Saturday, September 2, 2017

the power of choice

" You cannot simulate poverty. Poverty is not about having no money alone, it's about having no power."
 --Arundhati Roy, talking about Gandhi's choice to simulate poverty (wearing a loin cloth, for instance), in "Debunking the Gandhi Myth" @11:40

I've been thinking more about poverty ever since working at Goodwill, where it was so clear that poverty is, as Roy says, not only about cash and possessions. Certainly my coworkers needed more money, but what they needed even more was more power, including the power of choice––and all the many, many things that go into creating that (education, health, social networks that radiate outward, political racial and sexual equality, etc.).

I've lived most of my adult life by choice without a lot of money or expensive stuff, by American standards, 
which is to say, I've been richer in material things than most humans in the history of the world. Have you seen the article that figures out how much work it took to produce a shirt in Middle-Ages Europe?
"7 hours for sewing, 72 for weaving, 500 for spinning, or 579 hours total to make one shirt.
At minimum wage––$7.25 an hour––that shirt would cost $4,197.25.

And that's not counting the work that goes into raising sheep or growing cotton and then making the fiber fit for weaving. Or making the thread for the sewing."
 ––"The $3500 Shirt - A History Lesson in Economics," by historian Eve Fisher [The title reflects prices in 2013, when Fisher wrote the article--she refigured the price tag in 2016.]
Imagine spending 480 hours to make enough thread to weave a shirt. No wonder Ellen Rollins said,
"The moaning of the big [spinning] wheel was the saddest sound of my childhood. It was like a low wail from out of the lengthened monotony of the spinner's life."
(––Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life)
Gandhi's call to bring back the spinning wheel would have happened at enormous cost in human time and labor--specifically, in women's time and labor.
Arundhati Roy points out Gandhi was... not so great on the subject of women––(e.g., he had young women sleep naked with him at night, to test his self-control--via Youth Ki Awaaz, a crowd-sourced media platform in India).


So, I haven't had much money by US standards, but I've never been poor, I've never had full poverty of choice. I mean, relatively speaking: certainly sexism has affected and impeded me! And I'm not sure how aging will affect this... being out of money when you're old--I've seen it. That can be full-on poverty. And yet, even then--the way you go into it makes a difference...

Like making a shirt, there's a lot that went into my comfort in choosing to live without a lot of money. 
Largely it came from growing up healthy and educated in a middle-class, white American family, with a mother who was herself raised with a huge sense of social entitlement, to be a Southern Belle, really. 
Even as her mental health dwindled and sometimes she was so disheveled, she appeared rather mad, she kept at least some of that interior sense of herself as worthy, which is another kind of richness. Not enough to save her life in the end, but I think it helped her keep going for a long time...

But another sense of choice I got came from reading books [itself dependent on education, being read to, and having books around], books which carried the idea that Things Could Be Different. (I hear people who came out of poverty sometimes pointing to books as being important for that too.) 

Reading about spiritual and political choices to reject materialism also came into it---as did growing up around some counter-cultural thinking in the Sixties. 

Reading also helped me see my life as a story--that is, as something with meaning, something with coherence––and me as a character, an actor in it.
I always loved the opening line of David Copperfield, which I encountered when I was nine: 
"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."

And Jane Eyre was another important book to little me--Jane insists on making choices, even when that means choosing between two losing propositions. Even though her morals may seem almost incomprehensible in modern times, the fierceness with which she chooses to be true to them is not.

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