I spent two hours typing away at this post this afternoon then my wretched, dying laptop ate it. How this is possible I don't know, because normally blogger saves my posts about once every two minutes, but this time my laptop died mid-sentence, so now I have borrowed Rosy's, and am gloomily contemplating how much less fun it is to write something for the second time..
Today I bring you two stories about how my life without spending is changing the way I live. I am finding myself feeling both more vulnerable, and more adventurous, and while these two states both have much to recommend them, it is also slightly uncomfortable.
So I have been looking at my grubby carpets for the last few months, wondering how to get them clean. I don't have a spare couple of hundred dollars to get them done professionally, nor did I want to buy a home carpet cleaner even though I was tempted because I have read good reviews about them on the interweb.
Then on Friday I was helping my friend Cindy clean out her garage. Cindy is a bit of a hero any way you look at it. Last year her beloved husband died, and Cindy has had to face a future, not only without him, but without their shared dream of a little self-sufficient farm experiment. To her eternal credit she hasn't stayed in bed with the covers over her head, but is courageously moving herself and her teenage boys onto a large suburban block in a tiny town to continue the experiment on a miniature scale. I have been trekking out to visit and stand by her side as she opens and sorts through box after box filled with projects for the future they had planned together - tools and materials collected over the years for a life that she is now facing on her own. She is an extraordinary and brave person, and there is little I can do but stand there and laugh with her and have a little cry with her as she decides which projects she can carry on with by herself, and which ones need to be moved on.
So Friday we were sorting through boxes in her garage when I saw she owned a carpet cleaner, which she had never used herself because her lovely husband always cleaned her carpets for her - but of course she offered it to me, and so this weekend I have been cleaning the carpets, after spending quite some time figuring out how to make the damn thing work, but now at least I can give Cindy a demonstration when she needs to use it next. Both she and I are learning how to do so many things we have never done before this year. I am sure this is good for us, but we are still not quite at the point where we are grateful for the opportunity for upskilling.
This is my story about being vulnerable, because there are considerable societal restraints around asking for help. One is in a much stronger position, a secure place of power, when lending. 'Always a lender, never a borrower be' runs the old proverb, no doubt thought up by some grumpy old Calvinist whose summation of the Protestant ethic went something like 'God helps those who help themselves', which of course means that I should look after my own carpet cleaning needs and not rely on the kindness of others to provide for me.
I have lovely, kind and generous neighbours. I turn to Mr Neighbour when I need some handyperson help, I provide lemons for their gin and tonics, our kids play together, we collect each others' mail and feed each others' pets, and yet Mrs Neighbour can't bear to borrow anything from me. I practically had to force my vacuum cleaner on her when hers broke, and she was almost relieved when mine stopped working, because it meant she could 'pay me back'. She has said it makes her feel uncomfortable to borrow things, because she doesn't want to impose on me, but I think the truth of the matter is that borrowing makes us feel that we have lost some of our independence.
Judith Levine examines this dilemma in her excellent book Not Buying It, a chronicle of her No Spend experiment for a year. I have read many disappointed reactions to this book around the interweb, but I think people are looking for a feel good simple living manual, which it is not, but rather a sociological and political investigation of what spending means in our society, and what consumerism has turned us into. Levine does not claim to be anything but an average consumer who is looking for answers, not your typical simple living guru who has had an epiphany. Anyway, I am a person who would much rather consider an insightful question than be spoon-fed an easy answer. If you are too, get a hold of this book and enjoy grappling with the questions.
Early on in her experiment Levine encounters a situation where she needs to borrow an item from a stranger. She gets into an enormous emotional flap about this. She hates that feeling of loss of independence. "What I want is autonomy, the sine qua non of Western commercial citizenship...To buy is to be adult. A person without money is a child, and all children are beggars."
