Occupy Your Life

Vandana Shiva visited my neighborhood last week.  That single sentence in itself continues to be absolutely amazing to me.

Dr Shiva was invited to Los Angeles to receive the Doshi Bridgebulider Award at Loyola Marymount University.  She gave a lecture for the University midday, which I could not attend.  In the the evening she gave a talk to a packed-beyond-capacity lecture hall.  Despite the university setting, easily a quarter of the attendees were environmental, political or Transition activists, many of whom I knew through activities of Transition Los Angeles.

Midday, between lectures, we were deeply honored as Dr Shiva's LMU hosts brought her to tour "our" garden -- the food garden our Transition initiating group built mere blocks from my house.  Together we shared a chayote from our massive vine, with Dr Shiva lightheartedly speculating what it might be like with a certain masala sprinkled on it.  We showed her our rainwater harvesting operations and told her about the Seed Library that is being started in Los Angeles.  And we explained how our garden -- built on the property of a small church -- grows food for the needy, meanwhile becoming a teaching garden from which we teach classes in how to grow food in an urban setting.  Later that evening I was thrilled to hear her mention our garden within the context of her lecture.

While waiting for Dr Shiva's arrival I had been shelling some heirloom Christmas lima beans.  Someone scooped these up and handed them to her.  She turned them tenderly in her cupped hands admiring their spectacular colors.  She said she had begun saving kidney beans -- and soon discovered more than 70 varieities.  She spoke of India's 3,000 varieties of rice -- she's growing out more than 300 of them on her farms. 

I asked her about rice and water requirements.  With a warm and delightfully friendly laugh, she shattered the mythology we have been lead to believe.  More than 70% of those rice varieties do not need to be flooded.  She told me there are rice varietites for drylands, drought-resisitant rice varieties, and varieties which are planted with the rhythm of the seasonal rains.

We can not get these here, I told her.  "Then we need to start sewing them in the hems of our dresses," she replied, fingering the magenta trim of her sari.  Many of the heirloom seed varieities we have in the U.S. came to this country that way.  Seeds of food plants were once so precious and valuable that the people carefully brought seeds with them as they migrated to a new continent.

Perhaps, given the fact that Dr Shiva was coming only to L.A. and to Pittsburgh, I should have prepared a list of questions from the Transition movement to ask her, to create some sort of rich dialog.  After all, when world-class guests visit Totnes, Rob Hopkins seems to have a well-considered list of interview questions ready, after which he publishes the interview to his blog.  But on the other hand, some pretty wonderful things happened.

A student interviewed Dr Shiva in our garden for an Asian students' publication.  Meanwhile, a few of us quietly weeded the seedling beds beside her.  We helped each other learn to identify the baby plants.  We tasted sprouts and composted weeds, all the while surrounded by the deep wisdom of Dr Shiva's interview responses.  Perhaps, rather than lack of preparedness, it was a case of teamwork.  The interview happened.  Meanwhile, rather than a high-pressure scurry to extract some "thing-ness" of an interview to post here, we had a chance to Be.  How often do we really take a chance to Be in our gardens or in the presence of such an august personality.  It was restful and deepening and meaningful and rich.

I came away with a sense of the deep preciousness of true seed, our food heritage, a sacred gift from generations of seed savers.  That to truly grow a garden means to become involved with the seed and to know its provenance -- Where does your food come from, really?  What are its ancestors, its history?  In my mind, post-Dr Shiva's visit, grabbing tainted seed packets from the Big Box store barely counts as gardening food, it is still very much hooked into that dreadful broken agribusiness system.  It is only part-way to the goal.

Dr Shiva's evening lecture focused on biodiversity.  Her opening comments were that we have been convinced by the corporate business world that what is "real" is the existence of a thing, the quantity of things.  That qualitites such as feel, taste, smell, we have been told do not matter.  And in that small shift has begun the undoing of biodiversity.

One of Dr Shiva's stories that stuck with me was that before the age of plastic, each woman -- no matter how poor -- had at least one cooking pot or food storage vessel, and they were beautiful, pounded metal.  Now women are being persuaded to give up that "old" pot and use plastic.  My interpretation:  we might now have "more" but are we truly richer?

Dr Shiva had plenty of comments about economics sprinkled throughout her talk:

  • We are taught what is "real" and what matters.  The conventional system teaches us that if you are raising food in your kitchen garden and cooking it at home it does not count.  You're not "producing" anything because it's not part of the conventional economy.  If you are self-saving seed it isn't creating anything; but in a laboratory, they're "creating" something that is somehow "new" and therefore patentable. 

These comments hit me personally since so much of my life -- gardening food, homeschooling my children, building gardens and community networks with volunteers -- is all within the "does not count" non-monetary economy.

  • Livelihoods:  in India, 90% of the people are "self employed" -- small businesses.  Very few within this vast population work for the big corporations.

In the context of my recent thoughts and writings about how to achieve Economic Resilience, this statistic is of huge importance.  Here in the U.S. we so easily lose sight of it, thinking we have to have a "job."  But vast numbers of people around the world (as well as most of our ancestors) didn't earn their livelihood from a corporate paycheck.  As we move into a more Resilient local economy, the concept of "jobs" will probably become an antiquated concept.

Of all the things Vandana Shiva said, the comments that had the biggest impact on me personally were in the final question of the night, during the Q&A portion of her public talk.  Someone asked "if you could say something to the Occupy movement what would you say?"  
Vandana Shiva flashed her brilliant and embracing laughing smile, a smile that hooks right into your heart and you can't help but feel the connection.  She replied:  "I'd tell them, Occupy your Life." 

