Sunday, November 7, 2010

Finding a balance

Over a year ago now I took a two-week permaculture design course. It was fascinating, traumatising (who knew I had so many issues around the word ‘home’?) and, I thought at the time, life changing. And then I came home and fell immediately into default mode. Sigh…

I have a few issues with permaculture, and with Transition that grew out of it. It’s nothing to do with the ideas, which I think are useful and fundamentally sound. It is the monetising of it and the branding. Some of this may also be because I am not a belonger. In my life I have been involved in a lot of organisations, in some cases giving a lot of my time and energy to them, but I’ve never felt any real sense of belonging and the associated obligation that comes with belonging. The closest I come to it, outside of my family, is to fandom but, for me, fandom is Not a way of life. I regard it with wonder sometimes, amazed at the generosity of its component parts, the occasional infighting, the passion and the energy (in some cases) but perhaps because it feels like a huge extended family, I can take or leave the obligations. Recently I have thought that maybe I’ve wandered too far away from fandom because of the huge amount of time and energy work is consuming. Time to reconsider.

So, yes. Where was I? Changing my life. I have continued to do stuff but it’s not to a plan, to a design, and as a consequence, it tends to drift into triviality and pointlessness. Given that I spend most of my time in systems management I am a big fan of the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle but, despite my best intentions, I’ve never even got to the ‘plan’ stage. I’m not even sure that I’m having much of a positive effect at all due to my lack of organisation (how can I save the world if I can’t define what that would mean (or find my keys))? I’ve got a list of objectives. I’ve had them for two years. I’ve made no progress.

So, with a small amount of enthusiasm, I am looking at being part of Sharon Astyk’s Whole Life Redesign Project! Sharon identified seven areas she aspired to change. There are clear matches with my long ignored objectives.

Sharon’s suggestion - Domestic Economy
‘This is the territory of home life. Here's where we start thinking about what we want our home life to actually be like. For me, the critical requirements are less cluttered, less disorganized, a home that functions better in relationship to what I actually do and intend to do at home. I'd like to set up the house in order to be able to bring people here for some of my teaching projects, and also to use some of the space for farm projects.’

My version of this was ‘Comfortable Home’. Well, if I’m going to be totally honest it was ‘Home for Gracious Living’ but anyone who has been to my mildly squalid terrace house in Sheffield will know that it is unlikely that I could actually aspire to gracious living there. I’m a lazy housekeeper and I’ve not got huge quantities of cash available to transform it. I could, however, work towards the less lofty objective of a comfortable home.
As Sharon notes, clutter and disorganization make for both a less comfortable and a less thrifty home. I occasionally buy things knowing that, somewhere in the house, there is a perfectly adequate resource of the type I’m looking for, I just can’t put my hand on it. I’ve been in my house since June 2007. I still haven’t unpacked my last boxes. Part of the problem is that I accumulated a lot of stuff in the large marital home. I’ve moved to a much more modest house but not divested myself of all the trash I’d accumulated.
I mentioned this to Claire Brialey some time ago and said I was going to get rid of some books. She looked at me aghast. Once started on that road where would one stop? The Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare? And yet I have many books that I will never read again and would not recommend to anyone else. Why keep them? Ah yes, but the last time I got rid of a dreadful book, The Tides of Lust by Samuel R Delany I found a couple of months later that I wanted to quote from it in order to demonstrate how awful it was – beautifully written but really rather nasty. Similarly, Vivia by Tanith Lee. Tides was replaced – a friend sent me a copy. Vivia never left. I think perhaps what I should do is get rid of the mediocre books and keep the well-written trash. And yet, and yet…
I am truly a packrat in the traditional fannish way but I could really do with simplifying. I’m thinking of starting to actually use the library again rather than keep so many books. It also helps keep books in libraries relevant.
I made a start last weekend when Ian was in Washington. I assembled some more bookcases and got most of my books finally out of boxes. Once they’re all out I’ll start winnowing. James Bacon and John Dowd have a fostering service set up to place unloved books. I may well make use of it. This is a very big project but one that I would like to start on.

