Monday, September 26, 2011


by Zinta Aistars
And counting. Day by day, closer to flying the flag of freedom.
Some time ago, I wrote about shrinking numbers, living a life of simplicity while erasing debt, paving my path toward a working retirement. The more those numbers shrink, the more fierce my determination to reach Zero.
I’m counting 4,451 days to retirement, and that would be the optimum age, without going to extremes (one could work forever, right?), when I could close my office door and walk away into that shimmering, golden horizon, a free woman, a free agent, pursuing my personal dreams and at long last able to immerse myself in my art. So, a working retirement, but working to follow my own heart.
It’s a substantially lower count of days that I have calculated to reach zero debt. Can you imagine? House paid off, not a bill to be paid but for the daily use of utilities, groceries and such. For that, I need only a few short years.
All around me, I see people still chasing Bigness. Big houses, big vehicles, big television sets, big wardrobes, big toys, big bigness. Americans, I just read, are working harder than ever. Or is it that we are simply putting in more hours? I’m still holding to my not-past-five rule, yet I am churning out more work than ever before. I come into the office and focus, hard focus, nose to the grindstone, and the work gets done, no overtime.
After five, I own my life again. And I keep working, only now it is for my own interests. I work on my literary magazine, I work on my writing, I work in my garden, I work on the house and the chores within it to run the household. There is always a long list of personal interests to pursue, and some days the backlog overwhelms me. I will not be one of those who twiddles my thumbs in retirement, wondering what to do. I will be busier than ever.
And yes, I miss play. I get little of it now, driven as I am to reach my goal. I miss time to daydream—it’s a crucial ingredient of creativity.
For now, I’m too busy paving the path to my future. Office hours, that means doing my job as well as I can and doing it with pride. After office hours, that means nurturing my creative arts network that will keep me working once 4.451 rolls down to 0.
It’s not all drudgery. In fact, almost none of it is.  It can be a fascinating process to bring one’s life down to the simple and true. Just a few months ago, I was a couple weeks away from closing on a house nearer to the office. I would have rented out my current home. Two mortgages would have settled their weight on my shoulders with their weighty responsibility. The papers were ready, I was approved and all signs were GO. It all seemed to make good sense, only my gut never quite stopped churning. Something about it seemed to be moving me in the wrong direction. It was the direction of Bigness. Just because I could do it—didn’t mean I should.
In the end, it might have all worked out just fine, but it complicated my vision. My vision north, to a life in a small space that would provide me with the basics: air, water, earth, fire. The clean, cool air of northern places; the chilled waters of Lake Superior; the rich earth to sustain me with organic foods; and heating myself by the fire through what a northern friend calls “the long white.” It also meant feeding the fire inside from which comes my creativity, my art.
I don’t like complicated. Looking back on my life to this point, it has all been extremely complicated. A web of intricacies and endless tangents. Too many strings attached. I have always, since childhood, longed for nothing more than to know myself free of obligation.
I know, that will never happen. Some obligations we press freely upon ourselves. I have family, I have friends, I have work that I enjoy, and to these I give their obligatory dues. Nothing wrong with that. I earn my way, and these are the parts of my life that give much back. Call them priceless.
Mostly, I now think about how to simplify, how to minimize, how to strip away to the core, the essence, the heart of a life that matters. I find it’s the best part of growing older—a process I am frankly enjoying—as I cut away what no longer has meaning to me and keep what I have found to be true gold.
White Caps Cottage in Michigan's U.P.
I have found that living in a small house suits me just fine. My house now is about 1,200 square feet, and the cabin I see in my future may be half that. I’ve been saving floor plans, collecting photos on my computer hard drive of what makes me hear that sweet humming inside, calling me Home. A place for everything, everything in its place. Nothing spare but the great outdoors surrounding it.
I have been clearing out any clutter I can find, and that applies even, oh yes, to my beloved books. There’s a reason I bought a Kindle—it already has 170 books stored on it, and that means several bookcases I don’t need. I carefully consider each book on my shelves if it’s a classic for me, if I really want it in that form, and quite a few, yes, I do want as actual books. They bring tremendous comfort to me.
On the other hand, I’m no clothes horse, and fashion means nothing to me. I drive a Honda Civic, bought and paid for, and I plan to have it for many years to come. I’ve been eyeing the appliances in my kitchen with a sharp eye. How many times have I used that blender? My television set is modest in size and at least 15 years old. I consider a future without one. It’s all about downsizing.
I’ve been following the tiny house movement with great interest. More and more people are building truly tiny houses—some are even less than 100 square feet—and enjoying the freedom of living without mortgages, of living in places that require perhaps 20 minutes to clean, of minimizing the chores that inevitably go along with owning Stuff. Some have even put their tiny houses on wheels, moving from place to place as the mood strikes them.
