“Walkin in the sunshine, sing a little sunshine song!” I happily sang as I ambled through the noisy halls to my next class.
“Come on Allison! You need to pick up the pace! The bell rings in one minute!” one of my teachers hollered after me.
Scenes like this were numerous throughout my school years, often repeating themselves multiple times a day.
“It concerns me that you have never had any sense of urgency, and it doesn’t seem to bother you when you are late for classes,” one of these teachers told me when my leisurely attitude and disregard for schedules remained largely unchanged when I got to high school.
And she was right. It really never did bother me, and to some extent still doesn’t. Eventually, I did learn to pick up the pace and get to class on time, a trend that continued when I got to college. In high school, this change of habit was only to avoid detentions and lectures from teachers, and in college, it is because while there are no longer detentions, there is an unwritten expectation that students get to class on time, and since professors are often the ones to provide references about you to prospective employers, it is important to make a good impression on them. And my parents have told me that in their jobs, they can face disciplinary action for being late, so I know that after college, I will continue to feel obliged to meet society’s definition of a responsible employee, keeping an eye on the clock every morning. But I still resent our society’s obsession with timeliness which I have always felt marred the beauty of life with unnecessary stress. But the older I get, the more I realize that the obsession with timeliness is only the beginning of my dissatisfaction. Since I am still in school, I have not had to live this fact firsthand yet, but I am well aware that with the majority of careers, which includes all of the career options that interest me, there is no such thing as summer vacation, and this month I get off for Christmas as a college student will be something to look back and laugh about in just a couple short years. Case and point: my mom worked Christmas eve and was back at work on December 27, the Monday after Christmas. In addition, it seems like a lot of people I know are in a constant state of stress or dislike about their jobs, either because they are expected to take on more than is humanly possible in the name of “company productivity”, or they simply don’t enjoy the job or even the career in the first place.
One day, I think it was after the combination of watching a show in which I found out that in some countries like France, employers are required to give all employees six weeks of vacation, and an intercultural communication class where we discussed how the cultures of many countries are much more relaxed and it is acceptable to be late or go home for a nap in the afternoon, I began to wonder “Does it really have to be this way? Why cannot our society follow the example of other countries and take a more relaxed approach to life?” When I posed these questions in the course of complaining about the hectic routine of school to my mom, she said something like “Well, our society is lucky in that we have the highest standard of living in the world. But maintaining this standard of living and being a competitive in the world unfortunately requires hard work.”
I, like teachers over the years who marched right along to the drum of dominant societal values, had always believed that my attitudes were purely the result of laziness. But more and more, especially after this conversation, I am beginning to wonder if the real issue is that I simply don’t belong in this kind of society, and that marching right along with the stress and discontent of the rest of society in the never-ending quest to be wealthy leaders in the first world isn’t what I want for my life.
Make no mistake: I feel very blessed to have the life that I do with a family that loves me, a spacious house, excellent medical care, plenty of food to eat, the opportunity to go to college, and the financial means to have basically anything I could ever need or want. It is heartbreaking to watch the news about places like Haiti which aren’t that far from here if you think about it, where it is often a daily struggle just to access enough food or clean water. But by earning such a comfortable middle class life, have we become poorer in other ways? Why cannot more people in our society find a happy medium in which maybe we would all be a little poorer financially, having just enough to meet our basic needs but not enough to live in luxury, so that we can become rich in terms of calmness, family time, and the ability to go to work doing something we genuinely enjoy and get fulfillment from, and not let society indirectly steer us away from a career we would enjoy because “you won’t make any money doing that”? After all, what good is the big screen television or the fancy leather recliner if you come home from work too frazzled to enjoy them?
Actually, looking back, I can point to several instances when I was already starting to have this revelation. When I was in sixth grade, I went through a spell where I was sick all the time between fevers, coughing, a complete loss of voice, and I think there was even a case of pink eye sometime in there. I went to school off and on if the fever let up and I felt better, but it kept coming back, and in total I think I missed like two and a half weeks of school before a doctor finally determined I had a sinus infection and gave me antibiotics.
