On the Road Again

It’s been a traveling month!

I spent a week near San Francisco, exploring the city and attending a retreat where we worked on our inner selves for a few days.

Then last week, I took a road trip up to Virginia for my friend’s baby shower. I couch surfed at a community house in Asheville that focuses on sustainability. They capture their grey water in buckets and use it to flush the toilets. They dumpster dive outside of a local natural foods store and bring home the slightly damaged packages of food that get thrown away. The have earth paint on their walls, make their own mead, live without air conditioner, and capture their rain water and compost for their organic garden. Their mosaics on the shower walls were made from found broken pieces of tile. It was inspiring to see all these guys were able to achieve in real life. It pushed me to think a little deeper about what other things I could be doing in my own life. It also helped me realize what things I wasn’t interested in, like crapping in a box to make my own biogas!

After leaving the precious historic town of Lexington, VA, where the baby shower was, I worked my way back home.

I headed to Damascus, Virginia to bike the Virginia Creeper Trail and spent Sunday night at the Hiker’s Inn, which is a cozy little inn/ hostel that provides a hot shower and a comfortable bed for the thru hikers that are walking the 2,000 miles of the Appalachain Trail, a footpath that goes all the way from Georgia to Maine.

On my way to Damascus I thought to myself, “I’m really glad I’ve gotten over the urge to hike the Appalachain Trail myself.”

But of course, all it took were five minutes of talking to the hikers, and I was ready to just abandon everything and follow them down the trail!

It’s a strange desire that’s hard to even articulate, but I have such an intense longing for the ridiculous simplicity of carrying everything on my back in the middle of nature with nothing but what I need to survive. It’s rugged and dirty and there’s no pretense. It can be lonely, scary and incredibly uncomfortable, but something about it feels like home. I miss Chris and other people/comforts while I’m gone, but I come home and after a few days, I’m ready to be back in the woods!

It brings the rest of my life into focus, magnifying the things that matter most to me while encouraging me to let go of the things that don’t.

So I guess it’s partly about the experience itself and partly about the contrast that allows me to appreciate all of life a little more.

As one of the hikers from the inn mentioned, “Being on the trail is like life in a capsule.” He said, “In the last six weeks, I’ve been extremely happy, intensely depressed; I’ve gained and lost friends, and I’ve had a relationship that lasted two weeks, but felt like a year! “ And I thought, yeah that makes perfect sense! Six months on the trail is like a metaphor for a lifetime.

Since I’ve been home, it’s become crystal clear to me that I have to make some changes in my professional life. I feel like I’m underpaid and under functioning. I have to find a way to increase my income and create a professional life based more on the things that I enjoy most, or else I will always feel trapped.

My hope is to slowly work on creating a business that helps people live happier, healthier, more sustainable lives! There are some certifications that I’ll be working on this year. One is the training to become a Passive House consultant.

I’m terrified and excited. I don’t know how I’ll work out all of the logistics yet, but I’ve started doing some research and am excited to have some direction.

We’re also making headway with the house! The elevations are done, and I’ve decided to go ahead and start building the garage.

Very few people have looked at my house in Hoover, but I can afford to build the garage even without selling my house. That’ll give me lots of storage space and an upstairs office above the garage where I could occasionally sleep while the main house is being built! That means only having to move once!

Rebecca suggested the idea, and I love it. It helps me feel like the project isn’t becoming stagnant.

It will also be great practice; I’ll get a chance to try incorporating all the Passive House techniques on a smaller scale without the pressure of having to get the structure certified.

The plan is to go before the design review board to get the neighborhood approval for the house and the garage on July 11. I have to apply for a variance because the garage takes up more than the allowed space in the backyard, but I’m hoping that won’t be too much of a hurdle. The goal is to break ground on the garage in August, and then start on the house as soon as the garage is finished, which will probably be the first of next year. It’s nice to have a concrete plan for the house and my life!

Perspective and Slot Canyons

We’re driving back from the Grand Canyon today. A group of us through UAB Outdoor Pursuits has spent the last week driving cross-country to the slot canyons in Utah. We spent three days in the backcountry of Paria Canyon, hiking through freezing river water that they call a trail and pooping in plastic bags.

