Sunday, February 28, 2016

My Lenten Journey, Part 3: Big Business

A Difficult Lifestyle

This is the hardest Lenten discipline I follow. Have you ever tried to give up shopping at chain stores? Even choosing not to eat at a big chain restaurant can be challenging at times. If you're on your way home from work and you know you've got to pick up the kids and take them directly to their afterschool activities, but you want to squeeze in dinner for everyone at some point, you're not going to stop at the mom and pop restaurant with the amazing food but notoriously slow service. You're going to the local fast food place. It's just the only thing that makes sense in that situation.

Really, though, giving up chain restaurants is not the hard part. Yeah, sometimes I fail and end up eating at one, but most of the time I can avoid it if I really want to. No, the hard part is giving up chain grocery stores. Have you ever tried to do that? First of all, if you live outside of the city like I do, there may not be many other options to choose from. I said in a recent post that my town once had a small locally owned grocery store, but it closed when a big chain opened a store out on the highway. When there was a small store just a few blocks from my house (and no chain store in town at all) giving up the chain store was really just a matter of dealing with the limited selection, higher prices, and shorter hours of operation at the local place. Those were challenges, yes, but easy to overcome. Now, however, there is no local place to buy groceries in my hometown at all. For a full grocery run that's okay, because I typically pick and choose which store I go to for that anyway, often driving ten or fifteen minutes to find the best selection or lower prices. Driving ten miles for an emergency milk run, on the other hand, can be frustrating. But hey, it's called Lenten discipline for a reason, right?

Clothes shopping is a whole other situation altogether. I have two children who always seem to be outgrowing something, but where do I go to get clothes if the mall is off limits? When they were little, the Lenten shop local rule meant going to a children's consignment shop, but now they're getting too big for a lot of the clothes we can find there. The thrift shop is an option, too, but still a challenge for people with preteens. Why? Because that's an age when kids tend to get picky about their clothes. So far I haven't heard them say, "You want me to wear used stuff? How embarrassing!" I know that's probably coming in the future, but right now the challenge is more a matter of finding something that they'll wear. At the mall, you find something you like first, then see if they have it in your size. When you thrift shop, you find the rack with your size, and see if they have anything you like. When you're shopping for a finicky person, that doesn't work all that well.

A Childhood Trauma

Why is shopping local during Lent so important to me? It goes back to my childhood. Yeah, I used the word "trauma" in the heading. That may be a bit of an exaggeration. It's not like I suffer from PTSD because of this particular experience or anything like that, but nonetheless it continues to affect the way I view the world even now, so it was obviously a major event in my life.

The town I grew up in was tiny. If you saw it today, you wouldn't believe me. Today that town has Wal-Mart, Lowe's, Walgreens, Kroger, several shopping centers, and I don't even know how many fast food restaurants. But when I was growing up it was one of the smaller towns in our county. Basically we had a couple of gas stations, a local grocery store, and I think a local restaurant. I was really little, so I'm fuzzy on some of the details of that, but I seem to remember something about a restaurant.

At some point when I was in elementary school a local pizza place opened up in town. It was the only pizza place we had, so of course everyone ate there. I can remember going to a friend's birthday party there once, and even singing Christmas Carols with my Girl Scout troop out on the front steps.

Then the town began to grow, and eventually another pizza place opened up down the road. This place was not locally owned. Everyone was so excited to have a "real" pizza place in town that they started choosing it over the local shop. It wasn't long before the local shop was gone.

That experience has stayed with me my whole life. It has had such an impact on me that now, whenever I see land being cleared outside of town I think to myself, "Oh no...what now?" My heart breaks for all of the local businesses that are going to close down within a year because they can't compete with whatever it is that's coming. And I have seen those local businesses close down again and again. It's a never-ending cycle.

A Complicated Topic

Am I right in observing this yearly boycott of big business? Does it actually accomplish anything good in the world? The truth is I really don't know. I would love to see a world where most businesses are small, but if we took the corporate world we live in now and changed it into the world of my dreams, would we have done a good thing? Love them or hate them, we all have to admit that corporations form the backbone of our economy. If we all banded together and said, "No big business!" we might succeed in saving countless mom and pop establishments across the country. I would be tempted to look at that and think of it as a good thing, but would it be? What if the big businesses ended up having to close down their own stores because no one was shopping there anymore? How many people would be out of a job then? And then, of course, there's always the chance that one of the local places we saved would start bringing in so much business that it's owners decide to open up a second shop across town. Then the two shops become three, then four, then...well, I think you see where I'm going with this. The truth is there's no perfect world and even if there were there's no one who would know how to build it because what benefits one group of people could end up hurting another. Most of the issues we face are more complicated than we want to admit, and there are no easy solutions. So we do good when we get the chance and hope that someone, at least, will reap the benefits.

