Postcard from Ecuador:
Patricia Adams Farmer
'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
---from "Simple Gifts," a Shaker dance song
By God I mean a spacious receptacle—an Open Space—within which the entire universe unfolds, moment by moment.
---Jay McDaniel, Living from the Center
For a time I rest in the grace of the world,
and am free.
---from "The Peace of Wild Things" by Wendell Berry
A FEW YEARS AGO, my husband and I made a radical change in our lives. We sold our house, our cars, and everything we owned in the world--a half century of accumulated stuff, offered to the highest bidder in a massive garage sale. We then packed some clothes and the remains of our worldly goods--favorite books, electronics, mementos, the bare essentials--into six slightly battered suitcases and headed south to the central coast of Ecuador.
Crazy? Yes, indeed. But here we are.
We simplified as people our age do, only in a more radical way so that we could try out an "encore career" in an exotic location. Thanks to technology, our chosen work as on-line teachers and writers could be done anywhere
And while we're at it, wouldn't it be nice to find a place where we could live out our values on a small budget? A place of beauty and simplicity--a place that, after a lifetime of work and hurry and clutter, we could focus on the soulfulness of a simpler life.
Moving to the Middle of the World
That’s why, when we discussed various exotic-yet-affordable destinations, we took a serious look at this small Andean country sitting on the equator, which happened to have just made a radical leap of its own. Beginning in 2007, the new government of Ecuador created an unprecedented vision for the country, a return to indigenous wisdom: the Quechua way of sumak kawsay, translated, “life at its fullest.”
The sumak kawsay—life at its fullest—understands the world as interrelated. The Quechua people are friends with the mountains and birds and forests. Humans, for the Quechua, are viewed as only one part of a whole, a whole that cannot be understood only as a sum of its parts. In this indigenous world view, to harm nature is to harm humanity and violate the whole. Life at its fullest, then, consists in achieving total harmony with the community and with the cosmos.
Such a worldview values beauty and simplicity--a worldview with so many spiritual cousins. One of them is process thought, based on the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, which sees the world as a web of relations. "Process thinking is concerned with the well-being of individuals and also with the common good of the world, understood as a community of communities of communities." (Twenty Key Ideas in Process Thought). Whiteheadians would see the Quechua's "life at its fullest" as life at its most beautiful, that is, a life which seeks intense harmony not only for oneself, but for the whole. So it is easy to see why two former ministers, educators, and process thinkers would be drawn to Ecuador’s vision.
Even more radical, Ecuador took this philosophy-- what they call a “cosmovision"--and made it policy. This translated into "happiness economics," with a focus on uplifting the poor, quality of life, and a new constitution (2008) in which Ecuador became the first nation on earth to give rights to nature--yes, rivers and trees and wild monkeys and tree frogs have constitutional rights! “Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution. Every person, people, community or nationality, will be able to demand the recognitions of rights for nature before the public organisms.” (Excerpt from Article 71)
But of course, such a such radical new vision does not materialize with ease. Since 2008, Ecuador has already experienced heartbreaking violations of nature’s rights due to the machinations of politics, the addictive power of oil, and the hardscrabble world of economics. Nonetheless, the fact remains--a “stubborn fact,” as Whitehead would say--that for the first time in history, a nation has dared to give constitutional rights to nature. And so despite the inevitable ups and downs of such radical policy, it gives us hope that human consciousness does in fact evolve into greater awareness of our biological and spiritual connection to the earth and its creatures.
Falling into The Great Unknown
Our adventure began with great deliberation and planning, but not without a sense that we would, at some point, have to let go and jump into the Great Unknown.
Giving up everything familiar and starting over in a foreign country meant letting go to something very wide and mysterious--and risky--like jumping out of a plane and hoping your parachute opens. I won't pretend it was a smooth, gentle landing--anything but. As with all radical new beginnings, I felt utterly lost and rootless at first. Yet the sheer beauty of this country took me under its wing and, with time, I began to find my way (See Replanting Yourself in Beauty).
So, that's how it happened: we just let go and fell—fell into simplicity, like one falls in love—and we are just that, in love with the simple life. I still wake up shocked by this fact, shocked that I feel so very rich.
