I definitely need to keep this in mind…
I’m not entirely sure why – maybe the fact that I’m teaching double what I did last year and I’m still adjusting – but this semester’s been a bit rough, especially after not really taking any time off this summer either. I’ve been anxious and not sleeping all that well, and it’s felt like every spare minute has gone to grading and dealing with teaching-related tasks. And, with a number of other projects on the go and job applications to send in, I’ve barely taken any time off, which has exacerbated the anxiety and sleeplessness.
Happily, the end of the semester is almost here. There are less than two weeks of class, and because of the way I set things up, I finished off my last lecture this morning. There’s still a pile of grading to be done that’s just come in, but without the pressing need to teach, I took two whole days off in a row, plus an extra afternoon on Thursday (and possibly the rest of this afternoon, too). It was, in all truth, an incredible relief, and by the second day I felt better than I have in months, if not longer.
I did most of the usual things. I sat on the couch and read. I read some novels, but also some non-fiction on topics like food and farming. I went for a few walks, and enjoyed the newly fallen snow. I cooked some nicer-than-usual dinners, and ate a truly obscene amount of chèvre. I watched a movie and a documentary curled up under a blanket with some hot chocolate. I slept for a long time each night and woke up without worry and anxiety being the very first thing that I faced. I meditated and did yoga in the now-chilly air and sometimes I just sat and did nothing, content to just be quiet and still for a few moments.
Interestingly, being caught up on sleep and feeling much better about life in general also motivated me to do more around the apartment than I have in awhile, and to tackle some of the jobs that I’ve been putting off. I’ve cleaned the living room and the front hall, and put together a box of things to donate. I’ve done some dishes and started to tidy the kitchen, which is, shall we say, less than organized. I’ve brought in my worm composters from the patio and set them up inside, ready to go for another season. This morning, I finally processed the beets that I’ve been putting off, and they’re now sitting in the kitchen fermenting in their salty purple brine. This afternoon, I’m going to make homemade bread for the first time since this summer, and then I’m going to eat a huge slice of it with an equally large portion of butter. Heaven, I swear.
Despite the fact that this is still work of a kind, it feels wonderful. It’s hard to get motivated when there’s too many other things going on that have deadlines and expectations, but baking, preserving, cooking, and cleaning all make me feel infinitely better, and are things I seem to be enjoying more and more as time passes. At this point I know that I don’t want to go another three or four months feeling the way that I have been, and largely ignoring the things that make me feel good. I’m not sure how I’m going to manage all of this as an even heavier semester of teaching creeps up on me, but keeping a comfortable home that’s filled with good, healthy, homemade food is something that matters to me. This time, I want to put my money where my mouth is and be sure not to put it off until the end of the semester this time around.
I looked around my apartment the other day and realised just how much of what I own came to me secondhand. Books, clothes, pots and pans, books, furniture, lamps, bedding, books, dishes, cutlery, knitting and sewing materials, art, bikes, and did I mention books. Some things have come to me as hand-me-downs, far more have come from secondhand stores, and easily 85 percent or more of what I own is secondhand in some way.
Ethically, this feels okay to me. If I had the means, I’d buy whatever locally made, handmade artisanal goods or fair trade items were available. I already do this with food as much as possible, and I’d really like to expand. One day, I hope this will mean buying from – or trading or bartering with – local individuals who knit and sew clothing, throw pottery, blow glass, forge metal, and do all kinds of other cool things that result in locally handcrafted goods that can be acquired directly from their creator. But although I do what I can, my budget hasn’t ever really stretched far enough to allow for this kind of consideration for every purchase. Instead, I focus on food and try to make the rest of my consumption practices as ethical as I can within my limitations. For now, this means trying to cut down on consumption in general (something I’m better at some times and worse at others), and buying used whenever I can.
Although I know it’s not for everyone, here are some of the reasons that secondhand shopping works for me. First, I’m helping keep things out of the landfill by using something that someone else could have just thrown away. I’m also not supporting an industry that engages in highly questionable production practices, environmental destruction, and increasing wealth disparity and inequality. Yes, I’m still buying stuff, which involves consumerism and at least some of the not-so-great things that entails, and there are still some questions about the labour and environmental practices associated with some thrift stores. But I’m not helping to create a market for new goods made in sweatshops that spill toxic chemicals into water supplies. Furthermore, much of what I spend goes to the charities that help people find work, supply goods to those who need them, support animal shelters, or provide wishes to terminally ill children.
