Wandering folk/mind the gap

“The train on platform two goes to central station. Please mind the gap.”

The familiar droll announcement on the Sydney train network greets us when we first arrive back in Australia. I stand at the station, jetlagged, exhausted and with tears in my eyes, letting the routine, dependable noise wash over me.

After a flat white and a lamington under a winding fig tree, we’re off and away to my brother’s house in Canberra, but the gap is ahead of us:

A strange by-product of moving between the US and Australia every few years is the period we’re living right now – when work, housing, cars and all the routines that keep us grounded are not [yet] secured.

It’s either an empty space, a gap in our lives, or a long holiday – depending on how you think about it.

Although I now have more time to lie in bed with the kids, rock hop on big granite boulders at the creek and breathe in the sweet smell of flowering pittosporum, I can’t shake the feeling that life gaps are associated with negative events.

It seems we take gaps only when we are forced to, and that these times are often thought of as setbacks or gaps in the resume. We take time off because we are caring for a loved one, caring for our own health or in a period of unemployment.

Although we’ve chosen our current situation, and planned for it financially, I feel the absence of routine – every day is wide open, a Wednesday just as good as a Saturday for hours spent reading the paper over coffee.

Haak and I find ourselves having regular meeting-chats to narrow our focus and cocoon our goals.

Not having a job title, project or business to identify with feels a little raw in our society which values economically productive work above all else.

Wanting to find out more about how to thrive outside the bounds of 9-5, I talked to Sharnee Thorpe of Wandering Folk [who happens to be a family friend] to find out how someone who has designed a [gorgeous!] range of waterproof outdoor picnic rugs, pillows and coolers and shaped her life around the idea of freedom and travel deals with the ups and downs of being on the move.

Sharnee laughed when I suggested she was an expert traveller. “I’d like to think I’m an expert on wandering,” she said, “my family was always travelling and I knew from a young age that I wanted to work hard so I could travel more.”

There’s a well-known phenomenon in Australia, known as a gap year, often taken between high school and uni [college], when young people are excused from having a proper job and encouraged to travel, work seasonal or temporary jobs and explore the world.

Australians have worked at least this bit of socially-sanctioned free time into our culture, while Americans tend to jump straight from high school to college to a full-time job to cover the higher costs of health insurance and student loans.

Sharnee echoes the Australian ethos when she says: ” travelling is more important than university. Travel first then go to uni. Travel teaches you everything you need to know in life – how to live on a tight budget and make your money last, how to make new friends, learn a new language and learn about new cultures.”

Her 33,000 Instagram followers show that Sharnee’s life is appealing to many people – something to fantasize about when they are deep in the humdrum of work, gym, latte, meeting.

But having a business means never being away from work and Sharnee said she checks emails daily when in service. “As a freelance print designer and with running Wandering Folk, I always have to work when I’m travelling,” Sharnee told me, “it’s a blessing …and a curse at times.”

Sharnee has worked gaps into her working life, but not everyone is comfortable with so much change and lack of routine.

I’ve talked to two people in their 20’s since I’ve been back who are about to accept promotions and change jobs and both of them looked confused when I asked if they would take a few weeks or months off in between.

It’s not the done thing, but there’s good reason to pursue big changes and breaks in our lives, especially for encouraging creativity.

Sharnee says she tries to keep her work commitments to one day a week while she’s travelling, and saves big projects for when she is settled in her Northern NSW studio – but scrolling through Wandering Folk’s expansive Instagram feed, it’s clear that travel brings inspiration to Sharnee’s design work.22708792_132988623959006_8074818904829984768_n

Our friend Michael Menager, an American musician and songwriter who has lived in Australia for thirty years asked me last week how I was going with moving back.

We were doing some digging to level out Michael’s new deck area, and when I answered that it was a bit gappy but going well, he squinted at me in the bright Aussie sun, kicking up dust with his shovel, and said in his Aussiemerican accent “well, you know what I think? having these spaces in our lives is a good time to be creative. So get into your writing.”

So maybe I’ve been confusing a life-gap with emptiness and doing nothing. Wandering Folk functions because Sharnee works as hard as she plays, the beach picnics in her Instagram feed a well-earned reward for balancing work and play.

Finding small routines within a period of travel or uncertainty is helpful too. “Most of the places I travel now have yoga, which helps me keep in a vague routine and maintain my health while on the road,” Sharnee said, “but I do miss being able to cook my own meals while travelling – especially being vegetarian.”

