By Donella Meadows
–July 13, 1995–
It’s unsettling to run into someone who is truly free. It makes you see all the ways in which you yourself are bound. That’s what’s been happening to me and people around me, since Marcia Meyer came to our farm.
Marcia is 55, small and unassuming. For much of her life she was a housewife and mother of four children in Bloomington, Indiana. At first glance she doesn’t look like an independent thinker or a courageous adventurer.
So much for first glances.
Divorced in 1974, Marcia supported her family as a secretary in a mental health center. She stuck with her narrow, normal life until her youngest child graduated from high school. Then one day in 1981 she told the kids they were on their own and set off hitchhiking west. She knew only vaguely what she wanted — something to do with community, with service to larger goals, with spiritual fulfillment.
For awhile Marcia bounced around in intentional communities from Kentucky to California. At Alpha Farm in Oregon she met Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, both of whom had left successful, stressful New York careers to practice “financial independence,” which they call FI — spending frugally, building up enough savings to live on the interest, so that, as Vicki says, “you never have to suck up to anyone for money again.”
The key to FI is not in saving a fortune, it’s in that word “frugally.” “To be frugal means to have a high joy-to-stuff ratio,” say Dominguez and Robin in their book Your Money or Your Life. “If you get one unit of joy for each material possession, that’s frugal. But if you need ten possessions to even begin registering on the joy meter, you’re missing the point of being alive…. Frugality is not too much, not too little, but just right. Nothing is wasted. Or left unused. It’s that magic word — enough.”
You’re not really spending money, when you spend money, Joe and Vicki say. You’re spending the life energy you put into earning that money. You only have so much life energy. What do you want to use it for? Commuting? Shopping sprees? Going for walks? Playing with your children? Serving your community? Taking that question seriously does wonders for one’s joy-to-stuff ratio, decreasing stuff, increasing joy.
Inspired by Joe and Vicki, Marcia Meyer started to work toward financial independence. The first job she found was cleaning motel rooms. It didn’t pay a lot, but by managing money as if it were life energy, by concentrating on her time as the real resource to be used wisely, she paid off her debts and begin putting money away.
In 1984 she moved to Seattle and worked first as an office temp, later as an administrative assistant at a hospital. Once she volunteered to work the T-shirt booth at a conference on holistic health care. (She had learned that she could attend interesting conferences for free by helping out.) In the middle of the conference the sponsoring group’s executive director walked off in a fit of anger. Marcia ended up with her job. “I did not have the credentials for that job,” she says. But I did have integrity and clarity about money, which they badly needed. Once you get clear on money, incredible, unbelievable things begin to happen.”
Two years in that job, five years altogether working toward FI, and at the age of 45 Marcia had saved enough and learned to live wisely enough to get along nicely on the interest from her nest egg. She retired. Her time was all her own.
What Marcia did with that freedom was join with Joe Dominguez, Vicki Robin, and six other people who had achieved or were achieving FI, in the New Road Map Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching other people how to do what they had done. They put on workshops, which developed into a taped course, which developed into the best-seller Your Money or Your Life.
Every morning the New Road Map folks meet over coffee and chart out their day to serve, as best they can, their neighbors, the planet, the forces for good in the universe. They give their time to whatever they want — or rather to whatever Lola wants. Lola is their ecumenical name for God. Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets. Lola does not want all work and no play. The New Road Mappers work hard, but they also like to invite interesting folks for dinner-and-discussion, or to go camping in their Ultimate Vehicle, a 20-year-old motor home, which they retrofitted.
Marcia spent 10 years with New Road Map in Seattle. Last spring, for reasons she can’t quite explain, she bought a cross-country Amtrak ticket and ended up, for reasons none of us can quite explain, at our farm, where she is a gift and a challenge.
The gift is the way Marcia, perfectly free, no drains on her time, pitches into whatever needs to be done. She volunteers at the local library. She mothers baby ducks and puppies. She squashes potato beetles. She organizes things. When people need listening, she listens. Around her, quietly, smoothly, the world works better.
The challenge is the set of questions she poses, not by asking them outright, just by going about her joyful, modest life. What are you selling your life energy for? What of your time, heart, and soul do you give up to have things you don’t really want? What would you do, if you were completely, securely free?
It’s wonderfully unsettling to watch folks, including myself, hear Marcia’s story, realize that if she could do it, so could they, and then glimpse, suddenly, believably, what life could be like, if no part of it were for sale.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995