Out for a walk recently, my mind wandered as it usually does and on this day I was singing a song to myself to set my pace, a Janis Joplin tune called Mercedes Benz.
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz
My friends all drive Porches, and I must make amends
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends
So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes BenzCopyright Sony Music Entertainment
As those words revolved in my head, my train of thought moved on to the materialism that the song parodies, and that brought me round to the idea of “stuff”. Why do we have stuff?
A few years ago, I was flying home from a business trip to Madagascar.
My fellow passengers were mostly like me – businessmen in suits and jackets and ties – so I couldn’t help but notice a guy wearing bush shorts and a bush shirt, with thick woollen socks and heavy hiking boots. He was a bit older than me, perhaps late 60’s, yet with a healthy energy and a tanned outdoorsy complexion. He stood out for what he was wearing, and also for what he was carrying – an old-fashioned canvas rucksack and a little folding luggage cart to which was strapped a small crate full of hardcover books.
I watched him board and take his seat, and then as I took mine, I briefly noticed he was across the aisle from me, before I disappeared into my flight routine, taking out my headphones and book and settling down for a 4 hour hop to Johannesburg.
Partway through the flight, I looked up from my book to see that he was reading it over my shoulder along with me. When he saw me look up, he asked if I liked it – I think it was a James Clavell novel, Shogun or something – and we got to chatting. Over the remainder of the flight I learned a bit of his story.
He was a woodworker and carpenter, from outside Guelph in Ontario – less than a hundred km from Toronto, though we met on the other side of the world (how do Canadians always seem to find each other?). He lived on his own, though he had grown children. He liked to travel, and each winter he’d work for a few months and when he’d saved enough he’d head out somewhere. He’d just spent a couple of months in Madagascar, bird-watching and wildlife spotting, and was trying to decide where to head next once he got to Johannesburg. North he thought, maybe Morocco.
Other than bird-watching, he loved to read, hence the crate of books. He’d pick up any English-language books he could find and trade them with other travellers along the way. Sometimes he’d sell a few, or spend a bit of time teaching people to read in English to make a few dollars. Other than that, he had a few clothes, his binoculars, and a simple lifestyle, staying in hostels or crashing on people’s couches. He could spend 6 months travelling for a few thousand dollars, most of which went on airfare, and when his money ran low he’d head back to Canada to work for a few months and make enough to travel some more.
When we got to Johannesburg, I offered to buy him a coffee, but his next flight was going off through one terminal and mine through another, so we shook hands and wished each other safe travels.
I can’t remember now what his name was – Jack or Bill or something like that. But I think of him now and again, because I envy him, and that Janis Joplin song brought his image back to my mind.
When I’m walking, I’m usually just doing that – walking. I might take a water bottle or a small knapsack with some snacks, perhaps a rain jacket. That’s about it. I like walking because I can do it with so little.
And this is what I what was going through my mind as I thought about “stuff”. It was tied up with a recent family dinner conversation, my wife and son and I. We were talking about the homes of some of my son’s friends, which to be frank are considerably larger than ours, and moved on to stuff in general – the cars, smartphones, clothes, and other everyday things that people buy that can be outward signs of affluence. My son said that one of his goals was to be able to buy a nice house, and we talked about what “nice” meant and what you need in order to be comfortable – where the line was between comfortable and luxury and what “stuff” was a luxury, what was a necessity, and what was in between.
On my walk, that conversation muddled and mingled with my recollections of my long-ago fellow traveller, and the words in that song. His stuff was minimal – a few clothes and some books, and not much else. Janis was singing about materialism and mocking it. And as I walked I realized that I was meandering around Lytton Park and Forest Hill, relatively upscale neighbourhoods in mid-town Toronto.
And parked in their driveways, I’d often notice expensive cars (Mercedes Benzs and Porches amongst them, which is probably what triggered the memory of the song), and other conspicuous displays of consumption – fancy bikes, electric scaled-down cars for kids, and so on. Smug thoughts drifted through my head. What a wasteful carbon footprint.
And then I thought about my walks, and the recent series of posts that I’ve been doing about my gear. My pile of walking stuff is actually bigger than I’d like to admit – walking poles, knapsacks, water bottles, hiking boots, rain gear, and exercise clothes, not to mention the other stuff I’d like to buy including a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, a bigger pack, a cook stove, and cooking gear.
As I mentally checked off the stuff on my so-called minimal list, my smugness faded. Is my footprint really so light? My stuff may feature eco-friendly, recycled polyester fleece, merino wool and ethically-raised duck-down, but does that make my stuff virtuous and their stuff vulgar? Who decides whose stuff is bling and whose is basic? At the end of the day, it’s still stuff.
So as often happens, if I walk long enough I come full circle in my thoughts. On my way home, I mulled over the idea of “unstuff”. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve told myself that I don’t need much. By the standards of many in Toronto, we live relatively modestly. I go for walks. I armchair shop for hiking gear. We drive a basic car. And while I’d like to think of that as unstuffing my life, if I’m honest it’s more a case of “less stuff” than it is “unstuff”.
I’d like to say I can step away from stuff, and walk lightly. Whether I can do that honestly – well, there’s a new thought to mull over as I walk.