Six months ago I got rid of most of my worldly goods, sold my house, put things in storage, left my ELCA job, and commenced a simple living-style midlife sabbatical. Since then I’ve been a guest, not a resident, in more than 30 places, privy to an intimate view of how we live and consume today.
When I had a home address, simplifying and greening my life was about building a system of regular habits: recycling, public transit, car sharing, community-supported agriculture, resale shopping, expense tracking, green cleaning practices, line drying, etc. My everyday system has vanished. As a guest, I participate as gracefully and gratefully as possible (I don’t always succeed) in the systems around me. Here’s what I’ve noticed.
Too much stuff.
It’s a mess out there. Almost everyone lives in confusion and clutter. The households you could call “spare” belong to retired people (raised under in less materialistic times), former Holden Village long-term staffers (veterans of life in the wilderness) and former ELCA missionaries (like me, visitors to planet consumer, due to their cross-cultural, outside-the-US experiences).
Everyone else, especially those with kids still at home, is too overwhelmed with obligations to bring any kind of order to rooms full of toys and furniture and knick-knacks and sports equipment and coats and shoes and books and televisions and laptops and CDs and DVDs and computers and toys.
My Christmas present to my siblings with families was a day of deep cleaning, of tackling big problems they had not time for. Because I love cleaning with the stereo up loud, I had fun, and my work was significant and appreciated…but hardly made a dent.
If everyone in the US had a garage sale at the same time, would it be like a run on the bank? Would everything suddenly be valueless, so we could somehow stop the flow of stuff from Stuff Central, wherever that is?
Perhaps, like that drawing in The Little Prince of the boa constrictor that has swallowed an elephant, we have a hump stuck in us, and after we digest, recycle, or landfill it, we will get over having to own everything someone tells us to buy, and we can go on to valuing ideas, services, art, music, skills—“things” that are non-material and ask only for space in our hearts and minds.
But hospitality still rules.
Last summer a former ELCA missionary told me that her family noticed, after they came back from 6 years in Tanzania, that nobody invited them home for dinner anymore. All they got were invitations to go out for coffee. After the intense hospitality of Arusha, they were very lonely indeed.
Are we afraid to invite people into our messes, or too worried about time to turn an hour of coffee into a full evening? Somehow my status as relative or very old friend has gotten me around the “let’s meet for coffee” barrier, because I’ve discovered that no matter what the mess, people do still cook, bake, and linger around the table in private. Is there something we can do to open up our homes, and put dinner invitations back at the top of our social lives?
Too many cars.
In the face of nearly universal car ownership, I keep slogging away at getting from point A to point B without one. Portland, Oregon, makes it easy. And if you’ve got three hours, it’s possible to cover the 75 miles between the Seattle airport and my family’s farm in Mt. Vernon on public transportation. In Sacramento, I bike a lot.
When I need a car, I try to be creative. Without a fixed address, I can’t participate in a formal car sharing program, so I share informally by using or renting my siblings’ cars when they are not using them. (I like to think of this as using excess capacity.) I got to Berkeley today by emailing friends and siblings to see if they or anyone they knew had to be in the Bay Area for meetings or work this week. A college friend dropped me here on his way to San Francisco this morning, and my sister will drive me back to Sacramento after a board meeting here tomorrow. I could have taken Amtrak, but using social media—the online equivalent of the ride boards we used to depend on in the 70s—to make a car pool saved me $48 and is giving me three hours of conversation with two dear people.
But where are the others who are thinking this way? Car pooling, public transportation, bicycling and walking—even one or two days a week!—get little more than lip service from drivers. Drivers just keep…driving.
Deciding to live simply and sustainably is harder in a family.
Brushing my teeth in other homes has shown me that simplifying my own life was a piece of cake. As a single parent, I could make and enforce the big lifestyle decisions. And I wouldn’t be on this west coast sofa tour if I weren’t already an empty nester. People in couples and people with children at home don’t get to act unilaterally. More compromise is involved. This has been humbling.
Living simply on the road can make you feel needy.
Could I borrow your car this morning if I take you to work buy you some gas? Can we drive to Berkeley together? Since you’re dropping your daughter off at her job at the mall, could I run into that REI store, so I don’t have to figure out how to get there on the bus? Is there a library with wireless somewhere near by? Could I do a load of wash this morning? Sure, if you really don’t need that GoreTex raincoat, I’ll be glad to use it.
Living simply on the road can make you feel resourceful.
Of course I can show you how to get from your place to the airport on public transit. Have a slice of the pie I just baked you. The Greyhound gets in at 3:00 pm so we can meet at 4:00. Here, let me pick up the lunch tab/buy the concert tickets/get those groceries. Check out the kitchen cabinets I washed and organized for you!
If you’re a web designer, could you please build my dream web site?
In the last two weeks I flew from Sacramento to Seattle to Portland to Sacramento, all on Alaska Air. I need a web site that lets me mix and match modes of transportation, so I could book a flight to Seattle, a train or bus to Portland (because for trips under 500 miles, it’s “greener” to use ground transportation), and then the Portland to Seattle flight. If I can’t book it all at once, could the site please recommend ALL the options for traveling between cities before I default to the most common and most highly advertised alternative? If you build it, I will come, and tell everybody else about it. The only thing close is hopstop.com, which offers bus & subway directions for 12 cities plus all of metropolitan New York/New Jersey. This has already been named a “top startup” by some Internet rating agency. I’ll bet my idea would find many fans.
Next stop, Latin America
A sabbatical is freeing but not free. Travel expenses have replaced mortgage, utilities, and grocery bills. Next week, my visits to planet consumer take a dramatic turn as I go off to Cuba, Mexico, Guatemala and Suriname for the next three months. I’ll get to visit Lutherans all along the way (more sofas!), and will post whenever possible. Thank you for traveling with me this far.
Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal