Maybe We Can’t Do It All; Maybe We Just Need a Change of Plans

About eighteen months ago I posted some thoughts about my lifelong love of learning to do things for myself in a post entitled We Can Do It—And We Did.

Beginning at an early age, I have spent countless happy hours randomly browsing library bookshelves, magazine articles happened upon in waiting rooms, old encyclopedias in family homes, and in more recent times the treasure trove of information (and also much misinformation) found on the internet. Sometimes I had one of my many particular interests in mind to guide my searches. At other times my quest relied on serendipitously stumbling upon books, articles, ideas, and bits of information that I had not been expecting to find, but that I knew were important to me, if not immediately, then at some unforeseen time in the future. As I wrote in that post:

That early experience of mine set the stage for a lifetime of learning and doing. I knew that information about everything was readily available. I could find details on any subject, study it, absorb it, think about it, and make it a part of me. I came to see that I could learn about anything and to believe that I could learn to do anything I really wanted to do. I didn’t necessarily think I could do everything as well as an expert or professional could do, but I did believe I could do the things I wanted adequately and satisfactorily for my purposes and needs. I also knew that doing things for myself would bring great satisfaction, the joy of seeing the finished project and knowing I had accomplished that.

That experience and the things I have learned over the years have served me well, especially since we moved to our place here on the mountainside. Except for tasks that required specialized equipment like bulldozers, dump trucks, or backhoes, we’ve pretty much done everything ourselves on our homeplace. We’ve frequently told people who ask about our home and our life here, “If there’s anything you can see here, we did it”. Many things we’ve done ourselves because we couldn’t afford to have someone else do it for us or we didn’t want to deplete our limited resources by hiring the job out. Sometimes we wanted a project completed in some unconventional manner and didn’t trust that a contractor would be willing to depart from their standard way of doing things. Much of the time I simply wanted to be sure that I knew the task was done the way I wanted it to be done. And after years of doing all this work ourselves, there is a sense of pride (some would call it stubbornness) that makes me not want to give up the ability to say, “We did it all”.

I know the time is coming when my ability to do many of the tasks around our homeplace will decline with the limitations which will result from physical changes as I move beyond my current seventy three years of age. Sometimes the inability to handle certain tasks isn’t the result of aging, as I was reminded a few days ago. While there are many things I have learned to do, I’ve never had much success in trying to deal with small gasoline engines and the tools they power (mowers, weed eaters, and chain saws), tools that are much needed with several acres of field and forest to maintain.

Various projects and trips recently had taken time away from routine mowing and related activities. One of the features we love about our home here is the fact that we are surrounded by the abundance of nature. That same abundance can very quickly result in grass in our misty meadow reaching knee-high levels, blackberry briars popping up everywhere, and locust and other tree seedlings claiming their place in the sun. When I went out to try to deal with the situation, I knew that neither of our two riding mowers would be available, one having quit functioning at the end of last summer and the other never having started since we acquired it for free, used but non-working. Several push mowers had either become unstartable or had died when I had pushed them over a hidden rock or tree stump. The remaining push mower (new a year ago) sputtered for a few seconds after pulling the starter cord several dozen times, but refused to start no matter how many times I went through that process. Deciding to resort to mowing with a weed eater, I tugged the starting cord repeatedly with no hint of the least positive response from the engine. I realized there was a second weed eater I had forgotten about and was delighted when it leaped to life on my first pull. It ran great for about fifteen minutes, but never started again after I refilled its fuel tank.

I had run out of options on my gas-engine tools, so I decided it was time to try an alternative I had used in a few other situations: an electric hedge trimmer. It’s sort of like the sickle bar hay mowers used on farm tractors, except it’s much smaller and for grass cutting requires the user to bend over, holding it parallel to the ground while moving it back and forth. After a few minutes of that uncomfortable bent-over position, I decided it was much better to sit on the ground, cut the section that was reachable from that spot, and then slide over a few feet to cut another section. A few hours later I had finished a couple of sloping banks that I had been particularly eager to get cleared. The hedge trimmer was willing to continue as long as there was electricity, but I was pretty well worn out.

When one of my plans gets overly complicated or doesn’t seem to be working out as anticipated, Carole and I have agreed that a valuable service she can perform is to say, “Isn’t there an easier or simpler or better way to do this?” Unfortunately Carole was away from home at a meeting, but as soon as she got home, we started thinking to find a better way to get the work done. Possibly we could find a way to get everything done that we wanted to do, but did we really need to? Maybe we don’t need to attempt to maintain all of the grassy area of our yard and meadow; after all, when we first saw our place, the non-wooded area was a gorgeous open meadow filled with daisies, black-eyed Susans, wild strawberries, and tall grasses waving in the breeze. Maybe we can allow our meadow to be a meadow and only clear a few pathways through the grasses to facilitate strolling through its beauty. Maybe we can rent a mower once a year to help keep out the briars and trees and not have to bother with mowing everything and keeping a functioning mower thoughout the year. Maybe we can get rid of all the non-working pieces of equipment we have kept around, feeling the necessity to try to get them working again one of these days. And if we don’t need to frequently work at maintaining the whole area, maybe a smaller electric mower would be sufficient to keep up the area closest around the house. We bought the electric mower the next day; it started with the push of a button and did a great job of cutting the grass in our prime target area.

