Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The party everyone is invited to

When I was in college I took this sociology class, and I remember one day of it particularly. For some reason we did an exercise related to death and dying. Our professor asked us to work in groups and talk to eachother about what we would do if we only had 1 year left to live. In our groups we discussed this, albeit reserved and a bit uncomfortable as each of us tried to figure the question out. Then he had us do the exercise again, if we only had 6 months left, 1 month left, 1 day left, 1 hour left, 1 minute left, and finally 10 seconds left. It was fascinating. Particularly the professor’s answer if he only had 10 seconds left. He said something like, “I would leave the classroom, go to the water cooler, get a glass of water, and really drink that water, really feel it run through my body, really appreciate the beauty and splendor of that water.” His answer surprised me, wouldn’t you try and talk to your loved ones on the phone I thought? Then he talked about how we all really die alone. Big stuff for college kids that just have not really thought about their own mortality at all.

I’ve been thinking about that exercise lately, and about the concept of life hours, and the idea of trying to insert the idea of your mortality into more of the choices you make each day. Who you spend time with, what job you do, how you treat others, how you spend your money, what you do for pleasure, etc.

When we did this exercise last night my husband said for most of the different time periods he would do all things pleasurable and do them with those he loved. For me, my answers were a little different. Since I was small I have felt this push to do something meaningful, unique and special before I die. Something that makes my life seem to have a purpose. I know this is not uncommon, but when I started dating Brian I was surprised by the lack of this need within him. I wasn’t sure about it at first. But then I started to envy it. I wished I could turn down the volume of that voice in my head that pushes me to create, seek, and “produce” continually. That’s something I am working on. Being more and doing less. Brian is a good teacher.

If I work to be more like Brian, I stop worrying about how productive I am and think about my mortality in a different way. Think about how much I love being with my family and friends, playing music, dancing, performing, cooking, loving and then do those things with no guilt attached because there isnt some sort of product that gets created to indicate my self worth. This trip is good for that, though of course I already have a list of things I want to accomplish while I am away! But I’m trying. And Im not saying that being productive and creative is a bad thing. It is a bad thing when you do those things to help hide away your eventual death. When you go go go to make you feel like your life happened for a reason, instead of living it with presence and gratitude and calm.

We learn our whole lives. It is so interesting how the amount you need/want to learn seems to increase as you get older. I remember clearly some point in my college career when I just thought, gosh is there anything else interesting to learn about or know about? I feel like I know everything already! Ahhhhh the blissful ingnorance of youth.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Your Money or Your Life?

I am reading this book now. I can’t put it down. I hadn’t realized for how many years I have turned a blind eye to my spending and earning practices with money. Really delving into your monetary personality can be a dark thing you don’t want to face. I love this book. It talks about “life hours”. How many “life hours” did it take to buy that latte, that sweater, that meal out at that nice restaurant? And you don’t calculate the life hours by looking at your hourly wage. No, you subtract from your hourly wage all that you spend to support your job. For example, transportation expenses including gas, insurance, maintenance, etc.; clothing - “costuming for work”, all of the elements in your wardrobe you would just not wear if you did not have to wear them to work; Food and drinks: coffees, lunches and snacks you would not otherwise have eaten unless you were out at the office; Donations – money towards parties, retirement donations, etc.; Health – costs associated to massage, chiropractic care for sitting in front of computers all day, therapists to manage stress, etc etc etc; recreation costs – to help you unwind after a tough day including movies, dinners, alcohol, tv, internet, etc. or money spent on nice clothes, cars etc to help soothe you for working a job you just might abhor. Subtract all of that, and you might be making less than half of what you thought you were making per hour. If you were originally making $15, you discover now you really only make $6 an hour for a job you don’t really like. Hmmm. And, you spent $50 last night on dinner and drinks to help you feel good, to escape your reality, but in actuality you had to work 8 hours for that experience. An entire day of your work week. Was it worth it? I don’t think so.

I am looking forward to selling most of our possessions for our trip, particularly our car. I have felt guilty about the purchase from day one. It was an extravagant purchase that I now realize I made to help soothe my commute to a job that I had become not so inspired by anymore. I paid a ridiculous amount of money each month to have this car and to pay its insurance. But then something happened to me. I went to Tucson to visit Brian’s family and we rode bikes around the whole time and it was so darn pleasurable and cheap and easy and I thought to myself, why have I thought it impossible for so many years to commute by bike to my job? Because its 14 miles away, because I’m scared, because I need to justify my car purchase? Brian and I share the car and he biked often to his job which was only 5 miles closer than mine to our home. I decided one day I needed to pull out my not used for the last year and a half bike from the basement and give it a try. Brian rode with me the first time and I was delighted. 9 miles of the ride are along a beautiful bike trail along the Hudson River, and for the 5 up the hill to my work, I placed my bike on a bus in the morning, and in the afternoon I coasted the 5 miles down to the bike path. I believe it was this ride that started this sort of new awakening in me. I feel like there are so many things we can do to improve our physical, mental and spiritual health as well as our community and planet health. But there are just these behaviors and ideas and norms and fears that are imprinted on us as we move through life as an American that somehow take hold of us even though we may not believe in them, even though we don’t endorse them. It is almost scary - I am starting to see how many of my behaviors do not line up with my morals, ethics or priorities. It’s all little changes though, little things we can do to make a difference. Little things we can do to consume less and give more. I ride my bike about 2-3 days a week now, more if the weather is good. I would be thrilled if Brian and I could swing not having a car at all when we return from our trip. We shall see.

