Nomads and Rebels

[Header photo by James Campbell from @idletheorybus]

I woke up the second morning back to work thinking through my day – my second day back after a two week break – and felt the familiar “ugh.” I talked myself out of being grumpy for simply being awake and started thinking about why a light sprinkle of depressed thoughts had returned after two weeks of relative happiness and optimism.

After reflection I realized there were two reasons for this.  The first, is that upon return to work yesterday I landed back in my office to a dozen or more projects with urgent deadlines and impossible turn around times. In my senior leadership meeting we were greeted warmly and then promptly given an encouraging speech about how we will need to pull our socks up even higher this year because “there is so much to be done.”

Day one and it already felt like the sheer face of a work mountain was my next step forward.

The second is more mundane. It is the feeling, as my husband so aptly described in his lament yesterday, of getting back to the monotonous, repetitive circular schedule that makes days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months without much to differentiate one day from another besides dinner choices and meeting times. As he pointed out we “get up, drop off our son, go to work, leave work, pick up our son, go home, make dinner, go to bed, repeat.”

In my meeting yesterday a colleague mentioned that in a blink of an eye it will be summer and then the winter holiday break again. And so on and on our lives turn and time flies while we rotate in the groundhog day like experience of repeating the same routine day in and day out. We don’t have it bad. I know this all to well having grown up poor and wanting for many things. And, I grew up white. Billions around the world have a real daily schedule of hard times. But, this reminder and the gratefulness for our relative comforts isn’t always enough to settle into the grind without questioning the sheer madness of it.

The feeling of never having enough time to get all the work done (and always feeling behind), coupled with a grinding soul sucking routine, is, I think, what is at the general source of the malaise of many who simply, sometimes abruptly, opt out.

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Rachel and James from the Idle Theory Bus are a pair that have done this and they have a theory (and hence the name) on where the balance needs to shift on this. You can find their website here http://www.idletheorybus.com/

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(image taken from http://www.idletheorybus.com/)

Theirs is a familiar story. They quit their jobs, sold their stuff, bought a van, and proceeded to live and travel in that van (still do after three years impressively) in order to have freedom, a balance between idle, work and leisure time, and to simplify and reduce their consumption impacts. If you don’t buy a lot of stuff you don’t need to work ridiculous hours to maintain your lifestyle is the founding premise of this lifestyle.

I love my work and really get great joy out of what I do – educating and advocating for planet and people friendly practices and policies – but I don’t like working because I HAVE to day in and day out to pay my very large mortgage or because my job and employer does not have an “enough” button I can press when I’ve gotten to my limit for the day, week, or year.  Years of “doing more with less”, budget cuts, and a culture of workaholicism contributes to an unhealthy work life balance organizational culture.

On the Idle Theory bus they break time into work, idle and leisure. A commenter on the their site brought up a third overlapping option that fit my situation a bit better. He mentioned that for some people their chosen work IS their passion, and therefore also their leisure, and that he would not want to whittle it down to the bare minimum for that reason. He did however mention that he worked part-time and this gave him the space to breathe and enjoy the moment and view from his country home in Scotland. His was the stationary version in a lot of ways of the idle theory at work. He was a veterinary surgeon and so I assume had invested a lot in education and training. Instead of working himself to death and consuming as much as his upper middle class income could allow he chose to love his work at a reasonable pace and live simply in the country.

Another example of people living “the idle theory” is a family with two very young children. Many minimalists and simple living folk seem to be single hermit like men or women. What is inspiring about these folks is that they are living the simple free life rarely chosen by a family of four.

Their blog is titled Our Open Road http://ouropenroad.com/ . Emily and Adam, after suffering a devastating loss of their first child, decided life was too short not to live it fully and completely. They, like Rachel and James, started in 2012 with a one year plan to travel in their Van down the coast of North America. They are still traveling with their two girls in tow and currently find themselves in Peru.

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(photo from their blog http://ouropenroad.com/torres-del-paine/)

Both couples make a meager living out of entrepreneurship of a different sort. Rachel and James do odd jobs on the road as they travel, have some sponsored posts on their sites, and have written a book funded through Kickstarter. Emily and Adam run a Bazaar where they purchase and then sell items from their travels. Adam just had a gallery showing of his art work and so I imagine a few of his pieces sold there. The concept is similar though. Work just enough to get by. Enjoy life the rest of the time. Their blogs, instagram accounts and books contribute to the global conversation about solutions to the global problem of over consumption that seem complicated, but as demonstrated by their lifestyle choices, can also be very straightforward.

Two constructive pieces of feedback seem to trend in the comments on their blogs and in criticism of white middle class opting out generally. First, all this may seem very much the pondering and pretentious whims of wealthy (from a global comparison) and privileged white North Americans who have the luxury of choosing a simple and materialistically sparse lifestyle. Most people around the world have already had this choice made for them and the conditions and daily experience of this is not so sublime or “instaglamorous.”