Sharon’s suggestion - Household Economy
This is the territory of making ends meet and meeting financial goals. My goals here are to up the portion of our personal economy that comes from barter and personal exchanges, to drop our expenses by 20% and transfer the money to savings and to infrastructure like insulation that will cut expenses in the longer term. I want to have a plan for dealing with money and benefits cuts that we expect on Eric's end.’

Strangely I didn’t have anything like this in my objectives despite the fact that this is one of the areas I have been working on quite hard in the last couple of years. It makes sense to add it in and I’ve called it ‘Economic Viability’.
Attaining economic viability has been a long hard struggle. I took ten years out with my children and when I finally went back to work it was for the same salary I had started on as a graduate many years before. It took a lot of hard work, hard nosed pushing and a master’s degree to get me back into the salary level that I could survive as a single parent again. When David and I separated and I moved to Sheffield I was quite comfortably off as long as I cut out all the luxuries I’d used to enjoy. I cut. Things were fine.
Then the Crash and the struggle. In order to keep the company viable we all took a 20% pay cut. I cut out half of my charity donations, I stopped using contact lenses, I stopped impulse buying, I stopped buying lunches, and I started using Zen Budgeting. This turned out to work very well, to the extent that I found I could live quite comfortably within these limits. Given that I have enough money but hardly any time I have decided, now I’m back to full pay, to work a four-day week. Should everything go horribly wrong again I would be hard pushed to live on a 40% cut though. That’d mean getting rid of the TV, Demon, the rest of my charities etc. This is definitely an area that I need to monitor.
(I should also mention, in this section, that we benefit from the Ian subsidy – for which I am very grateful, and which means I drink much nicer wine more often than I would otherwise.)

Sharon’s suggestion - Resource Consumption
This is the territory of what we use. Our lives are enhanced when we use less, and so are the lives of others and our environment - it is as simple as that. We've seen some creep in our energy usage, and we need to get it back down. Right now our family of six is using less than 1/5 the US average (and most of those are based on household numbers with the average US household being 2.6), but I want to get back closer to 1/10th which, while not a fair share, is a lot closer. We need to get back in the habit of accurate bookkeeping on our energy usage as well.’

My version of this was called ‘Living Lightly’ and I’ve been very poor at achieving anything. Last year I started on the Riot for Austerity but didn’t get very far with it. I found trying to convert everything a pain and I never took the time to set up a proper spreadsheet. This year I joined Sheffield’s CRAG, the Carbon Action Rationing Group. I have found this simply fascinating. As my friends would attest, I keep my house on the chilly side, use public transport all the time (except when I go somewhere in Ian’s car) and don’t fly and yet my carbon production to date this year is 1293kg. The UK per capita average is 4500kg so you’d think I was doing quite well but this was set up by financial year and there has only been temperate months so far. Also it doesn’t include carbon impacts generated by my business travel. Admittedly my house is old and draughty but there must be lots of people out there who never have the heating on and go nowhere in order to generate an average of 4500kg. Another one to make more effort over. I’m replacing my old leaky front door and hope that will help. I’ve got plans to insulate the floor. We’ll see.

Sharon’s suggestion - Farm and Subsistence
‘This category may be more relevant to us than some people, but everyone does some subsistence work. For us, we want the farm to be the center of our lives, and to integrate ourselves more into the farm - that is, we want as much as possible my work and our lives and the farm to be one thing. For a long time we've used Eric's work to subsidize the farm, but now it needs to be self-supporting, and that's part of that equation, while we also expose what we're doing in low input agriculture to other people. We'd also like to up the degree to which our subsistence activities teach and help others. Most of all, I want to do a full evaluation of all our projects, both so that others can begin to understand them, and also to make sure that we are doing everything we do as well as possible.’

This doesn’t have a real equivalent for me. I have no farm and no real interest in having one. I could make this ‘Productive Garden’ and try to do a better job of dealing with the slugs. This has been my intention anyway, and may be a good use of my extra day a week.

