Zinta for The Smoking Poet: Welcome to The Smoking Poet, Sherry. Along
with showcasing literary talent here, we like to also showcase what I call “good causes,” invitations to look
at ourselves and our lives a little more closely and examine how we live and why—and where that will lead us. I first
read A Good Life while house sitting for a friend we have in common, in a rural area in West Michigan. It was the perfect
setting for reading your book—in an old farm house on open acreage. In your book, you invite us to … well, I will
let you tell it. Tell our readers what is the main message of A Good Life.
Sherry Ackerman: Well, it’s obvious that the American Empire is collapsing around us. People feel hemmed
in, discouraged and even fearful. The Good Life invites readers to take a step
back and see the economic, environmental and energy crises as opportunities to build something new. It’s not a call
to fix the old. It’s an invitation to build new ways of living: Good Lives! It’s an optimistic book. It doesn’t
see the current crises as “doom and gloom”, but as a really pragmatic opportunity to move in another direction.
And, that direction is back to simplicity. Not austerity! But, really beautiful, heart-felt simplicity. The emphasis is on
quality, not quantity. Gardens, local communities, trade and barter systems among friends, sharing, leisure time spent in
nature and slow food are examples of some of the values of a new paradigm. It’s about realizing that The Good has nothing
to do with “goods” (ie, consumer products). It’s a call to awaken to The Good as deep contentment in simple
things, soulful connection with others, gratitude and serenity.
TSP: While most saw our national and global economy crash as something negative, you see it as something different.
Perhaps a painful lesson, but much needed one? Do you think we have learned something from this?
Sherry: Absolutely. It has confirmed what I always suspected—that my Grandparent’s lives were more
sustainable and satisfying than those of our contemporary counterparts. We always ate fresh produce from their large garden.
Grandma’s house was beautiful—but hardly anything in it was commercial. Grandpa had hand crafted the furniture,
Grandma had made the pottery dishes and hooked the rugs. It was a work of Love. They were friends with their neighbors, always
helped those less fortunate than themselves and lived simply. There was always a circle of Love in that household. And, I’ve learned that this is what is really important. There’s no real sustainable value
in “stuff.” It’s in friends, health, happiness and well-being. That is the real wealth!
TSP: Why is living green important? What IS living green?
Sherry: Living green is being aware of the environment and our impact on it—our footprint. And, it means
trying to do the least harm possible to the Earth and environment. At the practical level, it is reducing consumption, zero
trash (through recycling, reusing, reducing), breaking our love affair with oil, not buying goods produced in sweatshops,
boycotting factory farms that practice inhumane treatment of animals, using less paper, composting, turning off the lights
and turning down the heat.
All of this is important because of
The Three E’s: energy, environment and economy. All three of these systems are in trouble—and at the heart of
the problem are the historically unsustainable ways that we have engaged each system. By differentiating, very simply, between
our needs and our wants we can begin
to reduce consumption and, consequently, waste. This type of conservation reduces the amount of emissions into the environment
and pollutants on Earth. We can’t go on living like “it’s all about us.” It is also about future generations.
It is about natural habitats. It is about the animals and plant life. We are all a part of one, interconnected system.
TSP: You’ve said that reaching a point of sustainability in our lives is done in stages. How does one begin?
If we live in a city, say, in a high rise and we drive our SUV (for those outside of the United States, I’m referring
to those big, four-wheel drive vehicles, sport utility vehicles, many Americans favor) to work, and we work in an office,
and we don’t even know what a lawn mower does … where do we begin? Must we abandon life as we know it?
Sherry: I don’t think that we have to abandon it, but we do have to change it. We are all going to have
to give a little. Could the SUV be replaced by public transportation? Is the office close enough to bicycle to and from? Could
We can all turn some lights off. We
can all turn the heat down and wear a sweater. We can all eat lower on the food chain. We can all recycle. We can all use
less paper. We call all choose to patronize companies that use less packaging. We can all carry cloth grocery bags to the
store. We can all carry our own travel mug, instead of using disposable ones. And, the list goes on!
TSP: The lifestyle you propose isn’t just about growing your own vegetables and not using credit cards.
A very important aspect of it seems to be regaining a sense of community that we seem to have lost, at least in the United
States. Can you talk more about that …
Sherry: Absolutely. I feel that Americans have become too isolated from one another. It was only a few generations
back that we knew our neighbors, took care of the elderly and attended birthday parties for each other’s children. Somewhere
along the way, we got way too caught up in the treadmill of work, work, work. No time to visit friends, recreate, read a good
book or pursue a hobby. I call this “time famine”. We are so busy working to pay for all of our “stuff”
that we have lost our connections—deep, intimate connections—with one another. We are radically individualistic.
I feel that a needed course correction
is that of restoring and regaining local connections: a renaissance of community!! I am encouraged by the plethora of local
food networks spring up. There are also a lot of neighborhood freecycling resources coming to the fore, as well as trader’s
coops, homeless shelters, shared play spaces and even eco-villages. And, of course the Urban Tribe phenomenon is becoming
There are also new concepts of “family”
starting to emerge, such as “fictive kinship” whereby people make strong non-biological commitments to one another.