Poor racialized people (especially women) in many countries do not get to choose to simplify, or write blogs about their experiences (though perhaps they should if they ever had the time) and run Kickstarter fundraisers to reach a larger audience. One commenter, a son of immigrant migrant works, pointed out that when Rachel and James tire of this existence (some of their income comes from migrant work) they can just ride their white privilege train right past the poverty line and back into comfort. His argument pointed to a phenomenon known of poverty tourism where white privileged people entertain themselves with poverty experienced of type or another.

In this case I think this is a fair criticism. The romantization of poverty, nomadism, and migrant work could have the potential to erase or diminish the suffering of those left with little choice but to live these lives. This criticism could give Rachel and James some food for thought and perhaps they could, as the commenter suggested, give voice to those in these positions while they happen to be there (e.g., as they work alongside other migrant workers).

However, for the most part privileged white North Americans tend to choose an altogether different path than the likes of Rachel and James. We choose busy jobs, higher incomes, big homes, and lots of material possessions and comforts. In fact these choices (and the interest by others to emulate this lifestyle) is what is driving the global destruction of the planet and a blatant disregard for our fellow human beings. Distracted, busy, tired, and depressed we fill the gaps with shopping, luxury vacations, and decorated homes to the detriment of us all. We donate to poverty alleviation organizations to ease our guilt. There is a lot of criticism of this western gluttonous lifestyle and although this nuvo nomad lifestyle has some of its own white privilege issues it needs to work out it stands out as a living criticism of the status quo.

Sure Rachel and James and Emily and Adam can jump back into relative comfort with their white pass to jobs, education, and networks. But, they could have chosen never to jump out of the mainstream to begin with, and they did, and I find it interesting that they are helping craft a new story of freedom and happiness in America that leaves room for others to survive and thrive.

Can or should folks like Rachel and James go even further by using their words and power to help others along the way? Absolutely.  But, perhaps, they are doing what they can where they are already and this is more than many other 20-something couples or families with young kids out there do.

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Another criticism seems to focus on their commercialization of their experiences. Their beautifully photographed blogs and Instagram accounts, their sponsored posts, and I would add a tiny bit of female body commodification, discount their message for some. Many commenters on Rachel and James’s blog felt cheated by their use of their writing and photography for financial gain.

Again, there are always seeds of deep thought that come from these criticisms and are perhaps good considerations for others considering the commitment to such a courageous lifestyle. However, I think there are two things here that deserve consideration.

First, artists are frequently criticized for selling their art. For educated creative people and artists in general the line between creative and commercial pursuit is always a razor’s edge between authenticity and food on the table.  In the case of these families and others they are not just “selling their experiences,” but selling an idea, a different way of living in the modern world, and making attempts to compete with the machine of advertising hell bent on selling the mega home, mega car, mega possession, stationary house cat lifestyle. In some ways criticizing them for commercializing their experiences is a way of quieting and discrediting their alternative voices. We all sell ourselves in some way in the world to make a living.

Living in a VW “home” on the road with little materials possessions and an unreliable source of income may bring freedom and peace, but it is also a harder and less comfortable life. In order to make this and other simple living lifestyles an attractive alternative to the status quo bundle of finance job at a big firm, house in the burbs, designer clothes, luxury vacations package there has to be some “selling” of the concept to young folks to make it as attractive. The alternative has to look like a better option than what the other guys are selling down the street.

The commercialization of their experiences and the sexing up and glamorization of the lifestyle may in this way be of service to a younger generation raised on advertising and lifestyle packaging looking for alternatives. They make it look fun. They make it look cool. They show you can earn a living with your brain and there are ways, however flawed, to make it work outside the traditional economic systems.

It seems to me that the way that Rachel, James, Emily and Adam live may be one of the most honest ways to live as a North American these days. I can see also why it is a potential cure for the rising levels of mental ill health in western society.

Less work, less shopping, less things to maintain and hold on to, and less impact on people and planet.

More freedom, more outdoors, more travel, more compassion for the planet and people. More purpose driven lives built intentionally.

I am curious about how those of us in the white middle class interested in living simple lives can do so with our eyes wide open to our white privilege and to how this lifestyle can begin to flourish and expand as a competing narrative to the more is better Western lifestyle quickly enough to make an actual difference.

[All photos from this post are from the Idle Theory Bus and Our Open Road. Please check out their work it is quite stunning]

 

New beginnings for living on the small

Living small sounds straightforward. The materialization of the concept takes up residence in the brain quite easily. Who wouldn’t want to have a simpler life free of clutter and material anchors?

I read about Matthieu Ricard and his very real example of this kind of life. He has an inspiring dedication to compassion in action. It is reported he lives in a small space with little to no possessions or central heating in Nepal. He donates 100% of the profits from his prolific writing and photography to his non-profit Karuna Shechen adding up to one and half million dollars to date.

