The Privilege of a Simple Life

by Mae Stier, 06/23/2020, Interlochen, MI

Adult Category


I chose the town I moved to in northern Michigan for its proximity to the lake. It was small, absent of the coffee shops and bars I frequented while living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Oakland, California. When I moved in during early 2017, I loved that I could walk to both the post office and the grocery store, mimicking the convenience of a city neighborhood while only being steps away from National Park property.

When I first considered my move, friends asked me, “Why not move to Traverse City?” the area’s largest town, scattered with more than its share of trendy places to eat and drink. My answer was always, “I would rather be close to the lake than a coffee shop.” At the time, it didn’t feel that I would one day be directed to stay as close to home as possible. Still, I knew the rhythm of life I desired, so this seemed a reasonable decision-making metric.

With that mindset, I set myself up with a life three years later that is barely altered by the Coronavirus pandemic, a statement filled with privilege, luck, and likely ignorance. I go for daily walks, hike on the ridge overlooking Lake Michigan, and drink my coffee at home. My daily routines haven’t changed much because, as a freelancer, I already did most of my work at home. I acknowledge my reality with gratitude, knowing the experience of the pandemic for those working outside the home is markedly different from before.

Over the last decade, before the Coronavirus forced any shift in our lifestyles, it seemed that more people my age––millennials born in the 80s––were trading in their city dreams for something more Thoreauvian. My Instagram feed, at least, speaks to this shift as the aesthetic morphed from photographs of cityscapes to quiet gatherings at home or sprawling landscapes. The phrases “slow living,” “intentional,” and “community” tossed around now like a new form of currency, where simplicity is traded, and the dividend is a quiet joy. A world that once revolved around going out seems to have faded, as long hikes and garden bounty become a new type of status symbol.

This shift may, in reality, not reflect the whole of my age group, but more likely, the people in my rather homogenous circles: middle-class, self-employed, primarily white entrepreneurs. We had the luxury of working remotely far before it became necessary, afforded the flexibility of bringing paying work into the woods via our painfully slow internet.

When I made this deliberate move to a quiet village, I never expected that three years later, the world would find itself forced into the same type of slow down. Bars and restaurants closed, leaving the house now practically forbidden except to go to the grocery store or outside for exercise. Before, I would have argued that we can all use a slower season, time tucked away in the woods with only the sun setting our schedule. Days revolving around first light, coffee on the porch as the sun warms the morning. Enjoying day’s end at the beach, lingering as the sun seems to hover, before dipping underwater.

Now that the slower season is here, the complexities of it are exposed. Of course, we can’t all afford these quieter days, shift our work to home offices. Does that mean nature is reserved only for those with work-from-anywhere flexibility? My neighbors adamantly shake their heads, “no; it’s for everyone!” even as they beg the National Park to close popular trails, to dissuade those without the privilege of living nearby from traveling for an afternoon by the lakeshore. I, too, await the mandate from the park, and I am ashamed that when their response is to shut all the hiking trails, I want to ask, “But does that apply to me?”

Capitalism only works for a small subset of the population; will that group be smaller after this pandemic? Those who can still work at home during state-wide lockdowns are lucky, as are those who were able to get on unemployment quickly at the beginning of all of this. My partner has collected his weekly checks since being laid off, enjoying extra time at home with our six-month-old son. Many still wait to file their claims, groceries inaccessible and bills unpaid, as fear mounts throughout our country: both over the spreading virus and the financial strain it has inflicted.

I wonder if, after the strain of the pandemic, we will see an emptying of our cities again, with those who can leave densely packed neighborhoods settling somewhere with more breathing room. Some friends who live in New York are waiting out the pandemic at their parents’ lake homes in Michigan. Will they remain indefinitely, afforded the privilege of getting out of the city—working from home fourteen hours from their apartments?

In the mid-twentieth century, the parents and grandparents of many white people like me were able to move to the suburbs because of the opportunities their race afforded them. Now, are we being given better access to the opportunity to simplify? To escape to our family lake homes or find a piece of land somewhere remote to plant a garden, work from home, and experience a pandemic more from the information on a screen than from the way it is sweeping down our street.

If that is true, how can we use our privilege to create better access to nature and other valuable resources for marginalized communities?

For now, I plan a garden plot, hopeful that by mid-summer, much of our food will come from our land. I go to the quiet trails the tourists never visit that haven’t yet been shut down. I sit on my porch in the morning and sip coffee as the sun warms the day, and then go inside, turn on my computer, and go to work; afforded the luxury of confronting my privilege only when I make an effort to do so.