Caring What People Think

This past weekend at the Florida Permaculture Convergence, with 150+ other people, I had the pleasure of meeting Rob Greenfield and hearing him speak. Now THIS is a guy with a low footprint! At the moment he’s engaged in an experiment in which he has pledged to eat only what he grows or forages himself. Compared with Rob’s adventurous life, my “10% footprint” lifestyle in a conventional dwelling is downright cushy! It’s great to hear about people who are practicing a low-footprint life in a more extreme, or just different, way.

One of my takeaways from Rob’s talk is how much time and energy we spend caring about what other people think. Our eco actions and voluntary sacrifices aren’t that onerous physically, compared with the burden of “caring about appearances” and living in fear of violating the norms of conventional mainstream society.

I had one such moment last night, at a neighborhood holiday party. I had brought my own dishes and utensils to avoid using plastic disposables. This is something I do all the time, and usually people either don’t notice, or they think “What a good idea, maybe I’ll do that next time.”

However, last night was different. The people at my table had a strong reaction, could not understand why I had brought my own eating utensils and dishes. Instead of just explaining, I went into a shame-spiral and felt stupid and self-conscious, and tucked my stuff away out of sight. I ended up moving to a different table, and also ended up using the provided disposable plate (though I did use my bamboo eating utensils). The plates were compostable paper, so I felt more OK using one than if they had been plastic. And at the end of the evening I collected other people’s used plates to bring home to my compost bin. Still, it felt like a loss.

In retrospect, the way I went about bringing my own dishes to that particular party was unattractive. I had my dishes sitting on the table in a really conspicuous way that was just screaming for negative attention. Part of the problem was that they were stainless steel camp dishes, and looked out of place in the setting. Next time I’ll be a little more considerate of my social environment and won’t have to be as visually obtrusive.

For example, I could have brought a small plain white reusable plate from my kitchen cabinet, instead of the stainless-steel camp dishes that fit right in at permaculture convergences and my UU church potlucks, but stuck out like a sore thumb at my neighborhood holiday gathering.

Or, maybe more important, I could have made sure I set out from my house feeling attractive and self-confident, and then I could have explained my dishes in a matter-of-fact way with a radiant smile and gone about enjoying the party.

While we can’t allow ourselves to be consumed by caring what people think, there is a degree of social consideration that not only is basic courtesy to other people, but also serves the “cause.” Last night I lost an opportunity to be an attractive ambassador for low-footprint living. Lesson learned!

An important aspect of being an attractive ambassador for low-footprint living (or any other cause) is cultivating a consistent self-confidence. I don’t always have it in social settings, and that sometimes interferes with my ability to be an attractive influence. Most of us have our ups and downs with self-confidence, but there are many healthful practices for getting centered and maintaining. The trick for me is to always take time to do some kind of healthy thing to get my mind centered. It’s always time well-spent. Could be something as simple as listening to a favorite song. Or visiting the plants and critters in my yard. Also prayer and meditation, of course.

And oftentimes when my self-confidence is flagging, if I just remind myself of my mission in life, what I’m trying to do to make a better world, I get a boost of confidence and am not so easily derailed by social situations. How about you, what works for you?

If you want to meet someone who radiates self-confidence and is totally out there (he even went around dressed head to toe in trash, to show how much trash people living a typical U.S. lifestyle generate!), check out Rob Greenfield’s website. Though Rob’s footprint is far lower than mine, I have the feeling he never fails to be an attractive ambassador of low-footprint living. Gracious, engaging, knowledgeable, and able to bring humor to a serious subject, he has touched lives all over the world. His talk at the Convergence has given me a booster-shot of courage regarding my own choices (a really helpful thing since I sometimes second-guess my “extreme” choices, which are really only extreme in the context of a hyper-consumerist mainstream society). On his site, you can check out his TEDx Talk “Be The Change in the Messed Up World,” and read all about his projects and adventures.

