I had to fly down to LA for a quick trip this weekend. While waiting for BART to take me to the Oakland Airport, I learned that a fire in the next station meant that no trains could go to or come from the East Bay.
So, I walked to the Palace Hotel and was able to get a Lincoln Town Car to drive me to the airport. Now, I’ve become incredibly frugal, so spending $35 to get to the airport isn’t exactly how I’d like to use my money. Of course, because I’m incredibly frugal, I actually had the $35 to get to the airport (things weren’t always like this; more on that later).
Anyway, I shared the Town Car with a Serbian man named – of all things – Elvis. My half-hour conversation with Elvis made the $35 ride completely worth it. Elvis works in security for Current TV, a station founded by Al Gore, with whom Elvis has had many conversations about politics and policy. So Elvis and I discussed politics. We discussed the CIA’s involvement in Venezuela’s recent (failed) coup. We talked about the American culture of consumption. We discussed the 2008 election. We discussed documentaries. Our discussion was one of the most fascinating I’ve had in a long time, partly because Elvis didn’t spout the ‘correct,’ liberal political beliefs. He had really thought about what he believed in. He had done more research about politics and had had more discussions about his point of view than most of us born and raised in the US.
Now, I’m not the most outwardly political person – I don’t march in protests, I don’t sign petitions – but I met Elvis at a time when I had started to question what I’ve implicitly believed for years. This questioning all started when some friends and I read about the Compact, a group which vowed to buy nothing new for a year. We decided to try this for Lent. Following the Compact meant breaking my spending habits. Within days, I realized how accustomed I was to buying things when I was bored or unhappy. And at the end of the month, I actually had money left over. I was still bored or unhappy at times, but I learned to deal with those feelings in different ways.
Our Lenten Compact established two things for me: (1) when I didn’t spend everything I had made, I could start saving – and having money saved has opened a whole world of possibilities for me; and (2) I realized how conditioned I am to spend money to ‘cure’ whatever ails me. I started to examine my relationship with money and things and the amount of energy I expend to get both. I read Your Money or Your Life and decided to change how I spend my money so that I have the freedom to do what I want with my life. This has not been a difficult path for me – I discovered frugality at a time when I was already open to it, and I already know that the rewards of this path are greater than accumulating a house of ‘stuff’ I don’t need.
Of course, frugality and conscious consumption are not what we’re taught. Instead, we receive hundreds of messages each day telling us that we’re inadequate, that buying things will make us whole, that spending money will compensate for the amount of time we spend unhappily working at jobs that slowly kill us. We learn that consumption is our right, even our duty as Americans (remember Bush telling us to go out and spend money to send a message to Al Qaeda that the US is still standing after 9/11?). All of these messages keep us focused on getting and spending and getting some more, and divert our attention away from what’s really going on in the world (read Feed for a really disturbing depiction of this).
Anyway, back to politics and Elvis… why don’t I have more conversations like this? What has happened in my life that these kinds of exchanges are rare? Or maybe I’m asking the wrong questions – maybe I’m finally having these conversations because I’m finally in a place where I, too, am ready to really think – and question – what I believe in.
So, I’ll probably write more about this journey, and I’ll probably write more about Jake and illustrations and finding furniture on the street, and making jam with friends, too. After all, these are all things that make a conscious, fulfilling life.