The Wayfaring Life

It may have been the author Ernest Hemingway who coined the phrase “a moveable feast” for the title of his memoir but it can also apply to what I am calling “the wayfaring life,” or the journey on which Linda and I have been since selling our house and furnishings almost five years ago. To quote the German architect, Rohde-Liebenau, “Just as we ourselves have become mobile, we must have movable possessions.”

Since that fateful day a neighbor’s tree landed on the roof of our beloved cottage, home has become more a state of being than a fixed address for us. And our journey has been as much a spiritual and philosophical one as a physical and structural one. As writer Tom Robbins is quoted as saying, “Any half-awake materialist well knows that which you hold holds you.”

To bring readers up to date on our continually evolving journey, an opportunity too-good-to-pass-up has befallen us in the form of an invitation from a relative to lease a charming cottage [including furniture and utilities] for the winter on the coast of Maine. While we had entertained notions of settling here in Middle Tennessee for the foreseeable future, the prospect of needing to procure more furnishings as a result weighed on us, and so the journey continues!

During our monastic retreat this summer I came upon some insightful thoughts in a library book titled Wayfaring: A Gospel Journey in Everyday Life by Margaret Silf. As she writes, “Ways are made very simply. We don’t have to accomplish some feat of heavy engineering. All we have to do is put one foot in front of the other, and walk them...It is an invitation to become a wayfarer, who, simply by walking the way alongside the One who is the Way, and in loving relationship with fellow wayfarers, will also become a waymaker for others.”

And lest the author’s intentions be misinterpreted, she reminds readers, “This is a pilgrimage journey, not a tourist outing. It is a journey that changes the traveler, a process that shapes the soul in ways we cannot predict. In my diary I have a slip of paper with the following text: ‘The future is not some place we are going to but one we are creating. The paths to it are not found but made, and the making of those pathways changes both the maker and the destination.’” For those wondering how we merry wayfarers are faring, all I can say is that we are enjoying the moveable feast.

Learning From the Shakers

Linda and I recently returned from a wonderful two-week vacation in New England and one of the highlights of our journey was a visit to the last community of Shakers, a grand total of two women and one man, located on a bucolic village farm called Chosen Land in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. I even had the opportunity to chat briefly with the lone male, Brother Arnold Hadd, whom I had corresponded with earlier.

Shakers are often confused with Quakers, from whom they are descended but who may marry, and the Amish, who eschew modern technology to live separate from the world. Yet even as Shakers embrace technological tools, their future existence is limited by their celibate lifestyle to converts from the outside world. Suffice it to say that they have their work cut out for them.

In her book God Among the Shakers: A Search for Stillness and Faith at Sabbathday Lake, author Suzanne Skees also visits the Maine Shaker Village and writes: “Current society loves what we perceive as the simple, pure life of Shakers because it stands in stark contrast to everything we have become.” In other words, people settle for admiring the Shaker lifestyle rather than adopting it.

And she continues, “Shakers seemed beyond the reach of attachment, while we other Americans lived immersed in material goods that lost their value almost as soon as they were acquired, scrambling in a flurry of activity that amounted to less than nothing at death.” As the Shakers love to sing, “Tis the gift to be simple, tis the gift to be free.” That is simply the truth.

Finally she concludes: “Our entire culture has been built upon the material. The ‘pursuit of happiness’ usually means money, property, food, and romance—the whole lot of which the Shakers have tossed out their two-hundred-year-old farmhouse window.” While converts to the Shaker lifestyle may be lacking, the rest of us could stand to learn from their simple ways of being and operating in the world.

The Lease of Life

As I mentioned in the interview with the New American Dream Center linked to a couple postings ago, Linda and I love how the leasing lifestyle allows us to fix our overhead costs, especially when it comes to big-ticket items such as housing and transportation. So in the meantime we returned our Nissan Altima a couple months ahead of the lease expiration to lease a Nissan Rogue [pictured here]. Suffice it to say that we enjoy driving a fully warrantied vehicle that costs us less than owning one.

And vehicles are not the only parts of our lives that are leased. If you think about it, our very lives are leased, or on loan in other words. Once my wife and I realized that truth we got a new lease on our lives in the form of freedom from conventional thinking. Until we are challenged to change our minds about things, none of us are likely to live the type of life we dream about. Leasing is one result of rethinking our lives.

As another example, during our retreat last month at the nearby monastery we learned that the monks work part-time in the mornings and are free to explore personal hobbies, such as printing and photography, for the rest of the day. One thing that stood out to me about the monks’ lifestyle is how apparently content they are living so simply, with all their physical needs met and ample time to grow as people.

To the contrary, Margaret Silf writes of herself and a busy friend in Wayfaring: A Gospel Journey in Everyday Life: “We discovered something inside us that suggested we were only worthwhile, as human beings, if we were constantly pleasing people. We found that we felt guilty if, at the end of the day, we had nothing to show for our twenty-four hours’ lease of life. We realized that we felt that we were only entitled to occupy our little plot of earth on the condition that we earned our rental” [emphases mine].

There is much that is sad about the above quotation but I think it describes many of us at times, even to the point that we feel we need to justify our very existence. Let’s face it: there is something about a rainy day that sort of gives us permission to putter around the house, even when none is really needed. What will help us to overcome such faulty thinking is that while our lives are indeed on loan, we are designed to delight in them.

Not Busier Than Thou

I read an intriguing article in the latest New Yorker titled “No Time: How Did We Get So Busy?” by Elizabeth Kolbert in which the phrase “busier than thou” is used to describe the warped attitude of many people today, thus the title of this post. Kolbert quotes several researchers who have endeavored to get to the bottom of busyness, including one Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University.

