Donna O’Shaughnessy (Creative Writing ’16) finished a degree forty years in the making this past year, but that’s only part of her story. We asked her to tell us the rest. With her undergraduate degree now behind her, along with extensive experience in nursing, farming, and running a small business, why is she now living in a converted grain bin and deliberately managing on less than minimum wage? Here’s her answer:
Intentionally Living Under the Poverty Line: A Different Measure of Success
Yesterday, my husband converted a century-old shed into a cozy chicken coop using discarded windows, reclaimed wood and fallen tree branches, while I canned tomatoes for winter stew and hung out six loads of laundry to dry in between fits of rain. We neither spent nor earned one dime, but we considered the day a success.
Our definition of success has morphed over the last four years from one calculated in terms of finance to one gauged by the less tangible and far less popular measure, of satisfaction. Where once we considered ourselves “successful” due to our six figure earnings (combined nursing and farming income), we also succumbed to the pitfalls of that prosperity: less time for each other, our children and grandchildren, serious health issues, and little opportunity to pursue hobbies or activities that gave us pleasure. We had, like so many others in our American society of More Is Best, worked ourselves into near collapse.
The way we saw it, we had two choices: get bigger by hiring staff for our organic farm business or get out. We elected the second option. I retired from nursing, we sold our big farm and bought a smaller farm without housing. Living in a 160 square-foot camper for six months while we converted a grain bin into a tiny home solidified our goal to live small on a tiny income,
How tiny? Under the poverty line tiny. Currently in Illinois this number is $16,020 for a family of two.
So, why would two college educated, able-bodied quinquagenarians elect to decrease their previous years income by 80%?
Because, we had grown tired of our definition of success. When personal success is measured by outsiders looking in, rather than through intrinsic inspection, feelings of satisfaction are diluted. We used to run ragged earning money to buy things which required more money to maintain. We were gone all day selling good food to others, while eating boxed cereal ourselves at 10 pm. Now, a successful day is one spent donating time to charitable organizations, teaching grandchildren to milk a cow, preserving produce, or cooking meals for those who have no time to cook for themselves.
I believe Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best when he wrote: To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived; That is to have succeeded.
You can read more about Donna’s Emersonian adventures on her blog, The Poor Farm. You’d think she’s busy enough as it is, but remember that degree in Creative Writing? She’s putting it to use and blogging about her writing endeavors as well.