Tuesday, October 14, 2014
How much of our lives do we give up in order to sustain the consumeristic machine?
Chances are you already know that a small percentage of Americans hold the vast amount of wealth, and that Americans use up an offensive amount of the world's resources.
Perhaps you have also noticed that despite the promises from the advertising industry, your new clothes, extra TV channels, jewelry, or living room décor don’t provide lasting happiness. Perhaps you’ve noticed that your job seems to suck the life out of you and when you get home you don’t have the energy to prepare dinner from scratch or engage in a lively discussion with your family; so you go out to eat and make chit-chat, then come home and sit in front of the TV until it’s time to go to bed. Your evenings don’t make you feel rested or rejuvenated and you aren’t sure what to do about it, so twice a year you fly to a beautiful destination that is guaranteed to get you out of your rut for a week or two.
Unfortunately, the night before you return to your routine it’s as if the vacation never happened. Your only consolation is that there will be another vacation in half a year.
I saw something today that introduced to me a new question: a claim that only 10% of the US economy actually supports meeting basic needs. I don’t know if this percentage is correct but regardless, the question it raises is startling: how much of this corporate, consumerism-driven rat race we’re on is driven not towards keeping a roof over our heads and providing three square meals a day, but towards things we don’t even need?
I have certainly been asking myself how I can simplify my life; do with fewer things so that I have more time to enjoy what does provide meaningful, lasting fulfillment: spending time with people I love, being creative, using my muscles, or communing with nature. But now I wonder how much of our entire economic system, how many of our 2,080 work hours per year, fuel the illusion of happiness-through-consumption? If we knew what percentage, if we could easily make the choice, how many of us would work only enough hours at our jobs to pay for our basic needs?
My simplicity story began more than a decade ago. I was in a committed relationship with a woman named Mari; we were raising my teenage son Chris in the Bay Area – Silicon Valley. My life had become increasingly stagnant. Chris, being a teen, spent his time at school, with friends, or in his room. Mari retreated to our bedroom every evening by 7 or 7:30. So I spent my evenings alone in front of the TV flipping through shows that in no way enhanced my experience of life. I didn’t have an awful job, but neither was it fulfilling. I felt desperate to unwind on my evenings and weekends, and made the common mistake of thinking my couch could help me do that. I felt myself becoming bored with my life as my world became narrower.
One night I couldn’t sleep, and came downstairs so that my restlessness wouldn’t disturb Mari. I looked through our books and picked out one of Mari’s, a book of speeches given by Gloria Steinem. I browsed the contents and chose one about the media and girls. It detailed the massive dollars and research that go into convincing women, starting when they are young girls, that they must spend vast amounts of money on products that will make them palatable; that without the right makeup and clothes, they should not be out in public. That quite simply, they are not good enough the way they are. Something in my gut started to churn: anger. And energy. It felt good. I wanted more.
I flipped through dozens of channels until I came upon a documentary about the rampant consumerism in this country. The show was sponsored by a grassroots nonprofit, possibly MoveOn.org. It focused on the detrimental global and environmental impacts of our consumer-based economic system, and suggested a new way of living that turned away from the materialistic ideal.
As I sat there virtually alone in our quiet, too-large townhouse, with over a hundred channels of mostly garbage to distract me, I realized I was ready to live my life a different way.
It didn’t happen right away, but I did shift my life in an extraordinary and dramatic way. I launched my son into adulthood, broke up with Mari, and moved from Silicon Valley to the Pacific Northwest. I became a park ranger, which on the surface made complete sense as a path towards living more simply and authentically. It didn’t turn out that way, but that is another story altogether: http://TheRangerChronicles.com.
I got caught up in pursuing something other than simplicity for the past decade, more like seeing just how strong I could be, how far I could push myself. And as my son has said there is no way, even knowing how it turned out, that I would have chosen not to do it; I had to do it. But… time to get back to this simplicity thing. And life has been reminding me to get back on track.
About a year and a half ago, my son was diagnosed with cancer. His prognosis and outlook are good, but still… you cannot face that diagnosis without reevaluating and clarifying what is important in your life. Then one year ago my niece (in-law) died very quickly of cancer. She was just 18. There was only one thing I could take from that senseless, horrible event: nothing is more important in life than to love, and to love today. My post “Loss” expresses that moment of realization for me: http://www.therangerchronicles.com/2013/11/loss.html
A couple months ago I was let go from a temporary job that I’d been in off-and-on for three years. It was a pretty mundane job for a corporate machine. I’d been a solid employee in good standing until my team got a new supervisor. I could tell almost immediately that she had targeted me; she was calling me out on the most absurd things, and I felt like I couldn’t do anything right. She became very insulting and abusive; I responded by quietly and firmly standing up to her, and was told it was time for me to leave.
