A quote from How To Be Alive, by Colin Beavan.

A quote from How To Be Alive, by Colin Beavan.

Our first ever book club! Woo! How did we do? The selection for this month was Colin Beavan’s latest book, How to Be Alive: A Guide to the Kind of Happiness that Helps the World. I chose this book for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that I was a huge fan of Beavan’s last project and book, No Impact Man. I discovered his No Impact Man blog when I was pregnant with Elijah, and it launched me down a new road in environmentalism. I was especially drawn to his ideas about what really brings happiness in life, so when I heard he was writing an entire book devoted to that subject, I was pretty stoked.

I devoured this book in two days. There was a lot I loved, but a few parts that I wasn’t so big on. Mostly, I felt that this book came across as a little bougie at times, which I felt kind of silly about after my post making fun of KonMari mania for the same thing. That was a criticism of his first book/documentary/project too, a criticism that I thought was kind of unfair. Yeah, he has kind of a privileged lifestyle in a lot of ways, but that was something he clearly acknowledged and issues of privilige were things he spoke about regularly. He does in this book as well, I could definitely see that he was trying not to be totally bougie, but there were still points where I couldn’t help but feel it was happening a little.

Here’s the thing with that though; upper middle class people need advice on these things too. Just because the problem of being offered a high paying job far from my home, causing me to have to give up my beloved hobby of surfing (an example he used in the book) isn’t one that I would likely ever encounter, doesn’t mean that that isn’t a very real moral quandary for some other people. And it doesn’t hurt me one bit, and may even benefit me, if people who do face those kinds of decisions go about making those decisions in the way Beavan suggests. Furthermore, seeing that the lifestyles of people in that social class aren’t really as glamorous as they look on the outside is kind of nice for me, what with my own internalized classism issues. So while there were times while reading this book that I thought “Psh, wouldn’t it be nice if those were the kinds of problems I had?”, I’m going to give that a pass because that shit is real for other people, and the pull that our consumer society exerts on us is different for all of us, but just as problematic regardless of class.

Now that we’ve addressed that, lets talk about all that I loved about this book. I read it on audio, and I ended up listening to it twice so all the ideas could really sink in for me (and hopefully to make sure I didn’t miss anything, since I tend to multitask while reading audiobooks). I also have been working through the accompanying workbook, which you can obtain here. Here are the concepts in the book that I really liked.

Questioning standard life approaches

I like Beavan’s take on standard life approaches, that he asks us to question them while at the same time acknowledging that not everyone can completely abandon them. As much as I would love not to have to work in a job, or work a low pressure, easy going job in order to have more time with my favorite things – my family, my garden, my activism, etc. – that’s simply not possible for me (and I suspect that low pressure, easy going jobs are exceedingly rare, I have never had a job that wasn’t constantly treated as life or death to my managers and employers). However, I can see that I work in a career I enjoy and that has meaning for me. I don’t need to seek out the most practical job, or the highest paying job, or the in demand job (all of which I’ve tried to do in the past, which is why I have so much student loan debt). Not everyone has that privilege, some people have to take whatever job they can get and hope that they can eventually make things better for themselves either through that job or by waiting for another, better opportunity to come up. Whether you are in that group, or my group, is largely a matter of luck and privilege, but it seems to me that far more people think they are in that group than who actually are. I too have been in that trap of feeling like there aren’t any options out there for me, when in fact there were.

But that’s just jobs and careers, what other standard life approaches do we try to fit into? For me, a big one has always been a sort of keeping up with the Joneses that is middle class suburban life. I have a strong urge to wear hip, trendy clothes, I am embarrassed about the hand-me-down, mismatched style of our house, I try and fake that I can afford things like manicure and hair appointments by doing my own, and I’m often ashamed of the fact that we can’t afford annual vacations and random ski trips and all those other things that it seems like our neighbors all take for granted. There are times I feel like I will never be okay until I can drop a thousand dollars at ModCloth, have my hair and nails look perfect every day, and for gods sake, get some book shelves that aren’t made out of plastic. But these are standard life approaches that don’t really bring me happiness. Realistically, manicured nails are a pain in the ass in the garden, I don’t want to put that much effort into my hair, and who gives a shit about my bookshelves? Look at all the kick ass books on them! (I’m not going to lie, that ModCloth dream will never die.)

Another standard life approach I’m giving up on is the tidy house thing. I don’t want my house to be overwhelmingly messy all the time, but I am just not into putting an excessive amount of time into making my house “sparkle”. Unless I’m adding more glitter elements to it, which sounds fun in my imagination, but I’ll bet would irritate me after a while. Or would it … Anyway, I’m not a person that being very clean and organized comes naturally to, and honestly, I just care less and less anymore. As long as I can get around my house, and the dishes and laundry are done regularly, I’m calling that good enough. I don’t need to follow the standard life approach of making sure my house is Martha Stewart’s (or Marie Kondo’s) definition of “company ready” at all times. I have better shit to do with my time. And maybe my messy house will make other people not feel so bad about their own homes. You’re welcome.

