Leah is the neighbor that I wrote about earlier this week--she is a dear friend and I am thrilled to share her words today. Leah and her husband John have unquiet minds--they are always thinking, dreaming, planning, and scheming up new things to try and do. Their creativity is boundless (efficient stove technology, gourmet foods, artisanal pizza food carts), and they were the best neighbors a girl could have. Currently they are living it up in Paraguay but someday they might move back a little bit closer to me. That would be awesome.
Imagine: guest post by Leah Eads.
Imagine the world you want to live in; Create that world; Live in it. - Inspired by Ghandi
As I think about downward mobility, my mind is flooded with friends new and old who have modeled this for me over the years. A middle-aged artist couple who told me “you don’t have to be rich to live a life filled with elegance and beauty”. Soon after I met them they gave away everything they had and joined a Dorothy Day-style community. A boss who moved to the country to work his own land and begin raising as much of his own food as possible. An economics professor who began every class with, “Here’s another Bible verse you don’t believe...” (usually relating to money or possessions.) Friends who cook exclusively on a wood stove which also heats their water and their house.
And I can’t deny the influence of my parents: they raised us to understand that we were rich not because of the new, expensive things we had but by making sure that we interacted with those who lived on the fringes without the comforts that we enjoyed-- folks living with AIDS, others without stable housing or enough food, hitchhikers, refugees. They built a house themselves using passive solar principles and drove old cars. They decided that our family would give homemade gifts for Christmas long before ‘Advent Conspiracy.’ Now in their fifties, they continue to choose faithfulness to their values over conventional wisdom about careers or planning extensively for retirement.
As I got older, read more, traveled more, I felt more and more uncomfortable with the huge gap between rich and poor, finding myself on the “rich” side. I could not deny that simply by going about what was considered normal for my culture, I was participating in vast exploitation of people and the environment. So one of my goals became to fight through that cultural insulation that shelters us from the full stories behind what we consume and live creatively within the economic gap.
We vote with every dollar we spend, and I want to cast those votes against greed, injustice and environmental destruction every chance that I have. Sometimes I fall into the trap of thinking that if I only had more money, I could take the moral highroad and buy that sweatshop-free skirt, that upcycled bath mat, that biodegradable detergent. But one need not be wealthy to have a conscience when spending money-- by not buying the fair or green option I am not by default forced to buy the generic alternative. I discovered soapnuts and mix my own cleaning supplies. I knitted a bathmat out of old t-shirts and just said “no” to buying that skirt for an already-stuffed closet. It’s about finding that creative, DIY way to live off the waste that is the wake of excessive consumerism.
I was about to say that we live on less in order to work less and therefore have more time to do what we love. In actuality, John is a pro at creating a job out of what he loves to do. Instead of “work” being what we do for money and “play” being everything that is done outside of earning money, we run our own business which is a combination of a whole lot of work and a lot of fun. At home, cooking everything from scratch can feel like a lot of work, but who doesn’t enjoy making their own whole-grain mustard for a fraction of the price or getting together with friends to can a year’s worth of salsa straight from the garden? This is the kind of work that really pays!
From time to time, friends have mentioned that they envy us... having a successful small business and all. And then we let them in on a little secret: our income has always hovered just a little above the “poverty” line for our family of four.
So in every aspect of life we look for that creative “third way” that involves little money and little guilt. I have to be totally honest: in our family, John has the imagination. His “extreme” ideas like switching to a veg oil vehicle or taking on a “100 mile” diet (two things we are currently considering for when we move back to the US in a few months) are often met initially with my protesting and pointing out how it will not be possible. But in time I come around. Perhaps not surprisingly, this creative exploring often leads us to a choice which is not only cheaper but closer to our intention in life: to demonstrate that peace, love and beauty on this earth have not been extinguished by the powers that be.
Take for example the perception that eating entirely organic, local and or fair trade is just too expensive for the average family. With careful planning, buying in bulk, cooking from scratch and the occasional dumpster dive booty from friends we are able to eat 90% organic/local/fair trade on a very tight grocery budget. And the benefits are not only nutritional: less packaging and plastic, less fossil fuels, and more of our dollars going to support local businesses.
A couple years ago we were trying to figure out how to use less energy-- as renters we couldn’t install solar panels or start cooking on a rocket stove-- so we turned off water heater breaker except for when we really needed hot water. (We were already taking a modified Laura Ingalls Wilder approach to bathing.) Turns out it cut the electric bill by 20%, and we adjusted to an “inconvenience” which is the norm in most of the world!
I realize that I am not going to make a noticeable difference for the environment or people in war-torn countries by personally eliminating all plastic from my grocery cart or totting my cloth-diapered kids around in a bike trailer or making my own mayonnaise. There are plenty of inconsistencies in what we do and don’t choose to afford. But when my grandchildren grow up and say “How could people have let this happen?” I want to be able to say I did everything within my power to not only imagine a better world, but to live accordingly.
For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, click here.