As I continue to seek my path to serve God, I am faced with this question: How do I balance the needs of the world with service to God? Can I serve two masters?
So far as I can tell by my reading of the Gospels, Jesus had no worldly occupation. Tradition suggests that he’d been trained as a carpenter by Joseph, his step-father. But the Gospels don’t say he traveled across the Holy Land building houses. It appears that he relied for sustenance on his followers and on friendly strangers.
I suspect that was easier in those days and in that culture. There was no health insurance, no car payment, and no mortgage. You had what you owned. There was little debt. Winters were mild. People were more likely to feed a traveling stranger on the road. (I remember my first mother-in-law, who was Jewish, frequently citing the maxim, “Feed a cold, feed a fever.” The Jews were and are all about feeding people.)
I met an old woman in Sri Lanka who earned about $15 each month, and gave half of it away to those in need. But her housing was free, her food was supplied, and free health insurance was provided to all residents by the government. (Yes, even some third world nations have national health care. Yet we’re told it’s not practical in the U.S.)
My culture taught me to believe that you grow up to get a good job, buy a house on credit, get some credit cards, and live the “good life” while working extra hours to try to pay down debts that rise more quickly than they can be paid. You pay for home insurance and car insurance to protect against any accidents or “acts of God.” You pay for health insurance to cover any medical bills. Although these days, you’re more likely to pay for health insurance that doesn’t cover most of your medical bills.
There’s a reason for this cultural teaching, just as there was a reason for the cultural teaching in the time of Jesus. In those days, cultural survival depended on feeding each other. Our cultural survival depends on an economy that requires us to spend more than we make. Non-participation is not just discouraged, it’s been made nearly impossible.
It’s an insidious economic doctrine. It makes the rich richer while keeping the poor at a minimum level and slowly draining the middle class. It works to get us to think in terms of money and success, not betterment of society. And for many people, it crowds out all other concerns. We become empty, depressed, and angry. Violence increases, yet we think only about controlling the weapons of violence and not its causes– if we think about it at all. Drug addiction and suicide increase, and we think about controlling the means, if we think about it at all. The people of our nation are suffering. But we don’t think about it, because we’re suffering, too. Our reason for existing is to pay the bills of an unfulfilling life, and that’s not much of a reason.
With so much suffering, if ever there was a time to serve God, it is now. But how does a person serve God and not the economy? To follow Jesus, must one give up everything and live on the streets, as He did?
There are people situated such that they can work a 30 or 40 hour week, earn enough money to pay their bills, and have time left over for both family and service to others. But in today’s economy, these are a tiny minority. More often, both one- and two-parent families have at least two jobs just to squeak by.
Of course, there are levels of “squeaking by.” Do we really need a new(ish) car, cable TV, internet, a health club membership, new clothes, a microwave oven, and all the other trappings of American life we’re told we should have? How many toys does my two-year-old need? In my own case, I have jettisoned TV and the health club. I drive a beat-up, 11-year-old Hyundai with over 170,000 miles on it. I generally do not buy new clothes until I’m forced to. And my internet costs $15 per month. My recent move cut fuel expenses for my car from $500 a month to $80. But rent is expensive, and at the moment I can’t afford health insurance. I have a stack of medical bills totaling well over $20,000.
What is a God-seeking person to do?
If you were expecting an answer, I don’t have one. But I do have the question, and it’s worth pondering. In an environment of economic and cultural despair, how does one serve God? Is it possible to serve two masters?
As I said, I don’t have the answer. But I haven’t given up trying to find one.
“What’cha doing?” Gracie asks me, catching me off guard.
I glance up at her quickly. I’m sure I look guilty. I’m supposed to be doing bookkeeping, not browsing the news. I briefly consider closing my browser so she doesn’t know I’ve been goofing off, but I have five windows open with various news reports and financial analyses. It’s obvious I haven’t been doing the books.
