The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Slowing Down the Druid Way: A History of Time February 12, 2017

Some awesome gardens on my homestead

Some awesome gardens on my homestead

What continues to drive me is to live more in line with my principles: to grow my food, to take care of my basic needs, take charge of my health and healing, and to live fully and honestly with myself in line with the living earth. For a while, as I have discussed on this blog, I ran a homestead as well as worked full time to pay for it, something that I stopped doing about a year and a half ago. Part of why I had to walk away from my homestead in its current model (and regroup) was that it was physically exhausting me, especially as a single woman. I was trying to do everything: hold a full time job, grow my own food, tend my bees, tend my chickens, tend my land, make lots of things, write my blog, engage in my druid studies…and I couldn’t do it all. It was a painful and hard thing, leave a year and a half ago and open myself up to future possibilities. It also has been good in that I’ve been working to confront some of the fantasies that made me pursue things in the direction that I did when that direction was, for me, unsustainable. I had a hard time understanding how my ancestors made it–how they were able to do so many things, when I seemed to be able to do so few effectively.

 

Interestingly, at the time this was going on in my own life, I knew of several other homesteading folks who were in the same bind.  One couple, who were also educators, were selling their land because they couldn’t do it all, and they both had to work to pay for it, and the debt and time debt was really harming them. Like me, they really wanted to live sustainably but found they couldn’t swing it with the jobs and mortgage. Another good friend (another single woman) wanted to buy land, and had the money, but after seeing what I was doing and spending some time, started re-thinking her choices. Yet another friend was also a single homesteader and had no idea how to work and keep his homestead. All of us had also experimented with WOOFing and other kinds of community building but it wasn’t enough to sustain us long-term. And in the time since, I’ve met many people on the path who have expressed similar issues.

 

What I hadn’t fully accounted for when I started homesteading was the toll that trying to live in two competing systems at once did to me; I was trying to literally live two full-time lives at once. The existing system of work and life and taxes didn’t decrease in its demands just because I had a spiritual awakening and wanted to live in line with my beliefs: a mortgage, student loans, the demands of my work, the path and choices I setup for myself in my 20’s still were present and demanding of their attention in my early 30’s. The current system is designed so that it is easiest to live within it, and every step you take out of it is more and more difficult.

 

And so, I’ve been reflecting. What happened? What could I have done differently?  What could any of us done differently? What did I learn so that in the future I can take a different approach? For me, it all kept coming back to resources: my time and energy, debt, and community. I never seemed to have enough time to do even half of what I wanted at the end of the work days, and I spent a lot of my evenings and weekends recovering from my work. And, yet, I knew I was working more efficiently and engaging in a lot more self care than many of my colleagues at the university, who seemed perpetually exhausted. I also never seemed to be making much headway on my debt for the mortgage and on my student loans.  Each time I had gotten a raise, associated costs of life went up (especially health insurance), and I ended up taking home less money than before the raise. I felt like, literally, I was a hamster spinning in a wheel. What was happening here?

 

And as I’ve been working through these questions about my own experience, a deeper set of questions has also emerged: what are the larger cultural systems in place that influenced my experiences and the experiences of others I knew? Culturally, what are the challenges?

 

Obviously, there are a lot of ways I could work through this, but today, I’m specifically going to look at time and leisure. And this is for a simple reason: time and physical energy seems, to me, to be the biggest limiting factor for many people; it was a limiting factor for me, and certainly, for others that I knew who were in a similar place. In fact, time seems to be one of the critical factors between well-intentioned folks who want to do something and people who do can something.  This happens a lot: I talk to people every day practically who really want to live more sustainably, who want to practice permaculture in daily living, who want to reconnect on a deeper level–and who physically can’t do so.  They don’t have the energy, they don’t have the time, and the idea of “making time” sounds exhausting.  I think there’s a lot of harsh criticism out there for people’s honestly on the matter of their time and energy–one form of this criticism is that it sounds like they are making excuses. In the US at least, we have a tendency to criticize an individual for personal failings and deficiencies rather than look at the systems in place that help or harm us.  And yet, we live and work within these systems, and we are inherently bound to them and to the demands they place upon us.  Having a clear understanding of those systems, and what we can do about them for the good of our spiritual practice and everyday living, seems critical.

 

And so, in the rest of this post (and over the next few weeks), I’m going to explore cultural challenges–and solutions–with our relationship with time: how our system literally sucks away our time and makes it much more difficult to engage various kinds of sustainable living and self sufficiency, especially for those who are trying to walk the line between both worlds.

 

Understanding more about this system, and its history, is critical to all of us as we work to respond to the current industrial age, but as we begin to put in place new systems that will help replace this age and transition us back to nature-oriented living. And the key here is transitioning in a way that allows us to thrive: to be healthy (including well rested), happy, be able to take care of some of our own needs, and to work with the land to create abundance and joy in our own lives. So now, let’s take a look at our relationship to time in the broadest view, that is, over hundreds of years of human living.

 

Progress and Time

Some nice trees I painted to help this challenging subject along...

