Breaking Free from the 9-to-5 Condition and Designing a Life with Joy

Eight years ago I found myself volunteering at a permaculture homestead in the forest. I traded my labor for room, board, experience and knowledge. I had originally planned a journey to volunteer at several homesteads and farms for six months. I must have needed more time immersing and learning because the journey evolved into over two years of work trade.

At the time I had no bills and I received a packet of diverse “seeds” to grow a new life. I immediately planted, watered and nurtured those seeds with love and care. In my spare time, when I wasn’t helping my host families, I continued immersing myself in this beautiful new lifestyle — pouring over books, learning to identify plants, tasting every herb I met, adventuring in the local forests and cooking daily with garden and wild food.

Truth be told I fully adopted the title homesteader two short months into my apprenticeships. I loved the lifestyle and became fully committed a new way of learning and living. For me gardening and permaculture opened the doors to homesteading, herbalism, forest gardening, wildcrafting and a magical sense of belonging to Mother Earth herself.

During the growing season I would typically spend half the day or more in the garden and tending to animals during the week days. As a night owl with a part time work schedule I would enjoy a late leisurely breakfast and then make my way into the garden to start my chores of the day. Inevitably I would get hungry in the afternoon and come in for lunch. Then I might spend a few more hours working before calling it quits for the day.

My Precious Time

One particularly hot day in June or July I finished my chores for the day and came in exhausted from the heat of the day and soaked with sweat. I wondered to myself: Why don’t I labor in the garden in the morning and early evening when the temperatures are cooler, then rest in the afternoon when it is hot?

But I already knew my answer — I wanted to finish my garden chores so that I could have my personal time for the evening. I was dividing my waking day into two chunks: Their time and my time. Work and play. Labor and recover.

God forbid I split my garden work into two chunks around a personal time sandwich! That idea repulsed me then, but something about it must have attracted me because I kept mulling that observation in the background.

Now here I was volunteering to learn how to live the lifestyle that attracted me and I was still dividing my time into theirs and mine. I was still committed to working during the standardized 9-5 and the dominant part of me was inflexible to consider a life outside of that box.

Some part of me must have found this pretty absurd because this feeling, this observation of my behavior, kept growing over the ensuing months and years until I could no longer ignore the ridiculous dualism that prevented me from living more naturally.

The hotter part of summer and fall coincide with harvest time which means a lot of time harvesting, processing, storing, selling, etc. Many small-scale farmers do spend more time working in the mornings and evenings while resting or doing less intensive work in the shade during the hot afternoon.

Then in the winter there is much more downtime, slowing down, resting, recovering. For a farmer, or any human culture making a go of living off the land, it would be physically unsustainable to stick to one rigid work schedule through the seasons.

Homesteaders share a similar reality with farmers. While most of us don’t rely on homesteading as our primary income source, we must still learn to ebb and flow with the seasons, lest we hold nature (and the natural part of ourselves) at arms length.

One of the farms I visited had a running joke. They took pride in de-conditioning their apprentices from dominant cultural values. The statement is actually 100% truth, but I laugh because its hilarious to see how seriously we all take the daily grind. But growing food feels real. Its tangible. We can feed ourselves and our families.

Life on the right (read: inspired) farm feels like a magical oasis on a good day. Stepping off the farm, or out of the garden, and back into the “real world” can feel disorienting, disenchanting, fake, disconnected.

Almost a decade later and a seed has taken root and grown into a young tree from which I am already enjoying delicious fruits. I feel more connected with nature and more grounded. I am a much closer friend with myself, which has helped me enjoy closer relationships with people around me.

I find myself shifting more naturally with the cyclic rhythms of the seasons. Nature is teaching me to be less rigid about expectations on myself.

I am Human

I am enjoying a blurred vision of reality as the dividing line between myself and others is starting to fade. How wonderful to feel more connected to people and plants around me.

Still, I live an imperfect life. Still, as a human I see the world as separate from myself. Still, my values and behaviors are influenced by being conditioned for the better part of four decades to live one way, the only way as it would seem. (My conditioning to the 40 hour work week and having a boss started in primary school.)

Yet now I enjoy holding the reins to my life and steering it in any unorthodox way of my choosing. Deprogramming myself is often difficult, uncomfortable and messy. You see, I was brought up in a culture that taught me to move from point A to point B. But there are no lines in nature, just as there are no ultimate destinations.

