Saturday, May 2, 2015

From talking to doing: How life at our new home has changed me

When Yulia and I first moved into our home, I was a different person. I was good at reading and talking about what we wanted to do at our house. My relationship to and understanding of home repair and gardening was nearly all theoretical at that point. I knew it through books and websites, not through my senses and experience of actually living it.

I already knew how to move into a new place--if that place were an apartment or dorm room. You put all your stuff in boxes, bring it to your new home, wipe off the kitchen counter tops, throw out a few things that the old renters left behind, and unpack your things. Piece of cake.

However, things were much different when Yulia and I moved into our house. There were four buildings full of old stuff. There was no trash service, so it was not possible to get rid of old things just by putting them out on the curb. There was a musty smell. The main corridor had no floor--just a few boards loosely thrown down. I spoke the local language poorly, and Yulia had never lived in this country as an adult. There was no internet, no running water, and there were over two acres of 2 meter high woody weeds. Our neighbors were mostly senior citizens who had lived completely different lives than us...I could keep going, of course, but I think I have made myself understood. Completely different. My past experiences had little relation to this experience.

Some of the first trees we planted. The weeds in what is now our orchard were horrendous. We've reclaimed the area little by little, and this is how we got started. 
In the past, when I lived in bigger cities, I could at least go somewhere. I could go to a cafe if I wanted to see something other than my kitchen or living room. I could go to the bookstore. I could find other young people like me. Find any kind of food my heart desired. I could use the internet and talk with friends and family who were very far away. I had access to many different comforts that helped me adjust.

Our little village, on the other hand, had few of the comforts of the modern city. I could not go to cafes or bookstores like I was used to. We had no internet for the first summer that we lived here, so whenever Yulia and I went to L'viv I would download news articles and blogs to read later. I wrote the first entries for this blog without internet access and uploaded them when in the city.

Moving here has made me realize that it's really important to have coping mechanisms when making such a drastic change in your life. On our first night, for example, we had tea outside on the front stoop instead of in the unfamiliar house. We anchored ourselves in the only familiar parts of the environment there were--the evening clouds and the stars that followed. To this day I still find myself concentrating on the sky during trying times.

A picture taken from the roof of our house last winter. I had to climb up there to replace the internet cable going from the antenna to our modem. It took the internet company two months to come out and install our internet. I wasn't about to wait around for them to come help us again. Local incompetence has helped me become more self sufficient.
Maintaining your sanity is also important if you have another very big thing in your life that you did not have before--a partner. On top of all the challenges we have come across, I have had to take care of Yulia, and she has had to take care of me. We've developed shared coping mechanisms. Even without running water, for instance, we always make a point of washing every evening before going to bed. Only after we are scrubbed and wearing clean pajamas do we get in bed. No matter what troubles we had or how dirty we got during the day, we do not bring that with us--literally or figuratively--to bed.

I balance the physically and emotionally hard work I do here with sufficient periods of rest. I recognize that it is up to me to provide Yulia with a descent home. Right now, for example, I'm giving it my all to finish our bedroom as soon as possible (I initially wrote this post several weeks ago. Since then, I've finished the bedroom, and it's splendid!). It's been a long time since we've had a clean, comfortable and cozy room to sleep in, and I want us to finally have that kind of space. I still need to Spackle the drywall, install sliding doors to the bathroom and closet, sand and lacquer the floors, and finish everything with molding. When I think of all that has to be done I want to work night and day to get it done as soon as possible. On the other hand, I need to constantly remind myself that when I'm overly tired and stressed, I get crabby, and that is how fights start. I'm not taking care of Yulia if I'm testy from overwork, so I have become very aware of my physical, mental, and emotional limits.

After painting and putting trimming above the garage door I entertain myself (and Yulia, the invisible, but just as immature, person behind the camera) by measuring the width of Toma's butt. 
Since we've moved here and changed our lifestyle in a big way, we've noticed that many people settle for talk or changing their image as if it's the same thing as action. As a result, we've become more skeptical about what we read. It's one thing to pontificate on a blog or YouTube about health, diet, or lifestyle. It's another to live it. Yulia and I realized soon after moving in that living the way we live is not for armchair philosophers. Such people fail very quickly in the environment we live in. That's why we strive to not only write about what we think, but show what we actually do. We think it's a sign of a neophyte to come out with guns blazing: "I'm right. Everyone who thinks differently is wrong. I've read a few books and websites about the issue..." And so on. Armchair philosophers rarely discuss what they have done and how that informs their opinions. Yulia and I try to write about what we do, what worked, and what didn't. We try to fill in the gaps in the discourse. What aren't people talking about? How do we see issues differently?

