What Stories Will You Live? What Stories Will You Tell?

Today’s blog post is brought to you by the book “Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything”, by F.S. Michaels. Michaels begins with the proposition that a “master story” is a governing pattern for a culture, and uses the examples of the religious monoculture in 16th Century Europe, which then gave way to the scientific monoculture. In our time, she says, the monoculture is economic, and provides chapters on how work, relationships, community, health, education, and creativity are shaped by economic values and assumptions in the 21st century. This is a well-written book, easily readable at 134 pages, and with 55 pages of notes, clearly well-researched. I do not know F.S. Michaels, but I enjoyed the book immensely, several times. The moment for readers when they come across a piece of writing that articulates something in themselves, half-formed/inchoate, in marvelous lucid fashion, is akin, maybe, to seeing a friend in a crowd of strangers.

“Call a thing immoral or ugly, soul-destroying or a degradation of men, a peril to the peace of the world or to the well-being of future generations; as long as you have not shown it to be ‘uneconomic’ you have not really questioned its right to exist, grow, and prosper.” It is worth asking you to read the quotation again; it is from the late economist E.F. Schumacher. This is the world that has come to pass: a world in which the vilest child pornography thrives, because it is economic. In which hunger and homelessness abound, because it is economic. (To clarify, it is widely believed that it is uneconomic to rectify homelessness/hunger.) In which climate change begins to pose real questions of how humans will survive, yet no governments can seemingly conceive how to begin to solve the problem, and where will the money come from? And this is worth thinking on: how could a story, an idea, come to be so pervasive that we allow it to threaten all life on earth?

There have always been those of us who don’t believe the story, of course, who don’t see ourselves first and foremost as ‘economic man’. Those who don’t believe, but pretend to, form a percentage as well, and how shall we ever know how many these are? For the one certainty is that the economic story is central to our very survival, though tangential to our real lives. And here is where my story becomes personal, in a way that is not altogether comfortable to tell.

I have never been able to make economic decisions at the cost of some commitment to the truth, or to doing the right thing, to some higher good, or to creativity and imagination. In my first job I was hired at X wages as a hotel housekeeper. My employer praised my work, and within days I was promoted and training all the new hires, a considerable number. I was really enjoying my first foray into the world of work until my first paycheque, when I discovered that the employer was paying me less than agreed upon. My appeal to fairness fell upon deaf ears, so I complained to Labour Standards, and my complaint was upheld, for the offer was in writing. I was out of a job, however. When I began my own business some years later, I researched the prevailing wage rates and decided to pay my employees at the highest (union) rate for the work. My business grew quickly, had the major market share, and enjoyed a profitability ten percent higher than the competition. Imagine my surprise, then, in applying for a minor line of credit, to be required to defend my higher than average wage costs. In fairness to the Credit Union lending committee they granted my line of credit, but I was forced to state the obvious: that paying a living wage and keeping employees, rather than seeing them as disposable labour, was integral to my sense of doing ‘good business’. I’ll offer up one final story: as the newly-hired executive director of a non profit arts organization, I discovered a number of uncomfortable things. Such as the ten thousand dollars as a specific grant for one purpose apparently having been spent – well, elsewhere. No membership list, although membership was paid, no filing system, no information about such basics as how much was in the bank account and insurance. A government body demanding information from me about a Record of Employment for a previous employee that it believed to be questionable. Meanwhile, the board declined to act or to fulfill their obligations under the Societies Act, and my insistence that integrity was crucial to the existence of the organization got me fired, though I would have been forced to resign in any case.

I tell these stories because it is self-evident that there are principles of fairness that matter, maybe even more than ones’ livelihood. Or as F.S. Michaels puts it: “When what we once valued intrinsically – truth, beauty, goodness, justice – becomes just another means to an economic end, and we accept life within the monoculture, we are deprived of our higher-level human needs.” I cannot pretend to have the answer for how anyone else lives their life, but I can comfortably assert that we must begin to look at human needs beyond the economic. That truth and beauty and goodness and justice really do have a transcendent value. That we really cannot eat money. That the world cries out ‘let me live’.

 

“The choice is yours.

What stories will you live?

What stories will you tell? “

 

My thanks to F.S. Michaels.

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A Beautiful Object

I’ve been wanting to write about this rolling pin for a while now, my imaginary friend. It came from a lovely little shop called Cottage Fever –  it caught my eye because I use these things, but also because it was beautifully cared for. I am guessing the rolling pin is more than fifty years old, without a nick in its painted handles and its surface oiled and unmarked. It  has quickly become one of my favourite tools; and you will be pleased to know that I endeavour to take equally good care of it.

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Of course, I don’t really know the story of the rolling pin. I’ve seen many of them around, in vintage and second-hand shops and flea markets, though never one as well cared for as this, and I think there is a story here. Well, there are probably many stories…I caught myself and still catch myself wondering about the person who owned this thing and who clearly loved it. I understand why s/he loved it – it is beautifully balanced, made entirely of wood, and a joy to use. Why it came to be sold, given away, or discarded is another mystery. Although I use different rolling pins for different doughs,  it really would not be possible to buy something new that is better than this almost-antique – and that is terribly sad. We have become a culture where it is possible to buy anything, where technology is amazing and life-changing, where stuff is everywhere – and yet, the idea of things that last, that might be passed on to another generation seems laughable.

It is true that there is an emerging consciousness of ‘artisan’, which has mostly been confined to the realm of food and drink. But even as mass manufacturers and fast food places have co-opted ‘artisan’ for their branding slogans, the word becomes difficult to use…There is also a movement called maker culture, which seem to be very rich and eclectic and busy making, re-making, recycling, and up-cycling everything from clothes to furniture to art. Maker culture tends to be marginalized and artisan has been co-opted, but unquestionably these ideas and others can show us the path to a beautiful, fuller life.

To go back to the story of the rolling pin, the person who owned it had time. Time to bake things from scratch, but also time to take care of the tools at the end of the day. It is certainly true that fifty years ago, around the time the rolling pin was born, almost everybody cooked from scratch, partly because there was not the plethora of packaged and regurgitated food available that there is today. So there was more time, and better food…This is not meant to be nostalgia for time past, however. The most likely story is that the rolling pin belonged to a woman, that she did not work outside her home, or at best, part time, and that her husband worked at a job that paid sufficiently to buy the family necessities. This is most likely simply because statistics tell us that life was like this for the middle majority at that time, but it is not an argument for a return to this version of time past.

What it is an argument for is a life filled with some small beauties and depth and flavour, of enough time to spend a few hours baking something special. Or enough time to make, or remake from the thrift store, a pleasing piece of clothing. Time to plant a garden, and time to tend it. Time to preserve the fruits of that garden. Maybe most importantly, time to smell the roses in the garden – time that is unscripted, unproductive, and gloriously soul enlarging. This kind of time is rare in our culture; not only does it have little value but it is actively denigrated by those who are ambitious and status-driven and dollar-defined. My rolling pin has little value for them, either. But for others, the rolling pin could be a metaphor for much that is missing in our lives, and a reminder that living with less might actually be living with more.

I will leave you with a picture of my most recent creation with the rolling pin. These were not particularly time-consuming – but I have a bit of practice! The impetus was to spend an hour or two being creatively engaged – and, of course, dessert, which is a rarish indulgence here. For me, the rolling pin and the fruits of my labour are a personal response to the threats of climate change, our landfills overflowing with food packaging, generations searching for the meaning of life in meaningless jobs and endless commutes…just so. It seems to me that the way forward, the intelligent response to these very real crises, is for each of us to make the time and place for objects of beauty and creative engagement, in whatever way is true to ourselves. To reclaim a portion of our time from popular culture, from consumer products and passively consumed entertainment. To expect more, while choosing less.

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