When I first learned of the aesthetic known as “cottagecore,” I was immediately both amused by and endeared to it.
The concept of living in a ramshackle cottage in an idyllic forest somewhere isn’t actually a concept, for me. My family literally owns a ramshackle cottage in the idyllic Shenandoah Valley, with almost 200 acres of unbuildable land around it to boot. It even has some ivy on the walls.
But I don’t live there. No one does. It’s actually somewhat neglected, though my parents and I have been working on it and keeping it clean.
The fact is, living in a forest cottage seems like cute idealism even when it’s very, very possible — why is that?
When did simplicity and quietude become such a foreign concept it ceased to hold any sense of realism?
Because life got really freaking complicated, that’s why.
When I consider staying at the aforementioned idyllic mountain cottage for any length of time, my thought process generally goes like this:
- I think about how I really should go stay at the house for a few weeks to write, simplify, and “get back in touch” with myself;
- I switch to pondering how I can manage to do that while balancing my work, since the house doesn’t have an internet connection or a reliable phone;
- I feel bad about being so concerned with my social media management accounts, my engagement metrics, and other non-writer things, and berate myself for letting them rise above said writery-ness;
- I decide to get things “in order” and go to the house in a month or two…then repeat the cycle.
The purpose of this wasn’t to make you wonder if I have a life or any actual adult priorities, but rather to say that I truly think most of you would experience a similar cycle if YOU had a ramshackle mountain cabin.
One moment we chafe against the complexity of our busy, information-rich lives, the next we find ourselves holding it close like a protective blanket.
I have a theory about that.
It isn’t just modern life that’s made us this way — we’ve literally evolved into more complicated animals.
Honestly, I think we’ve simply become wired for complication. It’s in our brain chemistry now, and simplicity is now at odds with that wiring, for many of us.
And that’s okay.
It’s okay, but we aren’t sure how to handle it.
We want to be simple, contented woodland wanderers, but in much the same way we used to want to be old-timey pirates or characters in our favorite fantasy novels.
That writer who lives in a cottage and spends her days quietly at peace with her small world? She doesn’t exist as me.
It doesn’t matter that I would like for her to exist, or that I might theoretically be happier as her. I am me, and my life is the only one I’ve got. That life happens to include complexity, as does yours and everybody else’s.
We can’t be who we’re not. There’s nothing wrong with being fast-paced or needing stimulation to motivate you, and you’re not wrong for prioritizing a busy modern life over a conceptual one built on fantasies.
You can’t “get away” from you, so don’t beat yourself up about it and use cutesy pictures of isolated cabins as a form of self-flagellation.
Lately, as a society, we’ve become so enamored of our ideals that we feel guilty we aren’t living them out in real-time.
A guilty mindset defeats the whole point of ideals being ideals in the first place.
Maybe you feel like you should — and could, even — become a successful freelancer, a minimalist, or a full-time Peruvian backpacker.
Maybe you can see clearly how you’d get to that ideal, and the steps don’t seem that hard to take right now. The ideal is just possible enough, just tangible enough, that you know you could be it if you just…
Just what? Completely shift your identity to match up with a polished mental image of the person you are “supposed” to be?
Give up all of the small, daily ideals and goals that define who you actually, currently are?
Even when an ideal seems physically possible, it’s still an ideal — and idealism is really just a synonym for oversimplification.
We are a nation of tangled-up ideas. We’ve fed ourselves silly on images and information, data and mentalities, and notions of what could and should and ought to be.
Now we’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, to say the least. Naturally, we want to escape that feeling.
Escapism has literally taken a natural bent lately, as it so happens. Hence cottagecore and the whole I-want-to-live-in-an-isolated-cabin-and-only-wear-flannel phenomenon so many of us have become a party to.
This fantasy has a lot of precedents. We don’t think of Thoreau as an escapist, but that’s exactly what he was. People who totally give up worldly life to seek out an ideal and escape modernity are by definition escapists.
