Doing poverty well: How to actually deal with clutter

I’ve run across at least a dozen blogger responses to Marie Kondo’s new Netflix series on fighting clutter for a less stressful lifestyle. Several of these have already pointed out that the show is deeply classist.

I’m not going to belabor the point. It is. Getting rid of everything you haven’t used recently and assuming you can just buy one later if you need it is a choice only viable for the economically privileged. Berating people who don’t currently have or recently didn’t have that privilege for “clutter” is classist. And environmentally unsustainable to boot.

These are the shelves directly on my bed and they combine active bookshelf with cosmetics and jewelry stations, spiritual practice supplies and things I really need to hide from my children. - Image by Arie Farnam

These are the shelves directly on my bed and they combine active bookshelf with cosmetics and jewelry stations, spiritual practice supplies and things I really need to hide from my children. - Image by Arie Farnam

I’m sure the show and its advice is helpful to some. There are people who senselessly horde or acquire stuff without planning or a focus on reusing and upcycling. There probably are middle class people who have a lot of junk they really legitimately don’t need and will never use. The show may well be helpful to them and might result in less stress in their lives.

That’s a good thing and if there was any indication of compassion or understanding that we don’t all have this luxury, I wouldn’t be even mildly irritated at the show. It’s the support of the bubble of privileged comfort that some in the western middle class, which is actually in the top one percent of the world’s wealthiest people, dwell within that bothers me and a few other bloggers. The show doesn’t mention that it is only designed for a very select group, because some in that group don’t feel comfortable when they are reminded of their privileged status in the world. It’s just a thing you don’t say if you want their approval ratings..

The show irritates those of us who stumble across it, but don’t fit into its demographic. And yes, some of us have a broad definition of the word “family” when it comes to both the dinner table and Netflix family passwords and thus some of us occasionally have Netflix.

But I digress. This post isn’t so much about the show as it is about solutions for the rest of us.

You see, clutter is a problem for those with modest means. In fact, it is likely to be a bigger problem for us than it is for the middle class.

First, let me define “us.”

Some will rightly complain that I’m not “poor enough” to talk about doing poverty well. I live a reasonably comfortable lifestyle after all. My children have never gone to bed hungry, except for those couple of nights when they went on strike from regular food in a desperate bid to force a one-hundred-percent noodle, ketchup and candy diet that simply didn’t pan out with Mama bear in the kitchen. So what am I complaining about?

I’m not. Complaining, that is.

My family lives well below the US poverty line in a middling Eastern European country, where we’re actually pretty middle class. I grew up more genuinely poor and in my twenties I went through some winters where cabbage and potatoes were really all I could afford. But my point isn’t to bemoan “poverty.” I, in fact, hold that if most of the world lived close to our consumption level, we could be environmentally sustainable and comfortable enough.

My goal isn’t to become wealthier but rather to live better with what we have. And dealing with clutter is part of that. My solutions are just different from Marie Kondo’s.

When you live close to or below what has been arbitrarily (but in this case handily) designated as the US poverty line, you are in a situation where you can usually buy one small item that you need at a time or save up for a larger item, but you can’t simply acquire what you need when you need it. If you have lived this way for long, it is unlikely you “throw away” anything that isn’t actually useless. You most likely have a running mental list of those who could use, recycle, upcycle or re-enliven something you no longer want.

This is my office and writing nook. Shelves hold reference materials, taxes and official documents, daily office supplies, electronics parts, paper, tea pot and a few display books. There is a fold-out table that hides my ESL teaching center and doors on the bottom cover the household herbal pharmacy and herbalist supplies. - Image by Arie Farnam

This is my office and writing nook. Shelves hold reference materials, taxes and official documents, daily office supplies, electronics parts, paper, tea pot and a few display books. There is a fold-out table that hides my ESL teaching center and doors on the bottom cover the household herbal pharmacy and herbalist supplies. - Image by Arie Farnam

You may well store a lot of things that you don’t need immediately. Your first thought when finding an odd castoff mechanical part is more likely to be, “I wonder what this could be useful for?” than “Why is this old thing still around?” You plan and save and put together what you need.

And there’s another thing. Your entertainment is more likely to be self-made. You don’t go on distant vacations. If you go on vacation, it usually requires a lot of stuff—like tents, sleeping bags, cooking equipment and so forth. And if you don’t go on vacations, you have other interests, many of which entail making things, which requires supplies and equipment.

Your job likely also requires supplies. You likely fix clothing, cars, furniture and other things when they are broken rather than throwing them out, which means your home may well have the necessities for sewing, auto work and carpentry. You are actually more likely than the middle class to own your own cement mixer, sewing machine, towing cables or power saw. I own all four. Lacking a home of your own, you may not own these things, but you very likely own a sewing kit and a set of tools, no matter how makeshift.

And all these things are clutter when piled up into a small home, apartment, car, backpack or whatever you live out of.

Does that mean you should take Marie Kondo’s advice and get rid of anything you haven’t used recently and then every object that does not give you joy. The toilet plunger would be top of the list for me… and how would that go?

The worn-out clothes I garden in aren’t comfy old favorites. They are very specifically, clothes I hate that I expect will be torn and dirty beyond repair in a rough season or two. My cracked mismatched dishes don’t bring me joy. The set of nice dishes brought out only for holidays and adult company do. And the reason they are still nice and joyful is that we don’t use them for everyday.

Nope. That method isn’t going to work for dealing with our clutter.

This is a topic near and dear to my heart. I live in a small, compact house. There isn’t an inch of space that isn’t in planful use. I run a business out of my home that requires me to meet clients in my home daily. My home has to be neat and tidy. Local social norms require it for such a business. Beyond that, I’m ninety percent blind and a pile of junk is truly a problem for me to wade through. Things need to have places.

But all the above still applies. I cook all of my family’s meals from scratch because instant food that won’t kill you is expensive. Thus I have a fully stocked kitchen and a jam-packed pantry. I also have a vegetable garden and that means I have a shed full of tools and supplies, window sills full of seedlings and a cellar and freezers full of produce.

My business requires extensive teaching supplies. I also have kids and they have stuff. We live hours from the nearest English-language library, so we have our own library shelves, particularly full of children’s books. Modern technology has meant some slimming of our bookshelves, DVDs and CDs but subscription services cost money and reference books get used a lot around here.

Beyond that, there is my mental health. Like most people in my situation, I don’t have relaxing vacations or spa treatments or even weekends away. I have interests instead. I study medicinal herbs and recently I’ve taken up candle and soap making. These also require stuff—materials, supplies and storage space.

So it goes for many of us. I go through my pantry regularly from top to bottom every six months and reorganize a bit every month or two. I am always weeding through clothing hordes, swapping out tattered and laundry-shrunken clothes for clothes from the hand-me-down network or bought at an amazing second-hand shop we hit on a trip two years ago that finally fit my kids.

