'Since being asked to contribute to this site, I’ve been getting curious and reflecting on what 'transition' means. Particularly in relation to our environmental crisis and what we do as individuals to become more resilient to life on a drastically changing planet.
To get clear on the question, what are we transitioning from? What are we transitioning to? And how might boat life be relevant in any of this?
When we began researching what life would be like living aboard a narrowboat, one of the re-occurring answers we heard in response to the question, ‘what’s the biggest downside to living on a boat?’ was, without question, 'lack of space’.
And so it makes sense that the first transition we made was changing our relationship with the world of 'stuff'. Most of us are agreed that if we are going to ride out the environmental crisis, we need to stop making, buying and throwing things away.
Then there are the countless lifestyle gurus making their fortunes by leading us to believe that if we just get rid of all of our possessions, we can live our lives in a perpetual state of streamlined, organised bliss. It strikes me that it isn't owning things or giving things away that makes us happy; it's our relationship to those things that matter. Happiness, contentment, fulfilment doesn't lie in either material wealth or poverty: it's possible to be miserable in both of those realities.
The key difference when living on a boat I've found is that there isn't much choice involved: you have to get streamlined. It isn't a trendy lifestyle choice, more a matter of practical necessity.
In his book Sacred Economics, writer Charles Eisenstein argues that if we believed our possessions to be sacred, then we wouldn't feel the need to have so many of them.
Boat life – for me – offers the opportunity to enter this way of thinking: to make choices about what objects and tools feel necessary to have close, whether that be because they are practical, beautiful, or both.
Prior to moving onto a boat, we lived in a three bedroomed semi-detached house, and it’s fair to say we never felt deprived of the room in which to put ‘stuff’. Our long galley kitchen provided us with more drawers than we could fill, our under-the-stairs cupboard housed all of the items we’d prefer not to be on show, and our loft conversion served nicely as a luxury retreat for our cat Dinah.
Reflecting on this after almost two years afloat, it strikes me as grotesque at just how much excess space we took on the planet with our little family. Our cupboards and drawers are brimming with our accumulated belongings, and the majority of our rooms sat empty and unoccupied while we worked the required hours to pay for it all.
Us humans appear to excel at wanting and having far more than we need. Be that food, houses, technology, clothing or money. Our thirst for 'more’ is seemingly never quenched.
So as Lyn and I looked to transition to a new way of life, we had to get clear on what is it that we actually 'needed’ to live a comfortable and happy existence. And whether that could that be achieved in a 60-foot corridor.
From birth, we’re encouraged to partake in this 'get and gain’ culture… work all week and spend the weekend, well, spending. It’s staggeringly apparent that buying and accumulating 'stuff’ does little or nothing for our levels of contentment and well-being. Just look around at how miserable everyone is. I bet you can recall, with relative ease, the last time someone looked angry, frustrated or impatient in a supermarket queue because the person in front of them wasn’t packing their bag or getting their wallet out at breakneck speed.
We’re all frantically going nowhere. We’re encouraged to be busy and strive for success at all costs. Most of us don’t even know what we’re aiming for; we just do it because that’s what everyone else is doing.
Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly energetic, I get up and dance and for no other reason than because it looks fun, my dogs Jackson and Marla will join in. They get excited and do what I do. Human’s are being led a similar dance, but ours usually involves credit cards and untold damage to our natural environment through, excessive spending, waste and pollution.
I digress. Sort of…
It’s probably why success always seems just out of reach: we’re dancing to someone else’s tune all of the time.
Moreover, being busy is has become a signifier of success: to say that we haven’t got a lot to do appears to be one of the only taboos left in mainstream society. Historically in Britain, when someone asked, 'how are you?’ the way to answer this question was 'fine’, even if you weren’t. Now, the correct and polite answer is, 'busy’, even if you’re not.
It’s not that I wished for a life without stress when I thought of moving onto a boat (does life without stress even exist?) It’s more that, to an outsider, boat life appeared to encourage a way of being that flies in the face of the prevailing consumer culture. Why spend time accumulating stuff when there’s going to be nowhere to put it?
And let’s face it, one way or another, whether it’s global warming, mass food shortages as a result of Brexit (sorry), or Donald Trump hitting 'the button’, us humans are going to need to learn to adapt to new living conditions in the not too distant future.
