What I deserve

When I get on Skype with Michelle and I’m wearing my winter hat, I tell her I’m having a bad hair day. To which she replies, “You don’t have the heat on again, do you? If you don’t turn it on, I’m going to tell your husband.”

But if he’s out to sea, why would I want to heat the entire house for me–just one person? Especially when I’m holed up in one room under a comforter typing away, anyway.

I do realize how extreme I am in my thinking. But, you know, there is a reason for all that.

The hat that never comes off in winter. Even when I sleep.

First off, extremely conservative, non-wasteful parents raised me. Just as Polishmomphotographer proves–Whatever is instilled in you as a child will remain with you your entire life. Sure, you may come to your own conclusions and discover new truths, but those things you were told as a child hang on tightly, period. You keep the ones that are worthy. And as you discard the ones that don’t benefit you anymore, a thread of guilt wraps itself around your wrist, just as you let it go.

But, for me, what it comes down to is—what do I deserve?

1. Traveling through dirt-poor villages in Egypt at the age of 19 opened my eyes to what I had, and what others did not. The people who had the least shared the most with me—and happily— offering me food and shelter while they struggled to feed their family of nine. I often compare the border of Israel and Egypt with the Mexican/Texas border. Crossing a line in the dirt and you’re in a whole other world. That year and a half traveling on my own throughout Europe, and the Middle East taught me what I could do without, whom I could trust, how to budget and what I truly needed. I worked odd jobs. When I had enough money, I moved on to the next country.

2. The poverty and beauty I witnessed the year I spent traveling and teaching English in Brazil at the age of 21 changed me forever. Alone, with no “school program” to back me up, I’d never been poorer. In order to eat and have a place to sleep, I had to trust complete strangers. It was the most humiliating, and important experience of my life.

3. After serving in the military and witnessing shocking, excessive amounts of fiscal waste, I viewed things through different eyes.

4. Repeatedly being made fun of for recycling in the military jolted me into the reality of an ignorant and wasteful society that didn’t care about tomorrow. I realized they weren’t brought up like me. It was their lack of caring I found the most disturbing.

5. Returning to Brazil for another year in 2006 on a scholarship for a Social Justice program exposed me further. I think daily of the farmers who lived in houses made of sticks, covered in black plastic garbage bags who brewed and offered me tea. Or the family I lived with for a week in the Amazon Rain Forest who sustained themselves 98% from the forest.

6. When I graduated college at 32, I’d saved up enough money (plus a gift from my dad) to spend two months in Africa.  It wasn’t only the slums of South Africa or the damp mud/straw houses in Botswana that sang out to me, “Look what you take advantage of every day. While you have central heating, we warm ourselves next to the fire and breathe in the black smoke.” It was everything. Every single thing. Every single person I met.

7. Landing in D.C. to work for our government again, I couldn’t believe the fiscal waste was just as out of control as when I served in the military. Nothing had changed. There was zero improvement. I was the one who had changed.

The world is a convenient, accessible place compared to what it was only  a century ago. Traveling abroad and discovering a life different from your own isn’t so difficult anymore. Documentaries and news channels expose us daily to the difference between “the haves” and the “have nots.”  But it’s easy to grow numb, to not worry about it. To think—Gosh, I’m just one person. How can I change the world?

But every time I don’t turn the water off while I’m soaping up, or when I notice someone running the water while they brush their teeth, I think of the beautiful African ladies in Namibia who balanced buckets on their heads as they walked miles to fetch water daily. I think how we take advantage of being able to turn a knob, and there it is—flowing clean and abundant.

Every time I leave the light on in the back room, rather than turn it off when I exit, I remember the homemade candles the Amazonian fishermen burned in their wooden hut because electricity didn’t exist in their village.

Every time I turn up the heat and pull on a short-sleeve t-shirt instead of layering with thermals, I think of the homeless woman in Spain who sat in front of the cathedral in Madrid, begging in the middle of winter, her fingers, ice-cold. I gave her my lunch once and her smile brought me temporary  joy. The smile faded as I realized I wasn’t solving the problem. She’d be hungry again the following day.

What makes me think I deserve to run the water, blast my heat and leave all the lights on in the house–simply because I can? Simply because I have the resources?

I don’t. I don’t deserve to. And I don’t have the resources. I might have them right now. But at the rate we’re reproducing in this big, blue world, how fast will they run out? And my carbon footprint? All those planes I caught exposing me and educating me with international travel? Will I ever be able to balance that out?

I’m one person. I can’t make a dent on my own. But if we all cut back just a little. If our government passed legislation that banned the use of plastic bags in the grocery stores and required businesses to turn out all lights in all buildings at the end of a work day, imagine how much bigger of a dent we might produce.

Yes, I realize that keeping my heat low or even off, and doing all the extreme things I ritually perform won’t affect farmers in Egypt or the water-toting ladies in Namibia or the family I visited in the Amazon.

But, damn it. It has to do something. If only release the guilt from those beautiful memories.

