Just Enough

A phrase has been knocking around in my head for a few weeks now, like a fragment of melody I can't quite place, though it turns over endlessly in my psyche, somehow trying to show me something I just can't quite seem to see from where I'm at. That phrase is this: Just Enough. It showed up, like a long-forgotten song fading back into my life triggered by some unseen forces, over the past couple weeks, as I've been fortunate enough to be a part of a PlaceLab salon series, held in Chicago, considering ethical redevelopment, and a Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange trying to spur interaction between placemakers across the state. And this phrase kept coming back to me, like a whisper of wisdom, for me to decipher. Asking me why we can't seem to be able to restrain ourselves from wanting more and more, why we instinctually glut ourselves on as much as we can get, of whatever it is that we desire and pursue, be it money or land or speed or food or whatever. But in my case, it kept coming back to money. What is Just Enough? How much is enough money to make on, say, a house, a development? If you can make more, there is not a soul out there, even those on the radical left, that have so forsaken their material lives as to be able to fault you for making as much money as you could, to sustain your own life. So how can we even determine how much is enough? Is it having enough to get by? As Talib Kweli said, "We're survivalists turned into consumers." Get by. The other day, as I strode down Limestone stooping to pick up a discarded energy drink can, it hit me that "Just Enough" is the title of a book a good friend of mine gave me when just before we moved here for me to join NoLi CDC. And, interestingly, "Just Enough" has a subtitle: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan. Great, so it's not even a how-to rooted in this messy complex paradoxical American life. But I guess that's to be expected. Self-restraint is not something Americans are known for, or come to naturally. To us equilibrium just means we are not trying hard enough to tilt the scales in our favor. But, when we are talking about housing, the more we profit, the more we charge, the more it tilts those scales distinctly away from those who need it most, those who can benefit most from owning a home, owning a piece of land, and thereby building equity, pulling themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps. Historically, this is primarily how people have built wealth, and to make this as accessible to working class people and minorities as it always has been to upper class and white people is what we are working at. So I meditate on this concept of Just Enough as I smile inwardly when a developer berates me for taking a minimal (or no) developer's fee, or when I tell a realtor we are selling these houses for less than they are costing to build, or when I tell a builder it is not just about dollars per square foot or economy of scale. True, the money has to come from somewhere, and it has to break even to work and be sustainable, but it seems we are the only ones, at least in these few square blocks, that are actively working against the urge to maximize our return, instead working to maximize the value we pass on to homeowners. It is why we exist, as a non-profit. To do things that no one else is doing, either because they can't or because they are unwilling or because they just don't know how. It seems we have forgotten that "sustainable" means that some act can be continued, perpetuated, and that at its core it implies equilibrium, as opposed to unchecked growth. If you think of a nature model, this unchecked growth is akin to an invasive species, like kudzu taking over hillsides, like honeysuckle sending out runners and sending up shoots to drown out all other flora. We are working to be sustainable, to do just enough, to grow in balance with our surroundings, our neighbors, our place, to be a model of an equitable way of growing. As Azby Brown says, we need to learn how to find meaning and satisfaction in a life in which we take just enough, and no more.