Sunday, May 8, 2011

Ingredients for the “Good Life”

In one of those plane conversations of accelerated intimacy while flying home from school, the woman sitting next to me pronounced that I was a serious person. Too serious for a person my age, she thought.

I’ve realized in thinking about education and development and parenting and evangelizing (see May 2nd’s posting) that these forms of leadership all contain a pretty lofty implication: living as a “leader” implies that you have a grasp on “the Good Life.” That you embody the ideas you proliferate, that you are worthy of imitation, even.

Now, I don’t consider perfection/absolute integrity/crystal-clarity of vision prerequisites for leadership. In fact, I think a healthy dose of incapability and self-doubt (as well as good listening skills and prioritizing the interests of others) does a leader good. These implications are still important to examine, though. When I find myself dreaming up an ideal form of education (one that involves farming and painting and dancing and good books) and fantasizing about the products of this education (individuals who are capable and happy), I have to pause to ask whether I live the life I would want for future students? The woman on the plane would say that I don’t…

But seriously! ( :P ) Sometimes I fear that, as the woman in the poem “When I get old I’ll wear purple” puts it, in “the sobriety of my youth” I am missing out on the Good Life, the very thing I strive to help provide for others.

In the past few weeks of being abroad, I have discovered my conscience’s pressure points (You’re going to regret later spending that money, now, Joanna. If you don’t work all the time, you’ll probably fall behind and never catch up! If you’re not careful with your use of Romanian, you’re going to offend people here!) and, in the same relentless way a tongue finds a lose tooth and pokes and prods even though it smarts, my anxiety abuses my conscience. I was so anxious the other day that when some Romanian women saw me fumbling with my Romanian and apologizing profusely at the grocery store, they bade me relax. “Calma,” one said, gently.

Wonderfully, the past week has been a series of invitations to leave needless anxiety behind and to live life to the full. Sunday I joined my host family and their friends on an all day hike. It was a thoroughly Romanian experience: each “pausa” we took during our climb lasted as long as it took two of our party to smoke their cigarettes, we commandeered an unoccupied shepherd’s hut and cooked lunch (a fatty smorgasbord of meats and cheeses with no apologies) over the fire we made there, and we all laughed hard and often. As we made our descent that evening, I wanted to memorize every detail of the day and incorporate all of it (save the body-harming parts) into my life: Their intimacy with nature (all day I ate various leaves and berries familiar thanks to generations of wisdom to my fellow hikers), their playfulness, good humor, affection and devotion to one another as friends…

Thursday was our second Dance Class. About twenty children (ages 5 to 12 or so) and I are preparing dances for International Children’s Day on June 1st – we plan to perform a dance around a maypole in one of the parks in downtown Lupeni! The little dancers are marvelous to me. I’m always surprised to find which movements are difficult for them (I was sure this Palestinian grapevine move would be a winner…but first there’s that whole, “Which foot is right and which left?” thing, and then there’s the “I lack the fine motor skills that prevent my legs from getting tangled,” thing…oops!). And after all my clumsiness and bossiness as a teacher, I’m touched by their grins, hugs and “multsumesc’s” (“thank you’s”) at the end of class.

One little girl especially inspires me. It’s obvious that she absolutely delights in moving her body, and no matter how chaotic class gets nor how faded my smile, I can count on her always to be grinning and her eyes sparkling. She finds joy in every minute of class.

Later that evening for the weekly debrief dinner I’d determined to make Mexican food. As I made the twenty-minute trek to a second grocery store in pursuit of tortillas or some suitable substitute, I wondered whether I was being unreasonable. A book I’ve been reading about life in Eastern Europe during communism has heightened my consciousness of the almost disgusting number of choices we have in the United States - from feminine hygiene products to eating “conventionally grown” versus “organic” to options for education and employment. Maybe I should restrict my own lifestyle as an act of solidarity with those around the world whose lifestyles, by forces they cannot control, have been restricted? Maybe so. Especially if in so doing I can help achieve a better standard of living for others. But that night, at least, as I tasted the salty melted cheese and tangy mango salsa, I knew that periodic acts of extravagance (in a relative sense) are integral to a Good Life.

When I near my life’s end, the last thing I want to see looking back is a life too full of work and seriousness to include friends, joy or a measure of extravagance. And as Annie Dillard says, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Guess I’d better start incorporating these ingredients for the Good Life now!

P.S. Mom and Dad, you two are my example in this whole “worthiness of imitation” thing. I know it isn’t on accident that in striving to be the best parents you could be you became the best individuals and the best couple you could be. You guys will always see room for improvement, but on the whole you are living the “Good Life” – full of karaoke parties, rich church community, Sunday family dinners, laughter, and constant learning – that you want for us girls. I love you! Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!


  1. Wow. I feel like I just had the most wonderful conversation with you! The "Lighten Up!" sign we are going to put above our door will definitely need to be made with finger paint and lots of sorry attempts by Hilary to paint and a lot of laughter in the meantime. YOU are also worthy of imitation - and I'm really excited that you and I get to learn this and teach it to each other next year. Look for an email soon, I promise!

  2. I love the quote by Annie Dillard...and the extravagance of mango salsa...:)

  3. Hilary! That "Lighten Up!" sign is the part I forgot to include, though it sums this up perfectly! Thanks for including it for me :)

  4. Joanna, I loved this post. I have had similar experiences to the "Calma" one. It's so profound.
    I bet the dancing kids are adorable!
    Scott's back! 8)

  5. I'd like to hear about it sometime, Brett. Say hi to Scott for me! A happy reunion with the Volvo "Dream Machine"? Hope so :) Best wishes with finals!