Wednesday, January 27, 2010


An epiphany of sorts while reading Wendell Berry (whose writings are good for these sorts of things)...
There is one reason, and to my thinking, one reason alone why it is so hard for most of us to feel a real sense of community in our church, neighborhood, and among our circle of friends.
We don't need each other.
All of our various needs and wants can be supplied almost entirely by ourselves or through the agency of complete strangers. The internet even allows us a certain sense of companionship to be delivered wholly at our discretion, we can flit in and out of various on-line "communities" as we see fit.
One of the over-arching themes one finds in Mr. Berry's work is the manner in which the people of the community of Port William are truly members, each one an integral part of a greater whole. The roles change as people become elderly, or die, and new members attain adulthood to take their place (or not in the thread of sorrow that runs through his work), but the subtle interplay of strength, ability, and personality is always there.
Most modern communities, even "intentional" ones, do not and cannot have such a bond, because in most cases the bond is entirely voluntary, severable at will, or worse yet, an affectation.
What is needed is not a voluntary simplicity movement, but an involuntary weakness, a shedding of those things that make us independent and free, in order that we might learn what it is like to rely on others for our very existence. There would be, I think, also a grace found in relying on each other, with our failures and imperfections that is not found in the relatively seamless functioning of our interactions with modern industrial society.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The paradox of a sense of place in America

Radoje, since you know the benefits of place, how do you mitigate the lack of sense of place while living in anywhere America? And since any mitigation short of rural intentional community is probably token at best, why don't you live in Serbia since you seem to think of yourself (identify) as Serbian?

I am unique among most of the people I know, in that I have lived almost my entire life in one place. Aside from half a year in Serbia, and half a year in Alaska, I have live on the same one acre lot in Edmonds, Washington since my parents brought me home from the hospital. Every day, as I go about my daily routine, I walk in places that I walked as a child, places that my father and mother and brother lived worked and played. I retain memories of the changes that have occurred to this property since my childhood. The house I live in was not always here, and even the shop that I do my woodworking in, which my father ran his electrical business out of before me, was once a patch of ground with a huge old cherry tree on it. I intimately know the neighborhood and patches of woods around my house, and the shoreline only a mile off. Were the change happening outside of our property line to take place as slowly, and as (for lack of a better term) humanly as it has where I live, I would probably be content to live here the rest of my days and hopefully see both my sons live here as well.

However, I increasingly feel as though instead of having left my place, my place has left me. The entire pattern of the landscape around me has changed, and changed rather quickly. I juxtapose this with my father's village in Serbia, where most of the same houses and landmarks that existed in my grandfather's time, are still there for my son to see. Unfortunately, Serbia is not my place. While it is the ancestral home of my family, I realize after sending time there, that I would not fit in to that place. I am a son of the Northwest, I grew up among the tall forests (that become fewer every day), the rain in winter, the interplay of land and sea that is Puget Sound, the sun rising over the Cascades and setting over the Olympics, the pine and sagebrush country of the Eastern Cascades, where my mother grew up and where I go hunting. Serbia is the place I am from (and Scotland), but this is the place I am. In 1999, when the NATO bombing began, my father decided to head to Serbia with the thought that if he was going to die, he wanted to die there, and if it was under an American bomb, that would be his final act of renunciation to his adopted country. The day before he left he said me down and told me, "Son, this is your country, you were born here, this is where you grew up. Fight and die for this place, it is yours, just don't fight and die for some idiot politician."

So how does one cultivate one's place in a land where most people are placeless? I am a poor person to be offering an opinion, as it would be the opinion of a hypocrite. My wife and I, along with our son's Godparents have bought ten acres of woods out on the Olympic Peninsula. It is only a ten minute drive from the wonderful OCA church there, in an area of small farms, pastured cattle, and the largest center of wooden boatbuilding on the West coast. In "The Unsettling of America" Wendell Berry writes about the oft maligned counterpoint to American expansionism as being the philosophy of "This far, and no further." My wife and our Kumovi all of whom have moved around quite a bit in their lives, have taken this idea to heart. But for me there remains the unease of leaving the place of my birth, a nagging feeling of betrayal.