Independence is a prime quality, prized throughout our individualistic society. Donne was probably one of the last poets who could sincerely write "No man is an island" on the cusp of the 17th century. Behind him was the dying remnant of communal medieval society, ahead of him the cult of the individual was taking its place, and has been with us ever since. Of course, the only way anyone can be self-sufficient is if they have the means never to have to rely on anyone else. The poor need to rely on each other because they do not individually have the means to remain aloof from their neighbours and families. They are not individually able to afford everything that they need to live well. Hence being independent is a sign of wealth, a sign that you do not need to rely on anyone. So having to borrow from your neighbour means that you are poor. This is the story that we have learnt as a culture over many centuries here in our supposedly advanced society. We have forsaken the co-sufficiency of communal living for the bleak self-satisfaction of not having to rely on our neighbour in order to prove how well-off we are.
Now of course this does not mean that we are telling ourselves a story that is true or relevant. My dear friend Cindy is travelling the same path of simple living and forging community in the people we find all around us as I am. She is the soul of kindness, and knows very well that I would lend her anything I own, and yet... and yet, that story is hard to shake. It still makes me feel vulnerable to be a borrower. It has made me stop and think about how foolish and dangerous that particular story of independence really is. Clearly it does not serve the planet well to have a whipper snipper, ice cream machine, wheelbarrow and pasta maker in every house on the block. And yet that is the ridiculous, planet-wrecking consequence of our pride. An inability to let our neighbour lend us their ladder..
Ok, that was vulnerability, now to adventure. Although when I say adventure, you may be getting the wrong idea. I do not lead an exciting life. Don't get me wrong, that does not make me sad. Exciting is not my favourite or my best. Staying home and drinking tea is my favourite and my best. Adventure (that is, venturing outside my front gate) is at all times suspect. However, I had been explaining to the girls my thoughts on consumerism, and my plans to only buy second hand this year, and I thought that maybe a little expedition to demonstrate the fun of buying second hand might be in order. I had known about the existence of My Closet Market in town for some time, and this seemed the perfect opportunity to test the water.
To be honest, while I have always been an enormous fan of secondhand, as someone who actively dislikes shopping the truth is, secondhand is harder. You have to know what you want, and be prepared not to get it, and keep trying again and again until you do. Ironically, Not Spending New means more shopping sometimes. Sadly, for the last few years I have found myself scuttling into Target at the beginning of each new season, racing around picking up exactly what I need for the girls and scuttling back home an hour later, breathing a huge sigh of relief that I don't have to do that again for another six months.
Shopping for clothes in an old church hall amongst dozens of stalls of other people's clothing was a bit of a challenge by comparison. For a start, you can't make fun of peculiar clothes when their previous owners are standing right there. And that is half the fun (such as there is) of shopping, isn't it? And the changing room was communal, and it was hot, and Posy whined the whole time we were there. And there was so many clothes it was rather overwhelming. It felt a bit like a medieval bazaar. BUT, it quickly became clear that the people who sell their unwanted clothes at the market do not tend to shop at Target. We quickly acquired several very nice pieces of well-made rather gorgeous clothing for less than $10 each. A summer work wardrobe for me. Summer dresses for Rosy. And thankfully some locally crafted earrings for Posy, to stop the whining (she is the proud new possessor of a pair of holes in her ears).
As adventures go, it was fairly unstartling (my favourite kind). No orcs or rings or Dark Lords. Excellent. But it did turn out to be far more fun than I had anticipated. A busker who sang like an angel instead of dreary muzak. No convenient car-parking, so we had to walk for a block through the park where a number of hairy young men were tight rope walking. Now you don't often see that in the Target car park. And best of all, lovely clothes, the dollars for which went right back into the very deserving community in which I live. Win, win, win:)
Two stories of the way my life is changing. Vulnerability is generally not a state that we welcome, although its consequences are often positive. Adventure is something that, hobbit-like, I generally do not pursue, but might be persuaded to occasionally say 'yes' to, especially when there is a cup of tea at the end..
Now, if only I can find a second hand computer that won't die in the middle of posts. I am hoping someone will convene the first Launceston My Computer Market, complete with buskers and maybe a cake stall..