14 September 2006

Simple Living, Conscious Consumption, and Chocolate

I retract my disappointment in Judith Levine’s "Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping."

It took a (long) while for me to warm up to the book. I found myself more often irritated with Levine than inspired by her – her ultra-New York lifestyle, worrying about fashion and culture, alienated me. Also, I felt as though she just didn’t"get it" – that she was so focused on deprivation, she was missing the deeper value of excusing oneself from Consumer Culture: living a life of meaning and connection by stepping out of the Buy-Buy-Buy world.

Maybe it just took Levine seven months to get into the swing of things. By early August (the book is laid out in monthly chapters), her entries start showing more depth, and I began to change my mind about the book. I’ve read reviews on Amazon that rail against Levine for bringing in her left-liberal politics,but it is exactly the addition of politics – of discussing the larger picture – that I find interesting. I appreciate the way she links development (in this case, the building of a cell tower in rural Hardwick, VT) with destruction, an example of how growth (the foundation of our consumer economy) is not necessarily a good thing.

Talking about one local woman who is pro cell-tower, Levine writes:
"Sandy has announced that as part of the effort to Take Back Hardwick, she will run… for the Select Board… Her campaign will be ‘pro-business’ and anti-zoning, changes that she believes will entice people to spend money in Hardwick. This in turn will raise property values and improve the quality of life in town. Her ideal commercial residents … would be Wal-Mart and a prison." Levine then points out how increased property values make it difficult for people to continue living in the community, because the locals can no longer afford to buy homes in their own town. (I’ve personally watched this happen in my county and know it to be true.) She concludes with: "Sandy … wants economic development and a better quality of life for Hardwick. She believes the only way to get these is to rescue the town from marauding Luddites and erect an aluminum monument to modern consumption on Bridgman Hill. But the irony is, if she manages to Take Back Hardwick, she may lose the Hardwick she wants to save." Amen! I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes, by Edward Abbey: "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell."

Finally, in December, while contemplating a return to buying, Levine hits the button on the nose. Actually, someone else identifies her intended approach to spending once the year is over: with Mindfulness.

This is what I think not buying is really about. Levine and her partner spend a year wrangling over what is "necessary." Truth be told, very little is "necessary," even less than Levine chose to define as such. But Necessary is no way to live life. Conscious, is. The question is not: Do I need this? The question is: Is this in keeping with my goals and values – am I consciously (mindfully) choosing to bring this into my life? Beauty and joy, as far as I’m concerned, are necessary. But do I need to own each beautiful painting I see? No, of course not. Nor do I WANT to own each painting – I have nowhere to put them, and no desire to take care of them.

Which leads into another discussion I was having with some colleagues – actually, about having started this blog. A couple of fellow bloggers exclaimed that blogging will not make my life simpler; indeed, it will complicate it. I responded with a challenge to re-define "simple" as it applies to simple living.

If we define simple as being less complicated, as meaning less work, then true: blogging will not simplify my life. But then, very little of the things I love make my life simpler. Cats require feeding, cleaning up after, and medical attention (as well as lots of petting). Cut flower arrangements need to be kept fresh. Cooking from scratch takes much more time and energy than throwing a frozen dinner into the microwave (which I don’t have, by the way). Giving my organic garden even a fraction of the attention it deserves – weeding, mulching, feeding – would be a full-time job. Friendships require maintenance – reaching out by phone or e-mail, spending time together, being there for each other. And then there’s the energy involved in maintaining relationship with one’s significant other.

None of the things most important to me make my life simpler in that none of them reduce the amount of energy I expend. Does this mean I should eliminate those things I love most in the name of simplicity? No. Instead, I choose to redefine a simple life as a life that consciously supports my values. By this definition, an argument could be made where blogging does simplify my life, or at least where blogging is suitable to a life of simplicity. Here's my reasoning: I am a writer as well as an organizer. Blogging gives me an outlet to write about those ideas that churn through my brain, allows me to have the (albeit one-sided) conversations I long to have, to share my ideas with others. As a result, it also keeps my writing juices flowing, which helps me move forward on my actual projects.(For example, last weekend I finally sat down and wrote the book I've been wanting to write for eight years!) And corresponding with people who write back keeps me connected to community. These are all high values for me.

