Tag Archives: voluntary simplicity

My diary from the Power Off weekend in March

Here are my notes, scribbled first on paper during the last weekend, when we had no electricity for the March Spring Equinox and Power Off Weekend II – please excuse it jumping from past to present tense, this is how I wrote it:

Friday …

Worked like crazy to get the new Five Senses website ok – to go live by 11pm Friday (the official start time of POW, when the whole electricity supply is turned off for 48 hours, at the flick of a switch). Totally mad – but we did it. Brain a bit frazzled though so we opted to come down gently by turning off the lights and watching the film “9” until just past midnight, then we powered off to bed by candle light. A box of matches symbolically placed by the bed ‘just in case’. The second POW had begun. I smiled and slept deep.

Saturday …

Sunshine and light very early, warm too – not like the December Power Off (the first we shared with other folks). Walked around the house naked – no hurry, no biting cold. First desire was for hot water, to make tea and porridge. Stood in the kitchen I awoke to remember there was to be no electricity. Used the camping gas burner. Easy, if slow. Looked around as water warmed slowly, thought the floor could use a vacuum – dusty – then realised I should brush it instead but I couldn’t be arsed.

After breakfast I set off up the drive to meet the walkers for my Hidden Gems of Orkney walk (second Saturday in the month – introducing them to unknown and wonderful parts of Orkney). From 9.30 – 13.30 I was out on the beach (scoured by the recent storm), in the Hall of Clestrain (exploring ruins) and building temporary stepping stones for the group to cross streams. Larger versions of childhood games. A cool breeze but sunny.

Returned home. Rachel looked very happy and relaxed. We drank tea in the conservatory, soaking up the faint warmth from the sun. (All this tea brewing was made easier by three thermos flasks which we keep filled whenever there is a fire). Profound sense of relaxation. R relaxed and yet energised (excited) by the ambiance – after overcoming the automatic choices of computer / film / music / iplayer (we have no TV) she had instead settled upon thinking. So had spent the morning contemplating. It seemed to have been time well spent.

After this rest my mind starts to think ‘food’ which means cooking … need to do washing up from last night’s marathon website writing session … needs hot water … needs fire … needs fuel … must saw up wood, so I needed to get moving as nothing would happen instantly, at the flick of a switch. However, it all seemed so much easier than the December POW when it was freezing and I had to burn all the driftwood to keep one room warm. This time was far more relaxed. The sun gave enough warmth. A good reminder that it was the Equinox.

Sunshine on the pages of my book making me smile with joy – sunlight so appreciated – feeling of great happiness, love, alive!

Sun close to setting. Yet another lovely day for a POW. I’m sure we are lucky but also more appreciative of the sun, it’s light, warmth, presence, life. Now is the equinox, sun is out west over Hoy Sound, dropping behind clouds over Stromness, directly west of here. Simple, profound relationships of time and seasons and directions, with the Sun and a spinning Earth.

Tried to use a sun dial to tell the time but it was out of sync with human time by 40 minutes. Nice to realise I don’t need to know the time today – in ‘holiday mode’, not knowing or worrying what time it is. No visible clocks or watches in the house … unless I dig into my rucksack or look at the mobile phone (which I did earlier when playing with the sun dial). The sun is starting to set time again, dusk is falling, TV schedules, even the rugby results can all wait.

Vacuum flasks are very good – working well – good supply of hot water and means I don’t need to tend the fire constantly (driftwood and peat) unlike December! A wood buring stove would be so good though. Note to everyone, get a stove, with a flat top. That with a good pipe to vent should be a basic of all houses, so even if not used much it is there for emergencies like power cuts. Much more fuel efficient and burns paper bricks, driftwood, garden cuttings, anything if push comes to shove.

Light fading but too early to light candles – sit right by the window like in times of old, to the last possible minute reading by sunlight, book facing flat out to west like a solar panel or flower for maximum light. Room is calm without electricity. People are naive to think we burn lots of candles to replace electric light (low energy bulbs of course) because in the most part we are enjoying sunlight, the flickering flames of a real fire and I am quite delighted by my navigational prowess in negotiating rooms in the dark:

Choosing tea by smell in stead of lighting up, using my sense of touch often, and listening for when a kettle is coming to boil or when a hot water bottle is near full with the hot water I’m pouring. Sounds, smells, textures all coming to prominence in the gentler light. You must try it to feel it.

