Inspiration for life on the fringe

The last time I talked about life on the fringe was here, when I laid bare my soul regarding the lack of close female companionship in my life. The responses to the that post were just as heart felt as what I shared. What I heard back from you was this feeling is not unique to me (I didn't think it was) and that life on the edge is both inspiring and sometimes lonely.

But I think it's less lonely when we share our stories and encourage each other.

I've read three books lately that I would put into the "inspiring, living life on the fringe, go for it with gusto" category. I love those kinds of books!  

Simple living, for real

A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity by Bill Coperthwaite is the real deal. This well crafted and philosophically challenging book is not a straight forward manual on simple living in the 21st century book. Coperthwaite looks at simplicity as a lifestyle that goes much deeper than the washing and re-using plastic bags (or eliminating them from your life altogether), hang drying your laundry, making soap, and baking bread, for example.

This book is about the justice of simplicity, the education of our children, the importance of beauty, discovering and doing your life's work, rest and craft, the superiority of knitting as a handicraft (I say this only partly in jest) and so much more.

As I read it I kept thinking "I should quote this in my review". Problem was I thought that about every second paragraph! So I have no quotes to share because the whole book is just so good. Especially if you are questioning the values and standard lifestyle of modern western society, as we are these days.

I really enjoyed Coperthwaite's writing and unique perspective. He lives along the northern coast of Maine in a handmade yurt, off the grid and a couple miles hike from the nearest road.  The book's photos by Peter Forbes are beautiful and perfectly complement Coperthwaite thoughtful writing. 

As much as I enjoyed the book though I thought the chapter on education was disappointing. I agree with almost everything he wrote in the chapter but his emphasis on changing schooling at the institutional level ignores the fact that the changes he describes and idealizes are already happening within the realm of homeschooling.

And truly that's where I believe change happens; in our homes and in our families.  When it seems so hard to change the world the best place to start is in our own lives. 

Unschooling in the African bush

I really enjoy success stories of unschoolers and less-than-structured family learning. I'd say Twenty Chickens for a Saddle: The Story of an African Childhood by Robyn Scott fits that bill. It also fits the bill of an overall really good read, regardless of one's interest in alternative education. If you are a homeschooling sort you'll be interested to know that Robyn was unschooled till age 14. After which she went on to have very successful high school, college and post-graduate experiences. 

But those experiences are not what this book is about, though it's fun to talk about the unschooler who studied at Cambridge. Twenty Chickens for a Saddle is the story about Robyn's very eclectic and fascinating childhood in rural Botswana. I identified with her story on so many levels - her family were vegetarians, her mother a self taught herbalist, they loved nature and the outdoors, the kids were unschooled, the family believed in natural medicine, thoughtful living and following your dreams.

And yet so much of Robyn's story is very different from my own and it's the uniqueness of her experience and her excellent story telling that is so compelling to read. Twenty Chickens for a Saddle is story rooted in place and family. It's at times laugh out loud funny (many times the kids would say "what is it mom?" after one of my guffaws and I'd have to try and explain one of the not-so-child friendly stories), heartbreaking, enlightening and inspiring. 

I love stories like this and highly recommend it if you are looking for an overall good read.

A walk in the wilderness and finding home

At first glance,A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft and Ski is the story of a young couple who use human power to journey from Seattle, WA to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. But of course there's a lot more to the story than that.

This was one of our family books which Damien read to us in the evenings. Damien's written a longer review and is hosting a giveaway of our copy of the book. I really enjoyed this book, no doubt in part because I was snuggled with my family and listening to my husband reading it to us!

(Since originally publishing this post I've written a longer view of A Long Trek Home here and also McKittrick's second book Small Feet, Big Land.)

What inspiring stories or books have you read these days about life on the fringe?

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  • Wayfaring Wanderer

    Wayfaring Wanderer on April 5, 2010, 7:27 a.m.

    I was recently sent a book that I devoured called 'Hiking Through'. It's about a man who decided to embark upon an adventure in which he only dreamed about previous to his wife's death. After losing his dearest to cancer, he decided to finally set out to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.

    I know some people who have made this journey, so I understand how monumental deciding to do something that HUGE can really be, but his mission was one that I found to strike a very deep chord within my soul.

    Reading his book was an emotional rollercoaster that I wasn't really prepared for, although the things that happened to me, personally, while I was reading this book probably drove some of those reactions. But I digress...

