Newbie Notes: Lifestyle Redesign

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I joke that every few years I set fire to my life and start over. It’s not far from the truth, but this newest, nascent pursuit of mine — living off-grid, closer to the land, as a minimalist who grows or forages her own food — is by far the biggest lifestyle change I’ve ever made.

In some instances, I’ve been incredibly deliberate in my choices. In other instances, I’ve made decisions relatively lightly, placing trust in the people I meet along the way and sort of…hoping I’d learn as I go.

I can make arguments for both approaches, mostly based on context. But if you’re considering a major lifestyle overhaul, the following questions can help guide your thinking and help you set your own expectations.

Why are you making the change? What is driving your desire for change?

Start. HERE. Being clear — and honest with yourself — about these two questions will save you the angst I sometimes grapple with. There are no right or wrong answers, really. And those answers can change over time, as mine have. But illusions fly apart pretty quickly when you come face-to-face with the gap between the life you’re accustomed to and the one you thought you wanted to live. So, be aware of what’s driving you. Here are a few examples:

Restlessness. Boredom can be a powerful motivator. But do you really need to blow up your life to relieve it? Adventures sound so attractive — until you’re in the middle of them. If I had a dime for every time someone said to me, “But this is the adventure you dreamed of!” I’d be able to buy that delicious property across the road from mine. Because, yeah: Adventures are exciting, but they also come with a price, and sometimes it’s an emotional and spiritual one.

Finances. If I’m to be honest, my desire to live in a yurt in the mountains was driven partly by my desire to ditch the mortgage, stop paying utilities companies, and live less expensively so that I could devote less time to working a 9 to 5 and more time writing for myself. One thing you should note: Living small isn’t necessarily synonymous with living cheaply. I’ll talk more about that later. In the meantime, do your research.

Values. More than one homesteader, tiny-home dweller, or global nomad has written about waking up and realizing that their stated values didn’t quite sync with their lived values. They started asking themselves some hard questions about their carbon footprints, water use, piles of possessions. And they made a radical leap into a different way of being. I know from experience: Leaps of this sort are clarifying, so be ready to learn some things about yourself you might not want to know.

How familiar are you with the life you’re contemplating?

I’ve read blog after blog and viewed numerous YouTube videos by people who dreamed of a certain lifestyle, only to be blind-sided by the reality. If you continue to read my posts (and I hope you will), you’ll see that I’m rethinking and re-rethinking decisions along the way. My “dream life” shape-shifts as I go. Some of my compromises have been necessary because of legalities, life stage, skills gaps, finances, and other hurdles. Some of them admittedly fall into the “convenience” category.

I’m learning as I go, and I firmly believe that I’ll be richer for this whole experience — the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautifully transformative.

A few things to ponder for yourself:

Silo-style water collection tank attached to gutters on a garden building
Learning about water collection at the North Carolina Arboretum

Commitment. What kind of commitment will your new life require of you? If your ideas about raising animals or crops come from occasional visits to a local petting zoo, you might want to rethink what you’re doing. As many homesteaders have discovered, farming doesn’t allow for vacations. Tiny-home dwellers are finding it difficult to live in close quarters, even with people they adore. Nomads sometimes long for a place of their own to land for a while. And if your lifestyle and your income are intertwined, you have some hard thinking to do before jumping off the cliff without a safety net (or reliable internet, which will be my personal challenge).

Skills. I ask myself a thousand times a day: Do I have the skills to live off-grid? Which basically translates to: If you have to ask, nope. Whatever your dream-life looks like, it will likely involve a few (or more) specialized skills. Will you have to maintain or repair equipment? Chop wood and build a fire for heat? Milk goats or butcher rabbits for food? Build, renovate, or erect a dwelling? If you don’t have the skills, start looking for ways to learn and practice them. Your livelihood — or life — might depend on it.

Expense. Do your research. Know what things cost, budget for that, and stick to your budget — knowing full well that it’ll get blown up in unexpected places. But if you create a plan and stick to it where you can, you’ll save yourself a lot of stress in the long-run. (Believe me, I’m the cautionary tale for this one!)

What small steps can you take NOW to “try on” the life you want to live?

When I first set out on this journey, I reviewed my values — then took a good look at how I was living my life. I’d have to make some big changes if I was going to make this crazy shift in my lifestyle. Seriously. Big. Changes.

Living the dream often requires waking up from one. We take so many things for granted, and that greener grass over there? Well…take off the rose-colored glasses, and you get a whole new shade of perspective. Here are a few ways you can help yourself in the long-run by doing a little short-term learning:

Rentals. Can you try out your proposed lifestyle by renting it first? Seriously, if you can do it, find a way to insert yourself into the lifestyle before you sell (or buy) the farm. Rent an RV and take off for a couple of weeks. Find a vacation rental with yurts or a tiny home and stay there for as extended a period as you can. Help on a homestead. Volunteer with your local 4-H. Chicken-sit for a friend. Attend workshops and seminars and classes and whatever you can to give you a taste for what your new life will be like.

Habits. Are there small (or large) things you can start doing now to develop habits that will help you adjust to how you plan to live later? Incorporating certain practices into your current lifestyle gives you a taste for the future you wish to build. Can you grow a garden where you live now — even if it’s only in containers? If you want to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle, how can you start conserving water, reducing waste, eating more earth-friendly foods?

Where are you willing to compromise if reality and your vision part ways?

This one’s really important, as I’m finding out. Sometimes, what we believe are deeply-entrenched values get put to the test when they misalign with the realities of the new life we’re building.

Conveniences. Some conveniences feel like — or actually become — necessities over time. Like running water. And electricity. And, maybe, that flush toilet.

Sun-Mar composting toilet
Crappy laws: Composting toilets are illegal for residential use in many places.

Laws. The intersection of federal, state, county, and city/township laws with your vision needs a traffic signal to avoid fatalities. I personally don’t think a “yield” sign is necessary, but proceeding with well-informed caution is definitely helpful. If the land you love comes with covenants and restrictions, understand what they mean and how it impacts your dream. Even if, at the federal or state level, something is legal, that doesn’t mean local regulations allow it. Do your homework. I didn’t — not as completely as I might have, anyway — and it’s meant meeting with disappointments along the way.

Finances. Yep, money has a way of forcing us to compromise. For me, it’s made this unhurried path a lot slower than I would have liked. It also means I have to weigh expenses against my values regarding things like building materials, product longevity, environmental impact, and so on. A tight budget sometimes means I have to prioritize differently (e.g. road vs. well) and think carefully about what I’m willing to do without now — and how I can do better later.

Is Avoiding (or Making) the Change an Avoidance of Something Bigger?

Oooo…that’s profound. And real. For me, that question continues to surface, and the answer unfolds as I go.

Simply put, this is about expectations: What do you believe will change in you as a result of changing the way you live? Changing your lifestyle won’t change who you are. In fact, I’ve found making changes in myself — my attitudes, expectations, responses to setbacks and successes — has made changing my lifestyle easier. Because, as the saying goes: “Wherever you go, there you are.” (John Kabat-Zinn)

What adventure are you thinking about embarking on? Which of these notes rings most true for where you are right now?

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