Surfacing

River 1Much as I wish it were otherwise, work often gets the better of me and my time writing here becomes limited, if not nonexistent.  Such was the case this last semester – I had quite a few students (and lots of grading), an extra writing project to complete, and various other bits and pieces of life getting in the way, some lovely and some challenging.  Happily, the semester’ winding down and I have a good bit more time on my hands.  Of course, there are new classes to prep and conference papers to write and hopefully some publishing to do, but I feel like I’m surfacing again as I relish the slower pace of these last few weeks and ponder what else I’d like to do with some of my time.

One thing – a big, general thing – that’s front and centre in my mind is stepping up my sustainability and resilience game a bit more.  I’ve allowed the craziness of the last semester to let me slip a bit in terms of some of the standards to which I hold myself.  I need to take some time to get back to basics and build some new habits.  There’s a lot of room for things like producing less trash, reducing what I consume, eating lower on the food chain, and growing and producing more of what I eat and use.  I’m also excited at the prospect of simplifying my life a bit more.  Just yesterday I took a huge load (huge enough to actually be kind of embarrassing) of books and clothes to the thrift store for donation, and I’m only just getting started.  I’m hoping to spend a bit more time on projects that help with these goals and a bit more time here writing about them.  Living more lightly is something that’s always on my mind and I see the summer break as an excellent time to put theory a bit more into practice in a meaningful way.

Resolutions, habits, and goals, oh my

Although the new year is really just a completely arbitrary date, I often find myself wanting to set goals as a reminder to myself of the things that I think are important that I want to work towards.  Having a solid sense of what I want to accomplish still helps me to move forward, and also makes it all the easier to get back to the important things when I lapse or fall of the wagon.  I’m aiming a bit big here, but for the most part, these tend to be also things that I’m already working towards.  This usually means that my goals for the year aren’t really a huge stretch, really just a bit of a formalization of the things that I think are good to focus on.  I also see these things much more as goals to work on and habits to be developed, rather than strict resolutions.  To me, this feels like a gentler approach, which is nice because I don’t really feel inclined to beat myself up over fitting in only one yoga session in a week rather than two.

A lot of my goals are focused on different measures of health – it seems to be the theme for my plans for the year.  After a year of feeling off balance and unhealthy in a number of different ways, I’d like to start nudging things back on track a bit more.  This includes physical and mental health, but also bolstering my financial health, improving my position at work, and an ever-increasing focus on self-reliance.  My hope is that all of these points will feed into each other and help to support a life that’s healthier generally.

Health

  • Meditation – 15 minutes twice per day
  • Cardio – 30 minutes five times per week
  • Strength training – 30 minutes five times per week
  • Yoga – 45 minutes twice per week
  • Water – eight glasses a day
  • Veggies – five servings a day
  • Fruit – two servings a day

Financial

  • Have 20 no-spend days per month
  • Save $3000 towards my emergency fund
  • Save $3000 towards a house or land down payment
  • Save $3000 towards retirement
  • Save $1000 for self-reliance related purchases
  • Open a discount brokerage account
  • Switch health insurance to a better plan

Work

  • Submit two papers for publication
  • Present at one conference
  • Read one new article per week
  • Read one new book per month
  • Write 30 minutes per day

Personal

  • Donate to the food bank once per month
  • Have lunch with a friend once per month
  • Have tea with a friend once per week
  • Try two new recipes per month
  • Have one date night per month
  • Read 12 novels
  • Declutter one thing per day

Self-reliance

  • Do the Riot for Austerity again
  • Grow (and use) one jar of sprouts per week
  • Grow another container garden
  • Bake bread once per week
  • Ferment three different things
  • Learn to make yogurt
  • Can five different things
  • Knit a wearable article of clothing
  • Read at least one book each on peak oil, seed saving, breadmaking, fermentation, food systems, permaculture, and urban agriculture
  • Buy one self-reliance related item that I’ve been holding off on (pressure canner, dehydrator, grain mill, water filter, or garden tools)

What should I do with my life?

A few days ago, Eric at Root Simple wrote a post called How to Answer the Question, “What Should I Do With My Life?” talking about looking at our bookshelves to figure out what it is that we really want to do.  A few other blogs seem to have picked it up as well, so I decided to have a look at my own shelves to see what they say about my current values and priorities.

