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Simplifying Your Life
The heart of simple living is not really about dropping out and going to live on some tropical island, but rather, simplifying our lives so we can do what we really want to do.
This workshop is about how to begin to take charge of our lives, find out what we want to do, and begin doing it.
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Tyra: Today we are going to talk about the simple life, which isnt very simple. The reason we are here is that Jim and I eighteen years ago moved to the woods, and we have been there ever since.
When we got married I had a part-time job, Jim had a full-time job, and we managed to live on my part-time salary. Then we quit after a year and went to Europe and we were there a total of 9 months that time because Jim went to school in Rome. We camped in a campground for 6 months, during the winter months, I might add, and then when we came back to the United States we found we were expecting our first child, and we lived with some friends for a couple of months. We were watching TV every night, and when we moved into our own little apartment, we said, well, we need a TV. What are you going to do in the evening? You have to have a TV. But when I look back at that moment of thinking about the TV, I realized that was one of the crucial moments in what was eventually going to lead to the adventure of going off to the woods because we went to the store, and there were 15 screens all showing the same program, and we were supposed to choose which one we wanted, and we stopped. We finally said, now look, we can come back to this store any day of the week and buy our TV. What would happen if we didnt do it? Well, we didnt know what would happen if we didnt do it, but we thought, well, lets give it a try. We can always change our minds.
So we went back to our little apartment, and one of the first things we did was, we went to the neighborhood library. We would get a pile of books, take them home, and start reading. (sigh) The first two weeks were very, very hard because we had to, in a sense, take control of our own time. We were like children, trying to figure out what to do with ourselves. So, after those initial two weeks were over, the reading, the going to the library, the getting books, and I cant tell you how many discussions Jim and I had about everything. Now those discussions became the new foundation of what we were supposed to do with our life because a child was on the way, Jim had to get another job. He had quit, and he had to find another job. We would have a mortgage if we wanted to buy a house, a 20 or 30-year mortgage back then it was only a 20-year mortgage, and then the kids would go to school, and we would be locked in until 65, and then we would spend retirement doing what we wanted to do. OK. So that was the first important thing that we did.
The second important thing that we did was Jim would buy a lottery ticket. He would spend a dollar and bring a lottery ticket home, and he would put it on the table and say, now what would we do if we won the lottery? I know this sounds bizarre, but it is an excellent tool to try to get your mind thinking in a new way. So we ended up with a grand total of four things that we would do. 1. a trip around the world. 2. house and land 3. become a Jungian analyst because at that point we had a really deep interest in psychology, and Jim thought about going back to Switzerland and becoming a Jungian analyst. And the fourth one was to take a really long retreat.
With that list in mind, we started thinking about what our next move would be. I am not going to tell you a lot because in the afternoon I am going to show you a little video which will give you a little more idea about our journey to the woods, but one thing we did do was, when I was expecting our second child, and three weeks before John was born, guess what? Jim quit his job. And three weeks afterwards, we took off to the mountains. We were living in San Diego at the time. We took off to the mountains in the sierras, and we started a retreat because we didnt know what we wanted to do, and we needed the time to think it out.
OK. One thing I want you to do is think about what would happen if YOU bought a lottery ticket and you had it in front of you. I would like you people to imagine that you had the lottery ticket and you had a really good chance to win out of 250 million people, you are going to win the lottery there it is. How are you going to make your list? Jim and I made ours that suited our personalities, but what would you do?
Woman: We were blessed with having sisters at our table, and they wanted to give everything away. But there were a few of us who would like to spend our money. I am sure that the majority of the funds would go for other peoples needs. We thought about traveling, and security, and in our later years an income that would be there for us. One individual thought about giving money to relatives just dont give them too much because they need to struggle.
Woman: Many of us wanted to help relatives and friends who were in financial difficulty. Or use it to establish programs or foundations that would empower others, and also use some of it for the problems of the world. But also we thought we would keep a little bit, perhaps, for our own development, not just necessarily in a material way, but also for spiritual growth, and an enjoyment of leisure which I, personally, feel is so important if we are to pray and to love, that we have the leisure to do that. Hopefully we hit a little bit of a happy medium. We need to use it for good things, for ourselves, for those closest to us, and then out to the world for the needy.
Tyra: Fr. Tom was talking to us about this, and he said that he had already done a couple of things that were important to him. The two things that were most important to him were ecumenism, and then the John Main way of praying. He felt that he was really blessed because he got to take the two things and create Unitas. So to him that was really important, but there was another aspect of that that was really significant because I said, well, if you were to make a list now, what would you put on your list? And he said, play the harmonica. Now, I think this is significant because the last time we were thinking in big, wide strokes, we want to change the world, we are going to do good, eliminate poverty and all that.
But what about us? What about some things that actually dont require money, or at least not a lot if you are going to buy a harmonica, that we should be doing? When we made the list of the four things, those were big things, but we also have other things like, oh, gee, Id really like to paint a picture, or I would like to do calligraphy, or take up an instrument. What about that? Are there some things you guys would like to put on your kind of secondary list? The theme is simple living, but we start with ourselves, and so if we ignore some of those things that we consider little things that are really not valuable in the world I remember we had a retreat, and there was a couple. She said, well, I would really like to learn how to play the flute, but thats not important. I really have to take care of the kids, go to work, and take care of my husband, so if I learn how to play the flute, thats my selfish time. That would take time away from the things that are important and my duty, and all that. And so she was denying herself, and I think a lot of times we are denying ourselves what we might consider little things. But those things might have to do with parts of ourselves that are it is almost like nagging at us. Oh, I would really like to stay at home. I would like to read a book by so-and-so, just have time by myself. But I cant afford to do it. It is not important, and I wont do it.
So what I would like you guys to do is to go back into your circle, forget the money because we are not talking dollars now. What we are talking about is an inner wealth. How do we tap into our inner treasure trove? Whats down there that is making you feel sort of poverty-stricken? And what can you do little things that all these years you have been saying, no, no, no that you really owe to yourself to do?
