Beard era circa 2020 implies new formulations of the phrase: does the carpet match the drapes? Prescient though this giggled query may be, it connotes timeless equivocations whereby what’s outside (or above) is taken to signify what’s inside (or below). Sure, we mouth slogans that it’s what’s inside that counts, but superficial aesthetic judgments are only ever an intuitive claim away.
Study desks can look dishevelled and we can adopt an Einstein-esque countenance, complete with ruffled hair and lazybones gaze. These appearances may diminish us in the eyes of others, or they may portray a perfect portrait of academic excellence. It’s all relative and, really, whose to say what needs to be tended in a given place or way? What matters most is our concrete accomplishments in terms of assignments written and readings absorbed. When things get rough and our outer realm starts to overwhelm our inner sanctity it helps to put things in perspective. There is so much that does not need to be done. As the great sage Lao Tzu once wrote, “One does things so that one needs to do nothing. One takes actions so that one needs no action.”
Less is more, and naturally so, when we achieve a stable peace with our priorities including the appearance of ourselves and our surroundings.
And Now a Humbling Word From Hesiod
The great poet Hesiod, whose earthy aphoristic poems followed the heroic epoch of Homer, discussed the practical psychological exigencies of productive farming and productively inhabiting the field of life. Hesiod noted that a certain trick of fate or sleight of hand underlay the human predicament whereby calamities appear and overwhelm our well-planned defences. At AU, remember, being our own study boss is a humongous responsibility that can overburden even our most Atlasian shoulders. Hesiod wrote: “For the gods keep hidden from men the means of life. Else you would easily do work enough in a day to supply you for a full year even without working; soon would you put away your rudder over the smoke, and the fields worked by ox and sturdy mule would run to waste.” Less is more, if the more can come from less labour.
As with Lao Tzu, Hesiod suggested that the big lie of productivity is that much could be done with less if only we understood how to maximize our time and space and allow things to just flow. Heartfelt words can express in a moment what a lifetime of feelings failed to address; likewise, twenty minutes of active brain effluvia can lava over a whole weekend of procrastination. Sometimes. And when we choose to actively forget the priorities of other people (or other versions of ourselves!) that is when we set ourselves loose and unleash our creative ambitions. Being in an AU classroom of one means that we must keep our singular scholarly selves focused against the external and coercive expectations that lord over the reality of our efforts. Rome nor Athens were built in a day and sometimes to let things be is the best way forward as we zoom in on what’s important.
Case Study, Yard Labour: Weeds and Long Grass can be Dreams Realized
Here in deep summer the outside beckons for fun but also for work, work, work! If you’re like millions of Canadians you have some sort of yard work dragging your spirit into the gutter like a convict trudging back to the prison yard. A wise local pastor and noted horticulturalist once addressed a gardening assembly at my local community college; he began his talk by suggesting that we leave the term ‘yard’ to the prison guards and instead substitute the more verdant and prosaic word ‘garden’. Instead of mowing the annoying yard we can see that we’re lovingly tending our garden.
So what does the garden of our study soul require? Space, time, epiphany, patience—the same traits that allow for success in any discipline of life. Like a good gardener, we have to be able to lie back and enjoy our creation. Look how far you’ve come; if you’re reading this you’ve probably already achieved some wins at distance education so remember to rest on your laurels on a sunny summer afternoon!
Outer or Inner? Both. Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner!
Gardens are more than a metaphor for labours of love; they too match the ideological claim that what’s outside expresses what’s within. Historically the middle class lawn- scape was ground zero for the procreation of petty expressions of superiority and belonging. “Jeff VanderMeer feels that “benign neglect” is superior to traditional lawn care. ‘Not spending any money at all on fertilizers, or raking leaves,” he says, “is preferable, and doable on any budget.” We’re held back by mere convention; “meadows are a culturally important form, but people worry they look unkempt,”(https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/apr/09/how-to-rewild-lawn-garden)
There’s a history to this association of the external realm or nature with either an inner indolence or an inborn productivity. “Americans were lured by an age-old marketing approach, one utilized by razor and makeup entrepreneurs: convince consumers your products will transform their lives, and elevate an unkempt and slovenly appearance to a prosperous one. Lawn maintenance—once accomplished by slave labor for elites attempting to mimic the landscapes of European estates—is a hallmark of wealth, the opposite of swept-dirt lawns dotted with grazing livestock.” Clearly there’s a sociological case to be made to let the ol-back forty idle verdant into an edenic bliss for awhile; we can even say we’ve learned in university this practical skill of letting things flourish as they are!
And anyway, if we feel even a shade of slavery in our academic and domestic toils we’re on the road to ruin. Who wants to recreate abhorrent cultural norms of yore, especially if slaves were involved? Consider the facts of the matter; monoculture lawns demanding constant mowing are the whiny whelp of environmental desiccation. Plus, they (like our time wasted on apps and games when we could be studying with haste and wit and then on to funner climes) are expensive: “Americans spend an estimated $36 billion on lawn care annually, and the amount of lawns we maintain could roughly cover the state of Florida” (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/apr/09/how-to-rewild-lawn-garden). So as Lao Tzu suggests, and as Hesiod mourns its loss, less is more when it comes to gardening our outdoor spaces.
Like burning out on an excess of studying, with its diminished returns in memory recall and academic inspiration, the worst thing we can do is force ourselves to perpetually push our limits of productivity. “Social scientists have traced our affection for lawns to “savannah syndrome” an affinity for the short-grasses of east Africa where humans evolved”; recent studies reveal that insect numbers are remarkably low – monarch and rusty-patched bumblebee populations are both down nearly 90% in the last 20 years. Scientists estimate the arthropod population on Earth is down 45% from pre-industrial numbers” All this calamity for a superficial outcome seems pretty asinine; anyway, don’t superficial people yield superficial results?
Summer Joys and the Time to Enjoy them
Summer can carry us many places, to shady joys and happy embraces, but if we’re getting carried away from responsibilities let’s not make mincemeat out of our self esteem by devaluing the very spontaneity that allows for the best of us to be revealed.
What’s deep within ourselves is like a tiny bird asking the delightful Sisyphean question: how can I enjoy the toil that is inevitable while still embodying the best of myself? Hesiod concludes our inquiry into the nature of inertia in life and its corollary praxis in vacant cultural expressions: “said the hawk to the nightingale with speckled neck, while he carried her high up among the clouds, gripped fast in his talons, and she, pierced by his crooked talons, cried pitifully. To her he spoke disdainfully: `Miserable thing, why do you cry out? One far stronger than you now holds you fast, and you must go wherever I take you, songstress as you are. And if I please I will make my meal of you, or let you go. He is a fool who tries to withstand the stronger, for he does not get the mastery and suffers pain besides his shame.’ So said the swiftly flying hawk, the long-winged bird” (https://www.theoi.com/Text/HesiodWorksDays.html)
How we feel trumps how we appear in the eyes of others; in the silent depths of our study minds it really is what’s inside that counts. The way out of feeling overwhelmed by coursework, and perhaps yard work and other summer dalliances, is surely to accept the things we cannot change while gathering up the wisdom to change those things that we can. Wildness of spirit, our birthright as dynamic learning minds, shall bear us forth into meadows of tranquil success if only we can see the beauty that we ourselves embody.