Consumer Conundrum

Last week a friend of mine brought up the never ending question of how are we to give more than we take in the world.  How are we to be more mindful consumers in this consumerism driven economy.  This is a common theme.  My teenage son is even asking it now, and finds himself, often rightly so, disgusted with humanity’s inherent ability to defile the earth… at least I think that is how he put it.  When I was in art school, a teacher/ mentor of mine, Pam Cole gave a copy of a poem to me written by Jeanne Murray Walker:

Looking for Ruby Earrings on Portobello Road

Not to want it all is a sort of defect–
the porcelain cows, socks made out of flags,
scarves fluttering against the blue throat of the sky,
hot dogs, bawdy brooches, paper cockatoos,
an organ grinder with three cats,
and a lover wrapped around a saxophone.
He coaxes it to whine.

The perfect earring, if I could find it
soon enough will tumble into a sidewalk grate,
clink, and lie in its littered grave forever.
And yet I drift across the street waiting
to be gulled, trying to catch fire again.
Then the notes of the full throated saxophone
rise, and my eyes rise with them
to some stones gleaming on black velvet
in a stall stuffed with celestial junk

and I laugh with the saxophone
because the stone is the least of it–
cheap glass or plastic–the instrument
to be played on. And the holy river of desire
runs wide.  I buy the earrings,
which call me to the world we can never keep
but must, nevertheless, adore,
it being all we know of eternity.


I think this is a lovely way to think about our relationship with our desires for that next best great thing that we just have to have.  But the trick is, how do we do this responsibly?  How do we pick and choose?  And how do we inspire others to be just a little choosy in their consumerism?

There are a number of ways, and here are a few that came to mind to me this week as I pondered all of this.  First, there are plenty of others who know more than I do about this.  My friend and fellow artist, Michelle Miller, currently based in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, has made paring down her own consumerism a lifestyle for years now.  Her blogs, The Nothing New Project (oct 06- oct 07) and the (Almost) Nothing New Project (current) chronicle her relationship to consumerism and how she navigated this in her own life to come to a reasonable balance of needs and wants.  It was the arrival of her birthday gift to me today that inspired me to write this particular blog, as i felt that indeed, this had become a theme.

Michelle went to the shore of Lake Michigan and collected 40 small pebbles and crocheted a pouch for these lovely little stones.  She then packaged up this magical gift and sent them to me.  I almost cried when I received them.  It was a beautiful and thoughtful gift.  Funny thing is, it’s not the first.  I got a box o’ rocks from my dear friends out in Olympia who spent quite a bit of time looking for rocks with holes in them (which I collect).  In that box was also some cool driftwood and other found natural objects. Amy in Maine once sent carefully chosen ocean pebbles which stack on one another.   My friend Anna gave me bug for my birthday.  It has freckles and I love it!  Carol gave me a collection of bird’s nests one time.  Lisa also gave me an incredible nest once.  This list could go on and on. (and on)

One might think that I haven’t received or appreciated anything not natural or “found” in my gift receptions.  Not true.  I got a wetsuit for kayaking from my mom.  My in-laws all chipped in for an amazing purse which I would never have bought for myself.  Gorgeous, crazy color leather.  Love it.  Again, I could go on, and on.  My point is, all of these wonderful gifts were given with love and thoughtfulness.  Gift giving can be a pressure filled consumer conundrum but with a little creativity and thoughtfulness, I believe there is a right gift for every recipient.

By carefully choosing where we shop for gifts as well as for daily items, we can make a huge difference.  One of my gifts came from a fair trade shop here in town.  I try as often as I can to buy local at the grocery store.  There are “green” areas of town that encourage even folks with modest means to start living a little more lightly in the world.  I try as often as I can to buy from fellow makers for things I need, or to barter for services from skilled workers who might be trying to make ends meet.  So many artists, massage therapists, builders, musicians, bar tenders, etc. are without health insurance.  By bringing business to them, it is possible to help them make ends meet.  These are small things that may or may not have a trickle effect of lighting in someone else the desire to do things differently.  We live in a big-box world.  And sometimes you just have to buy some underpants.  or a toothbrush.  But there are little ways we can make a difference by buying local, supporting artists, musicians and craftspeople in their work, and doing our best to recycle, re-use.

As I write this I am fully aware that I am not anyone who can even scratch the surface of these issues facing our society.   It’s just something that has been lurking in the back of my mind and I wanted to pay attention to that.  Tomorrow is my 40th birthday.  Amidst all of the joy of making it this far in my own life, I am sad to report that my pup Caskie, has ended his time in this world.  He died, in my arms, a week ago Sunday, of cancer.  I am at peace with his passing, although I miss his presence in my daily life.

I’ll wrap this post up with another poem, a favorite of mine….

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

p.s.  elliot, in Rochester, has sent me a post card nearly everyday this week of my birthday.  I simply don’t know how he does it.  but I love him for it!  thanks elliot!!  xoxo

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