Woman: Ill tell you that the gamut of our desires was so great. We had everything from just being aware of our interpersonal relationships to taking part in all kinds of enrichment courses with music or language or computer. And we had those who worried about worrying that more trust was needed. There were those that were interested in yoga and meditation, and if I forget anything just holler it out. It is important because I think that every single person was so varied and different that we just thought we had a great group over here. We also mentioned that whenever we do something that we really want to do, we are filled with unbounding energy that comes from where we dont know, no matter how much we have been working, or how tired we are, the energy seems to be there when we are doing something that we really desire, and thats what makes it so important.
Woman: I really cant add too much beyond what she has just said. We had pretty much the same desires. Some of us wanted to paint, travel, more control of their time, but, heres a sour note and you can take it any way you want, but all of this costs money. You cant get into painting and books and tapes and retreats and all this without that money. I am finding that out being on retirement and social security and all these things I wanted to do. It takes money.
Woman: We talked more about time than money. If we just had the time to do all these great, wonderful things, and so we went into a sort of thing that I think the rest of you did, coming up with these wonderful things to do. Then we sort of moved on beyond that, and I think our discussion was tremendous. It was more like, for our very own selves, what do we need to enrich us to make our lives full in a way that they havent been full before? A lot of us are beginning to work part-time instead of full-time, and so using that extra time wisely, and not just using it to putter around the house or do more of what you do on the week-ends anyway, but to really make use of that extra time, and to start small so that you dont fail. At least one thing this year, or this month and something else the next month, and really accomplish something like learning to play an instrument, and that sort of thing. One of the members of the group has decided to quit her job, and to move, and to go into massage therapy.
Tyra: That original list that we made, we eventually did something on each one of those matters, so more often than not it was not the way we had envisioned it at the very beginning. Another thing, too, is you talk about time and money. The one thing that was very important to us because of our propensity to have, one, a spiritual foundation and, two, to have the propensity to have a job and quit in order to have the time. We wanted the time. So what we did was, we made a deal with fate. You are going to see a video this afternoon about what happened. This is not necessarily a success story. We have been there for 18 years, and that speaks for itself. We actually survived. We didnt die. But we made a lot of mistakes. They may not be evident in our video, but we made a lot of mistakes, and we learned to pick ourselves up and try it another way, and if that failed, then try it another way. If you want to paint, or you want to travel, or whatever, you just might not be able to do it the way you envisioned this kind of glowing dream and you have to make allowances because we are still not quite perfect, and life out there isnt perfect, so you have to make compromises.
I was really pleased how well it went this morning. I noticed a kind of an emotional difference between the first go-around with what you would do with your lottery ticket, and then the second go-around with what would happen as far as your personal list. And you guys really came alive with that. Thats good. I think that is really valuable because if you are going to have a simple life, you have to start with you, me, everyone, one by one, individually.
Ill show the video in a couple of minutes, but I just want to give you some background on one part of the story. The day after our first child was born, Jim started a job working for the county of San Diego, and one of the things on our list was house and land. So because we are such rational, reasonable human beings, the first thing Jim wanted to do was to discover a tropical island so we could run off to this tropical island fantasy where he could pull off the coconuts from the trees, and the fish would kind of jump up into his nets, and that would be our life. So he wanted to take off. He had accrued a bunch of vacation days, he would take any extra days to get together two weeks, and then there were 10 days of sick leave, so he managed to get three weeks together. So, off to the library again, a big pile of books, and we searched through every known island, especially in the Caribbean because we were sort of interested in that. We made charts, and we put down the names. We classified them. What is the population? What is the weather, and all this other stuff. What is the terrain like? Does it have mountains? Who does it belong to? Chart, chart, chart. He started working in March, and the following May he decided that there was one island he was really interested in. It was called the Bay Islands which is 40 miles off the coast of Honduras. One of the beauties of this island is that no one has ever heard of the Bay Islands. So if nobody has heard of it, then there arent going to be a lot of tourists there. The prices arent going to be high, you can live on the beach. By that time I was pregnant with our second child, and naturally, because I was pregnant I couldnt go. Right? To go to this island, one of the requirements is to take anti-malaria pills because you dont want to get malaria when you are down there. So two weeks before departure day he gets the pills and he starts taking them. And I am watching him do this. Elizabeth was a year and two months. I am watching this, and I am saying to myself, he is going to go to a tropical island fantasy without me???? I dont like this very much. Also there was the possibility, knowing Jim, that he would go, and he would decide he didnt like and he would never return, and I wouldnt be able to get to go on my own. He wouldnt want to go back, and so I said, you know, I want to go, too. And that means that Elizabeth has to go. So off we go to the doctor, get more anti-malaria pills, there I am, mashing them up in the bananas so that Elizabeth can eat them. OK. So. Off we go.
We fly to Guatemala City, and then we have to go over to San Pedro Sula in Honduras and down to La Ceiba, and they have these teeny little planes that are just put together with masking tape and aluminum foil because when it takes off, it rattles. The whole thing rattles. You could end up in the ocean, and so we finally get the island. This is not a runway we are talking about. This is a coral beach with crushed coral. So we land, and the main street is not paved, and the houses are on stilts and the water is under them, and the pigs are rooting up and down the main street. People are doing their laundry under their little verandahs, by hand, of course, they have little gardens. It is primarily a black island with everybody speaking English. One of things about this island is that, even though it belonged to Honduras, they spoke English and they were above speaking Spanish because they really didnt like the Honduranians very much when they came over.
