Have you ever written a list of your priorities? And then compared them to a list of percentages showing how you spend your time? I never have, but I’ve done so in my mind. It’s horrible.
I’m horrible, at priorities. I need to force myself to be motivated. Forcing myself to be motivated usually involves voluntarily inflicting pain on myself, and that is horrible too.
I had this great idea to redesign the American norm of comfort, once. I’d been thinking about Breakfast At Sally’s by Richard LeMieux, and about the Lost Boys of Sudan. I was thinking about this girl who had to walk three miles to gather water.
I thought, “Maybe I could try living simply all the time, not just in the wilderness. I could eat oatmeal (not very heroic, because I like oatmeal) and go without electricity and stop using technology as a mood-booster. I could start an Instagram account and show pictures about the gritty side of minimalism and inspire my generation towards change. Millennials need to stop sponging resources off their elders. They should be independent, and realize that real life is hard work and almost never fair.”
It was a very inspirational plan, in my mind.
I refused to sleep in a bed until I was 100% financially independent. That was my way of forcing myself to be motivated. I felt it was very heroic to sleep on the basement couch or in the back of the SUV instead of in my family’s guest bedrooms. “Maybe I am starting to understand what it is like to be homeless.” I told myself, after a few nights of insomnia. I became so accustomed to sleeping in the back of the SUV, without a mat, that I got a terrible backache from trying out a mattress. “How courageous I am!” I told myself, “I actually prefer the hard floor. Just like a Spartan!”
But I was never rained on while I slept, or robbed, or gnawed on by a rat, so I really wasn’t very heroic after all.
I wanted to live in a van but I couldn’t invest in one without borrowing money. So Jesus gave me a tree house and many kind souls who helped me begin to turn it into a tiny cabin. It was 8 feet square, and 12 feet high, with a loft.
Adorably perched on a hillside, and full of mice and squirrels.
“This is very ideal!” I thought. “I can evict the mice and squirrels, turn the cabin into an insulated home, and learn enough about carpentry to one day travel to devastated lands and build shelters for lost souls. I can be done in three weeks.”
It rained almost every day of the three weeks I took off work. An 8-foot-square building does not harbor space for piles of lumber and various saws and sawhorses. Even the trusty SUV could not make it up the steep, muddy track to my front door. So instead of zooming ahead, I inched.
The first project was to replace the missing studs. I was terrified of using the circular saw. I watched ten minutes of a 30-minute saw safety video and then said, “Ain’t nobody got time for this!” clamped the wood down in multiple places, grasped the saw with sweaty-palmed force, and began.
The next thing I discovered was that driving three-inch screws into hardwood located two feet above my head is nearly impossible for me.
An animal had died in the loft, and I couldn’t bleach the smell out of the wood. I tore down the loft, and sorted through Pop’s scrap pile for wood to rebuild it. A very difficult challenge it was, to drive the new wood in place while holding it steady with my not-so-spare hand. I felt like a rookie, and my muscles started picketing for rest. I’m guessing the drill I used was partially built with lead.
I was building the cabin out of trash, because that was environmentally inspiring. It was also what I could afford, and what someone from Breakfast At Sally’s would do. The only artsy, free thing I could think of with which to finish the interior walls was pallet wood. My friend brought her truck and we humbled ourselves at the hardware store, asking for free pallets. The saber saw had a problem, so I had to hold the battery in with my knee while cutting apart 28 pallets. Then 10 more. The blisters made us feel heroic.
My brother in law loaned me a planer, and I honed the nights away and breathed in lots of dust. “The pallet work alone will take 10 solid days.” Pops warned me. “But think how much I will enjoy how it looks when I’m done! It will be so beautiful!” He agreed, but hesitantly.
I spent 5 hours taking a pick axe to the hillside, and then my sister came and directed the construction of my outhouse. The space where we built was level when we began, but it started to slope after a few days. I added more rocks and encouraged the hickory sapling below the outhouse with a rousing speech. “Grow! You alone can keep this outhouse from rolling down the mountainside!”
After the studs and the loft were replaced and the walls were insulated, it was time to install OSB. Nearly four months had raced by so far, and until this time the gables had been open. It’d been tricky, running a drill by the light of a headlamp while being dive-bombed by moths. Moths aim for the eyes, I now know. They have decent aim, too.
Pops, Steve, Arthur and Ben closed the gables and built a little roof over my front door. Pops installed the first sheet of OSB in the interior. He took over a dozen measurements to do this. Then their time was up.
My cabin, remember, began as a tree house. It was not planning to adopt a veneer of OSB. It rejected my efforts as best it could. Measuring weather-warped studs and angles and gaps and smoothing them all over with perfectly aligned OSB swaths was impossible for a rookie like me to achieve. I did the best I could, but it took many after-work nights and several dozen swings of my favorite tool, the Persuasion Device. The summer was nearly over when I was finally ready for the first piece of pallet wood.
The pallet wood took a month. Not an actual month, you know, but a build-on-evenings-and-weekends-after-getting-home-from-work month. I used all the planed pieces on the interior, and the cracked or nail-studded pieces were used as siding on the outhouse. Pops loaned me his nail gun, an upgrade I’m sure the Spartans did not have.
This all sounds very chronological and orderly on paper, but it was not this way in real life. Many projects were progressing at any given time, but I hopped between them as dictated by weather, supplies or lack of knowledge.
The shingles went up in three stints, as determined by my ability to buy more nails and more shingles. That was a six-week time span.
10 months after I began the project, I was finally moved in. All that was needed was a heating system, and I had just enough cash for a tiny coal stove and enough fuel to drive to NJ and back.
It was a foggy, rainy night which should not have been confronted without first replacing my windshield wipers and headlights. As a consequence, I careened Pops and myself onto and back off of a wide cement median at 65 mph, but the angels gave us a softer landing than I deserved. We made it home alive with the stove.
It is still sitting in my cabin, cold as a stone. The land is being sold. My (indoor!) cat ran away. Maybe that is a sign it’s time for me to move on too.
Sometimes things that begin heroically and ideally do not end that way. It’s just life.
But priorities, if founded in the Rock (meaning God, not Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), are unchangeable. God is a God of upgrades and that is unchangeable.
He has given me a simple lifestyle in the civilised world. I do live without technology at my fingertips. I am financially independent and not in debt. And the minor devastation of spending over 500 hours of labor on my project without receiving over 500 hours of enjoyment in return is… Real life.
It is only a crumb of the devastation Richard LeMieux, the Lost Boys of Sudan, and the girl who carried water three miles felt all day, every day.
Real life. I did not plan for my goal of redefined comfort to feel like this, but it does, and it is my priorities fulfilled and rewarded. Upgrades that look like compassion and empathy instead of a cozy cabin and glowing embers in my tiny stove.
Would you like to buy a piece of land with a pallet-sided outhouse and a tiny, not-quite-completed cabin?