Saturday, February 23, 2013

Home Economics

When I was about eleven years old, I joined a co-ed summer baseball league, with clinics taught by our very own University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. I could hardly wait. These were the days when I used to fall asleep with my hands wrapped in and around my ball glove; when I clamored for the weekly trip to buy a pack of baseball cards, hoping to find some of my heroes inside; when I pored over the sports page, clipping out stats and memorizing batting averages and RBIs. Finally, this was my chance to meet real baseball players - and pitch, throw, bat, and catch with them.

As it happened, the "co-ed" aspected melted away in a day or so with the hot sun, high physical demands, and the overwhelming majority of (ew!) boys. I am ashamed to say that I took quite a bit of personal pride in the fact that of the three girls who began in a crowd of seventy lads, I was the only one who managed to stand my ground all week. (See, here I am, bragging about it again.) There I was, one awkward tomboy with a farmer's tan and oversized baseball cap, determined to prove herself both on the field and off.

One of the off-field opportunities came while sitting on the sidelines with a couple of the "college boys." Funnily enough, I don't think I wanted to impress them because they were cute. Rather, I sensed they were strong, and I wanted to be considered their equal. Plus, I idolized anything that came from "college" - those distant, hallowed halls of learning that beckoned me even at an early age. It was some time before I'd be up to bat, so I cast a glance around.  Desperate to be relevant, I sidled up on the bench next to a friendly face and tossed a question in his direction.

"What are you studying in college?" Nonchalant, like I'd spit a sunflower seed.

"Oh, economics. You know."

Hm. This was a hard one. I didn't quite know. What could he mean? The only economics I'd ever heard of was home economics. I couldn't imagine that his object of study was really this - baking, meal planning, household chores? The amusing image of this swarthy young man in a frilly apron flitted across my mind, but it was all I had to go on. Trying to turn my ignorance to my advantage, I joked:

"Well, it's obviously not home economics!" I felt a quick flush of embarrassment, but watched closely for his reaction.

He spluttered into his gatorade and chuckled, "Nope, not that." He paused, and I waited still. Was he going to let me in on his secret, this mysterious field of "economics"? Squinting into the noonday sun coming off the white-hot diamond outside the shaded brow of the dugout where we sat, he proceeded to explain. He studied how money worked.

"Oh, cool." I was actually a little unimpressed, but I didn't want to hurt his feelings. It was certainly a bit grander than "home economics," but it didn't sound very interesting. (Which is saying something, since I tended to be interested in everything.) I masked my grade-school snobbery as best I could, and it was only years later that I could see the value in studying, well, value. These days, I gobble up the Wall Street Journal and The Economist, mostly because I'm fascinated by the larger ideas behind markets and systems. Was that unassuming college student in it for the philosophy, too? Or did he simply want to make a lot of money? Perhaps both.

This summer brush with the ball-playing business student has re-rentered my mind only occasionally over the years, briefly - with a flash of the same sheepishness that accompanied the original affair. "Funny, silly little girl - what was I thinking?" But it came back full force recently, when I read the following passage from Wendell Berry, the great philosopher-farmer. In this essay, he is claiming that the concept of "economy" must be re-defined in light of our Christianity, and that our homes have everything to do with it.

"If we are to maintain any sense of coherence or meaning in our lives, we cannot tolerate the present utter disconnection between religion and economy. By "economy" I do not mean "economics," which is the study of moneymaking, but rather the ways of human housekeeping, the ways by which the human household is situated and maintained within the household of nature" (309, Christianity and the Survival of Creation).

When my eyes first flew over this, the words "economics" leapt out, and the whole hot, dusty dugout conversation came alive again in my memory. Out of the mouths of babes. Here was an author making the very connection that I had so clumsily stumbled upon all those years before, but he with great elegance and conviction.  "The ways of human housekeeping" and "the household of nature" - what fine phrases! Is this not profound? Our households - clothes, recycle bins, kitchen tables, food scraps, water bills, windows, waste, and most of all, persons - are a microcosm or living metaphor of the natural world and the proper situation of man - God's crowning creation - in it.

This has hit home for us recently as we construct and order our new place. We are more responsible, physically, monetarily, and in other ways, for our habitation. Each utility bill, conversation with a neighbor, decision to buy an accoutrement becomes another occasion to ask: "Where are we in this world?" Especially in relation to all of these other homes, and the "household of nature"? To which economies do we belong? Do we align our home with overall structures that demonstrate a wise care of the earth, which is the Lord's, after all, not ours? If Berry is right, the ways in which we care for our household and our care of the Lord's creation unavoidably mirror one another, and wouldn't I prefer that to be a beautiful, God-honoring image?

Just this morning, Karl and I were just discussing why they call it "owning" a house. Neither of us can figure out why a home bought on credit is called "ownership." But also, in a cosmic way, we will never  ultimately own our house or land. Even after we pay our mortgage, it will only be ours in a legal, manmade sense. That is not to say that this isn't significant - personal property is a very useful reality for checking the excesses of humans and government. I think inheritance and having something to give to your children without strings attached to "the man" is a beautiful thing. However, it is a Biblical principle that we are given these five talents so we can return them to their Maker, having multiplied them faithfully. This consists not of a grand gesture, but many small ones. Consider another excerpt from Berry:

"To use knowledge and tools in a particular place with good long-term results is not heroic. It is a small action, but more complex and difficult, more skillful and responsible, more whole and enduring, than most grand actions. It comes of a willingness to devote oneself to work that perhaps only the eye of Heaven will see in its full intricacy and excellence. Perhaps the real work, life real prayer and real charity, must be done in secret" (303, "The Gift of Good Land").

Come to think of it, the people I admire the most spend their days "looking to the ways of their household." Their actions are, more or less, unseen by the world. They do "home economics." Minus the frilly apron.