But as bad as this sounds, I actually cried when I felt well enough to go to school again, partly because I was overwhelmed at the thought of all the make-up work I had to do from being gone. But looking back, I realize that another part of it was that I got a taste of what it would be like to be out of touch with the exhausting, hurried routine that defines society, and middle school, and I loved it.
Here is how my typical middle school routine went. School started at 7:20 in the morning, which meant the bus usually arrived between 6:35 and 6:40 every morning. It’s funny because when I am on vacation and don’t have to be anywhere, I am often up by 6:00, but when I had to shower, get dressed and catch a bus by 6:30 in the morning, all I wanted to do was sleep, especially on the cold days. As a result, I couldn’t get moving in the morning, and was often just climbing out of the shower when the bus pulled up. Since I rode a special bus being blind, the bus driver waited longer for me than a regular bus would have, so I usually caught it, but it made for a very frantic and stressful start to the day.
Then, when I got to school, I was extremely fortunate to have a sweet teacher who started the day gently with questions about our lives or fun brain teaser games, sympathising with our lack of motivation at such an early hour. But there was one teacher who you could hear because she was just next door, who always greeted the class by hollering “sit down! We’ve got a lot to do today!” Even second hour when I had to have this teacher, I wasn’t ready for that kind of approach, and thus I still cannot believe my teenage hormones didn’t lead me to say something like “Well, good morning to you too!” in a sarcastic tone.
Then, we had only four minutes to get between classes which was alright for my academic classes since they were divided between two teachers who were next door to each other, but for classes like gym and music which were on the other side of the school, I was always late. Sure, maybe I could have walked faster, only focusing on the task at hand instead of singing or talking to friends, but contrary to society, I believed, and still believe that unless you are a fireman or paramedic, there is no need to stress yourself out trying to get there on time.
And then we only had twenty-six minutes for lunch, which included the time it took to get through the long cafeteria line to get it, so instead of the quiet calm affair that I think lunch should be, I had to gobble down my lunch in a cafeteria full of screaming shouting teenagers cramming all of their socialization in to twenty-six minutes. And then to top it all off of course, I had hours of homework.
But while being sick wasn’t fun, it allowed me to roll over and go back to sleep when the school buses drove by outside my window, and since I didn’t feel well enough to concentrate on schoolwork much of the time, it gave me wonderful memories of watching movies and eating quiet comforting lunches of soup and macaroni and cheese with my mom. One day, Mom even spent the whole day reading Belle Prater’s Boy, a sweet story set in the tiny town of Coal Station, West Virginia in the 1950s, out loud to me. Like I said, being sick wasn’t fun, but oh how I longed for the sweet peaceful life I lived those few weeks when I had to return to the chaotic routine of school.
I also get this wonderful feeling every time there is a blizzard. Blizzards fierce enough to cancel school are rare where I live since Wisconsin is accustomed to snow and thus to my chagrin, usually the roads are able to be cleared in time to go to school. But the rare days when the roads cannot be cleared are so magical. On ordinary days, even on days my parents don’t have to work, it seems like the errands, or the housework that needs to be done is never-ending. But there is something about fiercely falling snow and whistling wind that casts a spell on everyone, my family included, making them put aside errands or housework, for a day of just watching cute movies like “White Christmas”, playing a game of scrabble and sitting down to a steaming bowl of chili or potato soup. The next day, by which time the streets are cleared and we are all back to the grindstone, I long for a life in which the joyous simplicity of yesterday could transfer over to the rest of the year.
Of course, I do recognize and accept the reality that we must work to pay for that cozy house and the ingredients for that potato soup, and I suppose if every day were a snow day, I would get sick of it as it would no longer be special. (Theoretically since I am blind, I could apply for social security and if I lived very frugally, I could maybe get away with not working. But I have always believed in playing by the same rules as sighted people, so I plan to work). But again, we are back at the question “why cannot there be a happy medium where we work enough to meet our basic needs, but where our work is fulfilling and doesn’t consume our lives?”
