The mud comes up to my mid-calves, the water up to my knees. I’m using both arms to hold a three-gallon plastic bag of water with thousands of tiny silver fish shimmering in the sunlight. Pak Denny, a rice farmer in a straw hat, gestures at me to lower the bag into the edge of the rice paddy and hold it there before pulling the rubber bands off the end, so the fish adjust to the temperature before being released and don’t die of shock instead.
After squatting with the bag for a few minutes, I gently pull up the closed end until the fish have entered the paddy to perform their duties as insecticide and fertilizer. I gingerly tap a few that are stuck to the side of the bag. I watch them swim between and around my legs. The other expats joke about paying a lot of money at spas here in Bali to have fish exfoliate your feet.
I stand up gradually so I don’t lose my balance in the mud or pass out from the heat. It occurs to me, as it has many times since we moved here, that I’ve never moved so slowly in my life.
Which is the point. My husband and I moved here with our 6-year-old twins last summer after a friend mentioned a K–12 school in Bali, Indonesia, with sustainability at the core of its mission and curriculum. Given our interest in sustainability and impression that Bali was a place where we could afford to not work for a bit and would want to be without working—important to both of us as we decompressed from intense corporate careers—we thought it would be the perfect adventure.
A month after school started, my husband and I signed up with a dozen fellow Green School parents to spend every Thursday for four months with local rice farmers. The aim is to experience an entire rice cycle, from planting through harvest. While the school has made sincere efforts to integrate with its surroundings—42 local students attend full-time on scholarship, and nearly 400 more come in the afternoons to learn English—it is an international school. Our days in the rice paddy are when we feel the most connected to Bali: to its people, as we spend hours sitting cross-legged with the farmers drinking out of coconuts; to its history and culture, as we learn about the subak, the system that has governed Bali’s water distribution since the ninth century; to its land, as we stand barefoot in it.
Part of our motivation in coming here was to attempt a more sustainable lifestyle. I had worked in corporate sustainability for nearly 20 years, but that work was largely about translating sustainability into standard operating procedures; I wanted to experience it as a way of life. We have a much smaller ecological footprint here than we did in the U.S., in terms of consumption of energy and material goods. We have a refrigerator, clothes washer and two-burner gas stove top, but no oven and no other major appliances. We came with one suitcase each and have acquired little since we arrived, apart from a few basic kitchen items for our rental home (rice cooker, cutting board).
But on other fronts we’re finding it much harder to live an eco-friendly life. While produce here in Bali used to be sold and carried in banana leaves that are compostable, plastic bags and bottles are now everywhere. Most significantly, our one-way flights here alone put enough carbon into the atmosphere to blow out any footprint shrinkage from our lifestyle.
We have come to appreciate how hard it is to live sustainably where infrastructure doesn’t support it—and how easy it is to opt out of consumer culture when there is no peer pressure, no Black Friday, no “frictionless” shopping. We are far more grateful for the services we took for granted back home: potable tap water, public transportation, recycling and garbage pickup.
And I certainly have a greater appreciation for the rice on my plate.
I reconnect with a friend, who wants to write a book together about life choices. I initially demur, not wanting to encroach on the wide-open spaces I’m cultivating and cherishing here. But then I realize that’s exactly what the book is about: How do I leverage my skills and experience to serve beyond my family, and get paid, while keeping work in its rightful place in my life?
How do we reclaim control of defining all of those things that work has an outsized role in determining for us: where we live; how we spend our days; how we see our community, purpose, worth and success? What if we could redefine work so that instead of determining the lives we have, it enables the lives we want?
I’m in the right place to explore these questions: with other expats who have left traditionally job-centered lives; in Bali, where life is governed by Tri Hita Karana, one’s relationship with spirit, earth and community (note that work doesn’t make the top three); and in these fields, where “busy” is not a badge of honor, where work and sustenance and community and earth and life are one, where we cannot optimize or scale or rush any more than we can will the rice to grow faster.
So we come each week. And tend. And sit. And watch our babies grow. And look forward to the harvest, and whatever the world has in store for us next.
Bader is the author of The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist. Find her new project at TheLifeIWant.co.
Illustration by: Celia Jacobs
What choices have you made about how to fit work into your life? Tell us at email@example.com.