Monday, July 28, 2008

Simple Living the Easy Way, Part IV

To start bringing this series to a close, I'm going to come back around to discussing exactly what I mean by simple living the easy way. What I'm advocating is a mindful relationship with both the machines and the people whose labor we use and depend upon, a relationship based on awareness and out of which flows both gratitude and respect.

Simple. Basic. But not necessarily easy. Awareness needs to be cultivated in each small moment of the day with reminders of our indebtedness and embeddedness in the world around us. Central to this awareness needs to be an acknowledgment that we are not in control but in an ongoing partnership with a myriad of elements.

What I'd like to see is a world in which human labor is fairly valued, in which consumer goods are rare luxuries or investments in the future, in which the sense of entitlement so pervasive in our culture has given way to a gracious and humble acknowledgment of privilege instead of whining and pining for more.

I'd like to see us return to a world in which machines are valuable contributions to our labor rather than throw-away things to be replaced next year with something new, shiny, and a la mode. Down with the planned obsolescence and up with the small-town repair shop. Our throw-away culture with its cheap manufactured goods designed to break or become useless in a year needs to end, and a large part of that means a willingness to buy high-end tools that are designed for a lifetime of use, rather than low-balling and buying the cheapest version the big box store has to sell.

With that, too, would hopefully come a valuation of human labor, a return to craftsmanship and practical knowledge. Enough of the accountants and bankers and lawyers and stock brokers who've made such a mess. Let's start valuing real work with real money. Support the artisans and the farmers and not the MBAs and CEOs.

Sure, I'm biased in all of this, but I think our priorities have gotten totally out of whack in this culture, and I'm guessing most of my readers would agree. So, perhaps I'm just preaching to the choir here, but still I think these things are important to voice and reaffirm. We all need to sit down and do a personal accounting of our own priorities and how they fit in with a sustainable future. Those of us lucky enough to have money to spend, how are we spending it? Those of us lucky enough to have able bodies and minds, how are we using them?

Too many folks are out of touch with what goes into the most basic element of our survival: food. Most people don't even know what's in their food, never mind what it would take to make a real approximation of the things they eat without all the refinement and additives. And the really sad part is that most don't even care. Food security isn't even on the radar for most Americans, and if Katrina is any kind of lesson, they'll be wandering the streets in a disaster situation, looting the convenience stores until all the twinkies and chip bags and bottled liquid are gone wondering what the hell to do next.

So as much as I've tried to dismantle the idea of self-reliance, I'm now wanting to prop it back up with a somewhat different twist—intertwined with gratitude and respect.

Part of the gift self-reliance gives us is the realization of value and the understanding of labor. The idea of being able to go into a glaringly fluorescent grocery store open 24 hours a day and purchase a jar of jam off the shelves for just a couple bucks boggles my mind now that I understand the value and labor contained within one of my jars of jam.

Of course, five years ago I didn't give it a second thought—where else would jam come from but a grocery store? Because I was raised in a world where everything came from a store. Growing food and preserving it were what my people did in the Depression because they were too poor to do anything else. (Of course my maternal grandparents, both of whom grew up on farms, were fond of pointing out that they were also too poor to know anything different and they always had plenty to eat.)

The gift that my own journey towards self-reliance offers my children is the knowledge that everything need not come from a store. It demonstrates the amount of work that goes into growing the berries, harvesting the berries, and preserving the berries to make that tasty jam. But also there is the awareness that we did not grow the sugar that goes into those preserves and we did not make the electricity that pumps and heats our water. That awareness, in turn, generates gratitude for the luxury the big bag of sugar and the flow of electricity represent.

Of course, these kinds of things are just glimpses into the ideal that flickers on the cave of my brain, and my household only ever approximates this ideal, myself included... lest anyone think that I'm touting some kind of perfection or claiming to have it all figured out over here where the grass is greener. My kids vacillate between an amazing grasp of knowing where food comes from and what goes into producing it and falling into the typical consumer mindset of whining and pining. I vacillate between having my feet firmly planted on solid ground and wistfully admiring a pretty sweater worn by a CSA member, remembering a time when I spent money on hair and clothes, remembering my hands, which although never glamorous, didn't look as if they belonged to a mechanic.