Did we ever really stop to consider that we are working more hours just to own more Stuff that we never have the time to enjoy?
I’ve been reading volumes about those who live sustainable lives, growing their own food in their gardens, bartering with neighbors rather than buying. Fascinating. Even if I’m not sure I will ever go that far, it is a direction to consider. I can cut back. Getting much of my food this past spring and summer from my CSA share in an organic garden halfway between the office and home has gotten me thinking about how much I could cut my food dollar by growing more of my own.
I don’t get those who spout off about organic foods costing more. I’ve never spent less on groceries than I do now—and I’ve never eaten better. My chickens come from a small poultry farm, same place I go to pick berries. My many-colored eggs come from my mother’s hairdresser, who keeps heritage chickens in her backyard. My vegetables come from the earth, grown by two women dedicated to organic farming, and a one-time payment in the spring has kept me fed all these months, with a great stash of frozen vegetables (and my homemade soups and sauces) now in my freezer for the months ahead. I’ve cut out all the middle men, now only picking up my share from these two “middle women” with the rich earth still on their hands.
Indeed, I’ve upped the quality of my surroundings in my mission to Zero. I buy fewer items, but when I do buy, I don’t buy cheap. Cheap never is. I pay for quality, for goods that will last me and won’t end up in a landfill anytime soon. I’ve not only been downsizing, but I have been renovating my little house to spiff it up. Get it just the way I want it for day Zero. Because I have realized that I may well want the option to keep it along with that cabin up north. We’ll see …
Call me an odd woman, but shopping is my least favorite thing to do. I’d much rather be sitting on the rocky beaches of the Superior, gazing into the blue horizon, daydreaming my next art piece. So when I shop, it is for something that is fair trade, good quality, dependable, and of a classic style that will outlast giddy fads along the way.
And then I pay the bill, and I pay it all. The sense of freedom that comes from that is beyond words. I’ve spent enough time in my life counting pennies to know the value of this exchange, goods for cash, done deal. The two credit cards I keep haven’t seen any use in many years. What that feels like: nobody owns me. Someday, I will look at this little house and call it mine. From basement brick to roof nail.
Day 4,451 is coming to its conclusion. One more day I’ve put my time in. I’ve done my work to the best of my ability, and that’s good, and I’m proud of it. Tomorrow I will do it again. Every day I consider my daily routines, consider how to pare them down to what makes good sense and builds something more toward the future. I enjoy where I am today while I build an even better tomorrow.
When I look around, I find myself not alone in this pursuit. If there has been a silver lining to our economic struggles in this country, it is that many of us have reconsidered the way that we live. Many of us have reevaluated the things that we own, the dreams that drive us, the climb up some invisible social ladder leading to nothing more than fluffy clouds that disperse as soon as you near them. We have started to build up our savings again, taking more seriously that rainy day. We have let our credit cards cool in the drawer or cut them up. We have taken another look at that great mansion and decided that it makes little sense to spend so much of our lives listening to our voices echo in expansive chambers. We have taken a closer look at every aspect of our lives—how we eat, how we sleep, what we drive and how far and how often, how we entertain and amuse ourselves, how we remain healthy, how we live as members of a community, a close one and a global one.
From loss and constraint comes something good. Have we learned our lesson? Some of us surely have. Others, well, we all have our own paths to learning, don’t we?
At the finish line, we can only answer for ourselves, our own choices. Have we been true to ourselves? Have we considered the world as something to pass along not only to our children but to the next seven generations? What lessons have we learned and which ones shall we teach?
As long as we live, we must keep learning. For me, the lesson at this time in my life is that less is more. Excess is a burden. When I reach that goal, I want to be so light in my shoes that on day Zero, I can catch wind beneath my long-folded wings. I want to know what it is to fly. 



  1. Looking back on the past 67 years, I wish I'd been able to purchase the kind of small, spare cabin you're considering. Perhaps living away from the madding crowd in the forest primaeval once I escaped from college wasn't my destiny. It's a dream, though. As for your 4,451 days, I like your approach.


  2. Zinta! That is 12 years, if I started counting days, I would weep more often.
    Fortunately, I have the 600 sq ft house now.
    You may need a tiny greenhouse to go with the shorter growing season in the UP. Maybe a greenhouse entry way where your wood stove will be, makes for a little humidity.

  3. Sass, I'm avoiding thinking about it in terms of years, too overwhelming! And that's my max ... I expect to beat that. The zero mark should come in less than half that.

    Good suggestion on the greenhouse; I've considered that. My sister owns some acreage in the UP, too, and has a greenhouse in the plans alongside her log house-to-be for her shiny golden years. I could always raid hers, too ...

    I've looked at cabins as small as 300 sq feet, and I think I could go to that, too. It's challenging and lightening to think about small and simple.