Changing Life
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Homesteading Life with Sue & Steve

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Changing Life
, Changing Lists
~ ~ ~
Freedom & Flexibility

to do list

How-to  ~  Ideas  ~  Inspiration
 From more than forty years having a good time living a sustainable life
in the northwoods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula

Juggling outside work with a long list of 'things I want to do' on the homestead is a challenge at best, not to mention all of the off-the-homestead activities we strive to fit in. Snuggling oneself into the constraints of time doesn't always come easy, but it can be a fun game if you go at it with a cooperative mind, consider the abundant choices with interest, and allow the changes to happen. And don't forget to make a list.

Changing Jobs / Changing Life / Making Lists - 1997, 2003

Several years ago Steve cut his part-time, too-often-stretching-to-full-time, computer tech job to one day a week. He wanted to get back to his neglected art and woodworking. This worked fine -- for awhile. Then the one day a week expanded to two, then three, sometimes four, and more. Necessary homestead chores and usual trips out took up the remaining time, and the pile of chips and shavings in the woodshop remained pretty small.

Meantime, I continued to try to fit my own artwork and writing into the busy life of the all-too-often lone homesteader. The major projects that I couldn’t do myself started piling up, and we were both becoming frustrated at not having enough studio time. Plus, we just plain missed working together. Our life pace had, once again, become too harried.

It was time for a change, time to focus on what we really wanted, what was truly important.

We knew the drill. We’d gone through this many times before. Although a major (or sometimes minor) change in livelihood has its anxieties, it can also be exhilarating, freeing, and fun. The only difference this time was that we didn’t make the decision over many cups of coffee at a local restaurant, which had, for some reason, been the pattern in the past. Steve just one day said he thought it was time for him to retire from the school (as Technology Coordinator/Administrator) and focus on his artwork. And I said, sounds good to me.

Which is vaguely reminiscent of what happened twenty-some years ago when we decided to move from steady earning jobs in the city, to who-knew-what in the country. Steve one day said he was moving to the northwoods. I said, sounds good to me. That was a much bigger change. But that was when we made our first List.

I have fond memories of that list. Though short on experience (particularly me), we had dreams and enthusiasm. We read and studied and planned and made notes and drawings. And made lists. Lists of what we thought we needed to make a go of it on our new homestead. Lists of things we didn’t have. Tools, supplies, materials, equipment. As the plans coalesced, Steve pulled the lists together into one. Typed up and made pocket-size on a reducing Xerox, we carried this list with us everywhere. It became one of our more important tools.

Some things on the list were purchased a little at a time, such as canning jars and honey (except for the one large jar that broke through the bottom of a grocery bag to crash and splat all over the sidewalk -- a memorable mess). Some of the larger items (Troy-Bilt rototiller, Garden Way cart, welding unit) were purchased as we sold what we had but would no longer need (Lotus Europa sports car, Triumph motorcycle). We spent a lot of time in hardware stores. And many weekends found us at the auctions, bidding and buying such prizes as baler twine, copper boiler, lard press.

It was a fun time. The list helped keep us focused. As items were crossed off, we knew our homestead was getting closer. It wasn’t really that much stuff. When we moved, everything went in one large U-Haul, including a lot of bulky (and heavy) building materials. But it gave us a sense of security and confidence that was as important as the array of hammers we’d collected, which Steve assured me would be useful but of which I was quite skeptical.

We didn’t get everything on our list before we went. And we added things here and there that weren’t on it. But since we were heading to a homestead with no buildings but a small 6’x 8’ camper cap on plywood base home, we didn’t want a lot of stuff anyway. Most of our load found its new home under a large sheet of plastic. It was a great way to begin.

Many of the most important things we took with us weren’t even on the list -- enthusiasm, learning, sense of humor, a willingness to work (on the homestead and off), enough money to get by on for awhile, several cases of canned goods. But most of the other stuff came in handy. Some of it right away, some of it much later ...

Such as that heavy duty cast iron lard press, one of my own exciting auction finds that I gradually lost enthusiasm for as we moved it and stored it and moved it and stored it for so many years. Having never raised hogs we never had much use for a lard press. But one can’t just throw away such potential as the quality screw and gear on the thing. Then, last year, I saw a picture of my old lard press in an old wine book, only they called it a Fruit Press. Ah hah! I knew I couldn’t use it as it was for fruit (I’d thought of that long ago) because it was made of iron and worn plated steel. But, turned over to the inventor/tinkerer of the family (Steve) it came back with a new wooden basket, wood pressing plate, and wood drain plate. It works great.