Some nice trees I painted to help this challenging subject along…

One of the so-called promises of industrialization and consumerism is the idea that things are “better” or “easier” for us now that machines and fossil fuels do so many things. We are told, explicitly as children in school, that we are better off, that we work less than our ancestors, have better lives, and largely benefit from the technologies and goods. Our ancestors of the distant past had hard lives of filth and toil, and we have somehow risen above this. This is one of the cores of the myth of progress: that our lives are better than our ancestors because of our “progress” as a civilization. Wrapped into this myth is the idea that fossil fuels and the current 40-hour workweeks somehow liberated us from crushing labor.  John Michael Greer has written extensively on this subject in his many books and blog, and if you aren’t familiar with his work and want his take on the subject, I’d highly recommend it (his new book After Progress is a particularly good place to start). This myth, the most powerful driving narrative of our present age, spans back at least until the time of industrialization but had its roots much earlier. One of these key pieces of the myth concerns the nature of time.

 

Work and Leisure in the Middle Ages

I’m sure any of you studying the druid traditions and old ceremonies read about 12-day celebrations and week long feasts and think to yourself,  how is this even possible?  Who would have time for this? A 12 day celebration seems like a dream, a fantasy, not the reality of any people, at least within the industrialized era. But evidence exploring pre-industrial cultures, including the Middle Ages in Europe, offers a different tale. In fact, peoples in Europe and elsewhere did have time for multiple 12 day celebrations and feasts because they had an entirely different relationship with time, leisure, and work.

 

A good book on the subject of time and the history of work time is The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, by Juliet B. Schor. Schor demonstrates that while the 40-hour work week of the 20th century was an improvement over the 80-hour work week from the 19th century (which she claims may have been the height of human work hours in recorded Western history), there is an implicit assumption that all work weeks were 80 hours in the centuries before the 19th. That is simply not the case. Schor provides good evidence that prior to capitalism, our ancestors had an abundance of time and a leisurely pace of work. She, and others writing on this subject, often point to the Middle Ages as a comparison.

 

Work in the Middle Ages was intermittent, with frequent breaks, even during planting and harvest times–these breaks were considered part of the rights of workers. During periods of downtime between planting and harvest, little work was done at all. In fact, almost one third of the medieval person’s life was spent on holiday: everything from prayer and somber churchgoing to merrymaking and feasting. These included many holidays through the Catholic Church (which was still quite pagan in those days, adopting many of the earlier week-long pagan feasts and traditions). In addition to the publicly sanctioned feasts, a typical middle ages calendar also included the “ale weeks” of various sorts where you might take a week off to celebrate someone’s wedding or birth of a child and the like. The Catholic Church’s doctrine suggested that too much work was a sin, and so, it actively limited how much work anyone could do (it also limited other things, like usury, or the charging of interest which is another topic entirely).

 

With this religious-political system in place, people had a lot of leisure time for all of those holidays and festivals as well as practicing functional crafts and bardic arts. For example, France’s ancien règime guaranteed workers fifty-two Sundays, ninety rest days, and thirty-eight holidays per year (could you imagine that today?) Approximately 5 months of the year were taken off in Spain during the Middle Ages. In England, records from manors in the 13th century suggested that manor  servants worked 175 days a year (likely a 10 or 12 hour day); peasant farmers worked not more than 150 days a year on their land, laborers worked around 120 days, and even miners worked only 180 days.

 

If we average these different data-points from England, we get 156 days of work per person. Today, with the typical “40-hour work week” with standard holidays and two  weeks off for vacation (read, crashing and recovering), the average American work week is about 261 days.  This is nearly one hundred days more than our medieval ancestors.  And even on days we don’t work or are on vacation, how many of us now are tethered to our smartphones and emails–our work follows us wherever we go, in ways even our counterparts from earlier in the 20th century can’t imagine. Now I’m not saying Medieval system was perfect–but on the matter of time, it appears to be a vast improvement from our current state of affairs.

 

Recent painting (in my spare leisure time!) of the planes....

Recent painting (in my spare leisure time!) of the planes….

Change is a constant, and certainly, big changes were coming near the end of the Middle Ages. The Protestants, specifically, the Puritans,  grew in strength and popularity all over Europe; their take on work was the opposite of the Catholic Church’s. Their motto was that hard work was good for the soul, and laziness was the work of the devil. Further, in England, the English Reformation led to major changes in work hours: King Henry VIII seized the monasteries and their land furthering the protestant cause and decreasing the stability of the peasants (who often worked land owned by the monasteries). The changes continued–after industrialization began taking off, a need for bodies in factories led to major shifts in how land was used: in many places, the common people and peasants were driven off lands and replaced with more profitable sheep (see, for example, the Highland Clearances in Scotland).

 

Eventually, these and other factors give rise to the 80-hour work weeks the 18th and 19th century (work weeks suffered by largely displaced peoples–economic refugees). The factory worker’s plight is a tale many of us likely know well (for a good description of this  in the early 20th century, see Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle). Eventually, laws in various countries were introduced, including the current 40 hour work week here in the USA (which certainly seemed like a improvement after the insanity that preceded it).

 

Also, there is some truth in the idea that we have it better now in terms of work from our ancestors a century or two ago. But the idea that pre-industralized peoples worked away their days just to scrape by is hogwash.  It’s hogwash not only in terms of the Middle Ages, but even in terms of the more distant past. And, as I’ll explore next week in more depth, work weeks currently are on the incline, and have been for at least the last 20 years.  Part of this, as we’ll explore next week, has to do with our own choices and relationship to work (things we can control) and part of it may have factors outside of our control.

