Category: Responsibility & the individual

The Fantasy of Tidying

blue hubbard web detail
How do you tidy the natural world? Eat it!!

Netflix has begun streaming a series of Marie Kondo visits with her clients to help them declutter their homes, all of which are in California. I just binged the full eight episodes, and it is definitely helping me with my wish to make this a “no buy” year!

I have been a fan of Kondo since I read her 2011 book: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, but the suggestion of this series that working through one’s clutter, preferably in tandem with one’s spouse, will improve one’s life: solve problems in family relationships; bring more joy into the home; and eliminate the problem of clutter by creating habits and storage systems that will be continued to be used; and all in the short time one has with the in-person help of Marie Kondo, makes this clearly a TV show Netflix should file under the “sci-fi &fantasy” rubric!

The most egregious part of this series is the unspoken assumption that the hyper-consumerism that all these families support is somehow normal for the rest of us! These are wealthy people, not average working people. Most of these folks have houses big enough to support huge collections of clothes, kitchen supplies, shoes, books, bric-a-brac, toys, etc. (Interesting statistic from A Cluttered Life: Middle-Class Abundance: the US has 3.1% of the children in the world, but buys 40% of the toys worldwide!) But nowhere is the money that is needed to hoard the amount of stuff that fills these houses anywhere commented upon!

Kondo elides the darker, but truer emotions, that her method elicits: guilt over the amount of money and energy that allowed the stuff to be bought and to accumulate; anxiety over the inability to keep one’s head above the engulfing chaos; despair at the emptiness of lives lived for consumption; and grief over unfulfilling personal relationships. Instead we are given, in the figure of Marie Kondo, a Japanese Tinkerbell: perfect, petite, and with a constant smiling mask, who assures all her clients that they are okay, and that they will be successful.

The “system” Kondo uses is based on positivity (probably why it has been so attractive to Americans): the object is to make choices about what to keep rather than what to give up, though the pieces that don’t “spark joy” (a limited and poorly defined emotion) are dumped after being “thanked” for their service.  But never does Marie Kondo suggest that thanking one’s possessions for their service may not be as important as thanking the Earth for the resources it provided for all the objects, or thanking the thousands of people whose hands, sweat, ideas, and energy created the items that glut these homes! The source of our wealth here in the West is again made invisible!

And finally, as the focus remains tenaciously on the clients’ emotional state and how happy the Kondoma method will make them, the work of decluttering, which is a really hard struggle, takes place offstage. Nor is there any suggestion of a larger community who could use the stuff. Again, an interesting hint that the families only know other people in the same economic bracket as they are in; people who would not need any more stuff either or to whom they are too embarrassed to ask for help!

The assumption is that most of the bags go to thrift stores where it can be reused (though recent statistics suggest that much of what goes to thrift stores ends up in the trash as does recycling. But how much was recycled? And how much was trashed without any attempt to reuse? Recycling and reusing is not a part of the Marie Kondo brand.

There were a lot of intriguing hints of deeper issues in these first eight episodes: the gender roles, the politics of which played out with shopping, accumulation, and jobs in the home; the comparison of Japanese Americans, only a couple of generations here compared to Marie Kondo, a native of Japan; and the sadder struggles of the true hoarders whose spouses were enabling them and keeping them from dealing with their underlying and debilitating anxiety.

But for me in this blog, the show seems to be a warning against using a band-aid to make a gaping wound seem somehow more attractive! The basic problem is our love-affair with hyper-consumerism. The solution is as basic (and unpalatable) as stopping the shopping! Even the slogan: reduce, recycle, reuse may not be applicable if we are reducing from a completely unnatural level. It may be better for us to only buy necessities and to reuse as much in our homes as we can until we have worked through everything extra, which if the families in this show are any indication will be a long time!

A Happier New Year!

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© J. Hart ’19 Watercolor pencil on paper. “Winter bouquet.”

“…the driving force behind most of the unintended changes in society is the power exerted by the countless small decisions made by people in the course of their daily lives.” from The Long Descent by John Michael Greer.

We are starting the New Year (2019) in the United States with a revitalized House of Representatives filled with a newly elected, young, and diverse group of Congress people whose mission it is to make the government less corrupt and more responsive to the people’s needs. It is a tremendously encouraging beginning to the New Year.

However, a political and governmental response to the grave problems we face is only one part of the equation. The other part, rarely spoken about, is each of us as moral agents making important choices individually in our every day life. The government sees us as voters, as workers, as consumers, but not as free agents able to change systems by our combined individual actions.

For much of our life, we are enmeshed in an economic system, and, like fish swimming in water, we really are not aware of the water in which we move. The system is not transparent, so it is difficult to make out how it works, even if we wish to understand it: it is hard for us to know what are the best (or better) choices that we should make.

I am resuming this blog, because I wish to share with you my attempts to make better choices in my life, and to hear, hopefully, what you are choosing to do in yours.

Some choices I am making this year are easier than others: I am taking a hiatus on shopping. I will continue to buy food, but I hope to avoid other purchases, especially impulse buying. So far, so good, but we are only a couple of days into the New Year!

Also, I refuse, and have refused for a while now, to buy anything through Amazon. I will not support a company whose owner doesn’t pay his employees enough to live on, and won’t pay taxes for the infrastructure he uses. Amazon also encourages a mindset of instant gratification that I believe is detrimental to people’s ability to act maturely and morally.

The more difficult choices I want to make this year are with my retirement income, which is tied to stocks and the stock market with its focus exclusively on money making; whether I should eliminate meat completely from my diet; and how to switch my household to a truly sustainable one.

I believe that it is worth putting in the time and effort of research and thought to make better choices in day to day, and everyday, life. Here is to a year of better choices for us all!

 

 

 

Tearing up my Bucket List!

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‘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!

 

 

 

Keeping Compassion Local

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‘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.