A world made by hand

Only a few generations ago we made many things by hand.  Over the last 50 years store bought products have replaced handmade goods.  Few people still work with their hands, and I often wonder what we have lost in this process?  What have we lost when we no longer enjoy or even know how to make things with our hands?

Human prehistory is described by the tools and artifacts left behind.  Tools were both functional as well as art.  I love handling a kitchen tool that belonged to my grandmother.  Human development is attributed to our opposable thumb and ability to make and use tools.  So how have we changed now that we seldom use hand tools, and our hands are most often busy using a computer or phone? Are these the same kind of tools as a wood lathe, a knife and cutting board, or a needle and thread?

I love making pottery, bread, and cooking from scratch.  My grandmother taught me to knit and sew and I’ve made several articles of clothes and scarves.  I taught myself to carve wooden spoons and often think I should spend more time doing that…but don’t.   Like many people in their 50’s I often think, I’ll do that after I retire.  We are drawn to the beauty of artisan crafts and desire to explore making them ourselves, but don’t.  Perhaps life is too busy, it would take too much time to make things by hand.

In a world that has less energy available, a world that cannot afford to burn more fossil fuels, we need to move away from machines and back towards things made by hand.  That probably seems unimaginable if you didn’t grow up with a parent or grandparent that made things by hand.  But I think the reality of living like this will be more satisfying than you can imagine.

Many years ago I stopped using a clothes dryer and instead hung clothes out to dry as my grandmother did, as my mother did until she could afford the modern convenience of a dryer.  I enjoy hanging clothes outside to dry.  I like the excuse to go outside, to pay closer attention to the weather.  Is it going to be sunny and dry today?  Is it a good day to wash clothes or does it look like rain?  And while I am outside I become aware of outdoor sounds… birds, insects, the wind rustling the leaves.  It makes me feel lighthearted, less weary of things I can’t control.  I notice how the air smells and how it changes with time of day or season.  Early morning smells different than afternoon, and afternoon different from evening.  There is the smell of spring blooming flowers or bushes, freshly mowed grass in summer, or wood smoke in fall.  I also noticed the fresh smell of line dried clothes; fresh, clean, and sunny.  Did you know sunny has a smell?  And of course, I slow down.

The same thing happens when I cook using fresh food, especially from the garden.  I pay attention to what is ripening in the garden and plan a meal around what’s available.  The garden food changes over the year, cool season crops in spring and fall, and hot season crops in summer.  Did you know you can dig carrots in winter?  We have gotten used to shopping for food in grocery stores with their abundant types of food available, shipped from all over the world.  In-season and climate zones have lost their meaning.  In the process the food has also lost much of its flavor, freshness, and nutrition.  Food picked before it’s ripened and shipped across the world doesn’t contain the same nutrition as food picked fresh from the garden at the peak of ripeness.  Garden fresh food tastes better and makes me feel better eating it.

Chopping vegetables for a pot of soup takes time.  People call it Slow Food.  Food processors are not nearly as enjoyable to use as a good knife and familiar cutting board.   Making soup is a creative process.  There is the usual onion, maybe celery, potatoes, or carrots, but where to go from there, meat or beans, tomatoes or cream base?  What spices or herbs will I use; Asian curry, Italian, or Mexican?  Herbs add so much flavor there is little need to add much salt.   And herbs are easy to grow making me feel more self-sufficient.  Some come back year after year and some gladly reseed themselves.  An herb garden is a beautiful, carefree kind of place.  Butterflies and bees love to visit the blossoms, and when I’m gathering herbs I can’t help but feel connected to the life with which I share my garden.

I also enjoy making bread by hand, something I learned from my mother.  I got into artisan bread and bought a stone for my oven.  Eventually I purchased a hand cranked flour mill to make truly fresh whole grain bread.  It takes longer, but the rewards are worth it; the smell of the freshly ground flour, the yeasty dough, and the bread as it is baking.  Then there is the reward of seeing my family’s smiles as they walk through the door and smell fresh bread and soup for dinner.  One Sunday morning I brought fresh bread and homemade pesto for snacks after church service.  A man came up to me and said “Thank you for your hospitality!”  And I realized that is exactly what makes sharing food so enjoyable, hospitality.  How often do we have time to entertain guests anymore?

I know that few people have the luxury of working at home.  And perhaps your idea of craft making is different from mine.  But I think it’s too bad that we have given up this experience in the name of progress or modern convenience.    What was the convenience for?  Oh yeah,  so we’d have more time to do things we enjoy.