 

Concluding Thoughts

All of this information helped me put things in perspective–people living close to the land in ages past had very different demands on their time than people attempting it today.  I’m, then, not surprised by my own experiences and those with similar stories that I knew well. For so many of us, it is not a lack of desire, but of time, of resources, and of support–and finding ways to balance these things, while all the while paying for it within this crazy system–is a serious challenge and one deserving of our attention.

 

People living in times past had amounts of leisure time that seem unfathomable to those of us in modern industrialized or post-industralized societies–leisure time in which to make merry, engage in careful handicrafts, or pursue other interests fully. Further, people living in those earlier times also had support from strong and thriving communities.  People living in the distant past also had existing systems in place to aid them and often had carefully cultivated and abundant landscapes in which to work, which is diametrically opposed to our seriously degraded landscapes that we are now working to restore.  In other words, the challenges we face are serious ones, and our responses must, therefore, be thoughtful, deep, and careful. Understanding the systems in which we work, and their demands, can help us better adapt our own plans, especially to those that seek regenerative and nature-based living. Time, especially as it relates to our work demands, is certainly not on our side. There are some alternative approaches and solutions to this–and we’ll keep exploring these in the coming weeks.

 

A Spring Ritual: Trash-to-Treasure Fairy May 21, 2016

A typical "trash" pile full of perfectly good stuff

A typical “trash” pile full of perfectly good stuff from the move out day ritual.  Working fans, mattresses, bags of unused clothing, shoes, organization units, dishes, etc.

At the end of the semester in my quaint college town, a spring ritual of sorts takes place. (I know, I know. Spring rituals in college towns are rarely a good thing!) It is a holiday dedicated to the gods of consumption and waste, called “Move out day.” This day takes place the same day as graduation, and after graduation ceremonies, students and their families eagerly pack their cars and whisk themselves off to unknown destinations. Unfortunately, not everything that they brought, or bought here, goes with them. In fact, the primary activity of the move out day ritual is making one’s sizable offering of new and lightly used goods on the sidewalk or in a series of dumpsters and then to drive off into the sunset.

 

As you walk up and down the streets in the aftermath of this ritual, the carnage and enormity it can be overwhelming. To give you a sense of it, I’ll post two lists from friends and the “haul” they got from move-out day:

 

“End of the semester means move out day! This year’s haul includes a Weber grill, a metal bathroom shelf, an IKEA shelf unit, brand new Tefal fry pans, new cutting boards, a six month supply of laundry soap and fabric softener, clothes, a fan, a folding chair, and two bikes.”

 

“I got two boxes full of dishes, a leather rolling chair, two brand new garbage cans, a sound system, two digital voice recorders, an Xbox with 5 games and controllers, a almost new scanner/printer unit, a vintage metal chair, a whole bag of clothing with the tags still on, three pairs of jeans, towels, crystal plates and cups, a box full of plates and cups, two small throw rugs, a wooden jewelry box…and probably some things I forgot.”

 

I think these two lists help you get the picture–this is not ordinary garbage, but a ton of perfectly good stuff, or brand new stuff, that for whatever reason, students no longer want in their lives.

 

Each of these items have a cost: an environmental cost, a social cost, a financial cost. So many resources–directly from the living earth–natural materials, fossil fuels and the associated environmental tolls, environmental pollution from extraction sites, factory waste and runoff. Further, the social cost is also often extreme: workers and their families, near-slave labor in factories, chemical poisoning of workers, birth defects, poverty, and more. When we think about these costs, and the cycle of purchasing and disposal, it is very hard to see mounds and mounds of stuff going completely unused go to the dump. At the dump, it has a final environmental cost as it slowly decays, especially with all of those electronics leeching heavy metals. I don’t think that students participating in their spring ritual really think about what I’ve outlined here–it is the simplest action just to leave stuff on the curb on your way home.

 

I’m not going to go into there reasons this happens (see my earlier post on “disposing of the disposable mindset“) but instead, with the inspiration of permaculture ethics, I’m going to share the inspirational story of the Trash-to-Treasure fairy.

 

Clothes wtih the tags on in the trash

Clothes wtih the tags on in the trash

The typical response to those on the sidelines of this spring ritual are: 1) ignore it is going on and go about your business; 2) shake your head and move along; or, 3) take advantage of it to see what stuff you can salvage, use, and take off the streets. I have found myself most often in the 3rd category, and I never considered taking it a step further. In fact, there are a lot of people out and about during the move out day ritual, participating in a counter-ritual of sorts, sorting through the piles and  looking for stuff they can use (hence the lists above). Others are scrappers, looking to see what metal they can salvage to scrap for bit of cash.  In fact, I have a lot of nice new dishes here, including an awesome enamel saucepan, from this year’s haul. I was personally not going out much, because, shamefully, I didn’t want to be seen as the professor digging through students’ garbage. And then, I saw what the Trash-to-Treasure fairy did, and in the upcoming years, I have decided that I am going to put that sentiment behind me in the future and take his lead.  And maybe solicit the help of some others in furthering the cause.

 

The trash-to-treasure fairy, summoned by the spring move out ritual, decided that none of the three typical responses above were sufficient–and they aren’t. The first responses two allow a problem to happen,and don’t do anything about it other than have a non-response or levy judgement. The third response is much better in that some of what would otherwise wasted goes to use, but its also a very personal response problem, in that the larger problem still remains. But still, 95% of what is thrown away is still going to thrown away, going to the landfill to spend 2000 years or more decomposing.

