I’ve always enjoyed New Year’s Eve and the ensuing New Year’s Day. The midnight celebrations of the new year strike me as somewhat magical moments, with a fresh year stretched out before me and all its promises of bad habits eliminated, mistakes corrected, good habits established, a fresh sense of proper living beckoning. I’m a sucker for this arbitrary moment so embraced by our culture. I feel as though I should transition that moment of renewal to the Winter Solstice—to synchronize personal and natural transitions—but New Year’s Eve was always the celebration in my life growing up and so that tradition still has its hold upon me.
Sometimes I make resolutions and sometimes I don’t. But I never fail to attempt to regroup in the early days of January. I begin a new year of reading with a new reading list. I think about the bad habits I want to leave behind and the productive habits I want to establish. I take stock of the ways I’ve gone astray from my life goals and look to recenter and refocus myself. This year is no exception.
In fact, this year offers even more of an opportunity for a fresh start than normal. On January 1st, I took up a new residence. For the first time in over two years, I’m not living on a farm. This isn’t as drastic a change as it might seem, though. I continue to work the same two farm hand jobs that I’ve been working for the last year and my move was only about a mile down the road from where I was before. My life is changing, but it’s not a complete overhaul.
I’ve moved in with a couple, Anthony and Victoria, living in their house on nine acres along the North Fork of the Nehalem River. I have a decent sized room, my own bathroom, and a walk in closet. The house is a manufactured home that’s been altered and retrofitted. Anthony is an architect who focuses on sustainable design, so this home has been updated to at least somewhat take advantage of solar energy. It’s very well insulated. A number of windows were added to let in natural light and a few solar tubes were installed in the bathrooms for daytime lighting. The home is outfitted with a solar hot water heater which assists the electric water heater. It also is equipped with a highly efficient Sun Frost refrigerator. A wood stove sits in the living room and provides much of the heating during the winter. The furnace rarely turns on.
There is a large gardening space, as well, a green house, a compost system, and a wood-fired sauna that sees occasional use. A stream cuts through the property on its way down the hill to the river, though the drinking water comes from a well. This is perhaps the worst aspect of living here: the water has a strong sulfur taste and smell. After living on two farms with incredible water from above ground creeks, I was spoiled. The water doesn’t too much bother me, though. If that’s the worst part of being here, then I can hardly complain.
Over the last few months of 2012, I slipped into bad habits. I was distracted, spending too much time on the internet, and had allowed my living space to devolve to the point of messiness that it left me unmotivated to engage in productive activities. During the summer, my lovely roommates Kayleigh and Lily kept me socially engaged and my garden—in addition to my work, of course—kept me physically busy with productive tasks. Once winter rolled around, the roommates left, and my garden died back, I took all that extra time available to me and sunk it into bad habits of distraction. I wasn’t cleaning up after myself regularly and would far too often choose the distraction of the internet and movies over good work.
This was my own fault, the result of allowing bad habits to take over. One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I’m very susceptible to patterns and habits. The bad ones put me into a negative feedback loop and the good ones put me into a positive feedback loop. But my self control is something that I’m still working on and leaves much to be desired; even when I know I’m engaging in bad habits and understand what I need to do to transition myself to productive work, I too often don’t do it. I allow myself to fall into distraction even though it depresses me and reduces my quality of life.
This happens most often when I spend a lot of time alone. At my previous place, I was alone more often than not the last few months. The farm owners also live on the property and I still was working, so it wasn’t a constant solitude, but the farm owners live in a separate house and we didn’t spend significant amounts of time together. The other social outlets in the area largely clear out in the winter. There are a good number of people around in the summer but far less in the winter, and many of those who do stay here through the winter time are people in town whom I haven’t made friends with.
Much of my socializing, in fact, has been happening in Portland, where I’ve been dating a woman now for a couple months. She’s fantastic and has made my life quite a bit better, but she’s 80 miles away. She’s not integrated into my day-to-day life. I go into town to see her, have a grand time, feel good about life, then I come back here to the coast and to a certain amount of solitude and my bad habits. It’s been unsustainable and it’s knocked me off the path I’ve been talking about here at this blog, upon which I place such high value.
