Sunday, January 19, 2014

Life and the Gross Domestic Product

I just began Tammy Strobel’s book, You Can Buy Happiness (and it’s cheap), yesterday after giving up on the soft mush of Memories from Acorn Hill. I finished the first short story in which everything turned out peachy but couldn’t get more than a chapter into the other one before realizing that reading it would be more of the same and I would gain nothing from the exercise. Life is too short to eat milk-toast.
So I moved on to a non-fiction book for a change of pace. Tammy, who has a blog I check in on frequently called Rowdy Kittens, has pulled all her research and her lifestyle changes into a new book. I am only on page 40, but she has already given me lots to think about.

In her personal life, she has simplified to the nth degree. She and her husband live in a 128 sq. foot home on wheels that they built. Minimal space means minimal clothes, minimal furniture and minimal tablespoons. She loves her lifestyle and I presume her husband embraces it, too, although I am not sure of his thoughts.

Since I have been simplifying for the past two years (but not to this extent, obviously, as one peruses our home), I understand the benefit of removing clutter in both the physical environment as well as within my mind. As things become fuzzier as I grow older, I think this will be all the more important to me. There is also the time lost on maintenance and cleaning to consider. I do not like to devote more time than absolutely necessary to the chores. I want to open up my time to experiences. Hence my dilemma and subsequent epiphany.
An economics major, Tammy has the stats to back up her words. She also quotes other writers and statesmen. This statement from Robert Kennedy gave legs to my thoughts and backbone to my decision to minimize, not only my things, but my exposure to the excessive materialism and the mind-warping violence and ridicule on TV that has become so prevalent.

The first comment is Tammy’s and the second part is quoted in her book. I included the first paragraph of Kennedy’s words because it is also relevant to my point of view.
Below is a quote from Bobby Kennedy on what the Gross National Product means and more importantly what it does not mean.  He would have a made a fine economist...

 "Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product ... if we should judge America by that - counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. 
"Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans." 

Robert F. Kennedy Address, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, March 18, 1968

As Tammy drills down to her own place of happiness and hones her point of view, I benefit from her observations. Her words resonate with me. Food for thought and they take up minimal physical room.
So, as she delves further into the issue, she questions the wisdom of excessive growth, not only with the GDP, but also on a personal level. The more we make and the more we buy does not increase our core happiness.

Money is not the measure of our contentment and happiness, our experiences are. Things are, well, just things. A bobble-head may remind us of an excellent sport’s event but does it make us happy? Going to the event would. Buying an artificial flower arrangement to match our living room might look nice for a while but then it would just be part of the scene. Bringing in a handful of flowers from the patch we grew by the back door would enchant us every time we walked by it. Once past its prime, a new and different bundle could appear, appreciated for its own uniqueness and brevity of appearance.

It occurs to me that it is unfortunate that we raise our children during the time period of our peak acquisition. We are buying homes, furnishing them, decorating them. We buy toys, swing sets and different sized bikes in rapid succession. We renovate. We move, prompting more acquisitions. They see us buy out of boredom, replace perfectly good cars and fill closets, theirs as well as ours, with clothes. They embrace all this buying and expect something in every store they are dragged to, often becoming frustrated to tantrum level when the random object of their desire is not forthcoming. Then they see their parents buying what they want and the seed is planted. ‘When I grow up…,” becomes an internal mantra and a habit is born. Buying things will make me happy. When I don’t get them, I am angry/sad.
Now, I have no basis in fact to substantiate this next thought and I will learn more with research, but in cultures with extended families close by and where grandparents, aunts and uncles are part of day-to-day living, is the acquisitive influence diluted? For instance, I think we can assume that grandparents are in a stage of life where they pretty much have all they need. They are comfortable with their furniture, have knitted a few afghans to keep warm on chilly nights and they are down to four coffee mugs in the cabinet. Lamps may have seen better days but they see no point in replacing them. The books that line their shelves are fewer than were there in earlier years but are old friends. Pictures lining the wall are of family. Friendships, not things, give them the most pleasure. Family antics make them laugh. Crayoned drawings are taped to their refrigerator.

