Tag Archives: lifestyle

Walking to Freedom

Walking is freedom. It is life, and journey experienced at a pace my body can understand. There’s time to look about, take in the details, experience the sun, the bird calls and the scenery. The rhythm of it brings me peace, and a sense of wellbeing. It might take a lot longer, but it doesn’t cost me anything, nor is it burning fuel. Most of the time, if I can I walk, regardless of the weather.

There’s a sense of kinship between people who walk. I was going down the side of a busy road the other day, carrying a load of wood. People in cars were staring at me like I was blue, or had wings. I guess if you drive from one heated building to another, the sight of a woman carrying firewood in her arms has got to come as a shock. I’m like something from a different century. Maybe it will have made a few of them think about their own choices and options. How would they interpret their own wealth if they stopped to ask if I do that out of necessity?

I was not the only person walking. I saw others, who were choosing their own feet as a mode of transport. We exchanged a few words, smiles, greetings. I didn’t know any of them, but that’s always the way with walkers. We’ve made the same choice, and we recognise something shared, that sets us apart from the folk zooming by in their cars.

The cry of the fast paced modern world demands we have to be here now and ten miles away in half an hour. Shops, homes, schools, doctors and leisure places are increasingly spread out, assuming you have access to a car and the will to use it. As oil prices go up and jobs evaporate, people are going to be struggling with car culture. Our ancestors walked, and they lived their lives at the pace of feet. It’s a good pace. It’s natural, real, good for the soul. Cars are dislocating.

People become used to and dependent on cars very easily, and then can’t imagine doing without them. People regularly tell me they can’t imagine walking the distances I do. I must walk 20 miles a week out of necessity, and sometimes ten or twenty miles additionally just for the pleasure of it. I love walking. It’s part of a whole set of choices. I don’t pay to go to a gym or spend a couple of hours in one every week, I walk. It’s very green, and very cheap. It enables me to slow down, to think and breathe, to experience my own body and have a deeper relationship with my surroundings.

Getting to the point whereby you have to drive everywhere a lot to hold your life together may feel like necessity. But get in there, scrutinise it, and you’ll find there were a whole series of choices underpinning that. If we put choices together unconsciously, doing what we think we ought, or not bothering to consider the options and consequences, we craft lifestyles that feel like we’re stuck with them.

I’m interested in owning my own life and defining the shape of it through conscious intention. I feel cleaner when I walk. I am healthier because I walk. I’m fit, I have excellent stamina. I benefit psychologically from both the exercise and the time spent outdoors. I’m walking my talk as a green and a Druid. It’s not always easy or fun – in the cold, the pouring rain, the ice, days when my body hurts or I’m tired and it feels like a chore. Sometimes I wish for a better bus service, or the luxury of a car, days when in other circumstances, I might be tempted to choose other ways. When it’s sleeting, I envy the warm people, sometimes. I’m aware that there are other choices I could make instead, and that I’ve made this choice, for my reasons. Every choice has consequences. But on a day like today, walking is a joy, and even when it isn’t, I still take pride in it. I have finite resources, if I spend them on getting about, I’d have to not spend on something else. It’s all choices to balance. I like to think if I had a car, I’d still opt to use my feet whenever I could.

When I see someone else out on foot, or taking the shopping home on a bicycle, I know they’ve made the same kinds of choices, for the same sorts of reasons – health, cost, environment. They’ve chosen the slow lane, the way of feet, the pace of the ancestors, cheaper overheads and a smaller footprint. I greet them as comrades, because they are, and they respond to me the same way. The people driving past us will not share those moments of human contact, that warm reinforcement. They don’t know what they’re missing.

Reason not the need

How often are we encouraged to consider what we need? There’s daily bombardment with pressure to want. Demand the fastest broadband, the smallest gadget, the latest hairstyle, the best insurance deal, the mobile phone with the most free minutes. Do we need any of this? How much happiness do you derive from the exact details of your DVD player’s specs, or the features in your car? Do they enable you to go to bed at night feeling satisfied, and good about your life? Probably not.

But they fill the void. They create noise to ward off the terrible silence that comes when you stop focusing on what you want and try to think instead about need.

What do you need?

Another expensive toy? That state of the art thing the guy next door just bought? A more expensive dress than the one the woman at the next desk was wearing yesterday? Those shoes. That car. And when you get them, you can be sure the next new bright shiny better thing will be along to tell you that the best is still beyond your reach. Happiness is in the next aisle, waiting on your credit card. You did get the best credit card deal, didn’t you?

