelings about the communities you have made for yourselves, religious or otherwise?  

September: Guest Writer

September 5, 2012

This month I’ve decided to post a short piece written by a friend of mine who has been interested in guest writing for a while- Johnny Baumsegler X’e. All of the conversations we’ve had are about living a life that escapes the structures often set out for us (doing a practical/professional program, getting a good job, buying a good house, etc, etc). I don’t mean to argue that there is anything inherently wrong with that kind of lifestyle, but once involved in that pattern it becomes very hard to deviate from. Johnny has a number of short vignettes about his life, all of which contain different life choices than one would make if working towards an ‘American dream’-like goal. I’ve posted two of these below.


It would be seven long winters ago that I was living in France. I had Arrived in June, and as all my old friends were going into retreat for three years, I found myself squatting in a tent at the foot of the Temple. Hidden in the Bamboo grove amongst the Caravans.

It had been left there by Valentin, the Gypsy boy from Russia. He had brought it back from a music festival in Sweden. It had served it’s purpose, and now it was mine for the taking. At first it was just the tent, and a bit of a mattress. I soon filled it with my belongings from Canada. My Tuba, my Rope, my Swords, and countless other odds and ends.

My little Cirque Desolee. I was happy there amongst the Frogs, and Ducks. I was apprenticing in the woodshop in the daytime, so soon my little tent became a sort of maison du bois. It was perhaps the sweetest sorrow of my life. I loved my life there, but my Gypsy blood left me longing for something, or someone I had left behind.

Still I endeavoured to build my life there.

So began my retreat. Meditation in the morning, working in the shop in the daytime, then down to the Bamboo to train. I began in earnest, but slowly descended into the madness that comes from solitude. It was a sweet madness though…

Then The Autumn came, and the rains came. I continued to build my fortress. Pallets for the floor, Boards to keep the wind from coming under the canvass. Wood chips to help insulate, and keep the mice at bay. I staked it down well but in the howling winds I often dreamt through the night that my little home would fly away one day.

It was cold, but I was Canadian of Icelandic heritage, so the winters chill filled my blood with fire. I built my nest well. One of my traditional sweater blankets beneath me, twenty blankets or more to cover me. The music of the frogs to comfort me, the thunder of a thousand tiny wings to awaken me at sunrise.

Then one day the snows came. The frogs burrowed deep into the mud as the pond froze over. I awakened to the sight of my breath, the canvas was stiff and the zipper seized up. It was the winter of my discount tent….


It was the first day of Summer 2003. I had just flown back from Paris after two years of traveling. A large part of that time had been spent in a monastery near a small village in the Auvergne which I call home.
I arrived in Montreal with practically no money a large pack of objets trouveau, and failing health. I spent two nights at a friends place. It was my first time in Montreal and she was the only person I knew. She was sharing a tiny apartment with her daughter, and sometimes boyfriend. Suddenly I found myself living on the streets of a strange city, and sleeping in the parks at night.
One night I was careless and exhausted. Instead of setting up camp for the night as per usual I set down all my worldly belongings outside a porta potty. Nearby a group of youths were playing basketball.
Moments later I heard the shuffle of feet then silence. Upon exit everything was gone. They left behing a plank of wood and the sheepskin and a bottle I’d brought with me from France.
I wandered through the night in disbelief. So many precious treasures it seemed were gone including my identity.
Finally I found a bit of waxy cardboard and laid down in the park and wept. I closed my eyes so tightly hoping that when I awoke it had all just been a terrible dream.
I spent a few days living on the streets with nothing until one night a stranger offered me a place to stay. She fed me and provided for me. In the end she even bought me a new rope and a bus ticket back to Edmonton.
Life is filled with Devils and Angels. Those who will rob you of everything and kick you while you are down. As well as those who will offer all they can, without expectation of anything in return.
I have met a few devils in this lifetime. Yet for the most part I have been able to find the angels.
The universe always provides…


August Quote of the Month

August 15, 2012


Thewalruswasfaun is posting for Miriam here: this is her chosen quote and her month! We’ve been super disorganized.

Miriam says:

“The Fox, the Crow and the Cookie” is taken from an album called It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright, which is by the band mewithoutYou. I know, the names alone will sell you. There are many things that interest me about this piece of music, and actually the entire album. Each song is based on a teaching by Sufi mystic Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, I urge you to listen to the rest of the album, as each piece is remarkably beautiful. Although the message of the songs is often religious in nature, there are definitely meanings and messages that can be gleaned for a non-theistic mind.
Let’s take “The Fox, the Crow and the Cookie” as an example. Actually, this is an interesting one, because it is a story we are vaguely familiar with. Many of us grew up with “The Fox and the Crow” as an Aesop’s fable. A crow finds a piece of cheese and flies up to a branch. A fox asks for the cheese but the bird refuses, so he instead flatters the crow and asks it to sing. The crow complies, the cheese drops from his beak, and is snatched by the fox.
In the Aesop’s fable, the moral is pretty clear: pride goes before the fall, flattery will lead to tragedy. In this version though, the moral tacked on to the end of the song is a bit more complex.
Here, the Fox is there from the very beginning of the story, helping to facilitate the crow’s theft from the baker. He distracts the baker so that the crow can “snatch a shortbread cookie or a german chocolate tart”. Then, when the crow does have the treat, the fox is in turn able to get the cookie from him through the use of flattery.
Let’s think of the Fox as that source that aids us in doing wrong. Name it as a part of your own personality, an external source of evil, whatever you want. In part one of the story, the fox is the one that provides the crow with the opportunity to steal from the baker. In part two of the story, the fox then gets the treat from the crow by appealing to his sense of pride. What do these two events have in common? An attachment to worldly possessions. Through attachment to the material, instincts like greed and pride are fed, and it is only by looking for alternative ways of thinking that we can avoid such traps. Actually, I’ll turn it over to mewithoutYou, who definitely say it best:

