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Tiny House, Big Island

"How we spend our days is how we spend our lives". This quote by writer Annie Dillard inspired the pathway I carved from a once traditional life--stressful full-time (plus) job, large home with a large mortgage, married–to a life and lifestyle which has become unrecognizable over the past decade.

When my job, home, and marriage all shifted in 2009, I realized that the disruptive and painful changes also brought opportunities for expansion of my life in every way, leading to greater happiness and fulfillment because this time around, I would write the rules I would live by. What are those rules? Simplicity, first and foremost. More freedom. More joy. More time with those I love. And, work that fills me with meaning and allows me to support others in having more freedom, joy, opportunities, and fulfillment.

In 2009, I began working for EPI, for only 10 hours per week. I simplified my lifestyle dramatically by letting go of lots of stuff, as well as the idea that I needed all that stuff, and that my life should look a certain way. I moved to Hawaii for a few months in the winter of 2010 to gain perspective and escape the harsh Montana weather. EPI was supportive in allowing me to telecommute, so I became one of the pioneers in that new workspace. Hawaii felt like home, so I stayed.

Several years later, a realtor friend called me about a large piece of land in a rural area of lava field on the Big Island, not far from the volcano. The prices in that area were already low, due to its remoteness and proximity to the volcano. The land she called about had just dropped 40 percent in price. I bought it, and soon afterward my carpenter friend built his own tiny house. Encouraged by his success, and curious about the dream of living free of rent or mortgage, and off-grid, I asked him to build one for me. He completed it in early 2016–a 120-square-foot beauty–after one week of work and a $6,000 cost.

Bluntly put, it is a simple shed...a cozy nest that allows me to enjoy the 3-acre "nature park" of land I live on...lava, with patches of native forest. Most of the time it is so quiet that the silence buzzes, or I hear only birds. Ocean sunsets and fantastical cloud formations are the norms. And at night, if the sky is clear, millions of stars dazzle. The house is simple for a number of reasons, and in that simplicity lies my security. Mainly, I wanted to be able to travel for longer periods–perhaps even live abroad–without having to worry about theft or squatters. With the cost of repairs, upgrades, et cetera climbing quickly, such a space is not affected. Nor does it attract thieves, or take much time for maintenance or cleaning. At one point recently, I lived in Mexico for nearly two years. Upon my return, within three hours I was settled in and had completed all my tasks, like pulling weeds and reviewing mail. In contrast with my prior life, I own my house, rather than it owning me. Many have asked, what do I do with all the time? A typical day might look like this: wake up naturally, with the sun. Enjoy a coffee, and spend some time in silence. In the later morning, I check email and do my work, often including virtual meetings with EPI colleagues. I may hike, swim at the beach, sit in silence in the fern forest, or some combination of those. In the afternoons I usually study a subject I care about, on YouTube. Much of it is looking to past remedies and practices to create a future more in tune with nature.

Living in harmony with nature is something I value. I use a simple composting toilet, a portable outdoor shower, and an outdoor kitchen. I grow my own salad greens. I know my farmer, for eggs and local free-range meat, and fruit. I use small portable folding solar panels and an inverter to charge my laptop and cell phone, and candles at night after dark. This has resulted in a dramatic decrease in water usage and waste.

Typically I use about 20 gallons of water per week. To put this in context, a single toilet flush uses about 3 to 5 gallons. My waste is mostly egg shells, fruit peels, and meat wrappers, so overall I discard the equivalent of one large ziplock baggie once every 10 to 14 days, and dispose of the egg shells and fruit peels in the forest patches.

This all took a lot of work, dedication, perseverance, and creativity. It happened in stages, over the course of a decade. There were times I questioned my decisions, my pathway. I made mistakes and blunders, and got frustrated. There were times that it full-on sucked! But I continued, sometimes changing course, or making new decisions. This life is certainly not for everyone, and some think I'm crazy. But the message is really that change is possible–even radical change.

In the end, I see it this way: due to a re-envisioning of how I understood a meaningful life, and a change in my values to what held more meaning for me personally, I was able to semi-retire at age 42, after a career in non-profit fundraising and, prior to that, five years as an inner-city public defender. These are not the typically lucrative professions, in fact, quite the opposite; and I did not receive an inheritance, family money support, or anything like that. I followed my heart and my dream of freedom and opened my mind to creative ways of understanding, and how to meet my needs. And at this point in my life I can say, with deep gratitude and some awe, that how I spend my days is how I spend my life.

Julia Whalen is a valued member of EPI's Development Team and we are lucky she chooses to spend her time with us!

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