As Kolbert highlights, “Stiglitz argues that people’s choices are molded by society and, over time, become self-reinforcing. We ‘learn how to consume by consuming,’ he writes, and how to ‘enjoy leisure by enjoying leisure.’ In support of this position, Stiglitz cites the contrasting experiences of Europeans and Americans. In the 1970s, the British and the French put in just as many hours at work as Americans. But then the Europeans began trading income for leisure” [emphasis mine].

And she continues: “The average employed American now works roughly 140 hours more per year than the average Englishman and 300 hours more than the average Frenchman. Current French law mandates that workers get 30 paid vacation days per year, British law 28; the corresponding figure in the U.S. is zero. Stiglitz predicts that Europeans will further reduce their working hours and become even more skilled at taking time off, while Americans, having become such masterful consumers, will continue to work long hours and to buy more stuff.”

I love the lesson here of trading income for leisure. Personally, my wife and I make it a point to live more like Europeans by consciously limiting our consumption in favor of enriching experiences. It doesn’t hurt that my wife happens to work for a progressive-minded organization where she gets five weeks of vacation but we embraced such a lifestyle long before she got a job with them. We believe the key is to not own much stuff that needs financing and maintaining so we are free to live on our terms instead of some lenders’. And we prefer being “not busier than thou,” thank you very much.

The Sharing Economy

According to a new study by Havas Worldwide titled “The New Consumer and the Sharing Economy,” about 80% of people polled globally agree that progress is not about consuming more but consuming better and more than half say they could live happily without the majority of the things they own.

The report calls “collaborative consumption” the next wave of consumerism and states, “a new economic model is emerging—one that focuses less on ownership and accumulation and more on community and collaboration.” Two-thirds of the total sample believe society would be better off if people shared more and owned less.

The bottom line is that many people are gradually realizing it is becoming more about access than accumulation, especially for big-ticket items like houses and vehicles. As a case in point, my wife and I lease both our home and automobile, freeing us from the weekend routine of lawn mowing and car washing, since both are included.

And without kids or pets tying us to a particular place we are in a position to explore a location-independent lifestyle. Americans claim to dream of a home to call their own and my wife and I lived that dream, but since counting the overall cost and selling our extra stuff to become more mobile we are realizing how fun an untethered life can be.

Escaping House Arrest

It has been said that time flies when you are having fun, and so it has for us lately. At about this time only four years ago our neighbor’s huge oak tree fell unbidden on our beloved home, shaking our sense of safety and ultimately leading us to reevaluate our lifestyle. As the result of our analysis, we cast off the anchor of home ownership tying us to one locale and used the extra time and money that selling our house a year later afforded us to explore other modes of living.

In the meantime, Robert Shiller of the Case-Shiller Home Price Index made the dramatic statement that, with Americans’ growing shift to renting and city living, suburban home prices may never rebound in our lifetime. “Except for some exceptional boom periods, housing has never been a good financial investment,” he said. Shiller, the world’s leading student of bubbles, housing and otherwise, found that from “1890 to 1990, the rate of return on residential real estate was just about zero after inflation.”

According to Richard Florida, author of The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity, “Mobility and flexibility are key principles of the modern economy. Home ownership limits both. According to one important study, cities with higher home ownership rates also suffer from higher unemployment rates.” Linda and I can attest that mobility and flexibility were key qualities in our quest for a leaner style of living.

And Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in his bestselling book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: “Also consider the number of families who tunnel on their future, locking themselves into hard-to-flip real estate thinking they are going to live there permanently, not realizing that the general track record for sedentary living is dire. Don’t they see those well-dressed real-estate agents driving around in fancy two-door German cars? We are very nomadic, far more than we plan to be, and forcibly so. Consider how many people who have abruptly lost their job deemed it likely to occur, even a few days before.”

All of which suggests that Linda and I made a smart move when we escaped house arrest and adopted a more mobile means of living. Just the other day, a prominent regional magazine announced that our new hometown of Franklin, Tennessee, beat out another place we’ve called home, Savannah, Georgia, as the best southern town. And since we’ve mobilized our lives, we’ve had the pleasure of living in other popular destinations like Celebration, Florida and Nantucket, Massachusetts. While it might not be for everyone, we are loving the leasing lifestyle!

Unconventional Wisdom

I once heard billionaire investor Warren Buffett say that the time to invest is when the herd is trying to get out of the market, as that is when the deals are to be had. In other words, he was advocating a contrarian philosophy of investing, which requires one to disregard conventional wisdom in favor of the unconventional type. It is not always easy to do or else everyone would do it, but it pays rich dividends.

And it takes guts to think and act counter to popular culture also. When the American Dream is defined as owning your home and you opt out to try a different mode of living it can cause people to question your sanity. I know because we’ve experienced it. While most of our loved ones have been supportive of the transitional lifestyle we embarked upon about three years ago, some simply didn’t get it, and that’s okay. But the rub comes when you step out to follow your dreams anyhow.

When I was asked in college by a fraternity brother during the initiation process to describe myself in two words, I replied: “conservatively unorthodox,” and I still think that comes pretty close to capturing it. Standing out isn’t that hard to do if you are willing to question assumptions and challenge the status quo. As the saying goes: “it’s hard to fly with eagles when you flock with turkeys” [and are too chicken to try].

Speaking of fowl, I am reading a profoundly insightful book called The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and he writes: “Not matching the idea of success others expect from you is only painful if that’s what you are seeking. You stand above the rat race and the pecking order, not outside of it, if you do so by choice…You have far more control over your life if you decide on your criterion by yourself.” Amen.