Gratitude, and the Upside of “Not Having”

This old family photo, taken one Thanksgiving about 70 years ago, is one of my favorites. Those were simple times when people didn’t have much, but I can feel everyone’s joy and gratitude spilling right out of the picture.

This past Sunday as I was riding my bicycle home from church, where the sermon was about gratitude, I came upon my favorite pine tree, a really pretty, towering specimen with long soft needles. Not only is it a beautiful tree; it also sheds regularly, providing me with great mulch for my yard. As is my habit, I grabbed handfuls of the pine needles that had collected in the gutter, and stuffed into my bicycle panniers as many as would fit.

Many Sundays as I’m riding to or from church along that long road, I see curbside treasure such as huge piles of leaves; furniture; plants; lumber; piles and piles of bamboo poles. Many times I have regretted not having a bicycle trailer. Then again, when I look back over the months and years that I have NOT been able to pick up stuff because I didn’t have a way to carry it home, it comes to me that if I had picked up all the stuff I thought I wanted, my house would be crammed with junk.

And when I look back, I can’t really remember all the stuff that was so great I just thought I absolutely needed it. One of my favorite quotes, by ultralight hiker Ray Jardine (of Ray-Way Tarp fame), comes to mind: “If you need it, but don’t have it … you don’t need it.” There are advantages to NOT being able to carry home everything.

Along with my haul of precious mulch, I also carried home plenty of gratitude. Our pastor had spoken about the “market gods” and how they fuel our desire for more, more, more — and how it never ends up being enough. My favorite antidote to that insatiable feeling is to deliberately feel gratitude in the moment. Gratitude turns whatever I have into more than enough.

Back when I lived in an RV, every little inch of space was a gift. Sometimes I’d free up a couple centimeters of space, and it would really feel like miles and miles of Texas! (I was living in Texas at the time, and would often break out into a joyous chorus of “Miles and Miles of Texas” when I’d discover some unused inch of space here or there in the RV.) This joy at a small thing is a huge feeling.

One time on a solo bicycle trip from Austin to New Mexico, I found myself at a roadside rest stop with leftover french fries from a diner lunch, and half a bottle of Gatorade from my afternoon snack stop. Plus a couple of Little Debbie snack cakes. Tasted like a five-star supper to me! Later as I crawled into my sleeping bag, with only a tarp underneath — no cushion from the concrete ground — I felt like a queen sinking into the finest featherbed.

By no means do I always feel this way. Oftentimes it’s the total opposite, in fact! I can be in luxurious circumstances, eating fancy food, having other people do everything for me, and still feel restless and unsatisfied. In fact, many times it actually ends up being easier for me to feel gratitude over simple things than over something luxurious and amazing. Maybe some sort of spoiled-brat reflex kicks in beyond a certain level of richness.

Gratitude is something I have to put conscious effort into at times, but it’s an investment that pays off in cascading dividends. I would really like for gratitude and appreciation to become more prevalent in USAmerican culture. I’d like to see us, as a people, have the ability to be more content with less. And that would be good for the planet also.

The Value of Reducing Your Overhead

Good, down-to-earth advice based on wisdom and experience is something I always appreciate. When I hear such advice from two very different sources, I’m even more inclined to sit up and take notice.

A piece of advice that made a big impression on me was, “Reduce your need to earn.” I heard this back in 2005 from Scott Pittman, of the U.S. Permaculture Institute, who taught the two-week course in Santa Fe, NM, where I earned my first Permaculture Design Certificate.

I just loved that phrase! And often over the years I’ve encountered the same advice worded differently from a variety of sources, including successful corporate executives. The other day, reading a business leadership book (I read a lot of those — they’re great reading not just for business but for life!), I came across the following:

Many young leaders are tempted to take high-salaried jobs to pay off loans or build their savings, even if they have no interest in the work and do not intend to stay. They believe that after ten years they can move on to do the work they love. Yet many become so dependent on maintaining a certain lifestyle that they get trapped in jobs where they are demotivated and unhappy. Locked into the high-income/high-expense life, they cannot afford to do work they love. Ironically, not one of the leaders interviewed would up taking a position predicated upon establishing wealth early so they they could later pursue roles they would enjoy.