This is my ESL teaching center. The messiest paper part is covered by this fold-out table which can be lowered to accommodate students or paperwork as necessary. - Image by Arie Farnam

This is my ESL teaching center. The messiest paper part is covered by this fold-out table which can be lowered to accommodate students or paperwork as necessary. - Image by Arie Farnam

My kids each have a few drawers for the clothes currently in use. There are are also three bins in their closets that contain clothes. The lowest, easiest-to-reach bin contains still-useful, only mildly tattered clothes that are too small for my kids. These are fed back into our hand-me-down network on a regular basis. The second bin contains off-season clothes—winter clothes in summer, summer clothes in winter. The final bin contains the hoard of clothes that don’t yet fit my kids. Most of these are a year or two from fitting but a few particularly nice bits are being hoarded for a distant future.

That’s how I handle clutter. Or at least it’s one example.

Mostly handling clutter well when you live the way I do means organization, labeling and taking periodic inventory..

I have bins for tools, wire, glue, rope, rubber bands, nails, small boxes, plastic bags, art supplies and plenty of other categories. The skeptical will inevitably remark that there is a lot there that we will never actually use. It’s true that about a third of it eventually gets cycled out when its usefulness is determined to have been overestimated. But all of these things are things acquired free, extremely cheaply or by mistake, as everyone sometimes acquires things. We don’t seek them out but when they come in, if they might be useful, we store them rather than fill the landfill.

Once I observed a middle-class American doing an art project and gaped in surprise at the clean-up, which was apparently routine. Not only were the drop clothes not washed and hung to dry. They were simply bundled with all the scrap material inside and tossed into the garbage can—unused paints, barely opened glue tubes, brushes and all. In my world, only a few stray scraps would have ended up in the garbage, and even then only if they couldn’t conceivably become confetti, decoration for children’s projects or… fire starter.

Yup, there’s a bin for tinder as well, containing candle drippings, soiled wax baking paper, nutshells and paper scraps free enough of chemicals to be deemed compost-safe once burned.

The crucial thing is to be able to find what you need when you eventually do need it. That’s where storage systems, labels and bins come in. Last year, I had what is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in my class. I got to design my own work space and actually see it built. The photos in this post are from my new space, which features many small shelves and storage compartments. Some of the storage has doors to cover it. But much of it does not, in order to allow quick and handy access.

These are my teaching supplies for both homeschooling and my ESL classes for children. Some bins have been labeled with Norse Runes because of a memorization project I was doing. They ended up coming in handy keeping children out of bins they shouldn’t be dumping out.

These are my teaching supplies for both homeschooling and my ESL classes for children. Some bins have been labeled with Norse Runes because of a memorization project I was doing. They ended up coming in handy keeping children out of bins they shouldn’t be dumping out.

I learned valuable organizational principles during this process and here is my advice to rival Marie Kondo’s.

Before you shop, always take inventory and organize:

  • Categorize items by type and label clearly.

  • Store categories near where they are most used. Have at most two places where the same category is stored. (Glue may be in the wood shop as well as the office.)

  • If an item has a single use only, store it with the items used with it rather than with it’s type. (Gardening sheers are stored with gardening things, not with scissors.)

  • Use up one package or container of a material as much as possible before opening another, even if it isn’t convenient. Recycle or re-purpose the packaging.

  • Be creative in finding storage space. Not everything must be stored in heated rooms of your home. Building raised beds or hollow kitchen benches with lids for seats will often dramatically increase your storage space. If you are able to build your own shelves, carefully plan out what you need to store where and plan the depth, width and height of shelves with the storage containers you have and are likely to have in the future in mind.

  • While building a separate pantry or walk-in closet may seem like it significantly shrinks your living space, if you can line it with shelves and store what you need inside it, it will significantly decrease clutter and increase the usability of the space you have.

  • Designate a storage space for repourposed materials like boxes, bags, building scraps and paper supplies. Containers which the given material won’t quickly overflow out of are ideal. When space is limited, consider carefully the storage needs of given materials. Paper boxes must be kept in a dry place, but heat and cold don’t matter. Cans of paint can tolerate occasional moister but cannot tolerate great differences in temperature or any frost. Some materials, like cloth, are susceptible to pests.

This is half of my herbal pharmacy which is normally covered by doors. - image by Arie Farnam

This is half of my herbal pharmacy which is normally covered by doors. - image by Arie Farnam

Getting rid of things you don’t need

  • Certain types of supplies tend to accumulate more quickly than others. Cardboard boxes and water-proof bags (usually plastic up until recently) are essential for many activities and expensive to buy when needed. They can accumulate quickly, depending on your activities. Keep a supply of a dozen smaller boxes and several larger boxes. Keep a plastic bag full of plastic bags of similar size. If you have more than that and don’t need them for a specific reason, recycle those that are getting tattered.

  • Keep spare parts together. If you really have the skills to use a spare part to fix something later, it is okay to keep spare parts which are in good condition. Recycle parts that are damaged or which you would not be able to use given your skills and tools.

  • Fix broken tools when possible. If it is not possible to fix a tool, it is best to separate it into materials to be recycled.

  • Store craft, cooking and gardening supplies well, usually in air-tight containers. Don’t throw out half-full packages unless the contents are damaged. If the packaging is damaged, repackage and store for later use. If the material itself is damaged, dried up or spoiled, dispose of it in the most conservationist way possible.

  • The hierarchy of disposal should be: 1. Repair/reuse/repurpose, 2. Channel to those who can repair, reuse or repurpose in your network, 3. Give to charity, 4. Use as or give to others for animal feed, 5. Use as compost, mulch or construction material, 6. Burn as fuel, 7. Breakdown and recycle, 8. Landfill. An item that you don’t need or can’t use starts at the top of the hierarchy. You assess its possibilities for usefulness and put it in the first category in which it can be truly useful.

  • The upper part of the hierarchy is focused on disposal which will benefit someone else. Some of this may be actual charity. Much of it is not charity at all. One of the key elements of doing poverty well is to have a hand-me-down network, and hand-me-downs are not all clothes by far. Lettuce scraps are a welcome hand-me-down to a chicken owner or gardener.

  • There is often not a direct return of the favor but those who give into such a network also receive when others have a surplus or an unneeded-but-still-useful item. I calculate that about 30 percent of my family’s food supply comes free or very cheaply from our network and it is all top quality organic products. This is one of the main reasons I can claim to live quite well below the US poverty line. As a result, not a day goes by when I don’t find myself considering if an item or materials I need to dispose of could be used by someone else in my network.

  • The other methods in the disposal hierarchy get as much residual use out of materials as possible and minimize both the costs of acquiring other materials and the harm to the environment. There is a stereotype that poor people don’t care about environmental issues. Sometimes people have been misled to misunderstand what “environmentalism” means, but people of modest means are also more vulnerable to ecological disruption, whether we are urban or rural dwellers. In the same way that you feed and protect your hand-me-down network for your own benefit, it is in your interests to nourish and protect your environment.

