Through our family’s journey to live more in tune with the planet and our neighbors we have gained a lot of new skills in the last few years. My wife has learned how to brew kefir, make cheese, knit, make bread and a lot of other food from scratch. I’ve built some things from scratch, like a chicken coop, composting bins and our composting toilet. We have tried to use what was laying around the house or find salvaged or used materials. I’ve made gardens with old tires, recycled milk jugs and old windows. We’ve learned to raise chickens and grow more of our own food. When we lived in the states I checked the local free page on craigslist and freecycle group for stuff that might be useful. In many ways we embody what someone, somewhere called the DIY Lifestyle™.
I add that little trademark for two reasons: 1) just in case it is actually trademarked so I don’t get sued and 2) because what we do based on trying to live out our principles has been commodified, commercialized and turned into a multi-billion dollar industry. This “movement” has its own cable channel, not to mention all the shows on home makeovers and magazines. Multi-billion dollar companies, like Lowe’s and Home Depot, profit off of and fuel the DIY trend. We’ve come a long way since Bob Vila’s This Old House.
Do the people who own the companies associated with the DIY Lifestyle™ participate in the idea from which they profit? Do they get down on their hands and knees to remove tile, paint rooms, caulk tubs, build picnic tables and gazebos by the sweat of their own brow? Somehow I doubt it. Their business is built on the idea that they profit off all the schmucks who do their own home repair and remodeling projects while they have everything done for them.
There’s something disturbing to me about the commodification of doing something yourself. What does it mean that doing something yourself means participating in this industry, buying magazines, watching shows and shopping at big box stores? It means we aren’t doing anything ourselves. Even that is being taken from us. “Do-It-Yourself, but please let us help and make some money along the way.” This doesn’t seem to bother some people. “It’s just the way it is” or maybe “That’s just business” and I should get over it.
But there is something sacred about having spaces and activities that are not commodified and commercialized. There is something very human about doing things that step outside of the world of cost/benefit and brand names. There is something important about holding on to activities that business cannot touch. The truth is that there is nothing that business will not touch. So, it is up to us to fight for our right not to be commodified.
I once heard Utah Phillips say that the most revolutionary thing you can do is sing your own song. As a musician and songwriter that really struck me. It took a while for the meaning of what he said to really sink in. I’ve been writing and performing music for most of my life. People, friends, family and strangers have asked over the years when I was going to make a CD. I have often flipped through the Discmakers catalogue dreaming of having my own CD and making a living from my music. It often felt as if my music could only be legitimate if I allowed it to be commodified. It seems there was never enough time. There were always other things to do like seminary, learning about sustainable agriculture and moving to Bolivia. The truth is I never made producing a CD a priority, but I never stopped writing, playing and singing.
One of our favorite things to do here in Bolivia is sit on our porch and play music together. I’m learning to play the charango and still writing songs. One day not long ago I realized the real impact of what Utah Phillips said. When we create and play our own music, we refuse to allow it to be commodified. We create and play music for its own sake. We refuse to allow the market and commodification machine to define what is legitimate for us.
It’s easy to relegate this kind of activity to something called a “hobby”, by which we mean to pat someone on the head and say, “That’s nice that you like to pretend. Just remember that the big boys are the ones who make the real music”. This is true for “hobby farmers” or any other number of activities that people do for their own sake without the need to make a profit from it. The music we create on our own terms should not be relegated to the kiddie table. It is a serious human activity that stands against a consumer culture, economic system and advertising industry that wants to commodify everything in order to satisfy the insatiable hunger of the infinitely expanding growth economy.
So write poetry and novels, paint and write music. Don’t sell it to anyone, but give it away for free. Make your own house, food, chairs, clothes, etc. and don’t watch any shows or read any magazines to figure it out. Find a friendly old man in your neighborhood with a garage full of tools and ask him to help. Carve out parts of your life and soul and refuse to allow them to be turned into something that is either commodified or called a “hobby”.