Too often people work because they need to earn a living, not because their job is their career.  I think people would like to have more time to be at home, enjoying time spent at a slower pace, enjoying more leisure time to be with their family, in the garden, kitchen, or workshop.  I think it may even be a deep seated need within us, to make something with our hands.  Unfortunately, this need gets suppressed by the demands of earning a living.  This need is ignored when we spend our leisure time staring at a phone or computer screen, trying to relax and tune out the pain we feel from the modern, convenient lifestyle we live.

A world made by hand isn’t going to happen by itself.  We need to find ways to turn off the machines, tune out the digital media, and let our hands be busy instead of our brain captured by a computer.  We need to learn to fix something that is broken rather than throw it away and replace it.  We need to find ways to express our longing for making art, crafts, food, laughter, and lightheartedness.  Hands that are busy pushing keys on a device do little to challenge our mind.  Remember that thing we call eye-to-hand coordination?  I’m convinced there is something developmentally necessary for our brains when we learn to do something with our hands.  The experience we get from spending hours staring at the computer or phone screen is not very life affirming.  Humans became human because we made the world by hand.  Will the world really be enriched if a robot can make pottery?  Will we still call it  “hand” made?

how’s that again?

have been running from required activity to required activity and not paying enough attention to some of the earlier thoughtful posts and comments, so want to go back a thread or two, to a story you all might find relevant to both the consumerism and life style thoughts. To me just naming how we live in terms of words like those implies an external point of view, similar i believe to the comments about the GDP value being greater for the overweight about to be in court smoker fellow than the obviously poverty striken family living within their means… Seems it’s about how we measure things, how we value the things that make up our lives.

The story goes somethng like this:
A successful norteamericano businessman is on a seaside vacation in a rural area of the Central American coast. He is walking along the beach in the morning below the village, and a small boat comes to shore and the three fishermen begin unloading a half dozen good sized tuna into an old rusty truck. The vacationer wanders over to inspect the proceedings, and inquires where they got the fish. “Oh we went out before dawn this morning and caught them just off here.” “Well that’s a good catch and it’s only 10 oclock in the morning. What are you going to do now?” The captain said they were going to take them up to the village, and cut them up to sell. Then we are going to go to the cantina and have some food with our families.”

The vacationer considers the reply for a bit then says “…well you know that if you stayed out longer then you could catch more fish and you would make more money.” “Well senor, that is true but…” “Then you could get a bigger boat and catch even more fish… If you did that then you might even be able to buy another boat or two.” “But senor, why would i want to do that?” “Then you could make even more money, and hire people to run your boats… and then you would have time to spend with your family.”

Uncle Abel Versus The World

Uncle Abel is not really my uncle.  You call almost everyone of the older generation Uncle or Aunty in Hawaiʻi.  In the twenty years that I have known Uncle Abel we’ve been on the opposite sides of the question more often than not, which is to say in enemy camps, although not exactly enemies.  But the differences don’t matter as much as what we have in common. What matters is that we love the same place.  We have a shared history with a small bay and section of land called Kāwā. He lived there for years, and I worked there for years.

Kāwā might not look like much at first glance.  It’s a small bay with a rocky, pebbly beach where the wind is usually blowing briskly.  There is no white sand and no palm trees.  The surf is  rough and the water cold. However, on a small bluff above the bay at Kāwā are the spectacular ruins of an ancient heiau (temple) and on the flat below the foundations of a village site.  These are what we used to call “archeology,” and what we now refer to as “cultural resources.” Not long ago relics such as these were considered of minimal significance compared to the demands of commerce and progress, but now they have become vital links to the pre-contact, pre-industrial past.  There is a large brackish pond behind the beach that is considered an important wet-land  for multiple species of endangered native birds.  Kāwā also has one of the few surf-breaks in the district and that in itself makes it precious to surfers of all ages.

I worked with my family on the ranch lands above the bay where Abel lived. We both impinged on each other’s realm with a casual, lawless tolerance that is nearly un-imaginable now-adays.  We pumped brackish water out of the pond and his crew of hippie-hangers-on set up camp on a piece of land inset within the ranch.  They had a Rainbow Festival one weekend and a number of the visitors stayed on for months in a constantly dwindling camp.  We thought they were funny and harmless.  None of that would be possible now.   You have to do everything by the book even out here.  You have to have all your permits in order these days.