She reminded us how Gandhi had the symbolic actions -- sitting in protests -- but with that he also had the cotton -- the tangible actions.  Dr Shiva said that along with the protests, people need to grow food, to build connections within their communities, to make changes in their lives.

Vandana Shiva's phrase "Occupy your Life" lingered with me for many days as I went about my business.  As the phrase deepened and spread within me, it began to take on other dimensions, such as something akin to the Buddhist sense of appreciating the present moment: Occupy the moment as I was weeding the garden.  Occupy the moment as I made a salad from the diverse heirloom tomatoes of my harvest.  Occupy the moment giggling with my daughter.  The portions of my lifetime spent frustrated in traffic revealed their misguidedness and meaninglessness. 

All of the statements Dr Shiva had made about what is real and what counts became rolled up in that one phrase -- Occupy your life -- do the things that really count.  It is when we do the things that really count -- when we save seed, when we cook and eat food that we know where it has come from, when we break bread in kinship with others, when we give and trade from the bounty of what we have created with our own hands -- when we Occupy our lives, therein is the moment when we begin to reclaim the diversity, we begin to make the change.

There are many videos of Vandana Shiva on YouTube.  I enjoy this one and it parallels the broad spectrum of her Los Angeles talk.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d9K0cZGQgHA


How to Occupy Your Life

Over the past few decades we have become a nation of outsourcers.  Just as the giant corporations outsourced manufacturing and jobs to overseas, in our personal lifestyles we have outsourced the basic skills of daily living (often to those same giant corporations).  We have given our lives over to reliance on giant systems -- systems that are driven by the 1%, by the easy credit of Big Banking, and cheap oil.  The resulting dependence has left us feeling disempowered, has created a dependence on high cash flow, and has left us vulnerable. 

Skills our great grandparents knew as essential, most of us barely know how to do.  For skills like growing food, cooking, food preservation, sewing clothes, basic building, basic medicine, we now turn to corporate interests.  In fear, we tell each other one must use a "skilled professional."

It is time to "Occupy our Lives."  Time to participate in the other half of Gandhi's model.  Time to take back those portions we outsourced to the broken system.  It's time to take back the basic skills of daily life into our own hands.  This action is protest, it is survival technique for hard times, and it is preparation for the dawning post-petroleum era.  But it also brings with it that clean, fulfilling feeling of self-sufficiency, pride in accomplishment, and wholesome living.  "Occupy Your Life" is call to take it back.

1) Take back your food.  Every dollar you spend to Big Agribusiness -- every dollar you spend at Big Box stores or conventional grocery stores -- reinforces, supports, and endorses the horribly broken system Vandana Shiva campaigns against.  Instead, buy from farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) as often as possible -- they're much more likely to be growing more sustainably.  Keep your local farmer in business.  As peak oil unfolds, we need that local food production up and running, in close proximity to the urban centers where the people are.  Also, learn how to grow food yourself.  Fill every nook and cranny of your cityscape with food production.

2.) Take back your money.  As you join the Move Your Money campaign to quit the Big Banks, get vocal.  Urge your community bank or credit union to invest in our future -- to invest in, support and promote local projects which better prepare your neighborhood for post-petroleum lifestyles.  Additionally, realize that the U.S. dollar is not the only way to achieve transactions between people.  Barter, time banking/LETSystems, sharing arrangements, and gift cultures are a few of the many ways to get our needs met without U.S. dollars.  Diversity is necessary in our money supply too!

3) Take back your health care.  Learn the skills of basic wellness, yourself, without reliance on Big Pharma, the health insurance racket, nor AMA approval (a form of branding, of fear-based control, and a way of limiting the market solely to insiders).  Learn the skills of traditional healing modalities and practice them with your family.

4) Take back your livelihood.  The hours of your working day, your time, are the very fabric of your life.  If the crumbling conventional economy has already unseated you, become part of the new future.  Take Vandana Shiva's examples to heart -- most of the world does not depend on corporate jobs for their living.  What are your skills?  In your times of unemployment or underemployment -- or in your leisure time -- what new skills can you pick up which better prepare you, your family, and your neighborhood for a powerdown future?  As we localize our economies with the end of cheap oil and easy credit, what basic goods or services can you provide for your local community?  What need can you fill?

5) Take back your value system.  Reclaim feel, taste, smell, as valuable attributes.  That hard, red, round thing from Costco or WalMart doesn't count as a tomato.  Mere count or thingness isn't where it's at anymore.  Allow your inner sense of "right" to overcome the advertising slogans of Wall Street.  We certainly aren't experiencing "better living through chemicals"!  Reclaim environmental stewardship, social equity, and deep satisfaction.

Yes, by the counting system created by Wall Street and the 1%, many of the practices I'm suggesting won't seem to measure up.  They won't count on your bottom line nor on your income tax return.  But they'll count in your heart, in your soul, in your sense of justice and of satisfaction with life.

It's time to figuratively "sew seeds into the hems of our dresses."  Time to gather up the attributes of what is precious about life, to capture that vast diversity, and carry it with you as we journey to new frontiers -- as our society moves into a new era.

Joanne Poyourow is part of the Transition movement in Los Angeles.  She is the author of three books, including "Economic Resilience: What we can do in our local communities."  The full text of "Economic Resilience" can be read online at http://EconomicResilience.blogspot.com

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