How to be a (Real) Citizen

Riding “The Loop Trail”, a bicycle path encircling my city

Lest my title mislead you, this is not a “how-to” post; rather, this is a blog entry about my own fumblings toward authentic citizenship. Now that I am semi-retired (or rather, I “work for pay” only part-time), I have more time. I have more time to explore ideas and landscapes. I have more time for friends and family. And I have more time for crafting words (like these ones!). I also have more time for a citizenship that demands more of me than simply casting a vote or reading a news story.

I use the term “citizen” broadly, to encompass political participation, community involvement and environmental stewardship. Also, I do not mean to imply that citizenship has clear geographical boundaries. ‘Global citizenship’ is important, too (perhaps the most important, in our increasingly global world). For the time being, I practice global citizenship through “conscientious consumption” – e.g., challenging unthinking consumerism by using renewable energy, recycling and reusing, eating a plant-based diet, buying used, bicycle commuting, researching the environmental and social impacts of particular products, and purchasing goods that perform multiple functions. (For example, I make my personal care products and cleaning agents with five simple ingredients: fair trade coconut oil, baking soda, vinegar, zinc oxide and castile soap!)

Of course, conscientious consumption is only the start; for failing to have a negative impact on the global environment is not the same as having a positive impact on the global environment. Nevertheless, conscientious consumption has helped me strengthen my values and sharpen my awareness, even if I am not (yet) sure what robust global citizenship looks like for me.

In any case, I believe citizenship starts with inhabiting the place (or places) I live, with getting to know what, and who, lives in my town. This is not as easy as it sounds, especially in modern times. Being present in the place I live requires resisting the technologies, or even the career, that, over and over again, transport me away from home. It also requires a willingness to enter spaces in which my particular identities or beliefs are not represented, reflected or even respected. I believe this is where true citizenship starts, at home, respecting the place and the people you live with, whether or not they respect you back.

My own sputterings toward citizenship:

Earlier in the summer I took a bicycle maintenance course through my city’s local bicycle cooperative. Recently I was asked to volunteer my time and (clunky) skill. I spent an afternoon fixing kids’ bicycles and teaching them how to fix their own bicycles. And they taught me a thing or two!

 

 

I was asked if I wanted to join the writing group at my local independent bookstore — a beautiful shop that is solar powered and employee owned. I joined. Complete strangers shared deeply personal poetry and essays, reading their work out loud. Even though it terrified me, I read my work out loud.

I was asked to teach a class on nature writing to retirees. I agreed. In December I will spend a day at a retirement community, with people who have much more life experience than I.

I participate in free community yoga in our local parks and businesses. It is open to everyone.

I hike or bike in the desert, acquainting myself with the native plants and animals, getting to know and respect species that were hitherto unknown to me.

Starting next month I will attend all city council meetings. In the course of a year of attending these meetings, I hope to come to a more nuanced and complex understanding of the issues my city faces. And at that point I may raise my own voice.

Real citizenship is a lot more demanding — and a lot more special — than simply casting a vote or consuming mass media. It is a lifelong practice requiring lifelong commitment. But I think that if I am open to real citizenship, it will come to me. Most of the time just being here (and being present) is enough. I am asked to help. I am asked to participate. And all I have to do is say “yes”. And then show up. 🙂

Sarah

 

 

 

Photo Credit: Anonymous

 

On the Eve of (Relative) Financial Independence: How Losing my Job was a Blessing

Approximately two years ago my employer informed me that my tenure-track contract would not be renewed. Needless to say, I was shocked. I cried. A lot. I suspected foul play (though I will never know for sure; was it me or was it them?). I was genuinely heartbroken, as the small college felt like a second family to me. Following the advice of colleagues, I consulted an employment attorney, who agreed to handle my case pro bono. But ultimately I decided, “their loss”. And I walked away. Because it really was their loss.

All the while I ruminated on what I had learned about higher education. Through the college appeals process I learned more about institutional “governance” (or rather, lack thereof) than I ever would have learned had I won tenure. As a young junior faculty member, I saw what happens “behind closed doors”. I was afforded the opportunity to explore the nature of my former institutional home, eyes wide open. At the same time I investigated the interior of myself, and I owned my own mistakes. I am still owning my mistakes, which are many.

When I was “let go” I had a mortgage, a car loan, a small student loan and a credit card balance or two. I did not possess the other most common form of American debt: medical debt. Though I needed the money, I was not eager to pursue another tenure-track position in philosophy.

I do not believe that I should have to struggle against sexism.  I grew up believing I could do whatever I set my mind to (and have had that belief confirmed, time and time again), but then the reality of this weird cultural moment slapped me in the face. I signed my severance agreement the day after the 2016 US presidential election. Not worth the fight, I figured. America needs to do some soul searching, and so do I. I do not regret my decision. It was not worth my time or my energy, the twin currencies of my life. Instead, I set my sights on the regular kind of currency: money.

I never planned to achieve financial independence. Rather, I was extremely fortunate. I negotiated a good severance package, sold my house at a huge profit (after four short years of home ownership) and parlayed those funds to pay off all debts. Instead of prioritizing low-paying academic publications, I published a book about bikepacking the Arizona Trail. I practiced frugality like a madwoman, lowering my monthly bills to almost nothing.

My hard-won profits went toward a small condo, purchased for cash. Between savings, retirement accounts and (meager) book royalties, my finances are such that I only need to work half-time, minimum wage to live securely and comfortably. I am semi-retired, at age 33, and — so long as I invest wisely — I may fully retire at the regular retirement age. Yes, my job loss was a good thing, though it did not seem so at the time. Lemonade out of lemons!

So, the next salaried job I take (if any) will be on my terms. From hereon out, I contribute to society in ways that I define. Because, fundamentally, financial freedom is not about money. It is about having control over your time and your energy, such that you do not have to pursue an agenda you disagree with. You get to live your values, which is worth more than any amount of money. (To learn more about financial independence and living your values, check out Vicki Robin’s Your Money or Your Life, recently featured in Time Money.)

I still have hope in our institutions; but I also believe they will not change until we demand it — and that requires being no longer bound to them through financial (or medical) necessity. Why wait until you are 65 to achieve a measure of financial independence? Why spend an entire lifetime paying off your basic shelter, vehicle or education?

Is achieving financial freedom easy? Of course not, especially given our consumer culture. But it is worth more than a giant house or a nice car or all the cool vacations in the world. Because you own your own time. And that, my friends, is a priceless thing.

 

Minimalism and The Good Life: How and Why I Keep it Simple

Diogenes Sitting in his Tub by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1860); Image Source

In recent years “minimalism” has been on the rise, especially among millennials. The philosophy is not a new one. For example, influenced by Socrates, the ancient Greek Cynics practiced extreme minimalism, rejecting private property, money, status, power and the myriad social conventions predicated on these. Like modern minimalists, Cynics lived in regular society, in full public view. Like their forefather Socrates, they went without many possessions, but not without people. Despite its name, “cynicism” was a friendly and social philosophy. The word “cynic” actually derives from the Greek word for “dog-like” (κυνικός), which highlights the cynics’ dog-like way of life.

From the very beginning of civilization people have been challenging the very values upon which civilization as we know it was built.

MINIMALISM AND MORALITY [It Takes Two to Create Inequality!]

Unfortunately, minimalism has come under fire for being a “privilege”; only the well-off have the “privilege” of choosing simplicity and simple living. To some extent, this is true. However, social and environmental justice are not achievable unless those with the means to live lavishly voluntarily choose to live modestly and simply instead — until this becomes a cultural value and a societal norm.

The fact remains that we live in a country that constitutes less than 5 percent of earth’s human population and yet consumes 1/4-1/3 of earth’s resources. It is foolish to assume we will ever achieve equality within our country without addressing our prominent role in global inequality.

But I did not intend to write a post about all the compelling moral reasons for practicing minimalism. I actually want to write about the wonderful practical reasons for practicing minimalism.

WHAT IS MINIMALISM? THE BASICS. [Less is More]

Minimalism is a lot of things. In general it requires “decluttering” your life in a multitude of ways. So, for example, minimalist bloggers write about letting go of inauthentic or exhausting friendships, in addition to excess material possessions and big houses. They also strategize ways to remove “mental clutter” — by, for example, imbibing less media, meditating and leaving their crazy careers (or else negotiating more reasonable conditions and hours). Minimalists reduce demands on their time, cultivating the ability to not overcommit themselves. They are under-scheduled, not over-scheduled. They avoid the ‘busy trap’. They also tend to eschew debt in all its forms, since debt causes people to take on more than they need and to commit to more than they want.

WHAT ARE THE MAIN BENEFITS OF MINIMALISM? [Being Present for One’s Life]

Basically, minimalists want to be present for their own lives. They tend to value reflection, creativity and meaningful connections and projects above all else — all of which require free time, rather than conventional status and stuff. Anything that does not directly contribute to these ends gets “minimized”, sometimes ruthlessly. (For example, many minimalists do without a vehicle, more than a few outfits, a smart phone or even Internet at home.) However, the payoff is huge. The payoff is inner peacefulness, joy, real (rather than “fake”) friends and “true freedom” — i.e., the freedom to spend one’s time actively pursuing one’s own agenda, rather than passively playing one’s part in the American nightmare.

HOW I PRACTICE MINIMALISM

  • All of my worldly belongings fit in a 650-square foot condo.
  • I do not own a smart phone, a TV or car. I walk or bicycle everywhere.
  • I check out books from the library. I imbibe long-form journalism, not soundbites.
  • I buy (mostly used) products that can be made to serve multiple functions.
  • I minimize drama and poor friendships; I have time/energy for good relationships.
  • I use no credit cards, and I possess no debt. (Or rather, no debt possesses me!)

How do you practice minimalism? How might you incorporate minimalism into your life?