Several years ago, we were visiting my father-in-law at his mother’s cottage in the Muskokas. It was a place that people from urban areas go to “get away from it all”. Over the previous several years, however, the area had undergone an enormous amount of development, and they had added a Walmart at the corner of the two highways where there had been a lovely wooded area and wetland. The lakes were increasingly occupied by power boats of the sea-doo variety, the houses were getting larger, and the whole area was starting to look (and sound) like the suburbs.
“Why,” I asked, “when they want to get away from it all, do they bring it all with them?”
This was around the peak of my professional “career”, during which I was probably working for banks on computer systems, and wearing snazzy clothes from Talbots. Or possibly teaching at the university that had a student population larger than that of the city to which I am currently attached. When I wanted to get away, I really wanted to get away. I didn’t just want the same things in different surroundings. Lattes? Sushi? High-speed internet? Urban. Leave ’em there. (mmm… lattes…)
We went further north, back-woods camping in Temagami… no matter how far away we got, we could always hear cars, or logging trucks, or airplanes overhead. There was no getting away from it in southern Ontario; it always came with you. I fantasized about moving to Sudbury or Thunder Bay. I suspected that there was something wrong with me. Eventually, I said to my partner, “I don’t want to be able to afford to get away from it all once or twice a year. I want a life that I don’t feel the need to get away from.” And thus did everything change to…
Experiments in Living
Honestly? We’re all just making it up. It’s just more obvious the way I do it.
In the last six years, I’ve tried out out keeping bees. (I’m bad at bees, but I’ll try it again next year.) I’ve made spice blends, and worked at the library. I’ve experimented with growing vegetables in rows, in greenhouses, in raised beds. I’ve written about parenting, and food, and breastfeeding and having been fat.
I make it up, and then I test it out, and then I write about it. I try out new languages, and new disciplines, and adventure racing, and new philosophies, and new religions. And I don’t try them out tentatively; I dive in, swim about, spend a couple of intense months, or a few years with them, sip or drink deeply, or absorb them into my pores so that they become part of my background vocabulary. (1) And each new pool in which I immerse myself changes me, changes what I can think, changes what is conceivable, and adds to the options for building a life I don’t need to get away from. Underlying all of this striving and seeking, there is this belief:
Life can be good. I know it can.
More than anything else, this is what I want to teach. All those other things are paths, tools, possible (partial) answers to the question, “How?”
The “right” answer (which is different for every person) has to include a whole range of possibilities. How do I relate to my body? To other people? To things? To money? To the natural world? To the divine, or to finding meaning in absence of the divine? What are my responsibilities? What are my freedoms? Which constraints can I live with, and which are worth fighting? Is there a me? How do I express love?
These questions seem extravagant in the face of the suffering in the world. We get a lot of messages that we don’t have time to ask them, that we have too much to do, and that they are self-indulgent anyway. My position is this: when we don’t ask, we are stuck with the answers other people have imposed on us. And a) they may not have our best interests at heart, b) a lot of what we do these days is pretty harmful to others and deserves to be examined, and c) you aren’t part of the consciousness project to relive somebody else’s life.
If you feel the need to get away from your life on a regular basis, you probably don’t quite have the answers right. But that’s all right. You can try something else.
1. Just try to get through a midnight conversation with me without discipline and power coming up. Or quantum mechanics. Or samsara. I dare you.