Get a cup of tea and settle in. I'm happy to share the story of my journey with you. It's not as short as most of my posts are, but it's pretty short considering how many years I've been on the planet. I'm delighted you've taken an interest in my life. If anything here sparks something in you, reach out! Connect! I'd be happy to hear from you.
And we're off...
My interest in human behavior has traveled with me in many iterations over the years. As I have more and more life experiences, the lens through which I view, explore, and question human behavior (including my own) has changed.
I was first guided in my inquiry about why we act as we do by the academic discipline of sociology. Sociology addresses the question of human behavior in a multitude of ways—it’s a broad field. Fundamentally, sociologists are interested in the ways that humans behave in the context of a society and all that entails.
I saw the world through the sociological perspective for a number of years. I felt like I had a superpower—an x-ray vision on society—and I used it to see “the way things really are.” But I was also very angry at “the man” and “the system.” Not to mention cynical. After all, it’s hard to feel hopeful when you’re fighting against something as amorphous as “the” anything.
It was my students when I was a teaching assistant in graduate school at UMass Amherst who helped me to see one of sociology’s greatest faults. It doesn’t give texture or color to the lives of the individuals who comprise its studies. A statistic that says that women get paid X number of dollars less than men per hour, doesn’t actually say much. It points to inequality, but it doesn’t say anything about how that inequality is experienced by either party. It doesn’t say whether that means a damn thing for the quality of any given persons life. And it doesn’t ask us to ponder equality itself as a value that we share. That’s what I think my students meant when they’d say, “So?” after reading an article with compelling statistics or information.
Of course we assume that the measured outcomes reflect something real, something felt in people’s day-to-day lives, but we can’t really know for sure unless we connect with them.
I for one have made less than $12,000 a year for the past four years. Poverty level for a single person. I’ve also traveled to six countries and countless U.S. states. I’ve been richer than the average American I know or meet in terms of experiences and in terms of the ability to explore my inner world through interacting with the outer world. I’ve done a lot with a little. They’d call me an outlier in the sociological world, but what good is understanding the behavior of the masses in the absence of understanding individuals lives and how folks make sense of those lives?
Ultimately, I fell out of love with the sociological perspective. We had a long run together, but it was time for me to move on. But I didn’t run right into the arms of another worldview.
First, I lived and learned to cook at Ratna Ling Buddhist Center, trying to understand Tibetan Buddhist rituals and exploring the realm of the spiritual. Then I worked in southern Utah, learning mostly about integrity and how to run a business by using your values as a guideline rather than the bottom line. I spent my early morning picking nasturtiums, making eggs, and creating artful plates of food grown just down the road. Thanks to Jen & Blake at Hell’s Backbone Grill for this experience.
When the season ended, I traveled to South America for a few months only to finish out the winter in the U.S. sleeping on an air mattress on my sister’s floor outside Chicago. That was chilly and depressing though my sister’s generosity was warming and our conversations encouraging. I worried about work and money. That was the hardest it’s ever been. The first time I’ve actually felt afraid I wouldn’t be able to feed myself. (And yes, I wondered, is this lifestyle really worth it? Answer: yes. Always yes.)
Serendipitously a lovely opportunity in central Idaho and I found each other. I worked a summer, hot and sweaty, in the busiest kitchen I’ve ever worked in at Stanley BakingCompany with some of the most down-to-earth, goodhearted folks on the planet. I sang at the top of my lungs, made dirty jokes and giggled with my fellow line cooks. I cooled off after work in the pristine mountain lakes. I fell in love with Sawtooth Mountains and in lust with a read-headed cribbage-playing boy. It felt so good.
