When we built our home some years ago, we tried to build for eternity. We chose materials with care and put love into their joining. It took us six months to reach the point where we could move in.
The next morning the house was gone, burned to a mass of smoldering, charred wood.
As the reality began to sink in, my first agonized thought, over and over, was, "Six months of my life, of love and labor – gone, vanished, as if it never existed." But every six months of my life vanishes. Do others leave more than a pile of charcoal at the end? What did this six months leave me with besides charcoal?
Occasionally it takes events as drastic as these for us to see what has enduring value from the time passed in our lives, and also to see the time and energy demands of our possessions.
When I realized the things I wanted to accomplish with my life were unlikely to bring in money, a big decision was necessary. Either I gave up my dreams and earned a living, or lived my life differently to free time to pursue my dreams.
My wife and I chose the latter. We freed ourselves of a mortgage by building our home with our own labor. We evolved a diet at once healthier, tastier, cheaper, and less demanding on the world. We gave ourselves four hours of freedom a day by avoiding unnecessary TV and newspapers. I eliminated commuting by working at home. We heat with the sun and wood from our land. Our elder son freed himself of years of "education" by home-schooling.
We found the treadmill of modern living doesn’t get us any farther than simple living. And the luxuries of simple living are closer to being soul-satisfying and life-enriching. We’ve invested in friends instead of stocks. We watch the sunset and moonrise instead of TV. We make music instead of consuming it.
We still have had to take care of dirty baby bottoms and all the other maintenance work of living. But those chores of everyday living return to us a deepening, and give us unexpected nurture for new experiences.
This is possible, however, only when we give those everyday acts our undivided time, attention, and commitment. It doesn’t happen if we view them as something to be avoided or hurried through to get on to the real parts of life. When a pile of clean clothes or a sparkling window give pleasure in both the doing and the product, we are nurtured rather than drained. Alan Watts’ reminder often comes to mind: that getting to the end of a song is not the goal of singing.
What we were learning was the real meaning of austerity. Austerity does not exclude richness or enjoyment. What it does do is help us avoid things that keep us from our goals in life.
Affluence has a real cost. Its possibilities demand impossible commitments of time and energy. It fails to discriminate between what is wise and useful and what is merely possible. We end up foregoing the things necessary for a truly satisfying life to make time and space for trivia. Like a garden, our lives need to be weeded if they are to produce a good crop.
Our conventional world is one which splits us through the heart. We divide our time and lives between work and leisure. But rarely do we allow our work the leisure to be enriching. And rarely do we allow our leisure the purpose and reward of doing things of value and benefit.
Our concept of "time" has been a false one. Greed inflates its importance to where it controls our lives.
Wendell Berry once wrote about the beauty of an old woman crocheting – a job she knows she will never finish – and that the joy of time spent making something beautiful is the real product we create. We need to account for both the inner and outer products of our work.
Washing dishes without the pressure of time doesn’t take significantly longer. How long it takes stops being important, and the experience isn’t clouded by the constant pressure to be done and on to other, more important, things.
Some people have concluded that money is more scarce and precious than time. They say we should go to school longer, work longer, sleep less. But where would we find new dreams, and what would happen to those wonderful places between sleep and wakefulness where solutions to problems so often emerge?
Time vanishes when we are happy and excited and immersed in what we are doing. That is where we and our lives belong.
Tom Bender is an architect from Nehalem, OR, and a former editor of RAIN magazine