Light a candle. Put white sheet of paper behind it to reflect light into room. So simple but effective.

So peaceful in the house – sound of wood crackling in the fire, birds twittering outside.

Ate bacon, eggs, mushrooms, bread and now next cup of tea … slight smoky taste, wonderful. Almost feels like bed time but still not fully dark. Fun 🙂

Crescent moon in the West, high above the ocean, casting light through this window. Went outside to pee, which is easier outside in the dark 🙂 Fantastic sky! All the main constellations very clear with a bright moon giving good light to see by and also hiding the smaller stars, leaving only the brightest. Leo, Gemini, Orion, Cassiopeia and the others all prominent. Moon pointing towards South quite nicely. Top night.

Happy reading. Kind of miss watching a film though.

Went to bed, time unknown, but too sleepy to read more. Fell asleep quickly.

Sunday …

Awoke in the night … stars … but not sleeping well … bad dream … so awaken in a low mood. Light gas, boil water, porridge, tea and then a bit of bacon and egg 🙂 Twice in 24 hours! Go wild.

Swept floor of conservatory and kitchen with dustpan and brush. Did some tidying, just the usual stuff but feels good. Did my daily poo inspection (shocking, I’ll skip the details). Makes me notice I’m feeling a bit off, weak, light headed. Opt to treat for dehydration. Head is fuzzy so finding talk and ideas hard to enjoy. Drinking water.

Thinking R is distracted then realise it is probably me. Walked outside barefoot onto the grass, opening my awareness. My book reading marathon has taken me away from R for too long. Need to play 🙂

We talk about how hard it is to relax, how hard it is to have weekends off work, especially when self employed and self motivated. How society is requiring people to work more, consume more, be forever active, no time to really rest. Even holidays have to be ‘earned’ by excessive hours before and afterwards, effectively eating into that rest time by being ever present, haunting.

So pleased to have the opportunity to contrast the two POWs, December and March. I’m keen to now do June, September and Dec again. This time there is so much more daylight, the air is warmer, the sun also providing warmth this time, even at 59 degrees North. Again it is so good to be aware of the sun’s journey across the sky, setting West, Equinox really means something. Not in a religious or spiritual way, as such but observational, scientific … this is reality, it does this whether you notice it or not. The world spins in orbit of the sun, the moon orbiting Earth, tides ebb and flow. Call me names if you like but this is what is going on and I like being aware of it. I love it! It is good to be aware of my place in the universe, I feel more self-confidence and happiness as a result.

Time to play Ticket to Ride. Set up in conservatory, where there is enough warmth from the sun, sheltered from the wind. Start to feel better, gradually.

Win the game. I go and make soup. Lentils been soaking overnight in the dirty pressure cooker – my idea to save washing up, so looks pretty ugly, with remains of venison stew (sorry my dear vegetarian friends). Cook over gas again because pressure cooker not good over naked flame, anyway it boils quickly and job is done with little fuel used. Cook veg including the defrosted peas and sweetcorn . Yummy. Feels super healthy, esp after the previous bacon fest and fat.

Pet watching – two cats, one mouse. Comical. I’m smiling again. Seals, ducks, calm water.

R is spinning in the conservatory, I’m gonna light the fire. Tidied the garage a wee bit earlier.

Took photos of the setting sun between 6 and 6.30pm together with the moon high in the South West. Beautiful light blue sky with powdery clouds like the end of an avalanche, covering the moon. Then she is back. Always she.

Cooked over wood fire – mashed potato with mackerel and cabbage, in the skillet. Simple but tasty. Wonderful time, light fading, again using all the remaining light, precious. I know we would normally have lights on now, if we were using electricity, like nearly everyone who has electric lights (or is it everyone?) but really it seems that is all about fear, fighting the dark, like it is bad, evil. Now it seems lovely and calming to be here as the sun fades and to welcome the night. I am safe in my own home after all. I have nothing to fear. The night is beautiful.

