Communicating can be a humbling experience. The potential for being misunderstood is great and the fear of such misunderstanding can be the cause of much anxiety. Sometimes we don’t have enough time to fully explain what we mean, and sometimes we simply don’t know how to say what we mean. The people we are communicating with have more or less capacity to understand us and the confusion levels increase as you add more people to the equation. Making this even more complicated is the fact that some words don’t mean what we think they mean.
The word jealousy is now used almost exclusively as a synonym for envy. Your friend has a new phone or has tickets to Hamilton on Broadway or sends you a picture of her tanned legs stretching out to white sand and blue-green ocean and you text back, “Jealous!” It would probably sound odd or maybe even pretentious to text back, “Envious!” Except, that is what you are. You are envious, not jealous.
The word jealous actually means (or used to mean?) to desire to keep the thing you have from other people. How about some context? Let’s compare God in the Old Testament to Rick Springfield from his 1981 album Working Class Dog.
In the Bible, God is often referred to as a jealous God. The idea is that the Israelites are God’s people. God doesn’t want to share the Israelites with any other gods. In a similar way, you might jealously guard your influence and reputation, your position at work, land, relationships, etc. Jealousy has a complex set of implications, which can be healthy or unhealthy. The “consuming fire” can be turned outward in affection and care or inward in self-centered possessiveness. Jealous isn’t a simple word.
Rick Springfield, on the other hand, was envious of his good friend Jessie. It would sound more poetic if we could say he was jealous of Jessie, but we don’t always get what we want (sorry to complicate things with a Stones reference). Rick may be content with finding “a woman like that,” but it is difficult to ignore his constant repetition of “I wish that I had Jessie’s girl.” He wants what someone else has. That’s envy.
Side note: It isn’t clear from the song or video if Jessie is a jealous boyfriend. For the purposes of this blog post, that point is probably moot.
Here’s the turn back to something like a point that isn’t moot, thanks for staying with me.
When words like envy and jealousy are conflated, we lose the capacity to communicate clearly and specifically. I would like to suggest that all of us can work harder and think more deeply about how and what we communicate. Having been humbled enough over the years by my own miscommunication, I would also suggest that we offer significant latitude to others as they try and try again to work out what they mean. Words aren’t as simple as they seem.
Certainly, the distinction between holding tightly to the thing we have and grasping after the thing someone else has is significant, and knowing the difference is potentially critical to our development as persons. It is also important to understand the nuances of the words we use because they reveal the even more nuanced desires and motivations in ourselves and others. Recognizing these nuances can, like a small flashlight, illuminate a bit of the path forward and maybe reduce the number of times we stumble in the darkness of what we call communication. Ain’t that the way love’s supposed to be?
Spring is slowly coming on (still more 50 degree days in the forecast) and as the state of Ohio begins it’s slow reopening from the Covid-19 crisis, I thought it would be a good idea to make another bookstore recommendation. The Book Loft in German Village, just south of downtown Columbus, is one of my all-time favorite bookstores. They almost always have books spilling out the front door and 32 rooms of glorious book browsing inside.
There are a number of great restaurants in the neighborhood of the bookstore and Stauf’s Coffee is right next door. Grab a coffee and be ready to wander. Yes, some of the rooms and walkways are a little cramped (lots of sideways walking through the hallway shown above). Yes, it is possible to get lost in the building for a little while (getting lost is part of the fun). Those elements are a small price to pay for 32 rooms of books (my wife and children are shaking their heads at me somewhere, I’m sure). If you are a book lover and in the Columbus, OH area, do yourself a favor and take a trip to The Book Loft (reopening date TBD).
*In this guest post, my good friend, Andrew Lloyd, gives us a glimpse into the history, motivations, and philosophy behind a decade-long restoration project. I’m privileged enough to get to spend time in this lovely place a couple of times per year and it has inspired me to consider my home and land carefully.
Every day in the late 80’s, I walked the sidewalk from the main Jackson High School building, past a mobile home that hosted a cutting-edge word-processing class, and into a very plain concrete building. There were a dozen large drafting tables inside that were manned by a dozen mullet clad students under the supervision of Mr. Sites, an old-school paddle-wielding teacher of mechanical drawing and architecture. The final exam for architecture was to build a model of the house we had spent all semester designing. Despite waiting until the last minute to finish it, I absolutely loved doing this. The designs weren’t really anything special, but the details in my models were amazing. I remember staying up all night with my dad, cutting black sandpaper into shingles, landscaping a pond filled with clear Jell-O, and making an electric meter to scale—similar to the ones Dad read as a meter reader when I was growing up. Something about surprising people with such small creative details gave me a huge rush of adrenaline.