The voice of need is a small, quiet voice, easily drowned out. We mistake it for want, assume we can answer it in the next shopping binge. We can drown it with alcohol. We can fill our time with the internet and television so that there’s no time or quiet to hear need speaking.

We need good, nutritious food, a sufficiency of sleep and exercise, time to rest and relax. We’re told to want ever faster, more hectic lifestyles full of junk food, an excess of work, too little sleep. We need darkness and quiet, we get light and noise 24/7. We need love, relationship and companionship. We get facebook friends and the people in soap operas and celebrity mags.

To answer the most basic needs of your body and mind, is to reject the whole social structure being built around us. It means not running pell mell from one appointment to the next, driving, using, consuming, earning frantically to pay for the next big thing. We don’t need that. But admitting we don’t need that and stepping away from the ‘norm’ is a scary process. Answering need means walking, not driving. Taking the time to be still and quiet, to sit with your arms round someone you love, just looking at the sky or listening to the birds. Happiness is not waiting on a supermarket shelf or at the bottom of a bottle. No one on television can actually sell you the secret of it.

The Emperor has no clothes on.

As long as we keep on letting other people tell us what to want, we are not going to sit down and figure out what we need. If we keep going along with it, buying into the story that this is how it should be, we perpetrate the myths. The lies. Of course we want the same things everyone else does, don’t we? Are we happy? Really? Or hankering after all the things we don’t have and think we ought to want. The next big shiny whatever. The next illusionary suit of clothes to dress up the emperor we so desperately want to pretend we are.

The title of this post refers to King Lear, fighting to keep all the trappings that, in his mind, equate to his dignity and sense of self. A man who is enslaved by what he wants such that he loses almost everything he truly needs. As a play it’s a good expression of world and relationship gone wrong. So do we too hang on to our trappings and illusions, crying ‘reason not the need’ and marching steadfastly towards our own ruin? Do we keep dressing ourselves up in the pretend happiness we’re told we want? Or do we start thinking?

Dangerous stuff this.

What do you need?

Not a proper job

Many regularly employed folk view self employment as being somehow less than a proper job. If you’re a stay at home mum, you are even more likely to find people perceive what you do as a ‘hobby job’. (Yes, people have said that to my face.) If your work is creative, you will again find the regularly employed view this as an easy option, not real work at all and a bit of a skive. For anyone whose bardic life is their employment or who works as a Druid in some way, this is going to be an occupational hazard. So, let’s do some mythbusting.

Being self employed is the easy option. No. Not only are you doing the work, you’re selling the work, finding the clients, keeping the books, you’re the receptionist, and the creative director, and you sink or swim entirely on your own efforts. If you are sick or take a holiday, you do not get paid.

Working from home means staying in your pyjamas and not putting in as many hours as everyone else. Not so. Working from home frequently requires you to leave the home. You may have a shorter commute but you have no one to share the coffee break with. Also, at the end of the working day, you do not get to leave it all behind. In practise, self employed people often work longer hours than regularly employed people.

It’s fun, you get it easy. Yes, being creative is fun. Learning songs is fun, writing poems and books is fun, painting pictures is fun. Except, your income depends entirely on your creativity. Most jobs if you have an off day, you’ll still get paid. Creativity depends on inspiration, and that’s tricksy. Many creative people live in fear of block. Also, the creative bit is only part of the job, you still have to research, practice, get it out there, sell it, promote etc. There’s a great deal of graft involved in being professionally creative, and not much certainty. Oh, and mortgage companies eye you with suspicion.

You get to stay home with your kids. You’re so lucky. I wish I could do that. Yes I do, and I am very grateful. I also get to return to work again after the kid has gone to bed, and to work before he goes to school. Stay at home mums often carry the bulk of the housework as well. That can mean working some very long days. It is a choice with many merits, but not a cop-out.

There are many pluses – the freedom to pick when to work (kind of) the being able to fit in around offspring, doing things I love (at least some of the time) being answerable only to me (and the tax man) occasionally being able to work from the duvet (when I am too sick to get up and work properly dressed). You get the idea. I like the fact that I fail or succeed based entirely on the quality and cleverness of what I do. I like that I get to live my own life, take time off when I want it, work when I feel inspired. Sometimes I work until midnight. Sometimes I start at five in the morning. I like being able to care for my home and family around having a job. But what I really, really don’t enjoy are the many people who disparage, devalue and otherwise put me down because I’m not someone else’s wage slave.

