Transitions. Stuff. Accumulation and de-acquisition. Now that I am almost 50 years old, I have seen a lot of cycles of hoarding and purging. When I was a kid, my mother would periodically declare that it was time for “one great hour of swearing”, meaning it was time to clear out clutter and clean house. She is a highly organized and tidy person, rarely sentimental about material things. However, she is also an historian, an archiver. Things that were deemed valuable were carefully stored. Sterling silver was always wrapped in the proper cloth. Her off-season shoes were in a zippered case, so were blankets. Photo slides and correspondence were kept in carefully hand-constructed boxes of just the right size and shape. Sometime in the 70s, recycling became a household habit. She always had her glass bottles in separate containers, according to color, and everything perfectly sorted. She’d load up the station wagon and make the trip to the recycling center about once a month. I got to help her throw stuff on the appropriate piles or in the dumpsters. Breaking glass can be fun! She’s worked for the past few decades as a museum docent, cataloging the music collections. She has my wedding dress stored in an archival quality box. She keeps a full pantry (for earthquake preparedness), but she is not a hoarder. I think she regularly updates her pantry and donates stuff she’s not going to use before its expiration date. She’s a great example to me, and ahead of her generation’s learning curve.
Steve’s aunt is delightful and messy. She thrills for a bargain. She will go to great lengths to capitalize on a sale. She knows that this creates problems for her, though, and is somewhat like a struggling addict, trying to quit. She lives alone in the house in which she cared for her mother. She’s never been married. She solicits our help in taming the clutter she has accumulated in that house. Steve is a willing worker, completely kind and patient, but always clear about his own limits. He has some professional experience with estate sales from the book business, so he has worked with elderly strangers as well doing similar service. He can assess and clear out an entire house in a weekend, if he must. No one boxes more efficiently, in my opinion.
What do we do with stuff?
Reduce, reuse, recycle, freecycle. Keep it out of the landfill, off the streets, out of the woods and wetlands. Don’t buy it if you don’t need it; if you do anyway, give it away. My mother has always had a habit of sending me “care packages” of stuff she acquired, often by mail order, that wasn’t quite what she wanted. She was always on the lookout for a good home for something she didn’t want. I would often end up taking some of that stuff to donate to Goodwill or the Salvation Army, but it didn’t get thrown away. We’re working on finding good homes for Steve’s aunt’s stuff. I’m fixing to give care packages to each of my children from what we brought home yesterday. Beauty and cleaning products from her bathroom, mostly. The unopened items will go to a local shelter. A bottle of shampoo that was used once and turned out not to be to her liking can make some useful suds. Would you just pour that down the drain? Somehow, I can’t.
How long do you figure it would take to use up the stuff that’s already been made before we make more? Depends on the stuff, of course. But there must be categories of products that we could use up…and then, maybe, discontinue forever. How many varieties of shampoo do we need? How many varieties of cleaning products? You could use Dr. Bronner’s Magic All-in-One Soap (made from hemp and essential oils) in peppermint to clean your entire body (including teeth), your clothes, your dishes, your surfaces, your car, etc., and we’d never need to make anything else. Sounds like de-cluttering to me. Of course, there are a million ways to disagree with me and get on your own soap box. We like choices. Depending on how old you are, you may be just beginning to explore all your options, and you’d hate to have anyone restrict you. Wait 50 years. Then you may be cleaning out your house and wondering, “Why do I have all this crap?!” You’ll give it to your kids, who want to have stuff but have no money to buy it. Some day there’ll be a story out there of a family who free-cycled the same object for 5 generations. Why not? I’m still using my grandmother’s electric mixer/food grinder. But nowadays, things are built cheaply according to the economic principle of Planned Obsolescence and the landfills overflow. It’s a sickening trend.
One great hour of swearing is not gonna cure the planet of its clutter these days. (sigh) We’re way out of scale. Something’s gotta give. I wonder what…and how… and when.