Oh, sure, I could scapegoat our consumer culture, television, technology, whatever for this vain longing in myself and the consumer ennui of my children, but the dilemma is really about living with a foot in two different worlds and how we navigate that dilemma because, as I said in an earlier post, we can't live in isolation as if the entire world, such as it is, didn't exist.

So how do we straddle that fence between two such different worlds?

Well, personally, I don't want to straddle it. I want to redefine and keep more of my choices on my side of the fence, the part where I can actually have some effect. But I want to be able to do this in a way that respects how others around me want to define their side of the fence as well, and that's meant embracing some things that I might choose differently because after all, I'm choosing to spend my life with those I love on the same side of the fence.

Part of that redefinition includes, as I've said, the paradoxical relationship of independence and interdependence. By taking responsibility for such things as food, health, and education and becoming independent of elaborate social systems designed to replace our own brains with experts, governments, codes, and laws, half of which are designed to protect us from ourselves, or at the very least to keep us from thinking for ourselves, we become more capable of interacting from a place of personal empowerment. Through our own independence, we're more able to realize an interdependence among autonomous parties, lending individual strength to the larger whole. Gone is a servile dependence or blind acceptance that builds a community based on tyranny and ignorance.

So many of these ideas are easy to pay lip-service, or to ponder obsessively while performing manual labor in the field, for instance, but they're not always so easy to implement.

Like I said: Simple. Basic. But not necessarily easy.

Walking the walk for me has meant embracing the very foundation of self-reliance: liberty. Liberty as an ideal needs to apply to everyone, or it's not really liberty at all but just another form of dictatorship, however benevolent it may be. And it's that part of the American myth of self-reliance that I seek to root out and replace with gratitude and respect. It's that part that I think the founding fathers—idealists like Jefferson—got wrong because they couldn't quite imagine humanity extended to women, people of color, or children. The revolutionary ideals of equality were, unfortunately, nourished in the intellectual soil of the benevolent master, and the vestiges of those ideas continue to inform the current myths of self-reliance.

Like so many things in life, my thoughts in this series really can be boiled down to just a few cliches:

1) No man is an island entire of himself;

2) Live simply so that others may simply live;

3) Do unto others as you would have done to you (or better yet, as they would have done to them).

But sometimes those cliches are worth unpacking a bit because even though the journey to get there is a bit longer, the devil, as they say, is in the details, and it's only by taking the time to consider and understand the details that we can consider and know our selves. And in knowing the self and its relationship to the world around it, to all the things necessary to sustain the self, we begin to understand that there is no such thing as self-reliance but only an embedded and embodied self in a particular historical moment.


Carolyn said...

Well Said. I agree!

LisaZ said...

I dream of the world you do. Your essays are excellent. You wouldn't happen to be a writer, would you? I'll have to look on your bio. Really well done!

Lisa in MN

Madeline said...

You are a writer - you just don't have time to do it with everything else, so I'm glad you have this blog. I feel the frustration of being in two worlds as well, with my kids. What you said about your hands looking like a mechanic's - when we bought the hybrid (an investment in the future, we hope), the salesman asked if Nicolas was a mechanic.

Traci said...

I had the same *aha* moment after I made my first batch of jam. The energy in its many forms, honestly, how could this sell in the store for a few dollars?!
That one moment years ago helped define my life now, more than any other.
Much in the same way that homebirth shaped my parenting path.

I love your blog, Danielle.


Wendy said...

You probably are "preaching to the choir" here, but it's nice to know that there's another person out there who has recognized how difficult it is to be straddling the fence.

Angie said...

Very well said. We too find ourselves with a foot in each world and it is difficult. Being on the ‘fringe’ is one thing, but completely alienating yourself is not the answer either. Do you find it difficult to express these views to people without them thinking your’re acting superior? I’ve had many a discussion with people who felt we thought we were better than everyone else because of the choices we make. Personally, I know this is more their issue than ours, but it still makes it difficult to stand out in a crowd for what you believe in.

Thanks for the post.

sugarcreekfarm said...

Lovely post :)

Woody said...

As always...a very well written and thoughtful posting.

Tall Kate said...

You articulate so well the feeling of a foot in both worlds. I knew just what you meant when you were admiring someone's sweater -- it's almost (for me) a longing for something you don't even want anymore. The echo of a past desire? The longing for our former ignorance? Is there a word for that?

Also, the issue of being true to one's own ideals, and yet honoring the needs of the people around you, and passing on your values to your children without preaching -- oh, it's complicated!