Katy Butler finds her spiritual ground
My mother turned off the ignition and put the keys in her pocket.
“We are going to build a house for the fairies,” she said, and opened the door. We walked into the glowing woods. At a hollow place at the foot of a tree, my mother knelt down. She brushed away leaves and stuck forked twigs into the ground. She balanced sticks across the clefts, making roof-beams, a ridgepole, then rafters. I propped beech leaves against the sides and set them along the roof— they were broad-bladed, like flattened spears, and their points made a jagged line along the peak. We put moss in the front garden, and round white stones to lead the fairies to the door. My mother was an agnostic, a rebel, and a lover of modern architecture. She had nothing good to say about reverence. But that day she led me to something she could not give me and built something close to an altar.
My parents were nominally Anglicans, and on Sundays, when I grew older, they sent my brothers and me to the church of St. Michael and All Angels. There, in the basement Sunday school, I glued images of martyred saints onto cardboard. I was told that God was everywhere and saw everything, and I imagined him as a series of transparent shower curtains embedded with multitudinous fish eyes, moving in every wind.
At night, I’d kneel by my bed and beg for a sign of His reality. But God was silent—at least in the forms that I expected Him to speak - until Saturday, when I would ride my bike to green fields bordering a stream and lie face down in the mossy grass, letting the green energy rise up into me.
There, I had an inkling of a wholeness beyond the logic of my family. I didn’t have to work for it. All I had to do was put myself in a position to receive. Green things continued to feed what I call my soul long after I abandoned hope of ever seeing the luminous fish eyes of God waving in the transparent wind. I worshiped holy water and holy dirt long before I called it prayer.
When I was eight, my family moved to America and my parents built a Bauhaus-inspired four-bedroom house overlooking a lake in the suburbs of Boston. America amazed us: the supermarkets, with row on row of perfect, pesticide-kissed fruit; the oil furnaces in the basements of big houses, blasting hot air into every room; the ice cream parlors with their banana splits and three-scoop ice cream sundaes; the giant milk-fed children; the enormous superhighways and big cars—all summing up what my mother called America’s “higher standard of living.”
In due course my father got a better job and a bigger house and our family acquired many little machines: a television, station wagon, lawnmower, second car, blender, coffee grinder, microwave, rice cooker, toaster oven, hairdryer, air conditioner. Friends of my parents moved into a new development where clotheslines were forbidden.
We didn’t think we were trying to satisfy endless craving. We didn’t see a connection between what we bought and the destruction of wild places we loved. We just wanted to be warm, safe, fed, and comfortable. We did not know that something in the human brain never hears or whispers “enough.” We were part of a liberal, affluent society that believed that “the greatest good for the greatest number” was mathematically translatable into “the greatest number of goods for the greatest number.”
We knew nothing of Buddhism. We’d never heard of a then-obscure British economist named Ernest Friedrich Schumacher, who, in a 1966 essay called “Buddhist Economics,” suggested another path, especially for developing nations: the greatest possible human enjoyment from the smallest quantity of goods.
The Buddhist ethos of right livelihood, E. F. Schumacher argued, could be extended to an ethos of right consumption. He argued against elaborately sewn, soon-to-be-outmoded suits and in favor of the loosely draped medieval robes of the monk—always in fashion! No ascetic, he argued for a middle way in material matters—in favor of enjoyment and against craving. Happiness, his work suggested, was not typified by the ice cream sundae wolfed down alone in front of the television, but by a cookie and a cup of green tea, brewed in awareness and sipped at leisure with friends, while watching the rising moon.