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There are only a few reasons people don’t feel like they, too, could become wandering folk. Money is one reason [re-structuring your financial commitments is possible barring unusual circumstances, check out my $20,000 annual budget here] identity and fear another.  But habit might be the most common reason.

Once we’re in the habit of a 9-5 routine, it feels impossible to imagine anything else.

If you threw it all in and took a sabbatical, what would bloom in the sweet panic of empty time and space?

It’s important to remember that you belong on the magic picnic rug as much as I do and Sharnee does. If you’d rather be dancing on an empty road and experience days stretched out ahead of you, or just think you might like to try it, go ahead.

This world is yours. [but pack speakers, Sharnee’s most-often used item when travelling].

Wandering folk don’t mind a gap. We just jump.

climb [Haakon climbing at Tantawanglo river. September 2018]

Special thanks to Sharnee Thorpe, who provided me with stunning pictures and the quote below.  Please buy one of Sharnee’s stunning weatherproof picnic rugs before you quit your job and can’t afford to anymore!

And check out the Wandering Folk website, Instagram and Facebook page for inspiration as to what your gap might look like …

 

“Traveling leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” ― Ibn Battut

 

 

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Why having kids or not is the hardest decision you’ll ever make.

I’m at that age [34] where some of my friends have teenagers, some have newborns and some haven’t arrived at the question: should I have kids?

And then everything in between – friends who are decidedly no, friends who tried to conceive but couldn’t [how can I tell you, tenderly, how sorry I am that there won’t be a piece of you, more of you in this world], friends who have lost infants and small children and friends who are in communication with their partner or a fertility clinic about how and when they’ll try to conceive.

It’s an age where many of us end up doing a lot of explaining our choices. I’ve seen one end of this in the subtle reactions to my friend Kat, who is 37 and visiting us with her youngest child, 15-year-old Luka.

Kat is graceful at introducing herself and alleviating the quick, curious glances between mother and daughter. “My son is nineteen,” she’ll explain, “one of the benefits of teen pregnancy is that my kids will both be out of home when I’m 40.”

Although I’m grateful that we live in an age when people in the western world mostly get to choose when to conceive [you can read my post about that here: Contraceptives: the real measure of inequality]  – or not to bear children at all, I also think that such a wide window leaves many people reeling.

Kat and I met a couple in their early thirties with no kids last week that I knew a little and she had never met before. After Kat had said her above introduction, the woman cast a pointed, sideways glance at her boyfriend and said firmly “I think 32 is the perfect age to have kids.”

When I asked her why she thought that, she answered that she has really good health insurance right now with her job.

So this is America, where people base when and whether to have kids on how good their health insurance is.

But this woman had a point – when it comes to a big life decision like having kids, the idea that we are making a reasonable, calculated choice is a facade because we can never know what it’s really like to be a parent until we are deep, deep into the swan dive.

So we cling to some vaguely pragmatic reason like “I’m 32” or “I have good health insurance.”

When I asked him later if he wanted kids, on a blue inflatable raft floating lazily down the Kootenai River, the woman’s boyfriend looked around him and said  “I’m not sure. My life is pretty good.”

Five years ago, I would have said something encouraging about having kids but lately I take pause in this conversation: I work hard at saying nothing. Because this guy and everyone who is looking at kids realistically deserves to be listened to: their message is clear.

Why would we have kids?

The next generation of fertile people in the USA is not stupid – according to figures from the CDC in 2017, birth rates have hit an all-time low of 62.0 births per 1000 women aged 15-44.

Americans already work so much, too much, and one thing you can say about having kids is it is work.

Our friend and housemate, Laura, has lived in our basement for the last two years. Laura moved in pretty certain she wanted kids one day, but has since has referred to living below two kids as “excellent birth control.”

Sometimes the contrast between our lives is comically different: while Laura uses her superpower of rolling out of bed five minutes before she has to be at work, I am up and working instantly: called to wipe a bum before I’ve made it to the bathroom myself.

I don’t say this with any bitterness or regret but have kids if you love to work from the minute you get up to the minute you fall asleep.

carry

Parenting work isn’t just the physical labor of hauling our children around and doing the housework and work to bring in money to look after them. It’s also the hundreds of tiny decisions we make about our children every day, which start well before our kids can ask these questions:

Can I watch a show? can I watch another show? can I sleep over with a friend? can I have an apple? can I have an ice cream?

Parents need to become excellent at delegating because a huge part of parenting is taking care of yourself so you can function, which means outsourcing childcare and housework as much as you can.