At the same time, thirteen miles down a rural highway road from the school, the last known occupant of an old, dilapidated house had shut and locked its door, never to return. Its outside was covered in rolled asphalt siding that was supposed to look like brick; a thick cluster of vines had begun to work their way up the sides. Inside, there were six layers of wallpaper covered in soot. Worthless junk was everywhere though, unbeknownst to most, was intermingled with priceless treasures. Inside, there were over a hundred years of memories starting in the 1880’s when Philip Reed, my great-great grandfather, built the house that fourteen people once called home all at the same time. Inside, there were also the logs of a cabin that wasn’t ready to die.
They say time flies when you are having fun. Nearly twenty years flew by – college, marriage, job, family, becoming a homeowner. I didn’t notice it at first, but my practicality had caused me to buy a house with no soul. I began to dream of not just a place with more character, but also of a creative outlet and the adult equivalent of that architecture model from high school. Most of those years were before there were good design ideas online so I collected books – about 60 books covering all styles from rustic to modern. I was particularly intrigued by one book called The Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka which focused on quality over quantity and described ways to add comfort, beauty and inspiring detail to a home. I wasn’t sure what style of home or retreat I wanted yet, but I knew it would speak to the soul in the ways she described.
Time passed for the old Reed homestead too, but it wasn’t having as much fun. The vines engulfed the walls and infiltrated every crack much like the six-foot black snake we later found living in the wall. A storm blew off a corner of the roof and for years water leaked down one wall through a bedroom and living room taking its toll on the logs and floor. A white goat, appropriately named Billy, mercifully kept the high grass at bay, but could not keep the outhouse from nearly falling in the creek. The situation, quite literally, did not look good.
“They are going to burn the old homeplace down,” my dad called to tell me one summer day in 2005. A Reed cousin owned it and their intent was to eliminate the eye sore and make room for a new barn. Dad wanted to know if I’d help him tear it down and move all that was worth salvaging down the road nine miles to his farm. Now, most people would think this was a crazy idea, and well, they would be absolutely correct! However, in our case it was not without precedent. Twenty years prior, he meticulously tagged and moved three different 1800’s log structures, combining them into a home located just a few miles away. The result was gorgeous, but to say it was a huge amount of work would be an understatement. So, I did what any rational person would do and, along with my two brothers, agreed to help with the project.
Cousin Philip, who was named after the cabin patriarch, and his green John Deere tractor with two big protruding hay forks were a life and back saver. It was filthy work and we’d never been dirtier than we were that hot summer, sticky and covered in the dust of our ancestors. In all, we loaded over two hundred tagged logs, hundreds of mostly oak boards as wide as 24 inches, six amazing hand-made doors, hand-hewn foundation stones around which my 96 year old grandmother had crawled as a child, and well-worn green antique furniture onto an old hay wagon destined for a barn on dad’s farm.
While the work was noble, we were all glad to be done and more than happy to take a break – a three-year break to be exact. However, none of us were getting any younger, so in 2008 Dad offered me a plot of land to stand the cabin back up on and restore its family legacy. Enough time had passed that I’d forgotten how much work it was, so happily accepted. I had a design epiphany at work one day shortly afterward and left early to draw up plans for a three-year project that ended up being an amazing 11-year journey. The irony is not lost on me that I started this in my mid-thirties, the same age as my father and my great-great grandfather when they built their cabins. It must be that sweet spot between being young enough to have the energy to tackle it, but not yet wise enough to know better.
I ended up designing around many of the key concepts in Susanka’s “Not So Big House”. There is shelter around activity on the wrap around porch and fire ring. There are interior and diagonal views that make the small cabin feel bigger than it is. There are a variety of ceiling heights from the open gabled kitchen to the cozy living room with original exposed rafters. There are framed openings, honest materials, a light filled kitchen, repeating themes, built-ins, it’s rooted to the ground and more. To top it all off, just like my high school architecture model, there is detail everywhere – copper accents, well-lit antique bottles, restored newspaper articles found in the cabin, old floors as good as new and new floors as good as old.
I’m always happy to discuss the project, how we did certain things, or what we learned. Not all the learning was about the design or building, but much about ourselves and our family – past, present, and how it is helping to shape our future. It’s a place I’m proud of and I know my dad is proud of it as well. I like to think my great-great grandfather would be too, although I’m sure he’d wonder why we chose to invest so much in such a poor old house. Enjoy the Reed Cabin restored 2008-2019, but over a century in the making.
*In this guest post, David J. Ballenger reviews Wendell Berry’s novel A Place on Earth. David is an author and happens to be my brother (don’t hold that against him, he’s suffered enough for it).
