Sunday, December 19, 2010

Shrinking Down Numbers to a Dream

by Zinta Aistars

Not one day goes by that I don't think about it: how to get myself, my life, moved up north to something simpler, something more remote, something quieter and more at peace. I'm a bit of an odd bird, and I know it. I don't care. I am a woman who likes getting older. For me, that means a ticket to freedom from the daily grunge and leaving behind the rat race. Far behind.

I also love winter. It is my season of exhilaration.

I also don't give a hoot about fashion, or new shoes, or shopping. I don't particularly care for stuff. On the other hand, when I walked into a outdoorsy sports store yesterday, shopping for a winter sleeping bag, my heart started to race as my eye wandered the shelves of camping equipment. Two weeks away from camping with dog musher Mary and greeting the new year on a dog sled pulled through the snow ... I can hardly wait. 

I finished reading Woodswoman by Anne LaBastille a few days ago, and lost no time opening the covers of Woodswoman II. One of the reasons I think about my future move into woods is that I know it is a life about which I still have a great deal to learn. So many times we have a fantasy in mind, only to find the reality much more harsh, and once the glow is off, much less desirable. Would my move to a cabin in the woods turn out the same? Would I miss some of these luxuries of civilization? You know, like electricity at the flip of a switch, or a flushing toilet, or running water ... ?

Honestly, at first flush of fantasy, I wasn't thinking about doing without these. But you know how love can be ... blind and silly and idealistic. When I drove north last September to meet Gretchen, my Keweenaw realtor, we surely covered some 200 miles in one day of looking at properties, some of which were cabins and cottages, many of which were open acreage of land. I learned a great deal that day, about what questions to ask, what considerations were important and which ones less so, what legalities and zoning would matter, and so on, and so on, and so on. I had a reminder of just how raw nature can be. How relentless, how unforgiving, how not easy.

I also fell in love with a certain cabin. It was far more remote than I intended to be. It had a generator for electricity, a sauna for cleaning, an outhouse, a stove that worked on gas, and water was hauled in. Roads would close down in winter, buried under snow, forgotten by everyone.To live there year round would mean either owning a snowmobile or keeping more careful notes when Mary talked about her dog mushing. I realized on that trip that I could not live that kind of lifestyle without a shotgun or two hanging on my wall. Just in case. And I came to realize why no one living in this manner seemed to have household pets, cats and dogs, running loose in their wilderness yards. There were bears nearby, and wolves, and bobcats. Household pets make a tasty lunch.

Reality dawned. This would be no retirement of convenience. Was I nuts? 


"Got a lot of nerve," Gretchen said, grinning and shaking her head. Gretchen's house is a neat little place tucked up on a hill in Houghton, on a residential street and side by side with other pretty houses with shutters and decks and flowerbeds. And indoor plumbing.

A lot of nerve. Or plenty of foolishness. I could imagine moving up there into the wild wood and finding out within a few months that I had gotten myself in too deep. There were risks, many of them, and all of them increased as I imagined myself getting older up there. It is one thing to move into the wilderness as a woman in her mid 50s or 60s. Another thing entirely to be 85. Or 90. Genes in my family for long lives abound. I can already feel how my body is changing, even now, quicker to tire, with less hand strength, a bit less endurance. After all, when Anne LaBastille built her cabin in the Adirondacks, she was still in her 20s, a strong, young woman, and she lived there all of her adult life, yes, but was eventually, if rumor has truth to it, placed in a nursing home with Alzheimer's ... I didn't even want to think about that. 

I toss that jumble of fears around in my head most every night as I go to sleep, preparing for the next work day. What if some drunken hunters in deer season stumble across my cabin in the woods and decide to give me a hard time? What if my axe swings left rather than right when I chop wood for the stove, and I hit a shin instead of a log? What if my heart gives out, and I take a fall, and no one can hear my whispered shout for help? What if one of those bobcats that chases my dog for fun decides to give me a run?

