Bill Powers spent a season living in a 12 foot by 12 foot cabin without electricity in Chatham County, North Carolina in 2007, off the grid. Although the space came about serendipitously through a physician friend, it was a culmination of great deal of thinking Powers had done while working in global development and on poverty issues in the Third World.
He wanted to connect to nature, to experience abundant free time and truly minimalist living for himself. He penned a book describing the experience called Twelve by Twelve. This Monday he comes to The Regulator Bookshop on Ninth Street to discuss, New Slow City, his follow up to what became a green living bestseller. Twelve by Twelve had a remarkable five printings.
However, the public blowback was that, “Well, that is one thing in the relative isolation of rural North Carolina, but how does that apply to my modern existence??”
Powers and his wife took that challenge very literally and devised a plan to move from their 1600 square foot townhouse in Queens to a 340 square foot micro-apartment in Manhattan for a year.* Powers wanted to see if they could escape the culture of constant work. He wanted to examine how slow living and a minimalist ethic played in the fastest town in the Western World.
His lessons will ring bells with Durhamanians already adopting similar practices.
At first he went, “cold turkey,” cutting his work schedule back to two days a week. The expense reduction that accompanied the size reduction in their place of living was helpful in making that happen. But so was a planned ethic of “slow money.”
When I asked Powers to elaborate on what “slow money” means he said it is about thinking sustainably and applying those lessons to the economy. It is about how and where you spend money. He gave me a great mantra, “What is your ‘Joy- to- Stuff’ ratio?” Slow money is about cultivating more joy and accumulating less stuff.
He told me that the experience worked in New York City, not just because they downsized their living space, but because by downsizing quarters they were obliged to concomitantly downsize their stuff. Less was more in the literal sense. Less stuff- spending meant more opportunity for experiential spending.
Powers mentioned that he and his wife delight in great meals. The experience is the joy. There isn’t a memento, a totem, let alone an object lugged home. He said sometimes they would go out for “silent meals” where they would focus strictly on the food, appreciating and enjoying every bite consumed.
Picture this in opposition to the speed of a fast food culture of shoveling down McDonald’s or Taco Bell in the car. Picture this in opposition to the gluttony of an endless pasta bowl at Olive Garden or a never ending lunchtime buffet at Pizza Hut.
Powers also resourced “Skint” a New York City-centric list of all the free things available to do on any given day. He made the point that in Durham and the Triangle area, while we are not New York in scale, there are regularly amazing things to take in for free. (From the Nasher Musuem’s free Thursday evenings to lectures at NCCU, Duke, UNC-CH, to the Carrack to music at the Farmer’s Market y mas y mas…) Durham’s equivalents to Skint**are our neighborhood listservs collating both events, skills, and items that can be had for little or no cost. (See also: Twitter.)
Powers pointed out, it is not just events that are “free” that are part of the slow money ethic, but also thinking about that which is regularly available to us at no cost: like taking a walk in the park, —an example that sounded like a reminiscence— reading poetry sitting on Manhattan’s Pier 45.
Eventually when two days a week wasn’t quite enough bandwidth, Powers said he found the sweet spot to be around four days and thirty-two to thirty-five hours per week. There, at that level, he could get stuff done; writing, speaking, he ended up teaching some at the prestigious New York University (NYU), and organizing.
The organizing followed his original book which was something of sensation in the community of slow living believers. An exhibit was made of the 12 foot by 12 foot meme, first displayed in Greenwich Village, it was then seen by thousands in the Queens Botanical Garden. Like Art should be, the 12×12 interactive cabin in New York City, was at the nexus of socio-cultural protest. It raised questions for many New Yorkers about the speed and pace of their lives.
Powers talks about Karoshi, the Japanese concept of overworking oneself to death. He and I agreed that we can see America heading down some of the same paths. And not just because of the age old, but nevertheless real, trope “look how many weeks of vacation the Europeans take.” It is not only that most adult Americans get a mere two weeks vacation or less, it is that most of us are living under constant bombardment and siege from emails, texts, and social media messages that make work feel constant, ever-present, unrelenting, and in the nomenclature of the slow living movement, “total.”
Total work is as unhealthy and dismal as it sounds.
Powers found retreat in embracing the manageable balanced work week. He says it is important to recognize as a crucial part of the what he sees as the on-going global environmental crisis, we have to adopt a mindset of retreat.
Not, “how can we do more” to solve this problem. More is the problem. We can do less, consume less, waste less. Decompressing and slowing down, in and of themselves, are part of the solution when examined from a whole ecology perspective.
One of the personal ways he adopted to help be mindful of this (and he explicitly said mindfulness is important) was Macrina Wiederkehr’s Seven Sacred Pauses, a Benedictine Monks’ practice, which invites awareness and self-consciousness through consciously pausing at the seven sacred moments of each day, making one’s daily passage through time a more of consciously grateful pilgrimage.
Powers said he found that slowing down, downsizing, minimizing, and being more conscious made him not only more content, but more effective. Being more effective made him more content. It is a classic virtuous circle.
He decided to tell his story through memoir—, rather than how the dominant culture dictates, like a classic self-help book or a UN Policy manual—, because he knows people connect through story. He recognizes how people cotton on to, visualize, empathize, and relate to a protagonist growing through struggles like their own.
Powers will share his book and the rest of his story in free speaking engagements around the Triangle in the coming days. Sunday at 2pm he will be at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. Monday evening he will be at our own Durham based Regulator Bookshop on Ninth Street. (He’ll also be at Malaprops Books in Asheville on Saturday at 7pm.)
Check him out Monday at 7pm at The Regulator Bookshop at #720 Ninth Street.
I highly recommend it. Powers was a fascinating conversation. I can only imagine hearing him talk about New Slow City will be a delight with many relevant memes and discussions for Durham. It is about our future, locally and globally.
*If Scott Harmon can accomplish his vision (and he is a man used to making things happen) micro apartments will be coming to Durham’s Dillard Street in the next few years.
**Which sounds like a name rooted in skinflint.
www.williampowersbooks.com (It has book trailer (2 min) and an author interview.)