Living the Dream: Ashley Whittenberger of Cosmic Acres
Meet Ashley Whittenberger, the first featured “Dreamer” in our new “Living the Dream” series. Over the coming months, we'll be introducing you to folks from around the world who are living lives focused on “more of what matters.” If you or someone you know is living the New Dream, please contact us—we're looking for inspiring stories to share!
Ashley is the blogger behind Cosmic Acres, where she writes about leaving her “mainstream McMansion on a half-acre of manicured hell" for "a modest manufactured home on 10 acres of undeveloped heaven.” Through her blog, Ashley shares her story of transitioning from a life focused on consumption and excess to a simpler way of living. After recently retiring from running Interiority Complex (the successful design firm she founded in 2002), Ashley is now pursuing her dream of writing and creating art, full-time.
What does “the good life” mean to you? And how did you come to this vision?
FREEDOM. For us, the “good life” is having freedom to live our lives in a way that reflects our own personal values and passions. It’s hard to find freedom if you’re enslaved by debt and large financial commitments, or if you allow yourself to be confined by the mainstream vision of life in America. We’ve simply tried to eliminate those things that get in the way of our freedom.
We came to the vision after we visited Marfa, Texas, during an epic road trip through West Texas, where we stayed at a unique campground and vintage trailer community called El Cosmico. We absolutely loved the simple, peaceful, eco-friendly setting and were reminded of how little we actually need to be happy and comfortable. The tipping point was when we came home to our over-sized home (the “McMansion," as we call it) in the ‘burbs, and all the darn weeds had popped up after we returned. It represented the exact opposite of what we had just experienced.
So, basically, this was a weed-inspired vision. You’ll just have to read more here.
What’s the one thing you enjoy most about your lifestyle?
Having the freedom and flexibility to be able to live life on our terms and being able to go with the flow of OUR lives, not the life that the advertisers, marketers, and big for-profit companies say we should have. Running our own businesses and home schooling our son also allows us a lot of flexibility in how we choose to schedule our lives, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Is there anything at all about your life these days that you really wish you could change or improve?
I wish I could wiggle my nose and have all of the housework, laundry, cooking, and cleaning done. At this point in our journey, I’m still trying to find the balance between simplifying and being realistic (and efficient) so that I can work on activities that are fulfilling the highest and best use of my time every day.
Tom Shadyac, who has been a very inspiring person to me during this journey, says, “You cannot die without ever having told your story; you cannot die without ever having expressed who you truly are.” I firmly believe this, but sometimes find myself asking how will I ever express who I truly am if I’m stuck doing cooking and Cinderella work? (I'm exploring ways to fix this as we speak and will be writing more about it on my blog.)
Tell us a little about the work that you do.
After retiring from the interior decorating company I owned and operated for a decade, I'm now pursuing my dream of working as an artist while also serving as the creative director for the vision I have at Cosmic Acres.com. I recently moved my studio to a space shared with a cool group of emerging and established artists. The move has helped immensely so that I can focus more on “telling my story” and less on all that Cinderella work I mentioned earlier.
Describe some ways that you are involved in your community.
I’ve learned to dig deep in doing what I love instead of being spread thin in too many areas. When we made the big lifestyle change, I halted all business travel, “un-joined” several volunteer organizations, and resigned from two board positions so I could spend more time focusing on my family and on the work that I’m truly passionate about.
Last year, I was very lucky to able to go through the Texas Master Naturalist program, which helps to develop a core of volunteers who provide education, outreach, and service dedicated to the beneficial management of natural resources and natural areas within their communities. Now, I dedicate most of the volunteer time I have to that and focus specifically on activities related to youth—helping to educate the kids in our community about local natural resources and natural areas through the outdoor and nature club that I’ve helped to launch.
Additionally, we have found some wonderful new friends and neighbors in our little rural area who all share a common interest in healthy living, sustainability, building community, being responsible consumers, and living well right from where we are. Our neighbors are truly inspiring and have taught us a lot in the short time we’ve known each other. Keeping up with the Joneses takes on a whole new meaning with our lifestyle. We’ve also joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm that is in walking distance from our house, and we enjoy helping there when we can. Not only do we get high-quality organic and fresh produce, we also get to connect with other members so we can all share resources and help each other out.
Just this afternoon, the CSA farm owners, my son, and I rode over to another member’s house to check out her chicken coops, borrow a brooder set-up, and let her download her knowledge of all things chicken onto us. What a wonderful experience—Google can’t touch that!
For many, your lifestyle is considered “outside the mainstream.” Does this present any challenges, and if so, how do you deal with them?
All in all, for us, I’d say the challenges have been few. (Personally, it was far more challenging for me to live “inside the mainstream”!)
The only thing I was truly concerned about when moving from the ‘burbs to a more rural area and toward a more simplistic way of life was that we would feel isolated. I’ve found it’s quite the opposite, and we feel completely supported and blessed to be near such a lovely group of forward thinking, kindhearted, enlightened, authentic, and grounded people.
We don’t see the materialism, consumerism (unless you count the amount of feed our animals consume), gossip, and drama we saw so often in the ‘burbs. Out here, we’re more focused on when the next rainfall will be, how to make sustainable improvements to our homes and land, cooking up healthful meals for our families, and what animal we’ll be adopting into our menageries next. There’s not much time for B.S. out here.
Please describe any new skills or hobbies that you’re really excited about or that you would love to learn if you had the time and resources.
I would love to have a small medicinal herb garden and plan on starting one next year, after we have more infrastructure set up (i.e., raised beds, rainwater collection system, and a small greenhouse). Expanding on that, I’m interested in learning more about sustainability, self-sufficiency, homesteading, and how to live well right from where we are.
To satisfy my creative side, I’d love to become a better artist and writer, and to develop Cosmic Acres into a resource for inspiration for other like-minded “cosmic” chicks and mamas like myself!
What's the best piece of advice you've ever received?
From Byron Katie, who is one of my favorite spiritual teachers: “All I have is all I need and all I need is all I have in this moment.” This quote helps ground me when I start looking around our place and getting overwhelmed with the projects I perceive we need to complete around our place. The truth is, we have all we need in this very moment, and I’m very happy with that.
Thank you SO much for this interview, and for the opportunity to reflect on our past 18 months here at Cosmic Acres!