    It was a terrific book that didn't necessarily teach you to do anything in particular, however, I took away quite a bit from his story that I consider to be extremely valuable. I'm sure that his insights will touch many others as well.

    Hiking Through Paul V. Stutzman


  • Kika

    Kika on April 5, 2010, 5:11 p.m.

    Thanks for the book suggestions; I have benefited from your past recommendations!


    • renee

      renee on April 5, 2010, 8 p.m.

      You know Kika I was thinking afterwards about your cross cultural education question and then realized Twenty Chickens for a Saddle is written from a different cultural background, although the family in the story is from a European African descent which is notably different from tribal or indigenous African culture. But still the life stories of homeschooling in the bush in a non-supportive environment (not accepted by the culture at large - white or black) were very eye opening and interesting.  If you can handle reading books from other world views you might like the perspective this book brings into our previous conversation about cultures and education.


      • Kika

        Kika on April 6, 2010, 2:31 a.m.

        Well great! I ordered your first two book suggestions (from this post) this morning and look forward to reading them.


  • Francesca

    Francesca on April 6, 2010, 1:12 p.m.

    The first book sounds just like the book for me, thank you for the review, I hope amazon uk carries it (I know, I know, I remember what I wrote to you about book reviews, but I was referring to "official" book reviews). Just one (very unorganized) thought about education. I'm all for homeschooling, and hopefully by the time my youngest is of school age, bureaucracy in this country will allow me to homeschool her, but frankly, if I had to pick a battle on the schooling front I would choose the institutional education one (I presume you refer here to public schooling). We most definitely need an emphasis on changing schooling at the institutional level. Homeschooling is only available to some, after all. And good public schooling needs to become a reality for everyone. We don't want to regress and go back to when good education was a privilege based on socioeconomic factors. The excellent results homeschooling achieves are of little value if they cannot somehow serve society at large. Hope this makes sense.


    • renee

      renee on April 6, 2010, 2:02 p.m.

      Absolutely it makes sense and I totally agree. Freedom in education should be for everyone. But changing the public system is a battle that I don't feel called to fight and I don't hold out a lot of hope in that regard unless our society's values really shift. I'd rather encourage families to make changes at the family level. I have a lot of distrust of large institutions and bureaucracy.

      I think you'd love this book by the way. The life he idealizes and describes is beautiful and is the direction we continue to move in.


  • Tracie

    Tracie on April 6, 2010, 5:39 p.m.

    Ok, now I want to read the first two and the problem is that I ALWAYS get too ambitious at the library. I order about 4-6 books at a time and then what happens? Yep! They all arrive at the same time. It's rare that I finish a book front to cover since having kids but I usually get through about 90% of them. So I'm ordering the first two and later maybe the third since I love to hear about the lives of people living in WA, where I'm from. Thanks for the suggestions. I really appreciate blogs that offer them.


    • renee

      renee on April 6, 2010, 6:54 p.m.

      Tracie, I have the same problem. I have to space out my book reserving or I get too many at one time to read through.


  • Alisha

    Alisha on April 7, 2010, 12:34 a.m.

    Renee, you always inspire me. :) Doesn't matter if its in my learning to live simply, homeschooling ideas and inspirations, or just everyday being a mom. I'm glad to have found your blog. Lately we've been thinking about how we've been stifling our dreams and living those belonging to others and it's really got us down. But the light has shone down that we can't do that, it's not what we're called to do. Thanks for this post. It helps fuel that fire. :) I'm really interested in that Alaska book. If I don't win it in the giveaway, I'm going to get it Inter-Library Loan.


  • Rana

    Rana on April 7, 2010, 10:16 p.m.

    I put Twenty chickens for a saddle on hold at my library. Hopefully it will come in soon. I'm looking forward to reading it. These were great reviews thanks for sharing.


  • Christina

    Christina on April 28, 2010, 3:19 a.m.

    Thanks so much for the book recommendations. I checked out Twenty Chickens for a Saddle from the library straight away and I loved it. I'm from New Zealand so it was really nice to have the NZ connection in the book too as well as reading about her fascinating upbringing in Botswana. As a homeschooled (sometimes unschooled) person myself, I love reading 'success' stories about other fellow homeschoolers. At the moment I'm also reading A Handmade Life which is a very thought provoking read so far.


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