There is no beauty in grocery shopping. I think there once was, maybe for my parents, or my grandparents, perhaps I have to go back farther than that.
Asphalt parking lots, metal carts, meat packaged in a way that allows us to forget we are eating things that were once alive and looking about. Florescent lights and packaged foods designed to sit on our shelves for unimaginable stretches like that book I have been meaning to read but never get to. Increasingly we turn away from ingredients that might expire and rot because meal planning takes time and thought, and we are too busy. With preservatives piled high, we can all just stock our pantries and grab whatever we need whenever we need it.
We have simplified the whole shopping experience in the name of progress. Gone are the days of buying meat from a butcher, vegetables from a farm stand, fish from a fish market. Now it is one stop shopping. We no longer carefully examine a piece of produce for color and texture: who has that kind of time? There is no time to pick up each orange, one by one, to feel its weight in our hand, knowing the heavier ones bear more juice. There is no time to inhale deeply, searching for a smell our most distant ancestors knew meant fresh, and ripe, and ready to eat.
Gone are the days of standing in the dirt talking with the person who has grown our food, inhaling the air rich with the smell of damp soil, and ripening tomatoes. Now we can even forgo the process entirely, sending our store lists to someone else who will pick it all out and drop it at our door. We shop quickly between work and soccer practice, on the way from dance class to yoga. We cook quickly. We eat quickly.
We rarely experience beauty the way our ancestors experienced it - wandering through the woods in search of a particular mushroom or fiddleheads, or gathering bulging blackberries from a bramble our finely tuned noses have lead us to, salivating and ravenous. Cooking on an open fire, the smell of pine and smoke wafting out across the night.
There is no beauty in my third-grader's education. At age nine, progress and pragmatism seem to be outstripping imagination and ingenuity.
Black and white photocopies handed out for every kid to complete, those who have mastered the concept right along with those who are struggling for the basics. Standardized tests and the Common Core dictate prescriptive, unimaginative drilling of basic skills, pushing us ever farther from creativity.
No one is assigning the task of documenting the emergence of the rhododendron flowers: tight green buds, the way they fatten up before revealing slivers of purple and pink, kids watching wide-eyed as they open to full-blown face-sized blooms. You can't test the sense of awe that might inspire. You can't test for poetry, or appreciation of nature, or imagination. Addition and subtraction. Right and wrong. Black and white. Fewer and fewer questions they create, more and more answers they select from a prepared list of multiple choices.
There is no beauty in scheduling every moment of our kids' days. We are giving away the essence of childhood in the name of progress: better athletes, better test scores.
Kids as young as first and second grade are moving from school to practice, then on to private lessons in music or a private trainer. Many then head off to their second sport of the day. I teach hundreds of high school freshmen who walk around like zombies. They survive on five hours of sleep so they can complete all of their assignments after a day of classes, sports practice, and dance class.
Few go outside on a regular basis. More and more they socialize through texts and tweets, snap chats and snippets. Fewer still can recall the last time they had an afternoon with nothing to do. Rarely do they all meet up in a park wondering what they day will bring.
Back to beauty.
I know it is crazy to spend my days dreaming about using my iPhone as a skipping stone across the silvery surface of a lake, spinning ever more slowly until it slips into its watery grave. I know I seem ungrateful when I long for a wood burning stove instead of central heat, for hunger instead of a stomach over filled with Double-Stuff Oreos. I wonder if our generation may end up being the first in history that wants less for our children, wants life to be more difficult rather than easier.
But, I think back on the greatest memories of my childhood, and this is what I get: Something my friends and I called mud-sliding - rainy warm nights where we would take running starts and treat a grassy hill like our own slip-n-slide. The tang of the homemade sauerkraut my parents used to put on our hotdogs. Hours of ultimate frisbee beneath the parking lot lights by the High Speed Line, a game we played in disorganized glory simply because we loved to run and jump and compete - not because we had to. I remember splitting wood with my dad and then eating huge chunks of watermelon sprinkled with salt, the juice making little rivers through the dirt on my forearms. The first time I ever watched the two little whirlpools disappear behind me after splitting the brown cedar waters of the Batsdo River with a canoe paddle. Sledding. Wrestling my dad. Eating escargot the first time, a dish so carefully and expertly prepared that I didn't even get angry when my parents revealed I was eating snails. Waiting on the back porch for the coals to light in the Weber grill, watching the fireflies fill the darkening air.
Again and again, the moments I recall with greatest clarity are moments with enough time to think and room to breath. The food of my remembered childhood was carefully thought out and real. The activities mostly unstructured and of my own creation.
We are wired to survive in a world far more challenging than this one, and far wilder. We are wired to spend time staring up at the firmament, struck with awe at the vastness, wondering about our place in it all. I know fantasizing about a simpler world is a type of nostalgia afforded only to affluent Americans whose means far outpace our needs.
But man is it difficult to stay focused on what matters, on the beauty that surrounds us at every turn. We fill our lives with all we can cram in. Let's remember what it was like as kids to just go outside after school and get dirty. Let's remember the quick impromptu conversations that popped up with our own parents when we were sitting on the porch or playing a board game together - conversations that were never interrupted by a cell phone.
Pretty soon, winter is going to melt again into spring. Crops will be sown. Kids will feel that strong pull to get outside. Daylight hours will stretch into late afternoon, and evening, and even early night. When you pass the farm stand on your harried drive, roll down your windows and try to catch the scent on the breeze: ripe peaches, tomatoes, something sweet and earthy you just need to investigate. Ignore the buzz of your phone, the text asking if you are almost there, and pull over. Talk with the farmer, ask what has been growing well this season, take all of her recommendations and then go home and figure out how to cook collard greens, or kale, or parsnips. Stand there on the side of the road and sink your teeth into a peach, and do nothing but stare out at the distant field and enjoy the sweetness. Lick every last drop from your fingers. The world will still be there with all of its insistent requests when you are finished.
Kick your kids out of your house. Tell them the iPad is broken, and hide it away in some forgotten corner of your closet. Pick the best early spring evening, and tell them not to do their homework. Give them a camera and ask them to take pictures of spring as it breaks through. Skip a practice. Cut one scheduled event out of their young lives and tell them to fill that time with whatever they want to do as long as it is outside. Don't call them in for dinner. Bring it out to them and eat on the lawn.
We are all in danger of tilting our heads down and grinding it out. The society we live in puts us at risk of spending too much time indoors, eating something out of a bag or box, and looking up someday to realize we have missed it. Listen to the voice inside of you, a voice made of the whisperings of all our ancestors telling us to slow down, calling to us through all our senses to breathe deep, play often, and look around at the beautiful world.