 

The fourth option, which the Trash-to-treasure fairy enacted, was using a different set of ethics: the permaculture ethics of earth care, fair share, as well as the design principles of “produce no waste” and “the problem is the solution.” In simple terms–because everything that is on the curb came from the earth, and the fairy honors the earth, he decided he wasn’t going to let it go back so easily. And so, he began working his magic. The fairy spent a number of hours filling his car with anything he found that was perfectly good and made runs to one of the local thrift stores.  He selected his store very carefully, avoiding one of the national chains, but a local place with more sound ethics, who directly put on the floor what is donated, and who directly feed the needy with the sales.  The thrift store manager was thrilled to see carloads of perfectly fine dishes, brand new clothing with the tags on, video game consoles, fans, and more–and often of a higher quality than the typical used donations. The fairy’s blessing extends to the shoppers, of all walks of life, that visit that particular store.  This simple solution was able to do car-loads more good than bringing it to your house or turning away from the problem.

 

Lots here that can be used again!

Lots here that can be used again!

I’m also inspired in another sense to take the Trash-to-Treasure fairy’s actions a few steps further.  For one, it seems that in the future, perhaps we can encourage the thrift stores to be there, in person, with donation trucks and make it really convenient for students to make a donation to their store instead of the curb. (We are in a small town, all of the stores are within 2 miles of where this is happening…but still, a lot of people can’t be bothered to drop stuff off on the edges of town). I’m also wondering if more education and a push by the university could help move more of this so-called “waste” into the hands of people who need it. I think there are lots of possibilities here, and I am thankful to have been so inspired by the Trash-to-Treasure fairy and to share this with all of you.

 

The Trash-to-Treasure fairy wasn’t content to take only what he needed, and instead, took it a step further. He stopped thinking about himself and his own needs, and instead, thought about the good of the earth and the community. I am inspired to continue and extend this tradition and help reduce the waste produced by my own campus community. The following week, a very similar spring ritual of my hometown, where my parents live, was taking place: “spring clean up” and I went with the trash-to-treaure fairy to see what we could salvage and give away. So many of us have an opportunity each day to do these little, yet powerful things. May the inspiration of the trash-to-treasure fairy be ever-present in your life!

 

What To Do With All That Stuff? Breaking Patterns, Eliminating Excess, and Downsizing April 18, 2015

Americans, in particular, although a good big of the Western industrialized world, have entirely too much stuff. Annie Lenoard’s “Story of Stuff” tells the tale of the linear process in which stuff enters our lives–from natural resource exploitation to factory production to the store shelves to our homes, and rather quickly in many cases, to the landfill. She discusses “planned obsolescence” whereby products are specifically designed to break or wear out after a short amount of time (think about those expensive hiking boots that you bought new that only lasted one summer); or “perceived obsolescence” where stuff is perceived as no longer useful (for example, any technology over 2 years old is “out of date”). Despite these perceptions, the clutter and stuff seems to dominate our lives and new stuff is circulating in and out at all times. But a lot of it also gets “stuck” in our lives rather permanently, taking up unnecessary space, and causing us issues. We hear stories of hoarders who can’t let go of anything–but really, how many among us can say that we don’t have too much stuff? And when this stuff leaves our homes, it creates waste streams and pollution.

 

About two years ago, I began making a serious effort in my life to reduce the amount of clutter and stuff I had accumulated and–just as importantly–to prevent more stuff from entering. I wanted to share that process with you and talk through some of the issues surrounding stuff. At this point, I’ve cut out 70% of the stuff from my life–and feel much better for it.

 

Problems with Too Much Stuff.

Wasted resources. A lot of people not only have a house/apartment full of stuff but also a storage unit. A larger house to hold all that stuff, plus a storage unit or whatever else, is a serious waste of space and resources (and in this time of dwindling resources, is this even ethical?) We should live in our spaces, not fill them with useless stuff that just takes up room–and requires heat, maintenance, and so on.

 

Physical Clutter is a burden, in more than one sense. This brings me to physical clutter. Physical clutter is emotionally draining and can sap one’s motivation and energy. Just walking into a cluttered space gives one a feeling of helplessness and being overwhelmed–and if you are living in this constantly, its really unhealthy for you. I have a good friend who had so much clutter in his physical space that you could hardly walk through there, it wasn’t pleasant to visit. I watched him spend all of his time–for literally years–rearranging it, thinking it would just take him another few weeks to get arranged and once it was, he could do real work up there. But he ended up in this vicious loop where he’d shuffle the stuff from one area to the next, and it was still cluttered, and he spun his wheels in other areas of his life all the same. And he never really realized it was happening, or at least, seemed powerless to stop it. When an extreme event forced the stuff out of his life, it was amazing to see his creativity return, new jobs and opportunities open up, and his general mental state of mind and happiness improve.

 

Art studio clutter--apparently it doesn't bother kittens!  A cleaner, clutter-free studio = more creative energy!

Art studio clutter–apparently it doesn’t bother kittens! A cleaner, clutter-free studio = more creative energy!

