Necessary things

I’ve never really believed in New Year’s resolutions, but I suppose that the Jan 1 transition is as good a time as any for a person to take a new direction or follow a dream. Ours has been in earnest motion now for some months, but this day–keeping with tradition, sort of–seems a good one to lay it all out.

As you may have gathered, we’re taking the long walk this year. This is something I’d planned to do solo about seven years ago, but then life did its thing and I found myself with a career in EMS and staying in a city I never expected to like as much as I did. Time passed, various lightning bolts struck, and here I am these years later with the good fortune to have a partner who embraced this dream wholeheartedly. So now we are two–twice the planning, but twice the hands working on putting it all together.

It’s gonna be good. But, more importantly, this is the opening act of a totally new chapter in our lives–bigger than moving across the country, bigger than changing jobs, bigger than anything either of us has ever done before.

2011 was a year of more self-examination than usual. A year in which what I’d always found not quite right turned into downright unsettling. A year in which I did a lot of work explicitly clarifying my values and deciding how to make my life more closely match them.

We spent a great deal of time thinking and talking about what’s necessary and what’s not, in the smallest and largest senses. About how we’d apportion our waking time if half of it weren’t already automatically beholden to an employer. About what satisfies us, in a deep way. And how to make that happen.

What ultimately killed our restaurant plan was the realization of what it would mean to finance the project. Nevermind the enormous commitment of time and effort the place itself would entail (sweet labor though that might be, to folks like us). Owing a bank such a huge amount of money would dictate how we’d be able to live for all the years before we could pay it back. That’s an awful lot of control to willingly surrender.

It began to look like a trigger we weren’t meant to pull.

We still had our finger on it the day I broached the thru-hike subject. We talked about what it would take to make this happen–paying off the last of our debt, saving money, shedding possessions, reconfiguring our budget, making do with less–and then it dawned on us that this was the exact same plan for making our wildest of wild dreams happen: this was the way to hike the AT, yes, but it was also the way to get off the hamster wheel of work/paycheck/stuff for good.

I think angels sounded a high, clear note, and the sun got a little brighter.

This was possible. And we were going to make it happen. And the key wasn’t–as I’d long been taught, as we’ve all long been told–getting a better job and making more money. Our yearning for more has been misplaced–we don’t need more money, more things, more degrees, more titles, more on our resume; we need more time that actually belongs to us. We need more real meaning from our labor. And, unless you’re independently wealthy, getting this kind of more means having less.

If you’re okay with that, the math works in your favor. Me, I’d rather have fewer nice clothes and more time to write. A smaller house and a bigger garden. Fewer nights out on the town and more long days in with a chore list of my own making.

It’s a funny thing, though, shedding all those years of conditioning. Even when you know, down to your core, that this is the right thing to do, you find yourself resisting in unexpected ways. Relinquishing my professional identity and the status that comes with it was an important step, and it’s made some of the other de-attaching go more smoothly. But we still run up against the cool tee shirt problem: when discussing exactly how much of our considerable book collection to offload, I had the realization that I was attached to more than just the books themselves: I liked what stuffed bookshelves said about me. Even though the only people who are likely to see the inside of my home already know that I read, that I’m intelligent, that I have diverse interests, I was still clinging to that physical symbol of these attributes.

The Man Friend has a great expression: these things that we hang onto, that we use like bumperstickers to advertise about ourselves are identity bangles. Like the bracelets, they rattle around saying look at me! Look at how [smart/cultured/fit/well-connected/pious/rebellious/whatever] I am! They’re cultural shorthand, a substitute for the hard work of actually getting to know each other.

I can’t get rid of all the books–I love me some library action, but there’s something to be said for being able to pull a well-loved tome off the shelf any time you like, to re-read in its entirety, or just to sample a few choice passages. I find it extremely comforting. But there are plenty volumes on those shelves that really are just filler–books I’ve read once and won’t read again, books I read and didn’t even like, books that I own because I think–as an English major and a “serious” reader–I should own them. That’s the very definition of superfluous.

So I suppose what we’re really doing is working out our own definition of what is necessary. Time? Yes. Food? Yes. Shelter? Yes. Creative efforts? Yes. Most of our stuff? Not so much. Money? Not as much as we think. And, maybe most destructive and unnecessary is the stress that comes with all that we’re working to purge. For, after all, being invested in a job you aren’t in charge of is simply borrowing someone else’s stress. For people like we two, who are inclined to become invested in any job we have just because we like to see work done well, whatever it is, it’s impossible to work for bad managers and not get upset about it. And a paycheck just isn’t sufficient compensation for that kind of irritation, not anymore. Money may indeed make the world go ’round, but there are other forces that can take its place, once you’re able to wean yourself off that dollar-sign teat.

Our position statements:

  • Monetary income is a poor measure of the quality and meaning of one’s work.
  • Paychecks are meant to be spent, usually on shit we don’t really need, supporting a global system of consumerism that is, on balance, not a great thing.
  • The more toys you have, the more you want–and the more of your time you sacrifice to work for more of that almighty paycheck.
  • Have less, want less, buy less = have less reason to work for someone else. This frees up an enormous amount of time to do things that have real value for us–whether concretely, as in growing our own food, or more abstractly, as in more time to create and write and meditate and pay attention to what we can do to help our neighbors.
  • We want that.

Kicking all this off with a six-month exercise in living a life stripped to its bare essentials seems right. Even if we don’t finish the trail this time–very few do, though I think we’re more prepared (in all ways) than most–it’s come to be about more than just a simple thru-hike. And there is gold waiting at the end, however short or long the rainbow itself may prove.

4 responses to “Necessary things

  1. I am just one of many who are cheering you on!

    And thanks for so clearly stating what many of us are coming to realize.

  2. Couldn’t agree more, Jessie. Great post. The number one product our economy creates is need. Without feelings of inadequacy, we are passive as consumers. Being at peace with less is, to put it mildly, threatening the bottom line of some very powerful people. Hence, a message you will seldom hear from mainstream media – true security comes not from having more, but from needing less.

  3. Count me in as one of your cheerleaders… what an incredible experience this will be, truly.

  4. Pingback: A new inertia | Omphaloskeptic

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