Thursday, June 14, 2012

Quiet Acts of Revolution




Yesterday I was running out there on the river again, going really slow. I still enjoy it, but compared to where I was with “training” two years ago, I’ve lost momentum. It’s too hard to push Wally in the running stroller now. We no longer go to the YMCA. I want to use the 4 hours a day I have while Wally’s in school to get work done. So I don’t prioritize it, basically. I was getting better, and now I’m behind where I was. But still I go out there. I feel a lot of resistance, but I’m willing to face it.

As I ran up past the Intrepid, I thought how it was true with my blog, too. In the beginning it had momentum, and now that’s been lost. Two years ago there were lots of friends and even strangers who read it and commented on it and there was an energy, an ongoing discussion. That’s all but died out. And yet I keep writing, keep posting. There’s some kind of weird dream I can’t let go of, that I feel like I’m trying to keep up this chimerical narrative for. It’s one that imagines a childhood with more time, more imagination, more staring out windows, more impromptu picnics, more time to stalk fireflies. I can’t lay it to rest, even though I feel it hasn’t gotten anywhere. I’m behind where I was.

Last night I told Alex about how discouraged I felt about this blog. (Even he doesn’t read it!)

He said, “You never promote it.”

“Like what?”

“You don’t have advertisements, you hate those mom blog give away things, now you’re not on Facebook so no one even knows when you post.”

I’ve got to do a better job of selling it, he told me, if I want people to buy it. Free is worthless. Free has no place in a commodity system. Like free CDs people can’t give away on street corners. Free books left out by the trash.

If whatever message I’m trying to pass along is not gaining momentum or joining with messages of like-minded people, then is there any point to it? Am I “part” of any movement geared toward letting kids be kids if I’m still just writing mostly in a vacuum? Can I have a voice—a tiny one, almost imperceptible—if almost no one listens, if I’m not willing to join the market system (or able—to sell out, you have to first sell)?

In What Kids Really Want that Money Can’t Buy: Tips for Parenting in a Commercial World, Betsy Taylor offers many suggestions for “old-fashioned fun” that doesn’t require money or accumulating more stuff. She mentions starting a book club, organizing a block party, creating a toy lending library, using old clothes for dress-up (no one does that anymore, right? You buy new stuff for dress up, or use $75 dance costumes) birdwatching, stargazing, picking wildflowers.

At the end of the list she says  “Many of these simple things may seem a little unconventional now—even radical—although they weren’t in our parents’, or perhaps grandparents’, time. I often think the most revolutionary thing we can do is just slow down...”

I like that idea. That we can be revolutionaries, simply by slowing down. Doing things like making our own bread, repairing holes in clothing (I can’t really do either of those things), avoiding expensive cooking classes and letting kids make a mess in the kitchen instead, finding neighbors instead of arranging playdates, saving eating out at restaurants for special occasions – the stuff that every middle class family took for granted two generations ago– now these things are radical acts. This provides a different kind of framework for evaluating whether something is purposeful or not. Maybe it’s the wrong context that’s inhibiting me from taking a step forward, one that could make more of a contribution.

All around me there are people engaged in these quiet radical acts on a daily basis.

Dara (my sister), you are radical, for commuting an hour each way to work in the public school system, even though you have to use your own money to buy folders and rulers and colored pencils for the class, even though you have to put up with ridiculous testing mandates that distract from real learning, even though you have to endure evaluations based on the flashiness of a classroom and not how well students understand math and you don’t even have your own classroom. You are radical for pushing that cart full of text books around in between classes, for making your way the wrong way down the hall teeming with wild and defiant teenagers, with your light step and your gentle manner asking them to let you through. And Dara, you are radical, for not sending your kids to summer camp and instead facing the stares of disbelief from all your neighborhood friends. You are a quiet activist, for keeping them home in July and August reading Judy Blume books and making cookies for July 4th and taking them to the local playgrounds where now they invariable exclaim upon arrival, “We’re the oldest ones here, again.” (They are 6 and 8. All the kids their age are at camp.)

Alex, you are radical for answering a friend who said that now that you know IT stuff you could make a lot more money, “Why would I want to make more money? I love my job.”

A friend of mine homeschooling her children in New Hampshire, another friend who skipped in vitro when she waited too long to have a baby and adopted instead, a new friend whose child got a scholarship to a special needs school with a level of support he didn’t require who said – give the spot to someone who needs it - and chose to put her son in a public school instead, a friend of mine who holds onto number #5 plastics like Chinese takeout contains and cleans them out and hauls them from Brooklyn to Whole Foods in Manhattan because they won’t get recycled in the regular recycling bin, another friend who bypasses Dunkin’ Donuts on 8th ave and searches for a small, hole-in-the-wall dive bakery so she can support local shops, another who—despite two kids and a demanding job—always prioritizes her friends, never hides behind the guise of being too busy, another who waited an extra year before starting her child in school at the over-the-hill, you’ll never learn to read now, all hope is lost ancient age of “gasp” 4, to another who held a simple birthday party in the park despite the means to hire entertainment and erect a bouncy house and all that kind of stuff, all of you who ride your bike to work, who turn empty lots into community gardens, who downsize your house, who consent to worms in your house for a compost bin, who spend summers in a bungalow with peeling linoleum years after you could afford something much nicer, who let your kid play a sport he or she is terrible at, who deny your son or daughter the latest gadget everyone else has, who unplug for 24 hours every weekend. You are rebelling against a system intent on convincing you the key to happiness is earning more money and spending more money, no matter the cost to personal relationships, spiritual fulfillment, a sense of community, or the natural world.