“The news says that California is about to go bankrupt, and that New York and Illinois aren’t far behind.”
“That doesn’t sound good,” she says.
“No,” I agree. “And there’s a report that says there are 32 states in all that are technically bankrupt.”
“Is Utah one of them?” she asks.
“No,” I say. “Actually, we’re one of the 18 that isn’t.”
“That’s something,” she observes. “But I suppose we ought to review our preparedness supplies.”
Ordinary World is about preparedness, but it’s much more than that. From its initial conception as a series of blog entries, I envisioned it as not just a story about facing a possible future, but about a family like mine having to face that future together. The characters are loosely based on my wife, my stepson, and me. The life they lead going into the crisis is much like ours was when we were still making cheese. I wanted the story to emphasize the family as much or more than the crisis itself.
[A]s we change our clothes together, we take advantage of a rare moment alone. I’ve pulled off my hay-covered clothes when Gracie comes up behind me and puts her arms around me. I turn and put mine around her.
“I love you so much,” I tell her. “You are a remarkable woman.”
She laughs. “I think you are a remarkable man,” she says.
Then she turns pale.
“What?” I ask, thinking that she may be afraid of the dangerous baggage I’ve unwittingly brought with me.
“I’m sorry,” she says. She breaks her embrace and runs for the bathroom. A moment later, I hear her retching, then the water running.
When she emerges, she still looks pale.
“Are you okay?” I ask her.
“I think so,” she says. “This has been happening a lot lately.”
“Jeez,” I mutter. I’ve been so busy doing other things that I didn’t even know my wife was sick.
“Do we need to get you to a doctor?” I ask.
“I don’t think so,” she says. “I’m pretty sure I know what it is.”
“It will pass, then?” I ask.
“It will,” she says. “In about nine months.”
I stare at her, trying to grasp the meaning in her words. Nine months? What kind of a disease…
“Oh, holy hell,” I say, finally. “Are you pregnant?”
“I think so,” she says, and smiles tentatively. “Are you happy?”
“Happy?” I ask. I’m still trying to process this. Gracie is pregnant? “Of course I’m happy,” I tell her.
To myself, I think: I’m going to be a father? My God, that’s what I have hoped for so long… and feared… what if I can’t do it? What if I’m a lousy father? What if I fail Gracie?
“Are you sure you’re okay with this?” Gracie asks. “You seem upset.”
I’m going to be a father? With Gracie?
Finally the reality begins to get through. I throw my arms around her and kiss her.
“It’s taking a minute to sink in,” I whisper into her ear. “But you are making me the happiest man on earth.”
“You’re afraid,” she observes.
“Of course I’m afraid,” I reply. “I’ve never done this before. I’m terrified I won’t be good at it!”
“You’ve been pretty good at everything so far,” she says.
I’m not sure if it’s a double entendre or not, so I let it slide.
“I will do my best,” I tell her.
“I know you will,” she says. “You already are. You are a great dad to Joe, and I know you will be to your own child.”
It’s tough to write about characters that are so close to your heart. It was tough reading it to my family, too. As bad things happened, and at one point one of the family members got severely wounded, my wife warned me that if I let them die, she was going to kill me! I have to admit that I cried as I reread what I wrote, and some days I still cry when I read it. I hope that level of emotion comes through to readers outside my family.
Lack of protein and the lack of Vitamin C have combined to make us all feel weary and slow-witted. I’m not confident of my ability to make good decisions. And our family meetings suggest that no one else is, either. There’s a lot of “I don’t know” being spoken.
So here I am, ten miles or more from home, determined not to come back empty-handed. I’m carrying the 30-30, which is a bit big for rabbits, but which is the most flexible rifle I have. I can shoot anything up to the size of a deer with it. Including coyotes, should they decide to try to make a meal out of me.
If I see a rabbit, I’m just going to have to hit him square in the head so there’s something left to bring home.
But I haven’t seen a rabbit, not even in the distance.
