Thursday, March 14, 2013

Conservation vs. Consumption… with a splash of Cool

As I was walking around my apartment the other day (which didn’t take me long because its essentially one long room of about 40 feet [okay EXACTLY 40 feet, because yes, I counted. I do these things…]) Anyway, it got me thinking about all of the 'things' that I’ve brought, bought and accumulated since coming to Mongolia and have come to find a home in my home.

It started with 50 lbs. That’s how much we’re allotted as Peace Corps volunteers to bring with us to get started in our new habitat. The items that made the cut into my two pieces of luggage were very carefully selected and fussed over… at least thrice. Some of them had sentimental value – my favorite shoes, my childhood blanket, my jacket I can rock with anything. Others were more practical; a crank flashlight, the biggest baddest hard-drive I could find, a Swiss army knife. And then there was the stuff that was just a plain waste of space. A lifetime supply of my favorite gum? Really, Brit? Where exactly did I think I was going...?! Regardless, I was both ecstatic and proud when I came in well under 50 lbs. I was soooo minimalist.

But immediately after stepping off the plane, I found myself incessantly clinging to the things I’d lugged with me halfway across the globe. I needed these things to last. And they needed to get me through 27 months.

So this led me to delve into asking myself why I had forged this seemingly dependent relationship with my possessions. I began to think about the origin of where this may have started.

As children, there is so much we don’t control. That we can’t control. But as we grow and age older, we begin to become entrusted with things. The concept of ‘mine’ is born and will forever remain. And the reason we assign so much weight to these possessions is simply because they are not shared, they are ours. They belong to us. But as we collect more and more, the items in our lives begin to evolve into so much more than mere ‘things.’ We assign them a history. We give them a story. They become symbols and reminders of places we’ve been in life. They are memories that have been forever engraved into beautiful non-living objects. I read an article recently that discussed A New Earth. In it, Eckhart Tolle says, 'the unconscious compulsion to enhance one's identity through association with an object is built into the very structure of the egoic mind.' We all do it. We're all guity of it, just to varying degrees.

When we first arrived here, because there were so many uncertainties and unknowns about what these two years might bring, I clung to the things that were constant and tangible; my treasured possessions from home. Looking back I can clearly identify that I did this out of fear. Fear of the unknown, of the undefined. And it’s easy to see why. It’s human nature to prepare. But even in my attempts to expect the unexpected I was still left with a lot of uncertainty. I can remember back to my Pre-Service Training when myself and other volunteers stealthily stashed cookies distributed to us at tea breaks into our bags and purses. For all we knew, it might be the last delicious morsel of food we would know for the summer. I just didn’t know what to expect. None of us did.

As time went by here in Mongolia, my little bundle of possessions began to grow. I’ve added to it things I’ve purchased while being here and things that have been given to me, either by other volunteers or by my Mongolian friends and family. As I took stock of things in my wandering about my apartment, I started to realize how many of these items wouldn’t be making the trip back home with me. My possessions had mushroomed and completely overflowed my two pieces of baggage. 

What I've noticed is that as my time is coming to an end here, I’m transitioning from conservation mode to full throttle consumption mode. I’ve adopted the use-it-or-loose-it mentality.

Witnessing a year come and go has helped to alleviate those thoughts of fear and doubt. They’ve begun to dissipate a little leaving room for knowledge and experience to take form. And it’s been during this dance that I’ve discovered a healthier balance between indulgence and excessiveness. After all, what’s the point of having anything, if we don’t allow ourselves to use it?

It’s also comforting to note the change in the value of these items I brought with me 6,000 miles to this place. And I’m not talking about their monetary value, but what they mean to me… their intrinsic value. What they represent. I’m no longer clinging to my possessions as I did when I set foot here. I’ve made peace with the unknown and done my best to meet its acquaintance.

I’ve also come to the revelation that these things are not what define me.

Yes, they can be viewed as reflections of myself, and I relied on them heavily when I first came here, to help paint the story of who I am to my Mongolian friends and family. But at the end of the day, things can only take us so far. They can’t feel, taste, smell, or touch. They don’t have the ability to live this life. That’s on me.

And this notion of consumption isn’t just ‘thing’ specific, but can be extended to many of my relationships as well. In my first year, there was a part of me that I conserved and held back a little, simply because I just didn’t know what the next day would bring. I was reserved in a way that looking back actually limited my experience and affected my relationships. I didn’t know what to expect and was unsure of my role in it all. But then, change happened. And I’m not going to say that I’ve mastered ‘consuming’ people, because, well, that just sounds weird. I just hadn’t realized how much of myself I had to give away to others. Being consciously more present in my relationships has helped this, but I’m still painfully aware of my limited time here.

And so, I’m consuming. Attempting to ring the most out of this experience as is humanly possible. Letting the moments really sink in so that I can look back on them later and know that I acted with little reservation and a genuine effort to assimilate to my community. That I wasn’t holding back but was invested in each moment with every part of my being.

As for my ‘things,’ the ones that do make the cut to return home with me. Those things will be viewed altogether differently. And that view won’t stem out of dependence, but out of love and memory of a place that has watched me grow and changed me in many ways. I trust that life will provide; which leaves me free to consume and not worry about the need to conserve.

View of our town from the monastery. My new favorite thing...

… aaaaand here’s the ‘cool’ component that was promised. A little project my site mates and I have been working on pay tribute to the traditional Mongolian deel and a few problems we may face while dressing ourselves. Njoi!