Years ago, before we had children, we lived in a small 2 room cabin with an outhouse along the Turnagain Arm in the town of Bird Creek, Alaska. The cabin was small, forcing us to keep our possessions to a minimum. Additionally, due to the more remote location of the cabin, we did not have access to cable and the mountains that surrounded us blocked TV and satellite reception. Thus, our only option for watching TV was renting a movie. We did have internet, but it was slow dial-up. We did, however, have miles and miles of forested and mountainous trails that started right outside our door.
When I tell the story of our year with an outhouse I often say that “despite of our tiny space, outhouse, no cable TV, and poor internet we were very happy and content.” But, in truth, I believe that the reason we were so happy was because we lived in a small house, didn’t watch much TV, and didn’t have smartphones or internet to distract us (not in spite of). We were deeply connected to each other for at night, instead of spacing out to the TV, we talked and played cards or went for an evening hike. In the winter we would strap on our skis and spend the day off in the woods outside our door. At that time in our lives we did not have many outside commitments, leaving most of our evenings and weekends free for rest, relaxation, quiet dinners, nature hikes, and travel. Since rent and utilities were so inexpensive we were not stressed about money, plus, not having much space to put things meant we were spending less on stuff. The year with the outhouse left a lasting impression on us, providing us with many important lessons.
Eventually we moved on to a home with a flush toilet. Children were born and the lessons from our year with an outhouse faded into our memories. As it often happens, life got busy. We accumulated the piles of stuff that comes with parenthood. Distractions got in the way of connection–connection to each other and connection with our children. With the exhaustion that accompanied being disconnected and over-scheduled came reflection–how did we get to this point?
A rocky marriage and struggling children gave us the push we needed to rethink the path we were on. While hiking, camping, and spending time in nature had remained an important part of our family life, we had allowed accumulating stuff, a busy schedule, and TV/social media to get in the way of connection. We returned to the lessons we learned from our year with an outhouse and started the hard work of simplifying our schedules and stuff, as well as seeking a better balance with screen technology. During this time we also discovered simplicity parenting and I went through coaches training. I focused my graduate work on the benefits spending time in nature has on our overall physical and mental wellbeing and started developing programing to help reconnect families to nature. It has not been the easiest of journeys, but often it is the most difficult trails that provide us with the greatest views.
Recently I found a little wooden canoe and a passage titled “The River of Life: A Parable” that my mom had given me. The canoe now sits on our mantle next to a picture of our little outhouse as a reminder of what we really need to be happy and content.
The River of Life: A Parable
“The Professor, my Uncle Jake and I were planning a two-day float trip downriver to scout out a new fishing area. We made up a list of things to take along, but had to tear it up and throw it away. The upper reaches of the river wouldn’t allow us to navigate a canoe big enough to carry us and the things we had written down. The Professor said, “You know, we shouldn’t be thinking of things we can make do with, but only what we can’t do without.” That’s real wisdom, not merely as it pertained to that situation, but regarding our trip down the river of life.
How many people on the voyage of life load up their canoes until they’re in danger of swamping with a pile of things they think are essential to the trip, but which are not? How many pile the poor little boat with fancy clothes and big homes and cars, with friends they don’t care two cents for and who don’t care two cents for them, with entertainment nobody enjoys, and with–oh, the heaviest load of all! –what the neighbors think, with luxuries that coy, with pleasures that bore, with empty show? It makes the canoe so heavy they can’t paddle it. It makes it too cumbersome and dangerous to manage. They never know a minute’s freedom from anxiety and care. There’s no time for dreamy laziness, no time for ducks skimming lightly over shallows, no time for sunbeams flitting on the ripples of trout streams, no time for climbing trees an looking down on bucks with humongous antlers.
Let your canoe on the river of life be packed with only what you need–a homey home and simple pleasures, one or two worthy friends, someone to love and someone to love you, a kid or two, a dog, enough to eat, enough to wear, a little more than enough to drink because thirst is a dangerous thing, a few fishing rods, and that’s all.” –-Jerry Wilber, …of woodsmoke and quiet places