Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Good Life: How to Create a Sustainable and Fulfilling Lifestyle by Sherry Ackerman

Book Review by Zinta Aistars
·         Paperback: 220 pages
·         Publisher: Hermitage House, 2010
·         Price: $18.95
·         ISBN-10: 0984603204
·         ISBN-13: 978-0984603206
From the book description of Sherry Ackerman’s The Good Life:
“For many people, consumer culture has lost its appeal. So have debt accumulation, time poverty, exteriority and social alienation. The Good Life traces one woman's journey toward a deeply fulfilling lifestyle-and points toward a way of life that values freedom, interdependence, caring, community and our connectedness with nature. The Good Life offers a guide to finding personal freedom through a sustainable lifestyle. It invites readers to view the recent global market downturn as an opportunity to transform our dead consumer culture into a living post-consumer society. The book is packed with information on emerging alternatives, such as co-housing, slow money, vegetarian and raw foods, permaculture and organic gardening, voluntary simplicity, green building, and more.

The Good Life is a Guide to Finding Personal Freedom and a Blueprint for a Sustainable and Fulfilling Lifestyle. Each chapter ends with a very practical ‘Dozen Things That You Can Do’ to create a more sustainable and fulfilling lifestyle.”
I found Sherry Ackerman’s book on the bookshelf of a friend when house sitting for him. It was a 125-year-old wonderful farmhouse outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan, surrounded by field and forest, and I was looking for a good read that fit my surroundings. Oh, and did this book ever fit the bill!
All my life I have been longing for …. well, to live. To live a nature-centered life that is built around real values, and not just consumerism. I’ve always wanted that log cabin in the woods, and Ackerman’s book is a guide of how to live such a life, that is, nature-centered, simple, in tune with our needs rather than in competition with the Jones’s next door for who can drive the biggest, fanciest car, build a McMansion, earn the highest salary, wear designer labels, and so on, ad nauseum.
Enough already.
Ackerman is a philosopher by background, a professor, and this book incorporates more than just notes on how to garden and be organic. It goes far beyond that, weaving a philosophy of life into why we live as we do, and why we feel so empty when we ignore our true needs. She is a modern day Thoreau, only her call is also a call back to community. Who of us has not noted that to live in the crowded city or in the sardine-packed suburbs does not equate to isolation?
Our lives are ever more empty, and the recent market crash and other economic woes have only sharpened our awareness that this path was the wrong path. How then to find our way?
Ackerman takes on our dissatisfaction with work. Work should not be a burden, but a blessing, an extension and expression of ourselves. Yet too many of us work merely for a paycheck, living to work rather working to live.
“For many, the workplace is a golden cage—a place they stay because of the paycheck, not because they feel adequately engaged or stimulated. American workers are forgetting how to fly.” (Page 53)
To clarify:
“Emphasis shifted from the pursuit of happiness to the accumulation of wealth. People were defined by their ‘stuff.’ Having a lot of ‘stuff’ indicated that one was successful. The only fly in the ointment was that people were not happy. There are currently approximately 19 million clinically depressed Americans, or 9.5 percent of the population in any given one-year period. Depression currently affects so many people that it is often referred to as the common cold of mental illness.” (Page 52)
Rather than the pursuit of stuff, Ackerman reminds us of the ancient wisdom of Aristotle, that a happy life “is a mix of health, wealth, friendship, knowledge, nature and virtue.” Wealth is defined as having everything one needs rather than everything one wants (which tends to lead only to more wants and so more dissatisfaction).
Ackerman describes guidelines and offers fascinating stories and descriptions of a life that brings back community, the exchange of work and goods, giving away what one no longer needs, and living within one’s means rather than accumulating debt. Live in this manner, she writes, and the boom and bust cycle of our current style of living in the United States would not affect you, indeed, wouldn’t happen at all.
She urges the reader to consider the European lifestyle and compares it to the American culture of making heroes out of those who work long hours in the office rather than spend time with friends and family. “Full time workers in most of Europe typically take seven to eight weeks of vacation and holidays each year … According to Harvard economist Alberto Alesina, Europeans are happier, and have less stress and insecurity, which is good for health and longevity … longer, mandated vacations haven’t undercut the competitiveness of other wealthy countries, and there’s even evidence to suggest that they have increased their productivity.” (Page 112-113)
What else are we missing? Time with family. Time in nature. Time enjoying art or reading a book. Americans, Ackerman writes, now read less than one book per year. (One hopes, then, that the one book will be The Good Life!) We are missing out on the quality of life.
We are losing our compassion, our kindness, focused on getting ahead in the rat race and getting the biggest sale on the newest piece of stuff. Our worth is now measured by what we own, which has come to own us. Ackerman has us consider, too, how we treat others around us, and not just other human beings, but other life forms. Here is our true worth.
“Americans’ love affair with cheap stuff—including education and airfares—has been one of the biggest roadblocks standing in the way of sustainable relatedness. In the same way that consumer culture has moved toward valuing profit over people, it has put profit over nature. The U.S. agricultural industry, for example, can now produce unlimited quantities of meat and grains at remarkably cheap prices. But it does so at a high cost to the environment, animals and humans.” (Page 156)
To live in a sustainable and ethical manner, we have to think in terms of value rather than getting our stuff cheap. In the long run, there is always, without exception, a cost to be paid for pursuing cheap.
Is this the best that humans are capable of? asks Ackerman. And perhaps we have gone too far in that cheap and unsustainable direction, now watching the results in terms of a faltering economy, health, global climate conditions, wars, disease, environmental degradation. Yet one must hope for better, and regardless of how far and how long we have lived in this manner, there is reason and need to change.
The Good Life offers a story about those who have chosen to live otherwise, including the author herself and her family and friends. It’s not enough to envy them their wisdom. These are changes we should all emulate. It is the right thing to do, and it will return us to that pursuit of lasting happiness. 
Visit The Smoking Poet, Summer 2011 Issue, to read Talking to Sherry Ackerman, an author interview. 