We haven’t spoken much, Abel and I, over the years, but we’ve been on the same land. We’ve known of each other as distant neighbors. Weʻve both heard stories of each other, as one does in a small community; we’ve seen each other coming and going for a couple of decades now.

Abel is politically radical, a native sovereignty activist who camped for years near the beach at Kāwā.  I’m politically centrist, non-native, middle-class, highly indoctrinated into conventional life.  I can count on my two hands the nights I’ve slept anywhere but on a nice, soft bed.  I’m on the slightly unconventional side of conventional; Uncle Abel takes unconventional to a whole other level.

Uncle Abel has the long gray-white hair and the thin, high-cheek-boned face of a Chinese sage, but his skin is dark brown, mottled with sun spots.  His eyes, somewhat rheumy now, can glare at you with a manic insistence. Today he is wearing two ti leaves around his neck which he has tied together and shredded.  Also he is wearing a pareau in black, green, gold and red.  All of these things have a specific meaning: the two leaves – a minimalist ascetic lei  -asserts his pure spiritual authority; the pareau echoes the colors of the flag of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.

We are both at a county government hearing for an advisory commission that recommends lands for preservation.   Abel is giving one of his famous speeches. He is protesting everything.  I’ve always admired his gift as a speaker.  He had the dramatic genius of a Shakespearean actor. When he was in top form, he was a public enemy to those in power and a cult favorite for those who were not.  He was able to keep large crowds spell-bound by his unpredictability and mad prophet oratory.  Even if you did not agree with him, even if he made you uncomfortable, Uncle Abel meant “action” – as in quite possibly police action.  It was high entertainment.

Abel has a signature line that he uses in every speech I’ve heard him give: “Ka’ū (the name of our district)” he intones meaningfully, drawing out the last vowel, “ has never been conquered.” He says this in a dramatic whisper,  turning around to confront his audience his eyes wide, daring anyone to contradict him.  His voice rising in volume, he continues: “I no recognize no government: county, state, federal.  We was never conquered you see? We the government. We, the people.”

Technically speaking he is wrong.  Our district was conquered over and over again by various ancient chiefs, but we are dealing with political myth-making here, not pedestrian historical facts. And his favorite line expresses something that is, in a mythical sense, essential. Ka’ū is the hinterland of the island.  It has always been sparsely populated and poor.  This is mostly because there are few sources of fresh water, because the district is downwind from the volcano, because the soil is rocky, the climate arid, and the oceans rough.  It is a difficult place to make a living.  Nevertheless, the people of this district, Ka’ū, are passionate about their land and fierce in their politics.  Ka’ū is known as a land of rebels.  We don’t bend the knee.

But Abel had the calling to take it quite a bit farther than the rest of us.  He wonʻt go along with our modern conveniences, like private property, representative government, hot showers and refrigerators, and in his passions he calls shame upon all of it and all of us. (He does have a Facebook page though, of course.)  In his radical rejection of all modern forms of life, we part ways with Abel, and yet not completely.   We say to ourselves, “Well, he is crazy.”  And yet he humiliates us in our acquiescence and opens up a space for questioning the status quo.

He has heart.  Even his most ardent detractors would have to give him that.  And there are plenty of people who dislike him intensely.  Mostly people who he has challenged in their position of public or private authority.  My friend who works for the county parks department has had many run-ins with Abel.  He says: “Abel doesn’t like me much, because I made him spend his seventieth birthday in the county jail.”

He loves to make trouble to those in power.   He’s good at it. Once when the County evicted him from Kāwā he planted a taro patch on the lawn in front of the big glass windows of the Mayorʻs office.  He is a political performance artist, a show-boat, an anarchist. But I’ve never heard of him doing anything low-down and dishonorable. At least recently.  Well, he used to shake down the beach visitors.  From what people have told me, including he himself, he would demand things – hoʻokupu (small offerings) like toilet paper, or money – to support his occupation.  He once asked my father if he could kill one of his cows.  My dad said no.

There was a rumor that he had murdered somebody in Honolulu a long time ago.  Thatʻs why he  holed up in Kāwā in the first place.  And then somehow he decided that it was his to guard.  I would be very surprised if the rumor was true.  There is an Old Testament madness to him, but no malice and no sneakiness. He might say outrageous things about you but he’ll do it straight to your face, which is better than some people. Heʻs not a violent person – well, there was that one time that he and his sister got into a doubles wrestling match in the brackish pond with Kyle Soares and his wife.  The police had to break it up, evidently. And, well, Iʻm sure there was plenty of blame to go around on that one.  But other than that, Abel is peaceful, as far as I know.

