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Escaping the hamster wheel of doom

By Emily Achenbaum Harris

Posted: Tuesday, May. 17, 2011

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Emily Achenbaum Harris

Hi, I'm Emily and this is my blog about career-questioning, minimalism-seeking, gardening, earth-saving, pregnancy, parenthood, and my pathological ability to make the same mistakes over and over again. See more at littlehousesouthernprairie. wordpress.com.

When I travel abroad, I feel like I’m “supposed” to care about Everything Last Thing The Natives Do, but I’ve also always been riveted by the American expats. What made them decide to permanently leave the U.S. to run an inn in Belize, or do research on Antarctica? Were they fleeing something — or running happily to something? Was life really less stressful in these quieter countries, or just stressful in different ways? Did they ever miss Target a tiny bit?

And the biggie:

Is paring down your life and moving to a remote country the ultimate way to simplify and prioritize the good stuff?

Linda Leaming’s Married to Bhutan: How One Woman Got Lost, Said “I Do,” and Found Bliss addresses a lot of these questions, and her book is fascinating. Linda, originally from Tennessee, has lived in the remote Himalayan mountain kingdom of Bhutan for more than a decade. Her memoir details her experiences embracing — and adjusting to — life in a country where the environment is so revered that Styrofoam has been banned by the king (why don’t we do that?!). Her tale is hilarious, romantic (ehem MARRIED to Bhutan ehem) and sometimes dark. Above all, it was refreshingly honest, like when Linda described getting used to the country’s rice-heavy diet:

“After a month or so of rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and puffed rice for snacks with tea, I’d look at a bowl of rice and imagine myself screaming a primordial scream, hurling it through an open window, then grabbing my head and running away.”

Ha!

I really recommend this book to anyone with wanderlust or dreams of life elsewhere, or who’s interested in living a calmer life with fewer material possessions. Linda kindly took the time to chat with us about her book and her life for the blog. Thanks, Linda, you are awesome!

In Married to Bhutan you write, “Giving up, letting go, pushing away, peeling off, and culling will make you happier. … Will a new set of towels make you blissful? If so, for how long?” Why do you think so many of us cling to the idea that more stuff will make us happier?

Because a lot of time the stuff does make us happier. Getting cute new shoes for your baby gives you a happy buzz, but rubs off almost as soon as the shoes do. Or she spits up on them. Seeing the reaction on your baby’s face the first time she takes a step– that never wears off. That’s bliss. So much of what we do is just these darn habits of acquisition. And Walmart is just down the street. We can train ourselves to be still, to enjoy being with ourselves, to quit buying, to pare down, but we really don’t wanna. Eventually we’ll get to it, simply because what we’re doing is just not sustainable.

You said your family, friends and business contacts were surprised, to put it mildly, when you sold everything and moved to Bhutan. How did their reactions impact you, if at all? Did you tell them about your decision while you are still thinking about it or after it was a done deal?

Good question. My American family thinks I’m crazy. But that’s always been my role. I note other people’s reactions but have made it my habit to cultivate a benign neglect for most reactions to what I do– including both positive and negative reactions. I might register them, but I don’t take them to heart. I keep my ear to the ground listening for the beat of that different drummer. You really have to do this if you’re doing something different than what most people do, because so many people, even people you love and who love you, will (perhaps unconsciously) resent what you’re doing. They feel– rightly or wrongly– that what you’re doing diminishes, somehow, the way they’ve chosen to live. Not sure why.

So it’s a little complicated and you have to cut them a lot of slack and forgive the people you love and those who love you. I’ve cultivated a practice of saying things in threes: “Should I cut my hair?” “I’m going to sell everything and move to Bhutan.” “Pass the salt.”

When you visit the states (Linda’s currently here on book tour), does it feel like returning to the “regular” world? And do you hate it when people ask you that question?

Nobody ever asked me that question. No. I feel like I’m returning to the irregular world. Bhutan has become the norm for me. It is the regular world.

I love the phrase “hamster wheel of doom” and how hard it is for some people to see it. How much do you feel like you’ve escaped it?

I do too. Impossible for some people to see it. Impossible for many to get off of. I feel like I’m on it now as we’re in the U.S. and I really want as many people as possible to read the book. It feels like a crusade to let people know a place like Bhutan exists, and that we can all have something like Bhutan in our lives. But I know I can get off it, so now it’s more like the Hamster Wheel of Serious Chafing.

How’d you write, edit, find an agent, and promote a book while living in a country that sounds like it has a rather tenuous grasp of technology?

I wrote in the book about the logistics of going to buy envelopes and mailing 20 letters when I was in Bhutan. I was querying agents. Those looked like the most amazing letters: handmade paper envelopes, light as air, with tons of amazing stamps on them– more stamps than necessary. I was all about the look, sealed with sealing wax, pressed with an antique seal. They were so beautiful, so unusual, postmarked from Bhutan! I imagined them in various New York agent’s offices, in piles with other mail, and they’d be giving off a mist, or glowing with a supernatural glow. A wonderful, dear friend let me put his address in the U.S. on the SASE, and he emailed me the responses. Logistically difficult. Expensive. Time consuming. I can sometimes take a month for a letter to get to the U.S. from Bhutan. A few months later I got an agent. She encouraged me to rewrite. I did. I rewrote again. I worked with a great editor. Eventually my agent lost energy for the project. It happens. We parted amicably. I started the whole process again; this time I did electronic queries. I got quite a few positive responses. I got a fabulous agent with enormous energy, brilliance, and beautiful hair. I was very lucky. But I was also prepared.

Follow Linda on Twitter: @LindaLeaming

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