Back to money. As I think about all of the ways we can reduce our spending and be financially healthy, the one elephant in the room that does not go away is our student loans. Brian has two Masters Degrees and I have one Master Degree and spent one year in a Phd program. We both have a large amount of student loan debt that is not going away any time soon. I have been paying off my loans for years but have made only the slightest dent in the principle balance. I do understand this education is a privilege and I am lucky to have experienced it, but somehow this equation doesn’t feel right to me. I am riddled with debt for an education that I really feel I could have (with much motivation) largely gotten through books in the library or information online as well as interviews with professionals in the field or volunteering in the field I was interested in. I feel cheated somehow. I read recently (I don’t remember where) that the vast majority of money from student tuition at colleges goes towards sports programs and food for the university. Hmmmm. That was interesting. What are we really paying for? If our expenses can be looked at in terms of “life hours” how do we define our educational debt? Especially if you find you are no longer interested in the original field you studied in? (me for example?) Were the discussions, exams, activities, reading lists that we were all given in our college courses worth the lifelong debt many of us are carrying? I say a loud no. Now what? Where do we go from here? You can cut back your spending to next to nothing and save as much as you can, but even still, I think many will still be plagued with an economic hardship that will continue to hurt so many families, so many young professionals. I don’t know what the solution is. I am not sure I would encourage my child to enter into our college education system if they had to take out many student loans to pay for the experience. I would not want them to have to deal with this burden. And a degree does not guarantee a sustainable, fulfilling, fruitful career. My husband received his Masters in Library Science last December and has years of library experience, another Masters in Religious Studies, and he simply just cannot get a full time librarian job anywhere in the country. He got the degree in the first place to try and get a job that would make more money for our family. Instead he has an enormous student loan debt and still no job….

Leaving the country makes you think a lot about what it is you are leaving. And what you are hoping to learn while you are away. And what you want to help make different when you get back.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Photograph by John William Banagan/Getty Images

Laying on my back after ankle surgery. Hoping my foot will be nice and strong for our trip. Been reading a lot about Vietnam, Bali and Laos lately. Brian and I saw the Anthony Bourdain Laos show last night on Netflix and it was a bit heartbreaking. I had no idea that we dropped millions of bombs from the Vietnam war over Laos, a country that wasn’t involved in the conflict. And now there are millions still in the ground that never exploded even 30 years later. Many Laotians are losing arms, legs and their lives by trying to farm their land that is full of these war relics. In towns, they sort of decorate with the leftover twisted metal, which is eerie to me. In the show, a young beautiful family whose father lost his arm and leg while farming invites Tony into their home for a large exotic meal. Tony asks the father if he is angry, and it is a tense moment. But you can see in their faces and bodies they have forgiven the soldiers who dropped those bombs. Their generosity and forgiveness was a beautiful thing. I am looking forward to Laos.


One step forward, two steps back (written 10/6/10)

As I write the second entry of this travelogue, I feel moved to talk about the book I’m reading, Radical Homemakers, and how enormously it’s affecting me, instead of the trip. But I am starting to think they are both intertwined. I desire to live on less money, rely less for health and well being on corporations, develop stronger community ties, learn homemaking skills that will help our family more effectively subsist on its own, and have more free time to explore nature, create, connect and love. I feel like we will explore many of these desires on our journey. I have this feeling like I want to learn and understand everything all at once, though I know that isn’t possible. Hearing Shannon Hayes speak at Brian’s library was very special for me, and I was grateful to have the opportunity to ask her so many questions like, how did you have a baby without health insurance? What does home-schooling look like in your family? Where do I start with gardening when it feels so overwhelming? I liked her responses, especially the one about gardening “Just dive in, don’t worry about it. You never know how anything is going to turn out, so why not just get started?”

I spoke to more people at my office today about leaving. They were all women in their 4o’s and were very supportive, except one told me that I may want to be careful in Europe because the terrorist rating there has increased. I don’t even know what that means. How are those silly colors calculated? I’d like to see the metadata... As I become more aware and educated about our world and how it operates, I start to see everywhere the fallout of the poor decisions our society has made. There is a way out of this mess and I think it is funny that I really believe it requires us to return back to an earlier developmental period, that of self-subsistence, community and less reliance on technology. We took many steps forward, and I feel we now need to take some steps back… Is it like we really just took a wrong turn somewhere? Or this is truly the process of evolution? I think there is an awakening that is on the brink and it will be powerful and painful and glorious at the same time. Maybe it is no mistake 2012 is around the corner….