It’s ALIIIIVE!!! It’s in the kitchen, and it’s growing! I’m waiting for it to double in size, then I’ll screw up all my courage and give it a good punch! I’m gonna break it in half, then I’ll let it alone for about an hour while the two halves grow again. It sounds kind of like an amoeba, but actually it’s whole wheat dough. Yup, I’m making bread. By the time I get it baking, I’ll be making split pea soup as well, but I have to take a walk to the grocery store to get some dried mushrooms for that.
We have about 4 cubic feet of cookbooks in the dining room. I often just look up a recipe online, but that makes Steve cringe. He thanked me this morning for asking him to direct me to one of his books. So I am celebrating my participation in lower-tech food preparation. I will not get into my car and drive to Panera for bread and soup. I will make it myself. And I don’t want to pat myself on the back for this. This is not a revolutionary step. This is what almost every woman was able to do 100 years ago.
I’m not exactly sure what the comparative benefits are to this approach. I haven’t researched the whole economic picture of Panera restaurant vs. homemade. I just know that I’m not making an income (aside from being paid for giving one private voice lesson a week), and so I don’t want to spend much. Is it possible in this day and age to live without spending? Well, just yesterday, I ran across this news article about a grandmother in Germany who hasn’t used money for 16 years. http://wakeup-world.com/2011/07/18/happy-69-year-old-lady-has-not-used-money-for-15-years/ I really like that idea. Capitalism isn’t my best friend. WalMart makes me shudder. I read about theft in my town paper every week. What would happen if more of us were able to get off that treadmill somehow and live without using money or coveting goods? Would we be able to scale back on damage to the environment? Would we be able to scale back our population? I know all these issues are intertwined, and I’m still wondering how they effect each other in the big picture and in my personal life.
Steve & I have been thinking about going to a conference on Population that will be held in Telluride, Colorado over Memorial Day weekend. It’s called Moving Mountains Symposium: Population. It’s a film festival as well, and features Dave Foreman (of The Rewilding Institute) as one of its keynote speakers.
So all this is just rising in my consciousness as the bread is rising downstairs. I’m not quite ready to present it all sliced and buttered for this blog, but I like to think that IT’S ALIIIIVE in me in some way. Stay tuned!
Yesterday, Steve & I stopped in at a Jimmy John’s sandwich shop for lunch. The guacamole and sprouts on their veggie sandwich remind me of my 15 years living in California and call to me sometimes, especially when I’ve had too much cholesterol-rich Midwestern holiday food. So, I ordered my #5 No Mayo favorite. Then I watched in horror as the guy gutted the sub roll of its soft, white, doughy insides and flung them in the trash bin. I thought of the ducks I visited on Christmas afternoon, swimming toward us in eager anticipation of bread bits. I thought of the two bread pudding cookbooks we have in the dining room just begging to be explored. “Why did you just throw that away?” I asked. “Oh, we do that in order to make more room for the fillings and so they don’t squish out when you bite into the sandwich.” Well, that explains why they take it out, but it doesn’t explain why they throw it out. Driving away, I imagined pithy slogans I could print on a poster to protest this practice. “Don’t hate your guts” or “Cast your bread upon the waters, not upon the landfill” or something like that.
At home, I looked up some statistics about food waste in restaurants. How depressing! I am one of those moms who felt compelled to finish what my kids left on their plates just so I wouldn’t have to throw it out. It hurts me to see food go to waste. All that work, all that water, all that petrol, all that went into getting that food to the table is someone’s life to give life to another. It’s sacred, in my opinion. Tossing it out is disrespectful to humanity. Something must be done.
