emanix: (emanix)
[personal profile] emanix
This afternoon I came in to a conversation on facebook inspired by this article: 6 fascinating people who own almost nothing. The conversation wandered into how a lot of the folks who claim to be embracing minimalism and the 'no possessions' lifestyle (and who often seem quite smug and self-satisfied about it) do, in fact, rather carelessly rely on the use of other people's housing possessions to support their lifestyle... something that works in small numbers, of course, but isn't sustainable over a whole population, clearly. There was also plenty of discussion about the lessons these minimalist folk have to teach us. So naturally this conversation got me thinking back over how I have been living my life over the last few months.

I try to be very conscious of when I am and am not relying on other people's kindness. I have been very lucky since I started being nomadic and living out of my backpack, back in March. A lot of people have very kindly offered me their hospitality and even keys to their houses, so despite working out my initial numbers based on staying in hostels and short lets and things, I've been able to save a lot through the generosity of my friends and lovers - and spend it on taking them out for nice dinners instead, or in one particular case, supporting their indiegogo campaign! When I am staying with people I try to give back in practical ways too, such as washing dishes or making meals, making sure the fridge is stocked, doing minor repairs, offering to baby-sit, helping with the bills if bills need paying, that sort of thing. If at some point I forget that there's a give and take there, though, and start getting entitled about it or assuming anyone other than (possibly) the government owes me a place to stay, or pretending I've done it all by myself, do please shoot me!

On the other hand, I think there are ways in which the nomadic lifestyle could be much more sustainable for a lot of people, which perhaps would emerge naturally if enough folks were doing it: there are already plenty of hostels offering dorm spaces and similar for backpackers (even while I was relatively settled in zone 3, I did occasionally ponder moving nearer in to the centre of the city and only paying rent as and when I needed to, given that the daily rate for a hostel in central London was about equivalent to my rent+bills and also included breakfast- but of course there were at the time other intangibles such as stability, and choice over one's housemates to consider, plus storage for the 'stuff' that I was lugging around from house to house with me). I do wonder how the current offering would flourish, change and compete if that market was to grow significantly. Extending it even further, what would the world be like if we were all guaranteed stable housing as and when we needed it, for as long as we needed it, ('at-will accommodation', if you like) and nobody owned property at all?

Speaking of property, one thing that backpacking really does for you as an individual is that it will make you think very hard about every single thing you buy or choose to carry around with you. When every new item you acquire means than something else has to be thrown or given away, buying 'stuff' begins to take on a different light. As an inveterate 'pack-rat', that's been a real eye opener for me, and particularly for folks who tend to horde 'stuff', I'd recommend trying it, even just for a short while.

I hadn't really intended to be nomadic for quite as long as I now have been. My initial intention was to put most of my stuff in storage just for a little while, go travelling to see friends and family for maybe two or three months and then settle down again, but as all of the work I do is non-location-dependent and I am under no particular pressure to stay in one place, the charms of the 'footloose and fancy free' lifestyle have rather drawn me in. When I do pass through London I have found myself rather naturally reducing my possessions in storage by roughly one crate each time I visit, when I look at things and realise I haven't missed them even for a moment. And the less stuff I have in storage, the less inclined I am to settle down and be weighed down by it. It has been a fascinating process.

I do find that I am shocked more than ever, when I walk by shops selling ornaments and suchlike, by the sheer uselessness of so much of what's out there. Tea, however, turns out to be really important to me (nobody who's met me should be surprised by this, yet somehow I was!) and I now make sure I have a small supply in my backpack to be certain that I have it wherever I happen to be, and usually a travel mug tucked in my belt, as well. Books are important to me too, but I have finally given in and gone the kindle route, because there is only so much paper one person can carry.


There is definitely a sense of freedom in knowing that everything you need for your every day life will fit into a backpack or a suitcase. Knowing that one has the option to take off at any moment means one is never at the mercy of a bad landlord or bad relationship, you can do crazy things like leave the country on a moment's notice, because you know you have everything you need with you, or fly south for the winter, which certainly has a tinge of luxury (though living abroad is mostly cheaper than the UK, in fact). In my case, at this particular time, it has also meant that I could up sticks and move to Manchester to spend time looking after my terminally ill grandfather as his health has been deteriorating over the last few months, and stay for as long as I'm needed. It's hard to put a price on that sort of freedom.

It's not for everybody, though: I know that if I was even slightly less physically able than I am right now, I wouldn't be able to handle carrying both my backpack and the 'mobile studio' I built to take around with me in a suitcase. I am dreading the next time my knee gives out and I have to use crutches, as public transport will be a whole different experience. I could be faced with the stark choice of settling down in one place or giving up my art (or being dependent on other people to move my case for me, which... well, let's say it's a last resort!). There are all sorts of reasons one might need to be static, or have more equipment than a person can reasonably carry. And of course if the work I did was location-dependent, there might not be any point to my minimalism. I'm not trying to pretend that the life I live now is easy to arrange, or even possible for everybody.

There have been hard times too. Finding time and space to myself has not been entirely easy. There have been times when my choice has been between offending my hosts or sharing space, and occasionally even beds with people (and pets) I would not normally choose to. Getting ill and needing several days of hardcore rest whilst visiting in a house without a dedicated guest room was... tricky. And if one has kindly been invited in as a guest, turning down that invitation, or backing out of a stay that one had already committed to, and saying to someone "Actually, I'd prefer to go and stay in a B&B or a hotel for a bit so I can get some space to myself", can seem impolitic, and difficult (or expensive) to arrange at the last minute when something hasn't gone to plan.
Not knowing what city one is going to be in next month can get a little exhausting, too, where long range planning is concerned, but the hardest thing I have had to deal with yet has been accessing medical care whilst on the move; something I have found incredibly difficult even as a relatively well off British citizen in stable employment. The NHS as a whole is not at all set up for patients who migrate, even between just two addresses, let alone many. Walk-in and access centres are not well advertised, and often websites are out of date (we turned up at one that was advertised online to find it had closed more than a year ago), and the ones that still exist are often poorly signposted and in obscure places. I find myself struggling to use the exact same sort of facilities I would have to visit if I was sleeping rough on the street, and wondering how (or if) anyone who is homeless through circumstances not of their own choosing actually manages to see a doctor, other than through visits to A&E. As I am dependent on a regular supply of thyroxine tablets to actually keep me alive, and also having had a chest infection for most of the last month on top of this, that's been pretty stressful.

But still, I do feel incredibly privileged and lucky to be able to live and work the way that I currently do. I hope I come across as neither smug nor self satisfied, but I do think there are some very valid lessons to take away from all this stuff... or from the lack of stuff. :)
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