The canyon walls are beautiful and terrifying. I would find myself thinking of what I would have for dinner or planning my escape route in case a flash flood were to come. It was like those thoughts were keeping me grounded. They were keeping me in touch with the menial tasks of this earthly existence, so that I wouldn’t be terrified of the vastness and wilderness surrounding me. At times while I was hiking, I felt extremely happy and grateful, splashing through the freezing muddy water. At other moments, all I could think about were my painfully frozen feet as I struggled to make it through the shaded areas of the canyon.

Everything is more complicated in the wilderness. It’s difficult to find a clean, flat rock to set your morning coffee cup on. It’s hard to pee without getting your shoes wet. If it’s cold, I fall uncomfortably asleep with several layers on, dreading the moment when I’ll have to crawl out of my warm sleeping bag into the freezing air. I miss fresh fruits and vegetables and cappuccinos.

But I love it so much. I love how ridiculously simple everything becomes. I love that I totally forget about my to-do list at home. The things I was worrying about the day before I left, suddenly seem extremely petty as I’m surrounded by hundred foot red canyon walls. It’s a humbling experience that reminds me how fragile, yet how strong we are as humans. It gives me the perspective and feeling of aliveness that I so desperately long for.

Yesterday as we left the Grand Canyon, I felt a physical ache. I wanted so badly to be down in the canyon by the river staring at the canyon walls and the layers of earth’s history. It’s hard to get too caught up in my obsessions when I think about them in the context of 4.5 billion years!

There are moments when I want to leave everything to be a backpacking vagabond. The park rangers live in dilapidated trailers, tents, and most of them get no retirement plan or health insurance. Why is it hard for me to be happy with a 2,000 square foot house and $3,000/ month? Why not risk a secure future that may never come to truly enjoy the moment?

I know for me it’s about balance. As much as I love travel and the wilderness, I also like stability, comfort, and being close to loved ones.

These trips are my reset buttons. They bring me closer to the things that I value most, and they help me appreciate the luxuries I have in my day-to-day life. They remind me that more than fancy things and retirement plans, I value simplicity, relationship, nature and authenticity. It’s important for me to remember that as I build my house, so that I create a home that provides me with more freedom to be closer to what I love most.

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‘Tis the season to be excessive

Like a friend of mine once said, unless you’re living in a tree and eating nuts, you’re contributing to global warming. I probably won’t be living in a tree anytime soon, but whether or not global warming is real, or caused by us, it just makes sense to take care of what we’ve got and not destroy things unnecessarily. And to not cram more of anything into our lives if it doesn’t somehow add to our happiness or well-being.

In some ways, I’m the world’s best green hypocrite. It could seem as if I’m a fanatic, since I started a blog about going green. I don’t take bags from the grocery store, I buy organic veggies and try to reuse and recycle; I use fluorescent light bulbs, and my roommates often trip if they get up in the middle of the night because of my energy-saving darkness.

But I also travel, live in a big house, take long showers, and drive an SUV. Those aren’t exactly the greenest of things.

The point isn’t to buy into a trendy eco-friendly movement or to deprive anyone of the comforts and luxuries that life can afford us. I think those things are wonderful if we truly enjoy them and approach them with awareness, which is part of a new strategy that I’m trying out. I’ve decided not to be afraid of spending money on things that really make my life better (as long as I have the money!). At times, by trying to be frugal, I’ve made things more expensive in the long run. That’s why last week I ordered a new Mac book pro, and I’m thrilled! After three years of fighting with this wood-burning computer box (as my boyfriend calls it), I’ve decided that as much time as I spend in front of a computer, I should have one that works!

But when I realize I’m not enjoying things that are supposed to be fun or luxurious, it’s a good time to ask myself: “So what’s the point?”

Our lives have become filled with so much excess (especially this time of year) – excess stuff and debt, excess eating, excess distractions and social activity- which all seem to diminish the quality of our lives. It’s like we’re hoping that buying one more gift, eating one more cookie, finally getting out of town, will be the one thing that finally brings us lasting happiness.

But there’s nothing fun about parties we don’t want to go to, stuffing ourselves to the point of discomfort, or having a cluttered house full of stuff we don’t use. We spend extra hours working to pay for stuff that actually decreases our happiness! It’s crazy, but we do it over and over again every year (myself included). While I definitely understand the fun in giving and receiving a meaningful gift from a loved one, we’ve taken it to the point of suffering.