Taking it up on a local level is probably the first line of attack. I wonder if that sandwich shop would save the bread cores for me to cart away. How often would I have to make a pick-up in order for that to be an attractive option to them? I’m sure they don’t want an overflowing bread bucket kicking around. How much bread would that be? What would I do with it all? Could I get someone to help me? What if I suggested they offer a bread pudding on their menu so that they would use the bits and make some return on their effort? Would they take that seriously? What if they donated their scraps to a community compost project? Do we have a community compost project? When I visited family in San Francisco and Oregon, I was impressed at the compost recycling programs they had. I have gotten tips from my daughter and her boyfriend about how to start a worm bucket of my own, which I could keep in the basement of this duplex, even over the winter months. My landlord who lives in the other half of this house doesn’t recycle anything. His bins stay on his side porch all year and never venture out to the curb. Would he support my effort to compost and add the products to his garden? He’s had the property assessed twice this year and may be putting it up for sale. Do I want to go to the trouble of enriching soil that I may not get a chance to use?
I hate the feeling of going from “Something must be done” to “I want someone else to take this responsibility”. What responsibility will I take? New Year’s resolutions are popping up all over this week. How many of us are really going to work on being responsible for cutting down on the waste of resources in this world? More to the point, what am I really willing to do about it? Do I have the integrity to take up the challenges I pose? Do I have the guts? I hope so. Stay tuned and remind me.
My daughter is a certified massage therapist. This makes visiting her an extra special occasion. Not only do I get the pleasure of her company and hospitality, I get a 2 hour massage as well. As I lay there thinking about my body, my cells, and the amazing things going on just under my skin, it occurred to me that the whole process that I call my biological life began exactly half a century ago. Yup, I figure I was conceived Thanksgiving weekend, as my parents celebrated with joy their gratitude for life. Not that they ever divulged so private a story to me, mind you.
I marvel at how life is sustained over time. I mentioned this to my kids as I was sipping my post-therapy water. My youngest piped up, “Yeah, well, half a century is nothing when you think about how mountains grow and change.” Touche. I have to get better at taking a longer view, getting a bigger perspective. I look at my kids bustling around in the kitchen preparing food together, all grown up, and a second later, they are playing a patty-cake game from their childhood.
We are all still so young on this earth; we are such a blink. What kind of impact will we have on the bigger picture? What will be the most lasting legacy of this family whom I love so intensely? The trees that we’ve planted? The children we beget? The words we pen? The votes we cast? The ashes we give back to the soil? I can’t say for sure. It could be the love that we circulate, although it would be impossible to document. I am just grateful to have been a part of it, a crinoid in the limestone, among thousands of others.
You know how once you get pregnant, all you see around you is pregnant women? I want to trigger that phenomenon in this post and bring awareness to something I feel is pretty common in our fast-paced American life. I want to see how often people come up with the “I’m sorry; we can’t do that” line when what they really mean is something else. Something like, “I’m sorry; I haven’t been trained to do that” or “I’m sorry; my computer can’t do that, and I don’t know how to do anything without the computer” or “I’m sorry; we aren’t willing to do that. Your request is not as important as other things.” The real answer is absolutely valid and a fine place to begin negotiations. The problem is, we don’t often get the real answer.
I worked in customer service for a few years, and I remember the nervousness that accompanied requests to depart from policy. I didn’t know if I had the authority to make exceptions. I often didn’t want to be in the position of the middle man going back and forth from the customer to my superior. It made me feel caught in a conflict that wasn’t mine, especially if it dragged on and on. Eventually, I got to the point where I rather enjoyed listening to people and trying to come up with creative compromises. But then I was told that I was spending too much time on these discussions and I should simply state the policy and get off the phone.
Dealing with people is tricky. They require your time, and time is money. To be an efficient society, we must streamline our systems. Any person who does not comply with procedure is throwing a monkey wrench into the works. So what do we value more, the “works”, the people, or some other ideal? Once you become aware that you’re getting an “I’m sorry; we can’t do that” response, what do you do?