TSP: What do you say to those who might respond with indignation about losing touch with feminism? That is, here
we are trying to give women freedom from the home, tied down by apron strings, and you seem to be saying that women can find
great satisfaction in growing food, making meals, keeping up a household. Yet I’d say your feminism is intact. Can you
explain your views on this and why it may not be as contradictory as it first seems?
Sherry: I feel that one of the people who provide the best response to this question is Dr. Shannon Hayes, in
her exciting book, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture.
She makes a compelling case that the term “homemaker” is not gender specific. That, prior to the Industrial
Revolution, both sexes were homemakers. Women cooked meals and raised children. Men tended livestock and gardened. Women sewed and mended. Men prepared firewood. Women tended to the care of the elderly extended family.
Men butchered and preserved meats.
First, men left the homemaking post
to go work in cities and factories, leaving the job primarily on the shoulders of women. Then, as personal economies shifted,
women also left the home and took outside employment. Hayes feels that, in order to regain a balanced, sustainable domestic
culture, BOTH men and women need to come back into their roles as homemakers! She makes a strong case for the benefits of
both men and women preparing food, gardening, caring for children, running errands and community service.
TSP: I really like your differentiation between living a good life and living a life of pursuing goods.
Sherry: It’s a critical distinction. We have to regain a perspective that values our lives qualitatively,
instead of quantitatively! He who “dies with the most toys” really isn’t the winner. It is perhaps he who
“dies with the most friends, contentment and personal peace” that really wins!
TSP: As I’m sure you realize, there are scientists who say it is already too late. The global damage we
have done has gone on too long and has already destroyed too much, beyond repair. Your thoughts?
Sherry: They could be right. We really are standing at the precipice. It is the proverbial midnight hour. If we
are going to make it, we need to shift rapidly. This shift starts with consciousness. We have to have a quantum leap of consciousness
whereby the ego rescinds sufficiently for us to care—really care—about others, about the Earth and about the future.
This means that we have to stop thinking about just ourselves. We must begin to see how our actions impact all life and make
the corresponding changes to do far, far less damage.
TSP: And this is not just about science. About climate change. About
Wall Street, the economy, politics. There is a philosophy here, too, a sense of life and what a human being needs to be happy
and healthy—in body, spirit and mind. Indeed, Sherry, you are a philosopher by profession. Talk to us about this.
Sherry: Yes, this is about embracing a different view of what is means to live a Good Life. What is the nature
of happiness? In the whole tradition of Western literature, the one book that, more than any other, attempts to define happiness is Aristotle’s Ethics.
Basically, Aristotle taught that the requirement for happiness was a “complete life”. Aristotle believed that
happiness was the ultimate good—the highest good, the supreme good. This definition, though, comes into clearer focus
when we understand that Aristotle considered happiness as a state of human well-being that leaves nothing more to be desired.
A happy man, Aristotle would say, is the man who has everything he really needs—not what he wants, but what he needs. He has those things he needs to realize his
full human potential. That is why Aristotle says that a happy man wants for nothing.
For Aristotle, a happy life is a mix
of health, wealth, friendship, knowledge and virtue. Consider the modern American uber-consumer who thinks that happiness
consists primarily in accumulating “stuff”. In order to make enough money to pay for all of this stuff, he ruins
his health, experiences personal alienation, does not take part in the vital life of his community, and is, consequently,
subject to constant stress and anxiety. Is he a happy man or is he miserable? Aristotle would say that he is miserable-the
most tragic type of human misery. For he has stunted his human development. He has unintentionally deprived himself of most
the of the good things of life—health, wisdom, friendship and meaningful human relationship—in order to acquire
“stuff”. He has traded the pursuit of happiness for “stuff”!
TSP: Here we are in a society used to competing with the Jones’s and competing to get more stuff, and you
are talking about “giving away.” Why should we give away?
Sherry: Giving away is the ultimate recycling. If we have things lying around that we haven’t used at all
in the past, say, two years, why not give them to someone who would use them? This would reduce commercialism. It would reuse
and recycle things in a way where, as a society, we would need to manufacture less. Less manufacturing equals less environmental
pollution. Less consumerism equals less household debt.
Giving away also creates strong community
bonds. Both giver and recipient feel good. It is a win-win situation. Our attics, basements and garages are all jammed with
“stuff” that we are not using. Others could get a lot of pleasure out of these items. They could be in use, instead
of in storage! We could begin to define ourselves by how much we have contributed to others, instead of how much “stuff”
we have. Americans tend to be “clingers”. We hang on to things long after we have no need for them. Practicing
“letting go” would open new ways of relating to one another. We might experience a resurgence of generosity. We
might find ourselves defining value in ways that have nothing to do with “the bottom line.”
TSP: What is the value of play?
Sherry: Play is recreation. Re-creation. Just that: we recreate ourselves. Without play, we are stuck, rigid and
tight. We don’t regenerate. We stagnate. We implode. We concretize. By involving ourselves in a process of recreation,
we literally re-create—we explore new creative dimensions, new options for relating to one another, reacquaint ourselves
with movement, revitalize, re-energize and revision goals and directions. Play is inter-generational. We cease being “old.”
We become ageless and step into The Moment, even if only briefly. Time stands still for a bit. We laugh. And, if only for
a little window of time, all seems right with the world!
TSP: You also address the life cycle in your book. The part of the cycle that is death, a topic the American culture
seems to have taught us to avoid talking about, thinking about. Why is that a bad idea? Are we missing something by putting
in a buffer zone between life and death?
Sherry: Yes, we are. Death is part of life. It completes the cycle. We are born and we die. This is something
that is universal. Something that we all share in common. When we celebrate birth but dismiss death, we don’t close
the circle. Death is one of the pivotal experiences of life. We should prepare for it, embrace it. Socrates said that “philosophy
was training for death.” He meant that deep inner-work, introspection took us into the heart of stillness. The Eastern
Traditions, as well, emphasize the importance of honoring and respecting death. There is no real buffer zone between life
and death. The apparent buffer zone is artificial—contrived by human fear of the unknown. We die because we have lived.
The two are inseparable.
TSP: What does fair trade mean and why should we care what happens on the other side of the globe?
Sherry: Fair trade is the practice of paying fair wages to workers in third-world countries for their commodities.
When, for example, we import coffee from South America, we should be mindful to patronize companies who pay the citizens of
those countries fair, equitable wages and monies for their labors and products. Anything else is exploitation. Whether we
like it or not, America was built on the back of sweat labor. We had slavery. We exploit third-world workers. We outsource
jobs to countries where people work for less. We have a dirty history of courting a love affair with “cheap labor.”
None of us, of course, wants to be “cheap labor.” That is for them---those people. It is a worldview that doesn’t care about
others—just ourselves. And, it is shooting us in the foot because it is not sustainable. You can’t rip people
off and expect to be a respected society. We really are Ugly Americans—and it’s time to look at that with an eye
toward doing a whole lot better. We are inter-connected, whether we realize it or not. When one part of the world suffers,
we all suffer. If we could start to wrap our minds around this, we could start to do a lot of good for the whole world! When
asked about his “citizenship,” Socrates replied that he was a “Citizen of the Cosmos.” Well, why not?
TSP: You’ve described an interest process of becoming a vegetarian in A
Good Life. For you, it was a gradual decision, more complicated than you anticipated. Do you recommend vegetarianism to
Sherry: Dietary decisions are highly personal. I think that this
is something that each individual has to weigh out on his or her own. I think, though, that people need to take a really good
look at how meat is being produced today. Commercial Agricultural Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are under scrutiny for potentially
inhuman treatment of animals. There are also health implications in terms of the use of feedlot antibiotics, growth hormones
and other astringents. The real charge is for people to dig in and investigate these practices for themselves. Once sufficiently
informed, it then becomes each individual’s personal choice how to proceed.
There is also the question of how
high, or low, on the food chain one wants to eat. Again, research is the key. There is plenty of information available on
all sides of this issue. Once well read, one is in a better position to make a choice that best reflects his or her own values
and health standards.
TSP: You also refer to the American love affair with cheap stuff. We are forever seeking the big bargain, the
great sale, getting something for nothing or at least for much less. Why is this now becoming our downfall? How can getting
something cheap be a bad idea?
Sherry: Cheap “stuff” usually involves exploitation at some level. When something is cheap, who is
it that is not getting a fair wage? Who is it that isn’t being equitably compensated for his product? Are our wants,
as Americans, so sacrosanct that it is OK to exploit others. That is a question to really sit with. If I want to buy my daughter
cheap toys—even when I know that those toys were made by child labor in Asian sweatshops—is that OK? Why is my
child’s pleasure attained on the back of other children’s labor?
TSP: Explain “rightsizing” …
Sherry: Rightsizing is the practice of getting your life down to a scale that is really right for you. For example,
do you really need a 4,000 square foot home? Do you really need five sets of dishware? How many vehicles do you really need
to get around? So, rightsizing means taking an inventory of your lifestyle habits and scaling down to a size that is appropriate
to your current life. How many pairs of shoes do you really need? Rightsizing
is being ruthlessly honest about the amount of this-or-that that you really require to be comfortable. If you, for example,
find yourself heating 2,500 square feet in your home that you don’t even use, it’s time to figure out how to make
your living space more congruent with your current circumstances. It might be time for a smaller house. Or a roommate. In
either case, it’s time to get “right” about what is really required for your life.
TSP: I, for one, Sherry, have been utterly fascinated with A Good Life
and with the insights and wisdom you offer, the life you are living. Thank you so much for sharing that goodness with our
readers. Where can we learn more about you? Are you working on anything new? Going on book tours?
Sherry: I have, likewise, really enjoyed this interview. You posed really pertinent questions that really got
at the heart of the matter! I am currently working in my local area with our Transition Town initiative, cultivating community
gardens, soup kitchens for the homeless and local food networks. We are also working on providing our community with free
workshops on sustainability skills.
Readers can learn more about my work at http://www.sherryackerman.com
TSP: Thank you!