…a magazine recently contacted me to write for them. But first, they wanted me to submit ‘our story’. Succinctly. In only 1200 words. That seemed like a challenge. And, I thought, it could be fun. So, I wrote the following (see below). Sadly, their standards are higher than my abilities. It was not good enough. And so, like bland leftovers, I offer them up for you…….
CATALYST FOR A CATHARSIS
“We have to leave money for the house.”
My wife and I were planning the iconic North American holiday. It was 1999. I was 50. We were suburbanites. We had recently paid off the house mortgage and were heading off on a four month road-trip across the North American continent and then to Europe with our two young teenagers to mark that aspired-to milestone in our lives. Think: Disney movie but with mutant ninja teenagers. The sub-plot was to show the kids that there was more to life than work, debt, shopping malls and video games.
“Why leave money? The house is now paid for, the neighbourhood is safe and we aren’t going to be here. What do you mean?”
Sally then proceeded to list off all the obligations we had even when we were not in residence in the cul-de-sac. It included a lot of utilities, insurance and monthly services such as phone, security, cable, heat and light, lawn care, insurance premiums and myriad other parasitic monthly financial drains. It did not include any of the annual fees such as property taxes, income taxes, medical care, nor all those hidden taxes on taxes.
“I figure we have to leave $1,700 a month for each of the four months—$6,800.”
“Sal! That means we have to earn $2,500 each month before taxes to be able to pay $1,700 a month not to live in our house. Does that make any sense? We have to earn $30,000 a year not to be here! And that’s NOT ALL of it! That’s insane.”
I was shocked. Gob smacked. It was immediately apparent that I was mostly living to work and working a great deal for largely invisible others. I was a slave. Worse, I was basically unhappy in the burbs and previously unconscious as to why. Now I knew at least part of the reason. And that was the catalyst for me. All of a sudden, my lifestyle seemed silly. I felt stupid. I felt trapped. And I wanted out!
Realization is one thing, action is another. The catharsis, the unraveling of the ties that burdened us, took a bit longer…..but luck was on our side.
Over thirty years prior, beguiled somewhat by the back-to-the-land movement of the seventies, I had borrowed what small amount I could and headed up the west coast of British Columbia, Canada, and bought a small piece of waterfront property so remote and distant that it was affordable. As it turned out later – in the bracing realization of standing on it in the rain post purchase – I had no real desire for bugs, dirt and hard scrabble and so I promptly put the impetuous acquisition in a file titled Rocks and Christmas Trees and forgot about it. I only visited it a couple of times in three and half decades. At first, I called it Dave’s folly and then, after awhile, I forgot to even think about it.
Until just after the family vacation, that is.
Feeling the increasing need to ‘get out, get out now’, I cast about for ideas and, of course, my remote property required a re-acquaintance. Sal and I went up one weekend to see what it was that youth, serendipity and spontaneity had bequeathed us.
Fifteen acres of remote waterfront miles and hours from anyone else. Trees. Wildlife. Unbelievable natural beauty.
“Oh, my God! This is gorgeous. This is it! I have to live here! Sal, we have to live here!”
“Well, it is all very beautiful but there’s no cabin here. There are very few people and there aren’t any stores. No services. What are we going to do?”
“We’ll build the cabin ourselves! People have been building cabins since the dawn of time. How hard can it be?”
And, with that enthusiastic expression of profound innocence and ignorance, we immediately began to extricate ourselves from the madding crowd, the Matrix, the rat race and the way of life that clung to us like heavy nets and cobwebs. It took us three years to unplug. And, even at that, that initial effort only put us on a remote beach with a collection of tools and a dozen DIY books explaining how tools and building materials worked. It took three years to leave the city and it would take another three years to somewhat arrive in the wilderness.
Building and learning to live in a remote setting is a huge challenge and one greatly underestimated by us at the time. We originally thought that ‘the building trades’ were hard work but relatively simple skills to master. Especially if we kept it simple. We were wrong. We thought we could do it all by using books and common sense. And, to be fair, we eventually did do it all but it was just as much by trial and error. And it took a much longer time than we expected. It was not at all simple. In fact, it was at times almost too hard for us.
Almost. Sal is the type that just won’t quit. I carried all the heavy stuff. Sally carried me. Partnership is what made it work.
Of course, everyone’s OTG challenges are different. Some are easier, some are harder. We were on a remote island. We were unskilled. We were financially limited if not restricted. We were well into middle-age and I had a case of early onset couch potato syndrome. Our ignorance was abysmal. Our site is on a 30 degree, moss-covered granite slope. Water is a half a mile away. Tools can be dangerous. Building materials are heavy. Moss is like grease in the rain. Skill-building comes slowly. Winter comes fast. Common sense is sometimes hard to discern and is often evident only in retrospect. And camping is usually a full-time affair in itself – and so is building a cabin. We had signed on for very long days of hardship and learning in an unforgiving rainforest and our success and survival, though not overly threatened, was certainly not assured or even all that likely.
The ‘upside’ was the learning, the sense of doing, meeting a challenge and living, as Thoreau put it, deliberately. We felt alive. We were engaged in our work. We were exhausted, over-our-head, deprived, uncomfortable and, at times, overwhelmed but we were growing skills, we were building a home, we were achieving, we were getting healthier and we were surrounded by beauty. Life was good. We had bitten off more than we could chew but we were chewing like mad to try and compensate and we were making it.
Looking back, the catalyst was the family trip, the ensuing six-year cathartic process of preparation was the release it was intended to be. Transition is a process.
And we are now more free. We are happier. We are healthier. It was the right change at the right time for us and we are both convinced it was not only the right move but more right than the conventional lifestyle to which we subscribed for fifty plus years prior.
Remember – living off the grid is one thing. Building a home and systems is quite another. We unknowingly undertook to do both. It does not have to be that hard but it was worth it in every way for us. The cul de sac now looks like a prison from here. The modern lifestyle is unsatisfying to us and, to be frank, crazy-making. The challenge turned out to be a great and continuing adventure. The partnership got even stronger. Life is now healthy, beautiful, deliberate and full of wonder. We made the right decision for ourselves. And we recommend it.
The magazine people were fine. They seemed to like the style, but not the story. They wanted more details. They wanted more like what their other writers were submitting (one example was a retired couple raising goats for fun and profit) and not so much what I wanted to write about. So, I made some changes. They made some changes. I made some more changes and we traded drafts back and forth.
But then it dawned on….I was trying to ‘make it work’. I was trying to ‘fit into the system’. I was working at what had been fun. The very exercise of trying to be published by a magazine for a mere pittance ($250.00 for 1200 words) was a perfect example of the rat-race, the sell-out, the compromise that keeps on taking. I had given that up. And so, with that explanation to them, I withdrew from the project. And I sensed no sadness on their part.