2012 has been a year of many travels (you may have noticed). So what more fitting way could there be to end the year, than with my first overseas Christmas? I am in the USA. Where my brother now lives.
It has been a peaceful, calm, introverted Christmas (in my family we celebrate by eating and reading). We were all enthralled by my new baby niece who is utterly adorable and completely wonderful. There was snow on Christmas day, for the first time in 85 years in Arkansas (it even made the UK news, apparently). My sister-in-law’s dad is a professional chef and so we ate some seriously good food.
But here’s the surprise. I am used to being in different cultures really regularly, and places where the food, language and customs are completely foreign, and where there are few creature comforts. And mostly it’s fine. Now here I am in a country which shares so much of our own culture and where every desire for convenience and luxury is fulfilled, and I have found it to be unexpectedly uncomfortable (and I’m not talking about the inflatable mattress we slept on).
I have struggled to work out why. But I think it’s because the part of US culture I dislike most, is merely a reflection of something I am only too aware lurks in my own heart. And it’s ugly.
It’s consumerism. The drive to always be buying stuff and to make that activity the means by which we define ourselves/cope/relax/attribute value is something that I battle against on home soil, and in my own soul. It’s hard not to feel like the struggle is ratcheted up a few notches in suburban USA where civilisation seems almost exclusively to take the form of endless fast-food outlets, super-sized stores and shopping malls. In the absence of any ‘third spaces’ for people to interact meaningfully, there is only the mall and your home – the place where you buy and the place where you use/display/consume what you buy.
Here, I revolt against this way of living; but at home I know and am ashamed of how easily I embrace it.
I picked up a book from my brother’s shelves over Christmas, called “The Trouble with Paris” and it spelt out the same truth. The title refers to a girl struggling with depression who moves to Paris because she decides that she just needs a change of scene. It turns out that “the trouble with Paris” is that hopping on a plane to a new city is just another way of chasing new experiences and avoiding reality. We have become addicted, the book claims, to the hyped-up version of reality constantly sold to us by the media and the marketeers, and so we devote our time and attention to chasing (buying) a better reality than the one we live.
But then I stumbled across this quotation which made it all hit home:
“We can buy fairtrade and organic, yet still live under the framework of consumerism, running from commitment and community, living for self, chasing experience at the expense of intimacy and connection, and treating others like objects.”
(Yes I buy fairtrade and organic).
Southern US suburban culture might be an easy target for me with its obvious excesses, but a few different shopping habits don’t make me immune from the infection of consumerism or the compulsive quest for a hyper-real life. I am as addicted as the next person to constant social media news-feeds; new and exciting experiences; allegedly self-improving purchases; pretty, sparkly things…and just look at how much I travel. Somehow I am reminded of a proverb involving specks of dust and planks of wood.
It’s not that I think I have no right to critique, but it’s always easier to judge something you’re not a part of. A community you don’t live in. A culture you don’t shape. The more painful, more demanding work lies in the neighbourhood where I do live, amidst the consumer options that face me every day. How can I share with my community, rather than consume as an individual? How do I become a creator rather than a consumer?
So in the end it all comes back to me not them. And it comes back to London not Little Rock. It’s crazy how far you travel sometimes just to discover what’s in your own heart.
In 2013 I’ll be sharing some of my journey to live more simply in the city. In the new year I’ll tell you all how the blog will be growing and changing…