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Excerpt from "Lemons and Lavender: The Eco Guide to Better Homekeeping"

Do Your Own Thing!

by Billee Sharp


Most of us are searching for the good life. What constitutes a “good life” is obviously subjective, but our quest to find happiness directs each of our lives in unexpected ways. When I think of personal happiness, security and fulfillment immediately come to mind. We all want the means to realize our hearts’ desires, but it is perhaps these desires that need to be reexamined. As a society, we’ve recently learned the hard way that we often want more than we can afford: our overextended credit system and failed subprime mortgage market have led our economy to a near collapse.

Twenty-first-century life affords us a unique perspective on the world we live in. We are hyperconnected to the rest of the globe, and we are all too aware of the ecological and economic crises that beset contemporary life. We can see that our daily actions have very real repercussions, and what we do as individuals shapes our world both literally and figuratively. We now have an opportunity to take our vision for humanity more seriously.

Slowly, we are acknowledging that the earth does not have the capacity to meet our unrepressed appetites, and that to end the destruction of our environment and the suffering of millions, we have to want less individually.

Our emotional well-being is connected to how much money we have; while it is wretched and distracting not to have enough money to pay the bills, there are also pressures and worries that come with having plenty.

As Duane Elgin notes in his book Promise Ahead,

For many, the American Dream has become the soul’s nightmare. Often, the price of affluence is inner alienation and emptiness. Not surprisingly, polls show that a growing number of Americans are seeking lives of greater simplicity as a way to rediscover the life of the soul.

How do we adapt our life expectations accordingly? For me, the desirability of a $7,000 designer handbag evaporates when compared to the number of people that sum could feed. The carbon offsetting system—where individuals calculate their carbon expenditure and try to lower their carbon footprint—is an initiative that shows how seriously we take our situation. Likewise, the growing support for fair-traded goods in commercial markets is evidence that mainstream society is beginning to show more compassion for the people who make and grow our food.

Quite literally, how we see the world has changed. In 1966, with the question “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole earth yet?” Stewart Brand initiated a public campaign for NASA to release the satellite image of our planet from outer space. His argument was that the image would be a powerful symbol for humanity, and he was right. Our visualization of the world was changed with our access to this image, and this parallels the dramatic reconfigurations that have transformed Western society. We now have legislation that prohibits discrimination based on color, gender, and religion. Popular opinion and our evolving global consciousness give us hope that humankind can peace- fully coexist with one another and with the earth.

I believe that this newly awakened consciousness is due, in large part, to the radical ideas of the Sixties counterculture movement. My own personal philosophy has been shaped by the ideologies of that era, and I felt their impact even as a child. I was impressed by images of student protesters on the evening news and evocative Beatles songs, as well as by an elementary school teacher of mine who wore a purple corduroy suit and a hand-knitted tie and introduced me to The Hobbit. I was deeply affected by my elder cousin’s vegetarianism and admired the way she and her boyfriend traveled with a guitar so they could make music whenever they wanted it.

I, too, wanted a life of new possibilities. So in the early 1990s I relocated across the globe from London to California, where I started a family and an independent record label with my musician husband. The economic reality of doing our own thing in San Francisco led me to reexamine the ideas of those free-thinking hippies, adopting and adapting as I saw fit. I also started to explore their culture and history in earnest. I began to read Ken Kesey, Jack Kerouac, Tom Wolfe, and Allen Ginsberg, and their mind-blowing literature and poetry led me to radical social theorists like Timothy Leary, Stewart Brand, R. Buckminster Fuller, and Terence McKenna. I also read Alan Watts and Ram Dass on spirituality and Rachel Carson on the environment. I began to see how the cultural revolution that began in the Fifties seeped into all areas of society, from the music and literature of popular culture to the antiwar activism that ended the Vietnam War. I saw its reverberations through the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, and environmentalism, and I realized that all these strands are connected through this radical thinking.

The scope of the counterculture movement went beyond theoretical discourse, philosophy, and art into the practical realm of creating a new reality. Alicia Bay Laurel’s beautiful manual, Living On the Earth, and Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog informed a generation about how to live their ideals and rely less on consumer society to survive.

Nor were the counterculturists slow to embrace the communicative power of the Internet. The Well, an early online community that Brand initiated, embodied the principle of interconnectivity that we call “social networking” in today’s online world. Futurist thinkers like Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan believed that technology held the key to social transformation. Fuller characterized our planet as “Spaceship Earth,” a miraculous vehicle for which we don’t have an operating manual. Fuller considers this a deliberate omission, as we have had to use and develop our intellect to survive. Now, he writes, “We are learning how we can anticipate the consequences of an increasing number of alternative ways of extending our satisfactory survival and growth—both physical and metaphysical.”

There is no doubt in my mind that we live in a world enriched by the collective efforts of the flower children, the academics, and the great unsung masses who lived out their ideas and created a new social reality.

For the last 40 years or so, however, society has been looking down upon counterculture, and hippies specifically, applying stereotypes to them such as Birkenstocks, tie-dye, and Dead Heads. The reality is that our culture has been thoroughly enriched by the emphasis of those colorful hippies in community activism, social and political equality, and environmentalism.