The first night we stayed in the "best room" of the only hotel on the street, and all it meant was that it was a little bigger than anything else, and there were no screens on the window. We put the light on, and my gosh, the menagerie that came in to greet us in the night. We turned that off right away, and we were wondering what was going to happen to us. We ended up going to the other side of the island, and it was a really beautiful beach. Just down the way were tropical fish like you wouldnt believe. We would get to know the natives, we would walk up and down the beach, but there was only one problem. Around 10 oclock in the morning it got so hot and muggy we could barely move. And so we just found our way back to the cinder block room, opened our novels, and tried to survive until it started getting cool again. All the natives came out around 10 oclock at night, and everyone was walking around with a Coke bottle, and they were all trying to survive. The food was really expensive because it had to be shipped in from the mainland, and there wasnt much opportunity for work, and so usually the bread-winner in the family was also a merchant marine, and he was sending money home to the wife and a whole slew of kids. We decided that after one week of that we really couldnt stand that. Somebody told us about the "land of the eternal spring," which was in Guatemala. So we flew back to Guatemala City and went up to Lake Atitlan to a little town called Panajachel. Up there you have the Indians. They are all about 4 tall, 5 tall, and each town had its own costume. At a glance you could tell where people were from.
We went to the marketplace, and for $1 we got this giant bag of food. A head of lettuce was $.03, etc. It was a dollar because we spent a whole quarter on a pineapple. So economically it was a dream, but we also realized that we really didnt want to live in Guatemala, and we really didnt want to live outside the U.S. We ended up giving up that dream and going back to the States, but not before flying off to Tikal, which required another plane trip into the dense jungles. As we flew, all you could see was occasional smoke coming up through the middle of this tremendous jungle. We came down, we got out of the plane, and we nearly died because it was about 117 degrees. We immediately ran under the wing, and then we found ourselves a hotel room. And then it rained. Our room was made out of cement, and so our first night everything in our room is getting soaked because they dont have the proper roof. To compensate for this, they tell us there is a little jungle hut that is part of the hotel complex that is palm-thatched. They let us stay there, and it is fabulous. That is how the natives are living. They are the ones who are dry and cozy. We go off about half a mile away. Elizabeth is in her little umbrella stroller, and we were watching the spider monkeys running through the trees, and we come upon a beautiful multi-storied temple, the Temple of the Sun. I dont go up because I am pregnant, and Liz is little, so Jim goes up to the very top. This was a real experience.
We go back to Guatemala City and fly back to the U.S., and we have to go back to the drawing boards. I am not going to tell you any more about our journey. Not all our attempts worked. That one going to the tropical island didnt work, but we gained a lot just from having gone through the experience.
We looked for land along the central coast of California, but we found that the price per acre was astronomical, and so we went to Oregon and went to a real estate agent. He said that there were a couple of pieces of land for sale, and we got in touch with the landowners, and this and that, but for one reason or another the deals didnt go through. For instance, one guy said he would sell us 10 acres of land, but he went down to the real estate agent and put an addendum on the deed saying he had all the rights to the timber, which means he was going to give us a piece of desert. It was now forest but it would soon be cut down. The agent was getting to know us, and asked, "Are you really serious about this, because you have the two kids, etc.? If you really want to do this, I know this piece of land, and Ill sell it to you even though it is not on the market." It was a 40 acre piece and we got the 20 acres that had the hill because we wanted southern exposure. As far as the trees on our land, we can cut them because they are ours. We are cutting some because they are dying. There has been a drought for the last bunch of years, and so the firs, especially, are dying so we are cutting them for construction.
Woman: Is there enough? I am sure they will take care of you folks, but are you planting new trees, or do you need to? Do they plant themselves?
Tyra: Yes, they do plant themselves, but our 20 acres really have a lot of trees on them. There was a 160 acre parcel our 20 was part of that and what happened was some guy came in and logged almost all of it, and unfortunately neglected to pay the owners. He ran off with the money. But he didnt really do too much damage to our 20 acres because the rest of it was flat hit and run so we still have a lot of trees.
Woman: How long does it take you to get to a hospital, or a doctor?
Tyra: Klamath Falls is 40 miles away. We have 5 miles of dirt road to get to the highway, and then we have to go down to Klamath Falls, so it would take us about an hour. Everybody always asks me that, including a New York friend. We were in Queens at the time, driving over to get to Manhattan, and at the time he was asking that, there was a traffic jam on the bridge. Nobody could get across, including an ambulance with the lights going. Sure, if something really horrible happens, you probably have only about 5 minutes anyway to get somebody breathing, or heart going, or whatever so weve had a little CPR and we pray a lot. Luckily we havent had anything go wrong so far, and so we really dont have a doctor in town. What we are doing, though, is because we are concerned with our health, we take a lot of vitamins, and we are subscribing to an alternative health newsletter that we get every month, so that gives us an idea of stuff we can do ourselves. I guess living like this, we want to do for ourselves rather than go to a professional. I would go if something needed to get fixed, but if it is in the gray area, which a lot is, and I can do something that is more natural, I would certainly try to do that rather than cut and sew.
Woman: You do home education for the kids?
Tyra: John and Elizabeth were 3 ½ and 5 when we moved to the woods, and previously to that Liz was only 3 ½, and we got a book out of the library called "How to Teach Your Preschooler How to Read." At time we were living in New Hampshire, and I had no idea of doing any of this, and Liz wasnt very interested, anyway. The book said get index cards and you put cat on one, dog on another, etc. I was doing this with Liz. She was 3 ½, and John was hanging around. He was 2. So one day I put the card down on the table, and John said the word. I said, "Fluke." So I put down the next word, and he said that one right, too. He did eight words in a row correctly upside down! because he was on the other side of the coffee table. So then I said, "Oh, dear. I am going to have to pay attention to both of them." At that point what I did was, I continued these words, I made little sentences, and each day I would take a piece of typing paper, fold it in half and write, "Elizabeth has a doll." "John has a truck." Then they had their own little pile of books because I couldnt find anything simple enough or abundant enough, and they really didnt suit. Thats how it started. So by the time we got to the woods we had been doing this for about a year and a half. So we just kept it up because in the wintertime it was unfeasible to send them to school. At this point Liz is 23 and John is 21. They did not go to school until they wanted to go to college. We used to go to Baja California for maybe two weeks or a month with the kids, and John was 17. I said, "OK, John, you are 17. What are you going to do with your life? You have to get into gear here." He said, "Well, I think Ill go to college some day." I said, "I have the SAT book with me. According to this calendar there is going to be an SAT exam in April. This is February. Why dont you study this book and you can take the SAT?" Something clicked in his brain. All of a sudden he went into high gear, we raced back to the States, went back home and we found out that in order to get into the local college all he had to do was pass the GED. He studied for a week, he took the tests, and within a month he was going to college for the spring term. He really liked it. Now, Liz did the same thing later because she was really ambivalent about it. She passed the GED, herself, and started to go to college, she didnt like. What she like to do was she liked to paint, and she liked to write poetry, and she loved to write stories. Her brain just didnt work that way. She tried a few times, and she said, "Nuts to this," and she just dropped out. Now she is married and she has a child.