Restocking

  • When you live with modest means, it is good to be on the look-out for items or materials that you may need in the future that are being offered free or extremely cheaply. Stocking this way is an imperfect science or even an art. You will inevitably misjudge some things and end up storing something you will never need. The most important consideration is making sure that getting rid of something will not be an undue burden before you acquire it. Secondly, think of where you will store it while you are considering acquiring something. And finally, make sure there is actually a reasonable likelihood you’ll need what you’re acquiring. Ideally you’ll turn down far more than you bring in.

  • Each person’s needs are quite different. If your job requires you to dress in an expensive fashion, you may have to store a fair amount of clothing to make it work. This is different than simply hording clothes for fun, although that can be a hobby for some. Inventory and reassessment still applies, unless you consider this a hobby.

  • When new disposable items come in, place them UNDER or BEHIND older or half-used equivalents and use the older and half-used equivalents first. (If you acquire new tape very cheaply before your supply has run out, do not place it on top of the old supply.)

  • Some people will become so good at this that they will become a network hub and acquire things they don’t personally need in order to feed them into their network. As with many other parts of this barter economy, there is a fuzzy line between the skilled networker and the out-of-control pack rat. The difference will be in both organization and generosity.

I hope my experience may be helpful, whether you are voluntarily or involuntarily living on modest means. These are some of the ways to both contain clutter and organize materials to be both sustainable and useful.

Best wishes to all!

When "no politics" isn't neutral

Imagine if a miraculous alien was suddenly transported into our polite, neighborly conversations, to our dinner tables or into our schools, workplaces and places of faith. The alien is miraculous because it can speak English perfectly and can physically participate in our activities without much difference.

The alien wishes to be polite and diplomatic, so it observes table manners and learns to say "please" and "thank you," but its understanding of social niceties is limited. Imagine then that you are appointed as a cultural ambassador charged with guiding the guest through our world.

And because it is 2018, people ask you to above all else avoid involving the alien in the contentious politics of the times. We want to give the alien a good impression of earth's development and human society after all. 

But unfortunately for you, the alien is very observant. First, you offer the alien something to eat and the alien asks what the dish served is. 

Creative Commons image by Fibonacci Blu

Creative Commons image by Fibonacci Blu

"Chicken," you reply.

"Ah, an animal," the alien says, tasting politely. "You humans eat these animals. It's the way your world works."

"Many people eat only plants," you say, feeling a bit uncomfortable. The other guests at dinner also look disturbed. "Would you prefer something vegetarian?"

And someone mutters. "Getting political already." 

The alien raises its equivalent of an eyebrow at you. "Oh, do some humans think it is better to eat plants than animals? Did you ask the plants how they feel about it?"

Someone mentions factory farming and the alien checks its research about earth.

"Oh dear, you're quite right," it remarks. "Factory farming is one of the things killing your planet. Those greenhouse emissions are causing wild fluctuations in your atmosphere. If you don't stop this type of agriculture and your use of fossil fuels, you'll be hard pressed to grow any food in a few decades. I hope those of you here are among the humans who don't contribute to such devastation."

Everyone stares at the alien and then down at their plates. The politicization of lunch isn't welcome.

After lunch you are ready to show the alien around. You go out to get into your car but the alien stops, staring at the vehicle. "Is there no other way to get there? Can't we walk or take one of your trains? This vehicle is contributing to the devastation of your planet."

The rest of the human delegation grumbles. More politics. 

Somehow you persuade the alien to get into the car and you drive to a local high school. At this point the alien needs to go to the bathroom. They do that on their planet too, apparently. So you take the alien to the restrooms. But of course, there are two restrooms. 

"Can I just use whichever one I want?" the alien asks. 

"No!" you reach out a hand urgently to stop the alien. It is your job to keep the alien out of controversy after all and this is a school. There are few places where people are more concerned about gender separation at the toilet bowl. You explain about human gender, a bit about reproduction and that the bathrooms are segregated.

"Oh dear," the alien mutters. "Do you do reproduction in restrooms? Is it necessary to keep the young ones apart to prevent premature reproduction?"

"No no," you explain. "It just makes humans uncomfortable to share a restroom with the opposite gender. So, which are you? Female or male? Do  you... er... grow the babies or fertilize the babies on your world?"

"Both," the alien replies. "We are a species with both of those parts in one individual."

It's hopelessly political to get your alien to the toilet, but you manage it (possibly by clearing everyone out of one of the bathrooms and declaring it temporarily genderfree). 

The alien then follows you into a classroom and sits quietly for a while, listening to the teacher talk about the ten most important authors of the past century. When the teacher opens the class up for questions, the alien raises its hand (or equivalent appendage) and asks how the teacher determined that those were the most important authors of the previous century. 

The teacher points to history books, popularity, cultural impacts and the wealth and fame of the authors. She is proud to point out that the list of ten authors includes one author of color and two women. 

"But I just learned that your female gender makes up half of the population. Are they mostly too busy growing babies to write?" the alien asks innocently. 

The teacher explains about historical inequalities and claims that we are now much more equal. She lists several more well-known female authors, though the alien is confused about why half of them use male pen names. 

Then the alien asks why only one of the authors on the list is a person of color. The teacher tries the same method of explanation, but the alien stops her. "The vast majority of your planet is populated by people of color. Surely, they wrote things, even if you didn't know about it at the time."

The teacher explains about borders and nations and says that while she didn't actually say it, she meant this was a list of the most important authors from your country and... er... well, your allies, which are mostly white.

"Is this why you put so much of your resources into war and killing the humans on other parts of your planet?" the alien asks. 

The teacher glares at you and the alien and states sternly that this is a discussion of literature, not politics, and you need to take your political rants elsewhere. 

You leave school and head toward your workplace. On the way, the alien seeks to clarify its understanding. "These divisions are very important on your planet, I see. You divide people up into two genders and you have all these lines on the ground that divide people and it is very important what color your epidermis is. Why is this? Do different kinds of humans need very different things or have very different abilities?"

"No," you admit. "We don't. But people used to think that we were very different. We now know that we aren't. But some of the divisions remain."

"Even you were concerned about which restroom I should use," the alien says. "So you have not abandoned the divisions."

"That's true," you say. "I was trying not to get political."

"So, keeping one gender out of the other restroom is not political?" the alien asks. "And keeping hungry and endangered humans on the other side of a border is not political and letting them in would be? Bombing other humans is not political but talking about it is? Killing and eating either plants or animals isn't political but talking about it is? And killing your planet isn't political, but mentioning it is?"

"Yes, you're getting the idea," you sigh, already exhausted. 

"You humans don't like it when something is about power or politics. I can tell that," the alien says. "I really want to be polite. How can I avoid political topics when it seems like they crop up everywhere?" 

"You probably should avoid criticizing what we do," you mention hopefully.