I’m not going back empty-handed. In my pack, I have a down sleeping bag, a tent, and some supplies. I’m prepared to spend the night out here if I have to. Even two nights.
Gracie is pissed at me for that. She doesn’t want me camping in cold weather. I’ve done it before. Heck, I grew up in cold weather, and winter camping was one of the things we learned. But Gracie is scared.
“Why don’t you at least take the truck?” she pleaded.
“I’m not taking the truck,” I replied, sternly. “If anything goes wrong here, if anything happens with Kendra, you’ll need the truck. There’s no other way to get into town in a hurry.”
“This is crazy,” Gracie said.
“These are crazy times,” I said back. “Weylan and I have been combing the valley for days, and we haven’t seen anything we can eat. I’ve got to go to the hills.”
“And what if you don’t come back?” she asks, a note of panic in her voice.
“I’ll come back,” I insist. “Everything has to be wintering somewhere. I’m going to search the canyons until I find something, and I’m going to bring it home.”
“Look at you,” she said. “You’re tired, you’re weak, and I don’t think you’re quite rational.”
“None of us are,” I replied. “And it’s only going to get worse. We’re starving. If I don’t go now, I may not be able to go at all.”
There were harsh words spoken, words I now regret. I closed the discussion with the words, “I’m going, so get over it,” and the slam of the front door.
If I don’t come back, that’s not the way I want her to remember me.
But I’m going to come back. Just not empty-handed.
When I wrote Ordinary World, I didn’t have a child of my own. My wife and I lost a baby a year earlier, and we talked about trying again, but hadn’t yet been successful. I wrote about the birth of Bill and Gracie’s child from my imagination. Now, with a 17-month-old son of my own, I look back and think I did pretty well. My son Sam was born in a hospital, which contrasts markedly with the home birth scene in the story, but from the birthing itself to the emotions I felt for my brand new child, I wasn’t far off. One of Bill’s great loves is his daughter, Kendra. He would do anything to protect her– and does. Now I feel the same way about my own son.
[In the bottom of the freezer we find] a bag of rice, which is perhaps symbolic of our times. I bought the twenty-five pound bag of high-quality Basmati rice down in Las Vegas a couple of years back at an Asian store. When I got it home and opened it, I found that the rice had weevils in it. Having traveled overseas, I know that almost any culture in the world would have washed away the weevils and eaten the rice. But we’re not just any culture, we’re Americans, and we don’t eat food with bugs in it. So I put the rice in the bottom of the freezer to kill the weevils and to keep until I decided what to do with it.
Now, a couple of years and an economic meltdown later, we have no problem washing the weevils out of the rice. Throwing it away would be unconscionable. Just like most other places in the world.
Is this desperation, or practicality? Was the convenience-filled world we were so accustomed to the real world? Or is this one?
I’ve seen too much of how people live outside our sheltered boundaries to think of this as anything other than an ordinary world. At least half the world’s population would look at our current circumstances with envy. Even without phones and internet and gasoline and utilities, we own our own land and home and business. And we have physical security. That’s something many folks in the world can’t even dream of.
At night, our daughter Kendra sleeps between Gracie and me. We don’t have a crib, but we do have cloth diapers and rubber pants. Gracie feeds her a couple of times a night. Neither of us sleeps as much as we used to. And, as I look at the two of them lying next to me, I am overcome with love. My wife and my daughter. Family.
Of all the things I thought I wanted in life, I never knew that the most satisfying would be the simplest and most universal.
But the chemistry that makes the family work is Bill and Gracie. He couldn’t survive without her, and she wouldn’t want to survive without him. As Bill says,
I know Gracie as the hardest, softest, most naïve, most jaded, most practical dreamer I have ever met. That may make her sound like an enigma, but she isn’t at all. At least, not more than any other woman. She’s just, well, Gracie. She’s hard when she needs to be, and soft when she can afford to be. She can be the most compassionate person I’ve ever known, and then she can shoot a deer or tell me it’s okay to steal wood. This woman who will beg me not to kill a spider in the cheese room, but to put him outside instead, can kill and dress out a chicken, or point a rifle at the chest of a biker who might be threatening our family. I’ve now seen her point a rifle at a man and pull the trigger.