But, it doesn’t. And I lay there at night with my eyes wide open, thinking… what else can I do? How can I make a REAL difference?

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27 responses to “What I deserve

  1. You are wonderful!

  2. This is a excellent thought-provoking post! I hope it opens some eyes to how fortunate we are in our cozy homes. I am with you on the temperature thing…we had 3 days of minus 34 degrees weather so we just donned our long johns under our duds rather than turn up the heat inside. Have to leave the heat on though or the pipes will freeze in winter here…-10C to -15C is winter normally.

  3. Well said Jennifer, nothing beats seeing and experiencing first hand how the rest of the world lives–to appreciate what we so easily take for granted in America. I moved to the United States when I was 19 (from Panama), and it always amazed me to see how easily we consume our goods without much tought for tomorrow. Even though I was raised in the city and enjoyed modern conveniences, I learned to share with those less fortunate, and consume responsibly–not because there is plenty available today it means it will always be there tomorrow!

    • Thanks Marcia! I didn’t know you moved here at 19. You’re so amazing. Thank you for doing your part, making sure there was something for your children and that there will be for your grandbabies! You’re so great. 🙂

  4. Jen, I am still AD and the military waste STILL has not changed. Even with the big news of budget cuts. It is still I want what I want and I want it now attitude. I’m a cost center manager and do a majority of the purchasing for my section I have some control over the waste. For little things like if there is 4 desk in an office you get one pencil sharpener, not one for each desk. It is very sad how wasteful the military is. Even when deployed we burned all our trash and that was a lot of water bottles poisoning our lungs.

    • Kerry, WOW. I’m having a hard time swallowing after reading what you wrote about the water bottles.
      But, if we don’t change it from the inside, it won’t change. Thank you for being so aware, and honest. And for reading. How’s the blogging coming?

  5. hello kindredth! although my path and choices took me in different directions, i did experience similar discoveries along my desert adventures..the fact that you have cultivated your responsible ethics along travel and exposure is still remarkable..
    i have met and seen so many military and individual travelers who have witnessed the very scenes of extreme poverty that i saw..yet they came away from the experience — only wanting more; rather than less comfort and gluttony…
    self denial is a worthy sport, as long as it enhances endurance and stimulates the moral value system…it’s not about the money as i previously stated…it’s about taking fair share of resources..if we each spend so much of world sourced energy–then we collectively do affect air, soil and water quality for ALL.

    cute hat lady, i’m between you and Alaska, so i do have to keep the pipes from freezing too, (mine and the house)

    • Nadinesellers, amazing to see something like that and walk away unaffected. I don’t see how. Society has such a disconnect. It’s disheartening. But I’m not giving up.
      I LOVE that hat. My mother-in-law gave it to me! LOL!
      Thank you for the insightful comment.

  6. I SO agree, when My husband is at work i let the fire die right down and i always wear a hattie inside, I am fine with the cold.. and why not just DRESS for the weather.. what a concept! c

    • Right? Dress for the weather! Thanks ceciliag! FINALLY, I don’t feel alone out here. Your site is what we’re all about. LOVE it! Keep those pictures comin’, girl!

  7. What a great post! Just by writing it you’re doing a real difference, Jennifer. I turned off lights in my kitchen and turned down the heater 🙂
    You know that Rome wasn’t build in a day, so with baby steps and you’ll see… you’ll be doing a huge difference in people life. Just be patient and do not lose sleep over that. Keep doing what you’ve been doing. You already inspiring many people – I’m in this crowd.

    many warm hugs (you look like you need them)

    (I’m commenting with my twitter account because wordpress sucks today)

    • Your comment made me laugh. You’re such a kind soul. Thank you so much for the encouragement and I DID really need those warm hugs! LOL! I’m feeling much better all ready. 🙂
      And you’re absolutely right, of course. Baby steps. (Deep breath.) I get so darn impatient!!! Augh!! 🙂

  8. Thanks for the post Jennifer. Like the other comments said, this is very thought provoking and it is very evident how passionate and adamant you are about minimizing waste. Thanks for sharing and spreading your zeal. Just yesterday while I was washing dishes my oldest son came in behind me to turn on and off the water so it wouldn’t run constantly. Yes I made that mistake, and yes he did it without instigation. I was proud of him for that. Thanks again Jennifer.

  9. Beautifully wrtitten! What a great reminder for us all. I’ve always loved the concept of using 50% less than regular – half the amount of shampoo or toothpaste always works just as well!

  10. Thank you for sharing your life, your history, and who you are! Your life experiences defines who you become and it sounds like you’ve had some experiences that some wish they could have had. I do agree that we’ve all become complacent and sometimes even just remembering to recycle one bottle doesn’t seem like it does any good. But I believe it does, if not for us then for future generations! It’s extremely important to change our lifestyles/habits from being a consumer/wasteful society. My time as a park ranger has even enlightened me to how bad our society is, and that’s right here in America! Great post. Kudos!