It seems that the cliché is true! Living on less, often actually makes for more happiness. Gradually, I’ve reduced the things in my life that I spend money on. I’ve discovered that I often have more fun camping in the woods (as long as it’s above 40 degrees) than going on a luxury vacation. And I often like the food I make at home more than restaurant food. It helps that I’m surrounded by starving artists, but I’ve had fun seeing how little I can live on, while still feeling like it’s more than enough!

The building industry is no exception to the excesses of our society. It didn’t take long after I started building houses to see what an incredible amount of waste there is in a construction project. Even the term green building is kind of contradictory because there’s nothing very green about new construction.
I think the overall challenge is to do as little damage as possible to ourselves and the world around us, while still creating comfortable lives and living spaces. With traditional building practices, there’s still a lot of room for improvement in those areas.

With each project, I’ve tried to incorporate more concepts of energy-efficiency and sustainable practices. While the Passive House takes “green” and energy -efficiency to another level, there are some smaller very affordable things I’ve done along the way that I’ll write about in the next post. I’ll show you the green parts of my Buttercup house with pictures and all!

David and I met last week to review the current version of the first floor layout. It seems like we’re on the right track. So far, there doesn’t seem to be anything about the design that isn’t compatible with the Passive House, so that’s good news!

Quieting the mind

My other posts have focused more on the house and green building ideas, but in this post, I wanted to write about the other side of this project, which is more about the personal search for a simpler life.

I heard a quote several years ago that said something like integrity happens when what’s on the outside matches what’s on the inside. That really stuck with me and became something that I aspired to, because for so long, I felt that what I was experiencing inside was so drastically different from what the outside world would see of me. I guess it was a form of self-protection. Somehow I believed there was something more fundamentally defective about me than the rest of the human race, and I needed to keep hidden. But it was such a miserable way to live. I didn’t believe that love, happiness or peace were possible, or at least I didn’t believe they weren’t possible for me. I thought that the people who had found those things were delusional and that the universe was a metaphysical black hole of meaninglessness that would destroy me if I got too close. So I created a life full of distractions hoping to avoid coming face to face with my defective nature and futile existence.

But at the same time, I wanted so badly to believe that I was wrong, that happiness was possible and that there was something that made life beautiful and worth living, so that tiny glimmer of hope kept me writing, exploring and seeking support to find a different way of life. I’ve spent the last several years going back and forth between distracting myself with relentless activity and different self-destructive behaviors to taking time to deal with the beliefs that keep me caught in patterns of suffering.

And I’m happy to say that now, most days I believe I was wrong. I have learned to see myself as pretty normal (sometimes even great!) and to see pain as something manageable. I believe we can handle intense feelings of grief, loss, and anger without being destroyed by them, as long as we aren’t carrying around the impossible burden of seeing ourselves as irredeemably flawed.

Interestingly enough, the further I explore the depths of my being, instead of misery and hopelessness, I find more peace and contentment. I still have days where I revert to old ways of thinking, and there are still many remnants of old beliefs remaining. Sometimes my insecurities take over, and it feels easier to crawl under the bed and hide than to deal with life at the moment, but overall, I feel so much happier and more comfortable in my own skin than I ever thought possible. I’m working on projects that I love, and my life is full of wonderful people. I’m no longer caught up in a full blown war with myself.

But just like with anything, the layers are endless. The more I see, the more there is to see. And that’s the peaceful life part of this project. I still spend a lot of my life distracted, worrying about money and fitting it all in. These are more of the same limiting beliefs that aren’t based so much in reality as they are in my past and the reality that I create, so why not try to change them?

Pema Chodron, one of my favorite teachers says that “anyone who has ever meditated for even one day figures out that we are almost never present.” That has become so apparent to me in my life; being present is the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do! My mind never stops. I’m at a yoga class, where the whole practice is about being present and all I can think about is when it’s going to be over and the glass of wine I’m going to drink when I get home. Or how I can pay a mortgage off in 8 years instead of 30 years. Interesting stuff. But fast forward to me at home with the glass of wine, and I don’t enjoy it because I’m already thinking about the next day’s plans or what I should be doing instead!