The alien nods. This is good diplomatic advice.

At your workplace, you show the alien how the company you work for functions, all of the different jobs and you get into economics and how people work for money in order to then buy those things they need to survive.

The alien is quiet during a lot of this. Finally, it nods and does its equivalent of a smile. "I think I see now. You divide people into these groups by color and nation and gender, so that you know that mostly brown humans should do the hard jobs that get paid very little. Then they can pay to live in places that are broken, polluted and unsafe and eat food treated with chemicals that are destroying your planet. Some paler humans are also doing these hard jobs and living in these unsafe areas too and that causes a lot of strife. I can see now why you try to pay attention to the divisions."

Your colleagues stare at the alien with open-mouthed shock.

The alien continues. "I see that the pale females can do very busy jobs that get paid a bit more than the hard jobs. They are also close to the pale males, so that they can provide pleasure to the males.. Mostly the pale males make much more money and they do jobs that you feel are very important, but they mostly consist of sitting and telling the brown and female humans what to do."

Your superior who asked you to keep the alien out of politics gives you a meaningful glower.

You gently take the alien by something like a shoulder and move away from your colleagues. "I told you not to criticize us," you say with some irritation.

"I wasn't criticizing," the alien says, with a bewildered look in it's ocular nodes. "I was just checking to see that I understand these important realities of your world. I wouldn't want to wander into the wrong restroom or job."

"All right, whatever," you say. "Let's go someplace even you can't make political." 

You take the alien to your community of faith. You belong to a spiritual path that is very tolerant, open-minded and apolitical. Surely, the alien can't find anything to criticize here. 

You walk in and you are greeted by many different kinds of people. Everyone is friendly and loves meeting the alien. They all exchange pleasantries. It's true that mostly the white people are in the center of the room, talking loudly. People of color are there though. They are happy and fairly quiet. The leadership is shared between women and men. The female spiritual leader even does a lot of the talking, while the male leader sits, looking dignified. 

The only person who cannot come in is your friend who uses a wheelchair, but several of the people in your faith community visit him at home. And there is a blind woman who sits at the back of the space. She is included by being there and she is well liked because she mostly smiles quietly.

You listen to an uplifting service about divine love and acceptance, about hope and reassurance for your purpose in life. What a relief! You are glad you came. 

You look around to see how your alien friend liked this apolitical inspiration. The alien is doing the equivalent of putting its head in its hands and sobbing. 

"I thought you said you didn't like being political!" the alien cries.

"This wasn't political. It wasn't about who is in power and who isn't," you explain. "This is a place where we find hope and peace." 

"You find hope by continuing to destroy your planet at an alarming rate without mentioning it? You find peace by enforcing silence about the divisions and inequities in your daily lives?" The alien looks utterly confused. "This is all about power and politics."

---

There are infinite variations of what might happen in that scenario with the miraculous alien. But the bottom line is that what we consider to be political is all about who and what has the power to destroy or gain in our world. That is the heart of politics. 

To stay silent on the most pressing issues of today, the divisions, injustices and destruction in our world is a brazenly political act. It is an open declaration of support for the existing divisions and the ongoing injustices and destruction. 

Many institutions and groups today say they want members to refrain from bringing politics into the group or activity to avoid strife. Whether this is done in a community of faith, a school or other institution or a commercial enterprise, it is not politically neutral. Instead it is a declaration of a political position protecting the status quo. 

Due to toxic rhetoric and events, many of us are exhausted. And this leads to many well-meaning calls for certain spaces to be apolitical, places where injustice, race-relations, environmental problems, human rights issues and war won't be discussed. These topics are stressful and painful for a lot of us.

The problem is that silence is not "neutral." And in fact there is often no "neutral." When the lives of vulnerable refugees, black boys on the streets or any other people are at stake and one side is engaged in killing them and another side is trying to stop the killing, there is no such thing as "neutral." You either defend those being harmed or you are supporting the injustice.

Likewise when one group is being publicly maligned and trashed because of characteristics they could not choose for themselves and that group is either absent or not strong enough to respond, there are no bystanders. 

There is no neutral. If I do not speak up I become part of the bullying and so I have sometimes spoken up in spaces declared apolitical because to remain silent would be a political act. 

Manifesto of a plastic bag washer

There are things that come naturally to me: turning off the water while I soap up my hands; saving a leftover potato to make dough, hording empty pickle jars, separating recycling from compost; making old clothes into washrags or drying ziplock bags. These seem to have always been habit.

I didn't grow up during the Depression, as some of my friends like to joke. I did grow up poor, but it was an odd kind of poverty. Some call it "voluntary poverty."

Technically, my parents could have pursued more prestigious careers earlier. We had a few good toys--legos and sleds--and the great wealth of a natural playground just beyond the door of our scrap-wood shack in Northeastern Oregon. But we also had old, faded clothes, socks that always fell down into the toes of our boots, nothing that matched, healthy homemade lunches or free school lunches and a TV twenty years out of date (when we had one at all). 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

Living that way voluntarily is something quickly ridiculed today. I've heard it on-line, read it in popular new books, seen it in movies and recently gotten it from two fairly close friends. Voluntarily living modestly is considered naive, hypocritical and just plain stupid. 

The pressure is on in our society to get the most high-paying job possible, to pursue a major career and to use material bounty to keep you sane in the rat race.

I can hear the "buts" already and there is some literary and social lip service paid to frugality and "the simple things in life." However, those things fly out the window when it comes to a discussion of saving for your health care or your children's educations in the United Sates. If you don't have a near or above average income, that level of saving isn't realistic. And the excuse that you didn't save hundreds of thousands of dollars because you were living modestly and working at consuming less--which precludes high-powered careers with expensive clothing, classy social obligations and extensive travel and commutes--will get you exactly nowhere. 

I have the utmost respect for people who have worked their way out of poverty and don't want to ever go back. Immigrants, refugees and other disadvantaged people often work hard and focus on a career at the expense of everything else in order to gain a secure material life. To many people who came from poverty, the idea that those with the education and privilege to live a middle-class or wealthy lifestyle today might elect to live with less must appear ludicrous and, yes, hypocritical. 

And yet we know that it is not reasonable or sustainable for most of us (let alone all of us) to live the high-consumption lifestyle of today's western wealthy and middle classes. Environmental crises grow year upon year, setting new standards for a dismal new normal like clockwork.

The polar bears were threatened. Now they are simply dying. In a few short years, they will be gone. Hurricanes, droughts, desertification and wildfires set new records each year and claim more lives and more livelihoods. On the one hand, we know it cannot work for all of us to consume at the levels some of us have become accustomed to.

But acquaintances recently ribbed me for washing and reusing ziplock bags. Some because glass jars are a better way to keep food in recycled containers, others because they think one should just buy new bags. Both groups are wealthier than me, have greater storage space and don't store many leftovers in the first place. They can chuckle all they want. 