I’ve noticed there are two camps when it comes to advice about having kids – the 50-60-year-old women who tell you to “cherish every moment” and “relish the little angels” [how did they forget so fast??!] and the realists, of which Kat definitely is.

Kat, a parent herself for 12 years then, told me before I got pregnant: “having kids is like being the designated driver. Your kids are off their faces. You have to guide them across roads and make sure they don’t stop to look at shiny things for hours in the alley. When they throw up, you clean it up and make them food. Then you put them to bed while they cry.”

Asking people whether or not they plan to have kids, and if so, when, is one of those questions that falls into the category of it ain’t my business –  at times I’ve started my enquiries, genuinely interested and Haakon has melted away in a way that tells me “you are being nosy and overstepping the mark.”

I’m convinced asking people about their reproduction plans can be helpful – I want people to know that it is a choice, and they can get out of the riptide of societal expectation that children have to be part of the plan.

That it’s OK to not want to add work to an already full life.

The hard part about parenting is that we don’t get to jump into it fresh every day- our kids may well be angels from heaven but we can’t treat them like that because we are so.damn.tired and emotionally wrung out.

I do see the moments of glee and love between the endless bowls of uneaten oatmeal and tiny decisions and barrages of guilt.

But when you have kids, at some point the exhaustion will catch up and your responsibilities will hit you like a speeding train. The train is coming whether you are 18, 28 or 38.

The train will change your plans, as it did for me last week when a quick dip in the creek on a hot day turned into a counselling session for Atticus, who is six and worried about moving to Australia next week.

As Atty shrieked and kicked the water and trains screeched over our heads in the pool under the railroad trestle, I tried to find a minute to dunk under the water and cool off as planned.

Kids don’t wait until you are in a good mind frame to break down – they do it when everyone is stressed and we have to step up and be there for them, which sometimes feels like the hardest thing in the world.

After three long days of random screaming and being irritable and argumentative, Atticus said to me as we were driving: “I’m just scared.”

“Of what?” I asked.

“I don’t know, just scared,” he replied.

Those three days were rough – thank goodness for Kat, who laughed at me gently while I cried, so confused as to why my kid seemed so angry.

As we work towards our big move back to my hometown [Bega,Australia] next week, we’re doing it with our kids –

Serious, scientific Atticus wants a book about Australian insects as soon as we arrive and Calllie is mildly worried we’ll fall out of the plane and narrates everything with song.

And Haakon, who I loved so much I wanted there to be more of us. I remember vividly telling Haak in bed in the dark that I was pregnant with Atticus and the words hanging in the silence for awhile.

While I waited for his response, I told myself I could do it by myself.

And I heard a slow smile spread across his face and he said “well, that’s exciting.”

Phewwwww.

I wanted to have kids so we could have those moments of exchanging glances because our kids are so cute/infuriating/amazing/hilarious.

We do get those moments, but I never knew how hard we’d work for them.

Maybe if I’d really known I would’ve opted for no kids and weekends in bed with frothy coffee followed by long hikes and hours of uninterrupted netflix.

But the decision is behind us and I’m so very glad because it’s one that humans have not yet been well equipped to make.

It’s just so big.

 

 

 

 

 

Finding home in small town America

Last night I found myself in a bar that’s located just a block from our house in Troy, Montana.  I’ve only been there a few times although it’s our local.

The bar has been there since 1914, on what’s known as Bar Street, a wide street that runs into dust and train tracks on one side. The freight trains that rush by are menacingly close, their horns a scream that shuts down all conversation.

Our friend Kat is visiting from Australia and we were at the bar with some friends to show her Troy nightlife, sitting outside in the heat surrounded by thick smoke from forest fires.

Kat took in the chainsaw carved motorbike, country music, group of Canadian bikers and the wooden sign in the bar which says: This is America: we drink beer, eat meat and speak fuckin’ English. Her mouth made that perfect little O that comics use to illustrate surprise.

The bar is not my scene [although I really dig the penis mural painted in tiny, delicate flowers on the back of the bathroom door], but it’s part of our community here, and Kat’s shock at seeing small-town, racist, conservative America makes me realize how far along the road to becoming American I am.

I’ve clung to being an Australian in America for many years, and clung to the right to ask, as Kat frequently has in her week here: “what is going on here, people? what even is this?”

But after three years in a row in the US and a citizenship ceremony, the split in my identity is happening and it does feel a little like being split in half, a painful but necessary division of cells.

Being American means accepting the shitshow that I see sometimes out my window or at the local bar.

