Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Several factors have conspired to put my mind on the things that we own, that I own, and our relationship to them.
Last weekend’s episode of “Patriot Act” on Netflix taught me that, in the 1980s, the average American bought 12 new items of clothing every year. Now that number is 68. And much of the increase is due to the rise of “fast fashion,” the production and purchasing of cheaply and quickly made clothes followed by their equally rapid transformation into trash.
And it is now the holiday season on the Western calendar. This past Thursday was Thanksgiving in the US, that celebration of the seemingly unbounded plenty that the New World was supposed to provide. Thanksgiving was of course followed by Black Friday, that annual ritual of Americans lining up outside and then pushing into stores like a stampede out of “The Lion King.” In fact, one of my curmudgeonly pet peeves about the world is that many other countries, even without Thanksgiving, have adopted Black Friday in an effort to encourage consumerism.
Soon it will be Christmas, the season of relatives buying each other gifts that the recipients likely neither want nor need. More often than not they’ll be taken back to the stores and exchanged for credit, or simply left and forgotten somewhere serving no purpose except to add to the clutter. That’s not to mention Halloween, when billions are spent each year on costumes often made from plastic that will be thrown away by the morning of All Saints’ Day. True environmentalism would do well to discourage all of the above.
As a perpetual traveler, I live in very unusual circumstances. In terms of earthly possessions, I own only as much as I can carry on my back. Never mind 68 new items of clothing or even 12. For me, the number is probably closer to two or three. Because I can only carry so much, when I buy something new, I am usually obligated to throw out something old. At any given time, I own exactly two pairs of shoes plus a pair of sandals for the occasional beach. Conversely, when I do throw something out, you better believe that it has seen a great deal of use.
So perhaps my unusual living situation necessitates my similarly unusual relationship with material possessions. But in truth, I am and have always been also temperamentally suited to this style of living. American-style consumerism has always made me uncomfortable. The implicit message in every commercial that if you only buy this product you’ll be happy has always struck me as not only absurd but obscene. The millennial-driven counter-ideology that one should value experiences over material possessions seems to me painfully obvious. (Although, clearly, if everyone lived the way I do, then the global economy would collapse.)
Zen doctrine preaches detachment from the material. But I have no right to claim any degree of enlightenment. I am temperamentally suited to this life, to owning only what I can carry, because I hate throwing things away. Isn’t that just another way of saying that actually I am hopelessly attached to such material possessions that I do have? Perhaps I rarely acquire new objects, but it pains me to get rid of, or to have to get rid of, things that I already possess.
In the end it is all part and parcel with my lifelong and somewhat Luciferian struggle with the fundamental truth of impermanence. I hate throwing things away because I hate that they don’t last forever. Why do pants have to wear out? Why do holes have to develop in the heels of my socks? Why can’t Apple make iPhone chargers that don’t fray? For that matter, why do I have to get older with each passing day?
Tibetan Buddhist monks have a tradition of creating mandalas with colored sand. It is a painstaking process to place each grain of sand in its right place. When they are done, they pray over the mandala, and then they destroy it to remind themselves of the impermanence of all things.
I am no Tibetan monk, even if I have for years now been trying to teach myself to accept impermanence. It is a rare occurrence for me to, for example, leave something behind in an accommodation. But if and when it happens, I have been trying to train myself to rejoice in the loss rather than to fret over it. I have not done well so far in embracing that paradoxical position.
But in that connection, isn’t the fashionable young American who buys endless outfits from H&M only to throw them away — in a twisted way — far more enlightened than I am?
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."