Anne LaBastille
Oh heck. Anne addresses as much. As I read her Woodswoman books, I take comfort in reading that she had all the same questions, and more. She, too, rolled fears and worries and concerns around in her mind day after day. The same ones, and several of them happened. She had to purposefully develop a reputation for being a bitch to keep those drunken hunters away. She chased away a  group of such drunken so-called deer-hunters with a shotgun. They didn't bother her again. She did end up getting injured, falling from a ladder, getting a sudden attack of appendicitis, dusting her eyes with caustic cement dust to cause chemical burns to her eyes ... there was plenty of that. Part of the territory. She also survived all of it, none the worse for wear, only wiser.

Anne also retreated to the city from time to time, to fulfill various work obligations as a freelance writer and public speaker, talking to groups about ecology and the saving of the environment she had so grown to love. Her description of her first day back in the city is priceless. A SWAT team surrounds a neighboring house where a burglary has just taken place. A rapist is loose in the neighborhood. Parking tickets litter the windshield of her old pickup truck. Traffic jams drive her to despair as she witnesses road rage, and feels some of it herself. Pollution accosts her senses.

In short, risks and inconveniences are everywhere. There are just as many risks living in the city. Perhaps more. What it comes down to is to find our own comfort zone. It is the unknown that is the most frightening of all.

Still, I have a lot to learn. The phrase "babe in the woods" has taken on new meaning for me. Browsing through the outdoors sports and hunting store, I realize how little I know about the furnishings of that outdoors world. I eavesdropped on a man telling his female companion about how to choose the best sleeping bag for what kind of usage. "You want to unroll the bag and let it hang for at least 24 hours before you take it out on your camping trip. If you don't, its temperature rating will be half what is advertised."

I took note.

To do is to learn.

This would be my second camping trip in the dead of winter. I loved the first experience, even as I learned many lessons, and watched Mary the dog musher set up her camp with experienced hands. I was such an amateur. I would be less of one this time. And I had no doubt I would learn important lessons on this trip, too. Nothing replaces experience.

The secret to aging gracefully is to keep learning.

The other secret to aging well is to keep expanding one's horizons.

Yet another secret to aging with gusto was to nail down that dream one has had since childhood.

Who knows, will I buy this particular cabin? or find another one? or build one of my own? I knew this: that I would regret it with every fiber of my being if I let this dream go. I had had it in my mind and heart for far too long ... since early girlhood.

There was still some room for compromise. Possibilities were open and inviting. Perhaps I didn't have to choose one home over another. I had spent all my life, after all, calling more than one place Home; why stop now? Maybe a place in Latvia during the season when roads close down in the more remote areas of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Maybe I could keep my house in Kalamazoo, as I work now to pay off the mortgage and own it free and clear. There was something to be said for having a place closer to where my adult children's families would be expanding in the future.

I had time to figure this all out. My focus now is to pay bills, pay them all, erase all debt, and in so doing, buy my freedom. In this way, too, perhaps an odd bird, as one of my very favorite activities now is to sit down to the "chore" of paying bills. I love it. Each time I do so, I add up the numbers and look at the bottom line ... this is how much closer I am to buying my freedom. My freedom to choose a dream, and finally to pursue it. I watch those numbers shrink, and my exhilaration grows.

My wardrobe now is as dull as they come. I turn no heads. I have stopped cutting my hair to save a few dollars, and more often now simply twist it into a rope and pin it up with a large comb at the back of my head. Recently, someone referred to me as a blonde, and I bristled. "Blondie" is my daughter, not me, and as pretty as those golden locks are on her, I was born with nearly black hair, thank you, and liked it that way. I spent my adulthood with long, dark brown hair. No more. It is now fading to a paler and paler shade as I give in to the whitening of my hair.

I am not a girl anymore; I am a woman growing older, with gray roots making themselves known. I am finally accepting that. I now find myself even greeting it ... the gradual metamorphosis from girl, to young woman, to an older woman who has acquired a great deal of experience and still holds a fond dream. An older woman who still has fire in her heart and fire in her belly to do what feels right, regardless of what others do, regardless of the advice of some while learning and being inspired by others.

I rather like this getting old enough to be allowed my measure of eccentricity. If I was a tad wild as a girl, I am a tad off my rocker as a midlife woman. I like it that way. I've earned the right.

