Wednesday, June 08, 2005


The previous post started out by counting my blessings. This is a follow-up of sorts.

The reason I'm really lucky isn't that I have never been badly hurt or that I got to go to a good school. It's that I was brought up with the ability to recognize how lucky I am. My parents are behind that; they taught me very early that I should appreciate what I had, and as I grew up I saw more and more people in situations that made my teenage dramas look mundane and irrelevant (which is what they usually were). I still see things like that, and every time I get too tied up in the little things and forget the bigger picture, something comes along and hits me full-on to remind me that life is not about Me, it's about Us.

A lot of people don't ever realize that there is more to life than Me and My Needs, Fears and Opinions. If You don't share My opinions, You are [insert derogatory word here]. If I want that, I get it. Unfortunately the majority of the world seems to be eager to spread that idea. The "Individualist" culture that has sprung up a few times before has come back en force with a new look. Everywhere I turn today, people are cutting themselves off from their community, their friends and even their family because the new buzz-word is "me-time" and nobody is eager to share.

We live in a world where "communication" is easier than ever before, but we can't even talk to our families any more. I can't remember the last time I sat down and had an honest, open talk with my mother about what was happening in my life, despite her best attempts to dig information out of me when we're driving or on occasion actually eating in the same room. It's tough to say something important to someone who you don't think knows you very well, whether that person is a parent, a child, a friend or a co-worker.

The internet appeals by telling us all about the online communities we can join and the networking we can do with people around the world, but I rarely see it used to bring users together. Instead, people continue to break off from the main groups and start new ones, so that the ever-growing network of solitary computer users sitting in ill-lighted rooms or in crowded workplace cubicles has become like an anthill without a queen. Everyone is doing his own thing -blogging, internet marketing, web design, programming- and occasionally it will attract the attention of a few others, but nobody listens to The Source of All Wisdom anymore and many people are so suspicious of the online world that they refuse to deal with communities at all. I'm not saying the internet has demolished our sense of community, because I have seen a few places where people form bonds just as strongly online as groups do IRL (in real life). However, there are more people who remain separate than there are in the best of these online groups.

For a long time, private offices and cubicles at work have put the focus on the individual. I've heard that some companies are finally breaking away from this and trying to encourage teamwork and cooperation; it's not working very well, from what I've seen. It's tough to get people to work together after cutting them off from one another for so long, and a teamwork workshop isn't as effective if people have already set up perceptions about leaders and followers.

In homes as well, it's all about the individual. Our culture sells the idea that children should have their own bedrooms because they need to be alone sometimes. It also sells personal CD players, game systems, computers, phones, mini-fridges - everything but the kitchen sink - so that when little Bobby is alone, he can entertain himself in private with whatever he likes. The living room has all but disappeared, unless Dad brings home a rented movie that everyone agrees on seeing. The dining room is gone, replaced by a table or island in the kitchen where nobody shares a meal, they can grab plates and head off to the office or bedroom or TV room. Board games are still around, but I can't name many people who sit down with family and play them any more. Today's games are friend-oriented and require as little communication as possible, distracting us with lights and noises so that we never quite get around to conversation any more. I'm bothered by that more than anything else. There was a time when everyone could sit down and talk about anything and everything, even if it was just a short chat over dinner. Now, we have to read our friends' weblogs to hear about how their day was and if we need to talk with them it's through email or instant messenger. We have become cut off from each other, so much that when we do get into a group with others we are awkward, sometimes unsure of social conventions and unable to give a friendly hug if we need to.

Individualism is all around us. We try to personalize our belongings by adding stickers, pins, posters, drawings, and names to the brand-name stuff that everyone has. We want to be heard because being individual means getting My opinions out no matter what anyone else has to say, and even if there are four hundred websites that say the same thing mine does, I will make a new one because then I will be able to lay claim to the opinion instead of following someone else. If You have something I like, I will get it for Myself, but then I will also make it different from Yours so that it is totally Mine. Nobody likes the concept of sharing any more, and it seems sometimes that we are living in a world of four year olds whose favorite words are "no!" and "mine!"