And she is my wife.
Ordinary World was my first novel, but it seems to me to be the best writing I’ve ever done. What makes it work is the family. And I hope my readers feel the same.
I don’t write much poetry. Last week, I learned that my mother may have Alzheimer’s, and I was inspired to write this.
I felt the breath of winter
cold on my neck this afternoon.
In the mirror I saw you
who bore me,
the flowers faded now,
the leaves turned and falling,
a wondrous year
now dying to a close.
There is light in the future,
new life to replace the old,
but this year will have passed
and what springs anew
will have never known you.
How dare the cruelness of time
erase the reality I’ve known?
How can the face that defined a life
pass into forgotten mists
and leave that life behind?
We’ve loved and fought,
you and I,
but now that winter’s breath approaches
I fear to contemplate the emptiness
I live in one of the most prepared states in the country: Utah. The Mormon Church, as it is called by non-members like myself, has taught preparedness for decades. Most families here have a year’s worth of food in storage, an abundant supply of ammunition for their firearms, and a seventy-two hour kit in case of evacuation. Outsiders seem to find that strange. Evacuation? Why prepare for that? They have already forgotten about hurricanes that hit the Gulf and the East Coast, floods in the mid-west, wildfires in California and Texas, and any number of other natural disasters that displace tens of thousands of Americans each year. Since 9-11, the federal government has gotten on the preparedness bandwagon. Homeland Security advises us to be prepared, to have an emergency plan, to keep a supply of food on hand. But I wonder how many folks outside of Utah and the Mormon Church are listening? –“Zombies and Boy Scouts,” Ordinary World
Ordinary World was my first published novel. I was surprised how well it did, selling over 3,000 copies and garnering 73 reviews and an average of 4.4 stars on Amazon.
The idea for the book began several years before I started writing it. When I moved to Utah, and especially during the financial crisis of 2007, I adopted the local preoccupation with preparedness. I began stockpiling food and ammunition. I went to the annual Preparedness Fair in Cedar City. I listened to experts talk about the Spanish Flu Epidemic. I read military strategist John Robb’s analysis concluding how vulnerable our centralized system is to terrorism or acts of God.
I began to wonder, if any of these events actually happened, what would life look like for us? I mean, we have some medical supplies, lots of wheat, guns and ammo, sleeping bags and cots for refugees, and backup kitchen supplies. But how prepared are we really?
I first conceived Ordinary World as a fictional blog, posting the chapters in real time. I posted several chapters. The problem was, no one read it.
I thought the story was a good one: a family struggling to survive as the economy slowly melts down around them. I wanted people to read it. So I turned it into a novel.
This is the third winter since the collapse began. In the first, Gracie and I did pretty well because we were prepared. In the second, after Rita, Bernard, and Weylan joined us, we were helped by mild weather and supplies left over from before. This time, we have to face a winter relying on our own resources. It’s the first time that has been true. Coming as I do from old New England stock, the phrase “First Winter” strikes a chord of fear in my heart. The cultural memory of the hardships the first settlers faced is ingrained deeply within me. —“The First Winter,” Ordinary World.
I read it to my family as I wrote it. The characters Bill, Gracie, and Joe, became real to us. We cried when Sunflower the goat died, just as we cried when our real-life goat Christie died. I think my wife was as nervous in real life as Bill is in the book about whether Gracie would recover from her injuries. (She actually threatened me that I better not kill Gracie!) Ordinary World became a labor of love for my whole family!
When the time came to publish it, I chose Amazon’s CreateSpace as my platform. My history with query letters to publishers is dismal. And I really wanted people to be able to read it.