Many of us feel tired. Exhausted, really. We feel overstimulated and anxious about all the uncontrollable aspects of our lives, the small and large things that seem to happen on their own whether we understand them or not.
We want to escape these feelings.
There’s this idea that if we launch ourselves into forced simplicity through “nature” or renunciation, we’ll finally have the time, space, and magical mindset shift that will allow us to “get away from it all.”
When my life has felt truly uncomplicated, it wasn’t because I was in a cottage (or a tent, or a hostel).
Honestly, I’ve done the whole “get away from it all” thing in quite a number of different ways by now. I’ve gotten away into the actual, honest-to-god no-way-out-but-through wilderness and lived without so much as a tent for long periods of time.
I’ve gotten away to an 8,000-year-old city and lived on a rooftop, and then went back home (sort of) to a concrete room in the middle of a south-Indian jungle.
I’ve gotten away to island resorts and cabins in Maine, to desert retreats and ancient cliffside ruins.
They did not “fix” the feelings that accompany modern life. They did not magically un-complicate my human condition, nor did they unleash some hidden, sage potential I had thought was lost to the annals of our long-gone past.
They didn’t shift me back into a simpler time. Unfortunately, no physical location can change your inner life — only you can do that. There are no shortcuts.
It’s okay to dream, but make sure you aren’t seeking a quick fix to your feelings…because that never goes well.
We don’t live in “simpler times,” and it’s okay to stop chasing them.
What I have come to realize, personally, is that I don’t go live at my family’s internet-less woodland cottage because I don’t actually want to.
I don’t give up my sometimes (okay, often) stressful work to “just” write novels because that isn’t actually what I want to do.
We can want multiple things at the same time. We can want the ideal and we can want, on different levels, our current reality and what it represents. We can want the familiar complexity at the same time that we yearn for idyllic simplicity.
What you’re looking for is peace — peace with these competing selves and all the depth and human complexity that they represent.
Not an escape, but a homecoming. A settling-in that lets you feel balanced just as you are, where you are.
We don’t KNOW that simple lives are actually any better than our fast-paced, complicated ones.
If this sounds blasphemous, so be it. But we only know what we have, what we’ve experienced. Those feelings we want to escape are part of our experience as people — real-life people who don’t always know exactly what they want to do or who they want to be.
Going to a quiet little cabin full of invasive Asian Lady Beetles won’t help you to make sense of your actual self or your mystical, deeper self.
Backpacking across Europe or hiding away in the highlands of Scotland won’t bring forth a living ideal from the flesh and bones of who you are.
Don’t become so caught up in the idyllic that you forget to live out the real.
Yeah, I could go write for weeks in my very own Shenandoah retreat. And you know what? At first, I’d feel pretty badass — aka pretentious — about how sage and disciplined I am to go seeking such an artistic way of life.
Then I’d feel itchy, because of those goddamn lady beetles (which, if I haven’t mentioned it, I’m very allergic to).
After that I’d get creeped out at night because a) I’d be in the middle of the freaking forest, alone and b) that forest has a whole sentient-being vibe that’s not nearly as wonderful as they make it sound in books.
I’d start to want to deep clean, DIY, and “work on” every bit of the house and the surrounding land. I’d start calculating how much it’d cost to get the mile-and-then-some long driveway redone, and I’d start pondering how I could make that money.
In short, the simplicity would start to chafe just as surely as my current life’s complexity does. That’s called being human, and no ideal can replace that particular truth.
Instead of escaping, I’ve decided to start making peace with my complexity a little bit at a time.
Maybe I will get down to that cottage in the next few months, but if I do, it won’t be because I’m running away from modern life. It’ll be to get rid of the f**king lady beetles.
And when I’m done with my time there, I’ll come home to my usual, human life, and I’ll try to focus on how wonderfully, uncontrollably real that life is.
I hope you can learn to do the same — complications and all.