Our attitude about where we live is just as important (possibly more so) than where we live. To live a grounded existence means fundamentally "checking out" from the American Dream and the Pursuit of Happiness. When we were making the decision to buy land out on the peninsula, I remember telling the others, "We need to decide where we want to live, period. Once we've decided that we'll have to figure out the rest of it, like jobs. If we move to a place, it is because we want to be in that place, nothing else." Ultimately, we need to be able to make the conscious choice of, "This far, no further." A choice that many of our forebears did not have to struggle with. One of the real estate agents we met with, when explaining the details of two couples jointly buying property, told us it would be like being married. Of course she is not Orthodox, so her understanding of marriage is different, but we took the point anyway. Our zadruga (the Serbian term for an extended family farm) will will be a small "intentional community", but with an Orthodox understanding of the bonds between us. We must work out our salvation together, regardless of the personality obstacles that arise. Finally, and most importantly to my thinking, is our attitude towards our children. If we don't instill in them a sense of place, something monumentally difficult when the surrounding society is actively hostile to such efforts, then all our work is in vain. It matters little how well we are grounded in a place if we buy into the modern notion that our children will grow up and move away. If we look expectantly for the day they will leave the nest. My mother and father never even implied that my brother and I should move out and move on upon reaching adulthood, this was simply our home. My father even tried to get me to become an electrician (and I often regret not becoming his apprentice). Because of this my son now gets to see his great-grandmother and grandmother on an almost daily basis. If we cannot reach into the past to anchor our sense of place, then we are at least obliged to set and anchor for our children.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Kosovo and a sense of place

I find it difficult to explain what Kosovo means to most Americans. It is often referred to as the “Serbian Jerusalem”, but what does that mean?

By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down, yea, we wept
When we remembered Zion.
We hung our harps
Upon the willows in the midst of it.
For there those who carried us away captive asked of us a song
And those who plundered us requested mirth
Saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How shall we sing the Lord’s song
In a foreign land
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand forget its skill!
If I do not remember you,
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth-
If I do not exalt Jerusalem
Above my chief joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom
The day of Jerusalem,
Who said, “Raze it, raze it,
To its very foundation!”

O daughter of Babylon who are to be destroyed
Happy the one who repays you as you have served us
Happy the one who takes and dashes
Your little ones against the rock!

(As an aside, I’ve often heard any number of “spiritualizations” of the exhortation to dash the little ones of Babylon against the rocks, but perhaps instead of finding the spiritual aspect of such a line, or, God forbid, using it as justification, perhaps it should simply and soberly illuminate the voice of despair and hopelessness to us.)

Modern Americans, for the most part, do not have a sense of place, much less a sense that God gave us the place we live and we were given to the place. For most people today, one place to live is as good as the next, assuming some materialistic criteria are met. A man born and raised in Philadelphia will generally think nothing of moving to Phoenix if a job requires, or even move to a bigger house in the suburbs when he is able to afford it. In fact generally speaking, people today do not shop for a place to live, but a house to live in, the place being of secondary importance. Of course society has become so homogenized that the distinction between places is largely blurred. Were I to drop you into a modern subdivision on a day that was sunny and warm, were it not for the license plates on the cars, you would be hard pressed to tell me where you were.

So how do you explain to people who more often than not do not live in the same state they were born in, may have moved several times while growing up, and often do not live within a days drive of their siblings or parents what one place can mean? Does the person who moves his family cross-country for a better job feel like an exile? Does the family that sells the house to buy a newer, bigger one understand that they are depriving the children born in the old house of their ancestral home? Of course our consumer culture insures that all places are the same, and we can find the same “entertainments” and consumption wherever we go.

Ultimately the land of Kosovo means something to the Serbian people, they are tied to that land on a deep, spiritual level. In Serbia when meeting someone for the first time it is far more common to ask them “Where are you from?” than “Where do you live?” (Of course for most Serbs the answer would be the same to both questions.), and generally people who live in the cities will not tell you they are from the city (unless their family really is from the city), but instead which region or village they hail from. For the question, “Where are you from?” is more fundamental to who someone is in that culture. To ask the question to the Serbian people as a whole, “Where are you from?” The answer is: Kosovo.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The abject stupidity of the US government

The entire article can be found here. However the salient part of the article is this statement by the Secretary of State:

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said it was time for Serbs to accept that Kosovo is no longer theirs. She also suggested it was time to drop centuries of grievance and sentimentality in the Balkans.

"We believe that the resolution of Kosovo's status will really, finally, let the Balkans begin to put its terrible history behind it," Dr. Rice said Friday. "I mean, after all, we're talking about something from 1389 – 1389! It's time to move forward."

The Bush administration clearly does not get it. The nail in the coffin of my support for the Iraq War (tenuous as it was) was the realization that the same foreign policy and rhetoric were being used to justify Iraq as they were in Kosovo (minus the non-existent WMDs).
My thanks to John from Notes from a Common-Place Book for the lead.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Not of this world

Не од овог света

Колико је њих, мајко Србијо
волело име, име твоје
због соли православља у њему.
Нека им Господ, Господ дадне
за дела вере, наде, љубави,
да виде, тебе виде
у Христу, на гори Таворској
са Петром и са Синовима грома.

Не од овог света, у зло огрезла
не од овог века, земна, пролазна.
Ти си део вишњег Јерусалима,
твоје име звучи као молитва.

Колико је њих, мајко Србијо
певало песме, песме теби,
због крста који сија над тобом
и даје снагу твојој деци
да се у молитвама уздигну
изнад блата и прашине
и да у твоје име утисну
образ свога небескога дома.

