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Experiments in Living


Amy Eddings, former host of All Things Considered for WNYC, in her new farmhouse in Ada, Ohio (photo courtesy of Amy Eddings). 
 
by Jeremy Sierra
 
Like many New Yorkers, I was admittedly a little sad when I learned Amy Eddings would be leaving WNYC, New York’s prestigious and beloved public radio station. Over the years I’d grown accustomed to her voice offering the latest news and headlines on weekday afternoons. Eddings was the host of All Things Considered for WNYC for more than a decade. That is, until January 2015, when she left all that behind for a farmhouse in Ohio.
 
“The actual decision came in a blinding, sweeping feeling that I got last summer when my husband and I toured a big, old Victorian house in Ada, Ohio,” Eddings explained in an interview conducted over email. “But that moment was actually the crystallization of two years’ worth of talks between me and my husband over . . . what kind of lives we wanted to be leading.”
 
It’s always a bit of a risk to move to New York City, and arguably an even larger risk to leave it once you've established yourself. Yet you can find people like Eddings and others across the country rejecting big cities, traditional careers, and business as usual in search of more fulfilling and sustainable lives. Eddings was hesitant to identify herself as part of a movement, but she might be described as what author and sociologist Juliet Schor calls a “downshifter.” Schor uses the term to describe people who eventually reject the corporate ladder and seek more time for creativity and relationships.
 
They are part of the “Plentitude Movement,” Schor says. The loosely-defined movement is made up of people who want to “work and spend less, connect and create more,” she says.
 
“It is emerging as a congeries of diverse experiments, in a variety of places, with participation from a range of demographic groups,” Schor writes with co-author Craig J. Thompson in her recent book, Sustainable Lifestyles and the Quest for Plentitude.
 
Many have the feeling that our current way of living is not sustainable. Eddings described her 600-square foot apartment in Brooklyn and the feeling of exhaustion that living in New York can create. This is a feeling familiar to anyone who has looked for an affordable apartment in the city or had a long and tedious morning commute on crowded trains or clogged highways. For that matter, it’s a familiar feeling to anyone concerned about climate change or growing economic inequality.
 
In her keynote address at the 2015 Trinity Institute conference in January, Schor called the problems of economic inequality and climate change “wicked problems”—problems with no easy solutions.
 
“One approach that fits with the problem we have,” she said, “is to think about solutions that are collaborative, that are based in social networks, that are bottom up and that are experimental. Solving wicked problems involves learning by doing and an open-minded approach.”
 
You’ll find people all over the country who are experimenting in this way: Eddings, artists living in cooperative housing, urban farmers. These are all, in a sense, experiments in living. It’s not necessarily that they don’t want to work hard—it’s that they want to work differently.
 
For some, like Eddings, these experiments might take the form of a move, born of feeling worn down by urban living and a demanding career.
 
Eddings is now living in that Victorian farmhouse in Ada, Ohio, where her sister also lives. She’s still working out her plan, but it will include gardening and a renewed focus on relationships with her nieces, parents, and husband. “To be intentional about those relationships,” she said, “in a way that I haven’t been before because of physical distance and the primacy I’ve placed on my broadcasting career.” She has been blogging about her transition and is employed, for the moment, as a part-time librarian.
 

Amy Eddings' farmhouse in Ada, Ohio (photos courtesy of Amy Eddings). 
 
Others, like Caroline Woolard, are experimenting out of a need to create more time and money to pursue creative projects. Woolard, an artist who lives in Brooklyn, started Our Goods, a network of artists and craftspeople who can exchange services and skills without the use of money. Now it’s a website with more than three hundred active users who might trade handmade clothing for help with web design, or offer tools in exchange for drawing lessons.
 
She started the website after the financial downturn in 2008. “I graduated from school when there was rising unemployment and the fiction of finance was everywhere,” she said. “It was a time where it seemed like we had to make our own way.”
 
Woolard also lives in a cooperative household where residents share duties and are able to drastically reduce expenses. She has certain chores­—she cooks dinner on Tuesday nights and shops at the nearby food co-op about once every two months—but she also has a lot of flexibility in her life.
 

Caroline Woolard (left) speaks with Juliet Schor and Bob Scott, Director of Trinity Insititute. 
 
“I work for money two or three days a week,” she explained. “The other days I do work, but it’s volunteer work. I help friends and barter with people to make art work. I wouldn't be able to do the kind of volunteer work that I love to do if I had a very expensive rent, and expensive food, and expensive lifestyle. So for me I have the privilege of making that choice, but for many people it’s not a choice.”
 
You can find initiatives like this both among artists and low-income communities of color. One such program is Project EATS, which brings people together in New York to grow food and sell it in neighborhoods like Brownsville, which is a largely black, low-income community in Brooklyn.
 
The organization was started by Linda Goode Bryant, a documentary filmmaker with an MBA who now runs the project. A number of experiences led her to question how food is grown and distributed and what kind of sustainable model might be possible in urban neighborhoods. “I think all of us are trying to find out what model is going to work best,” she said.
 
Project EATS works with partners, hires experienced farmers, educates people, and sells the food they grow at neighborhood appropriate prices (which, in a place like Brownsville, is below-market price).
 

Photo courtesy of Linda Goode Bryant.
 
“Creativity and innovation are what really drive us,” said Bryant. “It’s all about being able to perceive other possibilities.”
 
Before leaving WNYC, Eddings reported a series called Last Chance Foods: Farm School. She noticed that many young people shared an interest in farming.
 
“I think the thread connecting all the things we’re talking about here—rural living, career change, sustainable lifestyles, and God—is the desire to slow down,” she said.
 
It’s not only a need to slow down, but also a need to rethink our relationships with our food, our homes, our careers, and each other. No project or movement has yet offered a definitive solution to growing inequality, the emissions that are harming our planet, and our disconnection from each other, but each person working to produce food, seeking more time for creativity, sharing skills, or living in community are signs of hope. They are each testing a hypothesis: Can we live differently?
 
These experiments can be scary. For Eddings, a practicing Catholic, her faith has helped her as she leaves behind a prestigious job in a city she’s known since 1986. “I take great comfort in knowing that He’s counted every hair on my head and every grain of sand in the ocean, that He loves me and is my refuge no matter what happens” she said.
 
Is it a calling? “Yes, in as much as it’s a calling to encourage myself, and others, to embrace change and see risks and conflict as part of being truly alive,” she says.
 
Although Schor does not talk explicitly about faith, she also has hope for the future.
 
“My hope is that as we face a growing climate catastrophe,” she said, “we recognize that we can address it by coming together, creating more fairness, more social connection, strengthening our local communities, our ties to each other, creating resilience, acting in true and loving ways.”
 
This kind of change is slow and requires patience, as Eddings has learned.
 
“I’ve noticed how much we want to pole vault over the messy work of transition and seeking,” she said. She and her husband are often anxious to unpack the last box and finish painting the house and get on with their new life, but the work of change takes time. It does not happen unless we listen to that part of ourselves that isn’t satisfied with an excessively busy and unsustainable lifestyle. Experimenting in this way requires a bit of faith.
 
“My profoundest experience of God’s grace is in moments of struggle and doubt," said Eddings. "My deepest prayer is to truly lean in, in faith, and to ‘be not afraid.’”
 
You can follow Amy Eddings' journey on her entertaining and thoughtful blog, easterhouse.net.
 
A version of this article will appear in the Spring 2015 issue of Trinity News magazine. Click here for a free subscription.
 
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