Excellent advice, from TRUE NORTH – Discover Your Authentic Leadership, by Bill George with Peter Sims.

I’d actually been practicing this principle for years without fully realizing what I was doing. Long before I took that life-changing Permaculture Design Certificate course, I had reduced my financial overhead to the point where I only had to work a few hours a week to cover my expenses. The rest of the time was free to develop business ideas, make art, connect with friends, ponder solutions to world problems, get out in nature. And, perhaps most importantly, have ample time and headspace to tune in to my inner voice.

Anytime I hear of someone who “can’t afford” to do the work they really want to do; can’t afford to travel; can’t afford to take courses; can’t afford to live the way they want to live; or just plain can’t figure out what they want in life … my first advice is always, “Reduce your overhead. Reduce your need to earn.”

This advice applies doubly to people who are passionate about the environment. Reducing our overhead not only helps us personally; it helps the planet. People with low overhead and simple needs tend to have a much lower eco-footprint. And, they have more free time and headspace to ponder solutions to our collective problems.

Want to improve your life and reduce your footprint in short order? Reduce your need to earn! Note, this is different from saying “Cut your earnings. Deprive yourself. Embrace poverty, be poor, live on the edge.”

No, what I’m talking about is reducing your NEED to earn.

Or, in other words: “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” Those words are from Henry David Thoreau (a real master of low-footprint living large!).

A really far-out example of this principle is Diogenes, the ancient Greek philosopher who supposedly dwelt in an urn. Now THAT would reduce a person’s housing costs! A very low-footprint life, with few possessions other than his drinking cup. But one day, Diogenes came upon a young boy who didn’t even have a cup, and simply drank water out of his hands. Seeing this, Diogenes tossed his own cup away.

Most of us prefer to own cups, and at least a bit of other stuff besides. But almost all of us can benefit ourselves, and help the planet, by reducing our need to earn.

For your further encouragement, I give you two present-day real-life examples of highly successful small businesses that were started by people who’d just had the seemingly disastrous experience of losing their steady, high-paying jobs:

The Soup Peddler, Austin TX: started out as a one-man bicycle-based business delivering jars of homemade soup; grew into multiple storefront locations

Kale Café Juice Bar & Vegan Cuisine, Daytona Beach FL: started out as a booth at a farmers’ market; now has multiple storefronts

Business Lessons; Life Lessons

I’ve always been a big reader. Besides fiction and sustainability-related books, one of the other categories of books I read most is business books. (A low-footprint lifestyle helps me protect my time so I never have to say I don’t have time for reading! So if you want more time for reading, that’s just one more incentive for you to minimize your footprint, and I hope this blog and my book will help you.)

One of my favorite business reads over the past few months was The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley. This book by Victor W. Hwang explores the “secret ingredients” that turn a place into a hotbed of innovation and investment. I also greatly enjoyed The Lohman Way: Entrepreneur Lowell Lohman’s Story and Strategies for Building Multimillion-Dollar Family Businesses, by E.L. Wilks.

But yesterday I picked up a business book that ended up being possibly my all-time favorite so far: The Five Temptations of a CEO, by Patrick Lencioni. (The photo above shows the book in the Little Free Library I set up in front of my house.)

I devoured the book in a couple of hours. The author identifies five “temptations” that CEOs fall into, that end up harming their companies. These five temptations are 1) choosing status over results; 2) choosing popularity over accountability; 3) choosing harmony over conflict; 4) choosing certainty over clarity; 5) choosing invulnerability over trust.

Mr. Lencioni wrote his book for CEOs of companies. But, as a self-employed person, I’ve always considered myself to be a CEO too, albeit CEO of a company with just one employee. Today, looking through the lens of “The Five Temptations,” I’ve gained a deeper understanding of a catastrophic business failure I experienced a few years back, and how to avoid repeating those mistakes.

