by Mike Sliwa and Karen Sliwa
We are retiring so we can travel. That’s the official story we generally tell people if we don’t feel like explaining the whole collapse of civilization spiel. Our close friends and those sympathetic to what we’re trying to accomplish get the real story. We know this might be considered to be the easy way out by some but we honestly don’t care at this point. We are leaving our high school teaching careers at the end of the school year to become WWOOFers. World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms is the route that best suits our current needs. Those needs are simply to learn self-sufficiency and sustainability. By working on different farms and homesteads throughout the world we hope to learn some valuable skills and enrich our lives by entering the world of farmers and experiencing the lives of these pioneering people.
How does a couple come to this decision? It’s one thing to come to this decision on one’s own but quite another to agree upon something of this magnitude. We don’t have an answer to this question but our story may shed some light on it. For whatever reason (probably known as irresponsibility to most) we never truly bought into the mainstream ideas that come along with marriage and our society. We never wanted children or a home, and we drive Hyundais. The one concept we did devour with a passion was debt. Despite avoiding all of the debt traps most people fall into, we still managed to fall for the biggest one of them all: credit. Needless to say, we consumed in other areas and found ourselves slaves to the grind. When we met, Mike was in sales and Karen was a home health aide. When we moved from Wisconsin to Arizona we were desperate for a career change. Our love for learning and athletics led us to teaching. We believe our involvement in public education caused the walls created by our own educational experience to crumble. It doesn’t take a genius to see that becoming a teacher doesn’t change the institution but we didn’t get into education to change the system. We went into education because it was a great way to live our lives and we felt we were contributing to society on some level. Realization set in though and we quickly became conscious about hegemony, but we kept plodding on. Oh, we would rage against the machine from time to time, but eventually we’d fall back into formation. Preparing students for a life of consumption is what we were up against.
As the years passed and self discovery continued we began to realize that most of us were practicing some form of insanity. We repeat the daily masquerade that all is well and return home each night to a stark reality. A reality that we thought was simple but in actuality was simply too complicated. How does one wrap their mind around the fact that we depend on oil for our daily survival? Obviously people don’t go home at night and worry about peak oil (other than some readers of Nature Bats Last, to name a few) but they do worry about survival. They worry about surviving the struggle that is industrial living. They may not use those words but the stress comes from the same place. What hits us all whether we recognize it or not is that we in fact have no idea how to take care of ourselves. The two of us couldn’t grow a carrot if our lives depended on it (but stay tuned, we’re working on that). We need stores, cars, plastic, and oil to make it every day. So we go on thinking about tomorrow and the freedom of retirement and our life savings because we believe it will set us free. Making the same mistake over and over again is patch work and insane. We own cars so we can go to work. Why do we have jobs? So we can pay for the cars! It sounds simple enough to figure out, but billions of people are participating in this destruction of themselves and the planet. Today as we move closer to walking out the door it seems as though others are starting to catch on a bit. Maybe they just smile so the crazy folks walk away or maybe they’re starting to think about their own insanity.
Outside of traditional classroom teaching, Mike also speaks on social justice issues. Being introduced to authors like James Baldwin, Bell Hooks, Beverly Daniel Tatum, Tim Wise, Calvin Terrell, Daniel Quinn, Mary Crow Dog, Michael Pollen, Guy McPherson, Robert Jensen, and Derrick Jensen has had an enormous impact on our world view. Mike mainly speaks on the topic of privilege. Specifically, he speaks about white privilege, though he includes gender, class, and heterosexual privileges as well. A larger part of our transformation has come from participating and facilitating camps for teachers and students that deal with social issues including race and patriarchy. Along the way Mike has had the opportunity to speak at the White Privilege Conference, Arizona State University, and the Maricopa County Corrections Department. From these experiences we have learned to listen more and talk less. Oppression has a voice that is rarely heard. Therefore, we would love to evolve outside of traditional boundaries.
We have the privilege to make this transition when many people do not. We have struggled with the idea (as some friends have pointed out) that we are simply leaving “the fight for justice.” Others have told us we would have a larger impact if we stayed and continued to challenge the system in which we live instead of leaving it. Unfortunately we really aren’t leaving the system. We will still be consuming, just at a smaller rate — hopefully much smaller. The privilege of civilization may cost us the living planet. Our participation in civilization has to change so therefore, right or wrong, we have justified our decision in our own minds and are moving forward. White privilege has played a significant role in the destruction of this land. We cannot change our skin color but we can definitely change how we participate in a system that has no regard for life. We can try to break free from a hierarchy that moves from privilege to entitlement, through objectification and onto destruction. A system that has been built for the benefit of the privileged sex, race, and gender is not a structure we want to continue to support.
We have lived with Mike’s parents for more than 15 years. We didn’t plan it, but this arrangement has really been a wonderful living situation. In fact, the hardest part of moving on has been the thought of moving away from the people we love most in this world. We have shared so much over the years and have such a unique and positive relationship. Most people don’t understand how middle-aged professionals could live with parents until they meet Mike’s parents. They, too, have also struggled with our decision. Explaining to them why we would walk away from a noble profession with great hours and a household that is so fulfilling is a tough sell, to say the least. Our simple answer to them has been, despite our good fortune, it’s just not enough. Not enough in the sense that we know the cost of what we have in this world. We have decided that the cost is too high.
The details of our transition will be kept largely private. We have made some decisions that we may question for some time. We have thought about all the issues that keep people from leaving convenience. What will we do about money, insurance, or transportation? What about when you get old: then what? People have lived a very long time without these “needs” and hopefully people will live a very long time when they no longer matter. We always talk about what we think is important, like trying to be sustainable, but then Mike drives 52 miles roundtrip to work in his car and sits in the hot running shower for 20 minutes. We finally decided that we wanted to live a lifestyle in which we were no longer contributing to the blatant destruction of all species and our land base. Our decision finally feels like freedom. Mike’s mother recently told him that he had the world by the ass, so why would he want to “give it all up?” First, it’s a little strange hearing one’s mother use the word “ass” and second, because when nature does bat last, we want to be part of its victory instead of its demise.
Mike Sliwa is a soon-to-be former high school teacher who lives in Phoenix, Arizona via Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He has a BA in Communications and Public Address from the University of Wisconsin. Mike and Lance Huffman formed Common Ground in 2006. CGT provides opportunities for students and professionals to face their inherent privilege. Mike also provides keynote presentations for Truality. Truality is a motivational speaking organization for students and teachers in secondary education.
Karen Sliwa is a soon-to-be former high school teacher who lives in Phoenix, Arizona via Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has a BA in Secondary Education from Arizona State University. Prior to getting her BA she was a Certified Nursing Assistant working in the home health care field for fifteen years.