Once I finally get through the holidays and the latest book, my next project is major cleaning, sorting and organizing of my home. That is, it is time to come bang up against the real question of what I need, what I don’t, and how to manage my life.
Now I have a very ambivalent relationship to the question of stuff. On the one hand, I’m not a big fan of consumption, and I recognize it as a major potential issue. I buy most of my possessions used, and as a consumer, well, I’m one of those people dragging the economy down ;-).
On the other hand, for someone who is hostile to consumption, I have, well, a lot of stuff. You all know I live in a big old farmhouse – well, that farmhouse is full of stuff. I’m not really sure how to resolve this contradiction, or how I feel about it.
Part of the issue is that I live in two worlds – I am living now in a high energy society, that makes use of a lot of high energy tools that cost a lot of money. While I minimize my use of some of these, I also depend upon them – for example, my computer. In order for me to do my job, I need a computer, a phone line and the money to keep up an internet connection.
Beyond that minimum, there are things I use because I do this other work – for example, I could hand wash all my laundry, but then I probably would have less time for the blog. There may come a time when I think that trade off is reasonable, but for now, the washing machine is a necessity.
Then there are things I have because for most of us, not having them is unacceptable to our society – for example, once upon a time, kids wore their playclothes for long periods, and it was not unusual to see kids rewearing fairly dirty clothes when at play. I live in a society where dirt is perceive as a sign of neglect, so my kids need to have many more clothes than are actually essential, so that they can be seen mostly in clean clothing, while still going out and getting dirty.
Then there are parts of high energy culture that I really value – I have many thousands of books, and I read and re-read them, refer to them in my writings and enjoy having them. I realize that the author Chaucer died with fewer than 50 books (a mammoth library by the standards of the day), but I’m simply not prepared to do without mine, at least as long as I live fairly far from a good library. I don’t find cheap printing or the ability to get to hear long-ago recordings of classical music along with my hip hop at all bad uses of our energy abundance, and even if I should, I don’t feel terribly inclined to go down to a handful of CDs or books.
At the same time, I also live a low energy lifestyle, and am anticipating a much lower energy one. This also requires equipment. For example, I grind my own grain, which means finding space on the counter for a grain grinder. I have more than 700 canning jars, which I fill with things, but then which gradually empty out and must be stored. Besides our CD player and CDs, we have a piano and other instruments, since my husband makes acoustic music. We have two woodstoves, which necessitate a large supply of wood and tools for the stove, wood chopping and managing wood.
Now sometimes I can manage these two lives by choosing to prioritize one – for example, I can decide that I’m going to get rid of the food processor to make space for the grain grinder, or to replace one of our vehicles with a bike and trailer. The clothesline has replaced the dryer, the freezer and natural cooling our fridge, solar charged batteries our old one-use kind.
But often, I’m struggling to balance the requirements of both lives. For example, several times a year we visit family in Boston or New York City. When we do this, it is awfully convenient to have a furnace to be kept at a very low temperature, to keep the pipes from freezing. If we don’t do this, we have to drain the pipes and shut off the water, which means that whoever cares for our animals has to haul water from the pump outside. So fr now, we have both a furnace and woodstoves. We have bikes and a car. We have a water pump and running water. We’re trying, as best we can, to balance and compromise.
I try very hard to make sure that when I acquire a lower-energy tool, I do make use of it – that it doesn’t just sit around for an emergency that may or may not come. Thus, we do cook quite a lot in our solar oven – but I can’t say that it has totally replaced my electric stove in summer.
And it all adds up to a lot of stuff. Then add in the other stuff. The kids’s toys. The clothes. The tools. The books. The music. The pots and pans, the furniture and books we’ve stored for other people, the stuff we inherited from Eric’s grandparents and don’t have time to get rid of….oy vey! Even though we do try to manage it well and to limit our consumption, it adds up to well, too much. We have fewer space constraints than most people, but maybe more chaos constraints – that is, we’re running a farm, both of us work (although I do from home and so does Eric part of the time), we homeschool, we have kids whose full time project is to create messes – generally speaking, time for management is at a premium and things get well…chaotic.
So my goal is to try and bring order to the chaos. But that means figuring out not just what I really need now, but what I’m likely to need in a future when going out and buying things isn’t as common. There’s a tendency, I think, to hoard uncritically – to see everything as potentially necessary, and sometimes that’s followed by a desire to get rid of things that is also uncritical, or at least has been for me – finding a graceful way to navigate through our stuff and make our life better organized and a bit smaller is going to be a project. I’ll be updating you on the chaos and whether any progress is made.
So how are you doing this? What worlds are you living in? How are you managing these issues?