Mar 30

New podcast episode: Heaven is a Place on Earth

an unedited conversation with writer Adrian Shirk

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This first CONVENTICLE podcast interview is with Adrian Shirk, writer of two books which may be of interest to you: And Your Daughters Shall Prophecy, about women and spirituality in America, and Heaven is a Place on Earth, about the search for utopia in America. In this conversation, we focus on this new book, talking widely about urban planning, faith, ancestors and whiteness, gender…and flowers. We begin with a centering; the conversation starts at around 6 minutes. Enjoy!

Some weeks ago, I was making a batch of sourdough bread. As my dough was in its bulk ferment stage, I rolled a small amount dough into a ball and dropped it into a glass of water. It sunk to the bottom; when the dough is finished proofing, the ball of dough will pop to the surface. But for hours, the dough sat out on the counter, and the ball in the water didn’t pop, and I began to get nervous. If the dough is out for too long, it will overproof, becoming too sour, and it will deflate. I didn’t want to ruin it. Maybe the ball will never pop, I thought. Maybe it’s too cold, maybe it’s too rich a dough. I should just move on. So I took the dough out of its bowl and shaped it into loaves. Then, just as I was about to put the loaves into the oven, the ball popped. I just hadn’t given it enough time.

I realized that I hadn’t been patient with the dough because I didn’t trust that it would work out. I didn’t trust myself to get it right. I began to think about how patience requires trust. It’s hard to be patient with my kids in the morning when I don’t trust that they will eventually stop playing tag and start putting on their socks.

With people, and with things, we can learn to trust that these things will happen because we see that it does, over and over. When we trust in the things we can’t see, it’s called something else: faith.

One year, fearing that the daffodils wouldn’t be able to make it through the mulch we had covered them with in the fall, I raked all of the leaves away, only to realize that the bulbs were sprouting anyway, spearing their way through any obstacles above. I hadn’t trusted, I hadn’t been patient. I started to think about Persephone under the earth in February, waiting for the thaw. How many years did it take for her to trust that she will be returned, blinking and pale, into the sun? Will we ever cease to be relieved when the spring finally comes?

A decade ago this spring, I was studying community building with Robert Putnam. I became convinced during that semester, studying markets and bars and lingerie stores, that the work of making society better, which I was studying as an urban planning student, wasn’t just in the hands of government. Instead, it was a daily, collaborative thing that happened in book clubs and community centers and neighborhoods, often led by women. This is trust work.

I tell you about this because in a recent NYTimes The Morning newsletter, the Covid-era crime wave was attributed to anomie: a lack of fellow-feeling in American society at large. Robert Putnam diagnosed this 22 years ago in Bowling Alone; what dismays me is that this newsletter doesn’t notice what I notice everyday, which is that many many people, many of us, are working against anomie and moving towards trust and togetherness everyday. By crying in each other’s presence, by watching each other’s kids, by checking in and by baking bread and by sharing mutual aid. We are doing it, you all. We are doing the generational-level work of rebuilding society.

This work is slow. As Adrian Shirk writes and talks about, this work is hard, and it often looks like failure, though what it really is is ephemeral, constantly cycling and recycling, popping up and going under. It is often invisible, like rhizomes and mycelia spreading underground, like bulbs working their way through the soil. Adrian describes beautifully, and with such tenderness and anticipation, the landscape of the land she cares for, in the Catskill mountains, where the snowdrops are up but everything else is still waiting, waiting.

At the end of our interview, Adrian asked me what I think utopia is. I began, between tears, with my grandmother, the Zen teacher, who had a zendo in her basement apartment when I was a child. Community, faith, and practice were mixed into everyday life, I said. What I didn’t say was that on the other side of the garden from that Zendo was my grandfather’s music studio, where he still gives trumpet lessons and writes music and plays everything from I’m a little Teapot to far out jazz (their Zendo moved away years ago). What I didn’t say was that in this garden they grow persimmons and figs and lemons, and cardoons, and arugula. This is utopia to me too. Utopia is a place where everyone can expect to have their needs met, I said. If you want more utopia, read Mia Birdsong, and Anne Helen Petersen.

Have faith. Spring is here. The ephemerals will come quickly, and in a rush, and then it will be summer.