Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Impoverished vs. empowered

I have an insatiable appetite for audiobooks, podcasts, old timey radio, radio documentaries, and anything else that amounts to someone reading me a story while I paint. Lately I’ve been delving into Radioworks documentaries, because my local public radio station played the one about coal about six months ago and it made me want to save energy and be a better citizen. It also, frankly, made me think a lot about material consumption, how energy drives our habits, and so on. (So you can see where this is going).

The latest one I’ve listened to is about the American dream. It made one unable to avoid considering all these perks the previous generations get -- inventing the suburbs and housing vouchers for WWII vets, the Job Corps in the 60s, etc., all this emphasis on boosting the white middle class -- at the expense of everyone who isn’t white and middle class. And eventually, it seems, at the expense of...well, me. And my generation. And the generations that come after me.

It can be incredibly difficult to avoid resentment when considering stories like this. Or considering the instances that remind me of them. That [x] percent of my friends are unemployed or underemployed, and those that have jobs are terrified of losing them. That [y] friends have stopped looking for non-shared housing, have given up on the idea that it will ever be possible for them. That a several of my friends really don’t have a fixed address. That I have a friend who took money out of stocks bequeathed to him by a deceased relative to buy land in southern Oregon, to try and build an earth ship down there. That it seems very, very wise to stay close to these friends, in case everything falls apart. As it seems likely to do. At any time. Not just for me, but for everyone.

That I want to go and read some happier books about poverty (spun for me as "sustainable living" and "homesteading") tomorrow at the bookstore. That I will not buy these books -- buying books is something those Other People can do, people these books were written for -- but instead will select a bookstore with a generous coffeeshop that I may sit and take notes for a while, as I would at a library. That I will place these books on hold at my library, and wait in line behind the rest of the city and read them later on. Or at least, flip through later on, somewhere between the day job and the real job, while dinner is cooking on the stove, waiting on the laundry downstairs to be done. Thoughts stray ideally to those who have the time to do a load of laundry all in one day -- sort, wash, dry, fold, put away. That those people probably don't have socks and underwear drying on a piece of string in the bathroom. That if those people dry clothes on a line it's more likely to be done in a yard, where the air smells sweetly of grass and trees and sunshine. Those people probably also buy new socks when the toes and heels wear out, and don't teach themselves to darn the holes in clothing -- something even my grandmother rarely did. Something I had to teach myself.

And does that make me impoverished, or empowered? Or both? I go back and forth on that every day. When I see people with new clothes on at the bus stop or the grocery store I think, that's okay. I spend my money on supplies and food. But when I have to wear a shirt that I've patched in the armpit to a job interview, as I did about a month ago, I feel ashamed and unwashed. (Despite the fact that the shirt is clean, and ironed. And under a nice jacket.)

Some of it is just the love of the craft. After so many years of being unimpressed or uninspired by what department stores have to offer me, I honestly do prefer the look and feel of a hand knit sweater over a factory made one. I want honesty in the things I wear and use. And I hate the idea of sweatshops, slave labor, wearing what They say I should wear and all the rest of it. To say nothing of Monsanto, bad farming, corn subsidies and all. But I also -- strangely -- cannot really say this with my purchases, because I am neither rich nor (it seems) middle class. I cannot shop at boutique grocery stores and get all natural grass fed meat or organic legumes. My votes in this area must be made with my lack of purchases, and this isn’t a very compelling argument in a country obsessed with consumer dollars.

It’s hard to say too how much of this is just youth. Most people just starting out are on a tight budget. Most of those youths historically didn’t have expensive habits to keep up with (cell phones and internet, for a start. Electric bills that much higher). But also most of those youths who came before me were not facing the waning baby boom and its subsequent strain on social security. Most of them didn’t watch a global economy go through growing pains that sent entire forms of currency to utter ruin. Most of the Tough Choices that faced these generations were just, it seems, pushed further down the road.

Again. It is so difficult to avoid resentment, bitterness in the face of these hard realities. And in the face of other people’s good fortune. I’ve been struggling with that a lot recently. There are a lot of illustration conferences, workshops, and classes wrapping up lately -- opportunities I had calendered, in the vain hope that I would save enough to go to them. I didn’t, people had a marvelous time, and I stayed home and worked.

Deep down I think there’s something to be said for staying home and working. It’s one thing to seek the artistic lifestyle, it’s quite another to make art. At the end of the day I think making things is going to be more useful. More powerful. It will get one further down the road. It’s just not as immediately compelling as travel and new friends and advice-from-professionals. These events have a way of bringing up questions I didn’t know I had. Of sorting out the tangle I see when I look at the “let’s bring it to the next level” folder in my head. It’s this immediacy that makes these events so tempting, even though I’m fairly certain I could think of these questions, seek out answers from kind colleagues, and build my own path -- without paying an enormous outright fee. My version just takes some time. We’re so about immediacy these days, aren’t we? It’s really not a productive way of thinking. I need to slow down.

And I really do have it so good, compared to a lot of people in this country. I have a very safe, stable home life. I have a partner who is invested in my creative life, who pushes me to excel. I live in a place that encourages an active lifestyle -- there is good city density in my area, things are walking-distance from me, or a quick bus ride. There are trees and neat people watching and colors all around. My day job is very active and I move every muscle I have every single day. I know different sorts of people. I go outside every day. I have clean, drinkable water, that comes to me in facets. Hot AND cold.

Things will come around. I am a firm believer in slow and steady wins the race, that way of thinking has been very good to me. I don’t want to go into debt to push my artwork into the world, (we’ve talked about this before), becuase debt and borrowing money is what got me and my generation in this fix we’re in. So I have holes in my shirts, so I darn my socks. That’s better for everyone in the long run. I want to be light on this earth and be a Good Artist and that’s all. And I guess at the end of the day, as long as I can keep my tricky feelings straight, that’s all that really matters.