The Gift of a New Year

The holidays can be very stressful. I’m often horror-struck with the American traditions of gluttonous face-stuffing and meaningless gift-giving. With the exception of a piece of durable warm clothing and a child’s toy, gifts from my home this year were hand-made or gently used. At a time of year full of “I wants” and “Gimmies-gimmies,” I tried my best not to add to the circulation of stuff and present people with things they’d find meaning in or just completely useful.

I tried to enjoy the holidays to the fullest extent this year- to really take in the twinkling lights and enjoy the holiday traffic because we’re not far from a world where those lights will be too expensive to run and gas will cost too much to make the three-hour drive from Sacramento to San Jose. I was delighted that my 8-year-old niece wanted gardening tools and got them for Christmas and that her dad borrowed my copy of the book “Food Not Lawns” by H. C. Flores. I thought a lot about the tree worshipping by both secular and non-secular folks this time of year and I hope people embrace the practice outdoors and year round. As we enjoyed tamales and the laughter of our families around us, I couldn’t help but wonder how much longer the abundance of Christmas will last.

One of my best friends called me just before the Christmas holiday to tell me that she was really starting to get depressed because she didn’t get yet another job she had applied for. The agency she wanted the job with had posted the opening on Tuesday and by Thursday listed the position as “filled.” The U.S. bureau of labor statics lists that, as of October 2010, the jobless rate in Sacramento is at 12.5%, which is not adjusted for seasonal work. Since Sacramento is the doughnut hole in the middle of agricultural land, seasonal joblessness matters to the area quite a bit. Additionally, Sacramento is the capital of California and many of the viable jobs depend on election cycles. The last election cycle closed in November. Taking into account the current lack of agricultural and political employers, my best educated guess would put Sacramento’s jobless rate at closer to 16% or 17% and, like all other unemployment statistics in this country, that number doesn’t include people who are under employed and can’t feed themselves or their families on their current salary. The fact of the matter is that many folks are already living like Bob Cratchit in a world resembling a Dickens novel.

I think that part of the reason that Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” has been so timeless is because the holidays really do make people reflect on the past, present and future. When we talk about gas prices, resources, the climate, the economy, the collapse of industrial society, etc., we talk about those things as though they are a future predicament. When we put gas in our cars to drive to Aunt Ellen’s on Christmas Eve and shrug thinking next year we’ll have more money, we’re fooling ourselves. As James Howard Kunstler outlines in his book, “The Long Emergency,” we are living in the collapse of industrial society. It’s happening now. When we buy people a bunch of crap they don’t need, we are contributing to the speed of the collapse of industrial society by sucking up what’s left of the earth’s resources. And when we see our friends, family, ourselves struggle with joblessness, we are feeling the pains as the collapse is happening. Yet so many of us are still living with the ghost of Christmas future.

We are embarking on a new year. This particular time of year seems to be riddled with people who are setting up unreal expectations of themselves for the sake of setting goals. A lot of those goals have to do with vanity, some with money and still others might work toward some other level of responsibility. Here’s my unsolicited advice: Do not set goals or place your hopes and dreams on the economy turning around. The economy is not going to turn around. Further, do not set goals as though we will be back to walking, candlelight and growing our own food this time next year. We are living in a revolution and it is a process. If you’re waiting for congress or the president to stand up and tell you the truth, that the world of absolute abundance and infinite growth was a lie, and that we are on the path of the greatest economic downturn in human history, they aren’t going to. They’re going to tell you exactly what they’ve been telling you all along, that’s it’s going to be okay, that everything is going to be okay. Economically, we will be worse-off next year than we were this year so if you are setting your standards based on market up-swings and corporate hiring, you are setting yourself up for failure.

Perhaps this year, instead of losing 10 pounds, we can all set broader goals: Make loving choices, work to build bridges in your community and be present in the present moment. If you are hoping to make adjustments in your personal appearance, do so because you want to work towards a healthier body. Eat local and in-season foods. If you hope to exercise more, honor the parks in your community. If you have to join a gym, pick something local and cooperative or non-profit. (If you’re a Sacramentan, try the Yoga Seed at 14th and E.) Know your neighbors and reach out to those in your community who need more help than you do. Support local efforts and be in attendance in your community. Experience the gift of right now and bear witness to it. Tomorrow may not be better than today. Tomorrow may never come. So take the gift of this moment and live it.