There’s also something to be said for being able to buy quality goods. Even when shopping secondhand stores, I always try to buy things that are well made and meant to last, and buying used means that I can afford much nicer things than I would if I were buying new. This means I get cast iron, wool, solid wood, silk, thick leather, handmade pottery, sturdy denim, and hardbound books instead of plastic, polyester, PVC, acrylic, paperbacks, and other goods that aren’t always as well made. I also find that they last longer, are more easily repaired, and get thrown out far less quickly, all of which are valuable qualities.
There are some drawbacks, of course. I understand that having and being able to make use of huge, well-stocked thrift stores is predicated on a culture of waste and throwaway items. Without people buying stuff and then getting rid of it long before its worn out, being able to buy used goods would be less of an option. But, given the alternatives – such as not having thrift stores and letting things go to waste – I’m still okay with this.
I also recognize that thrift stores let me participate in consumerism just as much as the next person. In a good month (or bad, depending on perspective), I can pick up a few cookbooks, some dishes or kitchen items, a sweater, a pair of jeans, and a selection of novels. I’m not sure that this is all that much better than what the average person buys in a month, aside from the fact that what I buy is used. I don’t think I’ve broken the habit completely, I’ve just found a way that lets me feel better about it and allows me to spend a lot less money in the process (although this is also something that I’d like to work on).
Overall, though, I think secondhand shopping is worth it, a fact to which the volume of stuff in my apartment would probably attest. Practically speaking, it can cost significantly less than buying new, has environmental and social benefits, and can yield quality goods. But for me, I think it’s important to note that it’s also enjoyable. It becomes a challenge to find the good stuff in and among the dreck and to keep my final total as low as I can. Some days I find stuff, some days I don’t, but in the end, it’s a good feeling to know that although I’m still shopping and consuming, I’m doing so in a way that is a better match with my values.
It’s been an odd couple of weeks here, and I suspect that I’m about to get rather introspective and perhaps even a bit maudlin. J.’s uncle was diagnosed with cancer just over a week ago, and died on Tuesday, only a week later. While we haven’t had to travel or really do much of anything, the phone calls, discussions, and general sad moments have made for a rather quite, introspective, and low-key week. At the same time, though, life goes on. There’s been a lot of work to be done that simply can’t wait that long. The teaching, marking, writing, meetings, and workshops go on the same as they always do. There have been walks, yoga, visits with friends, cooking, and cleaning, albeit with more serious discussions than we might otherwise have.
It sometimes strikes me how much death affects us and how much it doesn’t at the same time. Clearly, we keep on living, sometimes in ways that are much the same as we always have (especially when the death is someone to whom we weren’t particularly close, as was the case here). But for a few weeks – perhaps even longer, in some cases – there’s this heightened awareness of the actual living of life. There are often questions about whether we’re living the life that we want, whether we have the best life that we possibly can given our circumstances, and whether we’ll be happy with what we’ve done when we die.
This past week, I’ve given even more thought than I usually do to what I want to do with my life, what’s important to me, and the kind of life that I want to live. I’ve tried to spend less time working and out of the house. I’ve spent more time talking with J., reading on the couch, talking with friends, and eating foods that I really like. I’ve also given some more thought to what kind of big things I want in my life. I’ve started doing some more research on land ownership, building houses, and sheep breeds. On a much smaller scale, I’ve also pulled out some knitting, a guitar, new music to listen to, and a truly impressive stack of books that I’ve been putting off reading for one reason or another – nothing major, but all things that make life feel that little bit better.
Not every moment in life can be the highest of highs. There will be lows. There will also be a reasonable amount of minutiae that needs to be dealt with – paying the rent, doing the laundry, or waiting in line. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of room in there to find many ways, even if they’re small, to make life a little bit better, a little more satisfying, and a little bit closer to the lives that we want to leave every day. For me, today, that means spending some extra time on the couch with a novel, cooking a delicious dinner, and then watching a movie curled up under a warm blanket with J. and a large bowl of popcorn. Everyone’s ideals and preferences will be different, but I hope you have a chance today to do something that you truly enjoy and that will make your life a little bit more wonderful.
If not us, not them,
If not now, then when?
If not here, nor there,
If not this world, then where?
– John Gorka
I’ve spent a lot of time recently focusing on details – important stuff, and necessary, but it’s so easy to get trapped in this kind of minutiae. Yesterday was a day off for me, and so I sat down in the morning, big cup of tea at the ready and thought more about the big picture stuff – basically, the big things in my life that I value and plan to have, and how all of the small stuff will help me to get there.