Here’s a final tasty note on Simplicity – a simple recipe for one of my favorite foods: chocolate. In typical Claire fashion, the measurements are imprecise. I usually just throw the ingredients together and adjust as needed. Have fun playing with this!

Mmmmm… Chocolate…

Over medium heat, melt a chunk of organic cocoa butter. (I get mine from www.chocolatealchemy.com) I think a chunk winds up being about 1/4 to 1/3 cup when it’s melted.

When the cocoa butter’s almost all-the-way melted, add in a plop (a heaping Tablespoon?) of organic coconut oil. (This melts much more quickly than the cocoa butter, hence it’s added later.) The coconut oil isn’t necessary, but it adds a wonderful silky mouth-feel to the chocolate.

Remove from heat when the oils have melted. Mix in about 3 glops (glug, glug, glug – what is that, about 1/4 cup?) EACH of organic agave nectar and maple syrup. (You can use honey, too, but I prefer the mellower sweet of agave and maple. Play with sweeteners. Everyone’s palate has its own preference.)

Stir the sweetener into the melted oils (still off the heat). Now mix in unsweetened cocoa powder. Organic is preferable. You can also get decaf! When I don’t have either organic or decaf in the house, I use Ghiradelli. How much cocoa powder to mix in? Ummm… somewhere between half a cup and a cup. Start with half a cup, mix it in, then taste. Is it too sweet? Not chocolate-y enough? Then add more powder. This is a seat-of-the-pants process; just keep adjusting until it’s to your liking.

At this point, you can call it good, or you can gussy it up. I like to add dried fruit and nuts. A couple of good combinations are:

Chopped dried apricots and chopped pecans

Dried cranberries, raisins, and chopped almonds

Other additions might include chocolate nibs, vanilla, orange flavoring (or zest)… Really,the possibilities are limited only by your imagination (and making sure not to add too much more liquid).

Again, play with it.

If you’ve added fruit and/or nuts, the next thing to do is make what are fondly called Cow Pies. Put a sheet of wax paper or parchment on a plate/cookiesheet/cuttingboard – any flat surface. Next, plop spoonfuls of the chocolate onto the paper – however large or small you want your Cow Pies to be. (I usually make them about one-inch round). Then put them into the fridge and allow them to solidify. Store them in the fridge.

If you decide not to gussy them up, you can pour them into molds (I haven’t tried this yet) or onto a parchment-lined plate and stick them in the fridge to harden.

Or, you can dip strawberries into them, put those on the parchment and into the fridge.

Or, you can use the chocolate as frosting and pour it over a cake. (If you decide to decorate the cake with flowers, wait until the chocolate has cooled. I’ve wilted the flowers by not waiting, and they just don’t have the same pizzazz. Kindof puts a crimp in the presentation.)

1 comment:

Sarah said...

Claire. Claire! Where have you been all my life?! I got to your blog after reading your excellent post on the Compact about letting go of stuff "in case you need it later." This post in particular, about simple living sometimes not being simpler, but being in accordance with one's values, really resonated with me. I have struggled to explain this to friends that think my commitment to baking my own bread and making my own butter is not really "simplifying things." But the deeper question is the one you posed about values. And another point: sometimes we do things not because they are simpler for us, but because they are simpler for the earth. The EARTh did less work to provide me my bread made in my home from wheat in bulk with less packaging.

Lastly (I promise to stop taking over your blog comments), making my own things and taking the time to buy local and at organic farms, etc. sometimes takes longer, but what would I be doing with all the time saved if I just bought everything at the local commercial grocery store? Running around more, trying to store everything I bought, busy busy busy. Baking my own bread, by contrast, simplifies my life because it slows me down one morning every other week.

Thanks for your blog. Keep it up!

P.S. I feel the same about my own blog being an outlet for me.