I think one of the things with home schooling, we didnt follow a curriculum. What we did was, we wanted to keep the kids interested in learning, and so we let them pick a topic, and they wrote a little report, and at lunch then they would give us their report. There was a multitude of topics that way. I got to the point where, you know, they turn into teenagers, which is a subhuman species, and they didnt want to do it. So I called it "Five Minute School." 5 minutes here, 5 minutes there. At the same time Jim and I were very involved in psychology and we were doing types, and they were getting the whole thing by osmosis. "Oh, Mom. Types again!" We would meet somebody and ask, "What type is that person?" We do body types, too, and we would say, "Well, that person is really mesomorphic, or he is really endomorphic." I notice that now they just automatically talk about people that way. They learned human differences really early. We didnt know about it at all so we had to learn it the hard way.
The point, then, is not how to go and live in the woods because actually, we have people come we are like a living museum they come and wonder why we are doing this, and I think some people have the idea that the reason we are doing it is because we want to live back in the 17th century or 18th century or some other era, but that isnt the reason. The reason is because we made a deal with fate. We want the time, and in order to have the time we will agree not to spend a lot of money and to live as simply as possible, and therefore we will get the time we need.
We have 4 solar panels, we have started a video business in 1989 we had not had TV up until that point. When we were expecting Elizabeth, that was in 72, we hadnt had TV until then.
One story. When the kids were teenagers their friends had seen all the videos, and they wanted to see them, too. Couldnt we get all this stuff? But we werent ready. So we went to a nearby town, we rented a motel room and a VCR, and 14 videos, and so in the space of 32 hours they saw them all, so we didnt hear about videos for a while. (laughs) The point is not to keep them away from that. It was just that circumstances were such that we couldnt do that.
Woman: Did you hold down a job?
Tyra: No. What happened was, Liz was born, Jim got the job, and just before John was born, he quit. We went up to the sierra mountains to think about things, and while he had been working we had belonged to an arts and crafts co-op in San Diego making candles. There was one person in that co-op who was actually making money with mirrored planter boxes. So we went back to San Diego and we said, "Look. Teach us how to do it so that we can do it, too," and he said, "Yes, under one condition, that you not do it on the west coast." At the time we had family back east, and so he spent a couple of weeks teaching us how to do it, including taking these 4 x 8 sheets of mirror and cutting them up so they could go behind the scrolled wood. So, off we went. We did that for a total of 8 years. We did it for 3 or 4 years after going to the forest. One of my relatives died, so we got a little bit of money, and with that money we decided to go ahead and start our own book business. We wrote books. I helped Jim with some of the books, but I got to the point where my mind doesnt really work that way, it is not an easy thing for me to do like it is for him, and he had about 20,000 more that he wanted to write, so I had the problem of what to do with myself. Even though the kids were there and we were doing home school, I still needed something for myself. I agonized for two years about what to do. I had always had an attraction for photography, but the thought of getting a camera and shooting, and then I would have to go ahead and develop it, and it costs a lot of money for the film and the developing, and then half of them were horrible, I just started reading video books, and I got really intrigued by it. I finally got to the point where I said I was interested in doing it. At that point we were back east on a visit, and we knew a photographer who had also gone into video work, so he knew a really good camera for me if I wanted to do it. But Jim said, "Now, look. If this is what you want to do, it costs me 9 cents for a pencil. Thats all I need to write my books, but if you want to go into the video business, this is going to be thousands of dollars. If you decide to do it, this is your decision. I wash my hands. I dont want to have anything to do with it." (laughs) And so with that kind of encouragement and my back against the wall, I said, "Yes. I know I am taking a chance, and I may fall flat on my face and put us into some kind of economic hole, but yes, I want to do it." That was in October of 89. Four months later we were back in Baja California at the bottom of a canyon with 4 teenagers ours and two others with a guide and mules. You go down this canyon, it takes about 3 hours. From the top you look down and see these tiny little palm trees. They had painted caves. Nobody knows who did them. They are about 8,000 years old, and I wanted to film them. To do that I needed a car battery, and my monitor, and my camera, and so I brought everything down there, plus tents and food. There was nothing down there. And so I filmed it. That was kind of my training ground. I think two months after that the 4 of us were in Europe because I wanted to do a video on the life of Jacques Maritain, a French philosopher. There we were in Paris in our tents. We had two tents. John gets up in the middle of the night. When he comes back, somebody had slit the back of the tent, reached in Liz was asleep pulled out a jacket and some shirts because they wanted to go through the pockets to find money. The kids wake us up. In our tent we have all the camera gear, so Jim takes a rope and threads it through all the handles and winds it around his wrist, and goes to sleep! (laugh)
At this point I have done over 30 videos. Every time we thought about doing a well, because nobody in the woods had a well, and so it was like going to Las Vegas, we just decided we would have our own books printed instead. We started our own little publishing business, so I tell Jim we have 12 wells because that is how many books we have.
Man: Have you found that lifestyle fulfilling the way you thought it was going to be in the first place, or after a while it is just like any other goal in life?
