trying to live la pura vida

I’m back from an amazing week in Costa Rica. Did you miss me?

I want to write all about the trip, and kept a journal while we were there in order to do so, but our camera broke while we were there, and my husband’s iPhone, which became our backup camera, was left in San Jose. Through a strange and amazing series of circumstances which I will surely tell you about later, the phone is on its way back, but I’m not going to write about the bulk of the trip until I have some pictures of beautiful Costa Rica to share as well. I really fell in love with the country and the people we met there.

One thing people in Costa Rica say a lot is “pura vida.” It literally translates to “pure life” but can also be used to sort of mean “full of life.” It’s definitely true of Costa Rica, it was true of our trip, and it’s something I’m trying to make true of my life as well. As the comments on the “No Clothes” post keep rolling in and people affirm the challenge, I’ve been pondering my motivations for the challenge and for my desire to begin to live a simpler life in general. Part of it is that I know that for me, the cycle of wanting and buying and wanting and buying is not actually leading to a happier, more joyful life, but rather a vicious cycle of materialism. And another part of it is, I don’t want the things that give me happiness, like a pretty new dress, to be tainted by the fact that they’re bad for the environment and made by very poor people in very poor working conditions. A life of “pura vida” would be about life and happiness for all, not life and happiness that is dependent on others’ suffering and oppression.

When we were in San Jose, we stayed in an amazing house-turned-bed-and-breakfast that we found through AirBnB. Our host, when we asked what brought him to Costa Rica, told us about the day he was liberated from a life of comfort and material things the day a wildfire destroyed his nice house and everything he owned in Southern California. And that’s the way he describes that experience: liberating. Now he lives in a lovely condo in San Jose and shares the gifts of hospitality and good conversation with everyone blessed to stay with him. And I do mean blessed– hospitality, shared meals, and good conversation are practically the sacraments of my faith.

Over the course of the week, I just kept ruminating on what it would be like to feel liberated from materialism. I don’t mean liberated from actually having things, or appreciating beauty, or even from buying things, but I do mean liberated from the never-ending desire of my current shopping habits. For example– I like to browse lots of style blogs, largely for inspiration on how to wear things I already have, or things to DIY for myself or my home– they inspire my creativity, and that’s always a good thing. However, they also often inspire my desire to shop and spend. For example, while perusing my backlog accumulated in Google Reader during a week without my computer, I saw, and immediately wanted this dress from Ruche: Why? Because it’s a very good knockoff of a Marc Jacobs dress I’ve been coveting ever since Michelle Obama wore it (source): The Marc Jacobs version was $685. The Ruche version, which is sold out, was $43. Why? Well, the knockoff is 100% polyester (read: made from petroleum, not very breathable) and “imported” (read: probably not manufactured under the best of conditions). I could (were it not sold out, and had I not taken a no shopping for clothes vow) buy that $43 dress and simply enjoy its beauty and the feeling that I had scored a great look that I had long admired at an insane price. But I’d be bothered by the fact that it’s a blatant ripoff of something someone else created, and I’d be more bothered by the fact that it was made of oil and most likely sewn under not great working conditions. And the sad fact is, the person I am right now, that person can easily say to herself, “BUT IT’S CUUUUTE. AND SO CHEAP!” I don’t want to be that person. That person who says she cares about living “la pura vida” and advocates for the environment and social justice, but is willing to throw all that away for a cute dress. Maybe one day I’ll actually live up to my own values, but it’s hard. Anyone else out there on the same sort of journey?

freedom and independence are not the only American values

Just for fun, I'm illustrating this with a pic of me pretending to be a Tea Partier in the Smithsonian gift shop. The fact that I carry Jasmine Green Tea around in my purse probably reveals that I'm really an elitist liberal.

My friend Adam posted a great link to his Facebook today.  It’s an open letter to the Tea Partiers by John H. Richardson in Esquire. Many of these protesters, opposed to what they call “big government” like to claim that things like health care are part of “big government,” are antithetical to American values, and are perhaps even unconstitutional.

Claims like those make me wonder if perhaps these patriotic protesters somehow missed US history.  Taking care of each other, interdependence, and community spirit are founding American values.  Most of our early colonies were founded as “commonwealths,” where the good of everyone was considered crucial to the good of the colony.  According to the Esquire piece:

Way back in colonial times, Americans spent between “10 and 35 percent of all municipal funds” on what was then called “relief,” according to Walter I. Trattner’s standard textbook on the subject, From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America. Aid to the poor and sick was the largest single government expense, providing crucial sustenance to the widows and orphans of the Indian wars, the survivors of epidemics, starving immigrants, and a surprising number of abandoned bastard children (during the Revolutionary era, between a third and 50 percent of all first children were illegitimate — take that, nostalgists of family values!).

