Is this character, or is this cultural? I’ve just returned home from the cafe for lunch to find two Spanish teenagers melted across my living room couch, faces illuminated by smartphones. My own teenager has retreated to help her dad stack the firewood. I don’t think they notice she’s left them. They don’t even notice me, sitting in a chair four feet away, studying them.
When I went out that morning, Saoirse had plans of cooking them a special breakfast, then taking them on a hike. From the mess in the kitchen, it does appear they have been fed. Since everyone is still in pajamas, I’m guessing the hike never happened. The devices came out, Saoirse explains later, and she became invisible, until they were hungry for a snack.
My Mama’s heart knows these are good kids. Our Martina is bright and cheerful, full of interesting observations about her own culture, always willing to laugh. She is urban to the core, but accepts our agrarian life. This second Spanish teenager, who is in our temporary care for two days, is definitely more shy. She also happens to be terrified of animals. I wonder if her smartphone is her emotional armor.
I take full advantage of their absorption with the electronic friends who pop up on their screens, and study the way they’ve fully inhabited my couch: draped across it, long arms dangling off the sides, legs intertwined lovingly with each other, unafraid to touch, the sound of their happy giggles as they share details from whatever just blipped in.
I want to criticize the technology. I want to pull out my own phone and snap a photo and hold it as evidence of what’s wrong with Western society.
I email a lament about it to one of my farm customers who loves to ponder big ideas. He writes back immediately, wasting no time to point out that I, too, am making use of the technology as I bemoan it. Then he reminds me of the magnitude of the technological, cultural and social transformation taking place at this point in human history. He puts it on par with the Gutenberg printing press, or England’s development of theater that was available to the commoner, rather than just the members of court. As I read his words, I am reminded of Socrates, too, who criticized the technology of writing, arguing, among other things, that people learn at the expense of memory. There are critics at every turn for every technological advancement.
So I try to see through those devices that are re-shaping our culture every single second. After all, it is not the fault of this generation that the technology was placed in their hands from infancy. Instead, I study them as I would art: the languid comfort in their repose, their unapologetic choice to be doing nothing of significance.
Culturally, they strike me as liberated from the Protestant work ethic that drives our nation.
I wonder if they’re on to something. Since we signed the papers creating Sap Bush Hollow, LLC on January first, I’ve suddenly been asking myself about rest. Until this year, I’ve always wondered about what more I could take on, how much more I can accomplish in a day, in a year, in a lifetime. But now, with a half-million dollar family business in my control, plus a writing business, a commercial property, a household and two homeschooled children, my questions are changing. How do I find the time to rest and play?
What I’m learning is that rest and play requires the same discipline that pulls me from bed at 4am to write. It requires fierce efficiency with my work, and at times, cold-hearted boundaries to protect whatever recreational space I’ve created: refusal to pick up the phone, refusal to make Bob happy by at least putting away my laundry before I put my feet up at the end of the day; tossing my own phone aside on my days off, so that I can’t be yanked back with the blip of an email or text.
I watch the girls shift their positions on the couch. One tosses her hair back over her shoulder. They laugh again.
And I reflect about why I’ve been so fiercely dedicated to finding this rest. I’m learning that it’s the key to managing all that is now on my plate. An afternoon nap speeds up my bookkeeping. A day in the woods or off swimming gives me clarity, helps me take the ups and downs of the farm with a sense of humor. Morning walks feed my creative brain and help Bob and me organize our days. A pot of coffee and the Sunday Times inspire me to consider new ideas. All of these things fuel my passion to return to the job.
But wait! I sit bolt upright in my chair and re-examine my thinking. Am I so inculcated into this Protestant work ethic thing that I only value play and recreation for its ability to enhance my work? Is that the only way I can justify play? The only way I can enjoy it?
That. Is. Seriously. Messed. Up.
Or is it? Is this just my culture? Work is a joy around here. Work is how our family connects. Work is our family version of team sports: it is the way we’ve come to celebrate our strengths and skills. It is the way that Saoirse and Ula are taught they are both important and unique in our family. Our daily labor is how we gain our independence, provide our sustenance, and fully experience the passing seasons.
I think about the time we’ve been spending with Martina, the conversations we’ve had. And the subject of work comes up a lot. I’ve observed her happiest days here have been working with us in the cafe. She learned everything quickly, and she seemed to take deep pleasure in solving problems with customers, learning to make change with American money, delivering orders, laughing at the chaos. But, she has told me, her parents expect her to go to university, and they insist that she not have a job while she’s studying. At nearly 18, she does not cook, and she does not work. Martina’s friend on the couch has told me the same about herself. . “My mother does it,” she explains to me when I ask this basic getting-to-know-you question about her family kitchen.
“Doesn’t she teach you?”
“Well, you see, I’m very bad at it.” She shrugs her shoulders and smiles, as if that justifies letting someone else prepare the food.
And that’s when I suddenly see the scene on the couch differently. . Are they masters of leisure by necessity? What could look like over-indulgence, or laziness, or simply leisure time could be something else entirely. It could be insidious. It could even be dangerous. Maybe they’re trapped. In their pursuit of leisure, do they have choices besides who to date or marry? If they face cultural pressure to not hold a job, to not learn to provide for their fundamental daily needs, how much power and control do they have over their lives?
It’s true that we over-work ourselves around here. It is true that I am on a quest to find rest and pleasure in the face of labor.
But work, whether in the form of a family business or nourishing ourselves by cooking or providing for our needs, has come to dominate our lives because we do it well, and we enjoy it. And maybe we do need to learn other life skills to balance ourselves out more. But here, in this moment, it is what I have to offer these children. And, after all, they are here to learn about all different aspects of America. This is a big part of it.
“Come on!” I stand up and clap my hands. “Today I’m going to teach you how to make a real American Hamburger! Then you’re going to make my lunch!”
They look up from their screens, and I think I see horror flash across their faces. I smile. “I’ve got a sense this is going to be the best burger you’ve ever tasted!”
Saoirse joins us in the kitchen, preparing a salad while helping them find their tools and pans. Contrary to their assertions that they are inept in the kitchen, they do a great job. The smartphones are forgotten, their blips and pings completely ignored as these two Spanish girls learn how to properly sear a burger. …Until lunch is prepared. Then they grab those phones, open the camera apps, and those burgers are photographed as though they’re super models, then snap-chatted across the planet.