In 2006 I quit my career job, left New York City, and headed to rural New Mexico to discover a life less reliant on money. I wanted to become a maker of things instead of a buyer of things. As in most escapades, I advanced step-by-step. Curiously I lifted veil after veil, allowing myself to be shape-shifted by the journey’s demands. I became the maker of things I imagined I could be while still living in Brooklyn.
In 2006 I quit my career job, left New York City, and headed to rural New Mexico to discover a life less reliant on money. I wanted to become a maker of things instead of a buyer of things. At the time I gripped an imaginary object, an ideal that I’d been holding up against the world for as long as I can remember. It was old and well worn. I considered it a barometer of sorts. The ideal reliably showed me how the world fell short of an expectation that I had, but short of what exactly I did not know. I had never seen my ideal materialized. Though imaginary, I valued it. When I realized that the disappointment I felt about the world’s falling short could be looked at as an invitation for me to offer something new to the world —a call to action —things got exciting. That’s when I quit my job to set out on an adventure.
As in most escapades, I advanced step-by-step. Curiously I lifted veil after veil, allowing myself to be shape-shifted by the journey’s demands. Before long, the once static state of disappointment I’d felt turned malleable and a wonder world of my own creative visioning replaced it. I became the maker of things I imagined I could be while still living in Brooklyn. In no time I learned to do things like weld, wildcraft, forage, make biodiesel fuel from waste, hack electronics, build structures out of paper, grow food, and make medicine and other things that I needed to live. I also learned about value, which I could not find previously even though I’d searched for it for most of my life. Value is not a thing, though it can be embedded in a thing. Value is responsibility; it is the life preserved in the process of making anything. I learned that the world we share is abundant. There’s enough to go around and quite a bit more than that. And I learned the way to prove it. Give. Gifts are evidence and they’re contagious. By letting my ideal lead me to an adventure, the ideal has been made real. It changed the world and me, too.
All of our stories must be different, but some things about them are the same. Adventures do have a rhythm. Often they invite us to the cliff’s edge and ask that we take a step without knowing what will come of it. It is natural that we wonder if we will fall a long way to meet a certain doom. If our hearts have led us, a step into the unknown usually produces an opening for wisdom to enter. All gain comes at the cost of something given up, things like familiarity and comfort. The first jump can be the most difficult. But right after it is an ease that increases exponentially with further adventures. The only real mistake we can make is to think that the jump is too big to consider.
Here’s a snip from my adventure. Each one of us has an ideal that can shape the world. I look forward to bumping into yours.
A year of building in the desert had made me capable of having sophisticated conversations about building with people like Clyde, and yet the door that divided the cozy life of Eve’s Garden from the unforgiving desert was all that prevented me from being as useless as a sapphire cocktail ring. In the desert I felt as though I were on a ship stranded at sea and didn’t know how to swim. I had learned about building shelter, but I still didn’t know how to survive in the world outside of it.
Cooking and sleeping outdoors, knowing how to find drinkable water, and reading upcoming weather conditions by looking at the sky were not skills I had yet. More than 30 years of acculturated knowledge made me perfectly able to operate a bidet, avoid paying retail, and get a free parking spot almost anywhere in New York City. But I could not understand that a 50-degree change in temperature was possible in the same day, nor was I prepared for it when it happened.
I remembered the stories told days before by the sturdy desert dwellers who sat around the fire. There was one about living in the back of a pickup truck with a dog for 10 years, working a stint counting trees while residing in a tent deep in a forest for several months, and serving as a firewatcher in an 8-foot by 8-foot cabin miles from the nearest road. My contribution to the conversation sounded something like, “Put me in any New York City neighborhood any time of night and I am not scared.” I had no idea that city folks are notorious for saying these kinds of things (lest their value go unrecognized by those who wield a different variety of knowledge). Desert dwellers knew such things as this: after becoming dehydrated out in the desert, the first sip of water should be used to wash the toxins out of your mouth and spit on the ground. Or what to do if a forest fire broke out and there was no time to run from it. You could jump into a water tank. If the fire passed quickly and you got out before the water boiled, you might survive. I was not a New Mexican yet. I did not have a dog of the heeler variety or a nonworking toilet serving as art in my yard, although both were soon to come.
With my ego stuffed deep in my pocket, below the pack of hand-wipes that it had become my habit to carry in case I was offered another hole in the ground to poop in, I thought about the image I had crafted of myself as the outdoorsy type and reviewed where this impression came from. In day camp, my group twice won the best campsite award because of a fence, a fire pit, and a swing that I designed. As a little girl, I had imagined tending a garden and filling an odd lot of dusty bottles with exotic plant remedies. I built sturdy forts in the woods behind my house. At Burning Man, I made an impressive outdoor shower that everyone wanted to use. Many people who knew me thought I was really tough. But I’d been hanging out in French restaurants too long.
I definitely couldn’t light a fire without a match. The only plant I had ever grown was fruitless and died on my fire escape back in Brooklyn.
This is what I came for, I thought to myself. To find the edge, the point at which my knowledge ends. I was exactly where I wanted to be: uncomfortable. What I was itching for was something new. It was common sense. I didn’t mind feeling ill at ease as long I was getting nearer to it. I considered the ways to acquire common sense: by living close to nature, by playing, by making mistakes, by taking time for contemplation, by trial and error, by listening, by building, by problem-solving, by maintaining relationships, by hiking, by growing plants, by cooking. Really, I didn’t know. But I suspected that it would come from experience and not just from reading books or hearing of it being told.
This article is adapted from Wendy Jehanara Tremayne’s new book, The Good Life Lab: Radical Expiriments in Hands-On Living (c), with permission from Storey Publishing.
Book Jacket: Illustration from The Good Life Lab (c) Wendy Jehanara Tremayn
Start Even if You Don’t Know How: Illustration (c) Grady McFerrin
Wildcrafting: Illustration (c) Allegra Lockstadt
Everyone Lives in Two Worlds: Illustrations from The Good Life Lab (c) Wendy Jehanara Tremayne
Wendy Jehanara Tremayne
Maker of Things