Building a Halcyon Life

Gone are the halcyon days Samuel R. Delaney writes of in his memoir, The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village , when his full-time but fairly relaxed (and low-paying) job as a Strand Bookstore clerk was enough to support him and his wife, poet Marilyn Hacker, in an East Village loft while they began their writing careers. True, the loft was cold and seedy, but who cared? They were young, passionate, and living in one of the most energetic and creative communities in the world.

That was way back in the 1960s. Since then, the price of urban real estate has skyrocketed and incomes (in real terms) have plummeted: this makes it much harder to live as an artist, activist or other ambitious dreamer.

Another difficulty is the The Winner-Take-All Society trend documented in a book by that name by Robert Frank and Philip Cook. They write about how modern technology has created global markets in which regional talent must compete with global superstars, and also with mediocre talents backed by powerful marketing and distribution machines (think Thomas Kinkade ). And while it’s great that we all have access to the superstars, the trend has been hard on regional talents – including artists, craftspersons, food artisans, and even sports teams – who would have thrived in previous eras, but who these days simply can’t compete. This trend converges painfully with the Bowling Alone trend documented by sociologist Robert Putnam in which Americans increasingly forego participation in the public sphere (i.e., they stay home and watch too much TV); and also the “erosion of the middlebrow” trend, in which American culture is increasingly squeezed into the high” or “low” camps, with little in between. (So, for example, we’ve got opera and pop, but no Gershwin, Cole Porter, etc.) In my own field, writing, the middlebrow was exemplified by publications such as “The Saturday Evening Post , which published John Steinbeck, Kay Boyle, C.S. Forester, F. Scott Fitzgerald, C.S. Lewis, and Ray Bradbury, along with hundreds of lesser-known but still worthwhile talents. Because of the eroding of the middlebrow, these authors’ modern day equivalents have a much harder time earning a living.

Happily, regional creativity and community are making a comeback. But a key survival strategy for ambitious dreamers remains finding a day job that meets our financial needs without sucking up all our time and energy, and also that doesn’t violate our principles. Make no mistake: this is a challenging task that takes time to accomplish. But it is definitely doable, and totally worth the effort.

Here are some steps to get you started:

1) Cut back aggressively on your material “needs.” This is a cliché, but it is also foundational to success in life. Many people now work forty or more hours a week to support a lifestyle they don’t even like – what’s the point? Better to cut back – drastically, if possible – and start building the life you really want. If you don’t know how, start reading books on simplicity.

2) Get a career, not a job. As discussed in The Lifelong Activist , many ambitious dreamers make the mistake of drifting from one crappy, low-paying day job to another. (Cf. activist Mickey Z’s book The Murdering of My Years ). Instead, build a long-term career for yourself in some interesting, helpful and decently remunerative field such as social service, medical technology, green business or library science. Or, if you’re sufficiently motivated, you can probably get a job doing some form of art or activism. See The Lifelong Activist for more suggestions, and strategies.

3) While employed, work diligently to reclaim as much of your time and energy as possible. Urge your boss to give you flextime, let you telecommute, reduce your workweek to 25 or 30 hours (while still preserving your benefits), or let you work four ten-hour days instead of five eight-hour ones, so that you have three days a week to pursue your dream. This is easier to accomplish than you might think, but it does mandate that you, (a) work someplace that aspires to treat its employees well, and (b) are an excellent employee, so that your boss is willing to accommodate your needs. Many people are initially reluctant to share their non-work needs with their boss, but find out that, once they do, their boss is often touched by their openness and motivated to support them. Humanity responds to humanity.

Is all of this easier said than done? Of course, in the short term. In the long term, it’s far easier to live a life in keeping with your core values and in which you have a chance to pursue your dreams, than to “murder” your years and live in unhappiness. It’s probably also not as hard as you anticipate, in part because once you start making the move to living a “life of design,” you’ll meet other people on a similar path and you will all support each other in building your halcyon lives.

Building A Halcyon Life By Hillary Rettig, author of The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way . This article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 ) license, which means you can freely copy, alter and distribute it noncommercially, so long as you include this paragraph.

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