Telling our Family (written 10/3/10)

Last night my mother, father and sister were at our apartment for some lasagna, wine and apple crisp. My mom is allergic to my cat and so we spent the majority of our time out in the yard drinking wine and talking about our upcoming itinerary. It was the first chance we had to tell our family in detail about our plans: the full list of countries and in what order, about busking, wwoofing, couchsurfing, etc. I noticed a slight shift in them, particularly my father. Their faces and bodies were much less stiff as we talked about it (might have been because of the wine) and they seemed much more enthusiastic, curious and wowed by the possibilities. This response felt wonderful because I so want to experience the excitement and craziness of this adventure with my family, not shy away from conversing with them about it. My dad seemed inspired by it even, and he blurted out to my mom he should just quit his job and they should take off in the way we are….

The evening culminated with Brian and I performing some of our busking songs we’ve been working on to give them an idea of how we will make a little money on the way. Me on my little Martin backpacker guitar, and Brian on his djembe, shaker egg and mini tambourine. We started with Cat Stevens “Wild World” and I was shocked by the audience reaction! Hooting and hollering and applause from my parents and Joanna singing loud beautiful harmonies. My father started taking pictures and video and I started to feel like Brian and I might have something here! We haven’t played much music together since we started dating because I have been very sensitive to the tension and dynamics that can develop between two lovers when they start trying to seriously play music together. This busking idea gave us a way to approach playing together with no pressure, no expectations and just the hope for fun and learning. I can’t say how pleasurable it has been to finally play music together with my husband. He is so passionate and enthusiastic when he plays, and it is infectious. He makes me a more dynamic and interesting performer. I am really interested in seeing where this leads us.

We then moved on to Crowded House with “Don’t Dream its Over”. My mom pulled out some percussion instruments and Joanna’s voice swelled with mine in perfect harmonies. I yelled out she had to come with us, she would be our ringer! It was incredible to hear her sing so loud and open like that again. It has been a long time… My mom starts getting allergic at this point (she forgot her face mask) but we all wanted to do one more, so Brian and I pull out our finale, “One” by U2. What a warm, real, beautiful, genuine feeling. I felt so close to my family. And that experience is so easy to create. Just pick up some instruments and start playing. I have always wanted to learn a bunch of cover songs solely for that reason. I want to be able to share and provide songs to those I love that they know and love that we can all sing and play together. It was so inspiring to feel that already developing.

As I try to understand and develop the concept in my mind of how it will be to try to live more as homesteaders and less as consumers when we return from our traveling, tonight was a perfect example. Sharing music and laughter and love in our little apartment after a perfectly good home cooked meal… What else could you want or need? I like that this trip is a year of spending our money on experiences, not things, and in order to go, we need to get rid of almost everything we own. I feel like it is a rebirth. A chance to start again. A chance to define our own reality, our own home, in the most environmentally, socially, and spiritually healthy way possible. The possibility for real conscious living and loving, considering our decisions with others and the planet in mind. With our future children in mind. It excites me.

I am starting to really believe in the power of stating things out loud as fuel to encourage change and evolution. I made two statements this week that I want to ensure remain true.

1) I will never buy a gym membership again

2) I will never work in a cubicle in front of a computer for 8 hours a day again

Instead of working out at a gym that uses a ridiculous amount of unnecessary electricity to help people move their bodies (after sitting in cubicles all day!), I will bike, walk, hike, and practice yoga. But most importantly, I will dance. I will turn music way up and dance like the devil until I fall to the floor in a sweaty mess. I saw “This is It”, that documentary on Michael Jackson and was so completely blown away by his talent, creativity, productivity, and vision. I couldn’t help but get up and dance with him in my bedroom as I watched him on my laptop. And then I had a scary thought, when was the last time I danced for no reason? Not at a wedding, not at a concert, just home with myself because I am moved to? I could not remember! Dancing used to be my greatest passion! How did it just disappear? Never again. Dance will be a regular event in my life. A priority. Thank you Michael!

In starting this blog/journal, I am realizing I have so much that I want to write about, so much that is going on inside of me. Change is abundant everywhere I look in everyone’s lives, changing jobs, ending relationships, changing outlooks… The fall does that I think to us. But maybe it is also something else? A change in consciousness? I feel a bit like the scales are dropping from my eyes. Only now, I am finally starting to see the country that I live in for what it really is. I’m seeing how sick we are here. And how I am contributing to that sickness. I am enabling it. And I didn’t really know how much until recently. I guess society often times has to go backward before it can go forward, but I feel like we really f’d it up there after the depression until now. I’m committed to helping with this consumeristic disease by starting with my own home and family. I’m reading Radical Homemakers right now, and it is an inspiration. I am going to hear Shannon Hayes talk at the library Brian works at tomorrow. I am really looking forward to it…. I am excited to learn to live on less money, sew more, can more, grow more, produce more instead of consume. Produce our own food, but write music, plays, teach, etc. Learn to give more then we take. We have so much growing to do.