I believe it’s important that I be able to change bad habits and unproductive patterns without having to make large physical changes in my life, such as moving to a new location. One of the downfalls of our modern society, I believe, is something of which Wendell Berry has written of extensively: the migratory nature of our culture. Many of us here in America have an expansionary frame of mind stemming out of the westward migration of the past and the availability of cheap energy and resources. As such, we feel we can use up a place because there’s always somewhere new and fresh to move to and begin anew. Sometimes this is conscious activity, sometimes not. Cautious and thoughtful husbandry, within this frame of mind, is not required. But, of course, this is a destructive and false belief and one that contributes to many of the ways in which we live poorly and destructively. And so I fight to eliminate this way of thinking from myself and to reorient myself toward the ideal of staying in place and of caring properly for my home.
Yet, in recent years, I have moved continuously. In the last four years, I’ve lived in six places, including my new residence. This has been the result of multiple farm internships and of the way I’ve chosen to live my life in recent years, with far fewer resources. It means that my homes have often been temporary, either of necessity (a set-period internship) or of likelihood (living situations that are expected to be temporary but with no set expiration date.) In some ways, this can be frustrating. In other ways, it’s one of the costs of how I want to live. But ultimately, I want to settle into a particular place, learn it well, care for it, and establish the patterns and habits that will allow me to live more sustainably, on less, with a small amount of money and resources and energy. Familiarity of place is one of the most critical elements of such a way of living.
In my small defense, the last three places I’ve lived have been within a few miles of each other rather than spread across different geographical areas. I am closer to settling, and I would be happy to live in this area here on the north Oregon coast for the rest of my life. I like the community, I love the land, and I continuously feel blessed to now be making a living farming, outside of internships. As others might feel about landing a powerful and high-paying job, I feel about finding good farms to work on for a small but sustaining hourly wage: it is a grace. Here is home for now, and hopefully a good ways into the future.
But once again, I have moved, and I must admit that this move feels like a fresh start and an opportunity to limit my bad habits and reinstate good ones. I had fallen into a funk at my previous residence, through no fault of the place itself but only of my own shortcomings. This move has given me a psychological boost to changing my behavior. It’s a small condemnation of myself that I felt a need for such a physical move to make psychological and emotional changes, but it’s just the place where I’m at for the moment as a flawed human on this chaotically beautiful world. I’ll continue to work on making myself better, on gaining a greater control over my habits and patterns.
There is an element to my new home that is specific to this place, though, which is the people I now live with. I’ve only been here ten days, so there no doubt will be continual learning of how to live with my new roommates and continual adjustments for all of us, but I must say that it’s a joy to be living with people again after a few months of residentiary solitude. Particularly in the winter, I think it’s important for me to be a part of daily community. I’ve enjoyed sharing meals again, having casual evening conversation, having new perspectives and ideas introduced into my thought processes. Similarly, my roommates are older than me and are conservationists—they have designed habits of living rooted in an attempted sustainability and lighter living. They have established patterns and habits that support these ideals as well as a seemingly settled way of day-to-day living. This, I have to say, is a godsend for me at the moment.
As mentioned earlier, I have been scattered and at the mercy of my own bad habits of late. I haven’t been living particularly well, though I can’t say I’ve been living horribly, either. But I have been undisciplined and that lack of discipline has pushed me from my stated goals, which has been painful for me. Through their behaviors, Anthony and Victoria are reminding me of the value of good habits and patterns of living, and of how simple it can be to integrate tasks and ideals into my day-to-day life. They are reminding me how to live well, which is something I had half forgotten the last few months. That, too, is a basis for a fresh start—the modeling of good behavior in my small community of residence.
So 2013 is bringing a particularly fresh start for me this year. I have new residence in a beautiful and settled place, with good people providing good conversation, and who model excellent patterns of behavior for me. I am reminded of good ways of living and of the simplicity of it, given the right frame of mind and a deterrence from self-defeating thought patterns. Much as with the good work I have found, this is a grace.
With this fresh start, I have fresh goals. First of all, I plan to refocus on my reading and study this year. Last year, I only read 17 books. I imagine this will seem a lot to some people here and not a lot to others. For me, it’s a small amount. I normally read closer to 50 books in a year and I like that level of reading. I plan to get back to it in 2013, assuming I don’t run myself too ragged in the summer (though much of my reading takes place during the year’s shoulders, anyway.) Second of all, I plan to get back into various homesteading projects. I haven’t made butter in a number of months; I want to resume that habit. I have some cabbage in the mudroom that will make some fine sauerkraut, as well as providing fresh eating. Fermented ginger carrots would be excellent, as well. I’ve been meaning to make my own enzyme cleaner for months. I finally am going to do that. I’ll attempt to bake a homemade loaf of sandwich bread that will reduce or eliminate my desire to keep buying Gabriel’s bread, a Portland bakery whose sandwich bread I adore. I haven’t made ginger ale in a long time—add it to the list. Homemade pasta on the simple, hand-powered pasta machine I received for Christmas over a year ago? Absolutely, it’s time to give it a try.