I’m not usually a fan of country music, but a song that played at the bar last night by Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow captures a special kind of American self-destruction and a mournful sentimentality that reminds me of life in Troy.

A kid at the high school introduced me to this song years ago, and I could see how he related to the internal fight described in the song: I was headed to church/I was off to drink you away.

In a wider view, I see lots of folks who are finding that the American dream doesn’t live up to its reputation –  I met an upbeat guy from San Diego recently who retired from the oil business and told me that most guys in the business are miserable.

“I can see how they could be unhappy,” I responded and the guy emphasized “not just unhappy. MISERABLE.”

The group of Canadian bikies at the bar last night were as torn as I am about America: they kept asking us if we knew how lucky we were to live in such a beautiful place, but also how could we, how could we, be so impulsive and self-destructive to vote for Trump?

The bar we were at has something of that blend in its generous pours of alcohol. Last night I ordered doubles and regretted it instantly when I saw a full half bottle of vodka go into my glass, followed by a brief baptizing from the soda stream.

In 2003, when I made my first connection to the US through my friend Shawna, who was studying in Melbourne, Bush junior had just enraged the world by sending troops to Iraq, and Shawna copped a lot of anti-Americanism.

With an even more globally unpopular president in power now, Kat told me this week that when she said she was going to America, many of her Australian friends and family asked: “why would you go there?”

Since the glory days after the second world war, the US has slowly slid towards an international reputation as a country which readily foists its culture on other nations but is empty and broken inside.

Growing up, my dad resented the change in Australian English towards the American way – “creeping Americanisms,” he would growl when I used slang as a teenager.

I still don’t know if being American makes me less Australian – if I’m being diluted like my vodka last night wasn’t.

“Will they think you have an American accent when you get back?” our friend Al asked me last night.

“For sure,” I answered “I’ll get so much shit about it.  Don’t you think I sound American?”

Al and his wife Kate giggled at me, warmly amused and so sure of my Australian identity.

Yesterday we took Kat and Luka rafting on the green and roiling Kootenai river and afterwards she confessed to me: “I had no idea what you meant by rafting. I thought maybe we were going to rope some logs together but I figured if you were bringing kids it was probably safe.”

I’m not sure how safe I’d feel about riding logs strung together on the Kootenai, but I’ve grown so accustomed to other things about living here I almost feel I’ll miss them –

The other night I called 911 when a domestic dispute dragged on past 2 am, and was able to get the police to the fight with some very basic directions which didn’t include any street names or house numbers.

We know the guy a bit from passing in the alley behind our house and I feel like I know the couple pretty well after listening to their screaming insults float through our open bedroom window all summer.

The guy seems nice, but fighting with his lady is part and parcel of their existence – is this the “slow hell” Kid Rock describes?

“You’re a crazy bitch!” the guy yelled on that night over the top of her shrill shrieks. Haakon, half asleep, rolled over and put his arm around me, holding tight.

“You’re not a crazy bitch,” he said, rather smugly I thought.

This morning, in a conversation with Kat and Haakon, Kat talked about seeing herself as a New Zealander, although she’s lived in Australia for 12 years. And Haakon said he thinks of himself as “just being me,” although he is a citizen of the US and Australia.

Last night, at the Home bar in Troy, Montana, I listened to Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow crooning “come back home,” and thought about returning home in a few weeks as an Australian – American and one of 325.7 million US citizens with contrasting and dividing identities like mine.


home

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Champagne lifestyle on $20,000

Although the title of this post is a bit cheeky, I chose the picture above – taken at Wallagoot beach, NSW in 2015 when we were home to have our daughter – because in that moment, I truly felt like I was living the dream.

The air was warm, the sea was warm and green, baby Callie ate sand with our friend Kat while we swam, and I felt like a dolphin.

[As any woman who has had a baby can tell you, it doesn’t take much to feel like a dolphin in contrast to the lumbering of late pregnancy!]

I recently wrote a post about living below the federal poverty line, and several people have asked me to explain how that works, exactly.

Because Haak and I have decided our marriage wouldn’t survive if one of us got to live in their homeland, and the other only got to visit their’s, we’ve moved a lot in the last ten years.

Moving a lot is not conducive to making money the traditional way – by sticking with a job or industry, seeking promotion, and networking to move up.

Because people in our communities know we are transitory, employer’s have to be willing to hire us short term. The school district here employed me as a teacher’s aid and mental health worker when I first lived here, and some of those jobs I was able to work for two years.

Haak has worked part-time at our local hardware store for the almost three years we’ve been stateside this time.

