Words and Photos by Wendy Tremayne
Wendy Tremayne’s morning coffee starts with roasting
green beans in a Poppery II popcorn maker.
I heard someone who I think is smart say, “The one whose desire has not been met did not know how to desire.” In my 2013 book, The Good Life Lab: Radical Experiments in Hands-On Living, I described my experiences after pledging to make everything that I once bought: food, power, fuel, building materials, and domestic goods, using waste or natural materials. The type of skills I emphasized in the book range from welding to filtering biodiesel to making botanical remedies to mixing paper crete. A decade later, I’m past the stage in life in which I put forth enormous effort and make big sacrifices to prove my ideas and bring into existence philosophies I believe in. What I now have to share are contemplative skills that enable me to take in the bounty of my efforts, things like mustering desire, reflection, and the intentional turning of my interest toward (and not away from) the activities I must do.
While constructing a decommodified life and making everything by hand, I noticed that we avoid the things that are the most valuable. Simply said, life is as interesting as our interest in it. Labor is a form of leisure, but it’s also more than that. Labor stimulates our creative mind; by making things, we naturally understand the world and the value of the things in it, which we may have previously taken for granted. This kind of appreciation allows us to value all that’s all around us, even the value of the things we didn’t make. The knowledge and skill we develop through labor are durable things that don’t rise and fall with financial markets or change with economies. Knowledge is stable and truly belongs to its holder—it is worth more than money.
Heating water to the perfect temperature and carefully
pouring it over the grinds to cause a CO2 bloom.
I’ve also become aware of just how forgetful we humans can be. Reflection, the taking in of all that’s good, is something we must train ourselves to do and then remember to implement in everyday life. The Sufis say that “only what we’ve burned into the soul of the world through gratitude lasts forever.” But human nature often works against us. Just think back to a moving song that made you cry when you first heard it. Do you remember how the emotional impact of the song lessened with each time you replayed it? Eventually the cry no longer comes. The magical feeling of being reached by the world (as opposed to just residing in it) is obscured by our habit of not seeing what is all around us. Look at the rising sun tomorrow, only this time know that you’re looking at a giant nuclear furnace that’s hurling through the cosmos at incredible speed, which rises daily and regulates the delicate temperature range that we live in—perfect for plants, humans, and all the creatures in this world. The wind, the sounds of our environment, the sensations of temperature on our skin, and the wonder of encountering another human being are all magical gifts hidden in plain sight. If we consider that those who learn to savor life don’t devour it, we can see that this seemingly simple practice may be radically important for the world. I like to think of my own failure to be moved by the life around me as a “user error,” which rightly puts the burden of remembering to remember on me.
Consider the everyday task, and potential ceremony, of making coffee. My morning coffee starts with roasting green beans in a Poppery II popcorn maker, grinding the beans, heating water to the perfect temperature (190 degrees), and carefully pouring it over the grinds to cause a CO2 bloom—evidence that I got all these steps right. But it doesn’t end here. With the warm, fragrant cup in my hand, I let nothing disturb the experience of savoring it: no screens, no multitasking, and no busying about. I fully enjoy the gift while taking time to experience the shade canopy in my yard, made by trees I planted years ago as saplings. I feel the air on my skin, take in the fragrance of the moment, and appreciate all. Another gem in my morning coffee ceremony is the knowledge that I resourced this joy for myself. When we know that we create our own happiness, we tap into a feeling that we can trust ourselves with ourselves, the best feeling of safety we can know, and something we all need to feel if we’re to be genuinely happy.
We’d be really silly creatures if we didn’t transform our view of the things that we “must do” into things we “get to do,” especially when we consider that most of life is spent on domestic tasks. So why treat domesticity as something to rush through so we may get to something better? Our domestic tasks are the “something better,” if we choose to make them so. Joy in this world is often hidden in the everyday, even when you are weed whacking, making coffee, or repairing a burst pipe.
There is a time in one’s life to prove out our ideas, sound a note, make effort and sacrifice to establish our credos in this world. And there is a time in which our task is to love the world we inhabit. Today I find myself extending my “tea ceremonies” to wherever they may be welcomed. I derive pleasure from cooking for others, teaching what I know, sharing, and bringing a sense of wonder to life that I hope will be contagious to those who are ready to embody it. We may each be able to make some change to this world, but it will still be a tumultuous world; if the world were perfect, the world wouldn’t be. Something that we can all do is nourish our own inner ecology so that we may have a kind of resilience, and when we’re blooming on the inside with appreciation, we can share it and increase our happiness by increasing the happiness of the characters who populate our days.
Ten years after writing my book, I’m awfully busy repairing all the stuff that I built. Almost every day I fix a plumbing break, patch a stucco wall, repaint a deck, or work on the landscape surrounding me. I also host friends on what’s now a one-acre wonder world that I made. I do these things as lovingly as I can, and I am sure not to miss the gains: knowledge, independence, exercise, time spent outside feeling the magical forces of nature, and the intimacy of caring for others. I do my best to extract joy from every task, spend time taking in the pleasures of it, and then I look to share joy and inspiration with others. Once I do, my joy has a life in the world, and it’s a good life!
Wendy Tremayne is a conceptual artist, painter, writer, author of the award-winning book The Good Life Lab: Radical Experiments in Hands-On Living, and founder of the worldwide textile-repurposing model Swap-O-Rama-Rama.