My boyfriend might not be thrilled about me publicizing his sensitive side, but occasionally I’ll notice him looking out the window, staring at the birds and the trees. Sometimes he’ll stand there for several minutes just watching. And while the frantic part of me wants to scream “how can you just stand there and look at the birds when there’s so much to do?!”, the bigger part of me realizes what a beautiful, rare thing that is. He’s managed to hold on to a piece of childlike innocence and wonder that allows him to appreciate the simple things around him. And I realize how much I long for that in my own life. I really miss that part of myself. I can no longer relate to being a child and being totally consumed by every moment with no concept of the past or future, and that breaks my heart.

I don’t want to live the rest of my life distracted. I want to stop missing out on the life that’s right in front of me. I want to be able to leave work and remember where I parked my car in the parking deck and reduce the number of times per week that I leave my phone in random places!

Pema goes on to talk about an analogy that her teachers use. They say we are like small children with scabies who are old enough to scratch but not old enough to understand that scratching only makes things worse. So by scratching, we get very short term symptom relief, but the itching gets worse. So as hard as it may be, the only real solution is to stop scratching. Which I guess for me means slowing down, putting down my phone, taking a few minutes a day to quiet my mind, and paying attention to my feelings and what’s around me.

In middle school, I read the book Cheaper by the Dozen about the Gilbreth family. The father, Frank, and his wife, Lillian, were masters of efficiency. They came up with a system where each unit of time was called a therblig (Gilbreth spelled backwards), and they worked constantly, at work and at home, to perform tasks using as few therbligs as possible, which I guess is kind of necessary when you have 12 kids! I was fascinated by the idea, so I would go home and try to clean my room with less and less therbligs!

But now it feels like they’ve crept into every corner of my life, and I can’t get rid of them. I’m ready for my therbligs to have an on and off switch. I love efficiency, and I love businesses and systems that work well, and I want to use that part of myself for what it’s good for, like building houses or organizing events. But I don’t want my relationships or the fun in my life to be about efficiency. It makes for an exhausting life, and I’m ready to give up the incessant quest to get somewhere I’m not.

I seem to be good at noticing these things about myself, but it’s a lot harder to follow through with what I need to do to change it. Just like with anything, it takes work, practice, focus and dealing with parts of myself that I’m not so fond of.

So far, meditation is the best technique that I know of to work with my mind. Although it is a spiritual practice, I don’t meditate for the sake of any religion. It’s just a way to reconnect with myself, to increase my awareness about hidden beliefs that I may have and to notice what I spend all day trying to get away from. I want to reshape the limiting beliefs that I have, the beliefs that keep me trapped in my small little world.

But unfortunately, meditating is usually the last thing I want to do. Trying to sit down and meditate for me is like trying to drag my dog to the vet. He doesn’t know exactly what they are going to do him when he’s there, but he knows from the moment we get out of the car that it’s not a place he wants to be!

There’s nothing exciting about the idea of sitting still and breathing. It represents a whole lot of empty space, and that’s something I’m quite afraid of. In the past, empty space has meant depression, isolation, boredom. So whenever I try to sit and do nothing, there’s an alarm that goes off inside of me. It screams at me, trying to protect me, trying to keep me from returning to that place of pain, loneliness and unhappiness. But the more I try to escape from it, the louder it screams, and then the harder I have to work to distract myself from it.

So I’ve decided for the umpteenth time, that I have to quit running, to stare my feelings in the face and listen to what they’re trying to tell me. And then learn to see things differently. To learn to appreciate the calm and not equate it with misery. To trust that being present doesn’t mean returning to the life of my past.

Because all I really want is to know myself, to stop running, and to know what it’s like to truly rest. The brief moments when I experience those things, it’s more than enough, everything else is just extra. But when I don’t have those things, there’s no person or house or amount of money that could ever be enough.

Sometimes the process can feel painfully slow. It takes micro steps of kindness and patience and not beating myself up if I don’t do it perfectly. But I believe it’s worth working on over and over again, because as another one of my favorite teachers says, “what you pay attention to grows,” and my iphone definitely doesn’t need to get any bigger 🙂

When I notice that I panic about all there is to do and how little time and money there is, I remind myself that there’s enough time and money in my life for me and for the things that matter the most. And maybe a couple of decades from now my mind will be a little quieter, and I’ll be the one staring out the window at the trees!