A friend of mine described how his partner insists on throwing out pasta that spilled onto the counter, not because it is dirty or contaminated but because it is a "poverty mindset" to spend time carefully picking something like pasta up. And I'm not even getting into all the people who refuse to eat leftovers or habitually buy new clothes simply because they have worn an outfit the requisite three times. 

Often the reason given is not even a desire for comfort, but an insistence that living lavishly is a matter of self respect, proof that one is not living in poverty. 

I have not appreciably drug myself out of poverty. I grew up in a family with very little monetary income. I pursued the work I loved and made ends meet but little more. Today my family lives modestly and does it well. We wear second-hand clothes more often than not. My children get new clothes when the old ones get too small. I get new clothes when the professional clothes get downgraded to gardening clothes and the gardening clothes fall apart.

And I still wash plastic bags, just like my mother did. I have no intention of stopping so long as plastic bags continue to invade my kitchen. I'd love to have shelves full of healthy and expensive glass storage containers and I agree that plastic bags are a modern evil, even when reused, but living well with less entails compromises.

I think there is special jargon for this in ecological circles and I do care about the environment, other living beings and the earth a great deal. But I am not doing these things to make a statement, to prove a point or even to make my own little impact on the environment better.

I do these things because not to do them feels wrong. To waste resources feels unwise and unethical. For a few years, when I lived in an Eastern European city without recycling or any place to put compost, I was forced not to separate garbage and it made me feel unwashed. 

Even if it doesn't matter whether we let the faucet run here and now because the local community has plenty of clean water, I can't abide it. The habit is wrong. The modeling for children is wrong. There is always reason to conserve, to reduce consumption and to live well with less. 

Those who belittle this may not understand. But it is my self respect that matters to me.

Clash: Conversation between the wealthy and the poor at the dawn of a new class war

I love cultural experiences and I've joined a lot of different groups in order to understand different perspectives.

Recently I had a conversation with a group of wealthy intellectuals who I had come to know and enjoy, though their culture is quite different from mine. Yet in this case the clash of cultures and understanding proved too great for much accord and the divide worries me. 

Creative Commons image by Hamza Butt (

Creative Commons image by Hamza Butt (

I will not use names or other identifiers here because the point is not to call anyone out but rather to show a crucial gap of understanding that is developing in our society, due to different groups living inside social bubbles of their own race and class. Because in this particular conversation there was little or no variation between members of the group, I will use an agglomeration of real statements to both shorten and clarify the discussion.

As such, this is a recreation of a lengthy discussion I had with a group that is essentially a foreign culture to me. We are all either Americans or Western Europeans. We are all intellectuals and significantly educated. Most of the group previously had expressed support for the US Democratic Party and/or liberal-leaning views. So we share a great deal, yet I was an exception in the group because I am not of the same economic class. 

I will call one side in this discussion Wealthy Liberal Intellectual (WLI) and the other side Scraping-by Progressive Intellectual (SPI) to illustrate where the divide is, although I was the only person in the latter group at this time. 

Here is how the discussion went:

WLI: Trump's attack on health care is unfortunate. We should be compassionate on health care. However, I doubt the media reports about people in the US being denied essential health care before the ACA are entirely true.  I have certainly never encountered a real person who was denied essential health care in the United States.

SPI: You may not have previously encountered a person who was denied essential health care, but now you have.. I can give you several specific examples in as much detail as you would like. About ten years ago, for instance, I was injured in a fall in the US. My shoulder was partially dislocated, two ribs were broken and one punctured my lung and the lung collapsed 10 percent. I was driven to an emergency room and eventually had an X-ray that showed these issues. I was given a sling and proscribed pain killers. This cost was $3,000. I couldn't pay all of it right away and some was paid for by an emergency fund. However, I was not kept in the hospital for observation. My shoulder was also not repaired but left to heal badly and crooked in a way that causes permanent deformity, pain and weakness in that shoulder. When I later sought advice for the pain from doctors in Europe, I was told that A. the shoulder needed to be operated on immediately to prevent long-term harm and B. the lung issue was life threatening at the time and I was lucky to have survived without adequate medical care. Those interventions would have been extremely expensive and they were beyond what I could pay at the time. I was told that my lung was in a dangerous condition and that I should probably stay in a hospital overnight, however, it would take months to find out if an emergency fund would cover it and I would have to risk putting my family in serious debt to stay. I was not informed at all about the need for an operation to my shoulder. I can give other examples from just my own life and that of my nearest family and friends. This is the reality of the majority of people in the United States before the ACA.

WLI: I'm sorry that you feel life has served you so poorly. You were given health care. You probably shouldn't be complaining about it. And as you can see there was an emergency fund. that you benefited from.

SPI: I didn't say life had served me poorly and I am not complaining. I'm merely presenting the facts of a case. According to medical doctors in Europe this did not constitute "essential emergency medical care." It resulted in long-term harm and deformity. My shoulder is still not the right shape and it never will be because the surgery cannot be done once the injury has healed poorly. There was a very small and inadequate emergency fund. These are simply facts. I have been very fortunate that I did not have much worse complications. In fact, I was fortunate to live and not lose the rest of my sight due to that particular accident. I am also fortunate to have access to European health care, something most Americans don't have. Far from saying life served me poorly, I'm saying I am one of the lucky ones who survived this disastrous system. These problems affected at least half the US population and still affect some. It is immeasurably worse for families with serious and chronic illnesses, such as cancer. 

WLI: This is, if anything, an isolated case. I wonder what you're trying to prove and why it is so important to you to go on about this.

SPI: I read your statement saying that you had not encountered a real person in this kind of situation. I wanted to give you this information and experience outside of your previous experience, because it is the experience of a great many people in the United States.

WLI: Many people still come to the US for health care from countries that have universal health care. Many of our members live in countries, like the UK or Canada, with universal health care. There are major problems there and the United States is still the world leader in medical technology. We would not be able to provide this technology if it didn't offer significant profits. 

SPI: I have experience in a country with universal health care as well, in the Czech Republic, which is not even a particularly wealthy country. I'll admit that health buildings here are often a bit spartan and hospital rooms can be small or if they are large they are shared by multiple patients. But the quality of actual care both in terms of human care and technology is sate of the art. Last winter I had high-risk eye operation to save my residual sight. There have only been about 500 similar operations in the whole world and it is one which requires very specialized technology and a precisely skilled surgeon. 

WLI: You should respect the experience of those who know more than one system. I have heard of there being long wait times for critical procedures in some countries with universal health care. I wouldn't want to give up the benefits of the American system.

SPI: You dismiss any facts I present. When you won't look at specific cases, it is no wonder you haven't noticed any person who was denied health care in the US. Ignoring the facts and continuing to promote this system, when you have said you are for human rights... It's disgusting. It is a life and death issue for a great many people. I have experience with more than one system, in the US, in the Czech Republic and in Germany, even in Zimbabwe and Ecuador. Why is my experience invalid compared with the experience of others? And can you give any specific examples of problems in countries with universal health care? I have never encountered long wait times in countries with universal health care, except for transplants which always entail a wait. 