Having named himself the konohiki, or guardian of the place, Abel lived at the beach for years, and kept a close eye on all goings on.  He was famous for confronting anyone who showed up in an official-looking vehicle and chasing them off.  As konohiki he considered it his right to do so, as they were threats to his authority.  He also grew native food plants and organized surfing contests at the beach in the heyday of his self-appointed reign as guardian.

Other people in the community had better documented familial ties to the lands of Kāwā than Abel. They considered him a usurper and a fraud. Some people found his retinue of penniless hippies distasteful. But they mostly tolerated Abelʻs antics because his occupation threw a wrench in any attempt to develop Kāwā and helped to maintain their native, familial claims to the land without actually having to live on the beach themselves.

Abelʻs advocacy for Kāwā may have backfired on him. His term as konohiki of the beach at Kāwā ended when it was purchased by the County of Hawaii for public space and natural resource preservation.   At first Abel refused to leave and there were many tense confrontations between he and his followers and County officials. Eventually Abel was evicted. On one level he failed, in that he is no longer the konohiki of Kawā. On another level he succeeded in his very failure – the public purchase of the wild beach and ancestral sites of Kawā protect it for the foreseeable future from the commercial developments that transform  shorelines all over the world into resorts and other artificial paradises.

Is Abel a saint or a fool? A visionary or a clown? One thing is clear: he long ago stopped worrying about how to make a living or being respectable or playing the game.  He gave all that up in a way that makes me slightly vertiginous just to think about.  He walks a wild edge of the mind with only the place, Kawā, to return to, to keep him centered.   He is a brave person.

Image: Kawa Bay is pictured here in 2011. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

All the signs are there if you can read them

The High Holy Day of the Equinox has come and gone, when the night is equal to the day, the time of pagan celebration, unfazed by all succeeding religions, unchangable by mere humans, effectively immutable, the cosmic clock, cosmic time, marking the seasons, metering our progress as a people, as a species. How did we do this quarter? well quarter and a piece, since with all the precision we can muster, after all these centuries, we still have to add a day now and again to keep up with the way it really is.

Take a look at the sky some clear night. This time of year just after sundown to the southwest, right between the spout of the teapot of sagitarius and the stinger on the tail of the scorpion one can see directly into the center of our galaxy. The band of stars brilliant with their cold indifferent light strewn across the sky stand still for awhile if you take the time to look. But if you keep watching they move, twisting across the sky all night. All the individual stars that we can see are a part of this one galaxy, each wheeling into view as the earth spins, forever aligned in terms of the abilty of our eyes to see, useful only if we can read and understand their pattern and act with the guidance they impart.

Meanwhile back on earth we breathe in and breathe out. Each decade is warmer than the last. We can argue about the cause but the simple fact is that every year another glacier dwindles or disappears, another ice shelf cracks off, and another low lying island is smaller and more threatened.

From a certain perspective it feels like we have been searching for survivors for some time, occasionally finding a few that can still talk, and some that even speak the same language.

Getting down to basics

finally heard from an old friend from Puerto Rico more than three weeks after huuricane Maria blasted the islands back to the stone age. She has a good job in the main city of San Juan working for the US Dept of Commerce NOAA Fisheries and the federal building finally got power, and lo and behold telephone, and internet via an old “antique” 3G hotspot. We were in the middle of an all too rare volley of emails when the storm struck. i had called many times over the interim and emailed a few knowing they would stay on the servers until retrieved. Despite all the coverage on the tube of dire straits Graciela seemed happily content. “We have a few bananas and plantains from the remaining trees in the back, some we eat, some we put by, and some we trade with the neighbors for the things they have. It has continued raining often so we have water from the catchment. We are back to the island living that we always had before. No worries. The fishermen are out of luck with lost gear and little fuel but it gives the fish a rest and a chance to recover some…” What more could one want ?

an old friend said that
she wished to have only
a bowl and a spoon

We have lived with nature

We the Saami are a native people. We have lived with nature, not against it. — Mio Negga in these climate justice stories from 350.org

I would guess that Saami herders and hunters rely as much on motor power and mobile phones as the rest of us, but also that they’re more inclined to give Nature the benefit of the doubt in decisions small and large. The people who plan, approve and construct a hydroelectric dam,  on the other hand, are more inclined to privilege shareholder value, economic growth, personal career advancement, financial gain.  Ninety-nine times out of a hundred the dam-makers get their way.