The Energetic implications of clutter. As my friend’s story illustrates, there is, of course, an energetic side to having too much stuff. Stuff holds energy–and very frequently, not energy you want in your life. If you’ve ever tried to do a house cleansing, even a simple one with some salt, water, candles and smudge sticks, you probably know how hard it is to clear a space that is full of stuff–it just doesn’t work. Also, other people’s stuff holds their energy, and that can be a real problem depending on whose stuff it originally was. Stuff also holds the energy of the processes used to create it–which can also be an even bigger problem if it was created in a way that caused suffering (I spoke about this at length a few years ago on ritual tools, but it applies more broadly). So when you have all this stuff everywhere in your life, its influencing you on multiple levels.

 

The most stuff that enters your life, the more demand there is for it. All that stuff had to come from somewhere–and when it enters your life, it was acquired somehow. This acquisition is part of the basic laws for supply and demand: the ore “stuff” that is purchased in a system, the more perceived demand there is for that stuff and the more stuff is produced. This leads to even more drain on natural resources, more waste produced, and more energy expended.

 

Excess stuff keeps us captive.  I think this last point sums all of the above–stuff keeps us captive.  Some people have houses or apartments so full of stuff they feel they can never leave (I know a lot of people who say this). Others have stuff from loved ones who have passed on, and by holding onto that stuff, they are holding onto their loved one–which prevents healing and release. When you go to an area that has too much stuff that you really don’t want, you get this sense of burden–and its a form of captivity. The stuff has its hold on you….so how do you break free?

Understanding the Problem: “Automatic” Acquisition and Disposal

To return to the “Story of Stuff” above, we might think about the two automatic behaviors that literally drive the consumptive system: acquisition and disposal. When I say “automatic” here, I’m using a term from learning theory that refers to behaviors that are ingrained, require no thought, and are often engaged in without any critical reflection.

 

Purchasing, accumulating, and disposing of stuff is all about automatic conditioning. We are literally conditioned by television, advertising, even our school systems, our culture, to buy, buy, buy and toss, toss, toss. Purchasing something is our culture’s solution to any problem or need: needing to demonstrate affection, needing to solve a problem, boredom, a way to smooth over a disagreement, and so much more. When we don’t want something, out to the curb or into the trash bin it goes. We don’t even give this whole process a second thought–we just engage  in it, over, and over, and over again. And in the process of engaging it it, we support a system that is literally destroying the land and desecrating this glorious earth that sustains us.

There is no such thing as away!

There is no such thing as away!

 

Recognizing this conditioning for what it is, injecting some critical thinking in the process, and eventually breaking the conditioning entirely puts us on the path to a clutter-free life.

 

Solutions to the Stuff Problem: The Mindset Shift

Before I talk about how I eliminated 70% of the stuff in my life (and continue to eliminate even more), I want to talk about to engage in the mindset shifts that help you prevent new stuff coming into your life and help you make better, conscious decisions surrounding stuff.

 

Wants vs. Needs. We have a serious problem in our culture in separating our wants from our needsMaslow’s hierarchy of needs is a good place to start: the actual needs for human survival are food, water, air, basic clothing, and shelter. Needs above the base needs are not more stuff but rather safety, love and belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. It is these basic things that are needed for happy human living–and I think a lot of our culture tries to replace these things with stuff…and fails miserably. So when we really take a few steps back to think about what we need vs. what we want, we can start making priorities in our lives.

 

While my mindset shift concerning stuff came from a lot of places, it was highly motivated by my teaching of an ongoing community-service based course in Pontiac, Michigan, where many people live without their basic needs being met (like adequate food, warm clothing for winter, or shelter). Seeing children in our program without gloves or knowing they were getting their last food for the day with the “snack” at center 5:30pm, really shifted my own view about needs. The goal of my course was to help improve children and adolescent’s literacy skill–but more than once I saw that kids couldn’t work on their reading or writing when their basic needs weren’t met. This really led me to a long series of meditations on the nature of stuff, wants and needs, and more–and lead to this blog post and the resulting change in my life!  When you encounter people who really don’t have all their needs met (or you’ve experienced that in your own life), it makes you be more grateful for what you have–and helps put a want and a need  in perspective.

 

A No New Things Policy. Another mindset shift, and series of conversations that can really be helpful is to tell friends and family that you have a “no new stuff” policy. There are different ways you might go about it.  The most extreme is to tell them that you aren’t interested in any new stuff, period, and refuse to take stuff when its offered. Less extreme is gently reminding people about your “no stuff policy” when they do give you something, but taking it anyways the first few times as everyone is adjusting to your policy. You can also setup meaningful alternatives: for example, if they want to give you something, baked goods, handmade things, or natural things (beautiful shells, etc) are welcome, as is a helping hand around the home. I have found that this has really led to some interesting and productive conversations. It was also met with some serious resistance depending on who you are trying to talk with (and for some, especially older family members, it takes years of conversations to make it work). Having alternatives to gift giving at holidays and birthdays (see next post) is a really helpful way of helping others make this transition.

 

Reseeing Gift Giving. A while back, I talked about sustainable alternatives to gift giving for the holidays–this is something my family has been doing for years and its really successful: we by a few gifts for one person, we only buy what they request or need, and we are conscious of waste throughout the process. Since the holidays and birthdays produce an excess of stuff, eliminating that stream of unwanted stuff makes a huge difference.

 

Gifts come in many forms. I would also add to my suggestions about gift-giving is that there are other gifts that are more valuable than stuff bought with money. What about an hour or two of your time to help someone clean their house or accomplish some other task? What about a song, piece of writing, or artwork you created? What about a nice backrub? What about some fresh veg from your garden or a jam made from berries foraged in the forest? What about teaching a friend something new? What about conversation over a really unique tea? There are all kinds of gifts that we can give that are of our time and our creative expressions that do not require purchasing stuff. When you look at this list, it makess going to the store and buying something look kinda lame.

