Upon returning from our year-long cross-country expedition to learn firsthand about living more sustainably, the most commonly asked question has been, “Did you get what you wanted out of the trip?”
My answer is yes, absolutely.
We sheared sheep and herded goats and cows and hogs and chickens.
I learned to drive a tractor, till a field and plant row seed. I built a hog shed, a goat barn, several raised beds, bee hive frames and a solar dehydrator. We slaughtered and eviscerated chickens…some were packaged and sold, some were frozen, others we boiled and canned for later and the rest we ate for dinner.
I shoveled a lot of hay and manure and we repaired a wattle and daub barn. We milked cows and goats and Anastasia worked with bees. We pressed gallons and gallons of pear and apple juice for cider. We pulled weeds…lots of weeds.
Our experiences spawned new questions and interests and we continue to learn from our time spent on the farms. Most importantly, we developed confidence in our ability to build and live a more sustainable lifestyle for ourselves.
So, yes, we definitely got what we had hoped for.
But, when people ask me, “What is the most important or impactful thing you learned?”
Well, I’m afraid my reply may sound a bit cryptic, “There’s no place to hide.”
Early on I wrote a blog post about my feelings prior to leaving on this expedition. Having returned from our journey, I got reacquainted with how much we had left behind.
First and foremost, we sold our house and most of its furnishings. And our cars. Anastasia quit her job (I was fortunate to be able to maintain my business from the road). We sold or gave away all but our most essential and favorite things and we packed what remained into a 10′x15′ storage unit. We haven’t seen it, nor missed much of it, in over a year.
We also gave up the comfort and convenience of living near our friends and families. We gave up our neighborhood and our community. We gave up our local identities. Our favorite food spots. The best Italian deli in Southern California. The San Gabriel Mountains. The Pacific Ocean.
And we gave up the popular but false belief that one should live a certain way and strive for certain things and hold certain positions and institutions in esteem.
So, what does all of this have to do with having no place to hide?
First, we are two people, with two large dogs, who have been living in a 24-foot motor home that has a living space of about 180 square feet. I could not go into the other room. I could not close the door behind me. I could not even turn around without saying, “Excuse me.” I could not go out for a drive, though I could take a walk (weather permitting), but otherwise, physically there was simply nowhere to go.
Additionally (and unwittingly), we also gave up most of the places that I would normally go to avoid any feelings of discomfort or unease: no backyard, no office, no friends, no hobbies, no chores and, often, no phone, internet, television or Netflix.
Yes, of course, there was alcohol (some really good craft beers and small batch bourbons, actually).
Alcohol has always been one of favorite places to go, but sitting in a motor home with my wife and two dogs getting drunk simply to avoid talking about my feelings…well, in practice, that’s even less appealing than it sounds. So?
In that tiny space of our cute little rolling home, all of the fears and desires and assumptions upon which my experiences are played out were broadly and unsympathetically exposed. Daily.
And, like it or not, I was stuck with them.
The truth is, I have always been stuck with them but the immediacy of dealing with them felt inescapable during this trip.
Sitting at the dinette, whether batting flies, shirtless and sweating on the vinyl cushions or in my beanie and sweater and wrapped in an extra blanket, I was repeatedly faced with mental projections of myself. The me that I wish to be. The me that I fear I might be. The me that I fear others see.
And, most difficultly, the me that I truly am…a me that is the totality of myriad other mes.
Face-to-face with my most fearful habits of mind (shame, guilt, questions of worth, etc.), I recognized the futility both in ignoring and indulging these thoughts. It is an awkward awareness meeting oneself warts and all and I often wondered, what exactly is the purpose of a meeting which plainly makes me uncomfortable?
I’m no expert at this, but there seems to be real benefit in learning to be OK with the uneasiness.
Sitting (or squirming) in my discomfort has taught me that my unease is merely a reaction to the world (or me) not looking the way I want it (or me) to look. It’s very simple, very basic—I don’t like the way things are and, sometimes, I don’t like the way I behave in response to that.
One could suggest (and certain ones have) that I am merely spoiled. That I have a sense of entitlement.
The truth is, I simply want what I want and I don’t find that so odd or unique. But, my (over)reaction to not getting what I want…now that, I thought, is worth a look.
When I examined why I would get upset, I found that regularly, and very rapidly, my mind makes associations between what is happening now and what has happened in my past—which would be fine and insightful if I stopped right there—but then I begin to act upon what I fear or hope will happen as if my predictions were absolutely true.
That sounds a little crazy as I reread it, but I think it’s pretty accurate.
And to varying degrees I think we all indulge in the “truth” of the stories we tell ourselves. We use stories like these to justify bad behavior. To rationalize hypocrisy. To support our system of belief. These stories filter the way our world looks by defining how it operates…and they are completely self-generated products of our imagination.
Whenever I know “why” someone has done or said something. Whenever I know what someone “really” means. Whenever I doubt what “is” in favor of what I “believe”…I’m indulging in fantasy.
I’m letting my fears or desires write the story and I’ve stopped being aware of the present moment.
For me, that’s a behavior I’d like to recognize. And reduce.
Regardless of how “right” I may feel, or how “real” my experience feels, I need to remember to come back to an awareness of what is happening here and now. Living on the road, in a very tiny space, with few distractions and an equally-challenged but always willing partner has put me in the perfect position to come back to this moment time and time again. I feel very fortunate for that.
It’s funny the way life can give you something old dressed up like something new. A few years ago I picked up yet another book on meditation, this one by Jon Kabat-Zinn. The title was catchy and reminded me of something I had heard before. I couldn’t quite place it for the longest time, then it came to me.
In 1981 I graduated from Villa Park High School and my best friend, Wes Rose, wrote one short line in my yearbook above his name. At the time, I did not consider his casual one-liner as pithy instruction for a mindful life…but then again, maybe I had recognized something in it, for it is the only inscription which I have set to memory.
“Wherever you go in life, there you are.”
In other words, “There’s no place to hide”…it only took me 32 years and one 19,000-mile trip to figure out what the heck he meant. Thanks, bud.
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