When that season ended I thought I solved my previous winter’s woes when I, again serendipitously, found work in Costa Rica for the winter. When I actually got there things were not at all as I’d envisioned. I was unhappy and had learned by now that “keeping my commitments” wasn’t worth it when my heart said, “Let it go. Move on.” Since I was already in Central America and had seen how cheap and easy it was to travel around, I did just that for four months. I learned to scuba-dive of the coast of Honduras and became so obsessed I did the Open Water and Advanced Open Water courses back-to-back in 10 days time. I did a work-trade at a hostel on Ometepe Island in the giant Lake Nicaragua. I met strangers in hostels, at baseball games, and on the beach and became friends with them instantly. It was at once freeing, exciting, scary, and even at times lonely.
After that I went back for round two in Idaho but something in me had started to change. I still loved the people, the town, the landscape, but I yearned for something else. I yearned for more alignment. Cooking has always been a means to an end. It’s been a vehicle for traveling and making some loot. But it doesn’t feed my soul. The desire to find work and a life that does got so strong that the whispering voice in my head started to yell, “It’s time to move on, Mary!”
That adventure-filled time was four years long. Second university. University of life. And it’s true that I was mostly just along for the ride, but it’s also true that I thought of this largely as a time of self-exploration and discovery. Who am I? What do I want from life? In what ways is my current life aligned with my ideal life? In what ways am I out of alignment?
Folks have the opportunity to ask these questions all the time, even in a 9-5 world with families and responsibilities beyond the few I have. But the gift of the vagabonding seasonal worker lifestyle is that things end. And they end frequently. A season is 3 or 6 or 9 months long. And then your life comes up for evaluation and you have to actively make a choice about what to do next.
This was boot-camp style training in the art of deliberate living.
Neither my lifestyle nor yours is for the faint of heart. I have difficulties and challenges just as you do. I have just as much of an opportunity to tune in or block out questions about how my life is going.
Seasonal living did change who I am and how I look at my life, but I’m confident anyone can do this. Try out seasonal living if it appeals to you, but if it doesn’t, find your equivalent. Figure out how you can set up your life to draw you in. Do a quarterly or yearly review. Make it part of your family tradition.
I still have an interest in human behavior but the lens through which I view it has been impacted tremendously by my experiences in the last four years. I used to take the wide view, to try to be all-inclusive. And the individual, the complex and interesting individual, got lost. And I was lost, too.
Then I started to live my way into a new perspective. For the previous four years I’ve been working from a place of what I call “enlightened self interest.” Learning to tune into my needs, desires, and wishes and to regard them highly as a means to bring my best self to the world for everyone’s benefit.
This is exemplified by Howard Thurman’s quote:
”Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
My path is winding, but I am all the time following my inner guidance system. I’ve tested my limits by continually doing things that put me well into the territory of uncomfortable but not quite in the territory of “flee!” I started living more deliberately, but I was mostly deliberating the terms of my work and lifestyle.
Now I see that I can live even more deliberately by focusing on my personal qualities (values, needs, habits), which affect my choices and outcomes (and which I carry with me into every situation).
To this end, I’ve sat a 10-day silent meditation retreat at the Northwest Vipassana Center in Washington. I remember contemplating leaving at least once every day, feeling uncomfortable, being restless. Since you turn in your cell phone, computer, books, and journals and are in complete silence, there is quite literally no way to distract yourself. And trust me you want to, because a lot of stuff comes up with you are sitting in silence for 11 hours a day. Through one part positive self-talk and one part miracle, I hung on day after day, and completed the course. It’s difficult to communicate here what exactly it did for me, but I can tell you it helped me on my path to living deliberately, starting within.
That’s the reason I write this blog. I’ve learned a lot along the way and I want to pay it forward by offering some of those bits of wisdom I’ve learned from my many teachers on my path. I also write this blog as a way to make sense of my life and document my tribulations and celebrations on my path toward happiness. My hope is some of the ideas here will spark something in you to live from a place of enlightened self-interest, to use that to be deliberate in your choices, and through that you’ll see your incredible potential as a gifted human and share that gift with all of us.
“Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?”Mary OliverFrom "The summer day"