Now that I live under the wide blue sky, free from a life-time of clutter, I can finally breathe. (Literally I can breathe, for my asthma, which plagued me in Southern California, has completely disappeared in the equatorial coastal air.)
And in the spaciousness of simplicity, not only can I breathe, but I can hear God breathing, too. I hear God breathing in the suspirations of the sea, the rising breath, the sigh of release, the loving embrace of all things living and dead and about-to-be born. I feel enfolded by a divine spaciousness and see things quite differently now.
Life in a Fishing Village
Our first couple of years, we lived in a tiny fishing village where everyone lives by the cycles of sun and moon and tide rather than by clocks and deadlines. Daily life moves and flows and trundles along with the gentle rhythms of the sea. Nothing is forced or fast. Electricity is not a thing to be taken for granted in such a village, and we often did without.
Choosing not to buy a car, we were driven around by a local moto-taxi ( a motorcycle with an open cab attached), allowing us freedom to stretch out and enjoy the calming effect of cows grazing on green hills, or, if we were lucky, the sudden rise of a snowy egret splaying its enormous white wings and flapping languidly up into the blue sky.
On my shopping excursions to pick up brightly colored fruits and vegetables from family-owned tiendas, my driver would address me as Prima, the Spanish word for a female cousin. And I, in return, called him Primo, for that's the common way of greeting people—as cousin. The villagers apparently feel that we are all in this together, and that we need to see ourselves as related, as an extended family of sorts. And for Ecuadorians, that includes the snowy egret, too
A Chocolate Lover's Dream . . .
We now reside in a seaside Ecuadorian city, still living quite simply on a small budget, arranging our lives around large doses of nature and equally large doses of locally grown foods.
If I felt deprived, I would not (I confess) participate in this adventure, but I don't feel deprived in the least. Perhaps this is because one of the locally grown foods which supports small communities in Ecuador--including indigenous tribes in the Amazon--is cacao. Ecuador is famous for its chocolate--and bananas. Not mention papayas. With a life full of papayas and bananas and chocolate, who could ask for more?
In fact, I can now say with conviction that no matter where you live, the simple life is a good life, a happy life, one worthy of our imagination and energy and effort, even if it means a gradual letting go--one less car, one less closet full of clothes, one less commitment of time.
Simplifying your lifestyle may not be easy, but there is, with each letting go, a growing sense of spaciousness that transcends the smaller griefs. Simplicity carves out a fresh landscape within the soul, making room for things that matter. And, as it happens, these are not "things" at all, but enriching experiences and relationships and moments of intense beauty. Without so many things to distract, the landscape of the mind becomes clearer, calmer, more fluid and curious and open to novelty. It's all about learning to "rest in the grace of the world."
The Valley of Love and Delight
I'm not sure I would recommend anything quite so radical and psychically jolting as selling everything you own and moving to a tiny fishing village in a foreign country. That is, one has to admit, a bit crazy. But idealists are a bit crazy, and if we are touched with idealism, there's nothing for it but to try to live out those ideals. I now feel a warm kinship with Henry Thoreau and Wendell Berry, and with all those who seek freedom in places where most people don't think to look.
And like other crazy people, I know things. At least I know things I did not—could not—know before, except in an abstract intellectual way. I have inner knowledge now, precious knowledge, for I have seen the Valley of Love and Delight, and it is real, and it is good. And it all has to do with the sky and the trees and the feeling you get when you pay attention to them.
I know now that the way to simplicity is to simply love the earth, to follow the snowy egret's rise into the blue sky, to laugh at the monkey, and to stand in awe at the sea's eternal undulations. Simplifying is not so much about doing without, but about finding riches in other places, deep places, wide-open places—places where we can hear God breathing.
Patricia Adams Farmer is an essayist and novelist in the tradition of process theology. She is the author of Embracing a Beautiful God and the Fat Soul Philosophy Novel Series (The Metaphor Maker and Fat Soul Fridays). She and her husband, Ron Farmer, live and write on the central coast of Ecuador. Visit her website at patriciaadamsfarmer.com. Other JJB essays include: The Quaking and Breaking of Everything, The Numinosity of Rocks, Replanting Yourself in Beauty, What is Fat Soul Philosophy?