It's funny that with all of the individualist ideas running around, no one really stops and thinks about the trends they are following. I suppose that in any herd of sheep, none really wonder why they're grazing with the herd, because they are following a base instinct that there is safety in numbers and none want to be excluded or left on the edge. The edge is dangerous. Those on the edge are the first to be exposed to the big wide world outside the circle of wool. They get to pick up their heads if they like, and look out not over a sea of uniformity but a panorama of mountains and valleys, sun and shadow. They can, if they are brave or curious, wander out of the herd, because they are not trapped in the middle and have some choice about which way to walk. These are the sheep who might not run when the sheepdog comes to round them up. In people terms, they are the ones who stand back from a mob and instead of running to the nearest mall when a new toy is released, still find joy in the old toys. They are the people who might be misunderstood, but would rather be misunderstood than misled by what everyone else thinks is true. I might count myself among them, because I have more than once gotten glimpses of the bigger picture, which is nearly impossible to see or hear about from the middle of a slow-moving mass of white wool and baa-ing.

Yesterday I was reading Kines' blog and one of his entries left me thinking about what individual really means. He was saying that buying generic products is the way to go because then you are not labelling yourself with brand names and are showing some individuality. While it's true that escaping a brand name is something few people think to do, there is still no individuality in purchasing a mass-produced product from a company that spreads its roots over half the world, no matter how wonderful or unknown that company may be. There is merit in purchasing recycled products, and supporting the use of minimal packaging, but it is not individual. It is simply a movement which few have joined. There is nothing wrong with being part of a movement, and sharing ideals with others, as long as you are doing it for your own reasons and not theirs.

The only way to be truly individual and to truly be yourself is, in my mind, to do everything you can for yourself and not depend on others to provide ideas, decoration or direction for you. Making things by hand is one way to break away from the crowd - nobody else in the world can create the same thing in the same way as someone else can, even if they are making similar products. Each creation is unique, as is each creator. Thinking for yourself is another step in the right direction, and while I see some flashes of it in many of the people I have become friends with, I don't know a single person who has not at some point picked up another's idea and carried it blindly along because it fit what they thought. Even I do it, and I know it, and will not call myself an individual thinker by any means, because I steal ideas left and right. It takes a lot to be able to step back and think about things on your own, instead of picking them out of what others have written or said, but coming to a conclusion on your own and then realizing that others share the conclusion is a better, and in the end more satisfying, path than following the others to their conclusion and then taking it up as your own. I am not saying that people should be aloof and feel that they are above everyone else, either. The best individuals are those who are humble enough to realize that they are not perfect no matter how many flaws they can pick out in everyone else - it is easy to recognize those flaws in others when you have them yourself. It is also a good idea to always remember the value of friends, because many people in trying to be individualist manage to push their closest friends away. A friend should be there to support you, and you should let them.

In trying to be as individual as possible people sometimes forget the value of sharing. It is possible to be an individual in the truest sense of the word and still share much with the people around you. Whether it is a taste in music or food, an ideal, love, memories, or some object that holds a special place in people's hearts, we can not escape the fact that there are similarities between us and others. There are some people who we can share more than just surface similarities with, because we can teach and learn from them, too. And that is the best kind of community there is - one where the members teach each other and learn from each other, always remembering that they are all part of a group, but keeping their identity instead of trying to blend in.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Counting Blessings

How many of you would say you have a great life? Sit back and think about it for a while, before you read about how wonderful mine is.

Somehow in my nineteen years and 4 months of life I have never broken a bone, gotten into an accident or lost someone very close to me. I do not have any life-threatening or debilitating illnesses, have never come down with mono, and by some twist of fate have managed to procrastinate right up to the deadlines for homework and still pull off a 3.6-3.8 average all the way through school. That's lucky, because I know others who can try hard and still not recieve the grades I do. Teachers keep telling me I have potential, and I think "Potential? That's what you tell someone who is motivated to get to the top. I'm not a potential achiever, I'm an accident of the universe."