A Place on Earth begins with a group of men playing cards in the empty back room of Jasper Lanthrop’s empty store. Jasper, like many of the town’s young men, is off fighting in World War II. The war plays in the background of the novel; news from the European and Pacific theaters trickle in by way of radio broadcasts and letters from the front lines, but the town is always listening and waiting for news. While they listen and wait, life proceeds but always in the shadow of the absence of sons, brothers, nephews, and husbands.
Berry does not give the reader a romanticized pastoral setting in which to escape and feel better. He tells the story of a place. In this place there is suffering. A child dies in a flood and a man takes his own life. There is drunkenness and sloth. There are also moments of levity and there is plenty of love, love for people and this place.
Over the past month, most of us have been forced to stay at home, and some of us have found a new appreciation for our place and others are dying to get away, to get back out into the world. There is a mix of both in Port William as well. While a character like Jarret Coulter keeps his nose to the grindstone and his mouth firmly shut, his brother Burley finds time to seek out the companionship of friends and writes letters to his nephew Nathan. At their best, the characters in A Place on Earth cope with their losses and the cloud of an international crisis through work. Good work. Work that brings about new life and orderliness in this place. Celebration and death will come, but in the meantime, a supper needs to be cooked, a grave needs to be dug, a head needs to be barbered, a field needs to be plowed, and a lamb needs to be birthed.
In one of the final chapters of the book, family and friends sit in their home with the body of Ernest Finley. While a group of men sit on the porch, neighbors begin flooding from their doors celebrating the end of the war. The contrast between the two groups is representative of the novel. In the same place, there is a time for mourning and a time for celebration, and sometimes those overlap. However, they are all interconnected. The best of them know that what is good for their neighbor is good for them. It is the international crisis that is abstract and difficult to fathom. The crisis is not what defines them; they are defined by their work and their shared lives, their love for the place and the people there.
Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota, Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass. And the eyes of those two Indian ponies Darken with kindness. They have come gladly out of the willows To welcome my friend and me. We step over the barbed wire into the pasture Where they have been grazing all day, alone. They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness That we have come. They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other. There is no loneliness like theirs. At home once more, They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness. I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms, For she has walked over to me And nuzzled my left hand. She is black and white, Her mane falls wild on her forehead, And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist. Suddenly I realize That if I stepped out of my body I would break Into blossom.
James Wright, “A Blessing” from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose. Copyright 1990 by James Wright.
I was deeply move by Aaron Kheriaty’s recent message to students at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine, where he is director of the Medical Ethics Program. Kheriaty is guiding his students through two simultaneous disappointments: the loss of well earned rights of passage (commencement, residency matches, etc) and the frustration of being sent home from clinicals for the time being. Kheriaty’s message:
“Now is the time to focus not on our own individual interests but on the common good. Realize that you are not being sidelined for the long term but kept on reserve in the short term: We simply cannot have too many health care workers getting infected at once. You will soon be needed for tasks that could not be more urgent and important.“
Hear what is being communicated? These students are saying they want to serve. Kheriaty goes on:
“This is why you are becoming doctors. Just as firefighters go into burning buildings when others run the other direction, so physicians go where the sick are when others try to avoid them — using all available precautions and training, of course, but still putting the needs of the patients ahead of our own convenience.”
I have been thinking of all of my friends and former students who are medical professionals. Some of them are going to experience battlefield promotions soon. This pandemic is nothing that these students could have anticipated when they started med school and yet they are anxious to get to work. I deeply admire them for their commitment to serve. You can see Kheriaty’s full message here at The New Atlantis.
This is a general PSA for those of us who are educators and find ourselves in uncharted waters.* I’ve been following Dr. Cory Olsen (known as the Tolkien Professor) for a number of years now. He founded Signum University, a fully online university which currently offers masters degrees in Language & Literature.
* I realize that pretty much everyone is in uncharted waters. Also, I wanted to say a bunch of stuff like “Water, water everywhere…” and “Beyond here be dragons” but didn’t want to clutter up the actual post with my nonsense.
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
99% Invisible is a podcast about design; the way it blends into the background, but also the way it shapes the way we think and act in the world. They engage topics as diverse as suspension bridges and the Toronto Raptors Barney uniforms. One of my favorites is an episode entitled The Infantorium where, in the early 1900’s, “Visitors would pay ten cents to enter a spacious room full of glass boxes that were incubators with tiny premature babies on display.” Premature babies on display at amusement parks, that was a thing.
The episode entitled Usonia, about Frank Lloyd Wright’s home designs, is an excellent gateway to considering the design of your home. What makes a home conducive to human thriving? It is worthwhile to spend some time thinking about the designs that impact us most every day. I’m excited about an upcoming guest post by my longtime friend, Andrew Lloyd (not Webber or Wright), about building a cabin and the concepts that influenced it’s design.