Questioning archetypes that keep us from knowing our lives have meaning

Beavan spends a good portion of the book talking about the ways that we all are able to contribute to making the world a better place and to helping each other, and that really spoke to me. He spoke of there being a myriad of different contributions that are needed in the world, and that no one contribution is worth more than another. That we are all capable of making many contributions, some smaller, some larger, and that making the ones that mean the most to us will be the most meaningful to others. And he spoke of the stories, or archetypes, that convince us that our efforts will not do much good, thereby convincing us that we shouldn’t make any effort at all. These archetypes really jumped out at me as he went through them, particularly the one about how government and big corporations are responsible for many problems, and there is nothing you can do about those entities because they are just too powerful.

I used to think I couldn’t do much to help either (of course, I was working long hours in a soul crushing job that left me totally depressed and pretty much worthless by the time I left it, so maybe I couldn’t), but as I get more involved in local environmental activism I can really see from the other side just how frustrating it is that people actually think that. I have to sit down and remind myself of how I used to believe that so much, because we are told that story so often and our society is set up to kind of reinforce it. The truth is that that story is half true, the government and big corporations (as well as cultural systems) are responsible for a large portion of the problems we face in this world, but the other half of the story, that we can’t do anything about those things, is total bullshit. We can do something about those things. In fact, I’ve been amazed to learn just how much influence we can have over local politics, and I think most other people would be too.

I learned in a high school social studies class that you can tell a person’s class by what kind of news they were most up to date on. Lower class/low-income people would be most concerned with local politics, middle class people would be most concerned with national politics, and high-class/rich people would be most concerned with world politics. I sincerely doubt that is actually true, but I do notice that most people pay a great deal of attention to national politics and very little to local politics, something I myself have been guilty of. The thing is, national politics rarely has any impact on us, at least not in our day-to-day lives, where as local politics do. And national politics are pretty hard to impact, but local politics are much easier to impact. In fact, probably the best way to impact national politics is by making lots of changes to local politics all over the country.

You can have an influence on national and even world politics too, of course. And on corporations, and on cultural systems. And I applaud any attempts to do any of this. But the more I learn about local politics, at the city, county, and maybe even state level, the more I am excited about my potential to make a difference. You can also tackle things on a smaller level, think your neighborhood, your school, your kids’ PTA, your church, etc.

Weak connections, strong connections, and community

A topic that the book addressed that had a profound impact on me is relationships, mainly friendships. I have been coming to realize over the past couple of years that I rely far too heavily on Facebook and other social media for my social connections, and that this isn’t bringing me the kinds of relationships I wanted. I have many relationships there, but they are shallow. I can’t count on the vast majority of those people to come to my birthday parties, congratulate me on an accomplishment, or comfort me when my cat died, I certainly couldn’t count on any of them to help me out in a real emergency. That’s because these people are what Beavan calls “weak connections”. I like that he acknowledges that these connections are good to have, that they are great sources of information, but that they don’t fulfill you the way a strong connection does. I have been trying to rebuild strong connections. It’s easy as a parent, especially as a working parent, to let go of a lot of them, but it’s really important to try and keep up with at least a few of them. Beavan cites a lot of research that shows having strong bonds with a number of people greatly enhances your health and happiness. He recommends between 6 and 12 people, which seems like a lot for me, but we’ll see how it goes. I’ve set a goal of 4. All of these are people I want to reconnect with, old friends that I just don’t spend as much time with as I used to. I’ve also made it a goal to try and spend time with Jeremy’s friends too, because I want him to be reaching out to friends more too. Hey, I never claimed to be setting a goal not to be that stereotype of a nagging wife who wants the best for her partner. Maybe one day, but not today.

I also liked how Beavans discussions of these relationships intersects with his discussion of community. I personally have begun to feel that the ease of using the internet to be able to find groups of people just like us can be a little problematic. Yeah, I like my Facebook groups of moms who are into geek culture and social justice, and punk rock garden enthusiasts, and pro vaccine body positivity activists, but I think we start to run into problems when we are only associating with people like us. It tends to shrink the world in ways that I think make it more partisan, while at the same time distancing us from our neighbors and actual communities, making us more isolated. It contributes to the problems of favoring weak connections over strong, and helps empower the notion that we can’t make an impact, because it keeps us from being in tune with what is actually going on around us (instead of in a virtual cyber environment of people who always think just like you). I think it’s a good idea to get out and know your communities (we all have many), to see the full scope of humanity (we tend to forget other people’s humanity online), and to be challenged by new ideas and have your ideas challenge others (because if your ideas are really so great, they can stand up to challenging ideas of others). In reading these ideas in this book, I was inspired to start going back to church and to make an effort to try and get to know people in our neighborhood better.