I haven’t given up on pursuing the life expected of me by conventional society yet, partly because since I have been a student all my life, I cannot imagine myself in the shoes of a career woman, and while careers have stresses of their own, maybe I will handle these stresses better than I handle the stress of grades and homework. And even though Journalism, my first career choice is a competitive field, made worse by the fact that newspapers and other media outlets are doing more and more with less resources, maybe my passion for talking to people and writing will outweigh the stressful aspects of the job. And if I cannot find a job as a Journalist, I may still consider my parents’ suggestion that I go to law school since I enjoyed a communication law class I took last semester, and it is something my parents think I would be good at. But let me be perfectly clear! If neither of these careers make me feel fulfilled, if I come home frazzled and discouraged more often than I come home happy, I will not muddle on with these careers and choose money over overall happiness.
So what would a happy medium kind of life look like, you might ask? Well, since I am a thinker and a daydreamer, I have already given this question considerable thought. I haven’t done any practical research, and being a student who is still supported by my parents, I realize I may have a lot to learn yet as far as the reality of how much “meeting basic needs” costs. But here’s what I envision a happy medium simple life would look like for me.
First of all, as much as I have complained in this entry about our country, in many other regards, I do love this country, and I don’t think I am the kind of person who would be brave enough to uproot myself and learn the laws and culture of a new country, even one that would give me six weeks vacation and lets me go home for lunch. But I bet the sleepy small town life would be a wonderfully close equivalent. When I travel to my grandma’s house, which is located in a sleepy little American town, people still work, yet it seems like the culture is more relaxed. In stores, the cashier who is often a good friend of my grandma, will chat with us, and there is no boss breathing down her neck to hurry up because the store is a small quiet store with no long lines to worry about. My aunt who is a teacher and works in the same town where my grandma lives, has time to stop by for lunch instead of gobbling down school cafeteria food. There are a lot of towns similar to my grandma’s town in my home state, especially in the northern areas of the state. I would settle in one of these towns, or if I couldn’t find anywhere to live in my home state, I would not rule out going west to North Dakota or Wyoming, which I have heard are beautiful, sparsely populated, friendly places. All I would require of my little town would be a welcoming little church, your basic grocery store and drugstore, and safe sidewalks or trails that Gilbert (or whoever my guide dog happens to be should I choose this life), could stroll along on beautiful spring and summer days. Once I found this Norman Rockwell town, I would buy a modest little house, which I imagine wouldn’t be that expensive because the real estate slogan that determines housing prices is “location, location, location”, but if my house isn’t located in the heart of a big city, and I make sure not to settle in a town that is on the shore of a beautiful lake or in a tourist area, there wouldn’t be a lot of demand for the house, keeping the price down. I would want the house to be bigger than my college dorm room which made Gilbert and I both stir crazy, but I think we would both be happy in a single story house the size of the suite my dorm was in. I don’t know how many square feet that would be, but the suite had two double occupancy dorm rooms separated by a shared bathroom in the middle, so maybe if you have lived in a similar college dorm, you can picture the size. Anyway, this house would be like one fourth the size of the house I live in now, but it would be plenty of room for Gilbert and me, and cleaning could be done in probably less than an hour as opposed to the whole day that it seems to take to clean our big house. After all, on my days off, I want to enjoy my home, not spend the whole day cleaning it.
The furnishings in my house would be simple. There would be a small kitchen with a refrigerator, sink, microwave, oven and crockpot. At the beginning of every week, I would prepare a batch of chili, soup or stew to simmer all day in the crockpot that would be dinner for the week, bake a batch of cookies and stock the refrigerator with fresh, locally grown fruit and vegetables, bagels, eggs and milk. Hamburger helper tastes alright, but since it is the hallmark of the stressful, hurried life that I strive to escape, it will be banned in my house. I wouldn’t even need a dishwasher. They are expensive, don’t last very long, and I am only one person, so washing my dishes in the sink probably wouldn’t be that hard.
