Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Growing Rhubarb: A Tribute to Art Gish


Tonight, I'm digesting the news that Athens has lost one of its pillar citizens.

Truth is, a peace activist willing to "walk the walk" will continue on through the people he knew worldwide and the convictions he published. But this doesn't make the news any easier to accept...

Art Gish saw bold beauty in living simply and in the sloppy footprints of love. This made him a mentor in the back-to-the-land movement and a controversial figure to some.

Like most people who knew him, I had moments with Art when I wanted to hug him and others when I wanted to run in the other direction. I say this with love--Art was a man willing to stand in front of an Israeli bulldozer; willing to look for God in a chapel, mosque, and synagogue in the same weekend; willing to do peace work in Gaza while his wife did peace work in Iraq; willing to stop you on the street to say his truest feelings, even if they made you uncomfortable. For someone who grew up in a community/family where confrontation was avoided, I was reminded that I still had a lot of inner work to do during those times when Art "shook me up."

I first sought out the Gishes after coming back from a year of Mennonite Voluntary Service (VS) in Seattle. I remember thinking that if I had to come back to Ohio, at least I was going to live in a place that had people like Art and Peggy. With no answering machine and no cell phones at their farm, it was harder to reach the Gishes than I planned. But I remembered my mom describing Art Gish from one of his many local talks on peace-making, and the first time I saw a man with a dazzling white beard and donning an Amish hat, I strode over to him and piped, "Mr. Gish?" He shook my hand and hurried us towards the court-house, where he was leading a peace vigil. One of the many reasons I went into VS was because I read Art's book, Beyond the Rat Race (as my parents did before me, then passed the book onto me)--and it challenged me, inspired me (and let's be honest, scared me). Still does today.

I also wanted to talk to the Gishes because of their experience doing peace work abroad. At the time, my parents were in Liberia with Mennonite Mission Network, and, as much as I wanted to deny it, as their youngest daughter, I was having difficulty processing their decision to leave--to put themselves in potential danger--for other childrens' sake. When my parents were in the States for a brief visit, the Gishes had us out for dinner, and we talked about poetry, farming, and the importance of being a witness.

"You're eating weeds!" Art told us proudly as we munched out dandelion and thistle salads. Everything had a surprising purpose, even if we thought it didn't. This was the mantra I took from the Gishes that night.

Art and Peggy sold produce at the local farmers' market; rhubarb was a regular pink wonder on their table of goods. I think that rhubarb might be a perfect metaphor for the daily activism Art chose to live. After all, "rhubarb" is not relished by everyone--even avoided by some; it's bold and unique and can be used with many other ingredients (but it will still be undeniable); it takes time to get established. But it comes back, year after year. And it gives, even when we don't want what it has to offer.

The last things I heard Art say on this Earth were:

(at a Quaker Meeting) "I want to say that I hear the birds singing, praising God--and I want to praise God too."


(after seeing a local film about the peace movement since the first Iraq War) "Where is everyone [in the movement now]? Where are they?"

In Beyond the Rat Race, he writes, "It is said that the longest journey begins with one step. So it is with simplicity."

So it is with peace, and so it is with marrying the "sour and sweet" together of knowing ourselves and one another in a life that offers many opportunities for us to turn away.

Let's not turn away.

Monday, July 5, 2010

"Off You Go to Now"

I’ll admit it: one reason I drag myself to yoga is to hear the teacher say things like, “You are here now—forget the striving.”

Imagining a "writer" at work often invites us to conjure up Hollywood-inspired caricatures: someone who’s actually on vacation from the stressful real world; someone leaning back in a comfy chair with a tiny pink umbrella hovering in a drink; someone able to turn on the muses with a flick of the mental switch in order to wear all the hats in her or his life.

I’m starting to know many folks who consider writing to be their main "calling," and even the most successful have day jobs…and usually partners… and families… and in-laws and yards and houses and…well, you catch my drift. It’s a miracle we have people writing and publishing at all!

Ironically, since I started an intensive MFA in writing, the same message I long to hear from my yoga instructor has repeatedly surfaced from teachers. It’s that old nod to the truth that writing needs something more than a degree in order to keep it breathing.  

The MFA might teach us to shape and digest language at an Olympic rate, but if we’re pursuing it just to feel like a writer, we’re probably in the wrong spot with the wrong binoculars. And, as so many famous writers (so very ironically) remind us in their memoirs or interviews: if you’re writing toward the goal-light of publication or making a living writing, you might as well take up a different hobby.

Doing and giving are ingrained in my Mennonite self/gender. Making everything better comes in at a close third. Of course, you don’t have to be Mennonite to realize these generational or cultural patterns…As a writer, it’s pretty hilarious to watch my mind zigzag between wanting to be a good person vs. be true to my writing life. I’m not convinced you can’t be both/have both, but man, does it take discipline and self-forgiveness, playfulness and practice with a capital “P.”

Luckily, life has a way of handing us reminders, interventions, and even miraculous traffic lights when it comes to our lit passions:

From a latest MFA evaluation letter:
“Maybe the most important thing for Becca's art in the near future will be to set more limits on the demands that her life invites her to make—teaching assignments, community service—values that are deeply ingrained in her yet often at odds with more selfish indulgences that are the mainstay of every poet’s diet.”

Gift from an elder:
A copy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s YOU ARE HERE, with “Now you are here. Off you go to now” handwritten inside its cover.

May you open a book and find this same permission. May you open your life and find you are already what and who you want to be. And with each day, may you get to be this person a little more.

(photo: Athens graffiti,  B. Lachman)