Wednesday
Nov032004

« Mongolians and Christmas »

I have heard on a couple of occasions about Mongolia and the nomadic peoples who live there. Some days, it seems that moving to Mongolia would be nice.

There are none of the accoutrements of modern life, like cell phones, computers, DVD players and TVs, and even well, houses! Both of the accounts I have seen have had westerners absolutely delight in the utter simplicity of their way of life over there. Well, there are no jobs, but everyone seems to have their work cut out for them, collecting food and moving the camp periodically, tending to animals, etc. The people don't have fences to keep each other out, and they even enjoy being in the company of each other! They aren't fat, they don't have the diseases we have here, and they are fit and active as part of real life, not just as a side deal for a half hour every day, out of guilt at that. They don' t have any Home Depots, but they have hand made houses (yurts) that are beautiful and ornate. They don't have bathrooms with big baths, but they manage to get business done just out in the fields surrounding the camps. They are welcoming to strangers in a way that is not forced. They eat simple but healthy food. They don't farm for it.

Really, it is amazing. These people seem to have it so simple and pure as to not go wrong. Over here, we have a system of life that is so convoluted that we get sick and angry from it. Our lifestyles are toxic to us. i'm not even talking about bad air quality. That is a part of it, but the actual mechanics of our daily lives are like poison to us. Shattered communities, obesity, depression, fear, anxiety, and a host of other issues stem from our system of living. Commuting, suburban subdivision land use, fast food, round-the-clock news and entertainment, overcompressed music (a nod to my past life), and consumerism all turn us into savages who have forgotten how to live in peace and with others and with the land.

Christmas is upon us now, the Capitalist High Holy Days, as it were. Jesus' birth is rendered as a mere footnote in the season that is given over to a monthlong extravaganza of seeing who can get in the most debt while attempting to show love to family and friends. Even the more pagan symbolism of rebirth is lost to the rampant commercialism. I've never been one to go into the overt commercial mode during this season. Usually it is because I was too poor, or didn't have a credit card. Sometimes I was really isolated. Or maybe it was that I could easily give out too much stuff if I started off, so I didn't start at all... Nonetheless, I don't like that aspect of Christmas. For me, I have always favored being a part of the seasonal gatherings and the togetherness that that brings, sometimes even among people whom I may not have talked to or known the rest of the time. It seems that for a month or so, the pace of life slows down and there are pockets of togetherness, indoors where it is warm, when perhaps moments of actual contact might be made between people. December then is my favorite month of the year. I'm always sad to see it go, because for me, it is like an oasis, and most of the rest of the year is somehow lacking in something.

A favorite thing and about the only actual tradition I have kept for Christmas is my church Christmas Eve service. Even when I was non practicing and somewhat hostile toward Christianity, I went. I saw familiar faces, and that was always nice, but there was a certain unpretentious purity in attending that service. For years (until the damned fire chief declared it illegal) we used to have the service in dim light, and would have a lot of candles lit. We would do the old classic carols that never age out, with organ, piano, or guitar, and voice. Very simple, very austere and beautiful. Candles and music. Lots of people inside on a cold night, having a common experience. A celebration of birth, rebirth, life's beginnings, hope... It need not be in a church or at Christmas. But these sorts of things don't happen in my life many other times in a year, or not all together. No, life is too complex and busy to allow the sacred in.

And yet, in the Christmas season, instead of truly taking the time to relax and let the sacred parts of life wash over us, we tend to take on even more activity, engaging in the sorts of things that really are killing us a little at a time, every purchase we make. The most sacred time of year for those who care to consider it as such, is also the same time when we go out of our way to do some wretched stuff. Consumerism and consumption is the cause of almost all of our national problems today, but instead of using the month leading up to Christmas as a time to actually break from our ordinary habits, we actually step up the pace on the same habits!

See, the way I see it is this: consumerism is another form of competition that really has no winners but for the people who make the money off the transactions. There is nothing that says gifts have to be bought in order to be valid. But cultural conditioning has led most of us to that belief. Not everyone has the chops for making their own gifts, but a gift that really came from a real place inside a real person has so much more resonance than something from Wal Mart or Ikea or Best Buy. In the past, I have made a few homespun gifts that could only come from me. I gave my dad a photo collage of a bunch of our pictures together over the last few decades. A year before I recorded about 15 minutes of holiday and seasonally inspired music and put it on CDR for a bunch of people. Sometimes I just write a good letter to people. Or maybe I do some other thing that springs to mind. The idea is to make something unique that shows a genuine fondness for a person. That to me is a part of the cozy feeling I get in this season.

In Mongolia they don't celebrate Christmas. But somehow, from the few things I have heard about the place, and the nomadic people who live there, they have that sort of bond to each other and their surroundings that we have not. For me, that sort of feeling is sort of fleeting; I get a dose of it for a few weeks a year. What a shame that it is more or less a seasonal thing. It seems to be something that we almost have to remind ourselves to do...put it on our "to do list." I wonder what it would be like to share life in a community that is unencumbered by the amount of nonsense we surround ourselves with every day. I wonder what it would feel like if we were valued not as human capital but as human beings. What would life be like if we didn't have to sell our lives by the hour to (what to us) is the highest bidder?

Mongolians don't have money. They have each other. They have the land and animals that God gave them. They value it all in a way that we have long since forgotten about. Where I live, the land is priced out of range for even dedicated working stiffs. And for most of us, we can't own life-sustaining animals. It's illegal due to zoning laws. That ought to tell you something about how backwards and sick we are as a society. Mongolians don't want what they don't have, but we don't need what we have, and we certainly don't have what we need. Hell, we don't even want what we need! That much has been chased out of us!

But one day, all the material items in the world will be found to be nothing but that—material items that have no soul, no capacity for compassion or love, no ability to emote, no cares if you or I live or die. And then a lot of it will ultimately break down and be thrown away anyway, maybe before its time. Think about that when you are ready to lay down the credit cards this season... you're spending invisible money (which only amounts to a promise anyway) on poorly made stuff for temporary kicks for people who would probably want your love anyway, which of course comes for free anyway. So what if the economy slows down because people stopped buying. Mother Earth could possibly come up for air with that news! There is more to life than just keeping the economy going. Our economy is not the heartbeat of a healthy nation—our compassion and love is. But we have been told otherwise. We only need a strong economy to keep people working to ensure their own enslavement to corporations and consumerism.

Mongolian nomads don't have day jobs, but they have a lot we don't have. They don't go to Wal Mart for low prices, because the stuff they surround themselves with is priceless.

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