So we made a new plan which appears to have solved our immediate problem. But this situation has raised another question for us. What are the things that are really important to us, the activities that we most want to spend our time and energies on during this latter portion of our lives. We have no intention of becoming morbid and fixating on the prospect of death as it seems many people in our age group tend to do. Instead, we want to focus on life with the intention of making full use of our time whatever it may turn out to be. We both have sufficient interests to keep us occupied for another fifty years or more, but in all likelihood we won’t be able to accomplish all those things. Even if we could, we would probably come up with another fifty years of projects to follow those. So we’re going to do some re-evaluating, see if we can figure out what we need to do and what we want to do and what can be set aside for the next lifetime.

We’ve already done many of the things in our lives that we’ve wanted to accomplish. But I can’t imagine anyone being able to do everything they might want to do in a lifetime; there are just too many interesting things out there to experience. So we’ll plan to make more time each day for those special activities that are most important to us. What better way could there be to spend all the wonderful moments we have?

Cold Mountain Spring Water

When we found the property that was to become our home here on this mountainside, we were delighted to discover that there was a year-round spring in the woods near our proposed homesite. Hopefully we would not have to drill a well with all the uncertainty and expense that might involve. The spring did not produce a huge amount of water, but after making a crude dam across the spring’s outflow and measuring the average volume of water produced per minute we figured it would be satisfactory for our needs. So we had a potential source to supply our water needs, but that didn’t mean we would have free water. Both physical effort and financial input would be needed before we could make use of our spring.

The area around the spring was very boggy, so we had to do a lot of digging before we could isolate the main spot where the flow of water emerged from the hillside. We built a concrete catch basin to contain the water with an overflow pipe to carry the precious liquid to a 500-gallon reservoir about thirty feet away. The water could now be collected, but unfortunately the spring was several hundred feet from the planned house location. It also was situated at an elevation about fifty feet lower than the house would be, so there could be no gravity-fed water supply; we would need to pump our water uphill to the house.

Whenever we could install a pump in the reservoir we would be able to send our always-cold mountain spring water through a pipe (buried three feet deep to prevent freezing in the winter) to our house. But it would be another year and a half before we completed installing our house wiring and plumbing and received the inspector’s final approval. Once that happened we finally had our spring water on tap in the house, to enjoy at the turn of a faucet.

Enjoy it we do! Cold mountain spring water on demand, naturally chilled to about 40 degrees (the average year-round temperature of the earth through which the water flows to the spring). People pay a dollar or more per liter for spring water in the grocery store. We’re able to use it for watering the garden, washing clothes, showering, cooking, and best of all for drinking.

The work involved in accessing our spring water is not completely behind us. The spring has never failed us during almost 39 years living here, even during drought years. Pumps on the other hand have failed all too frequently. Sometimes the pumps have suffered from lightning strikes, but usually it’s just been wear and tear. Unfortunately, the equipment failures seem to occur during the night, rainstorms, winter, or all three. Correcting the problem usually requires multiple treks down the hill to the spring and back, carrying tools and replacement pump, working by flashlight, communicating by walkie-talkie to turn electricity off and on at the house, and checking to see if everything is working yet.

It may not be what most people would consider the perfect setup, but we believe it’s been worth the effort. At the end of a hot day working in the garden or whatever project we’ve been involved with, we can sit and enjoy a nice cool glass of our mountain spring water. Plus we have the satisfaction of knowing we made it happen.

Work: Then and Now

Several years ago when we were planning to retire from our in-town occupations, many people would ask, “What will you do? Won’t you miss having your work to come to each day? Won’t you be bored?” The answer was always that we might miss the daily contact with customers, co-workers, or the general public that had been part of our daily routines for so many years, but we would definitely not miss having to leave our homeplace each day to go work at projects determined by someone else according to a schedule set by others. What to do was no concern since we had enough ideas for several lifetimes of things to do both separately and together. And please don’t mention that word “bored”; I can’t understand anyone with even half a mind ever having reason to be bored.