I have less fond memories of the more expensive non-ssessities we bought and hauled. Like the shredder-grinder (obnoxiously noisy thing) (sold for a little to a friend), the Garden Way cart (eventually completely rebuilt to be usable and could have been built for very little to begin with), the too expensive and very heavy used Kalamazoo wood cookstove, purchased from a friend, with a cracked top, grates that didn’t fit, and a rusted oven (sitting in the woods behind the shed). Ah well, there are worse mistakes to be made.

I’ve recreated the list as best we can remember it. It was a good way to begin building our homestead while living in the city.

            come-a-long                peanut butter
            rope                            honey
            200' 1/2" nylon rope        salt
            100' 3/8" nylon rope        sugar
            cant hook                        canning jars
            drawknife                        canning lids
            scythe                        matches
            hearing protectors
            maul                            shovels
            wedges                        rake
            crowbar                        hammers
            wheelbarrow                saws
            pitchfork                        baler twine
            splitting maul                bushel baskets
            100' meas tape            wood cookstove
            masonry trowels        heating stove
            4 ft level                    Aladdin lamp
            chalkline                    oil lamps
            froe                            pressure canner
            pick                        waterbath canner
            work boots                rototiller
            winter boots                cement mixer
            work gloves                chain saw
            rubber gloves            

Since then our "pre-move" lists and plans have changed, as our lives have. Our subsequent moves have been livelihood related, not physical. We have little need now for more things (getting rid of accumulated stuff seems to be more important nowadays). Things on our to-buy list are usually quite specific, usually a tool or materials for woodshop or homestead. If we can afford it, we buy it. If not, we wait until we can. Or we make it (preferably). Or do without.

Looking back at our family income over the past 25 years is to see a wildly fluctuating up and down graph (our business name of "ManyTracks" is not without reason). Our full-time outside employment was heaviest in the early years when we had need to pay for our homestead. But throughout that time is a steady line of being self-employed. Sometimes one of us, sometimes both, usually at several different endeavors. The changes occur when one of us decides it’s time to leave a regular job to pursue an irregular one, or to stop going down one or another self-employed path. The change usually means going from steady income to unsteady, and from more to less. And that means doing some serious planning on the economic front first.

Time to haul out the "Economics" folder, and a different kind of list.

We’ve saved our various planning lists over the years, and it’s interesting to look back to see where we’ve been, how our "needs" have changed over the years. But the basic format has stayed the same. How much money do we need to get by? What can we happily live on? We’re not talking probably-never-happen-but-just-in-case-survival here, we’re talking about living. Everyday satisfied living. Which is different for different people, of course. Your list will be different than mine. But a dead honest list of your needs/desires can be a down-to-earth analysis of your beliefs and priorities, what you truly judge as important. It can also be a releasing freedom if you realize that you can happily get by on less money than you thought. Less stuff. Make the necessary changes, and you’re on your way to (often) a less stressful life.

But first you have to decide where you are. To do this we have now and then made a month or two project of writing down every expenditure, no matter how large or small, in a notebook. One page for each category, such as: gasoline, vehicle, food, junk food, business, clothing, homestead, garden, sundries. Whatever we spend money on. And I do mean EVERY penny spent. Often the most important expenditures to list are the easiest to skip -- the candy bar, the bottle of pop, the magazine, the little something that caught your eye as you walked by an aisle filled with expendable little somethings. Be honest and committed. Write it all down. Every day. For several months. Then add it up. And look it, and yourself, straight in the eye.

What is truly needed? What can you do without? What can be made instead of purchased? Borrowed instead of owned? What is important to you, and what isn’t? How much of your buying is habit, how much need, how much desire or a substitute for something else? Will it make you happy? More satisfied? There's no right or wrong, just a whittling away of excess so you can see the thing straight on.

Now is the time to make any changes in buying habits you want to make, before you make a change in income. If you can’t do it now, if it isn’t important enough to you to do it now, you won’t be happy doing it later. Besides, being able to cut back on unnecessary buying is a great boost to the spirit anytime. And we all can use a bit of that.