Here are a few examples of this kind of exchange in real life. The first one is “How do you want your coffee?” Steve does not like the prevalent custom of serving coffee in disposable containers. He likes to drink his latte from a mug. He rarely orders anything “to go”. He values conservation of resources and energy and is not too concerned with “convenience”. We have breakfast often at a local cafe that has recently been hiring new staff. Young staff. I am patient and cheerful and as helpful as I can be when I’m placing our order. I got to ordering Steve’s latte and said, “With that breakfast, I want a latte in a mug with 2% milk.” “Um, okay. What size?” “In a mug.” “I’m sorry; we can’t do that.” We happened to have had breakfast there just the day before. “Well, yesterday you could.” A more veteran server came up behind him and whispered, “Yes we can. It’s served in a soup mug.”
I’m not saying this young person did anything wrong. It was probably about his third day on the job. The point is that we often get streamlined into making concessions in our decision-making and forget that there are other options. We don’t have to take the disposable option. We don’t have to take the profitable option if profit is not our highest goal. We don’t have to have a lawn or rake our leaves or live in the city or send our kids to public schools or give birth in a hospital. We don’t have to go “up and to the right” and continue to support a growth economy. But we’ll probably be told when we suggest an alternative, “I’m sorry; we can’t do that.”
Here’s another example. I am following a discussion on a blog about an architectural idea coming out of Italy. The title of the article is “Milan’s Vertical Forest”. http://pensci.wordpress.com/2011/11/07/milans-vertical-forest The premise of the idea is to create a “less crowded, less polluted, less inhumane” city by erecting high-rise buildings with open balcony space on all four sides to accommodate trees and greenery that would help clean the air and provide a natural aesthetic. It sounds great, but it makes me wonder whether it’s assuming “we can’t” do something else instead. If what Milan wants is forest, why not tear down the high-rises and convert the land into open green space? If what Milan wants is urban housing, why are they calling it a forest when in reality, it’s just apartments with more balcony space? Are potted trees really going to thrive there? And will people actually use all that space for vegetation instead of storing their bicycles and grills and laundry there? If we really want the city to be less crowded and polluted, why not encourage people to move out and work the small farms in France that are being abandoned, for example? No, “we can’t do that”, we have to think of solutions that keep people in the city and promote more construction and more growth. Well, we don’t have to. Let’s just be honest about what our goals are and discuss from there.
So what happens when you “throw a monkey wrench” into the system and ask for a different option? Do you get an honest negotiation? I would like to gum up the works of the political machine and ask for a candidate who would admit that s/he is not perfect in character, is not superior in knowledge about every facet of American life and doesn’t necessarily have to be the prime ideologue, but who would be a skilled administrator willing to represent the people and carry out their ideas.
I don’t want a cardboard cup with the shiny logo and a snappy lid. I just need a teacup to hold some tea long enough to get it to my mouth. Any Buddhist will tell you, it’s not about the teacup, it’s about the tea.
Discipline without coercion. Is it possible for individuals? For communities? Dare we believe that without obligation, people will make efforts to do their best and work toward the common good? Are people who do that “heroes”?
We dangle punitive measures and capitalistic rewards in front of the masses and hope that will encourage us to be model citizens, and then we have to deal with the greedy monsters that evolve wondering “What’s in it for me?” If I am of the 1% and super-wealthy, what incentive do I have to share? And what is the percentage of the 99% who hope that one day, they will become super-wealthy also and so feel no inclination to put restrictions on the rich? How many people are likely to come to a sense that they have “enough” all on their own and turn their surplus over to others? And when will that sense of “enough” kick in? What standard of living do we feel entitled to? What would it feel like to say, “This is all I need. I am not afraid to trust that I have enough”? Would it feel like freedom?
How do you discipline yourself without feeling a sense of obligation? Do you eat healthy foods because you want to? Or because some outside influence is holding up a consequence or reward? Do you make music because some authority is telling you to practice or for the sheer joy of it? Do you do what you do out of passion or fear?