Even before publication, my family had encouraged me to think about an audio book. With the book’s success, I began to take the idea seriously. I was fortunate that narrator Scott Pollack became interested on the project. He did a fabulous job, and the audio book is available on Audible and Amazon.
(Sample the audiobook here:)
Fans have encouraged me to write a sequel. I’ve tried. But Ordinary World is in my opinion a great story with some of my best writing overall. I haven’t been able to come up with an idea for a sequel that measures up to the original. For the time being, Ordinary World stands alone.
We ran out of meat two weeks ago. When I say that, I mean we cooked our last stew bone. There is nothing left… Lack of protein and the lack of Vitamin C have combined to make us all feel weary and slow-witted. I’m not confident of my ability to make good decisions. And our family meetings suggest that no one else is, either. There’s a lot of “I don’t know” being spoken.
So here I am, ten miles or more from home, determined not to come back empty-handed. I’m carrying the 30-30, which is a bit big for rabbits, but which is the most flexible rifle I have. I can shoot anything up to the size of a deer with it. Including coyotes, should they decide to try to make a meal out of me. If I see a rabbit, I’m just going to have to hit him square in the head so there’s something left to bring home. But I haven’t seen a rabbit, not even in the distance.
I’m not going back empty-handed. In my pack, I have a down sleeping bag, a tent, and some supplies. I’m prepared to spend the night out here if I have to. Even two nights.–“Desperation,” Ordinary World
“I love to can fresh vegetables and fruits. When winter comes, I’d much rather eat our own tomato sauce, for example, than something out of a can or jar. Pickles, apple sauce, chutney, and more spice up our winter diet. Gracie likes it, too. But the weeks of produce-covered counters, stacks of pots and pans, and spills on the stove sometimes combine to make her grumpy. She loves the result, but hates the process. So this time of year, there’s tension between wanting to can, and not having enough time.”
So writes Bill in my novel, Ordinary World. And it’s true! I love to can, and my wife Carrie dreads the mess in the kitchen.
This week, we found a box of locally-grown peaches at a really good price. Last night, I washed and sliced them, sanitized jars and lids, and filled ten quart jars with peaches and “syrup.” My syrup contains very little sugar, since I make it with fructose and coconut sugar, and I reduce the comparative amounts of those, too.
My son, Samuel, was born May 29, 2014. I was 54 years old and, until then, childless. I have a ten-year-old stepson who came into my life when he was six, and whom I love as my own. But having a baby, and now a toddler, is a whole new world.
My wife lost a baby two years before, so the first sound of Sam’s heartbeat during the ultrasound was thrilling. Then I got to see him born, and watch him take his first breath. His head was smaller than the palm of my hand!
He’s a year old now. He’s starting to make words like Mama, Dada, and Tiger. He can stand while holding on to something, and has stood without support for a few seconds at a time. I have no doubt he’ll be walking soon. But he’s still at the “everything goes in the mouth” stage. One day, he tried to eat the TV remote and shocked his mouth. Another day, he chewed the label off a water bottle and choked on it. He is fascinated with electrical cords, cell phones, computers, and anything electronic. This demands constant supervision. And he wants more attention now. He’s less satisfied playing by himself.
I love my son. But fifty-odd years of being childless has made me selfish and set in my ways. I want to do what I want to do, when I want to do it. When I’m inspired to write, I want to write.
Having a child has been a huge adjustment. I can no longer write while I watch him. Which means that sometimes when I am inspired, I can’t write down my thoughts. And often, when I have the time to write, I find myself with nothing to say.
Sometimes I wonder how people with children keep their jobs. But mine is a unique situation. I work at home, so I’m always available but never quite off duty.
I’m told that these things work out over time. I hope so, because my writing has continued to improve, and I look forward to finishing the projects I’m working on. But during this period of adjustment, I still wouldn’t give up my son for anything!