Tyra: It is very different. For instance, when we would go to town and I would go shopping, and here I am, back in civilization with the lights and the water and stuff, I found myself kind of drained by that. And when we would go back to the forest and even the kids would feel this we felt like we got revitalized by being in the woods. It certainly wasnt like we thought, and there were a lot of problems I never even dreamed we would have to face. However, what we werent facing were people problems. We didnt have problems with neighbors at least two-legged ones. It is just really different. When I started the video business, I am very introverted, and so if you were to hear that I was introverted, doing the video business and sticking my camera in everybodys face is a really extraverted activity, but what happens is, when I am doing an interview, we sit down and we focus in on somebody, and they are telling their story, and then I go home and I take that tape and I edit it down, it is sort of like magic because the kind of people we are meeting have a special story. Most of them are not known, but for one reason or another we found about them, and they have something really special to contribute, and so to come home and be able to do that is like a special gift. Also, like some of those nature shots, when I zoom in on the tip of a pine branch, and there is a drop of water dangling off the end, sparkling like a diamond, it puts things in a kind of luminosity for me that you just dont go by it and ignore it. You begin to focus in on it. I also found that sometimes I would just go outside and sit there and watch the ants. You know when you were a little kid you watched the ants? It was kind of fun. I found myself doing that, or seeing what the squirrels were doing, and I just do nothing. I do nothing. I let myself just plain do nothing. Even though there is plenty of stuff to do around the house, it is a real treat to do that. Now, that kind of thing I have learned to do in the forest, but that kind of thing you guys can do anywhere. There was a retreat we gave and we were talking about this, and we said, "Look, for an exercise I want everybody to go outside and find one flower, or one blade of grass, or one little bird, and just be there with it, and try to get a sense of its isness, it is." And so thats one of the gifts of picking up the expensive video business.
Jim grew up in New York City, and I grew up in the suburbs in Connecticut, so we had zero experience in this kind of life. It caused us to do thing that we knew nothing about. We were trying to read a book on how to build a house, what is a wood stove and how does it work baffles and flues and all that stuff was Greek to us and so I found myself having to do things that were not connatural to me. They were difficult for me to do. The percentages were, I succeeded more than failed, and so it encouraged me to keep on going. I think that is one of the things I would like to encourage you guys to do to just go ahead and try stuff. If you are sick, you go to the doctor. If you want to learn something, you go to the teacher. I was talking to Fr. Tom, and we were fooling around with the harmonica thing, and I said, "Now, look, Fr., dont go to a harmonica teacher." And we went, "You got me. You knew that was exactly what I had in mind because if you figure if you really want to do something you need a teacher, you have to get a professional, then you have to do it right, and you have to do the little exercises, or whatever." Why? Why? If you do it wrong, fine. Do it again. It is like a kid learning how to walk, falls flat on his face, gets up and tries again until he gets the hang of it. If you try something and you find it is really not your thing to do, you drop it and you pick something else up. I know there are people who have different approaches to things, but this is the kind of approach that we have had, and it has really worked for us.
After last session I was talking to a couple of people, and they were talking about what happens when you have time. When you see the video, you think that we went to the woods, we did all this work, and we are busy doing all this work, and we are just having a grand old time because we have all kinds of things to do, but really the problem is that if you were to buy a piece of land, and build your house, and you had all your systems going all it takes is about half an hour a day to either bake the bread today, or do the tofu what do you do once you are set up. Or, what do you do once you have the kind of lifestyle, the environment, that you want and you have all this extra time? Let me tell you, we have been there 18 years, and to wake up every single morning and say, "How am I going to spend this day? I have no boss to tell me, not even Jim is going to tell me how I should spend my day. I have to make that decision day by day, hour by hour, and sometimes minute by minute, in order to fill up my day. This is a challenge I cant even begin to tell you about.
We have had people come to visit us, and they say, "Oh, great, a week in the woods. I am going to do just anything. I am just going to sit there." Two days later they are in the car and they are going to town. The third day. "Oh, well, I forgot something," and off they go. They are back to town because they simply cant stand not knowing what to do. When I talked about not having a TV and the first two weeks were a real shock to the system thats what I am talking about, only you magnify it over months and years. It is the kind of thing where you take supreme responsibility for your every single day. Do you get my drift?
Another thing that I want to talk about is I just want to mention this because Jim is going to be taking over is that the kind of lifestyle we have, I know it is super radical, but it is about taking control. I am going to read you something that Sr. Mary Luke gave us the other day. It was in a different context, but I just want you to listen to this sentence. "If I am living in such a way that it is really more for somebody elses interest than for my own good, I am living an alienated life." So if we are living the kind of life where our work day, our 40 hours a week are spent doing something that we are not really getting a lot out of, if we are doing it because somebody else is making millions of dollars and we are the secretary or whatever, how can we begin to get our life back? I think that is what it comes down to. What little things can we do to try to get our life back? Now I am going to turn it over to Jim, and he might have an idea or two.
Jim: I sort of what to talk about something related to this, but a little different. There is no pressure that I have to get all this said, so again, if there are any questions or comments during the time, or tangents you want to go on, just raise your hand.
