Archive for October 13th, 2010

Whole-Life Redesign

Sharon October 13th, 2010

As most of you will remember, we came very close to moving during the summer. It was an agonizing decision to make - there were compelling arguments on both sides, and while we ultimately came down in favor of staying in place, we also recognized that the problems we saw with our present situation are real, and need to be resolved in some way. 

All of this came back to us last week when Eric and I took the boys to our favorite orchard, up near the farm we nearly bought.  There was the house and its for-sale sign still there.  We’d assumed that the house would sell, and now we were back to the same conversation - because in many ways, we hadn’t yet begun to consciously deal deeply with the uncertainties of our present place.  We’ve had so much to do and so many projects up in the air that much of the planning and organizing that this will require seemed like a lot of work.  But until we do it, we’re not going to be sure where we stand.

What came out of that apple picking trip was a lot of good analysis, and what Eric and I found was that we both really agree on one thing - that we really need to apply ourselves to making our life work better if we’re to stay here.  We’ve let a lot of things slide because we’ve been busy with other projects - but we both want and need to devote our attention to pulling things together.

What is on the table?  Well, first of all, money.  We’ve never been a profligate family, mostly because we’ve never been able to afford to be.  But looming money concerns are starting to make both of us nervous.  Eric is a non-tenured state faculty member, and the SUNY budget is being slashed - whole departments at his university are being eliminated and we think one of three things is a likely outcome in the coming year.  First, Eric could lose his job altogether.  Second, SUNY could slash benefits and raise costs for health insurance.  Third, the state could enter furlough status and Eric could take a major paycut.  All of these things are possible to likely, and they mean we could be living on a lot less money.

Given the rise in property taxes and insurance costs at our house, I’m not completely sure that on my income alone we’d be able to keep the farm.  That’s one of the reasons we so seriously considered moving, and in a better housing market, we probably would have done so - but I’m not sure we could sell, either. 

So we need to figure out how to live on less money - we’ve done it before - when we first lived here our income for a family of four was less than 20K annually, but we’ve gradually let a lot of creep in our budget accumulate.   By most people’s standards we’re probably pretty frugal - our family of six still lives on under 50K. with only mortgage debt and some savings.  But if Eric loses his job - or has a furlough salary cut or loses benefits, we’ll struggle (like everyone else) and to the extent we can insulate ourselves from that, we need to.

 We haven’t put our full efforts into making the farm pay for itself and reducing its tax burden because we’ve been doing other things.  But we’ve decided that if we’re to have a long term future, that has to change.  Moreover, we’ve got to do the ordinary work of just getting our budget back down so that we can handle major income shifts if need being.   

We’d like to open up the farm - to teach classes on site, bring people in, etc… but that also takes money and planning.  The insurance costs alone are intimidating - so we need to find that budget flexibility and make the capital improvements that would make that possible without going into debt.

Our record keeping has slid a bit, and that makes it hard for us to figure out how some of our projects are going.  We’re doing really cool stuff with woody pasturage, with native plants and with edibles, and we’d like to share it, but for that we need good records, good assessments, to make the place look attractive enough to bring people in, and some capital investments in new projects. 

Besides money, there’s general organization.  I’ve always been something of a slob, but again, we’re doing so much stuff that we’ve let a lot of things go - and the chaos has started to get to the point of really bothering me.  I feel like if I could just give it my time and attention, I could get our home systems working a lot better, and spend a lot less time digging around for things I’ve misplaced or just less time cleaning, if I could get into a system of regular maintenence.  There are costs to always being behind and to losing track of things.

So one of my goals for the winter is to bang the house and farm buildings into shape, and get a plan for actually keeping them that way as much as possible.  Now I buy a lot of time to get things done by not worrying too much about a little chaos, and I plan to stay that way - but I’d be happier with a greater measure of underlying order.   I also need to clean out and declutter - there are still possessions of Eric’s grandparents, for example, that I’ve never dealt with since their deaths four years ago, much less my own clutter.

Number three is simply a reassessment of our goals in terms of being self-supporting and our basic adaptation in place plans.   What’s next?  Where do we want to concentrate our energies?  What projects are on the line, and what can wait?  What do we need to do to start undertaking these?

I want to rebuild our community relationships - probably the single biggest thing besides money that drove us to consider moving was our situation in our community.  After many years of relying heavily on close ties with neighbors, those ties frayed somewhat, not from any conflict, but because of moving, life changes, etc…  The community shifted, and we felt somewhat bereft - and were somewhat lazy about replacing those ties.  We need to devote more time to local community building in our immediate area, or we simply won’t want to stay.  Both of us can see the need for this, but again, time has been a limiting factor.

Finally, there’s time and energy - both personal energy and the kind that comes from fossil fuels.  Commitments keep accumulating, and we’re finding that while all the stuff we’re doing is important, and valuable, the net reality is that we’re unable to find enough time to do this kind of sitting down and reassessing.  Often the only time we have to really talk things out or begin a new project is at the end of the day when we’re tired.  We’re getting to feel like we’re always running.  For example, I realized in July that I had a commitment for every single weekend between August and the end of December.  That’s just too much, and since for us, one of the major benefits of our lifestyle has always been that we have time, even if not money, it seems like almost a bigger cost than the income shocks we expect.

Moreover, I’ve noticed our resource use has crept up a little bit - we’re getting away from using 15% of what the average american household uses and heading up to 20 or 21%.  This is a function of time and energy too - no time means no time to think it through, exhaustion means that it is easier to say “oh, just this one more time.”  But, of course, it is never just one more time ;-) .

We’re not in crisis, we’re not having a bad time - but the fact that we’re looking outward for solutions suggests to both of us that maybe we should try making time to find solutions in other ways first.   So we’ve committed to making that time, and doing the work.  We’re going to sit down and focus on home, family, energy use, community, money, farm, preparedness and scheduling and really work out how we want these things to work, and what we feel we can do to make things more satisfying and happier.

What we’re really talking about is a permaculture redesign, or reassessment of our whole lives.  We’re allotting a year to do it - we have several times now done year long projects - once by not buying anything but food and fuel for a whole year, another with the Riot for Austerity, trying to get our resource use down to 10% of the American average, and both were enormously useful and revelatory.  So we’re going to do it again - starting November 1 and running until next November 1, we’re enting the whole-life redesign project, which I think of as simply an offshoot of Adapting in Place.  And like my prior projects, we thought it would be fun to do it with other people.  Anyone interested?

I’ll write up a set of formal parameters, and do some preparation stuff in the next few weeks, and invite other people to look at their lives and see where work could be done.  I’m going to make up a 12 month plan for what we want to focus on each month, and then get on with it.  If you are interested, I’d invite you to join in.  I suspect it will be both fun and revelatory!