Most of my book purchases over the last few years have been focused on greater self reliance and, in particular, food.  Even my academic books – once focused largely on technology and assorted digital things – have made way for more books critiquing consumerism and looking at modern food issues in our society (there are actually some rather compelling links between the two, which is what I’m currently working on).

Books 2Apart from my academic life, I’ve also bought a large number of books that are focused on food in a few different ways.  Some of them deal with the social and cultural implications of food and the issues with our current food system.  I’m interested in everything from critical perspectives on what’s not working through to books about the history of food.  On top of this, I’ve also acquired quite a lot of books on producing, cooking, and preserving food – everything from seed saving and gardening to cooking dinner from scratch and making jam.  Beyond food, I also have a selection of books on skills including knitting, crochet, sewing, weaving, bush craft, basket making, natural dyeing, soap making, root cellaring, house construction, bee keeping, livestock care and feeding, and herbalism.

Books 3As for the rest of them, I have a bookcase devoted to fiction and another with sections devoted to a range of topics: folklore, naturalism, graphic novels, communication and cultural theory, children’s literature, poetry, music, fitness, history, anthropology, finances, and social issues.  I suppose it’s also worth noting that I have a fairly large selection of books on things like happiness, mindfulness meditation, and compassion.  These are fairly recent additions to the shelf, and I think they illustrate my desire for a life that is not only more resilient, but hopefully also happier and more mindful.

Books 1Here’s a selection of a few of my current favourites:

  • The Urban Homestead
  • Living Seasonally
  • Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
  • Forgotten Skills of Cooking
  • The River Cottage Cookbook
  • The Art of Simple Food
  • Tassajara Bread Book
  • Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day
  • The Art of Fermentation
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved
  • Square Foot Gardening
  • The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible
  • Four-Season Harvest
  • The Year Round Vegetable Gardener
  • The One Straw Revolution
  • Shop Class as Soulcraft
  • Your Money or Your Life
  • Less if More: The Art of Voluntary Poverty
  • Living More With Less
  • Mindfulness in Plain English
  • The Places that Scare You

I’ve always had varied interests, which are pretty well represented here.  But the large selection of books that are focused on skills makes it pretty clear to me that I’m looking to do more with my life than just think.  I want to be active and productive and find ways to be more self-reliant.  With that in mind, I’m going to get up from looking at my books and actually get down to making something this afternoon – I’m thinking some whole wheat bread might be in order, and perhaps a bit of knitting.

Fantasy and reality

These days, a lot of my fantasies come down to living a more productive, sustainable life at home.  I dream of a small house on a few acres of land, with large gardens and a chicken coop in the back.  Inside, there’s a fireplace and comfortable couches with lots of blankets on which to read, write, knit, and play the guitar.  There’s a spinning wheel and sewing machine in the corner – sometimes I even wonder about a weaving loom.  In the kitchen, homegrown herbs are hanging from the ceiling, bread is rising on the stove, pickles are fermenting on the shelf, homemade jams and jellies are lined up in the pantry, and gingerbeer and sourdough starters are sitting on the counter next to glass jars of home grown sprouts. While I certainly don’t think I can do everything, I picture making some of our clothing, entertaining ourselves through music and storytelling, and producing as much of what we eat as possible. What I think this really comes down to is that, in my head, I imagine a life that’s based on a really tangible, material kind of productivity.  I envision a home that’s filled with work that is at least somewhat pleasant and feels worthwhile because it meets real needs in a concrete way.

The reality, however, doesn’t quite work like this, at least not right now.  Although I work largely from home, I need to be on campus at least three days a week.  On days when I’m not there, I’m usually prepping for class, grading papers, applying for jobs, or researching and writing articles.  That’s not a complaint – I think my work is interesting and there are lots of things that I enjoy about it.  It does keep me busy enough that I’m often exhausted at the end of the day, though.  Knitting, sewing, writing, and playing guitar are often off the table at this point, and reading seems to be the activity that’s most manageable when i need rest.  The garden has fallen to the wayside more times than I’d like to admit.  And there are nights when it’s challenging enough just to make dinner, let alone keep the kitchen clean, bake bread, tend starters, rinse sprouts, and all of the other things that would need doing to keep up the level of productivity and homemade food that I envision.

I’ve reached a point where I’ve come to terms with at least some of the discrepancies between the fantasy and the reality.  I’ve had a good hard look at what’s possible right now, and I keep reevaluating as I go and my situation changes.  Practically speaking, there’s only so much I can do.  Keeping my job is pretty important since it pays the bills, so I need to work around its demands. Whatever else I do has to fit around this keystone, and sometimes the need to work is simply going to have to take priority over things I’d rather be doing.  There are, after all, only so many hours in the day and so many things that can be done out of a 750 square foot apartment with a bit of grass outside.

This is largely where the “if not here” idea came from (although it was also heavily influenced by Sharon Astyk’s “adapting in place”).  I could put off trying to do everything I want until I have the time and the land and the house and the kitchen and the garden and everything else that exists in my fantasy life.  However, I deeply believe that these are things that are worth doing now, even if things aren’t as ideal as they are in my head.  But even more importantly, they’re things that I can still do now, just maybe not to the degree that I’d like.  I may not make bread every day, but I can probably manage once a week.  I may not make everything we wear, but I can slowly work on a cowl, some gloves, or a pair of socks.  I may not produce everything we eat, but I can cook most of our meals and rinse the odd batch of sprouts or feed a sourdough starter when I have a few minutes here and there.  I may not be a fantastic guitar player, but I can practice a favourite song every now and again.

When I was working on my dissertation, I was often reminded that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”.  I think this idea applied equally well here.  I can’t do everything I want now, but I can do some of it, and that’s still a pretty powerful thing.  There’s no need to wait until I’m in the ideal situation.  I can make this situation more ideal by doing the things that I want to be doing to the best of my ability right now.  And, as each step gets easier and faster, it becomes possible to add in something new every so often.  I probably won’t ever get to the point where I can take care of all of our needs, and I believe that being completely sustainable is, at best, very difficult.  But for now, I can do what I can in the situation we’re in and work towards graducally building the life that I want, whether that’s on some land in the country or here in my little apartment.

Come as they will

StonesOnce again, it’s been a good long while since I’ve written here.  No excuses, just life taking over, as it does.  Since the start of the semester, my focus has been primarily on work, but also on keeping at least a bit of a balance between work and life.  Last year was the first time I was teaching full time, and with new courses and new versions of old courses, I found it challenging to do much other than work.  This year, though, I was determined to keep on top of the work while still making sure that I was keeping on top of taking care of myself.

These past few months I’ve taught a bunch of classes, spoken at a conference, and applied for a number of jobs. I’ve worked on papers and done some research.  I’ve managed to keep (relatively) on top of exercise, with regular walks to campus and bike rides around the neighbourhood.  I’ve made sure to get in some meditation, yoga, and the odd weekend morning where I did nothing but sleep in and read Agatha Christie mysteries in bed.  I’ve read some good books, made some delicious dinners, and spent time with friends and family.  Some weeks have definitely been more harried than others (last week, I’m looking at you) but, all in all, I’m feeling a good deal better than I did this time last year, which is a significant relief for a whole bunch of reasons.

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a lot of time for writing here.  What time I do have I’ve focused more on doing things rather than writing about them, which is probably as it should be.  When I can, I’ve been getting in some gardening, cooking dinners, baking bread, knitting, walking, running, meditating, and the like.  Life goes on, there’s just little in the way of a record of it, and I’ve decided that I’m okay with that.  There’s still a lot I’d like to write about here, and I have a large list of semi-written posts, but for now I’m content to let them come as they will, even if “come as they will” is starting to look a lot like “pretty damn slowly”.

Choosing voluntary poverty

“Themistocles, when asked whether he would marry his daughter to a good poor man, or to a rich man of less respectable character, replied, ‘I, indeed, prefer the man who lacks money to the money that lacks a man.’” – Cicero

TrailI’ve long been an advocate of actively and consciously making choices to live in a particular way.  For me, choosing to do something makes me feel a lot more positively about it, and I’m more likely to see it as a challenge than a trial.  Choosing to ride my bike as much as possible feels a lot different than if I had no other option, and always shopping secondhand feels better than it would if it were my only choice.  In short, I feel like I enjoy my simple, frugal, and environmentally conscious activities a lot more and get a lot more out of them when I opt into them rather than having to do them out of necessity.

