Living in Right Relationship

Fall 2014

By Grace Oedel

I moved to Maine a year ago but had heard stories for years before about an epic fair way up north. The words “wholesome” and “glorious” came up a lot in these descriptions. A friend I grew up with (all the way down in Georgia) lined the walls of his house with Common Ground Country Fair posters. What made this fair so different, so precious, to so many people?

I have been blessed to practice two religions in my life, and they may shed light on the answer to this question. In my Quaker childhood, I learned an acronym to memorize the faith’s pillars: S.P.I.C.E.S. These words stand for simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality and stewardship. Practicing these tenets is the work of living an actively Quaker life.

After studying Judaism in college, falling in love with an observant Jew and eventually converting, I learned the Jewish teaching, “It is not yours to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Both religions ask followers to live now as we are commanded. We are not excused from our duties of tikkun olam (to heal the world) simply because the world remains imperfect. In carrying out good work, we call a more whole world into being.

In canonical Jewish texts, simple questions are posed to the wise rabbis. In one question, a student asks what he should do if he is in the middle of planting a tree when the Messiah comes. The rabbi pauses, and responds, “First, finish planting the tree.” This radical answer reveals the deep work of our lives: tending the earth. Tending the earth – and each other – is not a means to an end. We’re not waiting for some future perfect time when we will cease our human toil. Caring for the earth and for each other is simply the way we can create a divine world.

Perhaps folks adore the Common Ground Country Fair because here we get a taste of a large community coming together to experience what it feels like to live as if the world we long for is already here. (As Quakers say, “in right relationship.”) All the delicious food we purchase and eat will nourish not only our bodies but also the farmer and the earth itself. Any person who wishes to attend the Fair but cannot pay has the option of trading work for a ticket and a meal. This bolsters the Quaker pillars of community and equality and the Jewish commandment for tzedakah, justice. Any waste we produce at the Fair is composted to return to the soil or recycled to be used again. This serves the Quaker pillar of integrity and the Jewish tradition of bal tashchit, to not waste or destroy. (Bal tashchit offers another interesting note: a passage in Deuteronomy says that even when you are involved in a war, you may not cut down a fruit tree to assist with a siege. Stewardship of the earth trumps all.)

This Fair is beautifully designed so that we can experience the soul-satisfaction of acting together from these deeply spiritual places, even if we don’t name them as such.

Do I believe this Fair, or any of us, carries out all these commandments perfectly? Clearly not. We are all just striving together. But the picture of a large group of people trying out this intentionality is one with which I would love to line the walls of my house.

About the author: Grace Oedel was MOFGA’s events coordinator until recently. She now lives in Western Massachusetts.

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