Time to time, I check on that cabin up north. Still for sale? It is. Buried now deep in snow, road swept away into drifts of white. I imagine myself there. I imagine how a Monday morning will feel as delicious as any Saturday night. I imagine risk, and sometimes trouble, but that is something that I would have to face no matter where I am. Only its shape and flavor would change.

I keep dreaming. I keep planning. I keep marking off days on my calendar. I keep waiting for the next payday, to add up to the bottom line again and see it with a smaller number, pared away. A little bit closer. Maybe it will be that cabin, and maybe it won't.

There are some areas in life where I have learned to let go, and let the winds blow and the dust settle where it will. Something will tell me. If someone else buys that cabin before I am ready, so be it. It was not meant to be, because some other place is silently waiting for me. Some plot of land, some other doorway opening to the next phase of my life. I can live with that.

Meanwhile, I will keep acquiring experience. Testing myself against the wild. Reading, learning, asking questions, rolling around those worries and open-ended questions in my mind until I have tumbled them into smooth answers, or a willingness to move ahead without all answers yet in place.


  1. "I rather like this getting old enough to be allowed my measure of eccentricity." I like that statement!

    I feel very similarly to you on this issue and look forward to more of your pondering on the subject. I have a piece of paradise I want to live in as well once I "retire". It has running water, plumbing, etc...not as woodsy as your intentions. Yet, I am afraid to make the shift, entirely. We just had a robbery there and it gave me pause. I thought about if I were there, would it have been more brutal? I also had two leg breakages this past year and wonder how I would have fared alone without the resources of colleagues (who were instrumental in my healing).

    I have taught myself to meditate in my little paradise and that has done more to sustain me than anything else. So, a long haul of such meditation would certainly do me good and maybe keep me healthier. I think the health question is one of the most important in this decision.

    I am torn. I am torn, especially after visiting NYC and falling in love with it. Torn between the invisibility one can have in an exciting, large city and the invisibility one can have up North.

  2. I am torn in some ways, in choosing where exactly this retreat will be. That it will be north, I have no doubt. I debate on how close or how remote it will be, what conveniences I can't do without and on which I can pass. I also debate on three-seasonal or four. Then, for fun, I toss in another country.

    Mostly, I am keeping my focus now on shrinking those numbers I owe. The more they shrink, the more options I have.

    Like you, Maryte, I have flexible tastes. I can live in all kinds of surroundings and find enjoyment. Yet in some I realize I am better off as a visitor. In others, I can't help but feel I belong.

  3. "I also don't give a hoot about fashion, or new shoes, or shopping. I don't particularly care for stuff."

    You expressed exactly the way I feel. As far as the stuff goes, give me books (my kindle) and my computer and I will be content.

  4. Jeri, I plan on taking a Kindle, or similar e-reader with me when I am ready for the move. Saves a great deal of space and trees. Alas, I've found that few of my favorite books are available in this way. For example, Anne LaBastille's books are not. They seem geared mostly for bestsellers and mainstream types of books, which rarely interest me.

  5. Good point about books and such. I feel I need internet, to be connected to the world wide web. It's something I engage in on a regular basis, makes my life current on so many levels. I also never want to lose touch with youth, their concerns, their energy, their fads. It helps me stay connected to the pulse of today, to my grandchild's psyche. I want to be tuned in to his life as much as I want to realize my own.

  6. I have read all of Anne's books and truly love them. Does anyone know whether it indeed is true that she is now in a nursing home? That makes me so sad.

    I know she had begun a Woodswoman V, and I so hope it will be published.

  7. Being connected through the Internet is important to me, too, since I can't afford to fully retire. The plan is to "retire" as a full-time freelance writer. And, of course, to continue growing the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet, that I've been building for five years now. My up north realtor tells me that in many remote areas, a "dish" will get me my needed connection. Still, there are those areas that are too remote even for that ...

    I do believe Anne LaBastille is now in a nursing home, suffering from Alzheimer's, although I have not found a confirmed source. One's only consolation is that a life so fully and richly lived will outweigh such an ending. And still, the heart aches for this woman who so loved her wilderness freedom.

    I am working on book reviews for the first two Woodswoman books, to be posted at "Zinta Reviews," see link at bottom of the link list here. I can hardly wait to get my hands on the next in the series ... not so easy to find anymore in bookstores.