There is the line, "No man is an island." Even being out in what my kids used to call in moments of annoyance, the middle of nowhere, they are isolated out there, we are still part of the greater society. We have to figure out how to pay the car insurance and the health insurance, buy food and do all these things, so it is really not an exercise in isolation or a splendid garden of Eden and let the world go its own way. It isnt really that. It is the outcome of a rash experiment that we got carried away with. (laughs) It had some interesting consequences. It even had some physical consequences. For example, after we had been out there a while, we went to town, and we would see my relatives in New York. In fact, we decided we would stay in the forest for a big chunk of the winter. That meant we could move around a little in the forest, but the rule was, our feet wouldnt hit the pavement. So 80 days passed like this. We had all the food there, and we were there, and you know, you hear the stories about cabin fever, people going nuts? It wasnt like that at all. We were having a lot of fun. The kids were running around, we were outside doing this, but anyway, after we did those 80 days, we took the Greyhound bus for 3 days and 3 nights, and ended up on the New York subway because we were going to visit my folks. So we went back and forth from the forest to what is normal life, the way we grew up, and the way most of us live. As we did that, we began to notice certain things. One of the things I noticed was about the dark. I had grown up, and I never realized how dark dark is until I am in my house, it is night time, and I put my hand up, and I cannot see my hand something I was not used to because there was always some residual light in town, sneaking through the blinds, or the street light. But I couldnt see my hand. I got to the point where I rather liked that. Another thing was noise. There was some noise in the forest because you would hear the wind going through the pine trees, and hear the frogs, etc., but we would go to town after we had been in the forest for a while, and stay with some friends, and the noise in the house was deafening to us because the blower on the furnace would kick on things that we tune out because we are there all the time sort of like this kind of thing where you have the blower going on and off all the time, the refrigerator going on. Can you imagine someone being kept up by the refrigerator going on and off? Well, it is possible. Those are like physical changes.
Do you ever dream about going to another culture like some Amazonian tribe? You are going to learn about their culture, and you are going to see with your foreign eyes and see how they see things? Well, it was as if we became aliens to our own culture, and it was a strange experience because we knew it intimately because it was us, modern America, suburbia, whatever you want to call it, that was us, and then, all of a sudden we had gotten so far out there that when we came back we were seeing it with a certain objectivity that we didnt have before, at least I hope it was objectivity. Thats what I want to talk about. And I dont want it to sound like it is a negative thing, but I want to talk about the kind of structures that become built-in to our society, and they are so pervasive around us we dont realize they are there, and we take them for granted. Once we look at them, then maybe we could question them and say, is this the way we really want to go?
A number of years ago you heard all these reports about psychologists and sociologists who were going to study how modern man was going to deal with his abundant leisure. It was in all the magazines. It was the big craze because the big leisure boom is coming and we are going to have to figure out how we are going to keep everybody busy. We are going to build all these resorts, or whatever. Well, somewhere along the line the leisure boom never appeared. What happened to it? Where did it go? How come we dont hear about that any more? Somewhere it disappeared, and what you hear about, especially in the young families, are the two jobs and who is going to take care of the kids, and how even with the two jobs we are just about getting it together economically, and you are into this thing that somehow we managed to go from the leisure boom that was about to fall on us to nobody has any time.
We did a marriage retreat once, and we taped it. There was a couple that hadnt been able to go to the retreat, and they wanted to see it. So, we lent them the tape. Three or four weeks go by, and we wonder about the tape. Six weeks go by. Finally, about seven or eight weeks, the lady gives us back the tape and she says, "You know the greatest thing was that we learned from this tape was how long it took us for the two of us to sit down and look at this tape." Thats what I mean by the structure that we have built into our society, and we now have the younger families are seeing that as the way everybody lives. But even in our own lifetime that was not how everybody lived. We had another rhythm, and we had many, many single wage-earners in the family. We just had another structure. I am not trying to say that one is necessarily better than the other. All I am trying to say is that it has changed, and we should realize the change, and wonder whether we want it that way.
I think another issue along the same line is the question of housing. One of the big dreams that a lot of us have is to have a nice house. The young families are working really hard to get it. It does take a great deal of time, energy and money to do that, and many families have sacrificed and gotten some fairly nice houses. Well, I was talking to some friends of ours who live over near Cottage Grove in Oregon, and they work in the field of alternative housing. One of the guys was an architect, so he knew the whole scene about the building trades and architecture, and all these things. He said, "Do you realize that since World War II or a little after, the size of the American home has doubled. The amount of people in it has been cut in half." What does that mean? The math is clear. If you had 25%, or even 50% of the people in the same amount of space, you put that together with the fact that you have both people out there earning the money to pay for this house, then you have a lot of square footage of housing that nobody is in for a large portion of the day. His response to this fact so we have the raw facts that we have built this structure. It is nothing that existed all the time. We made it this way, the society made it this way, and it just sort of crept up on us, and then we find ourselves living like that. Let me use another example because a lot of us are from religious life. It is not that different because somewhere, somehow somebody is creating the material structures which we then have to live in and maintain. I met a friend in Chicago, and I said, "Youre thinner than I remember you being." And he said, "I was living with a religious community, and now I am living in my own apartment, and I dont get fed nearly as well." This is particularly true of the mens orders because you never could eat as well as you ate in the mens orders. The nuns were in the kitchen cooking for them. You create a structure like that, and now we still have all these buildings and all these mortgages, and all this need for money. I am not saying this is bad. I am saying it has crept up on us, and now we have it. Do we want it? It is fair to ask, do we want these things that are coming along as the unexamined baggage of our society? This is the other societal half of the question about simplifying our lives. Part of the reason that it is very difficult to simplify our lives is because if we were really to simplify our lives, the next step if we were to interact with it is a simplification of society. I dont mean so much to live in the woods, or live like a primitive, or whatever. I dont mean that. I mean that if we have twice as much room it is going to cost us twice as much to pay for it, and twice as much to maintain it, and is that how we want to spend our energy? It is a fair question to ask, and everybody is going to ask it their own way, but it is fair to ask it. Thats all Im saying. Do we want to do what we are doing? When it comes to the church, do we want our energy to go into maintaining some institutional structure? It is fair for people who are giving their lives to the church to have a say in how it is spent. If you feel like your life is going too much in one direction, and you prefer another, I dont see anything wrong with that. The same with the kind of lives we are leading out in the world. We dont choose them, either, a lot of times. We just accept what we get, and try to deal with it, and we are left with jobs that if you love your job, you are lucky lots of people dont. I didnt in some of the jobs I had. I am left looking finally it dawns on me, whoever is running this operation has their agenda, and it doesnt necessarily coincide with mine. Maybe they want to be a millionaire, maybe they want to be powerful, whatever it is, it doesnt necessarily coincide with what I want to do, but they want me at a certain place at a certain time doing a certain things for reasons that may be entirely inordinate from a Christian point of view.