(The universe does have a pretty interesting sense of humor. Today we had a thunderstorm pass us by on both sides, but all we got here was ten minutes of cloud cover followed by sunshine and some big raindrops. It was amusing more than anything else, because the sky overhead looked perfectly blue but there was the rain anyway, splattering into the dusty driveway as though it was going to continue all night. "Only in Western New York," I said to my family as we stood on the deck and watched the rain splash into the pool.)

Then there are days when I get stressed out because there seems to be no way I can pull off a good grade in a class, or run in a race, or do whatever it is I am supposed to do. Every time I start thinking I've messed something up, something happens to reassure me that life is going to help me out. There's really no explanation for the million times I have sat in my room trying to figure out what I am going to tell a teacher only to find that the assignment isn't graded or wasn't due that day or, on rare occasions, that school was canceled and I have an extra day to finish my work. There's no reason it should keep happening over and over again that whenever the shit gets near the fan, the wind changes and nothing hits at all. Close calls started to amuse me a while ago because it seems right now that I am invincible at least as far as the homework is concerned and it seems that if anyone wanted to hit me while I was driving they'd have managed to by now. Of course, luck changes and guardian angels do let bad things happen but I think mine is overzealous about protecting me.

Even when I'm doing potentially dangerous activities like climbing 40+ foot rocks without a rope or a spotter, driving slightly faster than I know is safe, or running barefoot around areas where there could be broken glass, I don't hurt myself. The worst I've done is scraped up my knees and elbows a few times, and stepped on some sharp rocks that left me wincing but still able to walk. It's absurd how little damage I do to myself and others sometimes, at least physically. I must have one hard-working angel, and I am very, very grateful to it. Not only am I blessed with safety, but I have been given so much else along with my good health. I have a loving family, and a loving boyfriend, and so much more.

I have lived a good life in so many ways - as of today I have never had to declare bankruptcy, experienced starvation, been without the support of friends and family, or been denied the right to an education. I have had chances to visit places outside of my hometown (although I have never been outside North America), had a computer for most of my life, had TV for almost as long as the computer, have never been to a place without running water and plumbing, and have always been provided with a roof over my head and a warm place to sleep. There are tens of thousands of people in the world who would say I live a rich life, because I have the basics provided for me and often take them for granted. There are millions of others who would compare their lives to mine and wonder how I have lived in such "poverty." The people who have never been without satellite TV, two or more cars in the driveway and six-figure incomes would shake their heads at the 'simple' life I could describe to them.

I have known so many people who had more than I did in a material way but still could not count all their blessings, and in that way they were poorer than I have ever been. There is more to living than gathering every material thing that comes your way into one huge pile. The 46" HDTV in the living room will not help you build a stairway (or tower) to heaven. It will only get you so far before everything collapses underneath you. That's why I think it's good to draw up a list of blessings every so often that has nothing to do with the stuff sitting in your house or the money in the bank. It helps us remember what's really important in life and keeps us from taking our most important blessings - health, family, friends, love, wisdom, our talents and abilities - for granted.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Nature is fun - even the rocks.

The nature pilgrimage was great as always, although this year I spent half the time missing Rick and the other half hiking through thick woods and up hills and generally tiring myself out. The excersize was welcome, but now my legs are complaining about it. We started out on Friday with rain, but that let up and only sprinkled throughout the day while I went out and did some nature art with pastels. That was a good session, I actually learned something about working with pastels and managed to bring back a decent half-finished work of art. Mom has pastels here that she said I could use to finish it up, when and if I want to.

Saturday was busy, since in the morning I went geocaching with the Jamestown Audubon Society's teen group. It was their first time and mine too, and it took us a while to acquaint ourselves with the GPS reciever we'd borrowed and to get the hang of finding the caches. We got two of them, and had a great time walking up and down hills in the course of our treasure hunt. It's exciting to find the geocaches and see what's inside, though one of them was only full of cheap plastic toys, the other had some better things inside. The idea of geocaching is that if you find a cache and remove something, you should put something back, so I left a bead lizard I had made a few years ago at camp in one of the caches. I didn't take anything for myself, deciding to leave the treasures to the Audubon group. It was fun enough to get involved in a treasure hunt and learn something about how to use a GPS reciever.

