I’m looking out from a veranda, watching the crisp leaves of a Napa Valley vineyard roll in a green tide under the California sun. Later, as the burnt west coast sun sets, my friends and I help visitors sample our in-house wine creations. I offer them table-long charcuterie boards, complete with delicatessen meats and wheels of cheese.
Other days, I’m on the shores of Rhode Island, helping run a small bed and breakfast cottage. Throughout the day, in between greeting customers at the door, I bake fresh goods for their complimentary meals and change the linens.
Once the clock strikes 4 p.m., I swap my lived-in overalls for a bathing suit and run down to the nearest beach, just in time for a golden-hour swim. Then I spend my nights working on a passion project, like writing the next great American novel.
The simple life is, too, a map to nowhere.
In reality, I wake up in my childhood bedroom in the suburbs of Miami, Florida. As a recent college graduate, most days are a supercut of applying to remote work positions, writing from my laptop, and taking walks around my block. I am only in Napa or Rhode Island for a few seconds, from the walk between my bedroom and the kitchen; in the moments I close my eyes in the shower; during the minutes right before I doze off to sleep.
It’s during my daydreams, that I envision abandoning the career I studied for and starting anew. It’s comforting to think of all the paths our lives could hypothetically take — to return to the “basics.” And recently, more and more people are expressing the same desire.
Cottagecore communities have entered the mainstream — loosely defined as an aesthetic around the culture of living on a Western farm or cottage. Thousands reacted to one man who shared his experience on Twitter of being laid off and starting a new life in Provincetown for the summer. My friends and I lamented our jealousy and awe, wrapped together as one. I thought to myself, “Wow, someone actually did it.”
In the months leading up to March and the time that’s followed, my friends and I have dreamt of swapping an office job for making art, being in touch with nature, or even running a small B&B. We’re living through a pandemic that’s forced unemployment to reach record high rates (14.7 percent in April), brought global lockdowns, physical distancing fatigue, and rising deaths. And the reality of American employment coincides with long hours and the potential to be laid off at any minute.
My friends and I, all 20-somethings, were already trying to grapple with entering a workforce plagued by stagnant and low wages. Our theoretical dreams all longed for a return to the idea of a “simple life.” We fantasize about what it might be like to trade the speed of the city for a slower pace; to put down the technology and instead feel dirt; to do a job surrounded by people and face to face interactions.
But when these dreams start to overtake day-to-day functioning, and obsessive rumination sets in — this habit can potentially take an unhealthy turn. It can impact an individual’s ability to cope in healthier ways, and oftentimes can be linked to more significant mental health issues like depression.
In Longing for Less, a book examining minimalism as a way of life, Kyle Chayka sums up the essence of chasing this ideal. He writes, “We look all around ourselves for instructions on how to live only to be confronted with the basic unknowability of the world. And so we turn to some new mode of control, such as minimalism, only to be infected with the suspicion that it, too, is unreal, a map to no territory.”
The desire for a simple life may be different in aesthetics to minimalism. A quick search right now turns up millions of articles on how to “live a simple life in a modern world” but “the simple life” is, too, a map to nowhere.
The appeal of escapism, at least for me, is the allure of controlling one small piece of my existence…
We may romanticize these lifestyles in our minds: living off the land, owning a small business, or farming. But as one cottagecore TikToker said, “if you want to live the simple life, you kind of have to be very, very financially free.” To spend your days baking, foraging, or bartending at your own vineyard, you have to have the financial freedom to pursue such ventures in the first place. Without that privilege, the reality of these images begin to show.
Romanticized western agriculture is the same industry taking advantage of immigrant labor and Indigenous land. We gloss over the backbreaking work it takes to run a small business like a bed and breakfast or a bookstore, or even the harassment bartenders face at the hand of customers. In the end, there is no escaping the reality of American life — whether you’re living in a small town in Maine or in the heart of Los Angeles.
Truthfully, those dreams never felt “right” to me because I knew I couldn’t make them come true. Nor could I make them fit this idealized image of a refuge I’ve created in my mind. Knowing that my fantasies replicate the harm I’m trying to evade, ruins my ability to look at them wishfully.
Spending too much time trying to escape, rather than just living, wasn’t good for me either. Once I found that I was daydreaming, not just about my vineyard in Napa Valley, but also about every worst case scenario for the following week — it was pretty clear that looking forward to those moments of uninterrupted illusion was a way of avoiding daily anxieties.
Because while our daydreams about escaping the daily grind of capitalism to start anew are about escape, sure, they’re also about control. The appeal of escapism, at least for me, is the allure of controlling one small piece of my existence, while watching everything else spiral out of my hands.
I may not be able to control a deteriorating climate, but I can tend to my hypothetical garden and make my own compost. I may not be able to escape the demands of labor, but I can find a job that gives me room to breathe, that connects me to my surroundings and community. I may not be able to change even my own circumstances, but for a small moment I can engage in these pockets of escape that bring me hope and peace.
The cottagecore reddit group has a list of activities you can partake in that inherently line up with the lifestyle. Some of my favorites include: “Pick some flowers,” “dance stupid to songs” or “go on a long walk followed by a huge lunch.” That’s what I’m trying to give myself time to do more of now.
I started logging off for the day and using polymer clay to make earrings. I spend hours rolling, molding, and shaping it. I put them in little baggies and send them off to my friends, wondering if they’ll prefer dangly rainbows or circular studs. For a moment, my mind forgets exactly about all the things I’ve been trying to escape all along.
Maybe I don’t need to be in Napa Valley or Rhode Island to finally catch my breath. The map led me to exactly where I am.
Paola de Varona is a freelance writer covering culture and identity. You can read more about her latest music obsessions on Twitter.