Piecing Atoms Back Together
It was March of 2020, still in the early days of the pandemic. My husband and I had packed up our entire existence and departed on one of the last flights from soon-to-be locked-down London en route to Cluj, Romania, the nearest big city to where I had grown up and where we intended to make a home.
An elderly lady was in the row ahead of us wearing a traditional paisley kerchief over her hair. She was visibly agitated. She had defiantly pulled the mandatory surgical mask from her mouth. The stewardess tried to reason with her, but the woman was resolute. "It's just the flu. My daughter is a nurse!” she screeched. Even then, the whole plane was split between skeptics and true believers, you could hear faint rumblings of teams forming at the sight of this minimum viable battle. The old woman relented, eventually faced with threats of being kicked off the plane, but played a game of non-compliant peekaboo with the stewardesses for the entirety of the next two hours.
There was a general mood of bewilderment and irritation. The pandemic had knocked us all into a state of uncertainty, but our personal plans to change directions, to extract ourselves from London and set down our roots elsewhere, had begun long before the virus had forced our hands. We wanted a family, children, community, a more connected, spiritually rich life that fit our values. London, despite certain advantages, couldn’t offer us what we wanted.
London is rootless by design, it’s one of its main attractions. You go there to consume: places, experiences, people. Even your self is driven to be a constantly updated creation. Living in a city like London is thrilling, and there are few places in the world more suited to exploring what you want to do and who you want to be. But this consumption is not optional, it’s the point. You’re in flux, just like everyone else. Scratch most any high-flying city dweller and you find someone who longs to live in a cottage somewhere. They also have the once-a-month-lunch friends, the same mysterious neighbors and they ward off the same existential angst with Netflix binges on weeknights. In many ways, and for a while, the tradeoff is worth it. It was more than worth it for me for some time. I’ll forever be grateful to my time there, because it’s where I met my husband. We’d be a very unlikely pair as a Romanian and a Kiwi if metropolitan life wouldn’t have been attractive to us. But for both of us, the city was more of a tool than a destination. It was a means to an end, and the end had come.
There were also more practical limitations. We had a nice apartment in London close to work but were spending enormous amounts of money on rent. And though not every area of London was this rough.In our neighborhood, knife crime became a looming threat and walking in the dark was close to an extreme sport. After I saw two, now traditional, moped muggings — two men swooping in on the sidewalk on a moped, one wielding a hammer to show they mean business — in one week, my baseline feeling of safety plummeted even further. At the same time, the city was a sprawling buffet of experiences that were created for a very particular kind of person. Having fifteen Nepalese restaurants in a two mile radius didn’t compensate for us not knowing our neighbors, and them not being that interested in us either. The city seemed built to feed consumption to its prized producers. We were trying to become a bit more than that, and make some nutty, inefficient decisions in the process, like having children.
My husband, who spent most of his career as a facade engineer figuring out how wind bends skyscrapers (it does) and how fast a fire melts insulation (remarkably fast), quit his lucrative job to build an online business. In my case, it was clear that my role in marketing for a company working across a few time zones could be done just as well from a home office as an exorbitant glass cube, albeit with free beer, in the heart of a major global hub. My team agreed, and after a bit of negotiation and about six months of forewarning, and a final nudge from the pandemic, I finally transitioned to becoming fully remote.
My old family home, the one I have returned to, is in a small city in Transylvania. The house includes a semi-detached second building, modest and not too dissimilar in size from the apartment we left behind in London, which has turned out to be a good fit for our young family. We’ve converted the house to accomodate our new lives, with a home office where I can do my work, a master bedroom, and one for the new baby that was born in July. Remodeling the space wasn't too expensive, especially compared to a few months of London rent. It's a small home, but it means our fixed costs are down immensely, and we have a lot more leeway to save or experiment with different opportunities – in my case, it was starting a podcast.
My mom is now my neighbor. This presents certain difficulties as one might expect. My mother is a flamboyant, loud, creative Eastern European woman – my husband is a profoundly Anglo engineer from New Zealand. Things that are done spontaneously, with verve and not much thought re:execution, are often fixed on the weekends by a grumbling, more technically inclined helper. One person’s talking sounds like screaming to another; sometimes there is ant spray in the toaster. Occasionally lit cigarettes are left in places where they don’t belong. Nobody has gotten hurt yet, but we keep a vigilant eye out.
The houses share a garden and laundry room and a large basement/pantry, but we have independent households. We cook together once or twice a week, and have a few different projects to improve our little intergenerational hub, but we do have enough space and distance to live together without a constant battle of wills. There is a lot of romanticism baked into the idea of multigenerational living. But given the immense cultural distance between recent generations and the additional pressures added by marrying someone from a different culture, it can be a challenge.
Family is often difficult, but the benefits far outweigh the problems. "Who is staying home with the kids?" is not a question we have to ask. It is just a short walk from the home office to soothe or feed the crying baby in the next room over. Though we do almost all of the childcare, my mother is here to help on the occasions we need her. And likewise, we’re also here to help my mother with whatever she needs. As a widow, she’s become very self-reliant, but it is nice to be able to give back a little bit of help, even if she “can do it on her own.”
