Light in the Darkness

posted April 25, 2013

Our enormously productive economy… demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption… We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.
– Victor Lebow, 1955

Today is Earth Day, and when I woke up this morning, my back spoke to me. “Nerissa,” it intoned.” Get thee to a yoga class. You cannot spend another day hunched over your MacBook. I refuse.” So my poor, chronically rounded and abused back and I went to Yoga Sanctuary where my favorite yoga teacher in the world, Sara Rose, was teaching us balancing poses so that we could better deal with all the crap life throws at us in mid April. On the way up the stairs, I noticed a flyer that said Annie Leonard was speaking at UMass tonight. I’d loved her video Story of Stuff (which my friend Sarah Getz sent me back in 2007) so much, I’d referenced it and her in my first edition of How to Be an Adult. Maybe Elle and Jay would be old enough now to get something out of it.

In class, Sara said, “Aren’t you glad you have a yoga practice? When the world goes crazy, you have something to come back to, to lean into, to sustain you.”

I immediately thought, yes, and that is why I am a musician. Music does that for me. It’s the ground of my being. It’s what I come back to over and over again.

I am seeing another kind of light at the end of the tunnel. For the past year and a half, I have been working on a second edition to my 2008 book How to Be an Adult, which came out on Mercy House Books and Collective Copies (our local, independent print shop-turned-book-publisher.) Almost right way I’d wanted to make the book an ebook to cut costs to consumers. But I got sidetracked by having a second child and that music career thing. Some other stuff happened (another book, another couple of CDs and a DVD, kindergarten, Suzuki violin) and so it’s taken me till now to finish my last edits. On Wednesday the book went to my editor, who says she can have it back to me by mid-May. I am hoping for an early June release. There will be an ebook version and also a new hard copy (paperback) version. I also plan to post excerpts weekly right here, so stay tuned.

It’s been hard to be quiet, to be away from this blog while I hustled to get my book done. So much has happened this spring, this week, this month. It feels wrong not to write about Boston, about the bruises we all feel. As with Sandy Hook, the bombing felt too close, almost, to even talk about. It shakes us, leaves us unmoored to see how very close the gap is between self and other, when something like this happens so close to home. Some of can and do, like the wonderful Anne Lamott); some of us would rather deflect our grief elsewhere. I’ve felt myself welling up over my kids’ rapid growth spurts, probably to not have to think about the sweet 8-year-old whose front teeth were just growing in, whose face smiled out at me in digital images wherever I turned last week. Every April, I gird myself mid-month for something like this to happen (why? I wrote about that here in 2011.) Life is expensive, and April is all about the big gamble that is birth. Birth comes at a cost. Life is risky. Easter and Passover both remind us of this paradox, as does Stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring.”

One of the sobering things about revising my book is to see how far I’ve strayed from those ideals of my early 20s which somehow lasted through my early forties. Maybe it was because I was in a rock band, and then a touring folkie, and a denizen of Northampton and a latecomer to motherhood, but I hung on to my vision of being a downwardly mobile artist who lived outside the system for a good long time. Re-reading my own book has made me wistful for that lifestyle where I could spend 80% of my income on Whole Foods and not worry about saving for my kids’ college education, let alone buying them a new plastic gizmo every time they filled a marble jar for good behavior. As I look around my crowded and cluttered house, full of no=longer-used toys, I wonder, how did I get here? As I set up my laptop on the dining room table so the whole family could gather round to see Annie’s Story of Stuff, I was horrified by how many of her wonderful examples applied to me, how fully I have become the consumer at the center of her linear march of doom. She parses the journey from Extraction to Production to Distribution to Consumption to Disposal. There’s a Golden Arrow between the train cars of Distribution and Consumption, (which is the nexus Victor Lebow talks about in the quotation above.) That Golden Arrow is increasingly where I find myself these days. I buy a new iPhone every time my contract is up. I have twenty-five shoulder bags up in the attic. Every couple of years I “need” a new bag. Most ironically, I lust for a new Prius. My eyes follow my neighbors’ curvy little cars all over town. My kids, whom I’ve roped into my campaign, can spot them by ear, now and squeal every time they see OR hear one. I say it’s because of the gas mileage, and I reason that to get one would be good for the environment. But the truth is, even though Tom’s truck gets about 8 miles to the gallon, he bikes to work every day and drives the truck at most couple times a week, and just for short distances. Which would use more resources? To keep on as we are, or to buy a whole new vehicle?

The day after the bombing, we had been scheduled to go to Cambridge with our kids. We were going to ride the T and see the ducks and the swan boat in the public garden. Instead, we went to the dinosaur museum in Amherst and rode our bikes on the bike path and had our cousins over for a campfire complete with marshmallows and singing and the spring’s first case of poison ivy. As the moon rose and the sun set, I pulled out my guitar and we all sang “Hey Jude,” the older kids huddled together in my soft guitar case, and four-year-old Jay playing along on his collection of tambourines and wooden blocks. We sang a few songs, but the kids wanted “Hey Jude” again. Paul McCartney’s song of comfort to his young friend Julian Lennon on the occasion of his parents’ divorcing reached easily through the decades and comforted us, as we channeled it through guitar and voices (and tambourines. And really loud screeches).

Our happiness as a nation has diminished since 1955, says Annie somewhere in the middle of the Story of Stuff, because even though we now have way more stuff than we used to have, we don’t have the time to use it. We don’t sit around and talk to our neighbors, laugh around the kitchen table, jam around the campfire. But last Tuesday, we did. The smoke rose and so did our voices, filling the space between birth and death, between you and me, between known and unknown. In the face of Boston, in the aftermath of Earth Day and my own and our collective shame at the state of the world, it can be hard to keep on hoping for a better world. In my own little microcosm, it can be hard to believe that my poor old body can ever get straightened out again; it’s been hunched over keyboards, guitars and babies for way too long. But what is the alternative? William Sloane Coffin says hope is “a matter of the soul, not about the circumstances of one’s life.” It’s all about that light in the darkness. The darkness is so much more vast than that wee little light. But all one needs to see a little is a wee little light. So I will go back to my yoga, my boring daily stretches. I will go back to circling the house before bed to make sure all electrical appliances are unplugged and taking their own rest. I will restrain my consumer impulses. And I won’t forget to pick up my guitar when I start to lose hope. Better yet, I’ll find some under-20s and sing with them.

The Comments

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  1. Great reminders. I have cut back on stuff with having less money to acquire it, but still have a lot around. I hate throwing things out because it seems wasteful so unless I can repurpose, recycle, or rehome, it sticks around.

    If you haven’t before, check out a book by Bill McKibben called Deep Economy. Wonderful and inspiring read about how we can shift to local, sustainable economies for good growth and less emphasis on consumerism.

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