I woke up in a cold house to a farm covered with fresh snow. It was cold because the fire in the wood stove stopped putting out heat, probably around 1AM, and my 5:30 wake up time allowed enough hours for the indoor temperature to go from 70 to 55 degrees. This is a minor, unimportant detail. Wool socks, silk base layers, a heavy fleece, and well-worn hand-mended work pants were beside the bed. I dressed quickly while the dogs whined and danced around eager to go outside. I am on my feet before sunrise. Far as I am concerned; sleeping in is for lovers and sad people with thermostats.
Within minutes I am downstairs. The cats are crying for breakfast and refuse to be ignored. A kettle boils water for coffee. The cats are fed. The fire inside the wood stove is lit. It catches. The sun rises and breaks through, filling the cold house with light. Outside is a wonderland of snow-laden trees. It won’t last long. It will be a sunny and warm day, but in the chill of dawn it is perfect and quiet and beautiful in a way only impermanence can achieve.
Chores are done without fuss. Hay is pulled off the recently-delivered round bale near the driveway, covered in a tarp with 5 inches of snow on top. I pull enough flakes off to estimate the weight of a smaller square bale and set that into a big plastic work sled my friend Mark bought me for Yule five years ago. I grab another load, all my arms can carry, and walk it up to the sheep fence where my small flock and a capricious caprine watch, bleating for grain. I throw the hay over the fence onto the fresh snow, a fine plate. I walk to the grain bin and scoop them their morning ration. When they all seem settled, I throw some grain onto the snow on my side of the fence for the blue jays and squirrels. Everyone needs to eat.
The dogs romp about while I pull the sleigh around the house towards the old small barn. We open the door to the ruckus of geese wanting out and roosters wanting to advertise their existence. Chickens make their usual morning squawking and bitching sounds. If it’s loud I don’t notice. I get a scoop of layer mash out of the metal bin inside the barn and set it out in feed pans, knowing damn well those chickens aren’t walking into snow that comes up to their breast. It’s not much effort to accommodate them, so I do.
Once their breakfast and water is sorted the sled of hay is taken to the horses, waiting without patience in the woods. Mabel the paint mare is scraping her front hoof along the ground like a cartoon bull ready to charge a matador. Merlin the old fell pony is just hollering, asking for his ration as if this ritual hasn’t happened every morning for twelve years, uninterrupted. I dole out their hay in two separate piles and watch them snuffle around for the best bits. They are quiet now. The whole farm is quiet in the rapture of breaking their fast.
I am happy.
When everyone is sated I look around this perfect hollow tucked into a mountain. Because of the farm's location, all around me is the contours and slopes of the forest. It feels so hidden, so protected. If this mountain was an eggo, we'd live inside one of its squares. I walk back towards the front of the house pulling the empty sled. I look at my little house. Three rooms and a bathroom downstairs, 2 rooms upstairs. To one woman it is a palace and the result of nothing more complicated that timing, privilege and luck. I bought it and the 6.5 acres that came with it for $151k when I still had a respectable full time job. But even then, when I had more money and less time, the plastic siding speckled with the mold that comes from being protected this way; the lack of direct sunlight. It will be weeks before it’s warm enough to hook up a loaned power washer and blast it clean. I know some people who made different choices drive past and wince at it. At the green mold, at the goose shit and frozen dog turds near the driveway. It doesn’t bother me. It’s a side effect of living with coworkers who poop wherever they want and geography that shields me from storms and floods. It reminds me of freckles.
Inside the house the fire is now strong and warm. The temperature inside has already risen 3 degrees in the coldest corners. Near the stove it is comfortable enough to strip down to my silk shirt. The dogs are fed, the cats are pet, and I go about the ritual of morning coffee. The electric kettle fills the giant steel French press my ex bought me because she knew I would have broken and replaced a glass one three times by now.
The eggy bread dough I kneaded last night has risen well on the kitchen counter. While my coffee brews in the press I punch down the dough and pull it out to braid and set into a bread pan to achieve a second, shorter, rise. I set aside a small ball of dough I ripped off before braiding, and put a small saucepan of water on the stove to boil. Within moments I have made the small piece of dough into a donut shape and drop it in the boiling water before baking it. It will be a single eggy bagel (of sorts). Breakfast.
It’s not yet 7AM on a Thursday in early March. I still owe the bank the February mortgage and have less than a $400 in my bank account. I am alone. No roommates are this place with me that don’t come with a a set of paws. No lover stayed the night. The house is clean and tidy, but humble in a way that would embarrass most people my age with the same professional background. All my furniture either came with the sale, was a family hand-me down, bought second hand, or salvaged from the trash. I have never bought a new couch or a flat-screen TV in my life. I don’t have a passport. Shit, I don’t even have a microwave. I can’t travel if I wanted to. The farm animals and heat from a domesticated fire kept inside an iron cage in my living room being the limiting factors they are.
My clothes are not new. I’m wearing a polar fleece in a faded gold color I bought off eBay last winter. On my legs are wide Thai fishing pants also bought used in a bright green. They fall to my ankles instead of my pants because I am short. My dirty hair is hidden in a wool buff in shades of pink and purple. I threw on an oversized knit brown cardigan over all this for morning chores. I couldn’t find my wool mittens so I used the fireplace gloves instead and, now they lay snow-wet near the stove to dry. I looked like a Hobbit working as a blacksmith.
I am happy.