WLI: You need to apologize. You just won't listen and you want everyone to feel sorry for you. I don't see why we can't all contribute to society, why you seem to think some people should get everything for free. 

SPI: I think it is important to gain experience from beyond your own circle of friends and your own bubble of experience. This is why I'm presenting these facts. I can give details and other cases if that would help. 

WLI: You just honestly don't get it, do you? The group feels you need a time out. 

SPI: I have been considering leaving this group. I have noticed in the past that this group is very dismissive when I post about climate change, even though you claim to be concerned about these types of issues. However, I enjoy other parts of this group and I like to know people from beyond my usual circle as well.

WLI: I have no doubt that our children will have it easier than we do, just as we have it easier than our grandparents did. That really isn't an issue worth worrying about.

SPI: Climate change is already having a devastating impact. You are intelligent and you have seen the data. You know that we have incurred ecological debts that someone will have to pay in the end. 

WLI: There will be other resources in the future. Once it was coal and iron. Now it is oil. In the future it will be wind and solar. Each generation uses different resources, so each generation will be better off than the one before. There is no ecological debt.

SPI: I am not sure the endless resources theory will work in practice, but even if it did, this is more about human-induced climate change, which is already impacting a great many people and making life, let alone business, much harder. It is growing year by year. Do you still say that the next generation will have it easier?

WLI: My son and daughter are successful in business and my granddaughter is looking into modeling. Sure, I think they will have wonderful lives. You think you are the only one who has had a difficult life and had to struggle to get somewhere. That isn't the case. It's just that you talk so much about how rough you've had it. 

SPI: It takes my breath away and makes me sick to my stomach to read this. I don't think I've had it bad. I am much more concerned about the next generation.

WLI: I've had enough of your insults. You're blocked. Have a good life.

The 2017 List: 13 things to bring into the new year

With some truly depressing 2017 lists out there, I want to add a couple that might actually come in handy... or at least crack a smile.

Here is the Rebel With a Pen list of what to take with you when leaping into 2017:

  1. Chocolate
  2. A solar panel
  3. A manual for communicating with racists
  4. A Canadian passport or at least least a maple leaf bumper sticker
  5. Your entire library of books
  6. Wool socks
  7. A couple of 1960s protest albums
  8. Food stockpiles
  9. A bomb shelter
  10. Your family and near neighbors
  11. A first aid kit with extra bandages
  12. Your ability to laugh in the face of disaster
  13. Your generosity of spirit when it comes to people you might feel like judging

And with some of the bizarre wish lists out there, I figured that my brand of fantasy wouldn't seem far fetched at all. Here's my wish list for 2017:

  1. I wish Donald Trump would get on TV, laugh really loud and say, "Just kidding!" And then go back to his moocher lifestyle and leave us in peace.
  2. I wish everyone in the media would suddenly realize they should actually listen to scientists. Then science and climate discussions would be at the top of the news cycle all year long.
  3. I wish oil executives would realize the Indians own that land in North Dakota and that squeezing every last drop of oil out of the sand in Texas is not going to prolong their gluttonous lifestyle for very long anyway so they might as well start thinking about long-term survival.
  4. I wish my kids would wake up January 1 and realize that bickering defeats fun.
  5. I wish the next president would declare a new New Deal consisting of building solar panels to go on every roof and a light-rail system serving the entire country.
  6. I wish all the teenage ISIS fighters would get a deep hankering to go live with their mothers and watch TV until they're forty. 
  7. I wish all bombs, missiles and munitions as well as all guns not in a safe under lock and key would mysteriously disappear on January 1.
  8. I wish someone brilliant would invent a way for writers and artists to make a living at their craft.
  9. I wish Microsoft would go bankrupt and have to sell off all of its parts to independent programmers who want to make an honest living.
  10. I wish our society would begin taxing the use of natural resources instead of the labor of the working poor and the funds would be put toward educational opportunity, urban greenspaces, rural public transit and subsidies for high quality cottage industries. 
  11. I wish a benign virus would evolve and spread among humans which deactivates the part of the brain that categorizes according to skin color, speech pattern and the appearance of a person's eyes.

With those sweet and optimistic thoughts in mind, I wish you a very happy (and peaceful) new year!

What kids need during the holidays

I woke up one winter morning in middle childhood to the sound of gunshots on the other side of a thin wooden wall. The light coming through the window was eerie, pale and wavering like a cold candle. 

I jumped out of bed and searched for my parents, who slept in the bed next to mine. Their covers were rumpled and they were gone. I raced to the loft where my brothers slept. My little brother was sitting up in his blankets while my older brother struggled quickly into his shirt.

"What's that noise?" I cried. 

"Pa's shooting his gun," my older brother said.

The front door to our cabin slammed and I could hear Mama coming in below. We scrambled to the railing and demanded to know what was going on. Mama explained with a tone somewhere between resignation and reassurance that all the deep heavy snow we had thought was melting the night before had frozen solid as a rock over night and Pa was shooting clumps of ice out of the giant fir tree next to our house... so that it wouldn't fall and crush our house. 

This memory, one of the clearest I have from childhood, is oddly tinged with brilliant sparkle. There is almost no fear in my memory, as if I thought all this was terribly exciting. Beyond the first shock of waking up alone with the frightening noise outside, I seem to have been in a state of giddy delight. Pa was like Pa in Little House on the Prairie. There was no natural or human threat to big for him in my view. We were clearly safe in his hands.

While we were getting dressed in the loft there was a tremendous crash that shook the whole cabin and the sound of wood grating against metal. Something had clearly fallen onto our tin roof. It was prevented from crushing us only by a few beams, some insulation and a couple of layers of plywood. 

Excited to see a fallen tree and glad that the house had apparently survived, my brothers and I pulled on our snow gear and scrambled up the steps cut into the ice outside the front door to get outside. Pa was still out by the large fir tree to the north of the house and it had clearly not fallen. We told him about the crash on the roof and suggested that it must have been the tree on the south side of the house.

He told us to go check, so we ran around the front of the house... or attempted to. I got to the front yard where the ground sloped gently downhill and my feet flew out from under me. My head struck the sheer sheet of ice under me with a loud "crack!"

My brothers went down a bit more gracefully and scrambled back across the ice to help check on me as I groggily shook the stars out of my eyes. 

We'd had several feet of heavy snow the day before. But in the evening the temperature had climbed and the whole mass had started to melt, water running across the surface and down onto the county road below. But in the night a cold snap had come, so hard and fast that the melting slush had turned to ice, a thick, rock-hard layer covering everything for miles around us. It did not have the crusty appearance of old snow with a frozen top layer. It was slick, shiny and impenetrable. 

