Two friends and I went sailing a few weeks ago and had a wonderful time. We put the boat in the water from the marina and then sailed with the tide for about three hours to a lovely harbor town called Brightlingsea to camp the night. Because of the timing of the tide, we arrived late in the afternoon, as it happened, at exactly 5:00 pm. My friend, John, who owns the boat, knew that the overnight moorings were in the middle of the harbor channel and would require a ride on the water taxi to get us to shore and the town. But he didn’t know that the water taxi went off duty at 5:00.
The harbourmaster told us that he could give us a ride, but he made us feel that he was doing us a big favour. And he told us that he himself went off duty at 6:00 pm. After that, there would be no one looking after the harbor and there would have been no one to take us to shore.
This started me thinking. Here is this nice little village, isolated from London by meandering creeks and estuaries, a wonderful place to go to get away from it all, and historically it would have been even more isolated and necessarily self-sufficient. They would have had a harbormaster who lived in a little house by the harbor, like lighthouse keepers lived in or by their lighthouses. They wouldn’t leave at 5 or 6 pm, because they would live where they worked. They would always be there, even of you arrived at 2 am. Because people who arrive at 2 am may need help more than anyone.
But now, now I’m sure the harbormaster and the water taxi driver live in houses outside of the village, maybe miles and miles outside. So they go home at dinner time and stay home. The harbor becomes lifeless and unprotected in the evening and for all of the night. And the tides that used to rule the life of a harbor village don’t matter any more. Arrive 8 am. Leave 6 pm. Every day of the year. Damn the sun and moon and tide.
Our lives have got too spread out, so much so we can’t effectively look after things and each other. And it isn’t just sailors with leisure time who lose by it. We all lose by driving so far to work, by putting such a premium on everything but distance. We want the best of everything, and seem willing to drive or fly or pay for shipping any distance to get it.
When I was a teenager I met a girl who lived in the Shenandoah valley about an hour and a half west of us. She and her family lived in a beautiful 1832 brick farmhouse on an acre or so of land. Ideal home. Her father had a great job at National Geographic in Washington, DC, a job that was both creative and well-paying. Ideal job. And in order to connect his ideal home to his ideal job, he drove 2 hours each way every day to and from work. I always wondered at the personal cost, and the effects on the family. And that is just one not-so-extreme example of something that goes on all around. If it didn’t then traffic wouldn’t be so bad.
But it doesn’t just affect the individual and their family when we practice this type of roaming perfectionism. When we search far and wide for the absolutely best person for every job, we overlook lots of people who would be ok at the job and who might live a lot closer. What to do with all the resulting jobless people who are caught in between is one of the conundrums of our society.
And yet the irony is that the remaining few who crave the local and the small must often travel great distances to find it. I n Virginia I was lucky to live only a couple hours drive from one of the great experiments in small and simple living, Twin Oaks. It’s a community of about 100 people living in the woods and farming the land in rural Virginia. It’s been about 100 people for 20 or more years, so I guess there’s no danger of it growing too fast.
Everyone living at Twin Oaks also works there. They aren’t required to, but as one person there put it, “Being here is so nice, why would you leave every day if you don’t have to?” There are very smart people at Twin Oaks and they could certainly get good jobs in the cities not far away. But they aren’t interested in that kind of “maximization of their potential.” Instead, they want to live somewhere really nice, and spend their days contributing to making it even nicer.
I once read a book called Your Money or Your Life that was all about how leading a smaller simpler life isn’t very hard to do at all. It isn’t hard to live on much less money and still enjoy life. In fact, you’d probably enjoy it more. We waste most of the money we work so hard to make. We go on vacations to escape the life we have, which wouldn’t be necessary if we liked our lives in the first place. We buy nice clothes for work. We pay immense rents or mortgages to live near work, or immense commuting costs if we don’t, or both. We eat out and go to movies and pay for everything, when we could eat better if we cooked our own food, and laugh more if we produced our own entertainment like community theatre.
My life now is pretty simple. I’m living off investments, volunteering and traveling and writing. Life can be simple and yet rewarding. Why not?