The last four years have been an opportunity for me to explore my gratitude for the work that is done in the world on my behalf. I was finishing off the buttons on a pair of pajamas for my daughter last evening, and I was thinking about what an ‘economically’ unviable activity it was. In fact, nearly everything I do with my days is economically unviable, according to the strictest definition. I have over the years acquired a set of skills that I can trade for about… oh… $50 to $100 an hour, depending on how thoroughly I’m willing to sell out. Yet I insist upon filling my hours with activities like feeding chickens, growing plants, knitting socks, sewing clothes, painting with the kids, and, most recently, working at the public library. None of these are lucrative activities for the ‘getting of money’. Perhaps I am trying to fulfill Virginia Woolf’s admonition in Three Guineas:
…you must earn enough to be independent of any other human being and to buy that modicum of health, leisure, knowledge and so on that is needed for the full development of body and mind. But no more. Not a penny more.
… when you have made enough to live on by your profession you must refuse to sell your brain for the sake of money. That is you must cease to practise your profession, or practise it for the sake of research and experiment; or, if you are an artist, for the sake of the art; or give the knowledge acquired professionally to those who need it for nothing. But directly the mulberry tree begins to make you circle, break off. Pelt the tree with laughter.
I’m not yet ready to pelt the tree with laughter, but I’m working on it. One of the driving forces behind my own frugal approach to the world is to minimize the number of my hours I need to sell to other people to support my own life. I’ll trade them. I will cut down trees in exchange for babysitting. I’ll provide vegetables in exchange for acupuncture treatments. I’ll do things that are community building, life enhancing, humanity affirming, and loving.
The main question that has consumed the last four years of my life, however, is about resources, effort, energy, hours, and entitlement. I can’t quite frame the query… but it has to do with breaking down the magical nature of money to determine exactly how much value I’m getting in exchange. Since I have attempted to grow broccoli three times, for example, I’m much more willing to pay $2.50 for a head of it. “What a bargain!” I shout in the produce aisle. “Wow! Did you know you can get organic fair-trade bananas and they’re only an extra $0.10 a pound?” Wow! Somebody planted this, weeded and tended it, harvested it, packed it in boxes, put them on a boat, unloaded them, put them in trucks, sent the trucks to the supermarket, stacked them again, maintained the electronic checkouts and inventory, works at the cash register until 10 pm, works overnight to make sure the shelves are stocked the next day… Holy cow. I can’t believe that bananas are only $1 a pound. (I’m not very popular in the produce aisle, but I’m sure that the gratitude is finding its way into the world.)
I was at a party a few weeks ago, and I held up my foot in the middle of a conversation about the costs of things and said, “See this sock? These socks took me 40 hours to knit. Any way you slice it, that’s a $300 pair of socks.”
And somebody said, “Oh. I probably won’t complain about $25 the next time I see hand-knit socks, then.” Nope. Not once you’ve done it yourself. I find it much easier to value somebody else’s work when I grok the difficulty, time, and effort involved. So, just for tonight: Thank you, world. For making the fabric, and the buttons, and the thread, and the sewing machine, and the electricity, and growing the cotton, and mining the iron ore that went into the sewing machine that made these pajamas:
(Also thanks to my friend that gave me the fabric at the baby shower for the child who is now 10. Look! I made pajamas with the fabric! His sister is thrilled. His brother has a matching pair with the blue doggie fabric. And I am grateful. If slow.)