Mom’s wedding dress.
Most of us own something with deep sentimental value. These are visible, tangible, quasi-sacramental tokens of the precious relationships which we hold most dear. If we didn’t love our grandparents, then their fiddles and quilts might have been thrown away by now. If we didn’t care deeply for our parents, their guitars and wedding dresses would have been donated to Good-Will. By themselves, such items would probably mean little to us. But we treasure them, because they are connected with the people we care about and treasure so much. When we hold dearly to grandpa’s old fiddle or to mom’s old dress, it is not for the love of wood or cotton, but for the love of our family, and for the life we have shared together with them.
Think of these treasures now possessed. Do you have books, jewelry, clothing, or furniture which once belonged to your grandparents, parents, or dear friends? How sad would you be to have those things taken away? Suppose you could trade your grandpa’s pocket-knife for a new one; would you do it? What if a jewelry store said you could swap your great-grandmother’s wedding ring for a shiny new necklace. Would you accept the trade? If you are like most people, you wouldn’t even consider it. You realize that human relationships confer a powerful sentimental value upon objects, and that this value cannot be equaled by either cash or barter. These sorts of precious possessions are rare, and are quite irreplaceable.
But such things have not always been so rare.
It is possible for such items to be not the exception, but the rule.
Imagine that your home is literally filled with these kinds of items, such as dining room chairs and a table skillfully hand-carved by your grandfather, beautiful afghans and quilts which your grandmother lovingly made by hand, and a porch still bearing the handprints of your children when they were little, captured while the concrete was still wet and pliable. The boundary of your property is marked by a tall row of Lombardy poplar trees which your father planted as saplings over 30 years ago, and your front yard sports an impressive old apple tree which your grandfather had planted earlier still. You bought an older car from your uncle, and your cousin comes over on weekends to help you restore it. Many of the clothes in your closet were purchased from your best friend, a skilled tailor in town who makes clothing by hand. Your shelves contain many books which you received as thoughtful gifts from loved ones. As your family grew, so did your home; your dad worked hard to help add two rooms onto your house.
You cannot step into either room without having fond memories of him. You cannot sit on your porch without thinking of your children. You cannot sit in your dining room or eat an apple without thinking of grandpa. Every nook and corner of your home and your property are filled with priceless items which connect you with the life you have shared with grandparents, parents, cousins, friends, neighbors, children, and all those you love. All of your loved ones are not only in your heart and mind, but also are in your home. Even today, your home is filled with the warm, sweet smell of fresh apple pie, made with apples from your grandfather’s tree, cooked on your dad’s wood-burning stove, according to your grandmother’s matchless recipe.
This is more than just an isolated pocket-knife or wedding dress. This is an example of a rich and full life, literally bursting at the seams with the warm, inviting, ever-present reminders of treasured human relationships. Living like this brings a person comfort and reassurance at every turn, a constant manifestation of love that has been mutually shared, constantly reminding us that we are never really alone.
Instead of pulling out picture albums to jog our memories only occasionally, this rich network of relationships becomes the very air that we breathe. With such powerful surroundings, we cannot sit in a chair, wear a shirt, or eat a slice of apple pie, without being reminded of and touched by the people we love. Any contractor can use wood and nails to throw together a house. It takes homemade quilts and apple pies to form a home.
But somewhere along the line, the merchants convinced us that chairs are merely for sitting in, that clothes are merely for covering our bodies, and that apple pies are merely for calories. And this is convenient for them, because once humanity and relationships are removed from the equation, they can finally compete on the basis of price alone.
Indeed, if the only purpose for a chair is sitting, Target can sell you a plastic substitute that will only cost half the dollars of the solid, sturdy, hand-carved wooden model.
If clothes serve no purpose other than to cover the body, then your local department store can fulfill that need more quickly and cheaply than any tailor.
If apple pies are merely for calories, then your local Super Wal-Mart can deliver twice the calories to you in a cheaper, more efficient manner.
But they never told you the real costs associated with their plastic chairs, plastic clothes, and plastic food. They never warned you that purchasing their products would cost you more than mere money. They never warned people that the decline of local trade would necessarily be accompanied with a decline in local relationships. In their single-minded quest for dollars, it probably never occurred to them that the globalization of the economy would bring about the deterioration of families and local neighborhoods.