I think back on the years when my children were growing up. We bought a home, painted, put up wallpaper and decorated while my son was little and my daughter approaching birth. Finances were tight so we made do and did for ourselves. Visits to parks were more the norm than forays to stores. Playing outside was fun and the swing set was in the grammar school playground. We traveled to see family, hooking side trips to the seashore onto the journeys. After a number of years, we built a house in another town and moved. Things were better, our jobs providing more money to spend. Saving wasn’t on the horizon yet. We bought new furniture. While my son was in school and my daughter on half-day kindergarten, I shopped after school let out. She went along on my forays to buy fabric and placemats. I made curtains and pillows. I bought things to decorate our home –a lot of things – it was a country haven, befitting the time, complete with Shaker pegs to hold stuff on the wall when the other surfaces were full.
My son shuns excess stuff in favor of his passions. My daughter fills her home with things. I am getting the picture.

Facing up to responsibility is uncomfortable. I can see how my actions may have subconsciously influenced them. Don't get me wrong, it wasn’t all materialistic. I am glad we filled their childhood with experiences, too. They each have varied interests and a love of the seashore and appreciation for bed and breakfast inns. Visits to parks, boating on lakes and exploration in different areas has had an impact on their lives – I see it now in their choices. I am glad that I never felt the need to buy trinkets emblazoned with logos to remember every trip. I am glad I never felt the compulsion to collect figurines (oh, whoops, there is the Christmas village I put up every year during the holidays). I have had way too many books over the years (all but my favorites have now been sent out into the world for other readers to enjoy). I still need to attack my closets so I am thankful for doors that close tightly. My art supplies will never be reduced except by use.

There is balance in every life, mine and theirs included. Some tip one way or another as we each work through our stages. The groundwork is laid earlier than I thought. Was my mother’s habitual Saturday shopping day part of my foundation? Perhaps. But so was the frugality of those early years when money was tight and we made do. I count myself lucky to have had those days when my best Christmas present of all time was the Barbie clothes my mother painstakingly made for months on end and getting a bike was a really big deal. I have carried the necessity of that philosophy in my pocket my whole life. It colored many of my decisions. I also had the benefit of two grandmotherly points of view when I grew up. One was frugal and loving, the other more critical and cheap. Although at a distance and not visited more than a few times a year, they both had an impact on my development.
Perhaps if there was a Tammy earlier in my life, I would have understood my impact on others more fully and trimmed my sails. Would have saved me from going through this exercise of purging now and, I am sure, enhanced my life’s experiences in the process. Live and learn...again.

It is now obvious that it would have influenced my children’s values as well.

Now that I look back with open eyes, I see that my experiences and growth were probably like that
of many others of that time. I don’t know if it is my time of life that is dictating my shift in course or the times which are changing because of the accessibility of different points of view via the internet. All in all, there are few things I would alter because, ultimately, they made me who I am. I would have assessed my materialism differently, though. My personal search for happiness was impeded by it and I never knew. As I watch my children make their own choices, I both applaud and lament.

I wouldn't be a mother if I didn't.


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Through the Looking Glass

Montmartre Reflection
Ah, a new year arrives. It is a crisp, cold day and the sun shines down on the shiny coat of thick ice on the lake. A massive storm is brewing to the west, churning and drifting our way. Tomorrow, the scene may be very different but inside, warmth will fill the rooms and there is always tea to heat the body from the inside out.

These past five days have been restorative. I have picked up my clutter, rearranged my sitting room so I can fit in my paints and supplies for the winter. Curtains, a project long overdue and neglected, have been sewn for the guest room sliding door – lush thick folds of fabric to keep the chill outside where it belongs.

Mending has been done, Marlena de Blasi’s new book, Antonia and Her Daughters, a gift from a friend, is slowly savored so as not to rush through the pages and reach the end before I am ready for it. I am traveling soon so I brought the rolling suitcase down to ready it for the trip. I will leave the Christmas tree up until Saturday – a few more days of enjoyment before memorable ornaments are once again stored away.

Their brief appearance makes them special. Released from their slumber, they evoke memories of holidays filled with laughter and good food, traditions long enjoyed. These accumulated treasures represent a lifetime of Decembers. Like old friends, they are a small part of the solace of the season. The rest is spiritual comfort and reflection.

Now I am ready to embrace my passions and grow. There are only a few pledges I will make to set the character of my new year. Now, more than ever, action requires the parameters of a plan.

I surrender to the notion that I will always be a person with myriad interests. I intend to fully give each its moment of attention without gazing lustfully at the ones not chosen.
Embrace the path – I will take one step at a time on paths which intrigue me and trust that they will not lead me astray. This will keep me upright in more ways than one.
Cherish relationships – in the moment and always.

Like the eagle, I will ride the wind with grace and strength, and return to a nurturing nest of inspiration and respite.

I will continue to balance activity with quiet contemplation and appreciate the growth from both. Simplicity will hone my focus.

Let's see how that goes....