Tearing up my Bucket List!

compost watercolor copy
‘My compost bucket’ watercolor © J.H. Hart 2018

A bucket list is that strange collection of wishes that every middle class retiree believes that she or he must fulfill and check-off in order to die happy. The items on the list are usually in the form of exotic travel (an African safari; a visit to the Galapagos; hiking the Amazon canopy); or a once in a lifetime experience -because it is too expensive for those of us who are not billionaires to afford to do more than once!

Our bucket lists send herds of us, baby boomers, traipsing through the Louvre; invading Venice from off cruise ships; and destroying pristine natural habitats for a couple of selfies and the bragging rights to say that we were there, even if only for a couple of hours.

And because it is a list, there must be more than one thing on it: forty things to do before turning forty years old, or as many things as we can brainstorm in an evening. The irony, of course, is that running through each item on our bucket list  abstracts us from the beauty of our actual surroundings and alienates us from the people with whom we live and to whom we owe our time, money, and compassion. It is a good example of how more can actually be less: less fulfilling; less authentic; less likely to make us happy.

The bucket list is the transmutation of lived spontaneous experience into a commodity. The bucket list (from the expression “kicking the bucket” meaning dying) is a perfect way to exploit people at the time of life when they are feeling most mortal. The end of their life is approaching, and they are often reassessing what their life has been like. Hypercapitalism, through the media, aggravates the feelings of disappointment in the little we did; and remorse for the great deal that we haven’t done. It is the strange and unnatural idea of “never having enough!”

So I have decided to tear up my bucket list! (Well, to be honest, I never actually made a list, as I have been rather busy!) Instead, I am thinking about what I can do in the relatively short time left to me to improve the place in which I have chosen to live. There are no iguanas in Montreal, but the web of life here is as truly beautiful, complex, and unique as anywhere on Earth and it needs my support. And the people amongst whom I find myself also deserve my help and compassion.

And if I feel the urge to make a bucket list, I will make it backwards listing the gifts that I have already been given; and feeling gratitude for how unusually full my life has already been!

 

 

 

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Keeping Compassion Local

black buddha w:mirror web
‘Black Buddha’ oil on canvas © J.H. Hart ’17

Every day for years now, I wake up with the thought, “today I will do better!” but I seem unable to do that. On the other hand, I see very few people able to curb their appetites or live sustainably. We are like fish caught in a tight net of desire that this economic system has thrown over us, and we are thrashing on the floor of the fishing boat, gasping for air and struggling to extricate ourselves!

Some of us are closer to the advancing disaster, but there are so many things that the society throws up to distance all of us from what is right in front of our noses. The news of those things are particular distractions for those of us who think of ourselves as “global citizens.” These realities that we can only know second hand are actual tragedies in far away places: wars, famines, droughts, disease, pollution, all of which are forcing whole populations to flee for their lives.

The irony is that there is very little that we can do for people who are at such a great remove from us. The difficulty understanding the complexities of their experience; the great geographical distance that dissipates our best efforts to help; the flattening and simplifying of their misery and deaths in abstractions and statistics means that our compassion and energy can never be awakened to the degree that it can be at home.

So while I fight the urge to run away; to find a safe quiet small town with kind people where I can grow a beautiful garden; and to hide from the coming catastrophe, I know that the reality is that even if I were lucky enough to find myself in a relatively safe haven, it is an illusion: there is no safe haven! The forces that are destroying a world that was perfect for our species’ survival (is this a second ejection from Eden?!) are operating within the circle of our influence.

So it is here, in our backyard, with the people whom we can help face to face, with the simplification of our personal lives, and with our firm resistance to greed and violence, that we have the chance to save the Earth and ourselves; and where we can most effectively make our stand.

Taking care of ‘Stuff’

trash july 1 ,2018

July 1st, two weeks ago, was moving day in Montreal. Between 200,000 to 240,000 people moved their residences.The streets were filled up with worn out mattresses, broken furniture, and garbage bags of trash, recyclables, and reusable objects, all thrown together highly piggy because their owners were too rushed or too uninterested to sort out their stuff, or to take the still usable items to the local Salvation Army or Renaissance thrift stores.

It is shocking and saddening to watch these folks, who are clearly not well to do (most of them are moving themselves with the help of friends), being so wasteful with their possessions. It is as if the physical world has no meaning or reality for them. They have taken as a fact of living that it is normal to buy then to trash; to buy then to trash; to buy then to trash; and to repeat this process ad infinitum as if the resources of the earth are unlimited and they will have access to these resources forever!

But there is a secondary assumption at work here, and that is the belief that taking care of one’s stuff is somehow demeaning work! The goal appears to be to grow wealthy so that one can hire another person (less rich or lucky) to clean up and take care of one’s rapidly accumulating stuff.

So the skills of cleaning, tidying, repairing, and ordering are no longer learned nor respected. Once the skill of sewing is forgotten, a rip in a garment sentences the piece of clothing to the garbage unless one has the money and time to take it to a seamstress to be fixed. The ability to fix broken furniture is beyond the knowledge of most people even if all that is needed is wood glue & clamps. And in a disposable culture such as ours, the time needed to learn these skills makes the learning not worth doing. It is cheaper and faster to buy it new.

There also seems to me a final reason that what the care of things demands is beyond our present day understanding or interest. The world of objects, of our stuff, operates in the physical sphere which is bounded by time and energy, unlike the virtual world.  It takes discipline and the ability to stay focussed to organize and pack up a household, to take on these mundane tasks in the physical world; and this is qualitatively different than our experience in instantaneous online reality where most of us spend so much of our time.

Is it any surprise then that, as we are unable take care of the simple objects that make up our households, we find the natural world with its complexity, its vastly slower and infinitely longer time; and its profound subtleties beyond our understanding or concern?

 

 

 

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.