Someday, I will have some land with a big garden. I’ll have a small, sturdy house with a woodstove, a well-stocked library, and a large table at which to feed people. There will be animals. Chickens and bees, definitely, and probably some sheep and goats, too. I’ll spend time outside, working, walking, and running before I come in for academic pursuits. I’ll eat good, homegrown, homemade, home preserved foods and will make my own bread, pickles, pasta, jam, and cookies. I’ll also make my own hats, scarves, gloves, t-shirts, and dresses. At night, I’ll to curl up on the couch in front of a fire with a big mug of tea and a stack of books and read until I’m ready for sleep. And then, I’ll do it all again.
By and large, these have often been seen as “future plans”, viewed like a light at the end of a long tunnel that someday, with some luck, I’ll finally emerge from into the bright world of living off the land and getting back to nature and all the fun stuff that I dream about. These are the things that somehow, someday I hope to reach. But I noticed that when I originally wrote that last paragraph, it consisted of a lot of sentences starting with “I want”. I’ve now changed it to better spell out that these are things I will have and actions that I will take, not just that I hope for at some nebulous time in the future.
But once I looked at it again, I realised that the only thing in the description that I didn’t or couldn’t have right now was the land with the house and the animals. I already cook, bake, and preserve. I garden, knit, and sew. I can’t say I do these things often or well enough right now to sustain us, but they’re all there, and I could certainly work on doing them more, since they’re things that I usually enjoy. And on top of all that, it’s a rare day that I don’t end on the couch with tea and a book. I just don’t happen to have a fire in front of me.
What really struck me in all of this is that I could be better about realising and remembering that the life that I want is one that I can start having now. I won’t be giving up work anytime soon, and I don’t really see land in our immediate future, but everything else is completely possible. I think that I tend to see some of these activities as occasional practice for some glorious future life that will come when I have the land and the house (and presumably the job that will support both of these things). What I should be seeing them as are ways of living the life that I want as much as I can right now. Are you living the life that you want right now, or are there changes that you can make to get a bit closer? I’ve decided that it’s high time I start living up to the lyrics from which I took my blog title and remember that there’s not really much point in not doing what I can now, and living the life that I want in every moment that I can.
Last month was no spend month over at Northwest Edible Life. Great idea, great activities, great information about cutting down on expenses and making your spending work with your values. Trouble is, I did pretty badly. A friend lent me a car for over two weeks of October, and I took the opportunity to stock up on every thing that I’d been putting off for months. This was good for the pantry (and my sewing supplies, and my bookshelves, and the medicine cabinet). It wasn’t really so great for the budget, though. I didn’t actually go over my monthly budget by that much, especially given how often I was out and running errands, but I also didn’t save anywhere near as much as I wanted to, which was the whole purpose of the endeavour.
Since I didn’t do all that well, I’m going to use November as my no spend month to see how things stack up when I’m not trying to take care of every errand that suddenly seems possible and practical. In truth, I already save a lot of my income even when my spending is a bit higher than usual, but I’m always looking for ways to be better and to cut down on unnecessary purchases. Plus, since I’m looking to a buy a pressure canner and have a few more big acquisitions waiting in the wings, the more I can save, the better.
After I pay all the regular bills in a given month – rent, electricity, health and tenant insurance, and Internet – I generally spend about $400 on everything else. This includes food (but J. also pays a good portion of our food bill, and I’m not yet sure how that will factor in), health expenses, transportation, work expenses, gifts, fun stuff (usually books), and miscellaneous expenses (cell minutes, home-related projects, and so on).
For November, my goal is to reduce this spending to $200, or $50 a week (a number that’s do-able, but I imagine will be a bit of a stretch). This will mean some cuts to food costs, which can probably be managed through the stockpile of food that we have here and some more judicious grocery shopping. It will also mean some cuts to other areas and trying to keep an eye on expenses, even if they seem somewhat small. Looking at where I am, I think I’m in reasonable shape. We’re well stocked with food, toilet paper, prescription medication, books, and a good lot of other things. By rights, the only things I should be buying are perishable foods and bus tickets over the next month, and I shouldn’t need to spend much, if anything, on health, transportation, work, or miscellaneous. As for fun, I I’ll be cutting down there too, but I’m trying to make sure I have a bit of time out with friends and family here and there to offset all the extra time I seem to spend working these days, so I’ll see how this goes.
In some ways, this feels a bit odd to me. I just spent a bunch of money stocking up on a bunch of different things. Holding off on purchases or relying on my stockpile to save money now doesn’t negate the fact that there will come a month where my expenses may be higher because we need more medication, or toilet paper, or to replenish the rice. But, at the same time, it’s important to start somewhere and do what I can, and I’m hoping that if I do this regularly I can not only save more money in a set month, but also get more in the habit of keeping expenses low in general, without needing a particular period of time in which to really keep an eye on things.