This brings us to the question of ordinateness. The simple life, or whatever you are going to call it, doesnt float in a vacuum. It is a question of what values anchor our choices. If we say we embrace holy poverty, what does that mean? If you look at religious life, in actual fact sometimes it doesnt mean much of anything. It means a certain personal naming of possessions that belong to us, but there is such an abundance, you can swim through that without even feeling the pinch. What are the values that anchor what we do? We are getting into a whole perspective here.
Let me get back to the story of our friends in alternative building. Cob is nothing more than earth, sand, the earth has to have a little clay in it, you mix in a little straw, you mix some water, you dance on it, even, and mix it up. It is sort of like adobe, almost, but you form it into these lumps the old English word cob as in cobblestones, it is the same root a lump of earth that sort of sticks together, you take it and put it down, and you can make a wall out of it just piling it up and pushing them together. They got into this. It wasnt just the building technique. That wasnt the primary thing in their mind. It was, heres a single mother. She is never going to be able to afford to have her own house. She has a kid, she is trying to get by, and so they would take young people, older people, and in one week they would teach them how to build a house. In fact, there was one single mother who actually went ahead after that and she built her own house out of this cob. The walls were earth, the floor became earth, and then they would put some sort of roof structure beams and stuff like that. The people who were running this alternative building program had built a couple of buildings, and they were living in them. One cute little one it wasnt big, partly to avoid some of the problems they were going to get into with the Code they built a little house for two, a loft up above, and they salvaged a bunch of materials, and it cost them $500 to build that house. Lets say they could make it twice or three times as big, so maybe it would cost them $1,500. You ever try to price a garage now if you want to build a garage? It is mind-boggling if you had a contractor come and build a garage, or remodel your kitchen, or something like that. Our house, before the kids built on to the front half of it, had cost us $3,500, buying the lumber from the lumberyard. It was about 14 x 36.
I am not saying we have to go out and build our own houses. Some of us might, but what I am saying is that it makes us think, and thats what we have to do no matter what situation we are in. Does our lifestyle fit with our values? Sometimes as Christians we become obtuse to that. Because everybody does it in our society, we think that we as Christians are allowed to just go along and do it, as well. Theres the parish priest. Well, hes probably living better than most of the people in the parish. Economically sometimes thats true.
Let me give you another example. Lets take ecology. Are Christians in the forefront of the ecological movement? Theres some talk about sending materials to the parish and everything, but if they are, I am not aware that you go to some place where they are really into some kind of ecological action, and you will see big groups of Christians there because they realize that there is a certain truth of their faith about preserving the earth. I dont think we are there yet. And yet if we are really part of this universe, and this is the great gift of God to us, it is being trashed, even in this country. If the Christian people, of which there are tens of millions of them, would say one word, the people in Congress would just roll over and do whatever they wanted, but they are saying that word. Back where we live there is a beautiful forest, but this forest is under siege. It is actually being destroyed. It got to the point where there was 10% of the old growth trees left. This doesnt mean virgin timber from forever. This means trees of a certain size that could be classified as old growth. The U.S. Forest Service, who was simply acting like an arm of the timber industry, had designed on cutting a bunch of this. So there was a whole bunch of legal action, and in many cases they were prevented from cutting this last 10% of the old growth. The next act is really an ecological crime because Congress, under the guise of passing what they called the salvage rider to cut dead and dying trees to make our forest more healthy it seems like a great idea they slip in there that any sale that was held up in the courts because it was an ecological disaster now could no longer be held up in the courts, but can be cut. Just in our forest, the Winema National Forest, that totaled 35 million board feet of timber was going to be cut from green forest. Figure your 10% is being chopped down. Just recently the U.S. Forest Service in that same area decided that here was a good opportunity there was a big stretch of six square miles of green forest that had never been sold they said, "Lets sell it. Lets put it up for sale, and if anybody objects, we will say it is under the salvage rider so you cant challenge it in court under these past guidelines." Thats what they are doing right this minute. 20 million board feet in this green forest, and they are going to claim it is to make the forest more healthy. What is happening? There it is clear. There are certain timber interests that have always gotten their way in places like Oregon and the Pacific Northwest where many of our national forests are, and they spend enough money on the politicians through these political action committees and whatever to get this kind of legislation passed. They figure the rest of us in the rest of the country dont know, and dont really care. They figure that you are never going to realize that you are the national forest, so they are going to cut it down to get some more money, and then it will be gone. In fact, I have a page on my table that explains this. I dont know what you people from Kansas or Wisconsin or wherever you are coming from, how they voted, but I think they would be surprised if they ever got a letter from one of their constituents being concerned about the national of the Pacific northwest being cut down, so anybody who is inclined that way, I have the particulars on that page back there.
But that is just another example. We are individuals, and we say, "Well, what can we do?" In this case a couple of people in the local area: one lady who had grown up there on a big old ranch, (and her father had been a cattle rancher and became a naturalist, and actually wrote some books about Yamsi, a big ranch. It was even in the Readers Digest,) and another woman saw a whole stretch of forest being cut down right near their house. They asked, "Can they do this? Can they just come in here and destroy it all?" It happened to be private land. The answer was, "Yes." Go in there, destroy as much as you want, run over anything that is in the way, and leave with your money. The laws of dealing with private timber holding were practically non-existent. Anyway, they started this local group called the Concerned Friends of the Winema, and they began to look at these timber sales and talk to the Forest Service. The Forest Service is saying, "Somebody is actually questioning our judgment." They actually did a lot of good, two ladies who took it in their mind they were tired of this. They had no background in forestry or botany or anything. They just felt in their hearts that this was wrong, so they went out and tried to do something.