“We’re letting all attachments go
It’s the only prayer we know
May it be so
May it be so
May it be so

Faun says:

A little tool that pops up in media and genres of all kinds is the use of a child’s viewpoint, a children’s structure (such as a nursery rhyme or story) or childlike language to put ‘adult’ themes into a different light. This song is one example, as are Aesop’s fables. They take issues which are relatively complex, that would be discussed in much greater detail were they to appear in an ‘older’ context, and simplify them. They become the one-phrase response to “and the moral of the story is…”
This song, as Miriam points out, makes a bit of a more complex argument than the fable that it’s based on. I’d like to argue, however, that while the morals drawn from media like this are useful in many situations, it’s unwise to treat them as universally true and applicable. In fact, in many cases one can find a storybook theme that builds a contradictory ‘moral of the story’. In terms of attachment to material possessions, for example, where does the theme of the old woman who treasures the objects left behind by her partner fit in? That hardly feeds pride or greed. Alternatively, the theme of a farmer with a strong connection to his/her land, or a captain to his/her ship- a person could argue that the former is greed and the latter pride, but that person would be missing part of the story.
I like stories. They have countless things to teach their readers. I also agree with most of what Miriam says- I just think that generalizing is sometimes risky. The beauty of children’s stories is that they contain valuable things, focused to a point of simplicity and clarity. But perhaps the most valuable way to use them is to never tell just one.

Not for Profit

July 24, 2012

Yesterday I was sitting in a university health center watching the television in the waiting room. It runs through a slide show of health information thought to be relevant to the student demographic, and one ‘de-stressing tip’ that I found rather alarming appeared:

“don’t read or watch the news”

In other words, to avoid stress we should focus on our own lives and insulate ourselves from the outside world. Needless to say, I find this suggestion very disconcerting. Focusing on personal achievement and well-being to the point of  ignoring local and global contexts strikes me as more narcissistic than healthy. A broad worldview should help us stressed folks to be able to differentiate between mountains and molehills, and set some of our own problems aside if they fall into the latter category. It should help us be critical about our decisions, and grant us the perspective to choose to be proactive.

An article fell into my path today that is related to this, even if it’s discussing slightly different themes. Martha Nussbaum in the excerpt below (from her new book Not for Profit) talks about the importance of well-rounded education with a focus on education for human development. As a international development scholar, she would never advocate self-insulation, and she can argue much more eloquently than myself.


Radical changes are occurring in what democratic societies teach the young, and these changes have not been well thought through. Thirsty for national profit, nations, and their systems of education, are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive. If this trend continues, nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements. The future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance.

What are these radical changes? The humanities and the arts are being cut away, in both primary/secondary and college/university education, in virtually every nation of the world. Seen by policy-makers as useless frills,…they are rapidly losing their place in curricula, and also in the minds and hearts of parents and children. Indeed, what we might call the humanistic aspects of science and social science—the imaginative, creative aspect, and the aspect of rigorous critical thought—are also losing ground as nations prefer to pursue short-term profit by the cultivation of the useful and highly applied skills suited to profit-making.

…We are pursuing the possessions that protect, please, and comfort us—what [Rabindranath] Tagore called our material “covering.” But we seem to be forgetting about the soul, about what it is for thought to open out of the soul and connect person to world in a rich, subtle, and complicated manner; about what it is to approach another person as a soul, rather than as a mere useful instrument or an obstacle to one’s own plans; about what it is to talk as someone who has a soul to someone else whom one sees as similarly deep and complex.

The word “soul” has religious connotations for many people, and I neither insist on these nor reject them. …What I do insist on, however, is what both Tagore and [Bronson] Alcott meant by this word: the faculties of thought and imagination that make us human and make our relationships rich human relationships, rather than relationships of mere use and manipulation. When we meet in society, if we have not learned to see both self and other in that way,…democracy is bound to fail, because democracy is built upon respect and concern, and these in turn are built upon the ability to see other people as human beings, not simply as objects.

Given that economic growth is so eagerly sought by all nations, especially at this time of crisis, too few questions have been posed about the direction of education, and, with it, of the world’s democratic societies. With the rush to profitability in the global market, values precious for the future of democracy, especially in an era of religious and economic anxiety, are in danger of getting lost.