After the geocaching excitement I got to take a four hour hike through the most wild country in the park, where there is an old growth forest with trees over 400 years old in some places. It was an amazing tour and our guide was very knowledgeable, having done this same walk (always a different, unmarked route) for years. He went and explored a place that he said he'd never been, and it turned out to hold some great surprises. I saw a few flowers that I hadn't seen much of before, and also got to taste a basswood leaf. They're edible in the springtime before they get too big and tough; I didn't know that before. It's amazing what you learn when you're not expecting it.

Today there were some sessions in the morning but we slept in and spent the morning packing instead. After the nature pilgrimage we always head up the road a few miles to the most awesome rock outcroppings in the park - Thunder Rocks. We spend a few hours there among the boulders, have lunch and climb. The area sits on a hilltop and has a grouping of huge, old chunks of sedimentary rock that must have gotten kicked up from the bedrock when the glaciers were passing through. While the park does not condone climbing them, most people under the age of 40 or so try to climb every rock there, even the ones that have been proven time after time to be unscalable. A few are small and have plenty of handholds or tree roots to grab onto, while others are huge and provide some challenging faces. Some are mossy and damp from unseen springs or cracks within them, which makes climbing all the more fun (and dangerous). There is one boulder about 40 feet high which has a wonderfully easy crevice straight up the side, until within feet of the top, where it overhangs and forms a horizontal ledge underneath, which is the only way to the top once you're up the crevice. That ledge is the bane of my climbing experience because I've never quite gotten up the courage to crawl along it (remember, it's 40+ feet up and mostly smooth, which means no handholds). I still want to get on top of that rock one day. The other side isn't bad to climb either but getting started is tough without a boost or a rope. Anyway, I climbed all over and got up a few challenging rocks and finally scraped my knee on one, but came back dirty and tired and smiling nonetheless. We got home and unpacked the van, and then headed for the pool. The water was a balmy 68 F, which isn't bad for this time of year and felt fantastic after the heat of Thunder Rocks and the car ride back. Sister and friend joined us after a little while and we all splashed around and fought over the pool floaties while the adults watched from a safe and shaded distance. I must have spent about an hour in the water, and I feel slightly waterlogged but really content. It's been a relatively good weekend.

Friday, June 03, 2005

I went for another walk today, around the five acres or so that's on the far side of the driveway. There are a lot of paths, or at least path remnants, where the boys who lived here before us used to ride their dirtbikes. They hunted, too. Now we three girls don't do anything of the sort and the woodland plants have started to reclaim things. There are wild berries of all sorts back there, and it's perfect for the deer, who have increased their numbers despite the hunters on adjacent properties. All the paths are delightfully overgrown and while I know I shouldn't be wandering barefoot through the brush, it's too much trouble to put on pants and sneakers just for a fifteen minute traipse down the grassy deer paths.

I startled a few birds on the way, and saw a doe and fawn from a distance, but the doe noticed me and when I tried to get closer she snorted and ran. The fawn was tiny, and I wish I'd have had my camera to try to get a picture, but it probably wouldn't have come out. I didn't see any other wild creatures, unless the newts in the pond count. The muskrat seems to be back, as there's a new hole on the end where the pond is damned up and seeps out into a little creek. It's marshy ground and there are a lot of deer tracks, though they're hidden under the buttercups this time of year. I love the wildflowers we have on the property, and I can find just about any of them at a moment's notice - proof I spend too much time wandering aimlessly in the woods.

I think I meandered into a patch of poison ivy, but since I stepped out and came back and washed my feet, I don't think I'll end up with it. There's no itching so far, anyway. I don't know, maybe it wasn't poison ivy at all. I was tempted to pick a leaf and rub it on a patch of skin just to test the theory that I'm immune (I've suspected as much since last summer when I wandered around several paths at camp which were overgrown with the stuff and never came up with so much as a single itchy spot). Then again... I'm going to spend three days in nature this weekend and I don't feel like starting them off with poison ivy. Maybe I'll end them with it instead. :P