Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Being of Art

Over Memorial Day weekend, my wife and I visited the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, the largest restored Shaker community in America. For the uninitiated, Shakers are a Christian sect who broke from the Quaker tradition and became known for their vibrant dancing during worship. They are largely known for their utopian living arrangements and for their fine workmanship, namely furniture and specifically chairs.

Aside from the peaceful vibe of the community derived from their simple approach to life, what stood out to me most about the Shakers was their attention not simply to the art of being but also the being of art. The late monk and writer Thomas Merton, who happened to live not very far from the Shaker Village in Kentucky, wrote an insightful book about the community called Seeking Paradise: The Spirit of the Shakers.

With reference to the Shakers’ work ethic he wrote: “In no case was work to be done in a hurry or under pressure, or indeed under any form of spiritual compulsion. The competitive spirit was banned because of its occult relationship with lust and violence. Overworking was frowned upon…They strove in all things for truth, and made a point of simply being themselves.”

And Merton described the Shakers’ creative process this way: “You are concerned enough about this thing that you are making that this has got to be. Here is something that God is calling into being through you, and if you pay attention and you take care...there is going to be a new being in the world which has come into the world through your care and through your love of this being.”

He summarized the Shakers’ artistry also: “‘Labor until you bring your spirits to feel satisfied.’ What do they mean by that? Art. Any way of learning how to do the thing right is art. It doesn’t have to be a picture or a sculpture or something like that. Art is the right reason for making a thing. So whether it is cooking or whether it is making shoes or sewing a garment or something like that, it is art.” So create art until your heart is content.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Not Busier Than Thou

I read an intriguing article in the latest New Yorker titled “No Time: How Did We Get So Busy?” by Elizabeth Kolbert in which the phrase “busier than thou” is used to describe the warped attitude of many people today, thus the title of this post. Kolbert quotes several researchers who have endeavored to get to the bottom of busyness, including one Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University.

As Kolbert highlights, “Stiglitz argues that people’s choices are molded by society and, over time, become self-reinforcing. We ‘learn how to consume by consuming,’ he writes, and how to ‘enjoy leisure by enjoying leisure.’ In support of this position, Stiglitz cites the contrasting experiences of Europeans and Americans. In the 1970s, the British and the French put in just as many hours at work as Americans. But then the Europeans began trading income for leisure” [emphasis mine].

And she continues: “The average employed American now works roughly 140 hours more per year than the average Englishman and 300 hours more than the average Frenchman. Current French law mandates that workers get 30 paid vacation days per year, British law 28; the corresponding figure in the U.S. is zero. Stiglitz predicts that Europeans will further reduce their working hours and become even more skilled at taking time off, while Americans, having become such masterful consumers, will continue to work long hours and to buy more stuff.”

I love the lesson here of trading income for leisure. Personally, my wife and I make it a point to live more like Europeans by consciously limiting our consumption in favor of enriching experiences. It doesn’t hurt that my wife happens to work for a progressive-minded organization where she gets five weeks of vacation but we embraced such a lifestyle long before she got a job with them. We believe the key is to not own much stuff that needs financing and maintaining so we are free to live on our terms instead of some lenders’. And we prefer being “not busier than thou,” thank you very much.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Sharing Economy

According to a new study by Havas Worldwide titled “The New Consumer and the Sharing Economy,” about 80% of people polled globally agree that progress is not about consuming more but consuming better and more than half say they could live happily without the majority of the things they own.

The report calls “collaborative consumption” the next wave of consumerism and states, “a new economic model is emerging—one that focuses less on ownership and accumulation and more on community and collaboration.” Two-thirds of the total sample believe society would be better off if people shared more and owned less.

The bottom line is that many people are gradually realizing it is becoming more about access than accumulation, especially for big-ticket items like houses and vehicles. As a case in point, my wife and I lease both our home and automobile, freeing us from the weekend routine of lawn mowing and car washing, since both are included.

And without kids or pets tying us to a particular place we are in a position to explore a location-independent lifestyle. Americans claim to dream of a home to call their own and my wife and I lived that dream, but since counting the overall cost and selling our extra stuff to become more mobile we are realizing how fun an untethered life can be.