Can you imagine a holiday season without any television commercials about gifts to consider giving your loved ones – or what Christmas (or life in general) supposedly looks like?
Welcome to my life.
It’s been about 13 years since I’ve had television reception, by choice. And honestly, I don’t miss it at all. At this time of year, I especially don’t miss the commercials that try to convince us that we’re somehow lacking or would be happier or more loved if only we (or a loved one) had this or looked like that. I, for one, am not buying it.
My husband and I don’t even really give Christmas gifts to each other because neither of us is interested in stuff. I’m more interested in getting rid of stuff. And I truly think that not watching television contributes greatly to this mindset. Almost all the time, I am blissfully unaware of all the products and services I don’t have. When I go to someone’s house and the TV is on, I am blown away by how matter-of-fact the commercials are: “Of course you have this. Everybody does! But here are all the reasons why you need to upgrade to this.” And there is also a very clear standard of how you are expected to look. Well, I didn’t get that memo, either! I am so glad not to be bombarded by these messages on a regular basis – because I might start to believe them! They are quite powerful.
Bottom line is, my husband and I are pallid consumers. We have had experience living on very little and as a result know how little we actually need to live. Money was especially tight when I was working on my master’s degree and completing my student teaching at the same time that my ex-husband’s consulting firm went under, leaving him unable to pay child support. But we made it through. And we learned how to live creatively. Now I am in a better situation and am truly grateful for a steady paycheck and health insurance. However, knowing how to live on so little was a valuable life lesson, a gift.
I once read about someone who lost everything in a natural disaster and said that you never really understand how much “nothing” is until that’s what you’ve got. In 1998, I witnessed this right before my very eyes after a tornado ripped through the central Florida town in which I lived. The tornado actually skimmed our subdivision, sending my children’s Little Tikes outdoor equipment (a slide and a sit-inside car) flying through the air. We found them a couple lots away the next day.
People around us were not so fortunate. Right outside the walls of our small subdivision, it looked as though a bomb had exploded. Cars were lodged inside what was left of apartment buildings. Some houses and buildings were totally leveled. At least one queen-size mattress had come to rest right against the wall of our gated subdivision. So many people around us – within 1/16th of a mile in more than one direction – had mere seconds around midnight to prepare for a disaster that would literally uproot their lives. Clothing and rooftops were in trees, trees were inside houses, and personal items were strewn about for miles. In the light of a new day, people who had lost everything walked around smiling because they survived. They returned to the rubble in hopes of retrieving some family photos because that was what they valued the most, for the photos were truly irreplaceable. But in most cases, in the end all they were left with was memories and gratitude. Whenever I went into a gas station, post office, grocery store, etc., I would hear people expressing how grateful they were simply to have survived. It was surreal.
Our family lives more comfortably now than we did back in the lean years, but we still cannot afford to buy a home. However, having “owned” a brand new home in Florida, I realize that home ownership is not essential to happiness – so I’m not buying that myth, either. We rent a small, old house that we sometimes refer to as our “camp.” It has just one teeny tiny bathroom and three unbelievably small closets, and all the rooms are very small. Sometimes I look around and feel sorry that we don’t live in a “nicer” home, but that is usually just a passing thought because a little voice swiftly breaks up the pity party by reminding me that we have always had enough and that compared to so many people on this planet, ours is a life of luxury. We have hot, running water and more food than our smallish refrigerator can hold. We have a wood stove and oil to keep us warm through the winter. We have an amazing view of the sunrise over the river every morning. And of course, we have each other. We truly are blessed.
I read an interview Maria Shriver did with poet Mary Oliver in which Mary Oliver, discussing her calling to be a poet, explained:
“When I was very young and decided I wanted to try to write as well as I could, I made a great list of all the things I would never have…would not have, because I thought poets never made any money. A house, a good car, I couldn’t go out and buy fancy clothes or go to good restaurants. I had the necessities.”
When asked if she ever had second thoughts about her choice of occupation, she replied:
“I’ve always wanted to write poems and nothing else. There were times over the years when life was not easy, but if you’re working a few hours a day and you’ve got a good book to read, and you can go outside to the beach and dig for clams, you’re okay.”
Mary Oliver followed her heart with regard to her vocation, as my husband has done with his music. He never compromised his true passion because he always valued expressing himself musically over having possessions. (His creative spirit and kind heart were what attracted me to him in the first place.) And whether or not you ultimately receive your big break as an artist, you are truly rich and richly blessed when you follow your deepest calling, regardless of the balance on your bank statement. (If, on the other hand, you place a higher value on possessions and comfort, perhaps the artist life is too great a risk to pursue full-time.)
During my weaker, more clouded moments when I sink into feelings of not measuring up to others in terms of our home or financial situation, I have a few books in the bookcase to put everything back into perspective:
- Material World: A Global Family Portrait by Peter Menzel
- Women in the Material World by Faith D’Aluisio and Peter Menzel
- If the World Were a Village (second edition) by David J. Smith
…and a brand new acquisition:
- Where Children Sleep by James Mollison
Really, any books by Peter Menzel would do the trick, but I only own the two listed above. All of these books put our “first world” lifestyles into perspective by offering images (or – in the case of If the World Were a Village – data) of people around the world in their home environments. Many of the images are of people who have what we might refer to as “nothing.” No toilets, running water, beds, walls, appliances, etc. It is impossible to feel sorry for yourself when you look at images of people who have so much less – but whose spirit is intact and shines through their eyes and smiles. And this is something I always want to remember. It provides a profound reality check to our first-world, consumerist standards.
Perhaps what I am trying to describe is best summarized by the following video – an ad for Water is Life – in which “first world” gripes are read by Haitian adults and children.
At a time of year when advertisers pull out all the stops to persuade us to want more and spend more, perhaps we can pause to reflect on what is truly important. This time of year can be so difficult when we focus on what we don’t have or are unable to give – whether it’s a different family situation or a material thing. Give what you are able to give, joyfully and without apology, for we and our loved ones probably already have enough stuff to begin with. In the interest of sharing the gift of perspective during the holiday season, may we remind one another to honor and give thanks for what we already have and not allow ourselves to be stressed out or discouraged by what is ultimately small and relative in the grand scheme of things.
The photographs in this blog and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a “custom print” in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears.
© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.