 

Eliminating other sources of stuff. Stuff seems to sneak up on you, and in many different ways and forms.  Spotting the stuff creep is another step in preventing future problems. Consumerism is designed to send a lot of stuff our way–from free “gifts” of no value sent to you in the mail to swag at work to gifts nobody wants to a culture where shopping is a primary hobby. So working to look at how else stuff enters your life and eliminating those sources helps.

 

Reseeing existing stuff and avoiding perceived obsolescence. The other thing here that’s important with a mindset shift is getting ourselves out of the consumer mindset and avoiding the “perceived obsolescence” that plagues our culture. Electronics are the worst offenders in this regard, and they have been one of the focus points for my own re-seeing of existing stuff.  Given the serious ethical issues under which electronics are produced and the environmental hazards of disposal, I’m trying to get the most out of them, stretching them way beyond their typical two year cycle. There is this perception that anything that is older than 2 years is useless in terms of electronics. I’ve found that this is simply not the case: with careful maintenance and maxing out the RAM, my 6 year old iMac is running just fine and is still able to handle anything I throw at it. My  computer before that is still being used by my parents for web browsing and word processing. I don’t have a smartphone and have been using the same standard phone for 4 years now. These are conscious choices that put me at odds with most of conventional thinking and behavior, but that’s ok (I’m not one for convention anyways).

 

Recognizing what stuff IS important. Some stuff is important to us, and there is nothing wrong with that. I think that recognizing what we value and want to keep and cherish is also an important part of this process. For me, I realized that my herbalism supplies, my art studio, my books, and my gardening and homesteading supplies were important: these were the things that enriched me creatively and spiritually and allowed me to live sustainably. So while I did make cuts in these areas, I allowed myself to keep these things guilt-free.

 

Eliminating Stuff and Reducing Clutter

Good stuff for Craig's list!

Good stuff for Craig’s list!

By now, hopefully I’ve convinced you that excess stuff in your life comes with its share of serious problems. And while the mindset shifts above can help new stuff from entering your life, its not going to really solve the problem of the existing stuff in your life. And the existing stuff is a real problem, because it often has energetic and emotional holds upon us. Let me say this: if you take on the mindset shifts and be vigilant about the stuff you don’t need, you will only need to do the following (painful) process once. But that doesn’t make it any easier. Let’s talk about how we can engage in sustainable, sacred action even in the process of removing excess stuff.

 

In my case, I had a largish house where a lot of stuff was mine (like a well-stocked art studio and too many books); I also had stuff I had been holding onto for sentimental value that I hadn’t used or touched in years (like old video games, instruments, old clothes, various kick-knacks). But I also had a lot of stuff that people had unloaded on me: friends’ s who had stayed with me for periods of time and left “a few things” to come get later; excess stuff from my divorce (where my ex took only what he wanted and left the rest), things people brought over thinking it would be useful for me (and wasn’t), and so on. When I started wanting to reduce this stuff, I was overwhelmed with the amount of it.  These are the principles that helped me through this process:

 

Producing No Waste. When people get overwhelmed with stuff, the most likely thing that they do is turn to the automatic behavior of disposal–that is, they throw it away. While this is certainly a response to deal with the immediate problem (too much stuff), it creates ethical dilemmas of its own because you are putting more waste into the system, especially when that stuff could have another use.  Not to mention, you are perpetuating the cycle of consumption and disposal. One of the permaculture design principles that I’ve been working with really seriously for the last few years is “produce no waste” and if we think about eliminating stuff from this perspective, it becomes more challenging, yes, but certainly more rewarding.  Our stuff may not be wanted by us, but it can still be used in a great many ways by others, and tossing it in a dumpster shouldn’t be on the table.

 

Eliminating Ethically and Consciously.  Thinking about eliminating stuff ethically, then, leads us towards “alternative” movement streams that don’t end up in the landfill. For household goods and clothing, you might look for alternatives, alternatives even beyond the Salvation Army and Goodwill (a lot of your stuff ends up in their dumpster). We have a local center (the one I mentioned earlier) that accepts household items and clothing; they give all of this freely away to anyone who is in need. If you have no such center, you can also use Freecycle and Craig’s List: giving stuff away for free is an easy way to meet new friends, give someone something they need, and remove stuff from your life that you no longer need. You may also think about friends or family who need the stuff you have: when I cut down my art studio by 30%, I gave nearly all of it to two places: a local community center for kid’s art and a good friend who was looking for some supplies. Musical instruments I had had since I was a teenager also went to the community center–I had difficulty initially letting go of them, but when I heard they would be used to start a band to keep the kids off the streets, it was joyful to give them away. A few years ago, I gave my big screen TV away to a friend who is a caretaker for a disabled person: the disabled person’s TV was going out and he needed another one. What options you have really depends on your circumstances and local area, but do ask around to family and friends–you’ll be surprised how many people are in need of something you may have to give. And when you can make a difference with that stuff–it makes the process all the more enjoyable.