Hosting simple birthday parties, playing with sidewalk chalk instead of taking an art class, refusing to shop at Costco or BJs, all of these are, sadly, becoming defiant acts. They are by nature discreet. Done without fanfare. There are no drumrolls, flashing lights, in most cases no pats on the back even for these quiet acts of revolution.

They don't get a lot of recognition, many of them no more than I’m giving here on this blog which itself gets hardly any at all. In fact, you’re part of a system that needs to suppress this kind of thing, that is bent on distraction from the joy to be found in quiet, in spending time with family, in serving others, in appreciating nature. For the corporate machine that controls our media, there is no advantage to be gained of in any of these things. 

“People who take more pleasure in talking with friends than in machines, commodities and spectacles are outrageous to the system.”

All of you who give stuff away on freecycle rather than selling it on ebay or half.com, who take the job with half the salary if it means being home in time to eat dinner with your family, who leave a steady corporate job with its steady corporate paycheck to “do your own thing", who teach 17th century British literature to bored teenagers, who attend poetry readings, who write thank-you letters by hand, you are outrageous to the system, you who had a shot at fame and fortune and gave it up, you who write quietly in the dark words you don’t know if anyone will ever read, who hemorrhage money on your art or music without knowing if anyone will ever see it or listen, who do your best to block out the shrill voices of commercialism, the siren call of a bigger house, a better wardrobe, a fancier stroller that will impress more people. You who opt for the hand-me down clothes, the beat-up embarrassing stained stroller, you who choose to make dinner even though your kids will complain and beg for chicken nuggets, who invite a friend to sit on the porch rather than head to a bar, who choose the public school rather than private, even if it’s not the greatest, even if it doesn’t guarantee an Ivy League admission, you who take more pleasure in spending time with your child than reading the comments on the photo taken of you spending time with your child, you who wear the same dress to this wedding that you wore to the last one and the one before that, who walk instead of riding, who grow or make instead of buying, who resist the lure of magazine covers, Hollywood glamor, age-defying secrets, who resist the pull of activities that “enhance” resumes, who care little for the collecting of trophies, who let their kids – God forbid – go outside and play. You are all resistance fighters.

It’s discouraging sometimes, to have this utopian dream and meanwhile to feel like you’re planting carrot seeds that don’t grow, explaining algebra to kids who don't care, that you are always the schlumpiest and least well-dressed among your friends, to buy eco-friendly dish soap that costs 4 times as much and doesn’t generate any bubbles, to carry around a bag full of number 5 plastics, and meanwhile headlines are screaming “Raise the Next Steve Jobs” or “Birthday Parties for Under $300” or “10 Beauty Products Every Woman Should Own”. 

It can feel like we’re not getting anywhere, like we’re not changing anything, like no matter what we do the earth is heating up, public schools are  crumbling, kids in Cambodia are working for 5 cents a day so we can buy cute cheap clothes at Target and H&M. It feels like throwing sandbags at the flood. Quiet acts of desperation.

But given what we are up against (6 giant conglomerates now own 90% of mass media), throwing the sandbags is a heroic act. Like in that poem attributed to Mother Theresa, but really written by some unknown guy, “What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight. Build anyway.” 

It’s not easy, to stand against the current luring you out to the glistening promise of fortune and fame. And it’s especially discouraging when powerful forces of commercialism and materialism keep sweeping over you, seeming to wreck what it is you’re trying to build. You’re trying to live sustainably, reform education, think independently, fight misinformation, support local business, level the playing field, serve others, spend time with family and friends, give kids back their childhood, tread lightly on the earth. Those are great dreams to have. But day to day you’re out there, you’re soaking wet, your hands are dirty, the sea level is rising, there's no one else in sight, you’re outrageous to the system and the currents are strong. Not giving in is a radical act. 

4 comments:

  1. Wonderful post.
    Living true each day --what more can you do? And yet it is such a radical act.

    Nice piece in June 17 NY Times on Rosseau. A couple of direct quotes from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/17/opinion/sunday/first-theater-then-facebook.html?_r=1&ref=opinion:

    Our ancestors began to make commodities and conveniences — things they hadn’t wanted before but could not do without now. “To lose them was a misfortune, to possess them no happiness,” Rosseau wrote.

    “Nothing appears good or desirable to individuals that the public has not judged to be such,” he observed, “and the only happiness that most men know is to be esteemed happy.” Status updates and emoticons: Rousseau saw it all.

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  2. Wow!! Going to read this article right now. Thank you.

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  3. Such a lovely and inspirational post. Thanks! Keep writing them!

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