And we pick up jobs painting, building, child minding, cleaning, cooking …

When we are in Australia, our income has typically been higher, [more like 26,000-30,000] but the dollar is worth less, wages are higher, and things are more expensive, so our quality of life is similar.

[Except we drink waaaayyyy more alcohol here than in Australia – a really good six pack of local craft beer costs $7-$8.]

Especially in the six years since we had kids, working less and keeping our income low has worked with our life – we wanted to be around  when the kids were small, so we’ve chosen to do paid work 2-3 days a week and work which is not paid but adds value to our lives, saving us money, the rest of the time.

[Like how Haakon built/is building our house, so our loan is only $38,000, but the value is something like $100,000, and I make us such delicious food that we don’t even want to spend $10,000 a year eating out. Also, there is nowhere to eat out in Troy!]

Our basic monthly expenses in Montana are:

$650 – mortgage, house insurance, land taxes

$130 – utilities [sewer, electric, water]

$45 – car insurance

$150 – health insurance

$70 – phone/internet

$400 – food

$100 – gas/petrol

$10 – Netflix account.

We rent our basement studio to our friend Laura, who pays us with $200 per month and by delivering sanity playing with and helping our kids.

[An aside: I still find it hard to think in months with finances, not weeks. Australian’s are generally paid weekly, and costs are measured in week’s, or by that uncommon concept in the US: the fortnight]

We do have a credit card, which we pay every month. I think it has an insane limit – $20,000, which is our emergency money.

In the years we travel, we need to buy plane tickets – I typically search online for months and buy the ticket’s that are so insanely cheap I run out of the house screaming: Get me the credit card! NOW! [this year I found Seattle-Sydney, via Hawaii, one way, four people: $1,600]

Some of our monthly payment’s are notably low compared to the national average – it’s because we do live below poverty line*** that our kids have free health insurance, and we have cheap government-subsidized health insurance.

Also missing in our budget, but common for many American’s our age are college loans [Haakon got an amazing scholarship to attend college, and worked summers, coming out debt free] and car payments. As far as I can tell, the combination of these costs can be $300-$500 per month for many people.

Luckily, there is a strong tradition of driving old, quirky and sometimes unreliable cars in both our families, so we’ll never have to worry about car payments or the cost of comprehensive insurance.

In March this year, we lost our first half decent car [a 2007 Subaru Forester], to engine failure in Pocatello, Idaho, on the way back from a trip to Utah.

It was hard to walk away from $5000 of value, but here’s where our real riches are: in the few months we have left before leaving for Australia, we are driving Haakon’s grandma’s 1989 Toyota Camry.

Not having to replace the car because of family generosity means the money in our savings account – $6000, accumulated from our tax return and saving when I was working last year – can be used to finish siding our house, take a trip to Denver to visit relatives, and fund a few days in Hawaii on our way back to Australia.

I once went to a training when I worked for the after school program here at Troy Elementary. It was about poverty and was designed for middle-class teacher’s working in poor area’s like Troy to better understand the actions of their student’s and student’s families.

The presenter talked about social capital – how instead of buying insurance, people living in poverty rely on their community as insurance.

Although I don’t feel poor very often, this part of our reality is true.  Haak and I are so lucky that our family’s back us, not by giving us money, but with grandma car’s, mechanical help, eggs and garden produce, work connections, and the assurance that if we ever really need it, they will loan us money.

I like the way not having lots of money stops me from buying things all the time without thinking about it.

We almost never buy new clothes, except boots and shoes [and my Darling jacket!].

If I had money, I would buy all new bedding, I would buy all new, handmade mugs, I would buy a new couch … I don’t need these things… I already have them.

I like the way being poor makes me appreciate gifts SO MUCH.

A friend gave me a gift voucher to the local plant nursery this spring, and it was pure luxury to just go and get all the plants I wanted. I never would have done that on my own [thanks, Tess!].

So there is some control, some deprivation, to live within our budget.

It’s easier for Haakon than it is for me because he truly prefer’s the free and recycled, whereas I occasionally lust over new stuff, or long to travel more.

The time I most often wish we had more money is when I want to be generous – and my tactic here is usually to use money sitting in savings from the other country [for some reason it doesn’t count???].

 

We’ve had good luck and good health, and I don’t feel poor.

I feel rich.

 

How much do you make? is it too much/too little? how do you budget? save? are you in debt? have you lived below poverty line? I’d love to hear from you!

 

*** in 2017, the US federal poverty line for a family of four was $24,600