There is always plenty to be done around here, both work and non-work. I started to say play, but some of the non-work activities (writing, designing and planning building projects, photography) are more serious than play. Entertainment doesn’t cover it all, though we do make time for going to bluegrass jam sessions (as audience, not performers), listening to audiobooks, and traveling to attend grandchildren’s plays and concerts and sports events. Leisure sounds too much like sitting and doing nothing, which we sometimes do, but usually it’s more a matter of resting after some other strenuous activity. So there is plenty to do and we usually have pretty full days.

My best friend/partner/spouse usually (actually always) gets going faster in the mornings; I’m more of a slow starter, but once I get busy I often go straight through for eight to ten hours.

There has been lots of hard physical work in the years since retirement. There was hard work before retirement as well, but now there are more hours at home to devote to the physical tasks of construction, gardening, mowing, tree cutting and clearing, winter snow shoveling, and others. I realized recently that my weight fluctuates significantly from winter when I’m less active to summer when most of the more demanding work comes along; then I’m fifteen to twenty pounds lighter (about ten percent of my usual body weight).

Some days when I’m working I’m reminded of my days playing sports in my youth. I started team sports when I was six or seven years old and continued throughout high school. I worked hard at both practices and competitions, trying to always give it my all. The coaches were always pushing us to go harder and I did my best to do what they asked. I was usually worn out at the end of the day. Memories of those times come back to me as I work for hours digging to make planting beds, climbing up and down the ladder to put siding on the house, cutting trees and physically moving heavy logs, carrying fifty-pound bags of soil down the hill to the garden and then climbing up to do it over and over again. Thoughts keep going through my head, “Push harder. Keep going. You can do it.” There wouldn’t seem to be an obvious connection between childhood sports teams and the things I’m doing now, but apparently I learned a lot from those early efforts that is still with me today.

Sometimes CeCe worries about me working too hard, not taking enough breaks, wearing myself out. I’ve learned to be sure to take better care of myself, to not push myself unreasonably. The physical changes that have come with aging also help to remind me that maybe I’ve done enough of a given task for this day. But I’ve also said and continue to say, “If I should keel over in the midst of working one of these days, I want you and the rest of the family to know that these were things I wanted to do and that I enjoyed doing even though they were often physically difficult. I have been happy as I have been working. It wouldn’t be a bad way to go.”

We Can Do It – And We Did

When we first determined to seek out and move to this place at the end of the road, we were committing to a leap into the unknown. We would be moving to a new place where we knew no one, with no jobs or income, with no house or shelter other than two small tents. We intended to build our own house completely by ourselves even though we had never built anything larger than a small wardrobe unit for an early apartment that had very minimal closet space. We had the limited proceeds from the sale of the small house we had sold, planning very optimistically to use those funds for living and building expenses.

Were we crazy? Many of our friends and family definitely thought so. Many people, maybe most, don’t even consider the possibility of doing many tasks for themselves, by themselves. They feel they must rely on an expert, a professional to do almost everything for them. But we have discovered over the years since that time that some friends inwardly envied us, wishing they could break away from where they were in life, from unsatisfying jobs or living conditions, to pursue their own special dreams.

I had always been a bit of a crazy dreamer. One of my favorite activities from elementary school years onward was to be dropped at the public library where I would spend hours randomly browsing the shelves for books that caught my fancy. I read about explorers, inventors, philosophers, poets, architects, artists, and other exciting people. I consumed books about nature, science, construction, Native American culture, boats, foreign lands, and much more. At home I would pick a volume of our old encyclopedias and leaf through, reading whatever article I chanced upon, information tucked away somewhere in my young mind, perhaps to be recalled years later at some relevant moment. So many things were of interest to me and I had found the key to learning about all of them: libraries and all the books they contained.

That early experience of mine set the stage for a lifetime of learning and doing. I knew that information about everything was readily available. I could find details on any subject, study it, absorb it, think about it, and make it a part of me. I came to see that I could learn about anything and to believe that I could learn to do anything I really wanted to do. I didn’t necessarily think I could do everything as well as an expert or professional could do, but I did believe I could do the things I wanted adequately and satisfactorily for my purposes and needs. I also knew that doing things for myself would bring great satisfaction, the joy of seeing the finished project and knowing I had accomplished that.

So we came to this place at the end of the road over 38 years ago now. We struggled, we worked hard (very hard at times), we made mistakes, we changed plans, we re-did what had been done (sometimes more than once), we put projects on hold (sometimes for years) while other more pressing matters (like earning some income to pay for life’s necessities) had to be dealt with, we persevered. We’re still at it. We still rely on the library and books and now the internet for information and inspiration. We still work hard, doing and sometimes undoing and re-doing. And we still have the joy of the process and the satisfaction of seeing the end result. Hopefully this will continue for the rest of our lives which we expect to spend here at the end of this road.

Were we crazy? Yes, absolutely, with crazy wisdom. I highly recommend it.