Raised in the tumult of Japan’s industrial powerhouse, the 11 men and women profiled in A Different Kind of Luxury have all made the transition to sustainable, fulfilling lives. Based on Andy Couturier's popular articles in The Japan Times, this lushly designed volume has a wealth of stories about real people who have created an abundance of time for contemplation, connecting with the natural world, and contributing to their communities. In their success is a lesson for us all: live a life that matters. Read an excerpt of the book here or here. Read a review of the book here, here, or here.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Yes, but can we do it HERE?

It would be a mistake to think that A Different Kind of Luxury is about Japan.  I'ts about (dare I say it?) Life.  It is a book about how we use our time, about making connections to other people, to the luminous natural world, and to our own selves.

Inevitably, some people who read the book say, "Yes, they can do it in Japan ... but can we live this kind of rich slow, self reliant, palpable life here in the US? (Or anywhere in the West?) " The answer is absolutely Yes.

Creation from Nature by Steve Odell
I have seen it, and could share with you dozens of examples of people I know (or have met in the process of promoting the book who have done it).  One person, a young artist by the name of Steve Odell, lives in a very low-rent one-room apartment and gathers seaweed at the shore, cooks up amazingly creative concoctions, and makes mysterious visual creations from the natural world.  He lives using almost no money at all.  Here's a pice of his artwork:

(By the way, Steve's contact information is drawmeasheep@riseup.net and he is "looking to exhibit in the Monterey Bay or San Francisco Bay Area." His other work is amazing too.)

I also met a woman who is in her 80s who lives on a piece of country property, grows her own food, has no car and just a telephone.  She's an inspiration.  She bought ten copies of A Different Kind of Luxury to share with people she cares about, loudly declaiming, "The people you write about, they are me!"

But mostly I'd like to use this blog post to introduce you to three books written by people who, in different ways, are giving us resources to live a different way than our society has set up for us.

The Urban Homestead, by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen.   All I can say is, what a delight to read. This is the book that may very well redifine the whole idea of “how to.”   Urban Foraging is one chapter title.  The book lets you in on the secrets of fruit mapping; it tells you six ways to harvest rainwater (they live in LA); it gives you  instructions on how to make your own butter.  I tried it.  Easy as pie.  Delicious.  

The book is (also!) written with such verve and panache.  Check out these sentences:   “Not all bacteria are bad; in fact, some are delicious.”  “Making a greywater wetland.” “Dehydration: Why save it for hangovers?”  In a section on making a slug trap, it says,  “Fill a shallow container with beer and bury it up to its rim inthe dirt in the middle of slug and snail territory.  The next moring it will look like th aftermath of a tragic fraternity party.”

It tells you how to do SO many things in our environment, now, without having to spend money, including how to make acorns edible, how to do all kinds of pickling via lacto-fermentation, how to keep ducks, quali and bees. There are five ways to preserve a tomato.  It also tells you about ENERGY, which is a deep concern of several people in A Different Kind of Luxury.  In a section starting with "heating and cooling take up 50% of all home energy use," they feature an amazing drawing of a box that sits outside your window, tilted at 45 degrees and connected to the window, that then collects heat from the sun, which heats the air in the box, and presto the heated air just flows right on in to your house!  

As they write,  “Anybody who is willing to live a compact domestic life is freed up financially to follow their dreams.”  As you read, you may say to yourself, "Hey, I could do that.  I really could do that in my life."  I did. 

And, lastly, I should say that there’s something about a book full of ideas for doing things for yourself that is beyond all the (wonderful, useful) suggestions.  It fills one with optimism.  The imagination spawns.  Entire mini empires grow in the mind, of how one could change one’s life, have more fun, eat more delicious food, and in general be more cool.

OK, here's another great one.  Radical Homemakers by Shannon Hayes.

Radical Homemakers is a radical book.  It challenges the idea that “homemaking” is somehow a condition for the un-liberated woman.  It's a book of ideas but it sprinkles throughout the examples of widely varying people who have chosen to make their economic system one that supports the life they really want to live.  It grapples with issues of health insurance as well as different feminist critiques of homemaking.   A couple of chapter titles might give you an idea “Politics, Ecology and Domestic Arts” “Redifining Wealth and Poverty”  “Tomato Canning Feminists” and  “Toward a Homegrown Culture.”  The format is different than A Different Kind of Luxury in that it’s organized by idea and theme, and not around the invidual stories and journeys, and it also takes a more overt look at the political and corporate world that has done so much to leave people in time poverty and running after some ever receding mirage.  

But Radical Homemakers gives readers very much the same message as my book: spend less, live more. Thanks to my writing student, Katrina Alcorn, by the way for telling me about this book.  In fact, she insisted that I buy it.  Sometimes you have to use enough force to get people to do something.  Check out Katrina’s blog, which is about how modern life does not support people having full family lives and what we can do about it. 

Here are a few quotes from Radical Homemakers:

“Thus, not only are [the radical homemakers] lowering their cost of living through producing [what they need], but they are also recuding their urge  to spend on distractions, instead filling their lives with meaningful and pleasurable  activity.”

"Quite often their incomes are significantly below the norm.  But that is because they have learned that there are two ways to make a living.  In one method ... substantial money is earned and then spent on purchasing life’s necessities.  In the other method, significantly less money is earned and basic necessities are produced or otherwised procured.  ... These households are filled with books, simmering pots, some dirty dishes, musical instruments, seedlings, wood shavings, maybe some hammers or drills, sewing machines, knitting baskets, canned peaches and tomato sauce, jars of saurkraut, freezers with hunted or locally raised meat and potted herbs."

I'd like to say to you what Katrina said to me, "By this book."

And lastly I'd like to tell you about a book I haven't yet gotten, but was recommended by a good friend.  Someone local to Oakland, where I teach writing.  It's called Farm City by Novella Carpenter

She writes: "All of us who grow a little food, bake, brew, keep small stock and bees--what have you--are part of the solution. By building community ties and practical knowledge we're creating a robust food production and distribution able to withstand shocks.  This is reason enough to do it, but as you all know, it's a whole lot of fun, too."

Novella has an urban farm in a predominantly African American area of Oakland, shares and sells her produce, and participates locally in a biodiesel cooperative, keeps goats and bees and offers farm tours.  I hope to meet her soon.  It's a cool and useful blog.

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