Finding ways to do more with less – for us at least – felt like a good place to start preparing for whatever changes are afoot.
So, we spent three months sifting through our things and giving away what we didn't need and selling the things that we feel have enough value to help us raise a few extra pennies for the journey. It was surprisingly easy.
My clothes now fit into two crates. I genuinely didn’t need five bags. I own one cardigan and wear the same boots whether I'm walking the dogs, off to a meeting or for a meal in a fancy restaurant. I've learned that it doesn't matter.
The books I’d held on to and that I’ve slavishly lugged from every house I’ve lived in for the last 15 years now present themselves as the fallacy they are: my attempt to show the outside world that I’m 'clever’. Yep, that’s right, I’ve lined up my 1000+ books on numerous bookcases since the age of 22 to attempt to convince my visitors (and myself for that matter) that I’m a bit of alright in the brains department. Why not just read them, enjoy them and pass them on? Keeping them only ever served to boost my view of myself.
So it was time for the books to go. I’d read and collected them like an athlete would their trophies, and I wondered who or what would become of me without them. Would I immediately be transmuted into some sort of imbecile? Will people think I’m stupid or unworthy of their friendship?
Then there are the less egotistical possessions that get held onto and/or stored. I bought a painting that reminded me of my late, beloved granddad Jack. It hung in the living room for the last seven years, and no matter how I did the calculations, it just wouldn't fit in a narrowboat. I felt sad at letting it go and had to leave the house while the new owner came to collect it. Lyn had a similar experience. Framed photographs of her family have been upstairs – in Dinah’s bedroom – since we moved in. She hasn’t looked at them in all that time and for the most part, may have forgotten that they were there. But when the time came to let them go, she felt guilty and as though she should keep them because otherwise, she would seem like she didn’t care her parents who have passed away.
How did we manage to get so entangled with our possessions that they own and control our emotions in this way? I resent the idea that Lyn had to feel like a bad, uncaring person.
But as we let go of these things, I think we started to also let go of the cultural ideology and the hold these things had over us. It was a process, and the process started with facing up to the emotions that arose as we challenged ourselves to do something new.
Who knew that preparing for life on a narrowboat would be, in the first instance at least, a trawl of the soul?
Hello, and thanks for being here. I'm Ann, and I live on a narrowboat in Cheshire with my wife Lyn, two dogs (Jackson and Marla) and two cats (Georgie and Dinah).
A bit about me
I'm fortunate to split my working life between running a psychotherapy clinic in Sandbach called The Hope Street Centre and freelance work as a ghostwriter. I'm interested in climate change, ethical and community living, eco-psychology and spirituality, veganism and nature-based healing.
For the last three years, I've been helping to develop an off-grid project in the Scottish Highlands which is exciting and informs much of my thinking and reading nowadays.
A bit about this blog
The guys at Transition Northwich kindly invited me to write about my little life on this blog. I hope you enjoy reading it!
When people find out that we live on a boat, they say one of two things: firstly, are you warm enough? And secondly, why?
The first question is easy to answer: in that yes, we are warm enough. In fact, most of the time we are too warm. Even in winter. With a multi-fuel burner heating a very small space, it doesn't take long before we're opening the doors to cool off a little. In the summer, we mostly live outside. Living in a metal box means that whenever the sun comes out, the boat is usually ten degrees hotter inside than it is outside.
The answer to people's second question is less straightforward and over time, I hope to answer it in subsequent blog posts.
In short, we were longing for a different way of life: one that enabled us to be closer to nature and to reduce our carbon footprint. We wanted to downsize, reduce our reliance on material things and stop having to work so hard to pay the bills. As self-employed people, we also knew that getting a mortgage would be difficult, but didn't want to live in the rental trap forever.
Boat living appeared to be the solution to all of this... but it also gave us much more in return. I think for us, the immediate sense of landing in – and being a part of a community – was a welcome surprise. The boating community is like stepping back in time, and I'm convinced it has something to do with the lack of (perceived) land ownership. Anyway, that's something for another day...
And it's probably enough of an introduction! In my first 'proper' blog post I'll share a bit about the transition from a 3 bedroom house to a 60-foot corridor!
See you soon,