The Freedom of Nothing

Galesburg, IL

As I write this, I’m sitting on Amtrak’s California Zephyr, bound for Denver from Chicago. It’s dark outside, and all I see are the occasional lights of a small town flashing by. This probably won’t get posted until I arrive in Denver tomorrow.

One of the primary reasons I am able to become a farmer and travel the world at this point in my life is because I have the immense freedom of having nothing tying me to a place, a person, or things. This freedom overwhelmed me at first, but I’m finally taking advantage of what it can offer. And it feels good.

I have nowhere I have to be.

The most common question I get about my plans is how I can afford to do this. In simple terms, the companies I work for have no physical offices. I’m an independently-contracted writer, and I primarily write SEO content for a couple of content providers. I know. I also didn’t know that was a real job until I saw a Facebook acquaintance’s post at the perfect time in my life.

The great and terrible thing about social media is that it makes equal “friends” of people you’ve known your whole life, people you met once at a party, and people you’ve never met at all. My contact in this case was a friend of a friend who I had met through our mutual work at the student radio station for Indiana University (WIUX-LP FM).

Two weeks before I moved to Chicago, I hadn’t lined up a job or an apartment. I found the apartment through Craigslist; my English degree qualifies me to perfectly intuit how much I’ll enjoy an apartment and its roommates from a three-line ad. The job came from my radio acquaintance posting a Facebook request for writers an hour before I left for a California vacation. After submitting a writing sample and emailing with my contact, I had a job.

Tangent Alert

This story is a great example of why I wouldn’t be able to do most of what I have planned without the internet. While the thought of becoming a farmer is often seen as anachronistic or willfully technophobic, I wouldn’t have even learned of the WWOOF organization without the internet. Nor would you be reading this on my website. I’m very lucky to be living in a time where this type of digital and wireless infrastructure exists.

I have no spouse.

In previous generations, men my age would usually have a wife, a steady job, and children. My generation has not seemed to subscribe to this timeline. Some say it’s because the economy collapsed. Others blame social media and the paralyzing number of potential spouses the internet provides.

Many may say that people my age are taking longer to sow their wild oats. I’ve apparently decided that I will need to literally sow some oats — in a literal field — before I’ll be prepared to marry. If Wendell Berry’s thoughts on marriage “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” “The Body and the Earth”) hold any truth, I’ve not yet gotten married because I’ve not yet had a reason to do so.

For Berry, a marriage can only succeed when there is a physical manifestation of the couple’s love. This has traditionally been the purpose of the household. Women and men today are working longer hours at jobs outside the home, however; this leaves less time and energy for strengthening a home. We see homes today full of designs and appliances that try to eliminate the need for work wherever possible. All this convenience leaves the couple without a common bank in which to invest their love.

I’ve started thinking of marriage as a committed partnership more than a romantic relationship. Married readers will know whether or not I’m at all accurate. Nevertheless, these thoughts have made me long for some kind of solid household in which I can invest my love for someone. Farming seems to be a path that directs all work energy toward the household itself. In this light, my adventures in agriculture might lay an ideal foundation for a strong marriage.

I have no stuff.

Finally, my freedom comes from not having much in the way of personal belongings. I’ve already written about selling, donating, and recycling a great number of my possessions in the lead-up to my move from Chicago. The persistent notion of dropping everything and going on adventures aided my efforts to avoid accumulating belongs, as did never having much of an income. Everything I own now sits in a single closet of my parents’ house or is with me on this train heading from Chicago to Denver.

Owning little also means owing little. I have no property taxes or insurance. Without a car, I don’t pay for gas or insurance. I no longer have rent or utilities to worry about. After this West Coast journey, my monthly expenses will be limited to phone service and insurance (health and bicycle). Everything else will go into savings or toward a beer every once in a while.

I’m grateful for these freedoms, and I’m eager to start work on something solid that comes with tangible results. It may not be my own household yet, but it’s a place that will receive my love in the same way.

Everything I Own

All My StuffAfter three months of working, planning, and stressing about it, I moved out of my Chicago apartment yesterday. I’d like to thank my dad for making the trip up from Indiana to help me move. Being an engineer, he has a much better understanding of how things can fit in a space than I do, and this came in handy when packing all my worldly possessions into a car.

The picture on the right is everything I currently own piled up on the floor of my parents’ house. It feels strange to move things back to my childhood home at the age of 27, especially since I haven’t lived here since the summer after my first year in college.

Although I’m only staying with them for a couple of days before I’m on the road, they have been gracious enough to host the things I won’t need now (but will want whenever I make my home somewhere). In the interest of simplicity in my own life and of not becoming a burden in theirs, I slowly chipped away at my possessions in the months leading up to the move.

Of course, I wanted to do this without just throwing a bunch of things in the trash. One of the main reasons I’m heading off on this adventure is to be a better steward of the planet, and throwing away what I’ve accumulated seemed irresponsible. Instead, I focused on selling, donating, lending, and, as a last resort, recycling as much as I could. In the interest of helping anyone else who wants to downsize, here are some things I did:

  • I digitized all my hundreds of CDs to high-quality mp3 files and stored them (along with all other important files) on an external hard drive and a cloud-based backup service (CrashPlan). I then sold the CDs to resale shops like Reckless Records in Chicago and SecondSpin.com. I took all of the CDs that didn’t sell to Best Buy to be recycled. I walked the 7-mile round trip to the nearest Chicago Best Buy around 10 times with a messenger bag full of CDs and stuffed the CDs into the appropriate depository at the front of the store. This brings me to:
  • Best Buy electronics recycling is where it’s at. In Illinois and Indiana (and probably many other states), Best Buy offers a free electronics recycling program. In addition to the aforementioned CDs, I recycled audio cables, an old desktop computer, a printer, a tuner, and probably a few other things I’m forgetting. No questions asked other than if I would like a recycling receipt. Please don’t throw out your electronics when it’s so easy to recycle them.
  • There were a few things that I donated to a Goodwill-like service in Chicago called the Brown Elephant.
  • I lent (or foisted upon, perhaps) friends much of the art I’ve purchased or received over the years. I’m proud to say that my Drew Etienne collection will still grace someone’s home even while I’m away on a farm.
  • I loaned the music equipment that I intend (or hope) to use in the future to friends who will get more use out of it in the next few years than I will. I sold the gear I no longer wanted on Craigslist and eBay.

I probably still have too much stuff. I didn’t reduce my book collection much, since I want to have a small library when I end up somewhere more permanent. I kept all of my correspondence from the past 10 years. I still have about eight pairs of shoes. Still, it’s a start, and it’s good to know that all I own can essentially fit in a car — especially because I will soon be fitting everything I will need for the year onto a bicycle.