When I was 17, I ran away to live on a commune. I personally think it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to my parents or, for that matter, anyone who knew me. I clearly had been hurtling full speed in that direction since around the age of 7, when I first discovered tie-dye. We were a fairly classic story: The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, but still far enough to be shocking for the tree.
My parents were incredibly liberal by Southern middle-class standards. By age 12 my politics and world view had swung so far into absolutes, it would frighten most children and adolescents. One of the stranger shocks to me, honestly, was to discover in my travels as a newly freed young adult that communes and hippies had connotations I never associated with either words. I expected values of genuine equality, peace, respect, dignity, social justice, community impact, ecological awareness and the power of the people to affect real and lasting change. Imagine my surprise at the slow-dawning realization that for many people these were not associations with such terms.
Life at the farm was idyllic, or it would have been if I hadn’t been the emotional wreck of a normal 18-year-old. We had solar power, a gravity-fed water system, a greenhouse that covered a third of an acre and five smaller greenhouses. The whole community was designed around permaculture methods by Bucky Fuller.
From the time I left the farm in 1999 until this Live Local column began in 2009, I endured a lot of living between years 19 to 29. It would probably come as a surprise to people who know me today that when Jock and I began “courting,” I could have been called a “fashion plate.” Compared to the woman who has structured her entire life to revolve around blue jeans and black T-shirts, that is a bit incongruous, I admit. Yes, at one point in life, specifically during my first trip with Jock, I took no less than a dozen pairs of shoes (I currently own two pairs) and 18 dresses for a one-week vacation. (Currently own one dress, and I don’t want to talk about it.)
So, what was the change? What happened?
Everyone has pendulum swings in their lives, especially when growing up. But, man, mine were epic in scope! I can’t imagine what my parents went through trying to keep up. I do think the funniest moment in our family life was when they decided to have an intervention with me. It was right after college, when I was back in my family home, and they were deeply concerned—not because I had a drug addiction, questionable friends or frightening plans. No, they were worried because I got up every morning, did my nails and watched three episodes of Martha Stewart’s shows.
“We don’t want you to think we are being judgmental, but we are very concerned,” my mother said in her calm, no nonsense voice. “If there is something really wrong, you can tell us, and we can find some help. But this … this is not like you.”
If anything has happened since, besides the eye-opening experience of living and traveling with Jock worldwide, it is that the tempering process my parents prayed for took over. It’s not so much my pendulum has swung far in the opposite direction or even toward the center, but it has found balance and a mission. That is something I sorely needed: to live my values in a world outside of the perfect bubble of the farm.
We lived sustainably on the farm. I once had dinner in town with a friend who was visiting her father in Asheville. I came back with a doggie bag of leftovers, and when the leftovers were gone, I found myself with the real quandary of how to deal with the container. We composted and recycled, but we didn’t have garbage per se. Eventually, on the next trip into town, I wound up taking the container with me to dispose of it because there was no way to cope with it on the farm. It is honestly a beautiful extreme I am describing. I realize that part of why I love reading “Mother Earth News” and the like is because the aspirations and aims they describe are things I miss about farm life.
I am tired of the empty promises of the “simple living” articles and books. For urban life Jock and I live about as simply as it gets. Yet, my life does not feel any less complicated, and my stress level is still pretty damn high. We process our trash through compost, recycling, and in the winter we burn an incredible amount of paper waste from junk mail and the like. We don’t have central heat and air. Just imagine the house of a mad inventor and all of its crazy contraptions, which make things work and don’t come from a store or out of a box.
I can’t remember the last time I went clothes shopping the way most American women do: with another woman chatting for hours, trying on clothes and finding something that is wonderful and just right. No, I don’t have a Victoria’s Secret credit card anymore, and the unsecured debt that I carry comes from borrowing money to keep a bookstore afloat. Really, do I want to pay 20 percent interest on a pair of shoes or on my real dream?
I don’t miss the vague, acerbic half smiles from over-worked sales people at big department stores. I will take the real and genuine grin from Heather at Steven’s Hardware any day. But I do miss the complete frivolousness of those afternoons. My dreams have gotten bigger than immediate gratification, and, of course, I can’t look at those sweat-shop stitched bras anymore without dying a bit inside and feeling incredible guilt, because that is how I am wired. Apparently, there are people who can willfully choose to not want to know. I am not one. The bigger problem that comes with this personality flaw is that once I become aware of injustice in the world, the sheer scope and magnitude of the problems to be addressed are overwhelming. Everywhere I turn, there is another cause to be concerned about, another problem to take on.
Perhaps that is why Live Local appeals to me: It’s not far away and hard to imagine or easy to ignore. It’s right here. Solar power can be hard to make tangible. Right now it is not economically attainable for everyone, so it just doesn’t feel real to most people—neither quite frankly do the ramifications of the energy crisis feel real to many. But your job and the possibility of losing it does feel very real and it is easy to identify with.
I guess what I am saying is I miss the bliss that comes from ignorance, but I am not prepared to trade the fulfillment I have found with real knowledge. We live in a complex world. Kim Kardashian’s hair style should not be a real news item—but it is because we crave distraction.