We always find a few surprises here. Things that had slipped in without notice, but could very well slip out again with just a little work or awareness. Others that, with a little thought and planning, could be reduced. And some things that could be had cheaper, but for reasons of quality or environment, we choose the more expensive. We don’t wait for a change in income before making changes in our spending. It’s an ongoing thing. Being able to live happily on less is what gives us the freedom to live and work as we do, which, in general, tends to be not very high on the money-making scale.

Now, on to the Economics List.

Ours is divided into several sections. The first are the absolutes. The bare minimum. This is the money we make sure we have set aside for at least a year ahead, so no matter what happens, we have a reasonably comfortable margin, a year to react without having to scramble simply to get by. These are the not-to-be-raided funds.
        Property taxes
        Self-employment taxes
        Minimum car insurance and license plates
        Food we don’t grow (grains, oil, raisins)
        Miscellaneous (gas for car, chainsaw)

Then come the reality of living categories. The other things we choose to spend money on.
        Vehicle repair
        Medical (eye glasses, dental) (we self treat for other health related issues)
        Entertainment (plays, concerts, library cards, eating out)
        Discretionary odds and ends

After trimming all the unnecessary fat and frou frou, we add it all up and come up with our yearly and monthly totals. This is how much money we feel we need to live a satisfactory life. This is how much money we need to earn. For us, this bottom line is around $500 a month. So, whatever we do for livelihoods, it needs to bring in a total of at least $500 a month, or $6000 a year.

If we want to make a major purchase above this bottom line, we will need to earn the extra money for it. Borrowing doesn’t fit into the satisfied life picture in our opinions so that isn’t an option we consider. We haven’t paid any interest in the last twenty years. We’ve been there in the past and don’t want to go there again. We often look at a pending purchase this way. Say it is a tool that will cost $300. If we had an extra $300, we ask, is that what we would spend the money on? Surprisingly often the answer is no. And the item we were considering loses its importance. Another way we look at it is to figure out how many hours one of us has to work at whatever money-making job we’re doing, and ask if that item is worth that many hours of work. Is it a good trade, a satisfactory barter?

Time also helps. I put the item on a list. If it’s still there next week, or next month, I consider it a little more closely. Still there the next list? Maybe I’ll do some shopping. Getting tired of transferring it from list to list? I take it off, it wasn’t that important after all. I find this works well for many little things. It also works well that I don't like to shop.

This helps keep our financial situation at a comfortable level. When we have less, we live on less, and know we can do so quite happily. When we have more, we buy the bicycle we’ve been wanting. Make the larger donation to those causes we want to support. Go to a play, eat out, stay overnight so we don’t have to drive home in the middle of the night (dodging deer by headlight). The decisions we make now are different than the decisions we made twenty years ago, or ten. And I’m sure are different from those we’ll make ten years hence. But they all have that comfortable base of knowing where we stand, how much we have, how much we want, how much (or little) we can get by on. We have been as happy at subsistence levels as when we have had more of a cushion.

Granted, our highest sense of security isn’t on any list -- the skills we’ve gained by doing, by learning, by our willingness to do it ourselves instead of buying it, the knowledge that there are friends and neighbors to help if we should need it, and that we are here to help them should they need it. But as we live in a money based society, there is also the security of knowing where we are, how much or how little we need to live on, and what options we have.

And now (2003)? Well, we are now both full time artists, and homesteaders, and part-time writer. Steve left his Computer Tech/Admin job in the fall of 2002. We haven’t a lot of money, working at a livelihoods that are long on hours and short on pay, and our lists are pretty small. But it is a good life, and satisfying work. And a very good way to live.

* * * * * *

Copyright 2003 by Susan Robishaw

Freedom, Flexibility and an "Alternative Life" - 1997, 2003

No bills. We worked "out" until we paid for our homestead, bought what we could afford, and did our own building. Our water is pumped by the wind, our electrical wants powered by the sun. Some of our heating is provided directly from the sun via solar heat, the rest indirectly from the sun via the woodlot. We cook with the sun, with wood, and sometimes with propane (one small tank a year). All this gave, and gives, us a wonderful freedom and flexibility to live the way we choose, a way that is satisfying to us and fun.

Our Aladdin lamps are long gone, oil lamps stuck in a corner, candles an occasional soft lighting source. All of our lighting is either 12-volt or 120-volt LED's. All are powered by the sun. Flashlights, with rechargeable batteries, are scattered throughout the house (and almost always somewhere other than where you are). The light is used when we need it, where we need it. It's a comfortable use of lighting.