Instead I choose to walk my life on the spiral of life. Opening myself to the spiral has challenged my belief systems around everything I know and perceive — time, space, life & death, ownership, unseen worlds…

No, I am not fully deprogrammed, but that’s OK. Now that I walk the spiral I no longer aim for a perfect destination. If I was still trying to achieve the ultimate destination, I would only see how much more work I have ahead of me — ugh. Instead, the spiral reminds me that I am always right here, exactly where and when I need to be.

The beautiful tree that is growing inside me still has much more room to expand. As I continue decommissioning the cultural programs that no longer serve me, light opens up in the overstory and my patient heart-tree responds in kind with more growth.

As you no doubt know by now, I absolutely love homesteading. Sometimes a homesteading lifestyle can be quite a chore physically and even mentally. Sometimes it can feel like too much to take on. When it starts feeling like a chore, one of my new programs kicks into gear and reminds me that this lifestyle is all designed by yours truly. Not in a “You better buck up boy!” tone. Its more of a motherly, warm, inviting reminder to “Remember the magic!”

What is Work?

I will often enthusiastically share with friends my excitement around upcoming homestead projects of season such as the dozens of trees I will be planting, the wine I am fermenting, the hundreds of feet of garden space I’ll be expanding, or the seeds I want to save.

Sometimes I get a response back like “That sounds like a lot of work!” or “It looks like you’re making lots of work for yourself in the coming years.”

“Work” is a funny word in our culture of convenience because it can carry a heavy weight with it. Most of us spend the majority of our lives working for someone else. We trade the majority of our life’s time for money. What else do we end up trading with that time? How many of us can honestly answer that question?

In my homesteading lifestyle, I labor often and enjoy many projects and activities, but I don’t like to call them work. Instead I choose to say that I live! I am living my life as I have designed. Its become difficult for me to call what I do work. Much of my labor is now so woven into a life filled with deep meaning that it doesn’t seem to fit my understanding of the word “work”.

Maybe its time for me to redefine for myself what it means to work. Its true — I do live a life filled with work. But its work I chose to take back from the factories. Factories excel at producing efficiently, but factories are not capable of nourishing my whole being. Homesteading is work that I consciously wake up and choose each day because it connects me to being alive, to being a participant with Mother Earth as a human-animal-being. My work connects me with my survival, with magic, with my sense of purpose.

My work as a homesteader is the homework that I actually want to do. Part of me wishes someone would have told my schoolboy self that there is homework coming in the future that he can actually look forward to. There is learning that will feel joyous and fulfilling. But then I laugh because I don’t need to wish. My inner boy is awake and participating in the school of life. I’m recognizing his joy and he’s reciprocating in kind every time we choose our heart and passion to be our guides through this incredible, winding life.

4 responses to “Breaking Free from the 9-to-5 Condition and Designing a Life with Joy”

  1. Avatar

    A beautiful post, and I wholeheartedly agree!

    Unlike you I grew up with homesteading and have not spent much of my life working 9 to 5. Believe it or not, it is possible to build some pretty rigid mental habits into homesteading, which was something my father excelled at. Dig the plots 4’x18′, three layers deep. Line them with roofing tin reinforced by T-posts. Fill them back up layer by layer. Fifty-four potato hills per plot. Twelve plots in a grid, leveled with each other in four tiers.

    For me, following my joy and relaxing my mind seems like it might mean *less* homesteading, in some aspects at least. I don’t need to grow every crop; I can always source from farming or gardening friends. Maybe I don’t need to make dilly beans this year and can go backpacking that weekend instead. Homesteading is a bit of a solitary activity, and at the moment I am feeling like I would like move from self-reliance toward more community interdependence.

    1. Noel

      Hey Mark, thank you so much for sharing. I enjoy learning from you and I appreciate your perspective as a life long homesteader! Rigidity, and for that matter dogma, is something I can’t stop seeing everywhere now, including of course social media, but most especially in myself. I appreciate the note or observation about homesteading, as an alternative culture, not being immune from rigid thinking. Seeing rigidity or dogma and then moving toward fluidity or openness gracefully is easier said than done. I applaud your embracing of community interdependence over your old values of self-reliance… it sounds and feels like a much more natural way to live. I’ve been on a similar trajectory of values, perhaps a few steps behind you. I hope more of our culture moves in a similar direction of re-imagining together with Earth. We humans are capable of so much! For now I am celebrating all the abundance that our species has brought forward so that many of us can have the privilege and space to ask these questions and pursue our joy.

  2. Avatar

    Loved reading about deprogramming yourself from the 9-5, and how you redefined “work” as “living”. Thanks for sharing your journey, Noel!

    1. Noel

      Thank you so much Tara! Its definitely and ongoing process. It was fun to write this post and share some of my experience. I am glad you enjoyed reading along :)

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