When I was little and had my first carpentry kit, my Dad showed me how much easier it was to saw and shape with the grain of the wood rather than across it. People who live well seem to have that knack in life, and I suspect it’s true of cultures too. By this measure, our turbocharged fossil-fuelled industrial culture  does not live well. We have fought spectacularly against the grain of Nature for the past two centuries, and have equally spectacularly got our own way. But only in the short term. Our greatest victories over Nature have been Pyrrhic. We are now re-learning something that smaller, unnoticed cultures, like that of the Saami, never needed to forget.    

In the spirit of taking small steps, it’s a question we may ask in our daily choices:  is this with nature, or against it?

(photo credit: Abi King, Inside the TravelLab)

Seashells by the shore

I once visited a beach deep into Mexico along the Gulf of California.  I encountered a group of young girls as I was walking the shore collecting seashells, as I love to do.  We neither spoke each other’s language.  The girls were probably as interested in an American on their beach as they were in what I was doing in particular.  I showed them the pocket full of shells I had collected and then oddly enough they did the same.  It seems a universal habit then to pick up shells along the shore and show them off.  Humans the eternal collector and showoff!

One of the girls pointed to a particularly nice shell in my hand and I interpreted her expression of sounds/words to mean that she wanted to know if she could have it.  I sat down on the sand, spread out my shells, and invited her to do the same.  She immediately did so.  Amazing how much we communicate without words!

I saw a shell in her pile that I wanted, I drew two lines in the sand between us with a space in between.  I then reached over to her pile, picked up the shell I wanted, and placed it in the middle space.  I motioned with my hand that she could select from mine.  She grasped the idea quickly and did so, but selected a shell with which I was not willing to part.  I shook my head no, removed it from the middle, and invited her to pick again.  After she had chosen again I felt the one she selected was ‘worth’ more than the one I had chosen from her pile.  I made the sound of “hmmm” to indicate I was thinking about it and then I reached over and selected a second shell from hers and placed it in the middle.  I looked at her to see if she understood.  She shook her head yes and added a big smile, and we each took the shell(s) we had selected from the middle.  Our trading was completed.

We both seemed happy with our transaction, perhaps she was simply happy to have had interaction with an American.  Difficult to know!  But for me it was a  pleasant experience because we had done something as complicated as make trade decisions even though we did not speak each other’s language.  Later I reflected on trade deals and economics.  I realized that in our exchange we were both free to decline.  We both agreed to what we exchanged.  Neither of us had any power to force the other to trade unfairly.  We both knew what we were getting and what we were giving up.  We traded fairly.

So what does this have to do with the complex economic system we currently call our global economy?  The values of the seashells were arbitrarily chosen and what was valuable to me was different from what was valuable to her.  There wasn’t an intrinsic or objective value; we each decided what we were willing to exchange.  If it had been food or water and one of us had been hungry or thirsty the other could have held out for more because of the other’s need.  I tend to think of this as economic blackmail.  Supply and demand would also affect our trade decisions. If the beach had been covered with shells perhaps we would have seen no reason to trade for each other’s.  We all individually decide the value of the things we want and need.

Economics is a give and take, exchanging things we value; except we exchange dollars for cartons of milk, or pairs of shoes, or a package of meat.  And since we trade with dollars or some unit of currency it creates an intermediary, the ‘job’ where we acquire the dollars.  But economies are still about trading.  I trade my labor for the dollars you agree to pay me.  If you have more power than me I have less position to bargain.  The store owner trades dollars for products they then trade for more dollars.  The more intermediaries, the more complexity of the trading, the more difficult it is to see all the levels and ramifications of our trade.

Wages earners seem less able to negotiate the value of their labor making us less satisfied as employees.  We know less and less about the products we buy.  I go to a store and trade some dollars for a bottle of weed spray.  I don’t see the factory where it was made.  I don’t see how the factory affects the environment around it.  I don’t see the number of people who handled the bottle from manufacture to arrival in the store.  I don’t see the person who unpacked the container and placed the bottle on the shelf.  After using the spray in my garden I don’t see its effects on the microbes in the soil, the insects that visit the plant that was sprayed.  I don’t make the connection between the spray and a skin rash I develop later.  All of the things we don’t see or don’t make connections to are part of the reason why we’ve lost transparency in the trading system we call our economy.  And as trading has become more complex transactions are even less transparent.  Our purchases are increasingly affecting people around the world.