I’d also add that a democracy is only ever as strong as its citizens.  Only people who are free from basic want, secure from preventable disease, protected in the event of catastrophic illness, and ensured a basic level of education and employment are able to be the kind of citizens who can participate fully in a system of representative democracy.  Our constitution’s preamble asserts that the purpose of the document and the government it establishes includes a responsibility to “provide for the general welfare.”  It is for this reason that our founders, notably John Adams (who is my favorite and for whom I am crusading for a monument in Washington D.C., although that is a subject for another post), were so adamant that public education be a cornerstone of our democracy (which is why I am personally very passionate about the subject of public education and not a huge fan of private or home school, though of course people should have those as choices).  I see public health as an extension of that concept.  If medicine had been more of an established science at the time of our nation’s founding, I’m sure providing for the public health would have been more explicitly mentioned. (As an aside, I’d encourage any vaccine doubters to see the John Adams miniseries and observe what a miracle early innoculation was for this nation.)

The bottom line is, for all the rugged individual John Wayne-iness of this nation, there’s an equal tradition of people coming together to create communities dedicated to the good of all.  We can’t be the shining city on the hill if our image is tarnished by people in this great nation unable to access even basic medical care, with people always at risk of poverty and homelessness if a catastrophic illness should befall them or a loved one.

I sure hope we get a vote on a final health care reform bill this week.  Bills have already passed the House and the Senate, and now we just need those two bodies to come together to get something passed for President Obama to sign.

the best Christmas present ever?

Image via Flickr user Muffet under a Creative Commons License.

I swear I’m not a Grinch.

Yeah, this is another one of those posts where I have to begin with a disclaimer assuring my readers that I really, really don’t hate Christmas. Here are some things I’m looking forward to over the next month: baking cookies with my mom and little sister, spending time with my littlest sister, drinking Russian Tea, staring at Christmas trees in dark rooms, taking a trip to downtown Hot Springs AR in order to see Christmas lights and a giant gingerbread house, the local prosthetic shop that has the best Christmas window displays ever, reading “The Gift of the Magi” and “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” nativity sets, advent wreaths, making gingerbread houses that involve hot glue guns, playing board games with family, seeing our niece, meeting a brand new baby cousin, watching “Elf,” Christmas Eve church service, seeing some snow in Colorado, watching my dad tear up while watching “It’s a Wonderful Life,” having semi-shouted conversations with my hard-of-hearing grandmother, hugging necks, and kissing cheeks.  There is a lot to love about Christmas.

You may notice that I didn’t mention gifts anywhere in that list.  Because when I start to think about all the things that make Christmas special to me, most of them are free.  They are not about things. They are about love.  And yet, every single year, starting around Halloween, loved ones start demanding wish lists, the expectation to buy Things begins to mount, and I begin to get overwhelmed and stressed and wonder why we’re really doing all this.  My dad loves to say that Jesus is the Reason for the Season (I swear he’s not one of those types to get worked up about the “War on Christmas,” he just really likes to remind us, Tiny Tim style, what it’s all about), and yet, as I venture out into stores, I don’t see Jesus anywhere, and not just because the greeters say “Happy Holidays,” because really, only jerks have a problem with that.

Just getting out to holiday shop is stressful, the opposite of peace and joy and goodwill to all people.  Drivers act like jerks, everyone’s in a hurry, stores are crowded and clerks are testy.  Money is tight, no one knows what they want, we don’t know what to buy, and yet we feel pressured to buy buy buy, give give give.

And it’s not that I don’t love giving a thoughtful gift. I do. I’ve been known to agonize over birthday gifts, and I really do enjoy giving them, mostly because with birthdays I only have to focus on one present and can make it something really special and thoughtful and expressive of love and care.  But Christmas really just becomes overwhelming– no one has the time to buy unique and special thoughtful gifts for every single person on their list, at least, no one I know does. And so even people like me, otherwise completely committed to buying local and fair trade, end up hitting outlet malls and completely forsaking our values in order to get gifts for everyone we’re expected to buy for.

And so I’m left wondering why we do it.  Just getting to spend time with family and loved ones is a gift, a huge one.  We don’t need any THING beyond that.  Why can’t we just celebrate that we have time together, that we have so many blessings, that we are not in need? If we weren’t pressured to buy buy buy, give give give, we could give to charity and then just enjoy each other’s company.

I’ve tried for two years now to convince the rest of my family of my vision of a gift-free Christmas. It hasn’t worked.  So I’ve made a decision.  Next Halloween I’m going to make an announcement.  I’m going to say: Dear family members, I love you so very much.   I love Christmas, and I love celebrating Jesus’ birth with you.  Because of my deep love for Christmas and all that it means, we will not be participating in gifts for anyone who is not a child.  We hope to focus on spending time together, making memories, and donating time and money to charity.  We hope that you will respect this decision, and encourage you to join us in our pursuit of a pared-down but more deeply meaningful holiday, though we will respect and love your choice if you don’t. We love you and we want to focus on our love for each other and our love for Christ this year.

I’m getting excited just thinking about it. Perhaps a gift-free Christmas could be the second-best Christmas present ever.