It's likely that anyone forty or over from the Pacific Northwest will know what I'm talking about. It is still generally referred to as the Great Ice Storm. Electrical lines were down for days, phones and water pumps didn't work, every branch and twig was coated in a thick layer of clear ice, a snow plow was broken trying to clear our county road and we were completely cut off from the outside world for three days. 

My brothers and I didn't know the extent of the "disaster" yet but we already loved it. We were on an important mission from Pa to check the south side of the house, so despite the ringing in my head and the large knot swelling behind my ear, my big brother helped me up and we staggered the rest of the way around the cabin, joking about how my head was so hard that it cracked the ice. 

As it turned out, it was a disappointingly small branch that had crashed onto our roof and made such an enormous noise. But by midday Pa had finished shooting ice out of the trees and he had time to pull us on our giant toboggan. We slid our way over to our nearest neighbors, to make sure everyone was all right. Then we slid home again. 

It is ironic that while our parents' generation remembers it as a natural disaster, my brothers and I remember those days of candlelight and ice as some of the best moments of our childhood.

Creative Commons image by David Lytle 

Creative Commons image by David Lytle 

We spent our days sliding on the snow or helping our parents with the tasks of daily survival, such as cutting blocks of ice out of the frozen slush to heat on the wood stove. (That was our only source of water with our well 60 feet deep and the pump out of operation.( And we spent the long winter evenings, playing games and telling stories by candlelight. 

Anyone who remembers a night without electricity as a child can probably relate to some degree. Without the TV, computers, oven, food processor or phone working and with the roads closed, the one thing we children had was... our parents' attention.

We often feel that the past must have been simpler and by extension better, because in those times they did not have electricity and all of those things on a regular basis. So, we envision it like an endless snow day. But in reality, the children of the past did not have their parents' attention because their parents' daily routine did not require electricity. 

The truth is that we cannot really give our children an endless snow day. We cannot always give them our full attention. We have to work and cook and keep our lives together and that takes up the majority of our time and energy. Most of the time, what is left for real attention to children is the crumbs. 

But this is still what I think of during the holidays and when facing the week of winter break. Our children can remember the holidays as a magical time of sparkle, even if the reality is that we are stressed out and the extended family is fighting and money is tight and crises loom. The key to it is amazingly simple. Times of comfort and attention. 

We can create it for our children, by declaring our own great ice storm. It doesn't actually take a disaster to make a time that children will remember forever. 

Here is a recipe. It need not be every moment of the holiday season, but as much as possible, as often as possible, allow and if necessary schedule family times with these elements:

  1. Nothing urgent that adults must get done.
  2. Nothing urgent that the kids must get done.
  3. No set schedule or a very simple schedule
  4. Few or no visitors outside immediate family, who are very familiar to children
  5. A pleasant and familiar environment
  6. The attention of adults being at least partly on things of interest to the child
  7. A low level of excitement for something in the future or an understanding of this as a special time
  8. A balance of sugar versus protein in food.
  9. Low use of electronics by children and adults alike
  10. Opportunities for activities like playing games, reading, building things, coloring, crafting, cooking, playing in nature, moving around
  11. Any conflicts that arise expressed and handled with mutual compassion

Number ten--the apparent activity involved--is actually the least important thing on the list. It doesn't really matter what you're doing as much as the environment is good, necessities are taken care of and there is no urgent agenda. It is almost like magic. This really will create the most memorable moments for children without anything special or flashy added.

Certainly we also want to do special, fun and meaningful things with our children but doing them one at a time and allowing for spaces without a schedule in between will matter most. 

Surviving the new reality

Rain drums on the roof as I write. I am on enforced rest. Doctor's orders. I could cry for joy over the rest, except that the eye surgeon has forbidden me to express intense emotions. 

But you get the idea. I don't feel sick but I'm supposed to stay inside, keep warm, not work much and be at peace. I know, I wish I could spread it around a little too.

The only downside of this is a feeling of vulnerability that comes with the isolation.  I hesitate to venture out much, even on-line. I am a bit breakable and the world has suddenly become doubly harsh.

Creative Commons image by Sepp Schimmer

Creative Commons image by Sepp Schimmer

I saw a post from an old work colleague about attacks against people of color in the US. I wrote in a quick reply of support and bittersweet humor. And instead of solidarity, my old office-mate lashed out at me, labeling me an "sheltered white expat." 

I instantly had the urge to fight back. I'm not one who takes things lying down or turns the other cheek. Sure, I'm white and I know better than many white people what privileges and protections that entails. I am highly aware when I meet police officers that I am wearing the backpack of white privilege--then and many other times. I also know that when any country is in the grip of fear that there is an understandable anger toward emigres--those who left, no matter how good their reasons. 

On the other hand, I'm also a person with a significant physical disability. I'm up against the wall in this too. My children are not white and they are newly naturalized citizens. Will we ever be able to go back to visit my home and family again? That is not an idle question in these post-election days. We are also in a country (the Czech Republic) that Donald Trump has pledged to put a military base in. We are isolated for the moment, but far from off the hook. 

Still, I bit my lip and said none of that. I know well the furious emotions raging in my colleague's post. I replied only to express more simple and direct support for her. I told her I am an ally and I understand her words. She and another friend continued to express anger and rejection toward me. There was no reconciliation. 

I am worried.

I'm saddened to lose a connection to someone I enjoy simply due to these terrible times. But I am even more worried by what this negative interaction among allies means for our people--the people of our country, citizens and non-citizens, all cultures and all backgrounds. We're stuck in this together, after all. 

My home county in Oregon reportedly voted 67 percent for Trump. There are people I call friends who did and likely even a few only moderately distant relatives. And if I cannot meet a friend who agrees with me in support and solidarity, if we are so divided that I am the enemy even when I am not across the political divide, how... oh gods, how will we live with those who really do hate and choose a hateful leader? 

Let's take a moment to forget that Trump even exists. 

Sigh. Now doesn't that feel better? 

But wait a minute. There's a problem. We've made Trump disappear but we haven't made the many people who vehemently support him disappear. Sure, we can say they are a minority, as few as 20 percent of the nation and not even most of the voters. But they are enough and we have to live with them, Trump or no Trump.

I have always felt this because of where I grew up, far from the cosmopolitan and high-thinking coasts. I love visiting Portland, Seattle, New York or Francisco for precisely this reason. Our bubble of acceptance and freedom feels so good. 

But we forget that this is not all of the nation at our peril. We ignore rage at our peril. We belittle politically incorrect antagonism at our peril. We've seen that now.