Trading seems to me to part of human nature, and it certainly has been important in the development or our civilization.  Rather than obsess about what we buy perhaps we should simply pay more attention.  Read labels and insist on good labeling and transparency because the more accurate the information the better informed we are as consumers.  We should do our best to find out about the product’s effect on users, producers, and the environment.  And we can start to think about how trade and economy work, how it affects the world. This is the power of the market; we are the market, we are on both sides of the market because we trade labor for money and money for goods.

We should keep in mind that across every ‘line in the sand’ is a another person.   It is much nicer when both parties have some power to trade or not, to walk away satisfied with the bargain.  And it never hurts to remember that every resource we trade comes from the earth.  We might dig it up, melt it, process it, make it into something with our hands or machines; but we still need the earth to supply the raw materials.  Ultimately, everything we trade is traded with the earth itself.

A Dreaming

I was driving home (doesn’t it seem like we are always driving?) and I began to daydream about spending one day without touching any kind of machine.  No cellphone, no refrigerator, no stove, no watch, no washing machine, no radio, no laptop.  Imagine that.  We lived for thousands of years without all these machines.

Even just to imagine a day without machines is a way to notice something, to notice how our everyday lives revolve around machines.  To notice all the moments (like now when I am typing this) when I am touching a machine.

Imagining a day without machines is a way to notice how there is another world on the other side of the bubble that we create around us with our machines.  This is the world that is inhabited by every other being on earth except us humans. A difficult and dangerous world, perhaps, but do we choose right in shutting it out?  Notice how we can barely imagine it anymore, how it frightens us. What to eat?  How to live?

Notice how our culture and civilization pushes us away from that world and towards the world of machines. How it is always pushing and pulling, nudging and “incentivizing” us to abandon and disown and trivialize that world.  How civilization actively undermines and destroys that world by its  economic exploitations — all in the name of keeping the machines running.  How civilization makes places – great buildings and factories –  where the non-machine world is kept out almost entirely.  How it is considered childish and idealistic to even believe that the natural world exists in its own right anymore.

Machines are very useful and help to make us comfortable but are they what give meaning to our lives?  Are they what we really want?

Speaking entirely for myself here, I don’t believe in machines.  They don’t give meaning to my life.  I use them to go along with everyone else and to do certain things but I don’t much care about them.

Why are we driven and herded to act as if we believe in them even when we don’t?

I care about people and animals and plants and the land.

But it seems like a great struggle to remember that and to live like that.

It feels like I have to fight against the tide to affirm that love, to affirm that the natural world even still exists.  It feels like an act of faith and rebellion to just reach out and touch that world of plants animals air water, instead of the world of machines.   Or it is considered quaint and impractical.

Why is it quaint?

Does anybody actually believe in these machines, when the chips are down, when you look at your life and what matters to you?  Do we only believe in them because we are afraid?

What are we so afraid of?

Maybe we should stop being so afraid.  Maybe we need courage.

We need the courage to reach out and touch that other world. To touch it is to believe in it. To believe in it as much (or more) than we believe in the world of machines. To give our time and our intelligence to it. To delight in and draw strength from it.  To believe in – rather than fear – our own humble, vulnerable human-animal selves.

We need the courage to assert the right of that other world of plants and animals to exist and to be sustained.  We need the courage and  confidence to make that other world somewhere where it is possible to live again, where we can choose to live in again.  We need the confidence to be champions of a world that does not define itself by machines, a world that will exist long after the last machine runs down. We need the confidence to remember and keep remembering, despite the subtle and blatant pressures to forget and disown, to fear and despair.

To remember this other, older realm will not make you rich but it will make you strong. You will be part of something older and bigger than the life and death of individual beings.  You will be part of the fabric of all beings. That is a truth to be strong in.  So raise it up in your heart and in your mind: this realm, our humble home, our dirt-poor family.

Maybe we can’t stop driving and burning fossil fuel today or tomorrow.  Maybe we can’t figure out how to do that today or tomorrow.  But if can know that we are home then perhaps we can see what is beautiful right in front of us.  If we know that we are home then we can slow down. If we know that we are home, then we can reach out and take pleasure in the world as it is.  If we know we are home we will not be driven and then maybe we can stop driving.

Community versus Consumerism

What is a smile worth, or a hug when you’re feeling bad?  Community is the experience of sharing and depending on others.  Consumer ideology tends to go in the opposite direction of community.  We are taught to compete against others for jobs and opportunity.  Consumerism creates an ‘us against them’ mentality that destroys our sense of common purpose.  If we are to get ahead, someone else must fall behind.  And even if others join our ‘hate group’ we still end up feeling condescension towards each other.  Rivalry corrodes relationship and destroys community.  Sharing mutual concern for each other binds us together in community.

