Monday, June 27, 2011

The Year of Anti-Consumerist Thinking

A few months back our friends Doug and Erika announced that they were challenging one another to a year of buying-nothing-new. They posted a Wikipedia link to the rules of a social and environmental movement called “The Compact,” initiated and named by a group of friends in San Francisco. The Compact is not extremist; one can buy food and anything necessary for one’s health or safety, essential supplies such as brake fluid and toilet paper, anything second hand, and even download music and keep one’s subscriptions. Radical but not insane. I thought, briefly, about joining them. But I excused myself by (quietly) proclaiming that I’m not really much of a consumer, anyway; that I haven’t bought a pair of new jeans in two years; that I can count on my two hands (literally) the number of things I’ve bought new for my two-and-a-half year-old daughter during her lifetime; that it wouldn’t change the world, me not buying the little I do. Plus, I said, also quietly, I have a penchant for buying myself the occasional pretty thing. Don’t I deserve that?

Then, yesterday, I came across an article in the current issue of Orion magazine by Scott Russell Sanders entitled “Breaking the Spell of Money.” In the essay, Sanders argues that in order to fix our economy and our environment we need to break our cultural mythology of wealth. He writes, “Money derives its meaning from society, not from those who own the largest piles of it. Recognizing this fact is the first move toward liberating ourselves from the thrall of concentrated capital. We need to desanctify money, reminding ourselves that it is not a god ordained to rule over us…We need to see and to declare that the money game as it is currently played in America produces a few big winners, who thereby acquire tyrannical power over the rest of us as great as that of any dictator or monarch…and that the net result of this money game is to degrade the real sources of our well being.”

Liberating ourselves…desanctifying money…tyrannical power…well being. Those words chilled me.

Sanders goes on to quote Victor Lebow, a retail analyst who wrote, in 1955: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction [and] our ego satisfaction in consumption.” Sanders continues by saying that, in America, consumption has become compensation for whatever else might be missing from our lives, such as meaningful work, intact families, safe streets, a healthy environment, a nation at peace, leisure time, neighborliness, community engagement, happiness, and “other fast-disappearing and entirely vanishing boons.”

By this point I knew I was in.

I thought back to my initial reaction to the pact. Sure, I don’t buy much new stuff. But how much to I relish the limited buying that I do? How much do I equate that buying with self-love? How giddy do I become? And fanatic? And confused, and slightly crazed? I realized, reading Sanders’ article, that my resistance to “the Compact” proved that I am, by no means, immune from our cultural materialistic (and corporate-imposed) fetishizing, that my resistance was a sign that my own sense of spirit and ego is, indeed, entwined with consuming, at which point I walked outside and told my sweetheart we were in. No buying anything new for an entire year. Starting next week.

The Wikipedia of The Compact outlines the movement’s goals:

1. To go beyond recycling in trying to counteract the negative global environmental and socio-economic impacts of U.S. consumer culture, to resist global corporatism, and to support local businesses, farms, etc;

2. To reduce clutter and waste in our homes (as in trash Compact-er);

3. To simplify our lives (as in Calm-pact

It also lays out the rules:

“Members of The Compact are only allowed to buy underwear, food, and health and safety items such as brake fluid and toilet paper. During their one-year vow the Compact members must shop only at second hand stores. They can also barter or simply share with each other for goods they want. Members of the Compact frown upon material consumerism. However, they are allowed to use services such as movies, theaters, museums, massages, haircuts, and music downloads.”

As I said earlier, this is a radical but not undoable pact. It is not like the sensationalist carbon-zero activists who refused to use toilet paper or take public transportation for a year. It is, instead, a very simple commitment that many of us, without much sweat, could (and can) do. I, for one, am most interested to discover the subtle ways in which it does (or does not) affect me. What will I learn about my own desire? About my attachment to materialistic things and the act of consumption itself? And what are the unexpected, positive outcomes? Already it has brought our household a sense of purpose; this unobtrusive but publicly assertive statement about values is a way to make not-having an active state as opposed to a passive one. A way to affirm and recognize one’s impulse towards simplicity as a choice rather than a result of circumstances.

And it excites, also. When I was a kid I rarely bought new clothes; thrift stores were the treasure troves of my life, a cheap and environmentally friendly way to get my materialistic buzz on. Our household frugality also encouraged creativity and resourcefulness; if I wanted a certain kind of bag, I made it. If I wanted a new bed, or doll house, or desk, I convinced my dad to help me build one. It’s a kind of resourcefulness I want to teach my daughter, and re-teach myself as well; it encourages us to be creative with our materialistic impulses and to alter our aesthetics to match our environmental and social beliefs, rather than having our aesthetics determined by a corporate society we proclaim to hate.

I’m not swearing off buying new things forever—I enjoy and plan on, in the future, supporting my local businesses. But for now I want to learn how to accurately differentiate between wanting and needing. I feel inspired by the challenge of making next winter's Christmas presents and scavenging thrift stores for a raincoat for my daughter. And I’m excited to discover how the pact will (or will not) effect our family’s holidays, finances, time, productivity, levels of satisfaction, relationships and happiness.

