Published September 20th, 2016
This is the fourth piece in a series — Out of Africa back to America — where I am sharing my take on what it was like, is like, to come back to the country I was born. Seeing the United States of America again, from 2012 until today, with African lenses…
PART IV - A Brie in the Bush
Some poles on the Pergola at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden have collapsed. The weight of the vines seemed to have been too much.
As I walked through Vine Pergola today, I started thinking about stuff, material stuff, and how my first feelings of absolute abundance surrounding me when I first returned to the States turned astonishingly rapidly, to excess. I've had to work extra hard to wade through stuff and remember to appreciate, feel grateful, and maintain meaningfulness.
I remember the first festive season I spent back in the States, in 2012. The holiday time embracing American Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year and, of course, several other holidays of different cultures packed into a celebratory time. For over a decade, I had looked forward to the festive season in Africa, when schools were closed and many businesses as well. Shops were open regular hours and many closed for the holidays (holy days). It was a time to spend quality time with family and friends. Yes, there were abundant feasts on the holidays, but primarily, only on those days. It was a time to take 'downtime', to rejuvenate, relax, and nurture relationships.
It's funny, I love Brie, the French cheese. And one time, in Tanzania, I had found a piece at a local market that was shipped up from South Africa. As I was heading out into the bush with my dear friends - also founders of an NGO who, like myself, had been working our tails off for months - I decided to splurge and get us the piece of Brie and our favorite crackers. After several hours on rough and dusty roads, we stopped for a picnic under a tree to shade us from the hot African sun. We drank some cool water as we relaxed on a Maasai shuka (blanket) looking up at the vast sky. And then, I pulled out the Brie from the cool box. I can't even express in words the joy felt as we ate that cheese, so incredibly delicious, it had been too long. We counted our blessings, to be in such a beautiful place, to the business people who facilitated movement of global goods, and for having the resources to purchase the Brie. I believe I had forked over about $5 for the Brie, and in a land where at that time the vast majority of people lived on a dollar a day, this felt truly luxurious. And we were grateful, truly grateful.
Fast forward about 8 or so years to my time in Miami for my first Christmas season there in years. I was invited to several parties, from Thanksgiving through to New Years. Some were Tuesday nights, not even on weekends, and sometimes there was more than one in an evening. Almost all of them had cheese platters. The first one was exciting, the abundance of cheese! I was so excited, delicious cheeses, and Brie. And then I noticed something, I was the only one so excited about the cheese platter. At the end of the evening much of it was still there. In addition to platters of many other foods, there was a lot of uneaten stuff.
I watched this scene repeat itself for weeks. By the New Year, I myself didn't feel like any more Brie. I asked a party host why so much food was displayed and so much went to waste, and she explained "you are supposed to have these foods out, cheese platters, etc. to show abundance, but people get tired of so much food, and many are trying to not gain weight. It really is excessive isn't it?" I thought about it...how that Brie I ate in the bush in Tanzania compared to my experience at holiday parties in Miami. How does this happen?
And it is not just cheese that overwhelmed me, it was cars, so much cheaper in the States than in Africa; clothing, soaps, and shoes. With all the free samples and 2 for 1 holiday deals, you couldn't afford not to accumulate stuff. And I found myself losing appreciation for the things I did have. Things started feeling so replaceable, almost disposable. Dare I say, meaningless. While I understand the Buddhist belief in detachment, and totally get the spiritual practice of learning to live without material possessions, I believe there is a happy middle. There has to be. After all, one of the things I was looking forward to in moving from 3rd World to 1st World was to have easy access to more stuff: especially foodstuffs and clothing. Yet, fairly soon after arrival, it was like a tsunami hit. And, the strange thing was, so many people, especially children, seemed unsatisfied with the abundance. They wanted the newest phones, video games, fast food and junk food. I felt the plot of this life's play had been lost, temporarily.
I had to take a step back. In fact, I have to take steps back all the time, even daily. When I shop for food, I often visualize being back in Arusha, during the time of power cuts, when markets didn't have electricity to refrigerate their meats and cheeses. I am very conscious about falling for deals on clothing, do I really need another pair of those pants?
I've found the best way to navigate the material ocean and not be taken by a tidal wave, is to be as conscious as possible in my choice-making. What truly is going to nourish and nurture me? Don't get me wrong, I am happy to have so many choices in the land of abundance, and I am grateful I can uncover the meaning in stuff and truly appreciate.
Here are some tips that work for me for keeping my stuff infused with love, and not turning to $@&t
- When you feel hunger, or are planning what and where to eat, spend some moments considering what will truly nourish you and your loved ones.
- When planning a party with food, consider a theme, or obtain foods that inspire your guests and are made with love, rather than by 'default'.
- When shopping for clothes or shoes, focus quality over quantity. Buy locally-made if possible. One pair of shoes well made in America or Italy lasts a lot longer than 5 pairs made in China for the same price.
- Always give thanks before eating, not just on Thanksgiving. You can say it silently to yourself, or out loud to your dining companions.
- Take good care of your home and stuff inside it. Keep things clean and uncluttered. When items start to feel meaningless and useless, remove them. If still in good condition, say a blessing and then give to a local facility that can give to others in your community in need.
[to be continued...]