July Quote of the Month: The Politics of Love and Evil

July 6, 2012

“Whereas poverty (which is filled with wealthy, capable subjectivities) is the condition that defines the multitude, love is the force that animates it.” (19:00)

“Love extends beyond a rational calculus of interest.” (19:35)

Faun says:

I’m pulling July’s quote of the month from a rather long talk which readers are by no means expected to sit through, though I’ve linked it above because it’s fantastic and I hope a few will give it a try. In it, Michael Hardt develops the idea love as a political concept, and I’ll give a rough synopsis.

He begins by talking about ‘struggling over concepts,’ getting important words to mean what we want them to mean. Two of the key concepts/terms here are love and democracy, both of which have variable meanings. According to Hardt, there are more and less desirable meanings of these terms and we should work towards improving how individuals and societies think about them.

A well known revolutionary, Hardt argues for the re-politicization of love, seeing it as an animating or inspiring force. The term ‘multitude’ (above) loosely means ‘the people’ (see the video for a more precise definition). Love can inspire and mobilize the multitude and, if used and learned properly, help achieve a more just conception of democracy. This is what the quotation at the top is referring to.

Putting revolution to the side for the moment (I can never decide whether or not I like the idea; instead of mood swings I have radicalism swings) the most valuable idea in this talk is that of love as a political force. And since “love may be natural, but it’s certainly not spontaneous” (20:30) there are certain notions of love that do damage and some that build bridges; we need to look at how we love.

First, here are Hardt’s four ‘damaging’ notions of love:
1. Love as closed within a family or couple, love only of those near to us. This can be extended to love of the same or love of one’s race.
2. Love as different when personal or political. This is the contrast between desire and charity, an attempt to separate need from giving.
3. Love as emerging in unity, or in the destruction of differences, in regards to couples (‘two become one’), nations, cultures, etc.
4. Love as immediate and impotent, a simple passion or sensation, “denying the productivity of love” (31:00).

Evil, argues Hardt, is love that has been distorted. Love of the same, for example, could lead to interracial violence.

While readers may agree or disagree with Hardt on the subject of the label ‘evil,’ the essence of his argument remains the same with or without that particular term. Because of this (and here’s the most important part, thank you for making it through the preamble) love as a political force for the good involves learning and developing notions opposite to the ones listed above. These are:

1. Love as open and social, not dependant on distance (for example, social justice movements).
2. Love as both personal and political, as both desire and charity, because need and giving are interdependent.
3. Love as based on differences.
4. Love as productive: not just passion but also action, action that can create community.
While this may all seem excessively theoretical, I think it’s a remarkably straightforward laying-out of the ideas needed to create a more loving, diversity-tolerant, and productive global society.

Miriam says:

I have a friend who likes to poke holes in my theories. This friend has been an asset over time in helping me question a lot of the beliefs that I unquestioningly slipped into, and I am definitely the better for it. (Oh by the way, although you do fill this role in my life, Faun, I am not talking about you!)

There’s one topic that this friend brings up from time to time that really shuts me down, though. This friend is of the opinion that there is no such thing as love. Actually, I don’t know if that is how he would put it; he may very well say that he doesn’t know if love exists. In any case, he questions the existence of love.

I really have trouble whenever this topic comes up, because on the one hand, he is right: it is perhaps impossible to prove the existence of, or even really define love. On the other hand, love so thoroughly defines how I want to live my life, for me. So while the notion bothers me that I can’t define love, another voice always pipes up: “why would you *want* to?” It just seems to me to be a pointless exercise.

On the other hand, it is always good to question preconceptions, and it is always good to examine why you believe something. This is where Michael Hardt’s talk comes in. I really like this talk, and I think you summed up his points very well, Faun. In fact, I don’t really have very much to add to your explanation of his arguments, besides applause and “finally, someone has explained in theoretical and technical terms some of what I have been trying to express for years!”

I especially appreciated point 3 in the ‘opposite notions’ list: “love as based on differences”. In my work with Muslim communities, one of the most interesting ideas I am trying to develop is unity in diversity. I actually went to an entire conference on this exact topic, and I heard many amazing things on the subject ( for more info!) One of the points in one of the talks was that the concept of unity presupposes diversity; there would be no concept of unity if diversity was not always present with us. Therefore, diversity is not to be feared, and not a hindrance to unity. Although this appears to slightly differ from what Hardt was saying, I would chalk that up more to semantics than difference in intention. In any case, what Hardt is saying is that us singular individual people are fully capable of working together, and the desire to bridge those differences stems from love. I fully endorse this idea, and I look forward to hearing other people’s thoughts on the subject!

In Praise of Slow

June 29, 2012

Back in Canada and already over-committed, Faun recommends this TED talk as an excellent reminder that sometimes over-scheduling and speeding up do us more damage than good.

Miriam and Faun will be back soon with the Quote of the Month (once Miriam returns from internet-free camping) but for now: