Coming Full Circle: Creating a Rich Life

Last spring I made the decision to move back to my hometown. I bought a share in a co-housing community located in the heart of my city. I said “goodbye” to rent, a mortgage, a car, all forms of debt and all the demands of my academic career. I said “hello” to daily meditation or yoga, daily reading and writing (including letters to friends!), bicycling advocacy and intellectual pursuits that satisfy my true interests and values.

Co-Housing & The Elderly 

Nearly every day I talk to my neighbors, most of whom are seniors. Retirees have time to talk to their neighbors. They have time to reflect on life. And they are, for the most part, finished with the business of acquiring money, status, looks and people to feed their egos. So, I am quite content living with people much older than I, though my choice is not a conventional one. I have always enjoyed the company of aged people, and I find it odd how society separates us from them.

Advocacy & Service

In the time I have been away my hometown has grown, distinguishing itself as one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the nation. The same bike paths I used to ride on as a kid have expanded and now encircle the entire city. It is as though my own passion for cycling has grown up alongside my hometown. It is so strange, in a wonderful way. But perhaps it is not so strange. After all, this city formed me. It was here than I worked at my first bike shop and bought my first commuter bicycle.

This week I entered two elections: one for my city’s Bicycle Advisory Committee, another for our Cooperative Housing Board. I volunteer for several wonderful organizations. On the weekends I work as an academic tutor for underprivileged 3rd graders. Sometimes I work as a mobile bicycle mechanic, fixing bikes in low-income neighborhoods. And lately I have been spending my afternoons painting my father’s house. In the Spring I will work as a Professor, teaching two small introductory philosophy classes at the community college. Half a lifetime ago I took my first philosophy class there!

Intellectual Needs

Though my academic career is not the center of my life, I am an intellectual, and so I fill my deep curiosity by going to talks at the university, engaging in discussion with my former students and colleagues or reading material from the university library. I also tune out a lot of the mass media in order to make room in my mind for more important ideas and concepts. Not having a Smart Phone or TV has helped me limit my participation in spectacle or rage, so that I can focus on more meaningful endeavors. (No, I do not know Donald Trump’s latest theatrics. What is more, I do not care!)

Happiness

It is no wonder I have a growing sense of having come ‘full circle’. I am twice as old as I was when I left, but I am different and happier. Even though I do not work for pay full-time, I still experience stress and anxiety, especially social anxiety. I am an Introvert who happens to love people; so, I am sometimes tired. Sometimes I am too busy, reverting to my old tendency to schedule every minute. But at least now I am able to slow down, savor the moment and appreciate everywhere I have been and where I am now.

Gracias world!

Sarah

 

 

 

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

 

Needs, Non-Distraction and Non-Conformity: Making Counter-Habits

Image Source

As I embark on a more simple and less technological way of life, I have been thinking about a tangle of concepts: ‘distraction’, ‘habit’, ‘nonconformity’ and — of all things! — Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. While I am not able to tie them all together here and now, I hope to thread some ideas together. After all, I am after better patterns.

Contrary to what I have written, I do find some psychology interesting. If we leave the rungs of Maslow’s pyramid vague (so as to account for situational and cultural differences), it is hard to disagree. Maslow’s basic idea is this: once we achieve shelter, clothing, sleep and nutrients; safety (including financial security, a measure of health and freedom from harm); social belonging and, finally, esteem or respect, then and only then can we finally achieve “self-actualization” and “self-transcendence” – the very marrow of life at the peak of the pyramid. By incorporating ‘self-transcendence’ into ‘self-actualization’, Maslow addressed some fair criticisms of his philosophy; in particular, that his story about human development is too narrowly focused on the evolution of the individual self, cutoff from her communities.

There are counterexamples to Maslow’s theory; for example, the self-transcendence Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl experienced in Nazi concentration camps. Perhaps both basic fulfillment and extreme deprivation prompt self-transcendence. Or, better yet, perhaps extreme deprivation gifts us new values, while basic fulfillment affords us the opportunity to practice those values.

What is so interesting about this pyramid of needs (ordered from more fundamental to more refined) is how few people ever achieve the more foundational needs in their lifetime. Even in “developed” countries like the US, we bounce around the bottom levels, surviving instead of living.

I wonder why more of us are not focused on meeting our basic needs — those fundamental needs that are so essential to our well-being, both individually and as a society. Are we afraid of our own company, so much so that we pursue endless distraction? As Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensées:

When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town (139).

Pascal overlooks another key force that works against self-actualization and self-transcendence; namely, conformity. Even though we Americans are more likely to encounter floundering consumers rather than flourishing citizens, we nevertheless conform. We want to belong, and distractions steal away the energy we require to counter our culture in meaningful ways.

But should “belonging” and “exciting distraction” be bought for the price of self-actualization and self-transcendence? Is it worth it? Or, in a society so obviously unhappy, is it better to seek non-conformity and to practice counter-habits? For it is habit — and only habit — that empowers us to live better, more meaningful lives.

Happy habit making!

Sarah

 

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?