I lament the loss of darkness (by which I mean the gentle light of lamp and fire and candle) for a constant blaze of continual brightness, only ended when I close my eyes. How unnatural, limiting, sterile. It is hard if this is how you were brought up. Harder still if you were scared as a child with stories of monsters, evil, things unknown. Stories that contained and controlled people for so long seem to limit us now we have the technology to fill the night with reassuring light. Am I the only one to think this? I remember the street lights being switched off at night and the world sleeping, except the owls and foxes and their companions. This seemed as natural as the sun setting and switching off lights. But nowadays we live in perpetual light, whole towns lit, shops advertising, security cameras searching … fear on the one hand, commerce and consumption on the other. Convenience but at what price, I ask?

Monday …

Last night we felt very comfortable with the power off and so today we are in no hurry to switch back on.

Kitchen is tidy(ish). It was fun last night washing up with water boiled over the wood fire, in the kitchen with one candle, memories of Ferry Farm.

Flasks of water still nice and warm from last night too so I am quick on the porridge, green tea and juice situation.

Very happy with the house and delighted the day is grey, windy and damp – shows what a good weekend it was – sun, stars, low wind. Very lucky.

Rachel needs to rest because of the antibiotics, so I am encouraging a relaxed day for many reasons.

Finished book last night around midnight. Excellent stuff. But late to bed. Also a roof tile seems to have broken. Awoken by sound of flapping plastic (rapid tapping on roof driving us mad). Tried to ignore but just couldn’t sleep – ended up having to half crawl out onto roof to fix.

Still no power on. POW continues, day 3 🙂

Lit fire for warmth and mood … last bits of wood, not enough to last the day, maybe 3 hours at most. There is some outside I can go cut up, later. First to cook lunch – lots of vegetables for health. Somewhere over the weekend (Friday night I guess, we had mackerel and rice with vegetables. Now we are vegetarian until I next go shopping.

Little desire to turn electricity back on except to send out a SurveyMonkey for the post power off folks and to let the outside world know we are ok. They could reach by mobile phone (unused over weekend, so still charged) but is nice to let everyone know and to check nothing major has happened to them. All seems quiet. Notice good news re Healthcare in US (I assume it is good news, having missed the debate).

We recognise now the importance of the power being turned off completely (for us anyway) like having no chocolate or cigarettes I guess. The temptation when the power is back on to “just do …” is strongly ingrained in us. It is so much easier to relax when you know the power is off. We talk of the tendency to overdo things unless breaks are forced upon us (even by ourselves – hell, who else is going to help us if we are otherwise dumb enough to overwork?) – the compulsion to be doing things, socially productive things – so we talked about things like meditation, yoga, rest, weekends – and the struggle in today’s society to ‘do nothing’. Even when physically inactive we are under pressure to be doing things – thinking – or imputing data (reading or watching TV etc.)

I measure the temp in the fridge: 10 deg C, the same as elsewhere in the house, except this one room we live in, with the fire. It is 19 deg C in here. Still drafts as the fire sucks air from under the door and through cracks in the walls but comfortable. 🙂

Sun comes out as it rolls over Stromness. The room temp reaches 21 degrees. Too hot 🙂

We decide the best way to welcome electricity back into our lives (excepting the 30 minutes earlier today when I briefly powered up to send out the survey) is to watch rugby! So we start up the internet, there are beeps and the fridge grumbles into life, and we get the good old BBC iplayer going, watch Wales, then Scotland.

The stove remains off. This big dinosaur of a beast that consumes electricity like the antithesis of a power station. For now, we prefer to be cool and eating frugally. Some day a wind turbine will power it for ‘free’ but not now, not this day.

I think back to the sounds of the weekend … the kettle singing a rising scale to tell me when the water neared boiling, no electric kettle has ever sounded so beautiful with its impatient roar … I think of the sunlight changing throughout the day but mostly as it faded gradually at dusk, or the shadows moving as we walked to bed with candle in hand, and no house has felt alive like that beneath the constancy of electric light. Don’t get me wrong, electricity is amazing, truly astounding and near magical – and precious … but it is not everything and we can have so much more if we have both light and dark … and all the shades in between. We can have electric guitars and synthesisers but there is still beauty and joy in violin and drum, the chirping of a skylark or the sighing of the wind.