What I am saying is we live in a world we didnt make. We are not responsible in the specific sense that we are cutting down those trees, or we are responsible for the fact that we are now living in a nice home that we spent a lot of energy trying to get. I am not trying to make it into some kind of guilt thing. All I am trying to say is, can we open our eyes and see the kind of society we are making, see if it fits our values?
One final aspect of this before I want you to make comments is the sense of community. There are beautiful ideas about a sense of community floating around. We have had them, ourselves. We said, "Gee, wouldnt it be great. Here we are, living out here and we are by ourselves sometimes. Wouldnt it be great to create a community, to find some nice piece of land and 4 or 5 families, we each own a piece of it, we have a common ground, we help each other build the houses, we bring in all the solar stuff, we create some kind of community center, or maybe a retreat thing, or some kind of ministry thing. Why cant we do that? Then we say, "Oh, gee, it is too complicated. It is too hard to do. There are too many problems. Maybe we are not good at it." But the idea is it is not just us, but there are other people who are having those ideas, too. There is no real reason that we cant restructure the way we live. It may be good. It would be nice if I had my neighbors that I really knew and liked right next to me, and we were helping each other out. It would be nice if we could do some kind of work and create our own little center that people could come to from the outside.
So what we have is a certain kind of ability to ask ourselves, are we living the lives we want, and what do our values demand of us? It is as simple as that. It may be that we are doing what we can do, and we feel that way, and we are at peace. But other times things come up and they nag at us because we say, "Gee, I wish I could do something." This happens to us on the forest issue. It is not something we are good at. It is not something we want to devote lots of time to, but over and over again there comes a time where we end up getting involved in some little part of it. We are writing letters, or we made a video about it and showed it in the local town because we are there. We owe it to the forest to do something. And sometimes we are in the community, and we owe it to the community to do something. I am going to stop there, and if Dennis would tell us a few things about what he was talking about before, I think thats a good place to start.
Dennis: Our son is an architect, and he has a real vision of environmentalism and a lack of community. You can see it in the sprawling of the suburbs, and also he was in Montana for a while, around Bozeman, with wide-open country, and what happens out there. One person will buy five acres of land on the side of a big mountain and build a house, and it really spoils the whole environment. In the suburbs I think you have the situation where we have a sprawling suburbs running over land, using very fertile farm land that is going to waste, either small or 5 acre lots in a lot of cases, 3 to 5 acre lots, and just rampaging over the land. I think his whole thrust in trying to address this is try to get people together as cluster-type housing where you can still have that feeling of being out in a natural surroundings, but you do it in a way that is environmentally sound. If there are people who want to be in that environment, instead of one buying 5 acres and the next one buying 5 acres, and the next one buying 5 acres, and everybody lives separated, bring all the houses together, you all own open land, and then you have a community house, or condominium-type houses or individual houses, but clustered very closely, that would then form the center of a community. In Wisconsin we are just across the St. Croix river from Minneapolis-St. Paul, which is about a million and a half people. That is happening in western Wisconsin and in part of Minnesota along the river where townships have said, we just dont want to put up with this rampage over the land, and they are zoning for that type of development, so that will be more hopefully environmentally sound. The good fertile land will remain there for all of us and future generations to enjoy and form this community.
Jim: How about some comments or questions about what we have been talking about?
Woman: A lot of us cant move to a new home like that. It sounds really neat, but each one of us can do simple things like recycling the aluminum and the glass and the newspapers. If each one does that, it just really helps the environment.
Jim: You are very right. In fact, one of the very well-known environmentalists, Avery Lovins, said that the critical first step for this country is to stop wasting energy. In other words, there is so much energy you could save is mind-boggling, for example, redesigning electric motors. Lots of electric motors are terribly inefficient. Redesigning buildings that have a tremendous air-conditioning load. You have to know that the utility bills in a complex like this are enormous. If you cut the energy use by 10%, or whatever, and there are all these new techniques of how to do that, and new materials, this is a tremendous thing. I dont know how many of you have seen the Real Goods catalog. They started off as an alternative solar-type people selling all sorts of solar hardware, but they also have light bulbs that screw into your fixtures that are fluorescent light bulbs that give you the same light for one-quarter of the energy. The same thing happened with shower heads where you can use half the water, get the same shower; toilets, thats a big one. They are having problems with some of these new less water toilets, but it is sort of ridiculous to take the amount of water we are using, put a little bit of waste in it into 5 gallons of water, send it all through this giant sewer system and then try to take the little bit of waste out. It is a mind-boggling thing, and in some parts of the country we actually have water problems, but we are not even there as far as any kind of tough conservation. You go to those parts of the country, and the guy still wants his lawn in Arizona, and they dont want him to have it. Let him grow cactus. Or a swimming pool, or whatever. We are into a society of such abundance that we are not doing that.
Dennis: Jim, you were talking about all the structures in our culture that lock us in, and I agree. They are out there. But, on the other hand, I think our nation offers some of the greatest freedoms for anybody that is willing to take it. In other words, if we can stand back and look at these things and see them, there is a lifestyle that can be led at a lower cost, and without getting into this whole realm of things. There are low-cost houses. There are houses that are one-half the size, or one-quarter the size of the big ones that you can purchase, or that you can build, so I think it is all a matter of how you look at it, too. In other words, instead of saying lets change the whole thing, if we really want to change it, the place to start is at home. We are not helpless to change it. We can live, for instance, on one income if we so desire in the United States, and we can live better than most of the other people in the world on one income, if we want. So I think it is as much the fault of every one of us that is living a lifestyle that we dont want to live. Change it.
Jim: I basically agree. Unfortunately, it builds up a certain momentum. I dont know who I was talking to about his kids. There was a tonier part of town, and now his kids were going to go there, and their minds were already embedded in a certain value system where it wasnt like they thought of there being alternatives. They just thought about this is how you keep score, and this is how you show that you made it by having that big house or that fancy car, or whatever, so we are up against that, as well.
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