I have only now fully comprehended that there are no laws protecting employees against this type of abuse. Unless you are part of a protected class, and unless you are being targeted because you are a part of that protected class, and unless you can show that connection, employers are allowed to be unfair, harassing, and abusive. No wonder there has been a need for unions; employers like my last one show that they care only about their bottom line.
This phenomenon is rampant. We all know people who are mistreated by their bosses, who are jerked around by passive aggressive coworkers, who are subjected to office gossip and office politics. As I have had to face real life, unavoidable tragedies, these manufactured ones have become increasingly offensive and unacceptable to me: to the degree that I am now willing to make just about any sacrifice in order to never again put up with abuse of power.
My journey towards simplicity will not always be flowery and carry a message of positivity. My 18-year-old niece was ripped from us as she stood on the cusp of adulthood: life at times is anything but flowery, and I strive to be honest about all of it.
In just over two weeks I will move from my two-bedroom apartment into my 230 square foot travel trailer. I’ve been purging my belongings, making hard decisions about which items are most important to me, and which ones won’t make the cut. I’m moving to the North California coast, close to the Oregon border and far from the hubbub of the Bay Area. My son and his fiancé will be my neighbors, and both state parks and the ocean will be just outside my front door.
I’m not sure yet how I will earn an income. Will I rejoin the rat race while I pay off the trailer and maybe even buy some land? Will I start a business that I can run out of my home? Or will I opt for a simpler way and try to apprentice with a goat dairy, weaver or soap maker?
All I know is that how I earn my money is becoming less important than ever before. How I spend my time? That’s the journey I’m most excited about.
Friday, October 10, 2014
On Saturday we gathered to celebrate my cousin Shantel’s marriage to Wes. Shantel is my youngest cousin on my dad’s side, the last one to marry. There was a time during our childhood when I hung out with her a lot, the big cousin and the little cousin, teaching her to write letters and numbers and doing lots of craft projects together. Shantel holds a special place in my heart, even though we rarely see each other. She met Wes when she moved to Tennessee for a job several years ago, and this was the first time I’d met him. He was cheerful and friendly, and made a deliberate effort to connect with the non-Christian side of the family. I liked him and appreciated the effort he made. I’m happy that Shantel has found someone to share her life with. Of course I don’t know, likely will never know, what he is like every day; I can only hope that he treats her with kindness and a warm heart.
Sunday marked one year since my 18 year old niece Simone died. Simone had been an avid cupcake baker, so her mom Lauren invited all her friends and family to mark the anniversary by gathering to share cupcakes. I never considered not going, but that morning I wondered if I could simply stay in bed until the day had come and gone.
A lot of people came to see Lauren; to acknowledge the passing of their friend, niece, cousin, granddaughter; to acknowledge the passing of time. Dozens and dozens of cupcakes lined the tables: some elaborately artistic, others in gourmet flavors. I self-medicated with caffeine and sugar, gave hugs all around, and didn’t even try to put words to my jumbled feelings.
That evening I got a message from my son’s fiancé Selena; her sister had just given birth to a baby boy. When I shared the news, Lauren suggested we call him Cupcake.
I have found myself atypically unable to articulate my feelings a year after Simone’s death. It seems surreal that it happened at all; hard to recall the three weeks of horrible news layered on horrible news; impossible that it happened so quickly. It is so senseless for a person on the cusp of adulthood to have their journey brought to an abrupt end; tragic to pour oneself into parenting a child for eighteen years only to have their life then ripped away.
I have no ambiguity about there being a higher purpose or plan; there is none. There is no benevolent force in the world that would make a choice like this. This isn’t a debate I have; I feel neither betrayed nor angry, I feel certain. I feel certain as well that two people meeting each other and falling in love, or the birth of a baby, are not signs of divinity.
The world, Life, is wild. It is wild and unpredictable. Magnificent and splendid things happen, as well as horrific things. We are a part of the wild, natural world, whether we want to accept it or not. There is no need to search for complicated explanations for the mysteries. In truth, the answer is very simple: