Posts tagged ‘ramble’

Avoid the post-apocalyptic chaos: get a piano!

My grandpa died in April of last year. It was horribly sad and I miss him dreadfully, and I remember just what a good person he was, how active he was in his community, always on the parish council and committees for societies and organising events, how curious he was about everything, and sometimes, selfishly, I think of all the gardening wisdom that I never gleaned from him. I wish he’d been able to see my strawberries and lettuces and the other week, when Gardener’s Question Time was from Cumbria, where my grandparents lived since the early 1980s, I inexplicably found myself in tears. This was a piece of music I always found mawkishly sentimental, but since the line ‘And there was no more sea’ reminded me of his naval experiences during WW2 when we sang it in choir about a week after the funeral, I’ve listened to it about once a fortnight. I’m not even religious…

Yet I also look at my family now and feel much closer to them. My dad’s family have never been close – not that there’s ever been any animosity between them or anything like that, but they are a quiet, rather introverted bunch and he never rang his sisters for a chat or anything like that – and in the last year or so I have seen them all work much more at keeping in touch, at helping my grandma move, I’ve spent time looking at old photos and learning much more about my dad’s childhood. My parents make (and made, while my grandpa was ill) a lot of effort to go over and visit, taking gifts of things like shepherd’s pie, taking my grandma out for the day. I make much more effort to write to my grandparents, and visit them when I can, and help out my neighbour, who is quite elderly and lives on her own. I appreciate my own parents more, aware that they won’t be around for ever.

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If I am an optimist, it is more because I try to look for the best in people and in situations and I try to make things into positive experiences as far as possible, rather than because I always expect the best to happen. (I try to be baldly realistic in my prognostications for the future, imagining the best and the worst and trying to be prepared for anything, but mostly expecting something in the middle.) I’m not so Pollyanna-ish as to try to spin anything so awful and finite as death into a blessing in disguise, but perhaps it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that as well as the sorrow, positive things have been born out of it also. I find that if I can put my grief to good use (by getting closer to my family and being to be kind to old people) it helps me cope with it better. Denial is useless; let in the bad, explore the bad, embrace the bad – it is part of you and part of life. But after a while, for god’s sake channel it into something useful.

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The more I’ve delved into this rather personal dark place, the less I feel that it was a useful comparison, but never mind.

There has been a lot of talk in various places about The Future, and how we’re all doooooomed, and we’re all going to end up shooting each other over the last can of baked beans in T*sco (whose shareholders have rejected HFW’s chicken idea, the barstewards) and I’ve been trying desperately to point out to anyone who’ll listen that this does not necessarily have to be the case, and that while it’s important to be prepared for the worst, if we go around acting like the worst is definitely going to happen… well, it’s more likely to happen than if we do something to try and avert it. (Like, say, if the motivated people who are aware of what’s going on and why all get terribly depressed and mistrustful and bunker down with tins of food and firearms we’re more likely not to have any of the systems in place that can mitigate disaster and therefore there are more likely to be rampaging, hungry mobs than if, say, they band together and encourage the creation or continuation of resilient local food systems, sustainable textiles and building materials, and so on and so forth.)

However, sometimes I do feel nauseatingly Pollyanna-ish (I do it for your own good, people 🙂 ), and I was wondering if perhaps I was coming off as painting too cheerful a picture of our post-oil future. After all, just because woodburners are nicer than gas central heating, and gardening and making jam are more fun than sitting at a computer all day, and if we had no telly and no internet Scientist Boyfriend and I would probably spend more time talking and playing Scrabble, doesn’t mean there won’t be a load of things I’ll miss (my iTunes playlist, 24/7 Bach if I want it… washing machines… not having to chop wood in Arctic temperatures…). And also, gardening and making jam are a lot more fun when I know Waitrose is just down the road. I made rhubarb and ginger jam yesterday, and effectively buggered it all up (though I might be able to sort it out), and if that had been my stock of rhubarb jam for the whole winter, the consequences would be a lot direr than just feeling slightly peeved that this lot didn’t work when all the other jam I’ve ever made set perfectly. Same when my pepper plant was dug up, or my pak choi got munched by slugs. I was thinking about this when I was spinning and when I was knitting my sock – back in the days when this was how all socks were made, people wouldn’t have had many pairs of socks!

