Perhaps it is in anticipation of my impending birthday tomorrow, but I got itchy fingers looking at my closet earlier today. To my eyes, it was cluttered with unused junk. Usually around once a year I go through and get rid of stuff that I haven’t used in a year, but for some reason this closet in my room seems to have accumulated more crap over a longer period, and it was suddenly sticking in my craw. I threw away that massive TV box that I for some reason have kept for two years (for some vague fear of having to move, or what, I can not honestly say). I threw away some old bills and statements. I got rid of various slings and wrappings and devices used to help me get through my shoulder surgery of late 2010. I got rid of a few coats, a bunch of t-shirts, some ugly worn winter wear, an old set of sheets and 2 pairs of shoes, all stuffed into an old laundry duffel that I will deliver tomorrow to some charity. I always feel more whole the less I have. Tomorrow I plan to take the whole day off from work (please, no “emergencies” from any of my clients tomorrow) and think about the process of aging and stuff.
As you know, I am moving into a new apartment next week. And unlike the previous places I have been for the past 3 years, my room will not already be furnished in some manner. So I find myself in need of a bed. Having already spent a fair amount more on rent and other items this past week, I was thinking that I should be frugal in my bed purchase. I started looking on craigslist and have been considering what the least expansive bedding options are likely to be. Having been in to several mattress/bedding stores I find that anything under 1000 dollars isn’t terribly amazing or different in the comfort department. That is to say, spending a few hundred more or less does not seem to result in much greater comfort in the zone under 1000. So I turned my attention to the world of futons, which seem every bit as comfortable as the low end mattresses, and not nearly as expensive. I also liked the idea that in my somewhat small room, I would be able to fold this up on occasion and feel as if I had more space. Seeking the counsel of several friends, most seem to agree that spending more for a really nice mattress is definitely worth it, especially as we creep towards old age with its attendant aches and pains. The idea hit me that perhaps part of the reason I am resistant to the idea of investing so much in a new bed is that (beyond the fact that I am not exactly rolling in money) it would seem to imply a kind of permanence that I am not sure I am comfortable with at this exact moment. I am moving into a new apartment with someone I don’t really know. If for some reason I need to move again soon, how much more of a pain in the ass will it be to haul this heavy thing somewhere. And speaking of heavy things, you all know how I feel about acquiring too much stuff (and especially expensive stuff). I have been in a state of grace and bliss in my lack of possessions, and I like it that way. The road to acquiring too much is a road to a kind of hell. As long as I don’t own anything, I feel a great sense of freedom. With each new purchase, is the freedom a bit diminished? What is the meaning of this bed beyond the place to sleep? Do I really need the biggest, best, most amazing whatever? Or is this just a sign for a commitment to a kind of sedentary existence that I am resistant to after all this time? I guess I need to lie down and think about it.
Regular readers of this blog know that I go on at length about the corrosive aspects of conspicuous consumption, and how our stuff takes a far too important place in our lives. While it is true that I sometimes talk about how this is destroying our planet, my main focus has been more about the prison we put ourselves in emotionally and spiritually by being so tied up and obsessed with our stuff. Of course, that is only part of the story, and a New York Times article this morning pointed me to an absolutely amazing video called “The Story of Stuff“, that details the ins and outs of the cycle of consumption, and makes some excellent points about the lack of sustainability in our current culture.
The maker of the video, Annie Leonard, is a former Greenpeace activist, and there are a few rather indelicate ways she describes some parts of the system in the video. At times, she makes some rather blanket statements about using resources that leave out some nuance. But overall, I heartily agree with her main points that this system can not continue indefinitely as is, and that we fundamentally need to change our relationship to consumption so that the true costs are put in evidence. Continued life on our planet depends on it. The video is only 20 minutes long, and WELL worth watching. Check it out here.
It has been quite a busy week, both professionally and personally. Sites to work on, drinks and dinner every night, meetings — and nary a moment to blog, or blog well anyway. And yet I am hell bent and determined not to fall into that oh so American trap of never feeling that one has enough time for anything. Our perception of time and pressure is very much self inflicted, I am always amazed at people who act like all this just befell them somehow, that we aren’t responsible, each of us, for structuring our lives (actively or passively) to be so filled with so much…stuff. There is a lot of space available to us if we allow it, but we are mostly a people obsessed with the idea that we are missing out on something, and that is really a shame. The biggest thing we are missing out on is taking notice of the here and now. We are missing out on being present, so wrapped up in the next thing we have to do. I always know I am in this bad head space when I forget something simple, like locking a door or leaving something behind when leaving the house. It means I was already focused on the next thing, and not properly being where I am, with each moment being tended to.
I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine today. We were talking about the bad economy and she was saying how a number of her friends aren’t “facing up to reality”. I asked her what she meant and she told me that they just weren’t “dealing” with the enormity of the economic crisis in before us. In what way, precisely weren’t they dealing, I was curious. Had one of them just lost their job but was spending like a drunken sailor? Were they about to get laid off? Were they out of work but not looking? My friend told me it was none of these, but they just seemed blithely unaware that the economy is in TATTERS, and that this is BIG. People all around them are losing their jobs, and they just go on with their lives. I asked my friend what exactly she expected them to do, but no information of that sort was forthcoming. She repeated her line about them not facing up to reality, and I pointed out that at a macro level, there is not much that any one person can do about what is happening in the economy. And what good did it do to worry about it? I get the feeling my friend feels that if we are sufficiently freaked out about something bad, that we are living in “reality” and if we are not, that we are in “denial”.
Applying this to my own life, I must not be living in “reality”. I don’t have enough work to live off of completely yet (although my contracts are growing), but I am not especially freaked out. I am doing what I can to generate more, and not terribly concerned. I find it a useful exercise to imagine the very worst possible thing that could happen in any situation, and realize it usually isn’t the end of the world. In my case, the very worst thing that could happen in me not finding enough work would be that I would have to go live with friends in California or with my family in Indiana, both of whom have offered me shelter and food if I need it. Neither is hardly a terrible outcome. When I look at it this way, I feel comforted and very lucky.
I asked my friend to imagine similarly what would be the very worst thing that could happen to her in this terrible economy and she talked about losing her home and everything in it, likewise being forced to move in with some family member. But for her, this was clearly a fate too horrible to imagine, and it really made me think again about a subject I often return to, our possessions. We are a society of consumers, and at least partially status and self esteem in our society comes from one’s possessions. The more one accumulates (and the more one spends), the more one takes part in the economy and society. In a very real way, one’s value in a consumer culture is directly proportional to what one spends and is capable of spending. The problem with owning a lot of stuff is that it requires a lot of care and upkeep. Our possessions end up owning us as much as we do them. Especially for large purchases (like a house) is is natural to feel a greater attachment and weight, as the effort to acquire is so much greater. I realize after my years of travel that I really have little desire to acquire such things. At least, If I do head down that road (which may be inevitable in a society such as ours) I hope to be calm about the possibility that it could all disappear tomorrow. All the better to enjoy life’s gifts in the present. We of course do what we can, but complete control is an illusion. The reality is just much more chaotic.