Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Last Best West.

I recently finished reading Eliane Leslau Silverman's The Last Best West, which is a collection of anecdotes from women who lived and worked on the Alberta prairie between 1880 and 1930.

This isn't a book I can imagine too many people scrambling to get their hands on, since it's an old book, and even I could only find a copy at a second-hand bookstore. But it was well worth the $5 I spent on it.

Aside from the general interest in the lives of pioneer women, the sadness and struggle they all went through when settling and cultivating a barren wasteland of a place, I found one of the themes of this book particularly apt to write about on this blog.

Just about all of the women who told their stories had the attitude of, "we made do, because we didn't have a choice."

Now, I'm all for choice. Choosing the ways in which we live is one of the freedoms I love. We don't have choices for everything, but we have enough to make ourselves feel truly free.

But the sentiment of these women, making do because they had to, is so very different from the attitude in modern society that I think it's worth contrasting.

I think a lot of it comes down to choice. We live in a much more affluent society than the women back then did. We've got so many luxuries, so many choices, so many paths we can take.

But these choices are a double-edged sword, and come along with a bit of society hypocrisy. We've got all kind of fancy new technological advances, little luxuries to make our lives easier, all manner of wonderous things to buy. And we do buy them, make no mistake, because they keep selling.

And yet, it's often said that a family cannot get by on a single income anymore.

Maybe they could if we all stopped being so obsessed with keeping up with the Joneses, with buying the newest and shiniest gadget just because it's new.

I think we've lost the sense of what it means to "make do". We don't make do anymore, we struggle along from paycheque to paycheque. We spend our money on the newest toys, sometimes more in the urge to show off to others than to enjoy it for ourselves. "Look at me, I just bought a new computer and flat-screen LCD TV!"

We've lost a lot of "making do" skills, because society teaches us we don't need them. Why bother learning how to cook when so many prepared meals are available? Sure, they're more expensive, but they're less work. Why learn how to sew or knit or crochet or weave when going to a department store will be cheaper. The clothing might not last as long, fit as well, or be the style or colours you want, but hey, it takes less time to get and doesn't require actually doing anything beyond getting in the car and spending money.

And then when lean times hit us, when we lose our jobs and can't afford to keep up our old lifestyles, we don't know how to get by on the little we have left.

An old coworker once bragged that "nobody lives within their means anymore." That isn't completely accurate, but in the age of credit cards, where all you have to worry about is making the minimum payment each month, people live outside their means all the time. Using a credit card might be a nice way to get a new TV right now, but with interest, you end up paying more than if you'd just had the patience to save up in the first place.

Debt is commonplace, and some people actually expect to die before they pay off their debt. Houses stuffed full of expensive technology while people struggle to put food on the table is just the norm these days. We live in a time where once-essential skills to survival are no longer a part of our lives. They're hobbies, at best.

And the thing is, they could be enriching our lives at the very least. In a time of serious financial crisis, knowing how to cook a decent meal (that isn't Day-Glor orange and from a plastic container) might be the difference between eating and not eating that day. Knowing how to sew might be the difference between looking presentable and going out with holes in your pants and shirt. Having a little windowbox garden might only give you enough for a single meal, but it's a meal you don't have to go out and buy.

The old "making do" frugal skills might actually stand us in good stead these days. That's why I love reading about those women, and how they lived. Their past can enrich my present and my future.

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