Now that we see the cracks in our overcommodified society, more of us are dreaming of finding a simpler life where less is consumed and wasted and where earning the highest income is not our primary goal. We have found that just acquiring and maintaining our wealth has become increasingly onerous and that our individual economies strain under that burden.

Unfortunately, the counterculture visionaries didn’t provide us with a fool-proof blueprint that we can just superimpose on our 21st-century reality. Some of their concepts, like communal living, no longer seem viable except to a few. Yet while the principles of communal living may not appeal to us now en masse, that spirit is alive and well in grassroots community programs and communal gardens. Cooperatives flourish, too—from food-buying to labor-sharing pools, the hippie ideals live on. The Diggers of San Francisco were a radical street theater group whose activities extended to a Free Bakery, from which they distributed whole wheat loaves made in coffee cans, a Free Store, a Free Clinic, communal living, and art happenings. The Diggers’ efforts inspired the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, which continues to offer medical treatment to the unin- sured, and Food Not Bombs cites the Diggers as an inspiration for their free food program. The counterculture’s intoxicating blend of self-discovery and community awareness has enriched our appreciation of the arts and the envi- ronment and continues to inspire us to create the culture that we want today. Not surprisingly, the Diggers popularized the expression “Do Your Own Thing!”—and they meant it.

It seems that for a while we shelved those Utopian ideals and began to favor a credit culture in which everything could be acquired now but paid for later. This impractical and irresponsible lifestyle has completely imploded, and although this is a grim reality, I believe the good life we seek does beckon. All we need to do is define it.

On a fundamental level, being committed to friends and family determines the quality of our lives. We are social beings and community is our nourishment—without support we quickly feel vulnerable. It is with humility that we realize that our resources—in all senses—are greater when they are shared. Our finances are strained in an unstable economy, so we are forced to change our lifestyle accordingly. Now is the time to revive the undervalued virtue of thrift and to cut back on the things that we can’t afford. This is not a dreary call to economize, but rather an opportunity to scrutinize. What do we really need in order to sustain ourselves?

When we are not weighed down with insurmountable bills, we can pursue the direction of the good life we want. On a practical level, the lower you can make your basic living expenses, the easier they become to meet. Reducing expenses doesn’t mean lowering your expectations of a desirable life. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I’ve found that I get more satisfaction from lower expenditures because I contribute less waste—including product packaging, gas, waste to the landfill, and so on. From this perspective, quite a lot becomes possible.

Joseph Campbell wrote, “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.” It seems sensible to start by following our passions, which calls to mind the story of Gypsy Boots. Born into a poor immigrant family, Robert Bootzin had an early interest in healthy living; his mother taught him to eat out of the fields and hedgerows. By the time he reached maturity he had evolved into Gypsy Boots, one of the original “Nature Boys” who lived freely off the land in the 1940s. Gypsy Boots and the Nature Boys promoted a healthy vegetarian lifestyle, practiced yoga, and sought to treat all humankind with love and laughter.

In 1958, Gypsy Boots opened Los Angeles’s first health food restaurant, the Back to Nature Health Hut, and proceeded to bring his vegetarian ideas to a wider and ultimately influential Hollywood audience. During the Sixties, he became a television personality. He was a regular guest on The Steve Allen Show, the perfect platform upon which to spread his ideas even further. Bare Feet and Good Things to Eat, his autobiography, detailed his lifestyle ideas and the way he sustained himself and his family by being true to his beliefs. The way Boots describes the management style of his restaurant reminds me of contemporary community kitchen initiatives like the SAME Restaurant in Denver, where guests are requested to pay whatever price they think is fair for their meal; if they don’t have enough money, they can pay “in kind” by working in the kitchen.

I’m not suggesting that everybody needs to ditch the SUV and begin a macramé plant-holder business, but I do think that simply doing what makes you happy will reap the best rewards. If you love books, try interning for a publisher to get an insight into their profession, or volunteer at your local library to see how that suits you. In the process you’ll surely meet new people, get to share your ideas, and learn a lot about yourself. If you want to stay at home while your kids are young, as I did, find a business you can run from home on your own schedule. My father’s advice to my sister and me was to try to make a career out of doing what we loved best—his working life as a stone-mason, sculptor, and teacher gave us a good example to follow. He loved stone carving from the first moment he held a chisel in his hand and happily made a good living from his expertise.

My greatest hope is that this book empowers you to think creatively and to create the life that you really want. In this book I offer you suggestions for ways to live happily and affordably while following your dreams and aspirations. I don’t have a magic solution or mantra; I am advocating that you reevaluate how you live. Herein you will find all my “trade secrets”: tips and tools for how you can live better than ever on less. In working toward creating the good life for my family and friends, I have found much joy, greater peace of mind, and true enjoyment from the simple pleasures in life. I am reminded of the old Native American saying, “Certain things catch your eye, but pursue only those that capture your heart.”

Billee Sharp was a contemporary art curator and gallerist in London, working with the YBA group of artists before moving to San Francisco in 1993, where she started a family and record label with her husband Jonah Sharp, a pioneering electronic musician, founded a green cleaning business and curated many multimedia cultural events.

LEMONS AND LAVENDER

The Eco Guide to Better Homekeeping

By Billee Sharp

Paperback original, $15.95

7½” x 7½”, 264 pages

ISBN: 978-1-936740-10-9


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