And so it goes, bit by bit, generation by generation. We exchange sentiment for cash, love for efficiency, and family for fashion. Most of our grandparents were farmers. Most of us are not. Little by little over the past 100 years, we have literally sold the farm.
A neighborhood used to include that close network of friends, family, and relationships that you would depend on for your day-to-day life. The farmer would be your father, the baker would be your aunt, the tailor would be your best friend, and the priest would be your cousin. The guy next door would sell you milk, the friend across the road would sell you tools, and the boys down the street would provide assistance with various tasks around the house. The local neighborhood was a sustainable organism, consisting of a network of relationships, many people depending on one another for the constant necessities of life.
Clothes didn’t have to be imported from New York, furniture didn’t have to be imported from France, and food didn’t have to be shipped in from South America. The local community was able to provide itself with nearly all the food, clothing, and entertainment that a person could ever need. All of these needs were met in the context of relationships, and these relationships were held dear. Thus the warm, loving, sentiment-rich home described above was the rule, not the exception. Loving homes, warm relationships, and deep roots were not considered pipe dreams. They were expected. This ideal was not always met. But it was held as an ideal, and many aspects of the ideal were frequently realized.
It is no wonder that, in such an environment, it was far less common for families to split up, or to relocate. One simply did not abandon one’s home, cut ties with the community, uproot, and flit off to resettle in some other town on another coast. And even in the cases where people did relocate, it was with the goal of putting down roots again in the new place. If local circumstances became dire enough to warrant relocation, the goal was always to reestablish–as quickly as possible–the network of mutual love and relationships which cause a neighborhood community to beat with a single heart.
But today, it is quite possible to live in a town for years, without ever really supporting the local community. At the Super Wal-Mart, you can order a rayon sweater from China, a plastic lawn chair from Hong Kong, and a particle-board desk from Pakistan. You can buy genetically modified corn, potatoes raised on petroleum fertilizers, chickens that were literally tortured for months before being slaughtered, and tomatoes which were picked green in Florida and immersed in ethylene gas to turn them red. You can get all your books from Amazon, instead of from a local bookstore. You can buy all your movies online, instead of supporting a local theater. You can even order your groceries online and have them delivered to your door. It is now quite common to have 700 friends on Facebook, while having zero friends next-door. After all, a relationship with our neighbor still requires the physical effort involved in walking out the front door. Meanwhile, the internet has brought European acquaintences into our own living rooms. Why bother talking to my actual neighbor, when I can stay in my recliner and type to strangers? We have entered the age where you can actually live in a community without getting to know a single person in it.
A “neighborhood” used to reference a true community of people who literally shared one another’s lives. They depended on one another, helped one another, loved one another, and supported one another.
Today, a “neighborhood” merely references a group of people which happen to share a common geographical location, and little else.
The large international stores initially won by a trick, convincing people that the competition with local businesses was merely based on price.
Now that the local businesses have gone bankrupt, the international chains have a near-monopoly on the market; thus they can dispense with competition altogether, as far as small businesses are concerned. Entire generations are now growing up, not knowing what they have missed. They assume it is normal for chairs to be plastic, dinners to be frozen, clothes to be made in Honduras, and for the majority of material possessions to have no sentimental value whatsoever. It has become a throwaway culture.
Alas, the success of commercialism seems to leave a person with no way for repentance . . .
I cannot get a kitchen table from the local furniture-maker,
I cannot acquire handmade clothing from the local tailor,
and I cannot purchase new shoes from the local cobbler.
Wal-Mart has put them all out of business.
Little by little, if we reverse this trend one purchase at a time, the little local businesses will gradually start opening back up again. If we create a strong demand, then the market will respond with a vast supply.
The more we seek to do business with our neighbors, the more our neighbors will be able to afford going back into business.
It took us decades to get ourselves into this predicament. We cannot get out of it overnight. The local mom-and-pop stores shut down, one by one, because individual people gradually made more and more buying decisions based on price alone, without any thought for friends, family, human relationships, and the community.
Of course, when all this happens, Wal-Mart will still have lower prices. It will still require less money to shop there than it takes to support local businesses run by small families.
When I am given that choice, I still won’t want to shop at Wal-Mart, Target, or any other national chain. Their price savings do not make up for the loss of sentimental value, or for the deterioration of meaningful relationships.
All things considered, their products are just far too expensive.