On our first date, Steve played a kind of “twenty questions” game with me. I was trying to guess his three heroes in order to get to know him better. He maintains that each of these inspirational figures have a passion for something and demonstrate it joyfully. The first one is David Attenborough of the BBC Natural History Unit, groundbreaking writer and presenter of nature programs. The second is Julia Child, The French Chef. I was in total accord to this point, and also loved that they are easy to imitate in voice and mannerism to add levity to any undertaking (and we do this frequently). The third one was rather tough to guess, mostly because he wasn’t human. “An athlete” was about as close as I got. Finally, Steve led me to thinking about equestrian athletes, and I immediately thought of Secretariat. I found that rather a head-scratcher, though. How could a horse be a hero? And then he showed me the youtube clip of the final race in the1973 Triple Crown. It still makes him cry.
A horse cannot be coerced by the promise of fame and fortune, can it? There was no whipping, no carrot on a stick. Secretariat ran for the pure joy of running, it would seem. Feeling the power of his legs, the wind in his mane, the freedom of doing what he was born and bred and loved to do that day. Did he have a reward afterward? Did he develop a taste for winning? I suppose you could debate the emotions of a horse forever and never learn anything conclusive. You could also debate whether or not his race was something that created “good”. Many people were undoubtedly uplifted; just listen to the audio on the tape. His grace and beauty are captivating. And maybe a bunch of people were making money off of it, but the horse wasn’t. For that reason, it seems rather pure to me.
So what would it mean for you and me to be the heroes of our own lives? To be the best we could be not out of obligation or fear of reprisal or for monetary gain, but just for the joy of living out our own passion and interest, for the love of it? What would it be like to allow that to be our reward, our life work, and not ask fame or fortune from it? Would we share any surplus of our efforts? What if we all lived like that? Would we be able to balance the table top, enjoy sustainability and equality, as a community and perhaps as a planet? Is this a utopian ideal and totally unrealistic?
Probably. But I would love to feel the wind in my hair, too…
I am considering bird feeding options. I would love to have some cardinals visit our small south yard this winter. They do anyway, but I want to encourage them to linger a while and refresh themselves. I stopped in at a wild bird and pet shop to look over some of the products. I was pretty much appalled at the prices. Suburban homeowners around here spend a lot of money on their yards. I am only an unemployed renter, so I’m going the DIY route. We have a weathered old wicker chair frame and a CD storage chest that have been sitting outside for a few seasons. I’ve decided to try to build a feed station using them. Recycling, don’t ya know. So I went online to read up on bird feeders and squirrels. There seems to be a conflict among humans as to the desirability of squirrel activity in proximity to our dwellings. They are amazing animals who don’t mind being observed. They also have been known to move in with us humans and destroy property. I see squirrels in the trees and in the garbage around the duplex, but so far there haven’t been any signs of them moving into the attic and eating books. I want to keep it that way. I don’t think the squirrels need any assistance in finding food around here, so I’d like to provide a food that’s not attractive to them but will be attractive to cardinals and other song birds. I’ve read that safflower seeds may be just the thing. So this is my goal: to construct a platform feeder using the chair and storage chest parts and buy safflower seed for the winter. Then we’ll see what the birds and squirrels do.
Even if I didn’ t do a thing, I’d still have cardinals and squirrels as my neighbors. I doubt my project is going to make a difference in their survival over the winter. I don’t imagine that I have any role as a wildlife manager in this situation. I could pat myself on the back and say I’m being wildlife friendly, in a way. But it’s not that big a deal. I’m really only doing it for my own amusement. I often wonder at the decisions and efforts I’ve made to be eco-minded. For example, the online petitions and letters to my congressional representatives urging them to take certain actions on various pieces of legislation. Does that really make a difference? So far, I’ve noticed that it only generates more junk mail from Republican officials who write to thank me for my input and inform me that they have no intention of doing what I suggest. I could take the next step and send money to the originators of these petitions, but I have no income at this time and have therefore decided not to do that. I don’t know what effect that might have if I did. I have moments when my idealism dares me to hope great things, and then I have moments when my realism admits the futility of my individual efforts.