My livingroom would be furnished with a simple recliner that I would not be ashamed to buy at a thrift store, a small radio for my music and news as National Public Radio has excellent news reporting, a cabinet stocked with board games to play when I have company and a basic computer for writing. The computer may be expensive initially, but if I continue my policy of using it gently, forbidding other people from using it so that I know stupid things aren’t being downloaded on to it that would wear it out, I bet I could make each computer last ten years, minimum. I wouldn’t bother with buying a television. While there are a few shows I like to listen to, most shows these days stink in my opinion, so I could live without it. Additionally, television in my opinion is also a hallmark of the stressed life since after a stressful day, too many people crash on the couch and fall asleep in front of it because they don’t have the energy to do anything else. But with my simple, less stressful life, my hope is that I will have the energy for more stimulating pursuits like reading, writing, volunteering or inviting the neighbors over to play board games like Scrabble or Monopoly! I received a braille monopoly board as a gift five years ago, but have never played it. Why not? Well, every time I ask someone if they want to play it with me, they say no because, you guessed it! It takes too long! But in a relaxed community where the clock doesn’t matter so much, maybe the length of a game wouldn’t matter so much either.
I would of course have a small bathroom and laundry room. My bedroom would hold nothing but a modest twin bed and a closet, and in that closet, three, and only three outfits. One would be my formal outfit for going to church or any formal events, and two would be my casual outfits that I would wear to work and around the house. My mom still doesn’t like me to wear the same outfit two days in a row, even if that outfit is clean for fear that other kids would comment on it. But I say, who cares? Maybe in middle school I might have been teased, but at my age, I have noticed people don’t notice or care what people are wearing. And if people did comment, I would just tell them the truth, which is that having a diverse wardrobe isn’t important to me.
Not only would a small wardrobe save money. It would also save time and unnecessary stress, as I could get my laundry done in one load, instead of having to devote a whole day to it, and it would make it a lot easier for me to find and pick out my clothes each day, benefits which would be so wonderful that when people do shower me with clothes at Christmas, maybe I would consider putting my foot down and returning them.
There would be no knick-knacks cluttering every hearth and shelf, no expensive paintings on the walls, and whatever color the walls are when I buy the house is the color they will stay.
And as for employment? Maybe I could write for a local publication which would not have the same stress as writing for a big city publication since life would be uneventful and quiet with the biggest event being the county fair. Or, while I don’t like public speaking in a high pressure school atmosphere, maybe I would enjoy being a soft voice on a little local radio station that plays old country music or happy polka music, and I could announce each song, read the news on the latest corn prices and the weather forecast. Or maybe I could forget Journalism altogether, be a clerk at a quaint little family owned shop or restaurant far removed from the corporate world of Walmart and McDonalds, where I could know all my customers by name chatting and smiling while I worked, and write purely for pleasure when I got home. Or maybe I could be a freelance writer from home, a job that would allow me to be my own boss. Whichever job I ended up doing, I would still be a hard-working dependable employee, but maybe in a slower paced friendlier culture, the boss would understand if I were late every now and then for reasons like “it is such a spectacularly beautiful day with birds singing merrily everywhere, that I just had to walk the long route to work to take it in.” Maybe he would even be late himself for the same reason.
Maybe these jobs would only pay minimum wage, and I would have no discretionary money by the end of each month. Maybe I won’t be able to afford luxuries like going out to eat or traveling. Maybe the day to day cost of living wouldn’t leave me enough savings to retire, but if I had a low-stress job in a pleasant working environment, maybe I wouldn’t mind that. Maybe these plans would have to be adjusted if I met someone I wanted to marry and start a family with, but maybe he would enjoy a simple life too. Maybe I am caught up in a fantasy and such an idyllic life doesn’t exist anymore, or is unrealistic. Maybe people would look down on me for not fully utilizing my potential to become famous or wealthy. But maybe I could make this idyllic life a reality somewhere, and maybe if I keep in touch with family, friends and even former colleagues from my financially well-off but discontent life, and they see how rich I have become in terms of peace and contentment, I could be the leader of a small-scale revolution and inspire more people to realize they don’t have to be blind followers of the drum of dominant society, or victims of the first world myth that money can buy happiness.