Time out of mind

Morning lilac working drawing
‘Morning Lilac’ working drawing watercolor pencils

I have a birthday later this week, and as I am statistically into the category of ‘old,’ time and how much time I have left has been much on my mind. Time also seems to me to be something much constrained by how our society insists that we use it. In other words, only certain modes of time use are allowed if we wish to be included in this culture and not marginalized.

We are obligated to abide by the clock, which has dissected the body of our lives into equal, small, standardized parts. We must go by the clock’s law if we want to work in most jobs, or socialize easily with other people, or even organize our daily routines in an acceptable fashion. We are habituated to living fast and being constantly entertained; the hours of the day determine what we do and when.

Farmers and gardeners, on the other hand, work with the weather, the seasons, and Nature. This structure is in some ways less forgiving than the clock. If seeds are not planted in time, food not harvested promptly, or animals not cared for regularly, failure, starvation, and penury can ensue. But these actions are made in larger, slower chronological increments: mornings, afternoons, evenings, seasons, and years.

I am a gardener as well as an artist. This Spring, gardening trumped the painting! It took me the month of May to get all my seeds and plants into my balcony garden (this year my garden is focused on plants that can be eaten). I therefore, unfortunately, missed the magnolias and lilacs which bloom in May in the Botanical Gardens. Still, I am in time to paint the peonies which will bloom all through June.

The experience of painting a blooming flower is a surprisingly active one: the peonies can open their blossoms and then loose their petals even in the couple of hours as I paint them. They are, in essence, a type of clock based not on mechanical numeric equal divisions, but on the natural cycle of birth, growth, setting seed, and death. And since painting and drawing also are both not clock-based activities (although it is interesting how often I am asked by non-artists how long it takes to make a drawing or painting: it seems to me that the question represents a way for non-artists to somehow make more concrete an activity that feels mysterious to them!), I have the happy daily opportunity to step out of the confines of mechanical time!

I am lucky in my life that I have chosen to experience the exterior time of biological reality and the interior flow of artistic production. It allows my mind to escape the urge to speed and the habit of entertainment that keeps us all alienated from Nature and our true selves.

 

 

 

 

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What do you hoard?

bookcase with books
And yes, books can be hoarding too!

I choose to do a Spring cleaning of my apartment recently, which included pulling all of my art supplies out of the closets, and I realized, with a great deal of embarrassment, that I am a hoarder!

Now, I have always held myself above the friends and family that I considered hoarders, some of whom would describe themselves as “collectors.” Hoarding is, after all, a continuum with a range of states:  the friend who never throws out a piece of paper in forty years, leaving barely a pathway to navigate her apartment; the neighbor who spends hundreds of dollars on two storage units to keep gifts, furniture from dead family members, and boxes of items that might come handy some day; and the fashionable young woman with fifty pairs of shoes, dozens of bras, and hundreds of panties. But cleaning my house has brought home to me that I, who have dozens of unused sketchbooks, boxes of colored pencils, uncounted frames, brushes large and small, etc., am also a hoarder!

Hoarding is considered a subset of OCD; it springs from the same basic desire to mitigate anxiety. Certainly in this time of heightened anxiety and runaway hyper-capitalism, it is the go-to neurosis!

It also, I think, feeds a need to participate in the abundance and wealth that is advertised constantly in the culture. Most people also do this by taking photos of everything: the food they eat, the places they visit, the friends with whom they socialize and even themselves. It allows them to present publicly as participating in the general affluence. This illusionary habit has little ramifications in their real world (though it may have psychological implications) unlike the very real compulsion to accumulate stuff, which does actually use up both energy and money in the physical world and is a more private vice.

So what are you hoarding? And how do you and I cure this neurosis? I think this problem has a three sided solution.

The first and most important strategy is to stop shopping except for necessities. Shopping is best described as the action of acquiring stuff, and that runs the gambit from high end full price status purchases through discount stores down to thrift shops ending in bartering and being the recipient of gifts and hand-me downs. For  ordinary working folks, the trap is in discount stores where each purchase can be justified as a great bargain (shopping as a competitive game), or in thrift stores where originally expensive items can be found for pennies on the dollar. There is even trouble waiting for the devoted recycler if he or she rescues useable things from the trash, and then doesn’t find the time or energy to actually use them or to donate them or to somehow get them out of the house!

So the second vital action to take is to downsize. Now there are various ways to do this from purging (Marie Kondo is the most popular exponent of this method) to the gentler system that I have been using for the past couple of years: every time I buy or get a new (to my wardrobe) piece of clothing, two pieces must go out of my closet! This guarantees a much reduced set of outfits within a set time period. If you do decide to purge, I urge you not to simply haul everything to the curb to be picked up by the trashman. This not only makes garbage of many perfectly good items that other people in more straitened circumstances could use, but it also presents unbearable temptations to those of us of the dumpster diving persuasion!!

The final part of this three part program is the most difficult because it goes against a very deep-set social conditioning in this commodified culture. We are habituated to being dissatisfied, so that even long wished for objects lose their appeal in an amazingly short period of time as we go off on another quest to acquire another object that has been advertised as an absolute necessity. The best antidote to this is the daily practice of gratitude. This is part of Marie Kondo’s system: holding the item in one’s hand and thinking about how it has been instrumental in making one’s life better, and feeling gratitude for it, and then, if necessary, getting rid of it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Myth of Convenience

Atwater flower market
Beautiful flower stalls at the Atwater Market, Montreal, Canada.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” but sometimes I wonder if we must examine every little itty bit of it, even our trash, even how we store our food, even what we use to wipe our asses?! The answer, I am afraid, is an unavoidable yes.

