Thoughts on living small

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This is not a story I think I’ve told on this blog before but, when I was a teenager, my family moved to a country property in the foothills of the mountains and, while my father built our house, we lived in a caravan. But mostly we lived outside. We even cooked and showered outside (until winter).

These photos are what my teenaged life looked like. The bottom photo is of our kitchen! We had no electricity or running water and at first we had no telephone (until a neighbour strung up a probably-highly-illegal phone cable for us from tree to tree along our kilometre-long, winding driveway).

My father was a social worker, not a builder, so this all lasted quite a long time. Many years, in fact.

There are so many stories I could tell you about this period of my life. Good ones and bad ones, a lot of funny ones. You can’t suddenly change your lifestyle without it changing you, possibly more-so because my brother and I were in the midst of our formative years.

From those years in the caravan, I learned how to slow down and pare back. You can't accumulate a lot of stuff in a caravan, or it will quickly smother you. And so you learn that you don't actually need a lot of stuff. Not at all. I learned to save, to conserve, and to value... everything. Every last resource was hard-won and frequently scarce, and therefore greatly appreciated.

A simple life. Days spent clearing our land for house and garden and horse, by hand. Picking up rocks, cleaning up giant piles of old glass bottles, half-buried. Digging out and gently burning off insidious lantana. Dad, throwing all his weight into the hand-held post-digger, trying to break a ground hardened by a hundred summers, but the ground almost breaks him.

Hardwood floorboards from a demolished 100-year-old farmhouse, used to build a gravity-fed tank stand. Hidden dry-rot. The tank-stand buckling under the weight of the water, and crashing down the side of the mountain.

Everything cooked on a gas burner or a hand-made, wood-fired barbecue. Everything. If you ever need to make toast on a frying pan, I can show you how.

Night-times spent gathered as a family around a single candle and a battery-powered radio, listening to old "talkies" (my favourite was an Australian comedy from the 1930s, called "Yes, What?").

Returning home one evening to find a baby sugar-glider, smaller than the palm of my hand, hiding on my brother's bunk bed.

In recent years I’ve read a lot of blogs about people undertaking tree-changes like ours. Simple living, wholistic living, tiny houses, that sort of thing. It’s funny the mixed emotions I feel whenever I read these stories. I’m not going to lie: sometimes, I feel a bit smug.

I think to myself, these people have NO IDEA how it really is when you seriously go off the grid. This isn't about making your own marmalade and spreading it on your homemade bread (I love doing those things, by the way).

It's about making a washing machine out of an old broom handle and a colander and using it for hours it to POUND your clothes clean, every weekend, until your arms and shoulders burn (that was mostly Mum, not me, although I helped. Poor Mum). Wearing headbands throughout most of your final years of high school, because you leaned too close to the candle while studying at night, and burned your hair. Showering from a canvas bag under a tree, in freezing wind. Applying the roll-on deodorant one morning before school and discovering that your mother had snuck around in the night and replaced all the actual deodorants with white vinegar. Spiders and beetles in your kitchen and bedclothes. Frogs in your drop-toilet.

We didn’t do these things by halves, my family.

But then alongside the smug is a hefty dose of guilt. Guilt because the way I live now feels so commercial and wasteful compared to the way I grew up. I confess: I love it when I can flip a switch and a light comes on. I like having the heater on in winter and I LOVE having the air conditioning on in summer. I like watching TV. I like doing the washing up with the tap running - it’s so much more hygienic! I really like to stand under a long, hot shower.

Please don't hate me but when I find a six- (or more)-legged creature in my house, I don't catch it and release it gently into the wilds of Carlton North. I kill it before it bites or spreads diseases to my children. And then I feel guilty and beg a silent, fruitless forgiveness from its corpse.

I feel like a traitor to my family, and to my planet.

Sometimes I think I find it more difficult to be a responsible global citizen because of the extreme way we lived when I was young. I’m like the kid that grows up without sugar and then makes themselves sick at other children’s parties (actually I WAS that kid, too).

But that's just excuses. I want to lessen my footprint on this world, to leave it a better place for my children. I COMPLETELY understand why all those other people I keep reading about are doing these things, and I admire them.

I have to fight with my own deep-seated selfishness, the side of me that says “I’ve already done my bit, made so many sacrifices. I've been the fourth person to step into an inch-deep bath shared one at a time, cleanest person first (I rode horses. I was the grubbiest). I've bucketed water out of said four-person bath and used it to flush a toilet. I’ve EARNED that long, hot shower, that air conditioner.” I struggle to find a compromise because I spent years not feeling properly clean, and not feeling comfortable. I’m not saying that it was all bad, not at all: a lot of it was fun. But I’m just saying… I don’t want to go back.

I don’t want to go back and I don’t know how to meet half way, because half way feels like I'm not doing enough and, if I’m going to give these things up all over again, it feels like it should REALLY be worth it. But who am I, to bargain with the world like that?

No great ideas, yet.

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