When I step away from the computer and engage in a productive activity in the home, I feel infinitely better than if I had just spent that time continuing to stare at a health-sapping screen. And yet, the screen beckons me constantly. It’s a weakness, the amount of time I give to it doing unproductive things. Turning it off and engaging myself in the kitchen, rediscovering the earth through my food, reading a good book or watching the birds on the back porch, considering the world, writing a letter to a friend, taking a bit of time to listen to good music and watch the flames in the wood stove—all this brings me a happiness the screen often can’t. And so, in this new year, I am recommitting myself to stepping away from the screen and putting my time and effort into quality activities, into connection and good health and happiness. I’ve noted this quote before, but Peter Berg once relayed these words of a woman from Mexico City: “The kitchen is the place where you worship the earth.” I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment and, further, think screens are often where we lose touch with the earth—one of the primary places where we learn to degrade the earth. I want to worship the earth instead, which means more time in the kitchen and less time on the internet.
That said, I am keeping my commitment—sporadic as it’s been of late—to this blog. There is still much I want to say and much conversation I want to have with all of you, those who take the time to read my thoughts. I know I’ve been largely absent for many months now and that I’ve made false promises in recent times. All I’ll say at this point is that I intend to write more regularly here going forward. I don’t yet know how regularly that will be, but I enjoy writing for this blog quite a bit when I actually sit down and do it and I want to resume that habit in the new year. The screen is not so bad in this regard.
I expect I’ll continue to add to The Household Economy as I recommit myself to kitchen projects and other homesteading activities. I also intend to write more entries in the Encounters series. I have a number of encounters I still want to write about. The How To Be Poor series on voluntary poverty is a different beast. I have not felt happy with it of late. It’s not that I don’t still have a commitment to voluntary poverty, but I don’t like what I attempted to do in that series of writings. I knew too little. I portrayed the series as one of instruction when, in reality, I am far more a student than a teacher when it comes to such a way of living. I tried to avoid being too preachy, but it came through anyway. It’s not that I don’t think I should write about voluntary poverty, it’s that I think I should have been writing about it in a different way, with more humility, more openness, and more a sense of imparting my own experiences rather than attempting to give people advice, which was one of the ideas behind the series. I made a mistake. I got ahead of myself. I do that sometimes.
I’ll have to think more about How To Be Poor before I decide what to do with that. I may just put it to bed with a final post in which I express some of the thoughts above. Or I may try to take it in a new direction. I’ll decide soon enough and then put up a new entry in the series. (I’m open to suggestions, too, if anyone wants to provide some feedback in the comments.) Whatever I do with it, though, expect thoughts on voluntary poverty and simple living to remain a part of this blog. After all, it’s a major component of what I’m trying to do with my life.
Finally, I may yet start the Considerations of Death series that I anticipated almost exactly a year ago. I still think about it at times and have a few entries in the mental queue that I would like to write at some point. I’ll leave it up to whim for the time being.
Yesterday, after doing a couple hours of work over at the farm I lived at until just a couple weeks ago, I wandered over to my garden there and began the long-neglected work of harvesting out some of the remaining food. I filled a 14-gallon plastic trash bag with multiple heads of cabbage, a few pounds of frost-sweetened carrots and parsnips, an oversize bunch of kale, and a few stray beets. I brought them home, cleaned them, ate a bit and packed the rest away in the fridge and the mud room. There is still a bounty of food out there: more carrots in the grounds, lots of parsnips, probably at least a hundred pounds of potatoes that I really need to retrieve. Still more kale, as well. It’s the remaining legacy of this summer’s good work, of the fulfillment of ideals and the result of good habits, of sustaining patterns. It was a reminder, as well, of the importance of working against distraction and malaise and of finding a constant renewal within an engagement of the earth. That can happen out in the garden, in the kitchen, at either of the two farms I work for, or even on the back porch, the back yard, in the fire in the wood stove, in all the abundant places in which the natural world asserts itself and recaptures my attention.
I intend to cultivate that capturing. I intend to worship the earth—and to let it revive me in this new year.