On living ‘lean and sinewy’

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The other evening we went to dinner with our neighbors, followed by coffee and dessert at our house. My neighbor was in a nostalgic mood and reminisced about her grandmother, a Nebraska farm woman who led the rough subsistence lifestyle common in those days.

Recalling how nothing was ever wasted back then, she wondered what Grandma did with the pork belly, which she did not recall being served at dinner. Personally, I don’t even like to think about something called “pork belly,” but together we decided it was probably rendered into lard. Or maybe served like bacon.

I know something about pig butchering — my parents would take a pig yearly to the local butcher to have him carve it up and store it for the winter. Anything not useable for something else was turned into lard. What about the pig’s feet, you say? Well, if you live in the Midwest, you’ve seen pickled pigs feet in stores. Waste not.

My neighbor remembered how when Grandma died, they found a trove of lovely new towels, gifts from family members who didn’t know what else to give the matriarch. The towels were unused, but in the kitchen were plenty of thin and patched linens, some made from the gunnysack material that animal feed came in. Waste not.

Later, when I was cleaning up and wrapping the leftover cake in disposable plastic wrap, I was overwhelmed by the waste I saw in my own lifestyle. What modern American patches dishtowels?

Although most of us are never going back to a little house on the prairie, I think it behooves us to think about waste and consumption, and incorporate some remedies into our spiritual practice. Pope Francis would approve. And in this time of year when excess and commercialism begin to assail us from every direction, it’s good to make some resolutions.

Once, when praying about this, I imagined how lean and sinewy the apostles must have been. Hard-working subsistence fishermen who never dug into a bag of Doritos, they walked everywhere. Probably the only fat people around were guys like Herod, who displayed their corpulence proudly as a sign of wealth and excess.

It seems like the holiday season might be a great time to think about how to make our lifestyles a bit more lean and sinewy.

The Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest has a book club, pegging books to one of the four values of JVC, which are simplicity, social and ecological justice, community and spirituality. The recent simple living entry was “The Year Without a Purchase — One Family’s Quest to Stop Shopping and Start Connecting.”

Author Scott Dannemiller and his wife Gabby had been missionaries in Guatemala. The experience made them very conscious of the excess of modern American life, but two kids and 10 years away from the mission found them consuming more and working hard to afford it.

So, they tried a year of not buying things. They bought groceries and hygiene items, of course. But, new clothes, toys, books – no go. It took me awhile to appreciate Dannemiller’s sense of humor, but eventually the book hit home. I especially liked the way they endeavored to give their children experiences rather than “stuff.”

We don’t have to read a book or eat pork belly in order to make some commitments on avoiding waste and its ecological impact during the spending months ahead. But sometimes a book provides me with motivation and ideas. I even felt a little guilty for buying the book, and resolved to share it.

For other selections from JVC’s book club, visit jvcnorthwest.org/stay-connected/bookclub.

The writer is formerly from Anchorage. She now lives in Omaha, Neb.

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