I ask you to consider it all.

The next Power Off weekend is in June 19-20. I hope some of you will join us. See the Facebook Group for details.

How did I become a good consumer?

I have looked back into my past to try and understand how I became the person I am today – how I became a good consumer? (By ‘good’ I mean effective, good at the activity, not pure and praiseworthy). I started by scribbling these notes with a pencil whilst my computer was searched for spyware – a common feature of life with Microsoft. My brain could not hold back, so pencil in hand, I wrote:

Sirens of consumerism, seducing us with advertising.

Why do we need advertising? How much is information and how much is persuasion? Silver-tongued snake oil salesmen and the black art of emotional manipulation … politicians, traders, editors, marketers, speculators, sellers of advertising space … ordinary human beings and some of the most creative brainpower … going towards encouraging over consumption and deteriorating living conditions, in society and environment (one and the same). They have to feed the kids, roof their home somehow.

I have the image of drug addicts, chasing the dragon, of scrawny crack-cocaine addicts pushing pills to pay for that ache-relieving fix.

Where, I thought, does this process begin? What causes these bright brains and otherwise beautiful beings to a) want b) want more c) feed the addiction by selling? I need to understand how it happens so I can stop it happening and help people off the addiction. Using the power of memory, which is fading with neglect, I peer through old imagery in my head to my childhood and the origins of “me”.

Childhood dreams of motorbikes, glory and adoration. Adverts and glossy pictures, gleaming paintwork and delicious curves captured in sharp and soft images. And the semi-naked woman adorning the bike, writhing, imploring me to … what? I didn’t know but for a teenage (just) boy her body lured my brain cells like metal filings to a magnet. A magnet with a bike attached. I guess my subconscious wanted her but my consciousness wanted the bike. I started to get pictures of bikes from the local bike shop. Super glossy A4 leaflets with a picture one side, technical detail the other. I drawled over the exquisite beauty of the Yamaha, the Honda, I imagined in astounding detail the roll of the wheel and the effortless acceleration (I knew how to ride a bicycle and also knew the effort involved and craved power). My head collected numbers, horsepower, torque, suspension travel, and the most magic of them all, the 0 – 60 mph, the acceleration – that which was beyond my physical capabilities and that would thrust me forward in adrenaline intoxication. Freud fans can read between the lines, I’m sure.

This was a time in the 1970’s, pre mobile phones, satellite media, internet, designer clothes – at least in my world. Heck, Britain was not long out of rationing and was deep in debt to the USA. This was a time of pocket money, toys, paper rounds and playground friendships. I knew no magazines or tabloid papers and adverts on tv seemed to be for housewives (not my mum) with their detergents and shampoos. All stuff I didn’t buy.

Yet slowly, the general culture of my society trickled into my head. There were the motorbikes and what other boys talked of at school. There was television and what was talked of the next day. Long before I saw vast wealth and fashion, in the face, I was learning to judge my existence relative to images instead of copying real people. This set up aspirations and then expectations, a sense of being different from those around me. My town was small and uneventful. Life went on at the pace of old ladies, shopping trolley in tow. I knew of other things – giraffes, skyscrapers, sexy women and motorbikes.

Most dominant in my growing up was my family and my parents. It was their lifestyle choices I was cultured in. No dinner parties, no magazines, no razzmatazz or show business. I grew up with reading comics as they read the Guardian; toy soldiers and football whilst they grew vegetables; annoyance at the news and neighbours which I copied. We went on camping holidays, ate together (7 of us, plus a dog), walked in the countryside, did chores, watched tv and I went to school. Television was dominated by sport (Saturday afternoon was religiously filled with the football results ritual, tea and two biscuits), nature programmes, news (it was the BBC after all) and the entertainment: starsky and hutch, kojak, star trek, 6 million dollar man, tom and jerry; plus blue peter, the good life, all creatures great and small. The outside world trickled into my quiet, secluded town.

