I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences between making a living and making a lifestyle. As a recent university graduate I spent the first three months of my post-university life reconnecting with friends and family and reminding myself what life looks like when you don’t close down libraries at midnight. Running into (generally older) relatives at weddings and reunions usually meant that at some point (or multiple points) in an evening I would be confronted with the question of what I’m doing next. Although it’s an innocent and honest question on the surface, if asked with the proper tone it can carry a society’s worth of conditioning to imply that the only appropriate response to said question involves a clear and detailed career plan. I don’t have a career plan and although my canned response that “I’m looking for ways to use stories to inspire and educate” receives some favourable reviews, I honestly have no idea how I’m going to put a roof over my head and food on my table in the medium to long term. But, even if my liberal arts and sciences degree didn’t give me a paint by number career path it did instil me with a careful skepticism. My initial reaction to the question of shelter and food is to ask what shelter and food mean. Sleeping on couches and in basements for the majority of my summer reminded me about the beautiful side of simple living but I also aspire to one day live as part of a larger family unit (whatever that means) and those aspiration require a less transient infrastructure. What that infrastructure will be, I don’t know. But to some extent I’m treating my current travel as research into different lifestyles. There’s a balance to strike between making a living and making a lifestyle and some folks seem to have struck it.
I spent a week in mid-august wwoofing at the Harvest Moon Organic Bakery just outside of Lion’s Head on the Bruce Peninsula. I traded labour for food and lodging, stayed in a bunky on site, and assumed responsibility for the disposal of any and all broken butter tarts. The owners have run the bakery for almost 19 years, built themselves a passive solar home, carved walking trails and sculpture garden through the bush, and are socially engaged and lovely people. At one point they also operated both a large garden and bed and breakfast but they’ve scaled back in recent years. Although they work hard and long hours during the summer (theirs is after all a seasonal business) they produce good quality food, eat primarily from a garden they tend themselves, and spend the winter skiing, reading, and playing board games. After seven days, I left having met some of their neighbours, learned more about gardening, sided a treehouse, and been thoroughly entranced by a lifestyle that seemed to connect to both the physical and social space it inhabits. The folks at Harvest Moon make a living from a lifestyle that encourages active connection to their neighbours and physical surroundings. That appeals to me.
‘What next’ questions from my well-meaning relatives seem to focus only on the issue of making a living. My responses are sometimes met with disappointed and skeptical expressions but I’m trying to figure out what kind of lifestyle I want so that I know what ‘making a living’ means before I commit to a specific endeavor like law school or an oil rig contract that might fill my bank account at the cost of spiritual bankruptcy. While trying to avoid value judgements, I’m compelled to nonetheless acknowledge that no amount of money is worth doing things that would make me miserable and I say this from the middle of a 6 week contract that has me scrubbing toilets three mornings a week – although I am cleaning them in the middle of a national park in the Rocky Mountains.
You can only start with the question of making a living if you’ve already assumed the answer to what it means to make a life. It’s the same as asking how you’re going to get enough lumber to build your fence before you’ve figured out the height you want and the perimeter of your yard. Switching your thinking changes the question from ‘how am I going to provide for my needs’ to ‘what needs do I need to provide for and how can I meet them’. I’m still trying to figure what my needs are or could be but a week at Harvest Moon reminded me that yearly income doesn’t have to be earned over50 weeks a year at a 9-5 job and that work in something like a garden and kitchen can circumvent the need for some expenditures. Who doesn’t like homemade preserves?
I’ve got a few relatives who enthusiastically raise lifetime earning statistics to point out that I really should be starting my career as soon as possible. They’re measuring success by earnings; I’m not. And while I acknowledge that wealth affords opportunities, I’m inclined to view money as a means to an end rather than the end in itself. This perspective is the result of a certain amount of privilege. I didn’t need to work for a few months following university because I had friends and family who could put me up and enough money in the bank to move between them. And I’ve had the time to think about these things because I spent four years at an expensive post-secondary institution. Not to mention that as an articulate white male, the odds of me finding lucrative employment are good no matter where I look. Not everyone is this lucky and my thinking would probably be different if I had dependants and bills to pay. But I think that the question of lifestyle needs to come first in any case. It doesn’t matter how much you can afford to pay if you haven’t figured out what you want to buy. It doesn’t matter how you make a living if you don’t know how you want to live.