Why is this worth doing? Well, as Jaren Diamond writes in Collapse:

“All of us moderns…can get away with a lot of waste when the economy is good. We forget that conditions fluctuate, and we may not be able to anticipate when conditions will change. By that time, we may already have become attached to an expensive lifestyle, leaving an enforced diminished lifestyle or bankruptcy as the sole outs.” page 156.

So, it seems to me, that it is much preferable to start now to downsize and simplify your life in a proactive rather than a reactive (and crisis-driven) manner. We can’t know when the system will crash (and following Taleb’s ideas about how Extremistan operates, that can be very suddenly! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zq2_nyyugVk), but a lifestyle that is “antifragile” and flexible will weather the weather, as it were, more successfully than a day-to-day life that is dependent on large complex fossil fuel systems for food delivery and waste disposal.

Last summer, a visitor to my place in Montreal suggested Bea Johnson’s book, Zero Waste Home. I took it out of the library here in Dallas, and worked my way through it. (As an aside, the Dallas public library system automatically renews my books, unless someone has put in a request for the book, which is a really nice service! It means I can keep books for an unlimited time!)

Now the zero waste movement (and the minimalism movement which I will talk about in another post) is not the easiest thing to do. I am finding that it takes quite a bit of work.

https://www.texasenvironment.org/campaign/zero-waste/
https://www.goingzerowaste.com/
https://zerowastehome.com/

The difficulty with this, is that 1) we are hardwired to create habits, and then live as much as we can on autopilot, and 2) we get these habits from our cultural traditions.

Unfortunately, most places in the Western world, we are operating on very recent habits that have nothing in the way of a track record or deep traditions behind them. They are, at best, two generations old; and though they have been “brilliantly successful and understandable in the short run” as Diamond writes, they can fail and create fatal problems in the long run. They are based on two pillars of our current lifestyle: convenience and (its reason for being) hyperindividualism.

Hyperindividualism is a term Bill McKibben describes in his book, Deep Economy, as the idea that we deserve to have everything that we want when we want it, no matter the consequences for our community or the earth. It is the habit with which all of us here in North America have grown up; and it is virtually invisible to us.

And for all of us hyperindividualists, convenience and its partner personal comfort are the rationale for our way of living. It is more convenient to sit in hours long traffic jams alone in our air conditioned car with iPod and internet than wait a couple of minutes on the corner for a shared bus with its set schedule. It is more convenient to toss all the “trash” into a plastic garbage bag and throw it out (but exactly where is “out?”) than to take a few minutes to sort the trash into recyclable and compostable containers.

Local laws can help support lifestyle changes (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/what-you-need-to-know-about-montreal-s-plastic-bag-ban-1.4451421), but as long as we privilege convenience and our own personal comfort above all else, nothing will change.  As Tim Wu in his opinion piece for the New York Times, Feb.18, 2018 wrote: “Convenience has the ability to make other options unthinkable.”

So some other options: https://www.treehugger.com/green-home/11-easy-ways-reduce-your-plastic-waste-today.html

P.S. My apologies for not posting the past two months! It was planting season first in North Texas, where I was very busy getting everything in the raised beds at the Bridge Recovery Center before the weather got hot. You can follow my gardening blog at: ourbackyardgardenatthebridge.wordpress.com.

Then it was and is planting season here in Montreal where I spend my summers, and I am filling in the boxes and planters on my small balcony. I keep a gardening journal (not virtual but in sketchbook form) which I will photograph & post soon.

Shopping Opt-out

Genesis Thrift Store copy
My favorite local thrift shop. Money spent here is used to support programs that help women & families struggling with domestic violence: https://www.genesisshelter.org/

“If we live like there is no tomorrow, we will create just that-no tomorrow.” Jim Merkel: Radical Simplicity: Small Footprints on a Finite Earth.

This blog is not only a catalog of better choices for a more sustainable lifestyle; it is also the record of my struggle to embody those choices. Jim Merkel’s book is a map of what to do to get to a life lived equitably, which is, to say, in support of the health of the Earth and her peoples, and in the care of the Earth’s resources. But how is that expressed in my very unimportant life?

Well, two days ago I stopped shopping. I have not bought anything for two days. Now this may seem like a very small thing, but in the doing of it, I realized how habituated I am, and have always been, to shopping. Please understand that I am not a binge shopper; my purchases have always been very modest: a second hand book, a piece of used clothing (https://www.genesisshelter.org/), some art supplies, groceries.

But my need to shop everyday, my expectation of shopping is unrelenting! My mother was a professional buyer, and I was taught early on how to shop well, which is to say getting the most quality for the least money; and I taught my daughter these skills. Buying stuff every day is as natural for me as breathing…and as unexamined!

However, at my late stage of life, I find that I really need very little. So shopping becomes what it is for me and most of my friends: a way to entertain ourselves; a mode of anxiety relief; a distraction for loneliness. I am, of course, describing a particularly middle class (and richer) lifestyle, though poorer people are also being impelled toward buying things that they don’t need. The act of shopping assures every one of us our place in our commodified society. It also guarantees that the powerful corporations and their owners will get richer, and we will get poorer! Resisting the urge to shop is a way to slowly but surely change the balance of power, by husbanding our financial resources and denying the wealthy our money.

So we will see how long I can go without buying something that I feel I “need,” but which isn’t really a necessity.  How long before I can’t resist scratching the itch? Wish me luck!

Meanwhile, if you are interested, check out one person who went without shopping for a year! :

and some more radical ways of non-shopping:

https://www.facebook.com/RobGreenfield/