Paying It Forward

Because giving up big business is a manifestation of my "smaller is better" worldview, I feel that just doing that is my way of giving back in this area. I'm shopping my values and carefully choosing where I spend my money. I may not be building a perfect world, but I'm trying my best to tidy up one tiny piece of it.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

My Lenten Journey, Part 2: The Television

My Very First Lent

I mentioned last week that Lent was not an important feature in my home when I was growing up. I knew about it, but it was just this vague concept that had no bearing on our lives beyond occasionally dictating which hymns we sang in church. Giving up something for Lent was not a concept with which I was familiar until I was older.

My husband and I decided to start observing Lent at home fairly early in our marriage. We were still Methodist at that point, which made it a bit of an odd custom for us, but we wanted to do it anyway. I think in those early days we were just attracted by the novelty. Here was this thing that had been done by Christians down through the centuries, yet in our own little community of faith it was virtually unheard of. It didn't start out as a way to draw closer to God, but merely a way to do something new and different.

Deciding to give something up for Lent was the easy part. The hard part was deciding what, exactly, we were going to give up. We listed all of the obvious choices. Chocolate. Sodas. Fried food. We just couldn't choose. Then we looked at our lifestyle. We both sang in the choir at our church, but had recently fallen into the habit of staying home from choir practice on Wednesday nights because there was a television show that we wanted to watch during that time. We realized that if there was a Lenten discipline that could actually be effective in strengthening our faith, it would have to be giving up television. So we did.

Life Without TV

We've been doing this regularly for fourteen years now, so I feel I can discuss it with a fair amount of authority. When the television is a part of your daily routine, and then you decide to do without it, the first week is the hardest. First, there's the question of what to do with your time. The gap that once was filled by the magic box is now empty. Boredom is a common sensation during those first few days. Second, there's the craving. Yes, craving. During the first week of Lent I crave TV like a junkie craves his next fix. This has nothing to do with needing to be constantly entertained, and everything to do with the fact that I tend to get heavily invested in my favorite television shows. I fall in love with the characters. I go deep into the world-building aspects of the show, comparing it to similar stories and looking for plot holes. If it's a show that's in reruns and I'm binge-watching it, I become quickly addicted to the satisfaction that comes with checking one more episode off my list of things I need to watch. When Lent begins all of that gets interrupted, and it doesn't feel good. But like I said, I only struggle for the first week. After that, everything changes.

I remember getting frustrated in the early years of marriage with the fact that my husband loved to watch sporting events on the weekend. He would work all week and by Saturday I would be coveting his attention, but instead of giving that attention to me, he would give it to a football game or golf tournament. I can remember gliding through the house like a ghost, feeling completely invisible to the one person who mattered most in my life. When we ditched the television, Saturday became a day for doing things together. This was the main reason Lent eventually became my favorite time of year. Without the constant buzz from the contraption in the corner, we were free to interact with each other like actual human beings.

When Kids Come Along

Yes, our kids give up television along with us every year. I sometimes question whether I'm right in enforcing this rule. After all, giving up something for Lent is supposed to be a personal decision, not something your mom makes you do. But the positive effects of spending six weeks without TV far outweigh any misgivings I may have. I'll tell one story to illustrate my point.

It was not Lent. I believe it was in the summer. We were going camping for vacation, which meant a week with no TV. The kids bickered in the back seat of the car during the entire drive to our destination. They whined and complained about every little thing during our first day there. But then, gradually, a change took place. They became friendlier. The smiled more. They played. They explored the woods. They did all the things kids are supposed to do, and they were happy while they did it. When we packed them into the car at the end of the week, there was no bickering. They just chattered away happily as we drove toward home. But then we stopped at a hotel. We had decided that the drive was just a little too long to make in one day with two small children in tow, so we pulled over and got a room. And the room had a TV. And the kids watched it. And they started complaining again. They started fighting with each other again. When we got back in the car the next morning they were in a bad mood which lasted the duration of the drive.