To be honest, I am sympathetic to many poseurs and armchair philosophers. To me, their attempts to change their image, shopping habits, and so on shows that they yearn for authenticity. I see this most clearly in what is emerging as a new type of man in modern society. This is how Willa Brown of The Atlantic describes them:
"The first one I met was at an inauguration party in 2009. I was in a cocktail dress. He was in jeans, work boots, and a flannel shirt. He had John Henry tattooed on his bicep. He was white. Somehow, at a fairly elegant affair, he had found a can of PBR. Since then they’ve multiplied. You can see them in coffee shops and bars and artisanal butchers. They don't exactly cut down trees, but they might try their hand at agriculture and woodworking, even if only in the form of window-box herb gardens."
This is more of an urban phenomenon than it is a rural one, but it does seem that many men nevertheless value hard physical work and the outdoors. They just don't have the means or the drive to actually follow through with it. Later in the article Brown writes:
"Both then and now, the men who sought these identities were searching for something authentic, something true. But that 'authenticity' often came at the exclusion of real working men and a romanticization of 'real' work."
I understand this search for authenticity. It's not always easy to find, but I think that even the search for authenticity reveals a certain degree of honesty about a person, and I can respect that, even if such people are more image than they are substance.

I am less sympathetic to those that go on the offensive to prove their own authenticity at the cost of others. More often than not, they are distracting people to hide their own perceived inadequacies, whatever they may be. Talking tough on social media (like this "Vegans are gay" page on Facebook), for example, will only fool so many people. Yulia and I are somewhere between vegetarian and vegan. We wear wool and eat honey, but we do not eat dairy or eggs. We've found a certain degree of health and contentment in living this way, but find no need to align with one group and bash all others. Whether you're moving to Ukraine or hoping to start a small farm or homestead, from our experience we've found that it's best to be honest with yourself about who you are and what you want out of life before you change your lifestyle in a big way like Yulia and I have. It's best not to do this if you're out to prove something to yourself or other people. We've found no solace and no pleasure in mocking others. It will never give you piece of mind, only more anger and resentment.

Every couple of months Yulia and I will make time (even if there isn't any) to go out to a vegetarian cafe in the city. We like the food there and feel comfortable in that environment. Don't like vegetarian cafes? That's fine with us. Do what you need to. Our eyes are open. If your diet, lifestyle--whatever--makes sense to us, we'll notice.
Lately, I'm less interested in defending my viewpoint or attacking those of others and more interested in sharing what I've done and how I did it. As a result, I have become less cerebral, but more focused on my emotions. Sure, I've become stronger from carrying bags of sand and chopping firewood. I've learned how to wire outlets and light switches. I do value my physical and cognitive development.

However, they seem to me to be both very simple and primitive changes--perhaps not even interesting to write about. Of course working hard will make you fit. And why should you listen to me when it comes to hanging drywall or making a no till garden when there are already so many resources out there? For me, what's been hardest is dealing with the unexpected and the unpredictable. My father-in-law taught me how to wire light switches and outlets. He showed me the tools and materials to use.

But what do you do when it is 4 pm in late December and darkness is swiftly falling? The lights in your house are off because you're rewiring the light to your garage. You are shaking from the cold and can't hold your hands still enough to fit tiny wires into tiny holes with fat fingers. Your hands are cracked from the weather and bleeding from being poked too many times by the sharp ends of copper wire. Your wife is sitting inside the house in the growing darkness wondering when the lights will come back on. You say you'll be done in a second, but every time you bend the ancient wire, it breaks. Then, when you think you're done and flip the breaker, you find the connection is no good and have to do it again, only for the wire to snap again. You wonder when you yourself will snap..."The wiring should have been changed long ago! It's a safety hazard, for crying out loud! Why is it so hard to find a qualified electrician around here!" And so on...

But I've also learned not to snap. A simple joke will break the ice at times. Or, no matter how deep you are in something, realizing that it's not the end of the world if you don't finish is alright too. There's no one thing that will help every time. That's why reading and talking about lifestyle change will only get you so ready. You'll learn the rest of what you need to know by doing.


  1. Yep I hear you, there have been many a times that I started a job that should of taken ten minutes and it would take two hours, because things are old and one fix leads to another break. I happens to everyone. Patience is very important at that moment. Ad you chip away at it, it will eventually get done.

  2. You're absolutely right. I rarely get anything done in as much time as it seems it will take when I get started. There's always a missing tool, a distraction, something that breaks, etc. It's a great way to learn patience though!