It seems so deceptively simple when I look at this Buddhist monk’s life. It seems anyone could rise on any given day and just decide to live with only the necessities of life. Living with a small footprint in the world and redirecting earnings to those far less fortunate has the ring of authentic living.

As a family our goals and aspirations in this area have been less pure and altruistic. We have discussed at length the value of buying less in order to have a smaller footprint, to teach our son the value of a less materialistic life, and to have the money to have a life with more freedom. One where we don’t think twice about taking time off work to spend time with our son and where we can take extended travel vacations to explore the world. We say it. We agree to it. We get distracted. Then, I look around and somehow our home is filled with every type and number of material items that are here today, but had not been yesterday.

I struggle, as I imagine many do, with consistently balancing the aspiration to live smaller and more compassionately with the rigors of everyday family life. With our busy jobs and family commitments, our frantic schedules, and societal expectations, we slip into mindless consumerism as quick as thoughts pop into the head during a meditation.

Christmas this year is a clear case of this. Busy with hosting Christmas we got caught up in the “magic” and bought way too much stuff for our son’s stocking. Most of it wrapped candy he will never get through. Although the only thing he asked for from Santa was candy and lip balm we felt the urge to get him, in additional to ridiculous amounts of these items, a Lego set and about ten new books.

Even my son questioned repeatedly the sanity of Santa this year when he delivered a lollypop that could block out the sun and a Lego set he never asked for. Due only to Christmas, and to being one of only two children in our whole extended family, our home now sports a drum kit (from us off Craigslist), a keyboard (aunt #1 off Craigslist), two new Lego sets (aunt #2 and Santa), a fish tank (uncle), an electric puzzle toy (Nana), a whoopee cushion (aunt #1) , a remote control car (aunt #1), a magician’s kit (Grandma), and a Pandington bear and book set (aunt #1).

Choosing Christmas as an example might be to easy of a fish to catch, however, it is indicative of the collective family resources and how we choose to direct them. Each year for my birthday (which is only five days after Christmas) I do an act of kindness instead of getting myself something or going out. This was a huge shift a few years ago that admittedly brings me a great deal more joy. However, this action is overshadowed significantly by the gross overspending that happens each year at Christmas by myself and others.

For every bag of clothing, kitchen items, furniture and toys we send to the Big Brothers charity it seems another sneaks its way in. It seems our house is always and impossibly filled with stuff. The clutter is nearly unmanageable and the organizing of storage containers and spaces seems a holiday and weekend tradition now.

The ideal set by a Monk with few belongings who donates all his earnings to others is one that can motivate action and demonstrate how small and simple one can live. Unfortunately this is not an ideal so easily attained for a family of three. For example, with two of us working in a professional setting with expectations of dress code this means that I need two sets of clothing: one set of clothing for work and one set for daily life.

In fact social norms and keeping up with the Joneses seems to drive a great deal of our purchasing behaviour even though we are not really that susceptible as a family to those kind of things. Another driver is the sheer ability to buy whatever we need. I remember growing up with very little. If a pot broke and we didn’t have the money to buy another we just got creative. Now, any kitchen gadget recommended by one of my hipster cooking books can be purchased quickly and easily via Amazon and delivered in a single day. We barely batted an eye at the recent acquisition of a Vitamix which seemed at the time to be a “necessity.”

So, I see there being three truths here. The first is that it is not possible to live a life in harmony with our planet and our fellow human beings while acquiring every material item we desire whenever we desire them. The second truth is that it is far more difficult in many ways for a family of three to live small and simple like a Buddhist monk might. But, finally, the third truth is that it is possible to live quite close to this ideal if living a life of compassion in action is a higher priority for our family than living a life that looks and feels like those of our peers.

At the start of a new year and a time of new beginnings we will embark on an intention to move closer to this ideal. I am not one to give advice in this regard as you can see from the above examples but here are a few questions that I have learned to ask myself before making a purchase that I intend to be more intentional about in the coming year. These questions come from others living and writing about simple living that I have read over the years:

  1. If I buy this item what will I not be able to buy in the future (e.g., vacation time, donations, unexpected Strata levies)?
  2. Is this a necessary item or merely a convenience that I can do without (e.g., a kitchen gadget)?
  3. Do I already have X number of these (e.g., cardigans, necklaces, shoes)?
  4. Is this a luxury that most of the world will never get to have (large flat screen television, brand new gas range)?
  5. If I buy this item will it limit other living beings’ ability to simply live?
  6. Do I need this item more than a refugee needs to reach a safe shore, a mother in famine needs to feed her child, or a girl in a poor country needs to go to school?

I intend to do better this year. If you have similar intentions please let me know and share your approaches to living smaller and more simply in the comments section.