The author speaks at her book release, September 2015. Photo by Kenn Rich.
Today I had to interview a woman on behalf of the company I work for. The company president wants to bring on another person in my town. We’re a small company, just 4 of us so far, and I’m the only one in Bellingham—the rest are in Seattle. It wasn’t really an interview to decide whether to make her an offer—Brad is already sold on her. The purpose of our meeting was to give her the chance to find out what it’s really like to work for the company, and how the indie contractor lifestyle works, so she can decide if she wants to accept.
It felt kind of weird, talking up the benefits of freelancing and then answering the question, “Well, how much did you make last year?” My answer hovered close to the poverty line. Her eyebrows raised; I backpedaled fast. I explained that I’m working part-time and I have two other freelance writing jobs, and if she were able to work full time as a project manager, she could potentially hit six figures. I explained about my crash and my ongoing physical issues, and how I need to tailor my work to my unreliable condition.
This woman is a peer; I’m on her level in terms of career achievement, yet I felt the contrast between us. I’m 55 now and I use a purple conditioner that colors only the gray parts of my hair. I’m pretty danged purple these days. I was wearing cycling gear, no jewelry or makeup, having just come from a chiropractor appointment. “Jane” is 51 and has a fashionable haircut, salon-dyed to match her color at 24. She dressed appropriately for a professional meeting in our casual town in August—short skirt, Columbia Sportswear top. “I have to ask you this,” she said. “If you’re not working as much as you’d like to, how do you feel about Brad bringing on another person?”
The answer came more easily than I expected. “I’m kind of a coaster,” I responded. “I do bring in some business, mostly from one contractor I enjoy working with. I’d like to get more work, but it involves a lot of networking, and I have other freelance work that takes up a lot of time. If you brought your clients with you and got us some more, I would benefit from doing your overflow work. I can see you’re someone I’d enjoy working with; I’m fine with it.”
How did I feel so secure saying this? No shame, no kicking myself. I helped build the Seattle Great Wheel and the Second Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Why am I okay with being put out to pasture?
Because I’m in an absolutely great pasture. My tiny house life involves hard physical work. I ride my bike everywhere, driving only when I can’t carry what I need to on the bike, I grow lots of my own food, and tomorrow I’m making 5 gallons of my special “Glurp” home-brewed laundry soap for my friend I’m visiting next week. We’re on septic here; I make biodegradable Glurp for everyone. I’m tan, toned, and thriving.
I wrote a book. That’s bigger to me than the Ferris wheel, bigger than the bridge. I want to write more books, articles, blog posts—this may not pay as well as negotiating permits, but it’s so much more fulfilling and doesn’t require hours of studying on my own time to keep up with changes.
I still have constant pain, and while my pain meds are pretty effective, I’m often aware of suffering on some level. I garden for half an hour every night because if I left it a few days, there would be more than I can do, and I’d never catch up. I have to do at least an hour of vigorous exercise a day to keep my body strong and healthy—if I stop, I decline rapidly. When my knee injury kept me down for a year, I felt like I aged 30 years, and when it finally got better, I felt like I shed 25 of those years in a few months.
The world expects me to mindlessly keep working full time, to accept the decline and suffer the pain and the inevitable addiction to painkillers. The world wouldn’t forgive me for the addiction. I’m supposed to tough it out and be miserable for the rest of my life, and if I fail to do that or I succumb to drugs, I’m weak. Bollocks!
The days I spent conscious and immobilized on a respirator, waiting for my lungs to heal enough to breathe on my own, I was still actively fighting to stay alive. I knew all I had to do was let go and my body would shut down and it would all be over. The membrane between life and death was thinner than a Walmart blouse. I didn’t hang on so I could sit in a cubicle. I hung on so I could ride my bike through the wilds of Canada. I hung on so I could sleep in the woods and swim in the ocean. I have nothing against earning a living, but I’m not going to earn a dying. I will provide for myself on my own terms.
I downsized my life so I could live in a tiny house and reduce my housing cost. I joined a small intentional community so I could enjoy the camaraderie and support of a big family. I continue physical therapy on my own so I can keep my body at its best and stay healthy past middle age. It takes a lot of wits and creativity to get enough work to keep the wolf away from the door. I lost a lot of ground in the reinvention process; capitalism is an unforgiving system. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Jane and I need and want different things from our lives. We’re both doing the best we can. If we work together, we can both do better. I don’t need to compete with her. I’m capable of working on large infrastructure projects and I’m proud of that. I’m even prouder that I moved into a tiny house and grow my own food, I write professionally, and I take bike trips to visit my friends. My crash has changed my perspective on what’s important. The rules of regular society no longer apply.
How has your hidden disability affected your outlook and ambitions? Tell us about that.