I’ve recently read Affluenza, by Oliver James, which was really interesting. I didn’t agree with all of it, but one point he did raise was that in Shanghai, one of the cities he studies, material wealth does generally correlate with happiness. He explores some of the differences in Chinese and Western philosophy and culture which might cushion the people of Shanghai against ‘affluenza’, but ultimately agrees with the hypothesis that in 20 years’ time, they’ll in all likelihood have the same rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders etc that we have in the West (except Denmark, Denmark seem to have pretty much cracked it, but their childcare system is flawed). Similar themes were picked up in a Guardian article at the weekend: basically, having more stuff makes you happier up to a point, such as getting indoor plumbing, or your first electric sewing machine, or your first car, but after you’ve got a certain amount of stuff, the thrill of getting a different coloured bathroom, or a newer, bigger car, doesn’t give you the same buzz and you just get trapped into a cycle of working more to buy more stuff because you believe it will make you happier, while losing valuable things like relationships with your family and community. (And that, folks, was the whole of postindustrial social and economic history. Tune in next week, when Hamster summarises the complete works of Tolstoy in one paragraph.)

I can mostly agree with this logic, although I do get very acquisitional whenever I go into the yarn section of John Lewis and I love pretty old houses and beautiful textiles and owning shelves of books. Would my life be terrible if I don’t have those things? Probably not, though having shelter, clothing and entertainment/intellectual stimulation in some form would be nice…

But overall, although there are certainly things I do that are unsustainable in the long-term, I find that rather than getting upset about not being able to have 24/7 Bach (do I really need something as wonderful as the Mass in B Minor or The Well-Tempered Clavier as mere background noise when I cook anyway?), I’d rather put my energy into finding ways of… not replacing them, per se, but finding something roughly equivalent that I can carry on having. Like a piano. 🙂 As with food, being a producer as well as a consumer, as Mr Hopkins would put it.

And so, when reflecting on the fact that I have been utterly let down by my education* and I’m going to have to pretty much teach myself (or at least actively seek out someone to teach me) all the skills I am probably going to need in order to thrive in my future life, I don’t find it very helpful to concentrate on the probable widespread poverty and drudgery, the potential for social disorder, or the possibility for days-long power cuts, or any of the Mad Max-type scenarios. I don’t deny they are a possibility, I just a) feel they are an unlikely one and b) can’t really do much about them.

So I let that negativity in, the fear and the loss, but I then try and focus on the positives. Okay, so we won’t be able to travel as much, but we might find or create more to interest us in our local communities. Okay, so we might have to do more hard, outdoors, physical work, but we’ll have better food and probably be healthier. Okay, we won’t be able to blog and use internet forums as much, but we might write more letters and get more post that isn’t bills. And the internet, for all its wonders, is not an unalloyed boon: I have RSI in my right wrist (and really shouldn’t be typing this) and an irritating tendency never to get around to doing anything, because I believe I can do it any time, because somehow broadband creates that illusion in my mind.

Sharon Astyk summed it up well, I think, here:

And the answer, I suspect, is [I am intentionally romanticising subsistence agriculture] a little bit, in the sense that I don’t think anything is served by my saying, “your future and the future of your children is drudgery and misery.” I think it is certainly possible that I elide some difficulties – or rather, that I prefer not to focus on them. Some of that is the optimist issue – I am one, despite my dark prognosis for our culture. And part of it is that ultimately most of the things that will necessarily get harder aren’t the things I value most. That is, I suspect our physical loads will get heavier. On the other hand, I suspect that will only be good for my overall health and wellbeing, so I choose to look at it not as a negative, but as mostly a positive.

So that, really, is my plea to everyone who is worried and concerned about the future. Allow yourself to worry, get it out of your system, and then stop worrying. Decide that you are going to be aware of the bad stuff, and start examining the things in your life that you will miss and the things you definitely won’t and try and work out a way to compensate for the things you will. Think about the things you might look forward to and focus on them.

Choose to see things as positive.

Talk to your loved ones. Get a piano. Be nice to old people. Don’t overcook your jam.

* Not the part at Oxford, where I was encouraged to think critically and manage my own learning, with occasional intervention from the finest minds in their field – the part at my hideous, pushy girls’ independent school, but that’s a story for another day.

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June 27, 2008 at 4:14 pm 3 comments


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The Heritage Crafts Network

Rob Hopkins, Transition Handbook

“Environmentalists have often been guilty of presenting people with a mental image of the world’s least desirable holiday destination – some seedy bed and breakfast near Torquay, with nylon sheets, cold tea and soggy toast – and expecting them to get excited about the prospect of NOT going there. The logic and the psychology are all wrong.”

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

"Food is that rare moral arena in which the ethical choice is generally the one more likely to make you groan with pleasure."

Carlo Petrini

"A gastronome who is not also an environmentalist is an idiot. An environmentalist who is not also a gastronome is, well, sad."

Sharon Astyk

"I am, of course, firmly opposed to consumerism and corporatism in all its forms, and I believe that we are deeply confused about material needs and wants. Now let me explain how books and yarn are totally different than the material things that other people want ;-)…."

Raj Patel, at Slow Food Nation

"Biofuels, which is the preposterous policy that we should grow food not to eat it but to set it on fire."