Friday, February 12, 2010

Cloud Atlas, the Pursuit of Stuff, and Me

Reading all these frugal blogs, I'm coming to grips with the reality that I am not frugal at all. You likely will never find me rejoicing over a sale on dishcloths or eating veggies I don't really like because they happen to be on sale. I combine several savory character flaws that guarantee I won't go there: I'm lazy (scrubbers for dishes? I call them teenagers); I'm a bit of a princess (ew! zucchini? Nas-TAY. I'd rather retire on Alpo than eat it.), and I like stuff.

Ah stuff. There's a wonderful if relatively unknown book called Cloud Atlas with a major section about a dystopian future where all religion has been outlawed and consumerism is the major religion. Your "soul" registers your worth, which in turn determines your value. It's the extreme outcome to a world where morals and discretion are shunned as unscientific, only the measurable and productive (finance, science) are valued, and people believe things will fulfill their longings. The government creates this last belief as a remarkably effective distraction from its own abuses.

Note: Cloud Atlas is kind of a weird book. I absolutely love and have read it a couple of times. However, it's arranged in sections; each major character gets his or her own novella, none of the major characters interact with one another because they all live in different times and settings. The sections span time from the 18th century to the distant future when Earth has returned to barbarism and only a few vestiges of the dystopian society's technological capabilities have survived the cataclysm they engendered. The book is not easy reading but absolutely is worth the time and energy investment.

The section of the book on Nea So Copros (the dystopian society) burned itself into my mind, and it colors the way that I think of my purchases and purchasing patterns. It triggers all my conspiracy theorist leanings (I was raised in Mississippi; cut me some slack), and it has strongly influenced the way I view our government's urging to spend, Spend, SPEND as if we, through the act of spending, can somehow save ourselves. I hear it, and I get chills thinking of the ultimate end envisioned.

We're already cloning animals for food (Oh yes we are; see Food, Inc). We already live in a society so fragmented and closed off that we often openly devalue the old, the handicapped, and the very young. By toddlerhood, we assess our children's money-making potential, and many people would consider their children failures if they chose to be a craftspeople. Woodworkers. Car mechanics.

Said differently, we already tend to assess a soul's worth by its ability to earn money. It's a dangerous, slippery slope. It makes me want to move to the hill country, plant some fields, get a cow and a few hens and be done with this suburban nonsense.

On the other hand, I do love stuff. I have a craft room full of luxury fibers (alpaca, cashmere, merino wool) for knitting. And I live in a sub-tropical climate. I have an 1,868 square foot home. There are four of us. Three when Julia goes home. Our house is full of stuff we don't need, just want. And I do enjoy it.

So where's the line for me? How do I decide when I've crossed over from a normal, healthy lifestyle with some acquisition to the world of wanton, flagrant consumption? I don't know, and that's the trouble that Cloud Atlas brings to my spirit.

I know that giving functions as a direct counterbalance to consumption; we give. I wrestle with how much to say about what we give because I don't want recognition from that. However, I do believe that giving is a very important step to combating the subtle, and in my opinion, evil, doctrine of Salvation through Consumption.

I know that when I pay attention to my approach to others, my drive to obtain quiets itself in the interest of serving others. At one time, when I lived on $8 an hour and thought I made a pretty good wage, I thought that a person making $30,000 a year had no excuse for choosing not to give and save. And then I tried to live on $30,000 a year. Fourteen years later, if I worked full time, I would pull in over twice as much, and it's only by focusing on others' needs that I succeed in giving some of that money away and in saving some of it for retirement.

I want a simpler life, and I believe Mark does, too. We have to decide where to cut back, and I think it will be a slow process. Burgundy has been raised in what I see as opulence; others (I know) see us as living on the edge. We have very slowly begun getting nice furniture. I have a wooden roll-top desk. Mark has a beautiful upright piano. We consider our computers indispensable. My Macbook. His home-built race-car computer. I want to install a Murphy bed in Burgundy's room. I want a bigger kitchen. Mark wants a better car (I genuinely believe that for our current lifestyle, this is a need). Mark wants more gardening stuff.

Where does it stop? When do we draw the line? Is there a line? Or do we simply try to focus on acquiring the things that will allow us to cut back more? I believe that the line of frugality and simplicity moves around for everyone. I think we have to draw our own conclusions and create our own lines (within the bounds of spiritual health and morality, of course) based on our values. This truly is our mission, our job.


  1. I'm right there with you. Sometimes when I start thinking about it all I just want to hide in a cave.

    I think for me, it is a heart issue. I try to be frugal, but I am not the poster-child for frugality. Our home is MUCH bigger than we need it to be and we have more stuff than we need. I don't constantly worry about only buying what is on sale, but I also don't spend money on things I don't really need.

    Anyways, my point is that it is a heart issue. If you are buying things because you feel like you HAVE to HAVE them, when you really don't - it's a problem. If you're living in a large home because you feel like you HAVE to be there, when you really don't need all that space - it's a problem. When the things start to consume you, you have to refocus.

  2. I think you have to really consider the value of the things that you buy and bring into your home. Yes, we want things, but what purpose will those things serve us when we get them into our house and the shine wears off? If buying fibers for knitting will contribute to your creative happiness, and also adding things in your environment that make you happy (the things that you knit). If a larger home creates the space that you need to feel calm and with privacy (if that's what you need sometimes), then it's worth it.

    However, if you are buying things impulsively without thinking of how those things will impact your life in the long run, that's when you need to draw the line.