    • Thanks Jen (with one n.)
      I had to go half way around the world to figure it out. I’m always refreshed by those who put it all together right in their own back yard.
      Thank you for serving as a park ranger, for keeping our parks safe and clean. You do a marvelous job. And I always appreciate you reading my articles. Looking forward to your future baking posts when things calm down for you!
      Your fan,
      Jenn (with two n’s.)

  11. I think what you have done Jennifer is simply wonderful, and especially so, since now you have become much more aware of what western countries are doing to the third world, and beyond,
     Most ordinary people in the west, are simply unaware of this to any great degree, a lot of what you have been saying has mimicked my own experiences, over several years of living with indigenous peoples through a organisation called ‘intermediate technology’ initially, and have been to most parts of the world helping various cultures, through that organisation, and also off my own back as it were,
     I started off being sorry for them, I mean having so little to show for themselves, and I also thought, they were living by our standards, in abject poverty! but after a few years living in this way myself, I began to realise that our wasteful western cultures simply did not make people happy, and the happiest time of my life was whilst in the company of these wonderful people’s, I could have spent the rest of my life amongst them, but decided to come back to the UK to live a frugall lifestyle myself, but giving to charities that had concerns on encroachment of indigenous peoples by Western corporate interests, and also environmental, and animal charities, which I find especially important now, as long as one is not starving and has a roof over their heads, the indigenous populations of the world Seem to be far happier people, then some pseudo western consumerist society, after all they had lived like this for thousands of years, living in harmony with the rest of the ecosystem around them, before the West come along and spoilt it all for them, but it seems that we just cannot see this, when western cultures intrude on their lifestyles in any meaningful way, and then it seems the rot sets in and they want what the West has got? even though ultimately it doesn’t make them happier, living with more unnecessary superfluous rubbish. We think as essentials!.

    By the way I have never had central heating, living in the UK,  just a simple wood burning stove, in one room, and have never experienced discomfort with this arrangement, even though the temperatures last year plummeted 21c below zero, one just gets used the cold, or puts more clothes on,

    Air-conditioned cars, and central heating, makes one less adaptable, in my opinion, to temperature fluctuations, just look at the Eskimos; perfectly adaptable to their very harsh environments up there in the past, before western interference.

    • So true Stephen! And central heating/ air is such lux, isn’t it? How wonderful that you were able to live outside your comfort zone and learn something new in the process. I, too, have found the poorest seem to be the happiest in spirit. It always amazed me the difference in cultures. How are you liking living in the UK now? Was it a difficult adjustment?

      • Obviously living in the UK is no hardship, and it would be absurd to say otherwise, but I have found it rather hard to assimilate back into this self imposed wasteful madness, especially since I now no how all this affluence has been generated; through the exploitation of other countries resources, in a parasitic frenzy of resource destruction, then simply moving on, to a ever decreasing resource base, when that resource has simply withered away and been destroyed, simply to service our rather unsustainable appetites,  luxury goods, and opulent lifestyles, and simply leaving other peoples livelihoods and resources in Tatters not unlike the recent movie ‘Avatar’ where  monetary profits, backed up by military might! has systematically stripped that world of its resources, but unfortunately unlike the movie, in this reality, there’s  not going to be a hero to augment our fate! but ultimately perhaps mother nature will have the last say!

        I’m very sorry to be so negative, but this is as I see it. And nobody seems to care a dam!  Sorry very few.

  12. Stephen,
    You aren’t being negative. You’re being honest. Vent all you want. I’m listening. 🙂

  13. Whilst you’re listening Jennifer, I’ve got a rather interesting flick, which may interest you? Concerning my previous Dialogue!
    You may find it rather disturbing!
    But I feel, honest; concerning our rather unfortunate, brutal wasteful Western societies; It starts off as a sort of history lesson, and moves onto a world where our governments will do anything to sustain our rather affluent, and ultimately unsustainable lifestyles, at any cost!!!!

  14. @ Stephen, watched the first two. Sound very similar to the book Confessions of an Economic Hitman. It’s true, you never really know what the truth is when it comes to media.

  15. It’s true Jennifer, about the media, or indeed about all our governments, concerning what they want the masses to believe about anything. especially nowadays when people don’t seem to want to look beyond the first nanoseconds of anything it seems!
    It needs to be presented on a plate for all to see, otherwise nobody is interested, unless some trumped up media personality it seems has some interest, or conviction, otherwise the masses seem to think it is of no consequence.

    One sometimes needs to simply go deeper into any subject;
    One needs simply to join up the dots sometimes to get at the real truth about anything! which takes rather longer.
    Take our ‘consumer waste’ for example, we all know what to do to reduce it, and indeed almost eliminate it from our society if one wished. but it seems nobody can be bothered, if it’s any more difficult than simply tossing it away, nobody seems to want to know or cares.
    or is it my ‘pessimistic’ tendencies showing its rather unpalatable rhetoric now days? or perhaps I could be disingenuous to my true belief of the world as I have finally come to terms with!

    whether all this fulfils the socially accepted imperative is another matter.

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