Here’s what happened. A few years back, I got involved in a venture with other self-employed people. We were working together, but keeping our finances separate. Things were going fine, til one year I absolutely tanked financially. Ended up not only with zero money to my name, but actually in the red. Truth be told, I’d been struggling for quite some time, but I had just kept throwing money at my problems rather than look into the root causes.

From a “Five Temptations” standpoint, here are the mistakes I made:

1) Choosing status over results: After achieving a certain measure of success, I became preoccupied with where I stood in relation to my teammates. I got into comparing myself with them and envying them the recognition they were getting, and seeking such recognition for myself rather than staying focused on our actual work, which was to help people make desired changes in their lives.

2) Choosing popularity over accountability: In working with clients, I was out to be “liked,” be the “good guy,” rather than be the “tough guy” who pushes people to fully attain their desired results. A no-win game.

3) Choosing harmony over conflict: By not being willing to ask hard questions, I squandered time and energy engaging with people who weren’t good candidates for our products and services (and in the process, probably overlooked people who were seeking what we were offering).

4) Choosing certainty over clarity: Rather than make decisions based on the information available to me and move forward, I became a procrastinator, always waiting for that last bit of essential information so I could be 100% certain of success before making a move. Never happened!

5) Choosing invulnerability over trust: When I started getting into trouble, rather than confide in my teammates I kept things to myself and struggled alone, focused on “keeping up appearances.” If I’d been willing to be vulnerable, I’d have gotten some solid advice and moral support (which did in fact happen later, once I was willing to confide in them).

What’s nice about the “temptations” framework is that it offers a simple (though not necessarily easy) path to self-correction. Although I’d never heard of the Five Temptations until yesterday, much of what I did to recover from my business collapse was in keeping with what I read in Mr. Lencioni’s book.

I am very fortunate to have what I consider a calling in life, and quitting it is not an option. Therefore I always need to be willing to look at myself and make corrections when things aren’t going well.

My favorite business books are applicable not just to business, but to life in general. In an upcoming post I’ll talk about a time in my life when I fell into the “Five Temptations” to the detriment of some of my most valued personal relationships. And how I got out of that!

Unexpected Flower

This morning. Hauling water out to the plants that need it most (at this point, endless days of no rain, it is a triage game). Feeling annoyed to no end as the water I’ve painstakingly carried runs off my sloped yard and onto the sidewalk. (I dig little trenches uphill of each plant but they fill in quickly so I have to stay on top of it.)

And just as I’m feeling sort of defeated, my eye catches on a spot of purple. A morning glory! A beautiful purple morning glory I did not plant! A pretty treat for my morning. And a reminder that even when my current efforts don’t seem to be accomplishing much, a sudden flower can pop up seemingly out of nowhere. Probably from someone else’s past effort. I take it as a reminder to have faith, to keep contributing my efforts to the general pool, and just enjoy that process and not get too stuck on outcomes.

Coincidentally, via Facebook’s “memory” feature, this morning on my Facebook feed I encountered “Bicycle Morning Glory,” a painting I did about five years ago and had forgotten about. I don’t remember who bought the original painting but presumably it is “blooming” in someone’s home or office. And I was pleasantly surprised to see this old forgotten creation “bloom” in my e-universe this morning.

Five Subscribers

As I was checking a new post, I happened to notice that this blog has five subscribers. Five is a nice number, in the same family as three or seven for me. Numbers I’ve always felt an affinity for.

I’m amazed that there are bloggers and YouTubers and others out there with five hundred or five thousand or five million viewers. It just blows my mind. How does anyone even get there?

But right now, I don’t care about the answer to that question. Five subscribers is huge to me. It’s a group of people; an audience. I feel an obligation to provide quality and substance. Five. A number of readers I can feel. Five pairs of eyes. Five minds. Connected through this blog and (presumably) an interest in the topic.

