An Authentic Life (and what that really means)

There are so many blogs, websites, and Instagram accounts (oh, Instagram, you cruel mistress!), about living an “authentic life” and living one’s dream, creating the illusion of a dreamlike alternate reality that is all hikes through jungles and naps on the beach. There is even a funny parody account called @SocalityBarbie that works as a critique of that very fabricated so-called authenticity.

It’s funny to me that this life of someone who is on the road, spending most days outside, is currently so popular. It’s a stinky, muddy, exhausting life. I’m a wingnut who thrives on that, but it’s interesting that it’s become the dream. But in a culture where everyone is being constantly surveillanced, and under pressure to watch and critique one’s peers and the world at large down to the smallest details, and during a time when microaggressions are a thing that has always been around but never really publicly acknowledged and now, like after buying our boxy Scion, it is everywhere, and public shaming is common, it’s understandable that people would dream of living a life off the grid. I think most everyone would benefit from getting off the grid, think less about gourmet things, fancy material possessions, what the Joneses are doing unless it’s because the Joneses need a hand (neighbors are for helping). Give yourself a break! Go outside and leave your phone at home. Or at least in your pocket, Jiminy Cricket.

Every time I tell someone that Evan and I are getting ready to boondock it in the American Southwest, I’m met with praise, envy, and admiration. Apparently everyone is secretly freaking out and feeling a need to drop out for a while, and so many people are craving a life less tied to obligations, responsibilities, and constantly having to be “on”. To ease your jealous rages, here’s a little window into the preparation phase of our big adventure. Here are the three biggest not-glamorous parts of our life at the moment (they mainly involve being covered in grease/dirt or staring with tired, squinted eyes at a computer so long we don’t realize the room’s grown dark):

  1. I have four jobs. I had five, but found a replacement for one of them. Even when I’m not working, I’m working. I had a full-time job and couldn’t do it. I didn’t have time to write, and it was killing me. I now have the same amount of free time, if not less, but my brain isn’t taken up by thoughts other than writing projects. My other jobs are all non-emotional, which I love. That said, I’m still not writing poetry or deeply personal essays. That will come, I assume, once I have more time to specifically *not* focus (though isn’t that what all writers tell ourselves, that we’ll get to it when it’s more convenient?); in the meantime, it’s write-ups about hiking the East Coast Trail, partying at Skull Fest, and this really awesome mine wars museum in West Virginia (no link because I’m still working on that one). The writing projects are literally endless, so many ideas of what I want to write about that I don’t even have time to write them all or pitch all the ideas. Put that together with the things that really bring in money in real-time, like hanging posters, working at Thick Bikes, or pretending to be professional for a few hours a week as a legal secretary, and that’s a lot of hours of focusing on different tasks and not nearly enough time left to walk the dog or binge-watch Arrested Development for the 8th time.
  2. We have rented out our home to prepare for our departure, but being a landlord has it own problems and frustrations. It’s nice to have someone watching over our house for us, but it also makes us feel a bit prematurely marooned while still needing to be 100% present to take care of the odds and ends of maintenance. (Our tenants, too, are just learning how to be tenants, which has its own apparent learning curve and adjustment period; it’s been a whole week since they’ve called us about something, so I think we’re finally reaching an understanding.) Even though we have a property manager taking over once we leave, there is still that uneasy feeling that once we’re gone, there will be these strangers living in our house, staring out our windows into the trees that once caught our dreams, and we have to just trust that they won’t burn the place down (and that they’ll keep paying the rent).
  3. All of our free time (by that I mean, when we have things to do that we just can’t bring ourselves to focus on in the moment) is spent obsessing over our survival. We watch YouTube videos on composting toilets, read blog posts about camper life for dogs, and go on dates to Advance Auto to pick up parts for the van to get it tow-ready. We scope out the best ways to get solar panels on the van to get optimal sunlight in the winter.
  4. Money! Yay! We calculate how much money we will have saved up by the yet-to-be-determined departure date, how much money it will cost to get out west, how must we will need to survive monthly between our bills and our gas/food/occasional camp fees, and how much we will need to make per month to keep our savings from emptying out. I have sent myself back to school to learn about freelancing, blogging, photography, selling stock photos, being a travel blogger, and all this other stuff that will eventually be fun, probably, but is really dry to learn about in word documents, pdfs, and videos. Once we are on the road, we’ll be relying on the written word, as well as photos and videos, to keep water in the tank and coffee on the stove. It’ll all pay off in the end, but the biggest question I’m asking myself is, why isn’t there an app to use up hours now that I’ll have in surplus in two months?

Something that’s always a bit frustrating about all these “socality” and “authentic life” accounts is that they are computer programers, graphic designers from big cities where graphic designers are actually paid a decent wage, and trust funders who just literally could not even. I don’t buy that what they are publishing is truly authentic but a version of a higher aspiration. The internet is highly curated, after all, and in an era where we are constantly under surveillance, the most militant curators are, of course, ourselves. But even past that, to take these images and posts as face value, what is authentic to them isn’t authentic to the rest of us who, however #blessed we are to be in this world alive, free, and able, still have to worry about getting by. Like most great things I’ve done in my life, this is kind of a bad idea. It’s the truest sign I have that things are going to work out okay. My worst ideas have so far always been the most radically fulfilling and downright okay-in-the-end.

I hope this blog post serves a few things: 1) to give you greater insight into how the “grass is greener” mentality is kind of BS (in fact, where we’re headed has almost zero grass), 2) to make you feel a bit better about feeling unrelatable to all those online sensations who are living in their Westfalias (which, of course, are dreamy) and looking beautiful and blonde (if I am literally counting the pounds and ounces of everything I’m taking in the camper, you can be sure that a comb, makeup, and decent shampoo are the first things to not even be considered to make it into the packing pile), and 3) let you know that these stresses are legit and all, but nothing that most anyone can’t get through if you really want to.

It’s also worth noting that while it feels, even to us, that this was a sudden and drastic decision, it’s something that we’ve been talking about for years, that I’ve been dreaming of for decades, and that we’ve been seriously planning and prepping for about a year. It may take you more or less prep time, depending on your situation, but there are lots of resources out there for people on the road. Wandering Educators has a great resource library to help people get started.

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