The garden, of all things, has turned into a shared, central project where the nature of these relationships are especially pronounced. Tending one’s garden, as it turns out, is a useful metaphor for a reason. Romania has scorching summers, abrupt autumns, and not rarely the casual -15° Celsius day in January. The garden sets its demands accordingly. Spring is all about pruning and planting. Summer means watering every day. Autumn is the time to harvest and preserve some of the few edibles we grow. Timing is everything. The work requires everyone to pitch in. The rhythms and harshness of the seasons, the responsibilities they impose on us, and the fruits of this labor, have been an important glue for our relationship. It has allowed me to mend aspects of my sometimes strained relationship with my mother. It has also helped foster a new relationship between my husband and my mother.
The key lesson of the garden is that there are no opt-out clauses, no shortcuts, no tech-assisted workarounds to these fundamental obligations. So much of the disconnection we experienced in London was based on finally having the option to not need one another. Every new layer of technology that we've added to our lives in recent years has been a form of disintermediation, of removing friction, costs, and, especially, humans.
Atomization is a revealed preference because each individual instance where we get atomized is measurably more comfortable and "utility-maximizing" than its non-atomized and human-friction-addled alternative. Every need, every urge has a tech-aided comfort shortcut by way of supernormal stimuli. Digital forms of soma are everywhere. Any widget and screen is an all-singing, all-dancing amusement machine. Most food is a hyper-palatable ticket to instant comfort. Pornography is oozing out of every pore of the internet, and any combination of stacked genitalia that you might enjoy is seconds away.
When one transitions from such a chain of experiences to a far less glamorous, and less immediately comfortable life, there is a sensation of waking into a cold bedroom. The dream fades. The blankets are peeled back. But the day has begun, and it is yours to make.
In Tools for Conviviality, Ivan Illich diagnoses the escalating problems created by the technological society and its logical successor, the technocratic society, as resulting from a misunderstanding of the purpose of technology. Technology is simply a glorified tool. Any tool is subordinated to human purposes. A tool that does not serve human purposes is a bad tool. We've let technology become something else. Under the cover of the Invisible Hand and with increasing complexity and illegibility to the layman, technology has become godlike. It's subordinate only to its own ends as is again and again recorded in the anxious genre of runaway tech dystopias. The Matrix and Black Mirror, among countless others, all tell the same underlying tale: tech has been turned against us. The tool has become the master, but it doesn't have to be that way. Tech must reengage with purpose and virtue, with what it means to be human. But first, the humans who make the tech must do the same.
For my family, putting purpose first and thinking about our values explicitly has served us well in this respect. This doesn't mean that we have a perfect relationship to technology, that we're not sometimes frazzled and chained to our screens, even tucked away in the shadows of the mountains of Transylvannia. But, on the whole, using technology has given us significantly more freedom than it has taken. It has allowed us to be here in the first place, and to ask these questions, and even seek the right answers.
The modern world sets out a default life script sculpted by myriad incentives and promises of status. It is not easy to have both the knowledge and the confidence to take a step back and assess which of these pressures to follow and which to ignore. I don’t think I would have been able to make these decisions much earlier in my life and without understanding what is on the other side. I was under the same spell as everyone I knew, riding along the same determined path, toward a goal I couldn’t have honestly defended or even defined. Career success and a long checklist of novel, cosmopolitan experiences on the way there, maybe. But what of those experiences aside from a few nice looking Instagram photos? What happens once I arrive at the destination, assuming there was one? More of the same stuff, I guess: “success” and “experiences” whatever those things meant. Fortunately, I realized fairly early that the horizon line led nowhere I wanted to go, and used my time in the default world to set myself up for a life I wanted, or anyway, one I understood and could be fashioned on my own terms. On our way out we sacrificed a few things: convenience, culture and, yes, the restaurants. But the city often felt like an expensive amusement park where we paid for our ticket, but weren’t going on any of the rides anymore. Leaving it behind didn’t feel like much of a sacrifice in the end, and it doesn’t feel that way now, but time will tell.
I know my escape isn't possible for everyone. The opportunity to exit to a place where you have family, can live cheaply and where intergenerational reciprocity is still a core value is a unique blessing. It would have never occurred to me that my mother didn't want to be my neighbor or would rather rent out the second house than have us live there. There wouldn't even be a second house in a different cultural paradigm–it exists to facilitate living closely to the family. There was an obvious path for us, but that’s not true for most.
At the same time, parts of this lifestyle are possible for many: creating new ways of depending on people in real life, using digital means to sell your time or your intellectual output to a bigger market on your own terms, being purposeful about how you use technology and avoiding the trap of becoming its slave. The possibilities have never been greater, but neither have the distractions.
There is no perfect recipe for harvesting the upside of technology while leaving behind the negatives. You are wrestling with forces that know you better than you know yourself, and you will fail often. But remember that what you're dealing with is just a dressed-up tool surrounded by a moat of limbic candy. All you have to do is make it to the other side.
Here is a fine place to stop. It’s late; our dinner is bubbling on the stove and I can hear the faint cries of a waking baby from the other end of the hall.