Monday, August 22, 2011

Heirloom living

It is late August, and you know what that means in a college town...move out. (Most moving in college towns happens in the beginning and end of summer. In Ann Arbor, that means in late April/early May, and late August/early September.) Walking the beautiful streets of Ann Arbor, it is difficult to pass a couple of houses without tons and tons of stuff piled along the sidewalk. This is the stuff that people are choosing to discard because they just don't want to deal with lugging it to their next living destination. As you probably know, most all of this stuff is perfectly functional and usable. In the beginning of last summer, I was taking my early morning walk to the bus stop when I came across such a large pile of stuff. I saw another man going through the heaps, and we started talking about all the stuff that we've found in the move-out season. The man said, "You wouldn't believe the things I've found in such piles before. I've found four iPods and two laptops, all is especially those East Asian kids...they leave everything behind when they leave."

Growing up in India, things were sparse, not because we couldn't "afford" things, but because my parents wanted to teach us that you don't need much to live, and that we must always strive to live simply but wholly. Most of India is a hand-me-down society. I would wear the school uniforms my elder brother wore, I would use the books my elder sister used (and then pass them on to someone else who would use them for a year, and give them back to us because my sister would be ready to use them, given she was a couple grades/standards behind me), and so on. And when things fall apart, they are mended back together generally. The only new things we'd get (apart from maybe a new pant and shirt each year, maybe) would be new notebooks. It would always be so exciting to open those new notebooks.

Wendell Berry has said we are not materialistic enough. What he means by this is that we do not value all of the materials we have invested in as much as we should and we do not recognise what has gone into them. In talking to many people here, suggesting that maybe what they are looking for is available at a second-hand store, they say that they "are fine with buying new things," which I take to mean, "I don't want anything used." I fail to see how used things are gross, or how they are less functional than new things, of course barring for planned obsolescence. All of this comes in a culture of transience, and its effects spill over onto human relationships, and relationships to place. A culture of transience fails to attach meaning to anything, which allows us constantly devalue and denigrate what we have.

Lia wrote beautifully about meaning, material and heirloom living. She wrote,

"You can have all the objects in the world.  So what?  Is your life so much better (than someone who has no objects) because you have an adroid phone, or a big screen TV, or this season’s newest sweater that you will only wear 5 times?  You are the one that gives them meaning.  You are in control of that choice.

There is so much unused stuff in this world.  Why not try and use it as much as possible?  Why not find and appreciate these objects, build that meaning?  Human ingenuity gives us the power to make objects, but I don’t think that’s what makes us human.  I think it is instead our human capacity to appreciate, to build webs of meaning, to be responsible, and clever, and artistic with the raw materials of life."

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