About six months ago, I started renovating my house in Atlanta. Groundbreaking was the culmination of years of daydreaming about becoming a fat-cat real-estate investor, and I’d spent the previous six months or so doing legitimate research and running the numbers. I had a high level of confidence that–once up and running–my quaint new AirBNB would generate just enough revenue to allow me to finally cut the cord and hit the road nearly full-time. All I needed was about $75,000 and another six months to finish all the work.
Problem. I didn’t have $75,000, and my credit score–while not completely in the toilet–was low enough to invite more than a casual chuckle from bankers. During the ensuing six months I would most certainly die from starvation, since my recent year of “soul searching” hadn’t been paying very well and I’d blown through most of my savings. So, naturally, I did what any other rational person would do–I got out the wrecking bar and started tearing down the walls of my 100 year old kitchen. What could possibly go wrong?
Quite a lot, it turns out.
First, renovating a house–especially an older one–is a ton of work. I knew this, of course, but I had seriously underestimated just how much work it was going to take. Second, there’s a reason that people–including your’s truly–will urge you not to renovate a house while you’re living in it: it’s fucking maddening. By the time I had pulled the walls down in the kitchen, there was an inch thick layer of plaster dust covering everything in the house, despite my best efforts to seal every open orifice with thick, translucent sheets of plastic. A miscalculation on timing of installing tile in the laundry room, combined with a late-night, alcohol-fueled altercation with the hall bathroom, left me with only one sink in the house–the one in the master bath. The camp kitchen I had set up in the dining room was generating a stack of dirty dishes at an alarming rate, which were slowly being covered with the airborne, powdered concrete as it settled from the demolition. Washing them created a thick slurry that almost immediately blocked the drain in the bathroom sink and after only a few days it became impossible to clean anything, including myself.
Asking for help has never been one of my strong points, some unfortunate combination of my upbringing crossed with a warped stoic ethos. It’s an unattractive quality that’s nearly killed me on more than one occasion. In any event, I tried to remain outwardly confident, but all I really did was alienate myself from everyone around me via a fairly constant stream of selfish complaining. Pretty soon, no one wanted to talk to me, much less lend me a hand actually doing anything.
I was in over my head.
Which itself actually wasn’t such a big deal. I usually am. But the stakes here were high. Like life and death. If this didn’t work, I was afraid that demons from my past would come calling, a possibility that scared me to no end. And on top of all that, the one person that really mattered had called to let me know that she wouldn’t be coming to visit for the holidays (or at all, for that matter) because we “just weren’t compatible.” She was being polite of course–what she was really saying was, “you’ve become an intolerable asshole and I can’t stand the thought of even talking to you.” And she was, painfully, right in her assessment.
Tim Ferris’ The Four Hour Workweek has been instrumental in shaping my view of life and work and what really constitutes happiness. In it, he tells the story of packing up and leaving for a quick vacation when the pressures of running his nutrition company became too great. A couple weeks turned into a couple months, and then into a couple of years. His business ran without him, while he traveled the world unknowingly (I suspect. Tim?) seeking some level of enlightenment. It was a seminal moment in his life, one that largely defined the Tim we all know and love. It was the inspiration for the book that would make his career as a writer, speaker, life hacker, and overall public figure.
I had spent the last two decades setting myself up for a life of location independence. And I secretly fantasized about massive-scale minimization–eliminating most all of my useless, material possessions and spending my life hoarding experiences, relationships, good conversation. And suddenly, inexplicably, that was not just a possibility. Now, it was the only good option.
Emerson summed these types of situations up rather nicely: “Do the thing you fear, and the death of fear is certain.” Or, in more favorable-to-this-post-terms: the thing you fear the most is probably the thing you should be doing. Get rid of nearly everything? Sell the house and become homeless? Pack up and leave town, where you’ve been for more than thirty years? It sounds easy when you say it. But in practice, it’s hard and it’s fucking scary. Really fucking scary.
I had the good fortune to spend some time with a very wise spiritual leader in North Carolina once called Wolf. An American, Wolf eventually ended up living with a tribe of indigenous peoples in a remote village in Western Canada, where he was deeply schooled in Native American shamanism. After a few casual conversations about my past, Wolf offered some advice that has really stuck with me. He said, “In life, sometimes doors will open up for you. And you have to walk through those doors. But you don’t don’t even seem to see them. Watch for those doors to open, and when they do, walk through them dammit.” He was trying to tell me how to find my true purpose, something that hadn’t been remotely on my radar for, well, my entire life.
So this time, I walked through that door.
I kept pressing forward with renovation plans. This was always my backup plan–the renovations had to be done whether I was to rent or sell the house. More importantly, however, I spent the past month selling, donating, and giving away almost everything I owned. I held on to a few keepsakes and a put a few small boxes into storage at my parent’s house. But I cannot even begin to express the immense joy I experienced completely eliminating all of the clutter I’d accumulated over the past four decades. At first, it was sad–I mean, that bed and those dishes were tied to some important memories in my life. Yet things are just that, they’re things. Things are not memories. Memories are. For me, it’s an important distinction that has more than just a small bearing on my happiness.
Then, after nearly fifteen years, I listed the house for sale, packed a bag, and got on an airplane.
Speaking of memories, I was sitting at a bar sipping Chopin in Boston a few days ago, talking to a young couple from Vermont I’d just met. After telling them the story of how I got there (fine, I had some business in Boston too), her head tilted awkwardly. You know, in the way that people crane their neck when they think you’re the crazy, “So, you’re homeless?”. “Um, well, no. I mean, I guess. Wait.” Shit.
I’m sitting in a friend’s flat in Manhattan writing this. It’s the first time I’ve visited New York in twenty years. After a few days in Boston and here, I’m headed south to visit more friends and family. I’m finally actively mending relationships that I let atrophy for far, far too long. Life is ultimately about the people you spend it with. Please, never, ever forget that.
When that door opens, walk through it. Go live the life of your dreams.