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life by Daiva Markelis

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Hardcover: 216 pages

• Publisher: University Of Chicago Press, 2010

• Price: $22.50

• ISBN-10: 0226505308

• ISBN-13: 978-0226505305

Opening this autobiography of a woman born to immigrant Baltic parents and growing up in the United States was like looking into a mirror. Indeed, the similarities between the life of Daiva Markelis, a Lithuanian-American, and my own, a Latvian-American, are uncanny. I would more often than not feel as if I were reading my diary, or at very least, that of a twin soul.

Markelis was born in Chicago to parents who had fled Soviet-occupied Lithuania, growing up in Cicero. Chicago is home to the largest Lithuanian population outside of Lithuania. She was raised with Lithuanian as her first language:

“At home, my parents talked to my sister and me in Lithuanian. They watched for the intrusion of English words into our speech the way high school biology students look under a microscope for germs.” (Page 17)

Not only language, but Markelis was raised on the premise that this life, here, in the States, was a temporary if unfortunate condition, and that someday, some distant and fantastical day, the family would pack up and go back home.

“ … there was the chance, infinitesimal as it was, that the Russians would leave Lithuania, evicted by the superior force of the United States, whose leaders, realizing that their blind acceptance of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had been a mistake of the most horrible kind, would go to any length to rectify their error. And then we could go back—we could all go back.”

Substitute Latvia for Lithuania in any of this, and this is my story, too. Speaking English in the hallowed halls of Saturday Latvian School might earn one a swift reprimand (but I earned a swift slap from my American public school kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Johnson, when I could not pronounce the “th” sound in “thumb,” a sound that was non-existent in my Baltic tongue), and the idea of assimilation into our American surroundings was anathema. We were not in any melting pot. Not even in a mixed salad. We were as separate as water and oil, to be skimmed away at any given moment should the gates to home open.

Markelis writes of her childhood and youth in the 1960s and 1970s with an almost raw truthfulness that can’t help but earn the reader’s respect. She pokes fun at herself and her life even while maintaining an inherent dignity. To be the child of immigrants means to be set apart, not only from one’s surroundings, but even within one’s family. The child grows up in a world that will always remain, at least on some level, alien to the parents, and must learn to navigate both, belong to both, step seamlessly from one to the other and back again.

So Markelis can simultaneously show the reader the city streets of Chicago and the inner workings of an immigrant world. She does it effortlessly because she has grown up doing so. Yet there is a price to pay, too, and she speaks of this with the same honesty—her struggles with depression and alcoholism.

Unfortunately, in this we share an ethnic connection, too, in that both of our Baltic countries have a high rate of alcoholism (according to some studies, highest in the world), and I have always thought this was directly related to both nations being repeatedly and cruelly oppressed in countless wars throughout the centuries. It is the burden we carry in our genes, but along with it, the ability to cope, as both Baltic nations also show a remarkable history of endurance and determination to survive.

Markelis grows introspective at times in a personal search for meaning in her ethnic identity, even resisting it, even hating it, and I understand this, too. To be so closely identified with one’s ethnic background, so connected to one’s national history, means that it sometimes chafes and constricts—yet other times enriches in a way that others on the outside may not understand. I wouldn’t trade my ethnicity for anything, and I strongly suspect neither would Markelis. It is much like an extended family. One may on occasion blow off steam and slam doors and say unspeakable things among one’s own, but when push comes to shove, we defend our own against any and all, and love them, our family, to the bitter end.

This same complexity enters Markelis’ relationship with her father, also an alcoholic, and her mother, who is stricken by cancer. She struggles with them as any child does, but her devotion and love come through again and again. She opens a window for us to see into her world, where she wears a Lithuanian folk costume on special occasions and attends Lithuanian school on Saturdays while American friends watch cartoons and wear jeans. She parties like there’s no tomorrow, but tomorrow comes with its lessons. From these lessons, Markelis grows, and in her sustains and somehow resolves all the juxtapositions and paradoxes of her identity, and makes them into her own true identity.

In the end, it is hard for me to review a book that tells a story so closely aligned with mine. Can one truly be objective about a mirror image? I could only shake my head to realize that in thinking oneself so different from one’s surroundings, there were perhaps so many of us growing up in exactly the same way—and coming through just fine. In fact, much better than fine—wealthier for the added perspective on ourselves and the world around us with its endless diversity.

To read an interview with the author, visit Talking to Daiva Markelis in the Summer 2011 Issue of The Smoking Poet.