The models of working that serve big corporations and the fat cats running them do not serve the people who work there. They seldom serve the environment, or families. The regularly employed have to fight for work life balance, endure their commutes, their lack of control over their own work lives and the stress all of this brings them. At least my stresses are largely my own to manage, and that’s a huge advantage. Smaller, more locally focused business are far better socially and environmentally. That means self employed folk. Self employment and the flexibility it brings is far more realistic for those who are also carers, or unwell themselves. The system we have is biased against it and unsupportive of it. That needs to change.

Poverty as an art form

Here in the UK tax on goods is about to go up, and duty on fuel has risen as well. Duty on fuel puts up the price of pretty much everything, and the VAT hike will make that even more pronounced. At the same time wages are being frozen. People are going to have a lot less money to play with, and for many that’s going to be a frightening prospect. I’m going to intersperse cheap living blogs with my other content. Living cheaply often also means living greener.

Those thrown into poverty for the first time in their lives are often disorientated and upset, by the loss of insulation money brings, the loss of choice and the huge insecurity. Posts written by a friend who has recently been forced onto benefits reminded me of this. The fear of poverty makes the experience of it worse.

I didn’t grow up with a great deal of money. For various reasons I’ve lived in austerity for all of my adult life. (Long story, for another day.) I can say with absolute confidence that not having much money to play with does not automatically equate to misery, degradation and abysmal quality of life. It limits you, certainly. But it’s also a great educator. You have to prioritise carefully, work out what is essential and what isn’t. We’re taught to want far more than we need in a culture that is very much about making us buy stuff. Stepping away from that can be liberating, and if you go into it with a view to being freed from the tyranny of objects, then it becomes an entirely different process.

Attitude is in fact key. How you relate to tightening the belt will inform how you experience it. Go in anticipating misery and you’ll find it. If you can relate to it as a creative challenge, then it’s far less painful. Look back at the make do and mend attitude of the second world war. Take it as an opportunity to reduce waste – which is fantastically green. Reducing waste saves money, but you don’t have to relate to it as some kind of desperation, it’s you doing your bit to help save the planet.

Going green to save money – walking rather than taking the car, doesn’t have to look like poverty to anyone else. Cycle to work rather than take the train? It’s part of your new, healthier lifestyle choice. And at the same time while you’re walking and cycling to get about, you don’t need that gym membership, and on it goes. You can be green and healthy, keep your dignity and lighten the load on your wallet all in one go.

By the looks of it, the way things are going most of us are going to have to figure out how to get by with a lot less. Coming to that as bards, druids and pagans, we should accept the possibilities it brings us rather than letting what we can’t change make us unhappy. Some things cannot be fought to good effect, and the pain dished out by governments is all too often on that list. But, going in with the intention of living well, greenly, healthily and on a tighter budget is a good place to start. There is an art to being poor without being miserable. It comes from releasing the need to own, letting go of desires to be fashionable and up to date, and embracing a quieter, more down to earth lifestyle, one that is in many ways far more compatible with paganism than affluent consumerism is.

Financial poverty is not any other kind of poverty. There are a great many other ways in which we can be rich indeed, and these are, I find, far more rewarding.

Keep the home fires burning!

Central heating means that you can go out of a cold winter’s night and come home to a warm house. Hurrah for human innovation and technology… And for most people the central heating can be topped up with gas or electric heaters. Instant warmth! In the past rich people had servants who, when you get down to it, could be used much like the central heating – you go out, you come home to a nice fire. Although some of those huge houses must have been cold and draughty, and I can’t imagine that castles were warm.

Then there were all of our poorer ancestors. Most of us won’t come from wealthy, aristocratic stock. Our forebears will have lived a lot closer to the soil. And the fire. While there’s nothing more cheery than a fire in the hearth, they’re very different to live with. If you go out for the day, the fire does not light itself for nightfall. If you’re very clever at setting it up, it might stay in and a bit warm for as much as 12 hours, enough to stop your house from freezing, but not enough to keep you comfortable if the temperature drops below zero. (I write from experience).