Communities are made up of families and homes, the place where we feel a sense of ‘belongingness’.  There is something that stabilizes us when we belong, when we know where we come from, when our roots feed us even when we’re no longer there.  If our sense of community or family has been lost we feel cut off and adrift.  We derive value in a connection to the place we call “home” an identity that has a deeper meaning than just the name of the state or city in which we were born.  Home may be the house we grew up in, our parents, the source of our beginning.  Home may be the street on which we grew up.  It may be the view of the ocean, mountains, rolling farm land, or cactus dotted deserts.  Home may be the people we remember, the teacher, minister, or musician on the corner.  Whatever we think of as home, we carry this identity with us throughout life, no matter how far we travel or change.  Home grounds us and our rootedness gives meaning and stability to our life.

We are witnessing a significant erosion of both home and community in our society.  A large part of this is due to consumerism and globalization, the ability to purchase commodities made far away, distancing us from the people and places they were manufactured.  Were the shoes we bought manufactured by child labor?  We don’t know.  Was the food grown unsustainably in fields drenched with toxic chemicals?  We don’t know.  Are businesses exploiting developing countries?  We don’t know.  We only know that we need shoes.  We need food.  We need a job so we can pay for shoes and food.  When everything we purchase comes from somewhere else we are no longer living in community, we no longer know the people who grow our food and make our shoes.

We are also losing the connection to family and home because of how we spend our leisure time.  Reading email, surfing the web, checking social media are leisure time activities that we do most often alone.  These activities reduce the amount of time families play together, eat together, or talk about their day.   Children rarely play outside with other children, they prefer to play in their room on the computer.  Parents organize their children’s leisure time filling it with after school classes or team sports they believe are necessary to enrich their child’s life.  Even sports that used to be played in community have become organized around highly profitable businesses and travel teams.  It appears family time is a consumer product, something to be bought and sold.

Knowing who we are, where we come from, our origins, and belonging to a community is all part of developing a healthy psychology.  Working and playing with others we know well and depend upon is part of community.  When we know and like ourselves we are able to like others.  If we don’t like our self, we tend not to like others.  Hatred, bigotry, and racial prejudice lead to an unhealthy psychology that prevents us from being happy.

When we think of a happy person what do we imagine?  A happy person is someone that often laughs because they see humor in life’s situations.  A happy person has good health and well-being.  A happy person finds new people as interesting as they do familiar friends.  A happy person really listens when you talk to them and is secure enough to tell you honestly what they think.  A happy person is someone who feels loved and in turn loves others.

A gift economy is the opposite of a consumer economy, and gardening is truly one of the last gift economies that are still thriving.  Growing food in a garden encourages sharing.  Gardner’s share advice, plants, seeds, and produce. “Where did you get that beautiful plant?”  “How do you get such big tomatoes?”  “Please give me the recipe for this dip!”  When a neighborhood has gardens, people are neighborly.  You will share and receive fresh flowers or herbs, a bag of tomatoes, cucumbers, or zucchini; the excess from the garden.  You will visit with neighbors over the garden fence.  There is no sense of exchanging things of equal value, as in a consumer economy.  In fact, when my garden is producing too much, I am thankful that someone is willing to take what I offer.  It doesn’t matter if they give me anything in return.

Another community growing activity is the potluck meal in which everyone brings food to share.  Of all my memories from childhood the church potluck picnic is my favorite.  Tables covered with homemade food; children running about playing; adults sitting around talking.  People look you square in the face and ask “How are things going?” and you feel safe enough to tell them the truth.  Maybe ‘not so good’ and it’s nice to finally unburden yourself.  Maybe ‘something great has happened’ and you love to share the good news.  After lunch the adults would organize a softball game and everyone cheered for both teams.  This type of community gathering makes communities stronger.

Communities are places occupied by families and people who help when you need it.  We can depend upon each other.  Communities are places where people don’t need laws to tell us how to behave towards each other.  Our concern for our place in community controls how we behave.  Is everyone perfect?  No.  But it wouldn’t be a community if we didn’t have someone to talk about!  Hard to be arrogant when others have known you at your worst as well as your best.  Can communities become too enclosed, walled off from new thinking and change?  Yes.  But the opposite extreme is the World Wide Web where we are not walled off from much of anything.