I know it is hard to think about surviving the next four years. But we will... most of us at least. And here is how I propose to do it:

Creative Commons image by Peter Roome

Creative Commons image by Peter Roome

  • If there is a registry for Muslims, get on it. I'll be a Muslim on paper.  If we're all on the list, the list will have no teeth.
  • Talk to Trump supporters. Really talk and listen. Listen to what motivates them, what they are upset about. Share your thoughts with respect and without contempt.  They are people and most people are susceptible to change, even if slow change.
  • Promote facts, everywhere, over and over again. The media will not help, so we have to do it. Talk about facts, post them, remember them, make lists. Don't let up about climate change.
  • Explain white privilege, primarily if you're white. Explain it again and again and again until you're sick of it and then explain it to more people. There is no way we're as sick of explaining it as Black, Hispanic and Native American people are.
  • Talk to the person no one is talking to at a gathering. Invite the disabled colleague or classmate to whatever. Connect. 
  • Make your circle bigger. Whatever it is you can give easily, put it in. Got a neighbor with younger kids who could use some of your nicer used clothes? Got extra veggies from the garden? Got wood or materials or whatever? Buy less, trade more, reuse more. Gain your security from community.
  • Take care of your own basic needs with as little resources as possible. Reduce plastics and fossil fuels in whatever ways you can. And remember you'll do more and better if you're rested, healthy and fed. Don't wait to be taken care of. Stand strong, think ahead, link arms.

My hope is with you. 

The Great Divide of the Twenty-first Century: In search of mutual understanding between rich and poor

I have said my virtual hearth is open to any and all who seek a little comfort and soul nourishment. And I stand by that, because the ancient concept of hospitality is near and dear to me. Without lines of discrimination and without pre-judgment, you are welcome here. 

Creative Commons image by Urbansnaps-Kennymc of Flickr

Creative Commons image by Urbansnaps-Kennymc of Flickr

That doesn’t mean I claim to understand every perspective in the world which is not my own or to truly know all kinds of people. I make mistakes sometimes, make assumptions or simply have a set of priorities that is not the same as someone else’s. While I have been able to come to deep understanding with people of all races, nations and creeds without much trouble and I have embraced transgender, gay and lesbian friends, while I’ve made common cause with people who perceive the world in opposite ways from mine, there are perspectives I struggle to grok. I say “struggle,” because I do try.

The other day I was observing two acquaintances of mine having an on-line argument about Social Security and poverty in the US. Both of the people involved are vastly wealthy by my standards and their argument was mostly about whether or not Hillary Clinton is bad or good news for poor people. Finally, one of them got fed up and said: “Never mind, you and I don't agree on this one, period. I'm going to Amazon to see whether I can buy something. Time to get rid of my decrepit 32" TV and upgrade to a 40" or maybe a 42".” 

Creative Commons image by Richard of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Richard of Flickr.com

This person’s avatar was a white, fluffy dog and I suspected she was being sarcastic. I put in some laugh emoticons for her apt joke, but suggested that upgrading one’s TV to a larger size is too cliched when making fun of the concerns of rich people. I suggested saying you were going to Amazon to get a load of books or kitchen utensils might be less likely to support prejudice. 

As it turned out Fluffy Dog was not being sarcastic. 

She was perfectly serious. Her TV was eight years old and she wanted a bigger one. She really did feel that was a reasonable change of subject in a discussion of the poverty experienced by older people who have worked all their lives and are still barely able to eat in retirement. 

She was offended because she thought I was implying she doesn’t read or cook enough. For the record, she says she also buys three times as many books as she can read and actually reads two books a week. She noted that she could outfit three kitchens, given her love of shopping for kitchen utensils. But she did not notice that my comment was supportive humor.

Needless to say she got mad and huffy and insisted that she knows what it’s like to be poor because she has traveled to 150 countries and volunteered four times at a soup kitchen, so she’s seen poverty.

Live simply that others may simply live - Creative Commons image by Dina-Roberts Wakulczyk

Live simply that others may simply live - Creative Commons image by Dina-Roberts Wakulczyk

Oh dear. Where to start?

I believe that mutual understanding between those with incomes over $100,000 and those with incomes less than $30,000 would be a good start toward the survival of our species—I.e. surviving climate change, the refugee crisis, ISIS, endless war and all the rest of today’s troubles. We must be able to understand each other, but at the moment it feels like we are speaking different languages, both made up of English words with vastly differing meanings. 

I failed to understand or to make myself clear to my acquaintance, who isn’t a bad sort at all, although possibly afflicted with an impaired ability to laugh at her own foibles. So, I have been thinking on how to explain the vast gulf of understanding between us. First, we must know that we are missing each other in order to ever come together.

The fact is that I would be considered “very poor” by anyone making over $100,000. I live a lifestyle that is far below the average income or consumption in the United States and Western Europe. It is altogether possible that all of humanity could live at a modest level like this (even all the millions in China and India) without causing great harm to the planet or necessitating a massive die-off (though we would still need to slow down our fertility to avert disaster). That said, I don’t look poor . Most people who live at this level don’t, unless they have been hit with a disaster or a crisis. Poverty is as much about relative vulnerability to crisis as it is about the day-to-day material standard of living. 

Mine isn’t a lifestyle you can sit back and enjoy. That’s true. You’ve got to use a myriad of smart and hard-working hacks to make it work, but I don’t spend my days in drudgery and hunger. 

Creative Commons image by Hernán Piñera

Creative Commons image by Hernán Piñera

It requires using and reusing whatever you can, considering second-hand clothes a non-issue, cooking mostly from scratch and growing as much of it as you can locally, using public transportation and finding fun vacations near home, using rainwater and solar for lots of things... It can be done and it can be done well. 

The only time my family notices we are "poor" is when we think about some major trips we'd like to take. That requires a lot of planning, but it is possible. We're currently working on a two-year plan to go to Corsica, where we will camp and cycle and have a blast without great expense. 

There are difficulties to be sure. Having a disability when you have little financial resources is hard. And it is much easier to do poverty well when you are part of a mutually supportive community that shares your troubles, rather than being isolated in relatively wealthy suburbia. 

But living in a country with sane, developed-world (and yes, that obviously means single-payer) health care and free, merit-based higher education helps a lot. But despite these advantages, we buy things at prices higher than those in the US, not lower the way you might think prices would be in a “poor country.” We simply live more simply and quite differently with different assumptions and priorities.

I’ve lived this way in the US too. The difference there is the feeling of constantly walking the edge of a precipice. I’ve seen those who did poverty reasonably well fall over the cliff and end in serious desperation. But as long as you’re lucky, you can live well on a modest income in most of the world. That’s the first thing I think rich people don’t understand. Living simply need not mean want and misery.

And what is it that I need to understand about the other side? Well, if I knew I wouldn’t need it anymore, would I? I do not wish to make jokes at another’s expense, but rather to laugh with others at our own antics and use it as fuel for change. I try not to be judgmental because even though my knee-jerk reaction is that "rich" people (by my standards) simply can't spend that much money without actually throwing it as confetti, I know from real conversations that this simply isn't true and that many people who have ten times the income we do feel like they are struggling.

What is the key to understanding? I start with this. All are welcome at my hearth, to be accepted and to find purpose. My aim is to feed souls and that hunger comes in many forms.