Не од овог света, у зло огрезла
не од овог века, земна, пролазна.
Ти си део вишњег Јерусалима,
твоје име звучи као молитва.

Not of this world

How many of them, Mother Serbia,
Loved your name
Because of the salt of Orthodoxy in it
For them may the Lord give,
For their works of faith, hope, and love,
To see, to see You,
Christ on Mount Tabor,
With Peter and the sons of Zebedee

Not of this world, violated by evil,
Not of this age or land passing away,
You are a part of the heavenly Jerusalem
You name resonates like a prayer

How many of them, mother Serbia,
Sang songs, songs of you
Because of the cross that shines for hope in you,
And gives strength to your children,
To lift themselves in prayer,
Above the mud and ashes,
And in Your name to touch,
The face of Your heavenly abode.

Not of this world, violated by evil,
Not of this age or land passing away,
You are a part of the heavenly Jerusalem
You name resonates like a prayer

(any errors in translation are my own)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"But, the curse of God be on the traitor"

The Fall of the Serbian Empire

From Jerusalem, the holy city,
Flying came a swift grey bird, a falcon,
And he carried in his beak a swallow.

But behold and see! ’Tis not a falcon,
’Tis the holy man of God, Elias,
And he does not bear with him a swallow,
But a letter from God’s Holy Mother.
Lo, he bears the letter to Kossovo,
Drops it on the Tsar’s knees from the heavens,
And thus speaks the letter to the monarch:
Tsar Lazar, thou Prince of noble lineage,
What wilt thou now choose to be thy kingdom?
Say, dost thou desire a heav’nly kingdom,
Or dost thou prefer an earthly kingdom?
If thou should’st now choose an earthly kingdom,
Knights may girdle swords and saddle horses,
Tighten saddle-girths and ride to battle—
You will charge the Turks and crush their army!
But if thou prefer a heav’nly kingdom,
Build thyself a church upon Kossovo,
Let not the foundations be of marble,
Let them be of samite and of scarlet....
And to all thy warriors and their leaders
Thou shalt give the sacraments and orders,
For thine army shall most surely perish,
And thou too, shalt perish with thine army.”

When the Tsar had read the holy letter,
Ponder’d he, and ponder’d in this manner:
“Mighty God, what now shall this my choice be!
Shall I choose to have a heav’nly kingdom?
Shall I choose to have an earthly kingdom?
If I now should choose an earthly kingdom,
Lo, an earthly kingdom is but fleeting,
But God’s kingdom shall endure for ever.”

And the Tsar he chose a heav’nly kingdom,
And he built a church upon Kossovo,—
Did not bring foundation stones of marble
But he brought pure samite there and scarlet;
Summon’d there the Patriarch of Serbia,
Summon’d there with him the twelve archbishops.
Thus he gave the warriors and their leaders
Holy Sacrament and battle orders.

But no sooner gave the Prince his orders
Than the Turkish hordes swept on Kossovo.
And the Jug Bogdan leads there his army,
With his sons, the Jugovitch—nine brothers,
His nine sons like nine grey keen-eyed falcons,
Each of them commands nine thousand warriors,
And the Jug Bogdan commands twelve thousand [1].

With the Turks they fight there and they struggle,
And they smite and slay there seven pashas.
When the eighth advances to the battle
Then doth Jug Bogdan, the old knight, perish,
With his sons the Jugovitch—nine brothers,
His nine sons like nine grey keen-eyed falcons,
And with them doth perish all their army.

Moved their army three Mernyachevichi:
Ban Uglyesha and Voyvoda Goïko,
And the third, the mighty King Vukáshin;
And with each were thirty thousand warriors,
With the Turks do they there fight and struggle,
And they smite and slay eight Turkish pashas.
When the ninth advances to the battle
Then there perish two Mernyachevichi,
Ban Uglyesha and Voyvoda Goïko;
Many ugly wounds has King Vukáshin,
Turks and horses wade in blood above him,
And with him doth perish all his army.

Moved his army then Voyvoda Stefan;
And with him are many mighty warriors,
Many mighty warriors—sixty thousand.
With the Turks do they there fight and struggle,
And they smite and slay nine Turkish pashas.
When the tenth advances to the battle,
There doth perish the Voyvoda Stefan,
And with him doth perish all his army.

Then advances Tsar Lazar the Glorious,
With him moves a might host of Serbians,
Seven and seventy thousand chosen warriors.
They disperse the Turks upon Kossovo,
No time had the Turks to look upon them,
Still less time had they to stem the onslaught;
Tsar Lazar and all his mighty warriors
There had overwhelm’d the unbelievers,
But—the curse of God be on the traitor,
On Vuk Brankovitch,—he left his kinsman,
He deserted him upon Kossovo:
And the Turks o’erwhelmed Lazar the Glorious,
And the Tsar fell on the field of battle;
And with him did perish all his army,
Seven and seventy thousand chosen warriors.

All was done with honour, all was holy,
God’s will was fulfilled upon Kossovo.