As a kid, starting when I was maybe 12 years old, I loved to sit in my room at night and listen to the radio. (King Biscuit Flour Hour; Dr. Demento — for those seeking historic context.) Sometimes I’d be reading at the same time; more often drawing or writing.

On summer nights especially, the whole night felt alive. I felt this connection between the DJ, the other listeners, whoever they were and however many — thousands? millions? — and myself. Though I didn’t think of it consciously, looking back I realize I always felt somehow that we formed a living pulsing net, stretched across the USA (though it was FM radio and that’d be impossible).

My room, by the way, was pure 1976 tween/teen girl. Posters of gymnasts: Olga Korbut! Nadia Comaneci! Artwork and magazine clippings tacked to the cork bulletin board on my closet door. Blacklight fuzzy velvet poster of a puma crouched on a tree limb. And of course an Elton John poster. My favorite album was Captain Fantastic. In case you were curious!

On summer nights especially for some reason, the ceiling of my room seemed like an artificial barrier, visual only. My mind was fully merged with the sky and stars and wind and the music on the radio. Radio is magic like that; I still feel that way.

And now here we are in the age of blogging, videoing, TED-talking. People who were once just folks like you and me, suddenly attract audiences of thousands or millions in a flash. A thousand likes; a million views; “It went viral”!

And yet, for me, having five subscribers to this blog is huge. Huge! Maybe someday it’ll be 10. 20. Maybe even a hundred or a thousand or more, who knows. But right now I don’t care about that; I am simply humbled and thrilled and amazed to have FIVE readers who actually care enough to subscribe. Anonymous, known in number only, we are nonetheless all connected. By our similarities, sure, but also by our differences. Like the radio listeners on some summer night 40 years ago, when the world was younger and the possibilities seemed to widen out forever.

Though I get discouraged by things sometimes, and I’m sure you do too, in my heart I still feel that the possibilities widen out forever. And that the world can be as young as we make it. I’m here for you guys. My five subscribers. Literally, I’m here for you! Thank you and God/dess bless you on our journey.

Blistering Desert, and Forest Refuge

Day after day, blistering heat, no rain in sight. Watering the plants I’ve scrounged at curbside (or the plants that kind friends have brought me) involves hauling 20 to 40 gallons of well water to various corners of the yard, watering can by watering can full. I’m about done in. If you’re curious what I look like in my own mind right now, picture the “American Gothic” woman but a bit squidgy around the middle, and with no pitchfork-wielding husband standing by her side. #Fried #Hardscrabble

At this point I’ve just gotta say, All right, plants, I’ve done my best with you. If it’s not your time it’s not your time. Other plants will grow, other shrubs will be left at curbside for me to scrounge. I might still do the water-hauling thing, at least it’ll burn a few calories, be good for my core. #MidlifeMoment

I just spent the day doing errands along one of our main thoroughfares, watching landscapers weed-whack the expensive turfgrass under the expensive palm trees (that replaced the old oak trees that had been growing there). The fumes and noise were overwhelming as I bicycled past.

The expensive palm trees are held up by braces. What a costly, high-maintenance operation. Why do we humans do this? Why do we cut down old trees and understory that were self-maintaining, and replace it with resource-consuming high-maintenance stuff? It’s not even particularly pretty; it’s very sterile-looking like the landscape in one of those Sim City games.

Just my brief experience of homeownership so far, struggling to get a few plants to grow so I can have some vertical green around me and not be forced by the lawn-gestapo to maintain a vast expanse of flat shaved thin green desert, would be enough to make me a raving lunatic forest-fanatic if I were not already.

And now for your viewing pleasure, various forested lots I espied while “killing time” before an appointment. (BTW I try to never actually kill time. That’d be such a waste of a nonrenewable resource!) I love the residential lots. These people have escaped the treadmill of lawn maintenance, and created deep green sanctuary for themselves, and for wildlife.