Every time we turn on the T.V., surf the internet, or open social media platforms we are opening up to a flow of information that can be toxic and damaging.  There is a lot of negative comments and fake news stories spread on social media, cyber bullying that has become all too common.  Social media has become the worst form of social pollution.

The question to ask ourselves is “How does this make me feel?”  If what we read or hear makes us feel sad, confused, and miserable, then it’s pollution, it’s polluting our mind.  We can seldom do much to change the bad situations we hear and read about in the news.  And what we can’t control, we can’t be responsible for.  So when we read a story and imagine ourselves in someone’s place and feel bad, it isn’t a real and genuine life experience, we are merely being voyeurs.

What real purpose does it serve to watch stories about the horrors or violence that happens to others in the world; so that we can feel depressed?  By all means be informed and change your life where you can so that your consumption patterns make a difference.  I’m not suggesting ignorance is bliss.  I’m saying that ingesting negative disturbing information about things we can’t change is like eating junk food, it has no nutritional value.  It just makes us emotionally and mentally sick and depressed.

The places where we can act are at home and within our community.  Find ways to connect with the people around you.  Have a conversation with your husband, wife or child.  Make friends with your neighbor by stopping to talk when you see them outside.  Shop locally.  Get involved in your community through volunteer work or join an organization that does work you support.  Become a better friend to yourself.  Shut off the computer or phone and read a book now and then.  Enjoy a relationship with the writer.

Stop looking for happiness in consumption, shopping for stuff you don’t need.  Find your place, your home and community and occupy it.  Sometimes there will be sadness, but there is something you can do about it.  You can be there, for real, in person.  And you will also be there to share the happiness too.  You will experience the richness of belonging.

Identifying Social Pollution and the Erosion of Community

Following on our earlier discussion of community as a necessary myth or story for our time and the discussion in the comments about the ambivalence of tradition as both grounding and nourishing but also sometimes stifling and rigid…

Something that both “liberals” and “conservatives” can agree on is that our current American way of life is marked by extreme loss of community.  What we disagree on is who or what is to blame.  (Actually both sides like to pin the blame exactly on each other: conservatives blame the disruptive moral relativity of liberals and liberals blame the pro-business ideology of conservatives.)

I have been thinking about how traditional communities with their shared culture have been decimated around the world by the onslaught of the West with its monetized economies and emphasis on individual achievement/success over the health of the family or the community.   Western market economies (and their imitators around the world) are incredibly successful at producing consumer goods and creating material prosperity.    But it seems to me that this success has been bought at the cost of family and community coherence, not to mention environmental degradation.

We have gotten better at identifying and addressing physical pollution, (partly, it’s true, by off-shoring manufacturing), but are slower at seeing the social pollution that has eroded our communities.  We still see this social pollution as necessary and inescapable.   This is the way it is, we have been told since as long as we can remember. It is hard to see what is necessary and what is harmful. We don’t have the tools to understand and mitigate this kind of pollution yet.   And without understanding social pollution we seem to be trapped in a system that drives us to contribute to physical pollution.

For instance, many people commute long distances to work and  spent their days and energy at jobs that do not build a local community.  Instead their job will support the interests of a national chain or a multi-national corporation. Such corporations are primarily interested in communities as groups of consumers, and only distantly interested, if at all, in the health of a community.

What constitutes a healthy community?  What constitutes the unhealthy social pollution of a community?

I would argue that social structures – economic, cultural or institutional – that destroy the place-based bonds of a human and natural community are a form of pollution.   Probably there are other ways to identify what is polluting, but that is my starting point.

What has become blindingly obvious in the last few years (2016!!)  is that we live in a very socially polluted world.  Not that there ever was a social world – some perfect Golden Age – that wasn’t polluted.  Just because we don’t know what a perfectly healthy community would look like doesn’t mean that we can’t recognize the things that pollute and weaken a community and that we can’t identify beliefs and practices that are better versus worse in building community in a particular place.

What is healthy in one community might not be so for another.

Things that destroy human and natural community might include: adapting the environment to the needs of machines rather than the other way around, or the ideology of perpetual economic growth or the globalized food production and distribution system.  Community-destroying pollution also might be in the stories we tell ourselves and our children about how the world works and what success looks like.   Also in what we tell ourselves is beautiful and desirable.

What is pollution for one person might not be for another, just as a weed is just a plant that I happen not to like at this time.   Again there is no state of perfect purity that we can go back to or that it is even useful to imagine.   But maybe the idea of social pollution connects the natural and social environment in a way that might be helpful when we think about our lives and communities.