One area where I haven’t been so good about seeing things as a choice, though, is around earning money.  I make enough to live on, especially given our current level of expenses.  But there are still times when I find myself feeling stuck, worrying that it’s not enough, fretting about my job situation, applying for jobs I’m not sure that I want, and generally giving money more power over me than I should.

Despite my views on choice, it never really occurred to me to try to apply them to my money situation to see if that might make a difference.  To be fair, I realise that feeling like I’m making a choice in this area is likely to be more of a challenge.  Shopping at the market or riding my bike really are choices – I could do things differently if I wanted to.  Money and work, however, are a bit more constrained – I get paid a set amount and new jobs are hard to come by in this market.  While I can work with what I’ve got and be grateful for that, I still don’t feel like I have much in the way of options.  But, if I already see other things as a making a choice in favour of my values, why can’t I attempt to shift the frame a bit and do the same here?

Although I may not have the choices that I do in other parts of my life, I can still try look at what I have in a different way.  Recently, I’ve been reading up on the idea of voluntary poverty, which holds that by embracing a life with little money we can not only start to get free of many of the issues associated with the dominant economic system, but live better, more satisfying lives.  Applying this idea to my own situation, it struck me that instead of experiencing my current job as a low-paying and somewhat precarious position, I can see it as an option where I’ve traded in a higher salary for work that allows me to do research that I care about, keep a flexible schedule, and have enough time for other pursuits and interests. If I can see it as making choice – and, more importantly, making a beneficial choice – I hope to feel less like these circumstances are beyond my control and more like I’m making an active choice about how I want to live.

Since voluntary poverty isn’t just about work, I’m already some of the way there.  I spend fairly little, reuse what I have, buy virtually nothing new, and try to grow or make what I can.  These shifts have felt pretty easy and I’ve never thought twice about them.  On the other hand, trying to change how I think about working and income feels like a big deal.  Maybe it’s because how much I earn still feels like less of a choice than other activities.  Maybe it’s because it can be hard to see a way out of the money-based economy.  Maybe it’s the fear of the unknown and the thought that I won’t be able to take care of myself and the people I care about.  In any case, I suspect that the fact that this is something that frightens me and feels far outside of my comfort zone means it’s something that I need to spend some more time on going forward.

Summer plans

Oh wow – it’s been a lot longer than I though since I’d last written anything.  Life, as usual, tends to get in the way, and I’ve been finishing up a very busy semester, attending a conference, visiting family in New York, and just generally trying to get things in order around here as I try to sort some things out and think some things through – you know, all the deep, heavy, thought provoking stuff.

Technically, I’ve been “off” work for awhile now, although I’ve spent a good bit of time catching up on various things.  The rest of the time, I’ve been thinking about next steps and how I want to spend the summer.  For the first time in…well, forever, quite possibly, I’m not working for someone else through the summer doing research or editing a journal or planning a conference.  The shift is odd, and I’ve actually had a bit of a hard time settling in and figuring out what I want to do with myself, but it’s nice to have a bit of flexibility and freedom.

I have some work to do around redeveloping courses, learning some new technologies, and writing, writing, writing, but my time is a good deal less scheduled, which is both a pleasant shift and a bit of a difficulty since it’s easy to put things off for a bit. At the same time, I’m also trying to focus on many of the more personal things that I let slide this year.  But with this sudden wealth of time – especially coming after what’s been a fairly challenging year – I’ve found myself thinking more about what I want to do than actually doing it.  Given my startling realization earlier today that mid-June has somehow snuck up on me, I’ve decided that I’ve done quite enough thinking and actually need to act to get something done.  This is true of work tasks, but also true of the many things I want to do around family, friends, food, health, and generally taking a bit of time for me.

So, from here on in, it’s action time again.  Papers will be written.   Container gardens will be planted.  Bread will be baked. Technology will be learned.   Socks will be knit.  Books will be read.  Time will be spent with friends.  Food will be preserved.  And the summer will continue to feel too short, but at the very least I’ll have done something with it, and will hopefully feel a whole lot better about how I spent my time when September finally rolls around.