Second was school. (There is a reason I love Pink Floyd). School was the slow, steady hammering of my brain into shape, in the forge of indoctrination. Subtle, repetitive beats that bruised and damaged me: Competition, class, distinction, difference, segregation, routine, rules, conformity, slow atrophication of creativity and spirit, flattening of humour, spontaneity and cooperation. We formed cliques, we were competing on a scramble up the ladder. We all new it. There was a hierarchy and we each had a rung to occupy. Some how I began to expect / dream of a rise to the top. Hard work and compliance would be the ticket out of this trauma – this ‘end of childhood’. I was not allowed to return to my games and imagination (except during play time and after school). There was one trap door marked “Future” and it required a pass – exams and grades and escape to adulthood in the freedom of independence – university, and a rise to the clear air of choice, self determination, control.

Expectations were set by parents and school – pass exams and get a career, grow up and be a man. Success, achievement, purpose, a good life. I was led to believe, like a lamb, that “others have this, you not only can but you ‘should’ have it too. Along side this were the other messages: You will be liked more, you will be admired, you will be ‘better’.

I was lucky. Whilst I was subjected to the mass culture, I was better off (in my opinion) than the rest. I was intelligent, well adjusted, healthy (umm, and male, white and well spoken). I was also heavily exposed to nature, not just the nurture of society. My parents did an excellent job in giving me experiences that I now treasure – the garden, badminton on the lawn and shuttlecocks stuck in the ash tree – sandwiches and tea and the sound of tennis balls thwacked at Wimbledon – the open spaces of Welsh hillsides and the rocky freedom of mountain tops – holidays in France and a tricky language – new potatoes and shelling peas – gathering mint for the Sunday roast – life by candlelight and the flicker of light from a wood fire – the smells and hisses of scots pine – the cackle of fulmars on the quarry wall. The list goes on in my head, for day, weeks, a childhood. This is what would eventually save me.

The trauma of the end of childhood and the trap door to freedom led to the escape from school and on to university – from the frying pan into the fire! I was so let down, almost devastated by the disappointment of what was really a school for over 18s. It was the wrong time to give me such a sense of deprivation – my hopes were high and I was fuelled like a rocket – and my hormones were moaning. I’d had a near death experience and knew life could be snuffed out in an instant by some other’s error or a momentary lapse of judgement. Life was potentially short. Russia and USA were in an arms race to oblivion (still unfolding) and the human virus was sickening the planet. All around the end seemed just around the corner and I had two thoughts – avoid it happening and try to do something about it. That ‘end’, was not just the end of life but also the end of my hope, the hope of freedom, the life of my dreams. The aches of growing pains were in my heart as much as my limbs. I was an emotional animal, by now confused and misguided, bruised and beaten, lonely and vulnerable. It was the 1980s. I was ready for a quick fix.

So that is the process, as I see it, how ordinary people arrive at being addicted and controlled by their addiction. The purveyors of false dreams that we are told money will buy are just you and me (well, except you are just a bit-part dealer not a multi-national trader in virtual reality. I don’t believe they are going to read this blog, ever.

This reminds me of something my father once said: “If they are not trying to kill you – you are not threatening them. Yes, big brother may be watching but we are mostly safely below the radar, doped up on dreams and alcohol. You don’t have to watch the rats to know they are safely locked in the sewer. (I grew up listening to the Stranglers, on an old record player, scratching my brother’s album with a 78 needle). Think of all the assassinations.

I guess one of the problems is that many addicts are quite happy in their haze, so long as they have enough of their drug, and it is hard to get them to give up voluntarily. Even if their behaviour is destroying them, spoiling your life and collectively screwing the planet’s ecosystems. Persuading an addict to get clean is the story of my life, now and into the future.

Now, I am a ‘bad consumer’ yet still a vast processor of resources. Still the planet is crawling with diseased specimens of a species that is heading towards collapse. And we know it. The best bit is, life is remarkably resilient, there are millions of us who are aware and are fighting the disease, and life today is amazing. The future for many may be bleak and for millions of humans living today it is (I learn via mass media, the lives of others who I have never seen but feel for … fellow humans) but I am living an amazing life as I try to do good. I try my best”.