I have always believed that limitations make us happier people; that the cause of so much of our cultural angst is the limitless possibilities that flower before us at every turn. This will test that theory. I may end up in tears in late winter, crooning after some pretty, spring-escent, aqua-colored dress. But for now I can say this: that since committing, my life feels simpler, saner, more purposeful, more clear, more directed, more exciting, more integrity-filled, more youthful and more free.

Why on earth would I trade a few things for all that?

To join us in this pact, or find out more, visit:

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Today's Menu

Reading: Ecotone 11

Drinking: tea tea tea tea tea

Thinking: Ack! So good. So far completely smitten by the cover, Poe Valentine's essay, "Hope," James Harm's poem, "Where is My Tree House?," the photographs of Magdalena Sole (and Rick Bragg's text), and both introductions.

This, from Ben George: "So much is beyond the control of the writer--and the editor, for that matter. Perception cannot be channeled. Reception cannot be managed. In the end, the work itself is the only thing fully in one's power...."

And this, from David Gessner: "'Strange to have come through the whole century and find that the most interesting thing is the birds," John said to me during our very first walk together. "Or maybe it's just the human mind is more interesting when focusing on something other than itself.'"

Happy reading, friends.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Of One's Own

6:30 AM and I sneak out my front door, computer in tow, to the cabin, nestled amidst trees a hundred feet from our house, that I built when I was sixteen. I say “sneak” because that’s what I have to do these days to get away. If my daughter sees me leaving the house she’ll pull on my pant legs and whine and whimper and create a noisy, babbling, endless scene of drama and drawn-out love until I cave and sit down on the floor with her to read a book and kiss her soft and earth-smelling head. But if I make my footsteps feather-light, and peel the door open and closed, lifting it just so, applying pressure in the right places so it doesn’t creak? Then I’m free.

The cabin: 14 x14, hemlock framing, pine floors, pine walls, a south-facing wall of small-paned salvaged windows. A few panes fell out last winter which means there is a nice woodland breeze: scents of pine and hemlock and spruce, sounds of cheerful robins and sparrows and woven between, the subtler, haunting song of the veery. When I was sixteen this square, windowed room was a necessity, a sanctuary, my saving grace. It was a place to bring boyfriends and smoke and drink wine, yes. But mostly it was a place to be myself. A sleeping loft, a vintage, mint-green gas stove for making coffee or tea, a table for a typewriter and notebook. At night I read by candle-light—Eva Luna, 100 Years of Solitude, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Jane Eyre, Siddhartha, The English Patient. The pages curled in the woods’ damp and moths dove into the candle’s flame and died there. There was a harrowing loneliness and necessity in all of it; an adolescent and thus existential desire to be both lost and found. On the typewriter I wrote poems, essays, fragments of fiction. No one read or heard a word of it, except my three-year-old cousin who came by one day. “What are you writing?” he asked with such earnest curiosity I couldn’t deny him.

I read a poem about the desert. When I was done he looked at me. “I didn’t really understand all of it, but I got a really nice feeling, just though the sound.” I smiled.

High school was, for me, a bust. My mother and I were fighting. But this cabin—

My dad and I built it together. Cut a few trees and made two corner posts out of stumps, the other two of make-shift piles of stone. We bought a few hundred dollars of milled hemlock and pine, collected old windows and pounded nails until I had a square box with a wall of glass (dissolution between the boundaries of inside and out) and a door (also made of glass) that faced the trees. And that was all it was--a box.

I didn’t cook elaborate meals here or plant a vegetable garden or invite anyone else to make it their own. Mice moved in every winter and had to be evacuated each spring. Mosquitos and blackflies and moths flew in through the open eaves. But other than these woodland creatures it was mine, and mine alone. I owed nothing to anyone while within these walls. I felt free and vanquished and frighteningly alone. I was sometimes too frightened to read my novels—the disappearance of myself so completely in those pages, with no one nearby to bring me back, was too much. I should have read poetry, but at that age didn’t know how. So I wrote it. Fragments made of words, scattered across white pages. A way to mark my presence (and ensure it). The creation of narrative in order to weave an identity through which to know my name. The walls provided the safe space, the sanctuary of silence and protection and light that every good church provides, at a time when that was what I most needed.

And I think they might just provide them again.

The cabin's not what it was then. Right now it houses: cross-country skis, my daughter’s sleds, boxes of winter kindling, Red Heart the Ticker CDs, life-jackets, mouse nests, old shoes, tools. Symbolic, in every way, of the generous and inhabited vessel my life has become—mother, wife, teacher, aunt, band member, board member, friend. But with a few hours of clearing out…The wall of glass is still here, the pine floors, the pine walls, the surrounding woods, the open eaves. My typewriter sits in the corner. I could move the stove back in for making tea. Haul in a table. Maybe even a daybed. When I perform or teach for high school students I tell them this: if you can, build yourself a cabin. Or convert an old garden shed. Or even an abandoned car. A room of one’s own, I say, imploring.

Because it’s as necessary now as it was when I was sixteen—this marking, this narrating, these walls, this vaulted, diaphanous space to call my own. This morning the birds sing their majestic and over-enthusiastic love songs, mist rises off the viridescent and aqua hills, and my daughter, whom I adore more than I can put into words, doesn’t know where I am. Which means I’m free to drink this tea, scratch words onto a page, say here!, fict, get lost, and through that strange and exalted road—one always hopes—get found.