 

What to keep. Rather than think about what you want to eliminate, think about what you want to keep–and the rest can go. I mentioned above the things that I valued: I put those on a list, and I worked to eliminate anything that I didn’t hold in that kind of value. This made the decision process much easier. For me, a lot of this ended up being stuff from my life-before-sustainability: gaming supplies, electronics, DVDs, and more. Once I realized what was important to me now, I was able to find better homes for what wasn’t.

 

Create a “staging area” for Letting Go Because stuff is overwhelming, I found that it helped to create a “staging area” where the stuff could sit for a time while I mourned its loss.  Stuff would go into the room I wasn’t using, and I would have time to let it go  before moving it off to its new home. There were things in my life that I would never use again (like gaming books, etc) but I couldn’t bring myself to let them go for many years.  But when I had the staging area, I could let them sit there for a while until I did my mourning and then pass them on to someone else who could–and did–make use of them.  This is especially a useful strategy for things that you have either had a long time or had a deep emotional connection with. This worked really well: I was able to spend a lot of time going though every space in my home and then, once that process was done, was able to rehome all of it fairly quickly.

 

Enlisting help.  Other people don’t feel about your stuff the way you do–finding the *right* friend or family member to help you eliminate is a good idea. You don’t want someone who will talk you into keeping anything–you want someone who is ruthless and firm, who will convince you that you don’t need what you think you do. It may take a few tries to find the right friend, but when you do, he or she will be invaluable in helping you eliminate clutter.

 

Going, going, gone. After you have started this process and gave away the first lot of stuff, you’ll find that subsequent reductions of the clutter are actually much easier.  Now, I have very little emotional attachment to any stuff, and I can easily give it away (and can be that ruthless and firm friend who can help others do the same).

 

Other Ways of Managing Stuff

In addition to eliminating stuff and making sure new stuff doesn’t enter our lives, there are at least three ways of reseeing our relationships to our existing stuff that can also help:

Making conscious purchases of higher quality. Purchase carefully and consciously can help slow down waste streams. I still do buy stuff, but I try to think about my purchases, plan them in advance, and when possible, allowing several days or weeks between a decision and the actual purchase. I generally try to never buy anything on a whim. There are exceptions to these rules, of course, but they are good general principles to follow for daily living. The other issue here is to purchase things that do not have planned obsolescence–rather, purchase things of higher quality (and usually higher price) that will last longer. Iron skillets are a great investment, as are a good pair of leather boots taken regularly to a cobbler and regularly oiled.

 

Making it last and taking care of it.  When stuff is cheap and plentiful, it has less value.  By making less purchases and making them carefully, your stuff takes on more value to you.  You can also make a conscious effort to take care of what you have better so that it doesn’t wear out or break easliy.

 

Repurposing.  Creative repurposing can take many forms–one of the ways you might think about solving problems or using existing stuff is to see it in new ways.  This helps us purchase less and also gives our stuff a new lease on life.  There’s the whole movement of “upcycling” or taking old clothing, books, and other items and creating something from nothing.  For example: I took a bunch of old jeans that couldn’t be donated and made a rug; I gave that as a gift to a friend who had cold floors and liked handmade things. This repurposing is especially useful for stuff that isn’t high quality or is worn out….trying to find a use for it can be a creative, fun challenge.

 

The Move to Simple Living

The more space we have, the more space we have to fill. Choosing to live in smaller spaces, with less gizmos, gadgets, and clutter, can lead to more fulfilling lives. I’m doing that as we speak–leaving my homestead of 5 years  and moving into a space less than half the size of my previous house.   While this move was for other reasons (described in my earlier post), I’m also using it as a chance to make some “stuff changes” in my life that will help. Moving to a smaller space will help me continue to be conscious of my space and storage, will allow me to have a smaller environmental footprint, and live a more meaningful and simple life.

Apparently, I had a lot more to say about eliminating stuff than I first realized!  Its been a very important part of my own transformative process, and one that I’m glad I endured.  Even though eliminating stuff was hard at first, the challenges were worth the rewards!  Thanks for reading 🙂

 

 

Shifting away from Materialism and into the Sacred: Alternatives to Typical Holiday Gift Giving December 11, 2013

We find ourselves, yet again, in the middle of the “holiday season” where the emphasis has drifted away from families and is now on cheap deals, plasma televisions, and the amassing of various piles of stuff. Against the cultural push of this frenzied time, I wanted to take some time to reflect upon alternatives to materialism and challenge the underlying values that materialism promotes.

 

Holiday Shopping Spree--the lights are pretty, but not all that glitters is gold

Holiday Shopping Spree–the lights are pretty, but not all that glitters is gold

What is materialism? Materialism, in the simplest terms, is an obsession with “stuff,” particularly, the acquisition of stuff as a way to promote and maintain self-image. This “stuff” includes consumer goods, like name brand watches, plasma televisions, vehicles, the latest fashionable clothing, even down to smaller things, like purchasing that new pair of shoes you just have to have but don’t need.  I’d also argue that it extends to things like lawn care products, where maintaining an image of an immaculate green lawn is the goal, or the purchase of expensive Yoga pants for going to the Yoga studio (which can also be an image thing). Materialism dominates our consumer culture, where the products we purchase, the way we look, the things we consume, and the things we want to have define our reality and sense of selves.  In the story of stuff, which I linked above, Annie Lennox argue that less than 1% of the stuff that is purchased each year is still in circulation a year later–most of it gets thrown away so that new stuff can be purchased. The point of all of this stuff isn’t use, its about the hunt, the deal, the purchase–and the resulting image that the stuff can convey.  There’s been a lot of talk about the environmental impacts of consumerism and materialism (and I’ve certainly talked about this on the blog).  But some of the new research also suggests the detrimental impacts on people.

