A new year is upon us. This means something unique for everyone – for some it’s the start of tax season, for others it’s resolutions and increased attention paid to junk food intake and nail biting, and for many it’s the renewal of hope, the optimistic giddiness of pressing the reset button to a new year, a new soul, as Chesterton says.
For me, it’s taking a full inventory of my material footprint as I pack up my apartment of seven years and move to the prairie. My season of life in Chicago has come to an end and though it fills me with sorrow to think of saying goodbye to the people of my tribe and places that I’m known, it brings the peace of clarity and stillness to think of starting a new life with less.
Recently I’ve been in disbelief, struck by the visible excess so rampant around us. I know part of this is carryover from the season of giving that just ended, but I avoided the throngs of mall shoppers and the online deal assaults and still I feel overwhelmed. Our society has simply outdone themselves. Many companies seek to beat their sales year over year, as if there’s an unwritten assumption that all people need increasingly more. We have so much, too much: more plates than we will ever set for a gathering, more candles than we will ever burn, more swimsuits than we will ever pack for a tropical vacation, more luggage than we will ever find ourselves using. Even though I have a small apartment I’ve still acquired more than I need, partially due to my love of antiques and books and pottery. But why do I have five swimsuits? Too long I have let things accumulate unquestioned.
What would it look like if we stopped acquiring more each time we felt bored or dissatisfied with our lives? What if our response to feelings of inadequacy was instead to invest in our thoughts, our minds, our dormant creativity? Instead of buying more we could check out a book from the library or learn a coding program or create a recipe. Rather than browsing Amazon and online retailers for things that will only clutter our homes, we could browse Brain Pickings or the newspaper or a book of poetry for fresh insights. Our longing for possessions could instead be channeled into creative endeavors. Imagine if we opened our new eyes and realized the wealth of people and landscape around us.
In an On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, Eve Ensler, while discussing her journey through cancer, says, “What if we actually were content with our lives? What if we actually knew this was paradise?” This sums up what I often ponder – we are lucky to be alive in this time and place, here and now. Yes, there are hard and painful things, and yes, the nation is entering a season of dark unknown, but here we are alive. As Mary Oliver says in Long Life, “And that is just the point: how the world, moist and bountiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. ‘Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?'” This year, perhaps we can all strive to make a comment about our lives using our minds rather than our wallets.
The late Bill Holm, a poet and essayist who split his days between southwest Minnesota and Hofsós, Iceland, mentioned this idea of too much in his book, The Windows of Brimnes: An American in Iceland. Here’s an excerpt from his book, which he reads aloud in this interview with Prairie Public Broadcasting:
“After a while, the United States is simply too much: too much religion and not enough gods, too much news and not enough wisdom, too many weapons of mass destruction – or, for that matter, of private destruction (why search so far away when they live right under our noses?), too much entertainment and not enough beauty, too much electricity and not enough light, too much lumber and not enough forests, too much real estate and not enough earth, too many books and not enough readers, too many runners and not enough strollers, too many freeways, too many cars, too many malls, too many prisons, too much security but not enough civility, too many humans but not enough eagles. And the worst excess of all: too many wars, too much misery and brutality – reflected as much in our own eyes as in those of our enemies. So I come here to this spare place. A little thinning and pruning is a good anodyne for the soul. We see more clearly when the noise is less, the objects fewer.” [Bill Holm]
My hope for the new year is that we can acknowledge the excess around us and move forward with a heightened awareness, an awareness that compels us to plan a trip to a foreign country, form new ideas, leave our comfort zone, take a break from shopping, reconnect with an old friend through voices instead of screens, and go on a walk to rediscover our neighborhood. As this new year emerges, may we be open to seeing the world differently. May we stop seeking happiness in our material possessions. And may we ponder anew what we can do this month, this season, this year to build our experiences and expand the limits of our creative minds.
Footnote: this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, whom I adore, speaks to this dilemma:
Something has happened to my name.
It now appears on catalogues
for towels and hiking equipment,
dresses spun in India,
hand-colored prints of parrots and eggs.
Fifty tulips are on their way
if I will open the door.
Dishrags from North Carolina
unstack themselves in the Smoky Mountains
and make a beeline for my sink.
I write a postcard to my cousin:
this is what it is like to live in America.
Individual tartlet pans congregate
in the kitchen, chiming my name.
Porcelain fruit boxes float above tables,
sterling silver ice cream cone holders
twirl upside down on the cat’s dozing head.
For years I developed radar against malls.
So what is it that secretly applauds
this army of catalogues marching upon my house?
I could be in the bosom of poverty, still they arrive.
I could be dead, picked apart by vultures,
still they would tell me
what socks to wear in my climbing boots.
Stay true, catalogues, protect me
from the wasteland where whimsy and impulse
Be my companion on this journey between dusts,
between vacancy and that smiling stare
that is citizen of every climate
but customer to nothing,
(Naomi Shihab Nye, Words Under the Words: Selected Poems)