The Holiday Spirit

A woman was beaten by her husband outside my office building this morning. It took the police over 20 minutes to respond at 8am on a Monday morning, a seemingly slow crime period. A co-worker saw the incident from the window and, rather than turning a blind eye, or declining to get involved, she opened the door, invited the women into our office, got her a blanket and a warm cup of tea and called the police. The perpetrator lingered outside our locked office door while we waited for the police to arrive. We called later-arriving co-workers to inform them of the situation and keep them safe. The man was eventually taken into custody and the woman has made arrangements to stay somewhere safe.

This story could have had a number of different endings. My co-worker may have saved someone’s life today. She certainly opened her heart and made someone a little more safe than she was before. With the lag time of the police, had the woman not been able to take shelter in our office, who knows what might have happened.

This time of year is famous for the kindness of strangers. Around the holidays, there are magical moments when we tend to be more patient, when we hold doors open and when we think about the possibility of kindness in all people. I am proud to say that I work with people who are forward thinking and who care. I know the same steps would have been taken, as they were this morning ,at any other time of year.

I think about the holiday spirit a lot. It has nothing to do with baubles and ribbons. It has nothing to do with Hallmark ornaments. It certainly has nothing to do with shopping. As I dug the decoration boxes out of storage this year and went through them, I found myself ashamed looking at the trinkets and wares–the ghosts of Christmas past, that I’m still paying off from the year or years before, that are no doubt part of our country’s debt to China which may result in our two countries nuking each other. In short, the holiday spirit can’t be found in a box.

The holiday spirit is about bringing one’s soul congruent with what one needs rather than what one wants. Sure, the shopping season is about wants. The true spirit of the holidays, however, happens when families gather, when candles are lit, when blessing are counted and when bread is broken with community. It’s about opening one’s heart to all the possibilities this universe has to offer and extending a hand to our fellow man.

As the institutions we have in place to keep us safe (police, firefighters etc.) break down, we will have to rely on the kindness of strangers more and more. As we move forward this new year, let us all be those strangers. Let us be the example of the holiday spirit each and every day.

Thinking Off-Road

I am a breed of Sacramentan know as a “Bay Area Transplant.” I grew up in the suburban riches of the eastern San Francisco Bay Area and, like many of my generation, realized that I would never attain the income level to be able to, at the same time, feed myself and live anywhere near where I grew up. I moved to the city of Sacramento nearly ten years ago when I attended college at UC Davis and I never left. There are lots of us and it makes holiday travel hell. One year, it took over four hours to travel a little over 60 miles to my parent’s house in Concord, CA. This past Thanksgiving holiday, rather than falling in line with the holiday standard, I decided to think off-road: I took the train.

I was surprised at how many empty seats there were on the train on Thanksgiving. Amtrak runs several trains a day from Sacramento to the Bay Area and back again. The rates are very reasonable, about $20, one-way. There are two lines, the “Capitol Corridor” and the “Coast Starlight.” The Capitol Corridor is a commuter train and the line tends to be more reliable for timeliness as the Coast Starlight is a travel train that runs from Chicago. The Amtrak station is downtown at I and 6th streets, on the other side of the freeway from Old Sacramento. Parking in the Amtrak parking lot costs $9 per day but light rail drops off at the station and cars can pull into the parking lot without a fee to drop off passengers. You can purchase tickets online before your trip or right there at the station before you board. To board, you walk out onto the platform behind the station, look at the marquee for your train, which is indicated by the final stop of the line (so you’ll have to know your train’s final destination) and board when the train arrives and the doors open. Tickets are retrieved once the train has departed; an Amtrak representative will come by to your seat and punch a hole in your ticket. An announcement is made before each stop so you have plenty of time to prepare to detrain.

Train rides are relaxing and romantic. The train from Sacramento to Martinez (and further) provides breath-taking views of the valley farmland and bay marshes. Train stations are located in fairly easily accessible parts of town. Because I had agreed to help cook, I had an extra bag with me and my dad picked me up but I could have ridden my bike or taken the bus from the station to my final destination. One thing is certain: the train saved me from the headache of holiday traffic and was a terrific alternative way to travel.

As gas becomes a more and more scarce commodity, and we are forced to think off-road about how we travel, I think that we will really regret our failure to nourish the rail system. In many towns that once flourished with trains and railroads, the tracks are either over-grown or paved over. Sacramento has a rich railroad history. At the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento, there is a map of the incredible infrastructure of what was once a healthy, viable form of transportation. The lines of rail travel have dwindled to a mere fraction of what they once were. As we move forward, I hope rail becomes a priority for all infrastructure planning. For now, I plan to do my part by taking the train as much as possible.

(For those living in Sacramento, there is a great article in this month’s Sac Town Magazine by Rob Turner called “Imagineering Downtown.” It’s about the development of the rail yards and shouldn’t be missed.)