The Fine Print

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My spouse, our kids, and I recently returned from a fantastic 3,000-mile road trip from New England to southern Florida and back up through the Appalachian Mountains. We spent an incredible four days in Asheville, North Carolina, which has been my spouse’s and my “happy place” since we first visited the city together for our honeymoon in 1999, although I’d been in love with the Blue Ridge Mountains for many years before that.

This was our first trip back in more than a decade, and I spent the entire visit either beaming incredulously at the thought that we were actually there or welling up at the knowledge that we would be leaving; sometimes I did both at the same time.

Since our departure from Asheville to return to New England, I’ve been plagued by the realization that, when I chose to forgo gainful employment and devote nearly 100% of my time to raising and homeschooling my children, I also seem to have forfeited much of my agency.

I am the queen of the small decisions—what to have for dinner, when to trade out the children’s fleece trousers for shorts, which kind of waterproof pillow covers to buy—but because only my spouse brings in the income that sustains our family financially, the larger choices are tied to his career and are by and large outside of my control.

It’s as though I’ve gone to buy a car and have no say over the make or model, but I get to choose the color.

This isn’t really what I thought I was signing on for when I picked this gig. There is this illusion of partnership behind which I couldn’t see while I was engaged in the all-consuming work of parenting tiny humans. My spouse asks for my input when deciding where to move next, but really, we just go where the first reasonable job offer takes us. It’s his career that drives us, not my opinions.

Now that the kids are becoming a little more independent and I can almost see the days of greater autonomy on the horizon before me, I’ve begun engaging in an exercise I call, “What do I want to be when my kids grow up?” I think about grad school and writing fellowships. I dust off the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and skills assessments from back in my pre-kids corporate days and try to get some idea of what might bring my skills and interests together. I try to imagine different careers and locations and ways of living.

But this nascent dreaming stops short when I realize that we’re always going to go with the sure thing. I will always, unless I want to have a long-distance marriage, have to do the thing that I can do wherever my spouse’s career is.

While this makes very good sense—as my spouse reminds me, the kids have to eat—these geographical and financial restrictions aren’t conducive to dreaming.

This all hit home when I was in Asheville thinking how well small-city living suited me and how strongly the Blue Ridge Mountains draw my heart, and thinking, “Why can’t we move to Asheville?”

There are plenty of reasons why Asheville might not be a good move, but those are all moot because the biggest reason of all—the money reason—halts all other speculation. The dream dies before it ever draws breath. And that’s remarkably discouraging.

I do wonder, though, what level of agency do I assume I should have? I think I should be able to decide for myself what my career will be and where I will live, but is that a realistic expectation? How many people in the world have that kind of freedom? Aren’t most people stuck with whatever they get because of location or history or discrimination or poverty or old-fashioned bad luck? And if so, then I’m just a whiney middle-class white woman with a home and a family and a spouse and a car whose biggest complaint on a daily basis is that flute lesson is a 45-minute drive away. If I have less freedom than I’d like, it’s because I chose this way of living.

I also have to wonder how real these obstacles really are. Am I just making them up or making them bigger than they need to be because I’m too afraid to take responsibility for a big change? I’ve not worked full-time since 2003, and I’ve not worked for pay since 2008. If I make a decision that causes my spouse to give up his career or to have a reduced income, do I really want the responsibility of making up the difference in order to support our family?

And what if I make a bold choice and then change my mind? I did that with being a yoga instructor and being a doula; where’s the guarantee I’d stick with whatever it is I come up with to do this time around? Or is a guarantee too much to ask for?

I guess the best I can do is sit with all of this and wait. For what? A sense of certainty? A sign from the heavens? A job opening for a PhD-level biologist in Asheville, North Carolina?

Or maybe it’s not waiting that’s required, but just sitting, just being here and feeling this fear and discouragement and letting it run its course while I try to make the most of right now.

It’s much easier to say it than to do it.

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The Complex World of Simple Living

Ironically, many of the things that people do for the sake of simplicity actually make life more complicated, at least in the short run.

There are blogs that rather glibly assert that the way to live simply is to move to the country, work from home, go car-free, grow all of your own food, and cook on a woodstove (never mind the irony of blogging about cooking on a woodstove).

If you don’t already have experience and knowledge about rural living, gardening, or stoking a fire, it’s going to take a lot of time, education, and physical work to do any of these things. It may well require a job/career change and will almost certainly require a major lifestyle change. Even if these turn out to the be right choice for everyone (something I doubt would be the case), there’s nothing simple about changing everything about the way you live.

Not only that, but if you decide to live your life in one of these “simple” ways, you’re going to be spending much of your time on the rudiments of living. If you’re someone who places high value on having intimate knowledge of the basics of living, like participating in food procurement from the soil to the table to the compost heap and back to the soil, then focusing your life around these activities might bring you fulfillment. However, if you’re a scientist who’s devoted her life to researching and finding a cure for cancer, spending hours and hours in the laboratory and reading scientific research and talking with colleagues all over the world about the latest discoveries, growing your own food or washing your dishes by hand or knitting your own socks might impinge upon the time you would otherwise spend doing what you truly value. In addition, if you spend a lot of time doing laboratory experiments at major medical facilities, working from home and/or living in a rural area might not work for you.

The key to voluntary simplicity isn’t living with less; it’s making space in your life for what matters most. If you dislike driving and you resent the expense of filling the gas tank and having the oil changed, perhaps you value something other than car ownership. Perhaps a car-light or car-free lifestyle is for you and it would be worthwhile to put forth the effort to research options that will bring you closer to that lifestyle (moving closer to work, working from home, biking or taking public transit, saving up tons of money so you can retire early and stop commuting, etc). But if you love working on your car, if seeing how everything works together gives you the sense

Dodge Charger photographed in Laval, Quebec, C...

Image via Wikipedia

of well-being that others get from meditation or long-distance running, then going car-free would not follow your values. Instead, you might get rid of pay television because you’d rather spend your evenings and weekends under the hood or at the car show than sitting in front of the television with your friends speculating about which talented amateur will make it to the next round of competition on American Idol, and you’d rather spend the money you’d otherwise spend on premium channels to buy the parts necessary to rebuild the transmission on your 1969 Dodge Charger.*

This is why I’m leery of sites, books, and magazines that make living simply sound like nothing more than making your life look like the one in the pictures. There is too much work and mess and soul-searching and rearranging involved in making the changes necessary to live life more in line with your core values to follow some arbitrary plan some random person came up with for their own voluntary simplicity challenge. What works in my life will only work in yours if we have the exact same values weighted the exact same way.

I plan to share my insights and thought processes and research on the off-chance this information might help you in your own life. But nothing I write should be misconstrued as a prescription for simple living.

Or for anything for that matter.

I have no answers. You will find no numbered lists or fourteen simple steps to a simple life here. Just one woman typing while she ponders what it is she really values in life and how to go about organizing her life around those values.

*I have only the most basic knowledge about car restoration and about popular television shows, so these statements might be totally inaccurate. Please take them for their meaning rather than the specifics.