Sharon’s suggestion - Family and Community
‘This is a big one for us - the reason we considered moving earlier this year was the desire for a closer knit community - we had that but have seen some changes over the years. But the reality is that we've been allowing those changes to frustrate us, but haven't necessarily worked as hard as we could to compensate. So our goal is to spend more time working on our community building, and bringing our far-flung communities and our local ones into a state of connection. It is sometimes hard to be so far from our family, from close friends, but if we can build better on what's near us, we can reach out through a chain of links, rather than across a wide distance.’

This is a worry for me and I had it down, rather ridiculously, as ‘Maintaining Joyful Relationships’. I’m rubbish at this. Over the years I have lost contact with many lovely friends because I don’t find time to keep in touch. The exception to this is Sally, who I live with, my lovely colleagues at work and Ian. Luckily I have some great friends who I can pick up with easily. Again, I’m hoping that my extra day will give me some time to catch up with friends.
On the same subject, many of the important people in my life refuse to live next door to me or even in the same town. I am very disappointed in them! Jack is in Oxford, my family is in Leeds and Ian is in Motherwell, at least a four-hour train journey away. I worry about how the slow erosion of wealth and energy I expect will impact on these long distance relationships. I have no answer to this predicament but think that this is also an objective that I should concentrate on.

Sharon’s suggestion - Outside Work
‘If my children were hungry, I would and could do any work necessary - there is no doubt about that. But while my family lives on comparatively little money (we qualify for food stamps in our state, although we don't use them), we also have enjoyed the fact that we have the luxury of choosing our work. In many ways, we've had an enormous luxury - my writing and teaching and farming didn't have to pay much, because Eric was subsidizing them. Now my work may have to support us, but I still want, to the extent that's possible, to make what I do the right thing to do. I am enormously fortunate, in that I can earn money doing what I care about, and that I have had the luxury of giving things - my writing, my farm products, etc... away for free. Indeed, often the return of giving things away has been greater than those I use for money - but I don't live entirely outside the cash economy, unfortunately. So I need to balance my work - find the ways to make some money doing what I care about, while reducing expenses, so that I have the luxury of keeping giving things away.’

This one I called ‘Meaningful Work’. I’m very happy that I have work that is environmentally based and makes something of a difference. I say ‘something’ because I am working with the business community and some things are not up for discussion. I spend a lot of time talking about sustainability but what the government and business mean by sustainability is predicated on an economics based on growth, a concept that is not in any way consistent with sustainability. Still, it’s more meaningful than stacking supermarket shelves and better paid. My objective is, I suppose, to support businesses in moving towards sustainability, even if it is a watered down version.

Sharon’s suggestion - Time and Happiness

In the end, these balance sheets have to be even for me to begin to go forward. The good thing about this is that I know how easy it is to even up this part of the equation. My husband and children and the farm and gardens, friends and family give me a deep, inner core of happiness. Whether we stay or go, whatever changes we make, whatever we do without or give up, if I have some simple things - a little dirt (and I don't have to own it) and the loves of my lives in place, I am not afraid of the future, and I am happy. The thing that buys me the most happiness is time - but it doesn't have to be free time. Indeed, the thing that gives me the most comfort in the world is knowing that Eric and I can spend an entire day working in arm's reach of one another, with the boys helping and playing around our work, and know that at the end of the day, all of us, exhausted, will have found the time well spent. Finding time and finding happiness, are not, for us, a matter of more vacation time or things we want to try - they are simply the by products of trying to bring the pieces of our lives together.’

This is a part of what I have included under ‘Healthy Lifestyle’. I find getting a balance in time use very difficult. I’m not a fast worker and I have a personal requirement to produce work that satisfies my own standards, especially when I am training. It’s self-defense really. I don’t want to be embarrassed by not doing a good job. The problem is that this eats into my own time. That and the fact that wherever possible I travel by public transport for work. It gives me more productive time (I can work rather than just drive) but it takes longer and extends my working day. I’m tired all the time. My feet hurt, I’m overweight, I’m unfit and I haven’t the time to do anything more than try to catch up on my sleep and cook proper meals from scratch. Even that I’m not doing very well. Julia Daly has cooked a couple of splendid meals for us recently, the leftovers from which have been the basis of our meals for the rest of the week.

So, a whole host of things to think about, objectives in place and targets to set. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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