To find our way in life sometimes we have to just quit, and other times we have to just do it. In Kimberly Coats’ case, she did both.
In 2008, at 42 years old, possessed of a high paying dream job as business development manager for Sysco, schmoozing the top chefs in Vegas, and generally possessed of all else we are supposed to want to “possess” in a quintessentially successful American life, a house, a car, a husband and such like, Kimberly realized that what she had was not what she wanted. She made of list of things that were important to her: She wanted to travel. She wanted to do something that helped people, to give back to the world in a meaningful way. And she wanted to incorporate her love of cycling into that mix of travel and purpose.
Around the same time, Kimberly read Positive Spin, an article in the September 2008 issue of Outside Magazine about Project Rwanda, a non-profit “committed to furthering the economic development of Rwanda through initiatives based on the bicycle as a tool and symbol of hope.” One of Project Rwanda’s main initiatives was designing and distributing at low cost special cargo bikes for the transport of coffee (one of Rwanda’s key crops). The so-called coffee bikes significantly decreased the transport time to processing plants, so that the coffee berries were that much fresher and the resulting product that much higher quality.
The article released the proverbial bee into Kimberly’s bonnet (or cycling helmet, in her case). Six months later, in April 2009, she was on a plane to Rwanda for a three-month volunteer stint with the project. Volunteering turned into paid work and Kimberly got involved not only in the coffee bike work, but also with one of Project Rwanda’s other initiatives, a national cycling team, Team Rwanda (which was the subject of a long article by Philip Gourevitch in The New Yorker). When Kimberly’s contract with Project Rwanda finished, she increased her involvement with the cyclists and eventually switched full-time to working with the team, which is now its own entity.
The team operates on a shoestring budget. Kimberly earns in a year now, what she used to earn in a month. She doesn’t have health care, and she can’t count on having water or electricity every day. Her clothing occupies half a shelf. And she and her husband are divorced. As she says, “There’s that old cliché that if you follow your heart and passion, then the money will come. Well, I’m doing that, and I guess I have a roof over my head and no debts.” Though she adds, “I’m way behind on retirement.”
I believe that what that shopworn cliché really means, is that money’s importance is diminished in the face of passion. To wake each day with a clear sense of purpose, with a drive separate and deeper than making money, changes our views of what “enough money” means. There is, after all, no absolute benchmark of what “the money will come” looks like.
When I speak with her, Kimberly sounds happy, except that word is too pale by far to describe the fullness she describes. How she sounds is in love, not with someone or something, but with everything. She is traveling. She is doing something that she believes is changing life for the better in Rwanda. And she is cycling up a storm, training with the men, and now the women, on the team, and in the best shape of her life, at 45.
Speaking with Kimberly, I was reminded of a documentary I saw recently about Bill Cunningham, a long-time fashion photographer for the New York Times, known for his candid street photos of celebrities and ordinaries alike. At 82 years old, though he marinates daily in haute couture circles, surrounded by the beautiful, the rich and the powerful, Cunningham himself lives an ascetic life. He has little money. He duct tapes his rain poncho when it starts to show wear, and he has not much use for food, except as fuel. He has never had a romantic relationship. Yet, as portrayed in the film, so steeped is he in his love for his work, that in a world of legendary bitchiness and snobbery, he maintains a DNA-deep kindness, of an authenticity rarely achieved. Cunningham made me want to try harder, to love more. So does Kimberly.
When Kimberly comes back to the US for visits, her friends and family offer her jobs and alternatives. They suggest it’s time to finish up with her “African adventure.” On the side, some ask her what her secret is, how she did “it.” Kimberly says, “The secret of how I did it is…I quit.” No secret. It’s not headline news that we are attached to the stuff and style of our lives. Nor is it news that when we find the will to voluntarily let go of our supposed needs, that many are happier for it. We make space for love.
And yet…we hang on for dear life, convinced that the next career move with a fat pay raise, the next acquisition of…some…thing…will be the one that assuages all of our desires. And then…it doesn’t.
I’m not ready to give up my nice life and run off to Africa, or start duct taping $5 rain ponchos; but it makes me think: What can I do more of? What can I do with less of? I aspire, not to stuff or style, but more love.