 

What does materialism cause for humans and their communities? Now, I’m an educational researcher, and we don’t use the term “cause” lightly (most research can demonstrate relationships, or correlations, between two things, but its much more difficult to prove any kind of causal link between such relationships).  The most recent research into materialism, however, is using experimental design and longitudinal research to demonstrate that materialism not only correlates, but in some cases, causes detrimental effects on people’s well-being, where the well being of highly materialistic students was directly linked to how materialistic they were (Kasser et. al, 2013).

 

Bauer et. al. (2012) found that high materialism heightened negative emotions, increased competitiveness, increased selfishness, and reduced social involvement. The Bauer study is particularly important because it didn’t just examine highly materialistic people, but found that even for people with lower levels of materialism, when they were exposed to a materialistic environment, they became more materialistic and showed negative effects. The ramifications of the Bauer study should be taken seriously–even for people who aren’t materialistic by nature, materialistic cues (such as the hundreds of ads that people in most industrialized nations are exposed to every day, or the near 20 minutes of ads for every hour of television watched) trigger materialistic behavior (and its detrimental effects).

 

Shifting away from Materialism at the Holidays. While materialism is always a problem in our culture,  it becomes exacerbated around the holiday time, when the frenzy of buying gifts is in full swing. I remember a time when I was dating a person whose family was pretty well off. I was overwhelmed at Christmas those few years–they literally filled a whole room with presents, at least a 10′ x 15′ area, and I left with garbage bags full of new items, many of which I had no desire for and never used. His mother expressed her joy at simply shopping for days on end to find the perfect things for everyone on her list–it was like a hunt to her. My own extended family, who is generally pretty down-to-earth and not nearly as well off, didn’t do gift giving when I was growing up for the most part.  But eventually, things changed, and even we got a bit out of control with gift purchasing (especially with my dearest mom and her desire to fill up stockings with dollar store purchases!) We were all buying gifts for everyone, and it was hard to figure out what to buy and who would want what, and hard not to spend a good deal of money. A lot of waste and frustration went into the whole thing, and we ended up getting things that we didn’t really want or need. About five years ago, this eventually lead us to re-evaluating the holiday season, its values, and its purpose.

 

We decided to do a simple Secret Santa gift exchange. Each person created a list of things that they would really like to have (and often needed, like new socks or warm mittens) and one person who was in charge of the Secret Santa gave that list to one other person who was also participating. The names were kept secret, and the fun began. When you got your list, you only worked on gifts for that one person, and you couldn’t spend more than $50 total. The emphasis was strongly on handmade, re-purposed, or otherwise personalized gifts, and gifts were to be meaningful things that people needed.  We also emphasized alternative wrapping (newspapers, paper bags, cloth), which has proven to be much more sustainable than one-use papers.

 

Ziggy bird helps open gifts!

Ziggy bird helps open gifts!

This Secret Santa process transformed the holiday season–we took something that was firmly entrenched in “materialist” mode of thinking, with its frenzied black Fridays and its over-consumptive habits–and transformed it something meaningful, creative, and more personalized. While this process certainly made the gifts that one received at the holidays much better and eliminated excess, it also created a sense of joy that I think we as a family had lost in the frenzy. We truly enjoyed making things and sharing them with others, waiting to see with delight how the gifts would be received. This year, I’m in the process of creating a set of gifts for one of my family members. Because I’m working just on one person’s gifts, I can invest the time and care to make his gifts meaningful and extra special.

 

Other ideas for gift giving at the holidays include the “handmade only” year, where each person has to make gifts (and gifts don’t have to be physical things–back rubs, poems, songs, and the like can also be made).  While some families will feel that they don’t have the talents for this, I would suggest that the process can help rediscover lost creativity and bring back our older human traditions of making useful things.

While holiday gift giving represents only a small portion of what can be done to make the shift away from materialism, I think its a great way to start recognizing that we can live with alternative value systems and create sacred, creative spaces within this otherwise materialistic world.

 

Benefits of Shifting Away from Materialism more Broadly

I do want to briefly speak about the joys one experiences in making the conscious shift away from materialistic approaches to life in a broader sense.  As I’ve described in various ways on this blog, I’ve done much in my own life to shift away from a consumer lifestyle, and I have felt the tangible benefits of doing so! It has made me alive, aware, awake and most of all, reverent and thankful. If everything can just be purchased easily, it has no real meaning. When you start living simply and with less, the things you have take on much more meaning because they are not just bought, but found, made, adapted.  You aren’t overwhelmed or overloaded with useless stuff, so your life becomes decluttered. You have a more sacred relationship with the food you grow, especially when eating it from the wooden spoon that was a gift from a friend. You appreciate a fresh strawberry, because you choose to eat them only in season from your yard or from a farmer’s market (and they taste way better when fresh picked). You appreciate the work of artists and handmade gifts become more valuable than all the plasma TVs in the world (which you aren’t watching anyways). You appreciate the warm woolen mittens that were handcrafted out of old sweaters. You begin to seek out those joys that cannot be bought and that don’t have mass market appeal, realizing that those are the best things in life, the things worth having, aren’t things that can be purchased in any store.  And that is a very sacred thing.