While President Obama prepares for his State of the Union address, I thought I would spend my time contemplating the state of my various unions. The other night I was cooking dinner and listening to NPR (de rigueur in my marital union) when I heard a sound bite from a speech the president gave at a GE plant in Schenectady, NY. “We’re gonna invent stuff; we’re gonna build stuff.” I was busy sautéing vegetables or I might have run screaming from the room.
I know that American workers need jobs and that the last decades have seen the huge and devastating loss of manufacturing jobs to China and the many other places in the world from which we now purchase most of our stuff. But in my own union, marital—and through marriage with a beautiful, run-down property we are trying to preserve—sorting through stuff has become an overwhelming, sometimes guilt-inducing, all-consuming job.
My mother-in-law, an immigrant from Trinidad who came of age during the Depression, let nothing daunt her when people laughed at her ambition to work in coffee importing. Instead she became a teacher and convinced her husband to do the same. In 1945 they bought a farm for a song and eventually ran their own small eccentric school. Over the years, they added onto the original farmhouse and outbuildings in a haphazard, do-it-yourself (sometimes downright scary and dangerous fashion) and after his death my mother-in-law continued buying land and speculating in real estate. On vacations they managed to travel the world and wherever they went they brought back lots of stuff, making little distinction between gems and junk and never throwing anything away. As people from the Depression Era knew, you might need it someday.
High Valley School, like the times in which such schools prospered, is no more, but High Valley the land, buildings, and eccentric spirit of the place continue under our direction as an (unendowed) center and an odd assortment of people living in not-quite-intentional community. Until my 98-year-old mother-in-law needed more care and moved to a home nearby (where she is avowedly relieved not to have to be in charge) we lived a mile or so away in a house where we raised our children. Now we are preparing to move into a tenant apartment above where my mother-in-law’s stuff still presents us with challenges. What stays, what goes in order to use the downstairs as adjunct center space? Ok, we don’t need to keep a dried up plastic snow scene encasing a leprechaun, but what about all the books, trashy, moldering, rare? And what about all our own stuff, and the stuff my natal family stored in our attic?
Wherever we look at High Valley, paint is peeling; wiring is questionable, plumbing, dysfunctional; energy use, disastrously inefficient. In the last week we have had one instance of power outage; one building ran out of fuel; in two others the pipes froze even with the heat on. Thanks to the sale (at a loss) of a house my mother-in-law built on speculation during a distant and fleeting real estate boom, we have some short-term cash. You better believe we are investing in infrastructure and energy efficiency. We are providing some jobs this winter. We won’t be building any new stuff, though. The land is in conservation easements, and our common purpose is to preserve it. We will be recycling some stuff, moving the fence of a long defunct tennis court to make a deer-proof vegetable garden. We will go on hosting house concerts, singing and poetry circles, seasonal rites. We will rent the facilities to groups who want a day among overgrown gardens and venerable trees. We will strive to pay the taxes and restore the place. Our dream is not growth but sustainability.
I hope the president will address that topic tonight. Our union’s present way of life is not sustainable: the miles of cavernous malls full of stuff (made elsewhere) staffed by underpaid workers who can’t afford to buy much stuff. Why then is our goal to make more stuff, so that we can cling to our slipping superpower status? What if we said (as my husband I have been forced to on a smaller scale): This place is falling apart, it’s a mess, but it has some beauty, some spirit. How can we tend our country, so that we can afford to keep it?