When all you have for heating and cooking is the fire, then keeping it going becomes essential to survival in winter. This also means that you can’t all decide to go out for the night. Rolling back from the pub at midnight to a frozen home, ice inside the windows and a bed that will make you yelp from the cold (because no fire means no warming pan in the bed, no hot water bottle…) is no kind of fun. The man of the house might head out, but the odds were a woman would stay home, look after the children and keep the fire in, historically speaking.

Using electricity or gas to heat a house means not really seeing how much energy you use. Not until the bill arrives, which can be a shock. Heat happens by magic, and until we have to pay for it, it’s easy not to envisage that as resources used. Burning wood and coal is a much more immediate experience. You rapidly develop a keen sense of how much it takes to keep you warm. Once the snow and ice settle in, you aren’t going to be able to fell more trees, and most of them won’t burn green anyway. Anyone who has tried foraging sticks for the fire will know how much work it takes to bring home enough wood for a few hours. Sticks burn fast. Rotten sticks don’t burn well. Foraging in freezing conditions is hard. Snow-covered wood rapidly becomes wet and reluctant to burn wood.

Now add into the mix single glazing, no cavity wall insulation, no loft insulation, windows and doors made of wood that might not keep the drafts out, and the implications of winter for our ancestors, even relatively recent ones, start to become more apparent. To be warm at the touch of a button is a luxury they could not have dreamed of.

One day, the supply of natural gas will run out. We are pushing the limits of electricity supplies in the UK and sometimes this results in power cuts. Do we want more nuclear power stations? The fossil fuel burning stations are going to run out of supplies too, eventually. Can we really do it all on renewable energy supplies? Most modern homes don’t have fireplaces in them. How would you cook if the power went off for a few days? How would you keep warm? We’re so used to the comforts of modern life, most of us, that we take them for granted and imagine they will always be there. How would we cope if obliged to live as our ancestors did? How many of us even know how to do that? And what is the likelihood that we might be going to have to learn, if we can’t better manage our energy consumption, as a species.

Optimism, pessimism, realism

How we relate to life informs how we experience it. People who are always looking for the bad in things tend to find it. People who make the best of things tend to be happier.

To my mind, optimists are people who are forever being disappointed. Nothing much goes as we expect it to, and over-optimism is a recipe for getting yourself sorely let down. Pessimism means you get to be right, or pleasantly surprised. But it’s so easy to create a self-fulfilling prophecy in either direction, or to see what you expect to see and miss what’s happening. Steadfastly seeing only the good can lead you deeper into trouble.

Planning for the future and imagining what we want is necessary for getting things done. Without that, we’re only ever reacting, not creating. To live creatively you have to dream, and believe it is possible to turn those dreams into reality. Aware of where you want to be, you can tailor current action to support it. Sometimes it’s fun to be spontaneous, in the moment and just letting that carry you where it will. If your spontaneity is a true expression of self, then it can carry you forward in ways you aren’t going to hate.

The happiest people I know have a sense of direction – not necessarily that complex or detailed, but enough to guide them. They have enough self awareness that their ‘off the cuff’ words and actions do not turn out to be self defeating. I’ve seen a fair few people along the way frustrated by not knowing where they want to go, and thus having no clue as to how to live in order to get there. And people who are utterly self defeating in their determination to be miserable. People who act without thought and do or say things they don’t mean, have little scope for achieving true happiness because they continually thwart their own interests, damage their relationships and backing themselves into corners they don’t like.

There are balances to strike. We need good dreams to guide us and give us courage. We have to believe we can achieve them, or we give up and drift unhappily. We need to live in ways that take us towards our dreams. Approaching life in a way that embraces and emphasises the good in it enables happiness. And at the same time we need the voice of the inner pessimist to flag up dangers and make us recognise setbacks for what they are, and enough realism to hold it all together.

Like so many processes around growth, this is not something to achieve overnight, or to do once and have ‘fixed’. It’s a theory to carry into every day, each situation. To keep asking ‘where is the good in this?’ is so important. So keep watching for the fails and insufficiencies – because they drive us to do better. Pausing, breathing, balancing, thinking things through, asking ‘is this what I really want?’ and ‘is this who I want to be?’ It’s not all doom and gloom, not if we refuse to let it be so.

Cafe Opening

Garden in the City - Elen Sentier
Garden in the City – Elen Sentier

Garden in the City opens at 10am on Thursday 9th December 2010.

Do come.


Wye’s Women

Elen Sentier & Jennie Russell-Smith

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