For many years we lived without a refrigerator. We enjoyed cold things when it was provided by nature during the winter months, and lived happily without when not. Our pantry and root cellar are naturally around 40 degrees half the year, the other half they are still cool enough to keep most foods quite well. The cost was nothing more than building the root cellar and pantry into the back of our house. A few years ago we bought a small (4.5Cu.Ft.) 12-volt DC chest-type refrigerator. It is located in the cool pantry so it doesn't have a lot of work to do to keep food cold. In the winter we simply turn it off and use the root cellar as our refrigerator.

We do have a telephone and broadband Internet service, and the monthly charges that goes with them. Our livelihood at this time requires the connections. But we know it is an option. We could do something else for a living that doesn't necessitate the Internet bill; we have in the past. But for now it is a part of our life.

The gardens, tame and wild, provide much of our food. We purchase some food from outside. We know we can live on only what we can grow and gather. We tried it, and it worked just fine. Outside food is an option, a choice, and one we choose. For now.

We live 15 miles from the nearest town and often travel 100 miles for dance, music and other activities. Transportation costs used to be a high percentage of our dollar outlay. We do the best we can  to minimize the environmental impact of our wandering by driving an older Toyota Prius Hybrid that averages 48 - 52 mpg.  Our bicycles and our feet give us a break quite often. We could choose to do without a car: we could choose to live closer to town. We could choose to live in an area where public transportation is an option. But we have chosen to live here, so we make do the best we can with what we have.

The only insurance bill we have is for the vehicles, the minimum required by law. Taxes we need money for, so that fund gets the money first. We take responsibility for ourselves and our property, and we keep the quantity of that down. Health is a natural state of being. We prefer to live and work with nature, not against. Our beliefs and our health reflect that.

There is a minimum money that we have to earn. By keeping that amount on the low side, we feel more free to choose our "work" -- what, when, where, and for whom. We know we can get all kinds of odd jobs if needed. We've done so -- in a so-called depressed, high unemployment area, and we were new folks in the area at the time. We just let people know that we were willing to work, we worked, and we met lots of folks that way. Much of what we do now doesn't pay a great deal in money, some hardly any at all. But the work that does pay allows for that which doesn't. The pay in satisfaction and creative expression is far and above more important than paper money no matter how much the job pays.

When we want to buy something we weigh it against the time and energy to be spent earning the money for it. We consider alternatives. Could we make it ourselves? Could we make do with something else? And if it takes five years to buy it, well, that's OK too. We have never gone without something we really wanted. If it is that important, the money  comes.

The hardest thing is not being so busy we lose the joy of living, the magic of this earth. There are so many possibilities, so many paths to follow, so much of interest out there, or in here. It's important to see the clouds, watch the birds, notice the stars, feel the wind, smell the earth, the fox, the trees, soak up the rain, and the sun. We continue to work on that.

Many machines have lost their importance to us. Mulch and permanent beds replace the tiller, the "lawn" mower is electric and used but little, the scythe is a comfortable tool. Brush piles full of small birds and animals make mockery of the long gone shredder. The chainsaw still has us, but less now than it used to. Heating and cooking with the sun beats cutting firewood.

That is not to say we don't make use of power tools at all. We do. I wouldn't want to be without the washing machine. And power wood working tools make short work of many jobs. But the hand tools are still alive and well. And used. And enjoyed. The pencil and paper is still on the desk along with the computers and printers. 

We enjoy life, enjoy our creative urges and adventures, enjoy the learning. We're different than the couple who worked for a large chemical company, lived a block off the main city drag, ate out most nights, belonged to the country club, wore pantyhose and suit.

And we're different than the two who wanted every other animal "Countryside" mentioned, wanted to mow and clear and "do something" with most of this 80 acres, wanted to can everything in sight and build and plow and build some more.

The pantyhose are long gone and the suit went to St. Vinnie's years ago. We no longer spend most of our "free" time building, though we are now spending much time "rebuilding" -- it's been that long. 

And I'm sure there's a future Steve and Sue who are different yet again, being born by the decisions we are making today. But we're happy to be where and when we are right now. And it was good to be where we were then, too. 

* * * * * *

Copyright 1997, 2003 by Susan Robishaw


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Have you read  "Frost Dancing - Tips from a Northern Gardener"? A fun short read.

or "Homesteading Adventures"    Creating our backwoods homestead--the first 20 years.

and "Growing Berries for Food and Fun"   A journey you can use in your own garden.