Making ripples that travel in unknown directions. Will we contribute to a tidal wave? Will we send a blessing bobbing toward a distant shore? We have no way to know. I do my best to have good intentions. I hope my Buddha smile makes the world a kinder place somehow.
Despite it’s governor, Wisconsin is a great state. There’s biological diversity, geographical diversity, seasonal diversity, National Forests, and culture (and I don’t mean just cheese!). It’s really a great place to live and explore. Today, we climbed up to the top of the shrine at Holy Hill. We had been there before, one January when there was a wedding going on. The steeple tower was closed and the stairs were covered with ice, so we peeked into the chapel only and didn’t get the full view. I’m glad we went back because this is worth the 178-plus steps!
Not far from the Hill is a county park with trails for hiking, cross country skiing, and snowmobiling.
I really love the seasons here – yes, even winter. It’s not like people in Wisconsin stay indoors for 6 months. They go out anyway. I just wish that fewer of them used gas-powered toys as part of their recreation. These fall days, though, are almost too precious to bear. The sun is still warming us enough to make hours out in the chilly air pleasant, and I hesitate to come inside at all. Nights are coming on sooner and colder, though. We go to bed earlier; we eat more. We muse about hibernating like bats in their caves. And we love the whole thing. Change. The Earth. Being alive. I am grateful for it all.
I am reading a book called Back from the Land: How Young Americans Went to Nature in the 1970s, and Why They Came Back by Eleanor Agnew. I am glad to have found this book at the beginning of my homesteading research. Many of the reasons hippies started a “back-to-the-land movement” are the same reasons I have for being drawn to that kind of life in this decade. I, too, am fed up with capitalism, the technologically-driven status quo, agri-business, election politics and the failure of progressive promises. I have the desire for freedom, natural good health, self-sufficiency, community, sustainable living and a gentle relationship with the land. If these motivators moved more than one million Americans in the 70s from urban lifestyles into homesteads, communes and small farms, why aren’t they still there? “A study by the Stanford Research Institute estimated that ‘from four to five million adults were wholeheartedly committed to leading a simple life and that double that number adhered to and acted on some but not all of its basic tenets.” Economic uncertainly fueled some survivalist rationales in that decade and could certainly be applicable today, right? What happened in the “Me Generation” that brought these people back into the consumerist culture?
I’m only on Chapter 5, but I’m beginning to see the pendulum of privilege to poverty coming into play. The homesteading hippies were largely white middle class folk who had no family experience of farming or living on the land. The longer they stayed out there, the more “improvements” they began to incorporate into their lives. The authors writes that she and her husband spent all of the capital they had on land ($1,000 for 62 acres in Maine!) and planned to heat their cabin with wood. Their house in the city didn’t sell until late November, so it was December when they moved into the 34 x 24 foot log cabin heated with one wood stove. The temperature inside the house was largely unaffected by the one stove, so they bought another stove and stayed with neighbors for 10 days until the thermometer hit 60 inside.
You could say that most of these folks were naive about the realities of nature. Living more closely with natural surroundings means living more closely to natural processes. Weather. Change. Unpredictable events. Death. I suppose being realistic would be to decide well in advance how you would prepare for certain conditions and how you would accept conditions for which you were not prepared. And then to do the preparing you could do. Am I prepared to be cold or injured or repulsed by sights, smells and sensations? Am I prepared to be afraid? Am I prepared to experience failures and setbacks on many levels? Do I want the freedom of danger?
There are also pages and pages of first hand accounts that assert that the years spent homesteading were the best years of life. For many, the positives far outweighed any negative memories. So the question for our next Summit Meeting is: How do you want to live? And I want details as well as values. Do we have electricity? Plumbing? Do we slaughter animals? How will we use money? How will we build community?
I don’t want to say that somewhere out there is a perfect way of life. I’m not sure that is true. I want to say instead that in the discussions and efforts and experiences of this process, we will find ourselves living. Let that be the epiphany we celebrate.