I've seen this effect on their behavior every year when we, as a family, give up television for Lent. I think the reason is that television makes us withdraw from others. It takes us to a world where nothing exists but us and it, and when something comes between us and it we get angry. We don't like it when we're invested in a program and the phone rings. We don't like it when someone else wants to watch something we don't want to watch. I've had those feelings myself, and I can see them in my children as well. And I see all of that go away for six weeks every year. When we pull ourselves out of the haze the television casts on our daily lives, we begin to value spending time together instead of spending time in our own private worlds.

Paying it Forward

Also in last week's post I wrote about the call to give back to society during Lent. I said that this is one area of Lenten discipline with which I struggle. Well I've decided to start with something small. Since my kids have become preteens, they have become regular little couch potatoes. Physical play does not come as naturally to them as it did a few years ago. So this Lent, in the free time given to us by the absence of TV, I've started taking them outside once a day. We take walks, ride bikes, go to the park, explore nature trails, etc. I'm aware that this is only giving back within the confines of my own family, but I have to start somewhere and, as we all know, charity begins at home. Hopefully I will soon find ways to take the next step, into the world, as I continue on this Lenten journey.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

My Lenten Journey Part 1

A Hotly Debated Topic

Okay, the question of whether or not to give something up for Lent is not exactly at the top of the list of controversial issues facing our society today, but the subject can nevertheless spark intense arguments if dropped in the midst of the right (or wrong) group of people.  I love Lent.  For me it is always a time of deep personal growth.  By the end of the forty days I end up being much more content with my life as I learn to look at the world in a fresh new way.  It may sound odd, but it is really one of my favorites times of year.

I was not raised in a church that typically stressed giving something up for Lent, so every year when the season comes around I have to endure the inevitable conversation with my mom about why, exactly, I would choose to practice this archaic discipline.  The fact that television is one of the things I always give up usually causes her to shake her head, roll her eyes, and say, "I'm sorry, but I think I'd have to pick something else to give up for Lent."  Then there's my mother-in-law who, though she respects our choice and never criticizes us, still sometimes questions our Lenten traditions.  I think she worries that we mistakenly believe we will go to hell if we don't observe this season of the liturgical year.  The truth is that Lent is a very personal season, and everyone experiences it in a different way, if at all.  The way I choose to observe it is important to me, and I'd like to take a few minutes to explain why.

Why Give Something Up for Lent?

Giving up something for Lent isn't about morality.  It isn't about sin.  It isn't about heaven or hell.  It's about personal growth.  I plan to spend the next few weeks writing about the various things I choose to give up, and how those things impact my life, but today I just want to talk about why giving something up is always such a good experience in my home.  Here's how it works:

We all go about our daily lives, enjoying the good, enduring the bad, working, resting, and doing what we must in order to get through the day.  Every now and then something comes along to make our lives either a little easier or a little more pleasant.  That could be a new kitchen appliance that makes cooking a snap.  It could be the Starbucks down the street where we go when we want to confuse coffee with dessert and enjoy every minute of it.  It could the television that takes us away from reality at the end of a hard day.  There's nothing bad about these things.  When we give them up for Lent we are not saying that God doesn't want us to have pleasure in our lives.  What we are saying is, "That thing has become a little too important to me, and I think it will do me good to avoid it for a while."  And so we do.  And then amazing things start to happen.

I don't know about everyone else, but I personally find the first week of Lent to be the most difficult.  I would imagine other people have the same experience.  That thing that we gave up is calling to is from the deepest reaches of our souls, and we don't really know what to do with ourselves without it.  But gradually...oh so gradually...we start to realize that we don't really need that thing that once brought us so much pleasure.  We eventually find that we are capable of being happy without that thing we had come to rely on so completely, and when we discover that, we come a step closer to finding true happiness in our lives.

Paying it Forward

Giving up something for Lent does amazing things for us, but this is also supposed to be a season for serving God by loving our neighbors as ourselves.  I admit that this is an area where I have fallen short in the past.  It's easier to retreat into my own little bubble than it is to actually go out and be God's hands and feet in the world.  Maybe that is the next area of personal growth that I need to experience as I move forward on this Lenten journey.  Maybe I will find my way by the time these forty days are over.