A different way to look at parenting

I found that I really liked Beavan’s take on parenting, despite the fact that he and I have very different wants out of that realm. He is a one and done type of guy, and I have always wanted a larger family. But I do feel some conflict over that. Reading his portion about parenting made me think long and hard about what it is that I want out of having kids, and how best to achieve that. But it also talked about how parenting is not just the process of having your own children (either biologically or through other means such as adoption) and raising them yourself. Beavan spoke a great deal about the importance of mentorship, and I cannot agree more. Still, I find myself wondering how we work past fears, some legitimate, some unfounded, of adults hurting our children? It’s fairly easy to reject the fear of stranger danger once you understand how incredibly low the odds of a stranger harming your child are, but the fact is that child predators actively try to put themselves into positions of trust with children and their parents, in order to gain access and to groom their victims. Mentorship is a great opportunity for this. Where is the line between legitimate concern over this, and over worry? How do we protect our kids from abuse, while not denying them the benefits of sound mentorship? This is an issue I wish Beavan had discussed more in this part.

Overall, though, I really like the idea of sharing my kids a little more. I love being a mom, but I need breaks sometimes. I’m lucky that the kids have grandparents here in town to give us some breaks, but I wouldn’t be opposed to a few more, and to my kids getting some more variety in their company (as long as it doesn’t cut into grandparent time, because the grandparents would not like that one bit!). If any of my child free or empty nest friends are in the market to mentor a geeky, gamer boy who loves art and film, or a silly toddler who so far shows interest in cooking, animals, and stomping snow, hit me up!

I also liked the idea of parenting not being just for children. My little sister is not interested in having or raising children, but she is called to working with the elderly. That is her “parenting”. I have friends that are very dedicated parents to animal companions, and even animals in places where they work and volunteer. I have known women (I know men who do it are out there too, but I don’t know any personally), who parent other parents during the childbearing period of their lives, through doula work and midwifery. And I know many people who have been called to parent through work with the homeless, special needs adults, and prison communities. I loved Beavan’s concept that there are many different ways to parent, and that none of us have to do any one of them, nor do we have to feel restricted to just doing one either. It made me think of the ways I can continue to parent after I’ve made the decision to be done having my own biologic children. Of course, I do feel that referring to caring for adults as “parenting” them can feel more than a little patronizing, but the point Beavan was getting to is that helping and nurturing others is likely what most draws of us to parenting, but that children are not the only ones who need help and nurturing. We can help and nurture everyone. Sometimes we are the ones who need help and nurturing. I know the parenting I have received from my doulas and midwives over the years was amazing and empowering. And even as an adult, sometimes I just want my mommy. Our need for parenting never ends, just as our kids’ needs for our parenting never does either (which is why I’m usually peeved by jokes about how a person is done parenting at 18, HA! You’re never done, my friend). So whatever way we feel most called to parent/care for others, we should pursue it. And we should seek out and accept parenting/being cared for more often too.

Finally, his discussion on baby lust was probably a stern talking to I personally needed to hear. I needed to sort out how much my desire to have a large family is influenced by baby lust, something I totally suffer from, and have ever since I had Elijah. However, something Beavan didn’t address, and maybe didn’t even think of, is how much that baby lust can be for potential future grand children, and not babies of my own. My reasons for wanting a large family has more to do with how I want things to look when I’m older, and not so much how I want things to look now. I’m potentially more eager for the part-time parenting of grandparenthood than the full-time parenting of parenthood.

What did you think?

Did this book inspire you to question some of your standard life approaches? Which ones? In which ways? Will you be making any major changes, or are you still in the pondering phases?

What stories keep you from feeling like your life has meaning or purpose? Have you figured out how to reject them, if you can?

How do you feel about the quantity and quality of strong relationships in your life? How about the weak relationships? Did this book inspire you to make any changes?

What do you think is your part in building a more interconnected community? Are there ways you want to plug in to your community more?

If you are a parent, what do you think about having others mentor your kids more often? If you are child free, what would you think about being a mentor? And how do you think you would find balance between keeping kids safe in a mentoring situation, and giving them full access to the benefits that mentoring provides?

What other parts of this book did you like or dislike? Tell us about them in the comments!

Next month’s selection!

Next month, lets read Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy. This is a big book and a lot of it is reference (lists of good plants to use, and in what situation, etc.) so some parts might be skimmable for you. Personally, I am very interested in the design concepts, though, since I am homesteading in a neighborhood with a fairly conservative HOA. Since February is a short month, I figure a book that’s mostly reference is a good choice! Happy reading!

Next months book club selection, Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy!

Next months book club selection, Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy!

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