 

 

 

 

 

Me and Teddy Trying to Figure Out Me, Grand Canyon Version

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday afternoon Teddy and I travelled to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We camped along FSR 688, which is dotted with large dispersed campsites. The next morning we hiked along the South Rim (pictured above).

2/2/2018 — Groundhog Day (Journal entry) 

I pitch our tiny tent alongside a giant Ponderosa, but Teddy stakes out a spot farther down the dirt double-track. I drag the tent to Teddy, who squats under another Ponderosa, HIS Ponderosa. We take a brisk walk at dusk, enjoying the last little bit of sunlight and sun-warmth.

In the evening Teddy burrows into my doubled sleeping bags, warming me as the temperature drops below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Frost gathers on the tent, and the nearly-full moon lights up the sky. Every now and then I emerge from the sleeping bags for a sip of freezing IPA, a Tucson delicacy.

Lately I have been reading two new books a week. I cannot stop reading and thinking! Tonight I read Yuval Harari’s, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”. Coyotes howl in the distance, and Teddy stiffens beside me. I learn that Homo Sapiens likely exterminated a related species, the Neanderthals, after mating with a few of these caring animals, a situation canines avoided. I pause on Harari’s reconstructed picture of a Neanderthal girl:

Neanderthal-girl

She looks so peaceful.

I do not romanticize our hunter-gatherer past, as some men do. Rather, the story of how we emerged as the triumphant species tells me something about what we might be in the future. Also, I am curious about what I could be. How do I live in a way that is more true to the story of an evolving, improving humanity?

To some extent most of my adult life has been unusual: eating a plant-based diet, having few possessions (and hating shopping), limiting my exposure to the mass media, studying and conversing deeply, eschewing dogma, and seeking out solitude and adventure in nature, despite the dangers. It is the way of life that feels most natural to me. Meat, tons of stuff, an overstimulating and busy environment, casual relationships, superficial ideas or conversation, dogma of any kind, unvarying routine, constant company — these are my worst nightmares!

Tonight I am trying to imagine a somewhat different form of life — something that works for me but is still recognizably human. I do not know what my life will look like, but I do know that time is the only valid currency in life. I must be careful with how I spend it.

I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor – such is my idea of happiness. And then, on top of all that, you for a mate, and children, perhaps – what more can the heart of a human desire?

Leo TolstoyFamily Happiness

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Me Trying to Figure Out Me: Reflecting on Freedom and Teaching Freedom

Quite a lot has happened in the last two months. It was a personal drama of sorts: me trying to figure out me. I am sure my friends and family tired of it — me constantly talking about me. I spent a lot of time with Teddy (my dog), friends, colleagues and family.

anita

Me and my good friend Anita at Arcosanti. (I kidnapped her and dragged her to a commune!)

joshtree

Solo camping in Joshua Tree (Black Rock Canyon), on my way to visit family. (What do I do when I camp alone? I read books and drink craft beer. See Part II of this post!)

nau

Wonderful conversations about Confucian ethics with a colleague visiting from China

I also spent a lot of time with my students. My philosophy freshmen completed their final exam, which consisted in conversations about justice, drawing on the ideas and arguments they learned throughout the term. I left the (very spirited) “exam” kicking myself. Why hadn’t I *started* the course in this way, with informal conversations between groups of students? It occurred to me that the best way to teach Intro to Philosophy might be to spend a week or two simply talking about what we all believe and sussing out where the agreements and disagreements are (and what questions they are interested in). Only then can we achieve passionate conversation.

It is odd teaching something like philosophy in an institutional setting, because philosophy is fundamentally about self-examination, i.e., examining one’s own beliefs, attitudes, orientations, etc. And formal education tends to be impersonal, in part because of the power differential created by a grading system that militates against what we are trying to accomplish in the humanities. Humanities students should be in pursuit of the project of becoming more free and deepening their humanity. So, I spend a lot of energy guiding students toward questioning grades and the value placed on grades. Some of them never learn, but some do. Some go on to measure their “success” by their own internal standard. Some go on to question my authority, which I encourage.

I have seen enough in my life to question any external standard of “success”. As grades and rankings become more and more meaningless, I increasingly rely on observing people, institutions and my own self. I form my own impression, and I reflect. And this is what I would like for my students — to think for themselves. I hate telling anybody what to think. I do not enjoy “professing”. I will not discipline students, who are grown adults. I do not even like being the center of attention; in fact, I mostly hate it! Sometimes I wonder whether I even belong in Higher Ed, but I soldier on, so long as I believe I am doing something valuable.

Freedom is a funny thing. I have never been so “free” in my life — zero debt, savings and investments, easy means of transportation, excellent health and a rock solid education behind me. I own very little in the way of material things, but I have so many rich relationships in my life.

At first the sense of unbounded freedom caused me misery. I invented ways to rid myself of it — land another tenure-track job, throw my savings into some real estate, enter the wrong relationships, etc. However, all these distractions made me more miserable.

Perhaps it is better to gratefully accept one’s own freedom as a rare and beautiful thing.

Happy 2018!

Sarah