Remember to follow me on Twitter if you would like to follow me on my quest to draw a little closer to God this Lenten season.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Call of Suburbia

Something Lost, Something Gained

I wrote in last week's post about being saddened by the gradual disappearance of the small town.  The reality is that these towns still exist, but their identity is changing.  They are becoming suburbs.  Where once there was a main street lined with mom and pop businesses, now there is a Wal-Mart five miles down the road.  Where once there were neighborhoods clustered around the local elementary school, now there are subdivisions and elementary schools located on roads so busy no mother in her right mind would dream of letting her child walk to class.  Some of these changes are necessary, and even good, but I can't help but wonder what we are losing in this mad rush to Suburbia.

The Convenience of the Suburbs

Have you ever lived in the suburbs?  My guess is that you have, at least for a little while.  Maybe you still do.  Do you enjoy it?  Do you think the neighborhoods are beautiful, or do you get tired of driving past the houses that all look alike, the lawns that are unnaturally green, the shrubs that look like they were artificially engineered in a lab, and the giant SUVs in every single driveway?  Well, I guess it depends on the neighborhood.  Some subdivisions are better than others, after all.  But, love it or hate it, you have to admit that they all have one thing in common: convenience.

I have never lived in the downtown area of a large city, but I have spent enough time in such places to know the nightmare that is city parking.  I've also experienced the noise and the traffic.  As beautiful as many cities are, I can only imagine living around all of that.  There's a reason young city-dwellers often move out of town when they become parents.  I know I would not want to endure the challenge of trying to get a toddler to fall asleep while a rock band performed an outdoor concert two blocks away.  Or keep an eight year old cooped up in the house because I have laundry to do and the city is not a place where kids can play outside alone.  Many people live this lifestyle and love it.  I am not judging their decision in any way.  All I'm saying is I understand why someone would feel tempted to move away from all that.  And when they move, where do they go?  To the suburbs.

The country lifestyle is considered by many to be more family friendly than life in the city, and maybe it is, but it still lacks the convenience of the suburbs.  There are no parks in walking distance.  There are no neighbors to stop and chat with when you go out to check the mail.  And country people often have to drive fifteen miles or more just to buy a carton of milk.  Many who want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city would feel that country life is too much of a change.  They would feel isolated and alone.  They would yearn for the closeness that city life gave them, just without the hassles of the city itself.  So where do these people go?  To the suburbs.

Convenience is the name of the game in the suburbs.  Everyone has a backyard where their kids and their dogs can play.  Everyone has a playground within a mile or two of their house.  And everyone is within a five minute drive of a large grocery story with an enormous parking lot.  No parking nightmares here.  This is the suburbs.

The Price of this Convenience

I don't remember life before Suburbia.  I don't remember when travelling across America meant stepping into a brand new world every time you stopped for lunch in a new town.  In my life travelling has always meant lunch at a fast food restaurant that serves the exact same food as the restaurants near my home.  It has meant heading to the nearest big chain grocery store to pick up snacks and drinks.  It has meant being able to find a Wal-Mart in almost every town.  Don't get me wrong, I have at times appreciated the convenience of being able to do that.  After all, why would I trust the little broken-down building on the corner that claims to serve the world's best chicken when there's a McDonald's across the street.  I may be missing out on the opportunity to have a truly delicious, and unique, meal, but hey, I've been to McDonald's before and I know what to expect.  The place on the corner could be amazing, but it could also be...well...not.  With local businesses, you just don't know.  So you go where you feel comfortable.  You go where it is familiar.  You go to the big chain business because it's the most convenient choice.

The flip side of this is that our towns are crumbling before our eyes.  The new store opens up down the road and the mom and pop place closes down within a year.  Pretty soon all business are out on the highway and main street looks like a ghost town.  Then subdivisions pop up and people flock to them because they would rather buy a nice new house than invest in a historic home in the old part of town where the water pipes may burst or the floor may be rotting or the roof might need replacing in a couple of years.  Believe me, I understand.  I live in an old house, and I know the hassle that comes along with that.  My intense love of older homes keeps me committed to making it work, but I get why people may decide to live somewhere else, especially if they don't share my personal passion for all things old.  But I do love old things, so it makes me sad when I see them abandoned.

Coming Full Circle

It seems that the trend is beginning to reverse itself now.  More and more people are demanding walkable neighborhoods.  We have the local food movement and small business Saturday.  Small towns around the country are making efforts to breath new life into their business districts.  Suburbia is here to stay, but maybe one day we will see a new Suburbia that looks more like...well...a small town.

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