The title of this post comes from an essay written by Barbara Kingsolver with the same title. The essay is part of a larger collection called, "Small Wonder", and was a recent acquisition from one of the neighborhood book stores. Although published in 2002 and reflecting mostly on the then recent World Trade Center attacks, the book explores the relationship the U.S. has to the rest of the world as well as its relationship with its own natural resources. I bought it both as a reminder of what I left behind and as a means to get some perspective on my native land now that I'm thousands of miles away.
In "Saying Grace", Kingsolver writes about her family's decision to visit the Grand Canyon for Thanksgiving in 2001 instead of making the cross country trip to the East to visit with extended family. She writes that she was first hit with a twinge of guilt and regret for not following tradition and "giving thanks" in the grandiosity of an elaborate meal. But upon seeing the Grand Canyon she reflected, "how greedy can one be to want more than the Grand Canyon..." The point of the essay is that the U.S. culture of consumption (or over-consumption rather) needs to change and we need to turn our attention away from the material possessions and instead focus on the nature and bounty of land that constitutes the country.
One of the burdens we were trying to overcome while living in Brooklyn was that constant pressure to consume. Battling more than one period of unemployment over the last two years put a strain on us financially...to the point where we were making tough decisions about which bills to pay and how many groceries to buy. We had already been living frugally...forgoing cable TV, elaborate cell phone plans, vacations and nights out...and this is when we had jobs. With one or both of us being out of work, we felt we had little left to cut out of lives...the occasional night of ordering take out ceased as did our regular trips to the coffee shop. But otherwise we were already living "bare bones"...or so we thought.
See , we just couldn't escape the pressure to spend, buy, have. Although Mo and I both agreed long ago to a minimal lifestyle, it was just so easy to fill our lives with stuff in Brooklyn...it was on the street corner just waiting for us to come by and pick it up. In fact most of what we had acquired in our apartment had been found or reclaimed items off the street. Stuff was so easy to come by and so easy to dispose of...people did (do) it often. When it was time to start purging for the move, we both had difficulty deciding which items were to come with us and which were to be left behind. One of the determining factors was sentimental value...the other was replacement value. As artists we can't help but see some possibility for creation in the smallest bit of material. So it was a tough job. At the time, I thought we got through it remarkably well because we managed to significantly reduce the amount of stuff we own, either by selling it, donating it to charity or giving it away to friends.
But now, we are here and there isn't the same kind of pressure to consume. And we are realizing that we are living just fine without all of our stuff. Of course there are those irreplaceable items such as photographs and artwork which we long for, but for the most part, we are sustaining ourselves perfectly with what we could fit in our suitcases. In fact, the boys that have come over to play with Shine exclaim, "Wha', so many toys, you 'ave?!" and I keep thinking, this is not even half of what he has. Don't misunderstand me, people have possessions here and there are many who live extravagant lives. In fact, there are 3 major shopping centers within walking distance of us with all sorts of luxuries for sale, but that constant bombardment of advertising, those giant box stores with discount prices, a president telling you to go out and shop because it's good for the country...that just doesn't exist here.
There is something that does exist here however, grace. There is a graciousness...a thankfulness for what one does have...even if it is just for a bit of shade from the hot sun and a fresh piece of fruit from the tree. In America there is poverty, yes...but we keep it well hidden. In Brooklyn it was more apparent at times. (We had a homeless man who collected glass bottles and cans on our block and sang Otis Redding to get him through his day...) But for the most part, you can be poor in America and still have TV or electricity for that matter and running water and a roof over your head. It's not the same here. To be poor means to have no electricity, no running water and walls literally made out of tin. But even without those things, people get by...survive...are even happy that they have been blessed with another day of life.
Last week, Shine and I went downtown with Mo to the office where he will be working. He was meeting with some of the people from his department and I decided to take Shine to the National Art Gallery to view some art. When we were finished at the Gallery we waited in the little park next to Mo's office and watched the large cargo ships on the harbour. It wasn't long before we were approached by Bamboo Man. He earned his living by carving pictures into dried bamboo stalks which he had made into savings banks. He had various sizes which he sold at varying prices. The small ones went for $100 JA and the larger ones for $250. So between roughly $1.5o and $3.00 US if so much. We admired his craftsmanship but explained that we weren't in a position to buy at that moment. He understood and decided to sit and work on some new carvings next to us. We struck up conversation all the same and he filled us in on the goings-on downtown between the JDF and the gangs and the state of emergency. (See Dudus Extradition) He had some deep philosophies and well thought out ideas. Bamboo Man was one of those people who was poor in the material sense but very rich with ideas and talent. He was very proud of his craft and blessed for all that he had been given in life. For him to be sitting next to us and hold a conversation and be treated as someone who had knowledge to share wasn't out of the ordinary. Before we parted, Mo shook his hand and thanked him for all that he shared with us. Shine even bid him good bye with a smile and friendly wave. I tried imagining a similar scene in Brooklyn. It just wouldn't happen. And I think the main reason it wouldn't happen is because the person asking for money wouldn't have the same sense of self respect/self worth/grace...
Now, I don't want to romanticize poverty or the situation that faces many of the people here. (We were also approached by another man who had his pockets turned out, was disheveled and unkempt and simply begging for a handout.) It's a very complex and tangled situation. But the overwhelming feeling that I get from the people that I've encountered so far is that the emphasis is on counting the blessings and not the possessions...
Peace and Wellness