Aggressively Passive (house)

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The Avondale property in Fall

Aggressively passive (according to urban dictionary): when someone goes out of their way to be passive

I pondered for some time what the title of this blog should be. I wanted to document the process of building a Passive House on the lot that I recently purchased in the historic Avondale neighborhood of Birmingham, AL. As I did more research, I was surprised at how simple and affordable it could be to incorporate sustainable practices into our buildings and lifestyles, so I thought I could share those ideas with other people as I learned more about them myself. I wanted the blog to serve as a resource for people who were interested in applying these principals to their own projects. But I also knew this project was symbolic to me in ways that went beyond the actual building process, so I wanted to encompass what it meant to me personally as well.

For years now, I’ve wanted to find ways to live a simpler, more peaceful life. On one hand, my life is secure, fun and adventurous with exponentially more comforts and opportunities than many people throughout history. I’m surrounded by many loving and supportive people, and it’s important for me to remember how fortunate I am.

But I also realize that, ironically, in search of simplicity, I’ve made a rather complicated life for myself. I work full-time as a freelance Spanish interpreter for different companies and hospitals. I also manage 4 rental properties, own a small (tiny) construction business and teach a weekly swing class. So by the time I do those things, take care of my own house, try to maintain a social life and contact with loved ones, and then somewhat take care of myself, there aren’t nearly enough hours in the day (which I’m sure is quite a common experience!). I’m a professional multi-tasker that runs around setting things in motion and then tries to play catch up. I often feel an undercurrent of anxiety pushing me frantically towards some unknown destination, and I’m tired of trying to keep up.

So the more I thought about it, the more this title applied to both my house and my life in general. I hope to be proactive about creating a comfortable, relaxing life, full of things I love with very few I don’t. I want to work efficiently and smarter, making money in ways that embody what I value most, increasing the amount of passive income that I have, and doing it in a way that benefits the world around me. Money is important only because of the freedom and security that it brings me. Freedom, security and love are the most important things to me, and it’d be great to know what it’s like to have plenty of those things and more, including time.

It’s a lofty ambition, but I believe it’s possible. Up until now, I have lived thinking that the only way to be successful was to work crazy hard, under a lot of stress. I live based on the self-limiting beliefs that there will never be enough time or money. So I’ve set out to prove myself wrong. As Marc Allen suggests in his book The Millionaire Course, I’m going to “make a compromise with my doubts and fears”, make my life the subject of my own experiment, and see where it takes me.

Building this home is one step in that direction. I want an extremely energy efficient, well-built home that is also beautiful and comfortable, providing everything I need and enjoy on a regular basis without anything that doesn’t matter to me. I want to build with an understanding of the interconnectedness of things, without unnecessarily depleting natural resources or damaging our environment, recognizing that it’s all part of something larger than myself.

I’m estimating that it will cost about half as much as my current house to build, and my utilities will be about 1/3 of my current utility costs. I will also be less than two miles from Children’s hospital where I do most of my work and only a mile or so from most of my social life, which should take about another $150 off what I spend in gas and decrease car maintenance costs. These things combined should cut my total monthly expenses in about half, which means I could work half as many hours, leaving more time for other things that matter to me!

I’ve started working with an architect, who is a wonderful and talented friend of mine. We’re working on some schematic floor plans right now, and soon I will start posting about the different design options.

The home will be based on the specifications established by the Passive House Institute. It’s the strictest standard on the market for energy efficiency, and as far as I know, this will be the first Passive House in Alabama! Here’s a link if you’re interested in learning more about the Passive House Institute. You can click on What is a Passive House? for a complete definition. I’ll also elaborate more on the details of the home itself in future posts.

www.passivehouse.us

Energy efficiency is only one aspect of green building, so I plan to incorporate other aspects as well, such as the use of sustainable building materials, water conservation, rain water collection, and protecting the indoor air quality.

In the next few posts, I’ll be talking more about my background and introducing you to the marvelous people who will be working with me. I will also be looking for salvage and reclaimed materials and people who are interested in participating in the project. I hope to have a story published on the house and would love to find any companies or individuals willing to provide materials or services at a discount in exchange for advertising and exposure. So if you know of any resources, I’d love to hear about them!

There are still many unknowns, and I’m not sure yet how they will resolve themselves. Financing could be a challenge. I need to either sell my current home, or find a way to raise $120,000. It’s difficult to get bank financing right now, so if you see me on the side of the road with some Krispy Kreme doughnuts, stop and buy a few boxes!

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