Saturday, December 22, 2018

Sucky Little Promises

The changes come slowly, and all at once.  Two years ago I was rolling along consuming my way through an American life, despite realizing that, unless I increased my income, something was going to have to give. Despite fully understanding that the consumer life was not delivering on any of its promises, even its sucky little promises: the treats didn't even taste good; the conveniences weren't convenient. I was living lavishly, like a lord, but the poverty of my spirit was every day more obvious.

And then I just stopped.

It's not quite as simple as that, but almost.

Now I eat things that have names, rather than trademarks. Eggs, oats, apples, potatoes. I cook my own food. I have spreadsheets to tell me when, for instance, I'm spending a ridiculous portion of my income on Worcestershire sauce. I take the train or the bus to work. I think about what I earn and spend and invest, as if this was actually my life, as if I actually lived here, rather than being one of Steinbeck's temporarily embarrassed millionaires, camped awhile on the banks of the Willamette while my glorious future is preparing.

Many things converged. Some, I'm sure, I will only understand later, or not at all. "The death of Jesus set me free," as William Blake asserted: that's part of it. The election to the presidency of a man who, improbably, manages to unite in his person practically everything I have ever despised had a hand in it: my political despair is absolute. It's odd I guess that it's just when my sober assessment tells me that adopting a simple life can no longer move any of the needles that I should have found the wherewithal to do it. But I'm doing it for me, not for you. You can rot in hell, my countrymen. You will. You already do.

But I pull myself away from that. I don't mean to pay him or his people any more homage or attention than I must. Send them on their way. Don't let the trap hit you on the way down, sweethearts. I have other things to do, in the time left.

No. What is important now is dismissing fear, and turning only and always to what is beautiful. I practice this over and over. If it's neither practical nor beautiful, I want no part of it. And it must be here now, today, or this week, this month at a stretch. Not ten years from now. Not when the city on the hill is built.

And -- not opposed to this, but actually gracefully part of it -- I have to live as if my choices mattered, even though I know they don't. I have to stop consuming more than I need, not because it will have any effect, but for my own peace of mind. I don't mistake it for political action, which is the only real path forward (if there is one) for the environment. But I just can't do it any more, the relentless spend spend spend acquire acquire acquire waste waste waste. I'm done. I'm living as simply as I reasonably can. 


Milk-white sky, the ferns nodding occasionally, like sleepy old men pretending to pay attention: the quiet of the morning, one of the few parts of The Season that I really like, has set in. 


My religious impulses have withered, in these last two years, as my attention has turned to home and hearth. My affable tolerance for magical thinking has vanished, to be replaced by a maybe more authentic hatred for that sort of intellectual self-indulgence. I am much, much less nice. I have moments of contempt that frighten me: they come surging up from basement rooms I didn't even know my brain had. This is me too, of course, as I've always been. I work on it, kneading it, trying to soften it. Sometimes I think I'm getting somewhere.

"I'm a religious person..." I began to say, somewhere. Social media, I expect. But I stopped and didn't hit "enter." Maybe I'm not a religious person. What was it I started to mean, when I said that? That for me ecstatic experience trumped quotidian concerns? That I was willing to entertain falsehoods, if they would lead me to new understandings? That I was aware of larger consciousnesses than the one I call "mine" sharing my space? 

Or maybe, just that I'm a contrary old cuss, whose friends are largely unreligious academics, and I like rattling their cages? All of these, none of these, I don't know. 


The wind picks up, and for a moment or two the ferns are lively, and the hedge shakes itself like a dog coming out of a river. Merry Christmas, y'all. 


Jo said...

This post suggests it's time to write a book. Smooth, beautiful writing.

Murr Brewster said...


Larry said...

Great personal essay. I especially liked the kneading metaphor. I make bread from time to time, and I also try to "knead" my attitudes into more fruitful channels.

lekshe said...

"My affable tolerance for magical thinking has vanished, to be replaced by a maybe more authentic hatred for that sort of intellectual self-indulgence."

I seriously doubt your tolerance for magical thinking has vanished. But if you say so. And if your religion excluded hearth and home, and was intellectual self-indulgence, then no wonder you jettisoned it. Intellectual indulgence is the antithesis of practice. To really practice is to strip away both intellect and indulgence and to see and feel, naked and without hope or fear.

Hi, my old friend. Hanging out with the barking dogs and silversmiths in Boudhanath. Potatoes for breakfast and dinner :)

marly said...

Well, I don't have a lot to say to all that except that I'm reading Aidan Hart's "Beauty Spirit Matter: Icons in the Modern World" and liking it a great deal...

Sabine said...

Oh, reading this made me happy.
And immediately brought to mind:

Oh the joy of missing out.

When the world begins to shout

And rush towards that shining thing;

The latest bit of mental bling–

Trying to have it, see it, do it,

You simply know you won't go through it;

The anxious clamoring and need

This restless hungry thing to feed.

Instead, you feel the loveliness;

The pleasure of your emptiness.

You spurn the treasure on the shelf

In favor of your peaceful self;

Without regret, without a doubt.

Oh the joy of missing out!”

—Michael Leunig (