I hear the oven ding and pull out my single browned bagel. It is shiny on the outside from the boiling water, a nice crust all around. I waste little time setting it on a plate and slicing it in half. Steam explodes out of it, like fog rolling fast down a hill. I add a pat of butter and some of the strawberry jam made last summer from berries hand-picked with the woman I loved. The memory stings. My lips become a thin line and I spread the perfectly-red jam over the butter and watch it melt. By the first bite the nostalgia is replaced by bliss. I can’t tell you how good it was. How amazing bread from the oven covered in butter and homemade jam tastes after working with my body in the snow. I say a silent prayer to the ancient Hearth Goddess Brigit, to please witness and pity those struggling with carb-free diets. Life is so short, so uncertain. Happiness is so fleeting. Eat bagels.
I have about 20 days to earn around two thousand dollars. That is what is required to stay here another month. To appease the mortgage holder, pay my student loans, my utilities, and keep a car insured and fueled. Ideally, I would earn double that and catch up with the mortgage entirely, but I need to keep my goals small. I will work every day to earn this money from this farm. I can offer what the farm grows: pork, chicken, and eggs. I also have what I can create inside these walls - handmade soaps, watercolor illustrations, custom logos. Quick math says I need to earn around $100 a day. My goal is always double that. Some days I make it. Most days, I don’t. But in twelve years of living on this mountain I have managed to pay my mortgage almost every month and currently I am just one payment behind. It may seem reckless to you, but to me there is proof positive that in the decade of self-employment leading me to this morning - that I have been the most reliable and safest employer I've ever had. “Safer” jobs with 401ks and health insurance dropped me soon as they realized it hurt their bottom line in a recession. I have yet to fire myself. And I like waking up to my fuzzy horses and loud sheep more than any commute to an office.
I understand that plenty of people would see this place as a prison. My lack of ability to pick up and go to Bali for a week—to not even have the passport to attempt it—a dealbreaker for the life they want. Waking up in a house that requires wool armor and lighting a fire to stay warm, backwards and horrific. Having to solicit farm sales every day, frankly embarrassing. I don’t care about these things. These are not important. These are comforts and perceived-dignities that would require I give up so much of my time, freedom, and choices. The exchange is too much for me to bear. Because today I am baking bread I kneaded by hand, with eggs from my hens I raised since chicks, on a piece of land I still somehow manage to own and tend.
If I want to saddle up my own horse for a mountain trail ride through a snow-covered forest I can. If I want to get out some graph paper and start planning the garden (an act of hope in itself while covered with half a foot of snow) I can. If I want to take my hawk out to hunt rabbits, or shoot 2 dozen arrows at a hay bale, or read a novel, or create art for joy, sing songs to my border collies poorly over a ukulele, or learn to knit socks… I CAN. And while most weekday mornings I am not doing anything of the sort—because I need to sit and do the work that helps pay for those options—I can choose to play now, right now, and work later. There is no manager expecting me to drive 45 minutes after spending fifty bucks on inflated gas to get there. I decide when and how much I work. And, as long as I don’t spend any unnecessary money, earn a little with the skills and resources at my disposal, and keep the lights and wifi on; I have succeeded in my day's purpose. And every single day I wake up with that mission, to remain in this small and simple life.
I am happy.
I am happy because I know dam well it is rare to have a daily life that gives you meaning and joy. I am grateful that my undiagnosed ADHD and anxiety can alchemize into a million necessary tasks and urgency. I know that I can’t afford most things other people have. I know that I will never see the Eiffel Tower. I know that I am in a different class than all of my friends, who have more conventional lives. Lives with money that comes in regular direct deposits. Lives with two-week vacations and weekends away for the hell of it in tropical paradises. Lives with health care, and spouses, and retirement plans. And I would be lying to you if those differences didn’t make me question my choices, or my worth, but what I have come to accept as a personal truth is - it doesn’t matter. I wake up every morning excited about the day ahead of me. Practically shaking with the tension at the amazing possibilities of trying again.
Possibilities like small hopes; a warm home, healthy animals, and wages earned. But also larger hopes of love and sex and the beauty through the changing seasons ahead should I mange to remain here. Mollified by the ammunition of small attainable goals that give me just enough serotonin to maybe reach the next one? To tend a house that stood for the first Civil War and hopefully through the second. Trying to keep what I have held so close and tight, claws clutching till they bleed and heart beating so loud. It’s a passion for the choices I made and for the life I built. I feel so much wealthier, so much healthier, so much luckier than so many people with so much more.
You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to take a lucrative job in some city. Why? So I can leave this place that kept me safe from hurricanes and Nor'easters? Leave this place that feeds me food I know by name and grew by hand? Where fresh water springs perfect out of the soil? Where neighbors know me by reputation and deed? Where friends greet me with hugs and fast bright conversations when they walk into this warm house heated by wood I chopped? Where I wake up to beasts that need me and I them? Where every single day is a series of challenges and necessary sacrifices that only made me stronger, smarter, and better as a human animal? Leave the place that helped me come out of the closet? The place I first kissed a girl and made love in flickering lantern light while a thunderstorm rolled across the mountains? The place that forced me to fight, and fail, and wail, and fall apart to the point of breaking only to stand up again and keep going? To make so many mistakes that if my time here was a mended sock it would be nothing more than a thousand darned fibers creating a rainbow of joy and regret? No. I own that sock. I wear it with pride. Nothing you can buy with a credit card in Millan is better. It never will be.
I may be the fool. I probably am. But you know what I have realized on a cold Thursday morning, broke, uncertain and alone?
I am happy.