This month's Unfinished interview has a little twist: I've been wanting to feature someone who has been living with a long-term unfinished project that simply takes a really long time to unfold—so long that regular life has to coexist with the Big Unfinished Thing by any means necessary. My friend Michelle is the perfect candidate (she and her husband are building their own home!) and I'm excited to welcome her for a little Q/A!
Tell me about your path to your current life as a blogger, modern homesteader, homebuilder, homeschooler, crafty thoughtful simplifying mama…
A little back story on us: We’re a family of six living on 5 acres in rural Eastern Iowa. We have four kids ages 11, 9, 7, and 5, a Great Pyrenees dog, three cats, three rabbits, and 20-25 chickens. I have a big garden and try to grow a lot of our own food, and the kids are homeschooled some years and public-schooled others. In my spare time, (hehehe), I am an active blogger at SimplifyLiveLove.com and share menu plans with freezer cooking tasks, farm to table recipes, the passive house build, our escapades traveling with kids, and homeschooling and art projects. We enjoy traveling and take a lot of road trips, and I also love gardening, reading, art, and messing around on the computer. I had a vision of a peaceful, organic life for us, but our reality is actually a bit more chaotic. And loud. There’s always a lot of drama, but somehow we make it work.
In 2005 we were a family of four enjoying active duty Air Force life in Colorado Springs. I guess you could say we were a little disgruntled with the suburban lifestyle. I grew up in a rural setting in Germany and Dan grew up on a hog farm in Eastern Iowa, and although we really enjoyed urban living, we didn’t want to raise kids in the city. We both agreed that we wanted to raise farm kids, but didn’t know how to do that unless we said good-bye to the Air Force and moved to the country. Since there weren’t a lot of job opportunities for junior level military officers in Eastern Iowa, and since we pretty much like to do everything the hard way, we also decided to become self-employed instead of looking for secure jobs.
The home building industry was booming and we’d always been quick to jump into home remodeling projects, so in 2006, we moved to Eastern Iowa and became unemployed home builders. Shortly thereafter, the bottom dropped out of the housing market and we had to scramble. That’s when I became a simple mama. We found out that we could live on a lot less money than we thought we could because we had to. I started gardening, thrift store shopping, cooking most things from scratch, and tried to waste as little as possible and found a lot of ways to make sure we still had a pretty good life. We also kept having babies and grew from a family of four, to a family of six. Luckily, the housing market eventually rebounded and money isn’t as tight as it was, but we are still on a mission to appreciate the simple things in life and stay out of the rat race we see on TV. We try to live by the motto that the best things in life aren’t things, but that does come with its own set of challenges.
Your family has undertaken one of the biggest projects imaginable: building your own home.* How do you balance building your own home with other responsibilities and creative pursuits and still get some sleep?
We decided early on that the house build was a long term project and we have not quit living during the process. Maybe we could have built the house more quickly than two years, but at what cost to our sanity? I’m glad we keep taking advantage of good opportunities as they arise instead of focusing solely on the house. In the two years that we’ve been working on the house, we’ve taken two trips to Europe and several trips within the US. When we have a good opportunity for a trip or family fun, we take it. The breaks help keep us grounded and rested. And when people say “You’re STILL working on that house?” we just smile and say yes.
In addition to building a new home from scratch, the Marines renovated a free barn into a temporary home during the homebuilding process (it will later be the dedicated headquarters of their business offices)
Building your own home obviously isn’t a short-term endeavor. What strategies have you and your family used to keep yourself motivated for an all-encompassing long-term project like this one?
Deadlines. We’ve been building this house for almost two years now. The passive house process is complicated and uncommon. And it uses materials that aren’t readily available in the United States. We’ve had a lot of unforeseen complications (the coldest and worst winters in years, massive shipping delays, etc) that have slowed the process down a lot, but I’m not sure we would ever get it done if not for deadlines. We have a peer group of home remodelers from all over the US coming to see our home building / remodeling business this fall. Since they’re here to see the business, and we’re living in our offices in the barn, we have to get out! That means, the house has to be finished. Or at least finished enough for us to move into. Efforts to finish the house dramatically stepped up after Christmas this year. Our barn is a comfortable barn, but it’s still a barn. It’s chaotic and unorganized and Dan and I both feel like we really need the stability, space, and organization of a real house. That’s motivated us as well.
Aside from building the passive house, what other projects do you have going on in your home at any given time? Do you like to start and finish one thing at a time or have many unfinished projects going on at once?
We always have a bunch of mostly unfinished projects going on. Dan definitely is the finisher, and I’m the collector of cast aside half-finished projects, like the box of quilt tops I made in 2000 and never finished, and the half written blog posts in various stages on my blog. Dan’s a woodworker so he’s got furniture projects in various stages. I’ve got a lot of half-read books to finish and discarded homeschool projects as well. I start more projects than I finish, for sure!
Despite what sounds like a very complicated couple of years for your family, you believe very strongly in keeping things simple. Does it come naturally or do have to consciously work at it? What tips can you offer others to incorporate the idea of simplicity into regular life (and creative pursuits?)
We do enjoy the simple life. I love hearing my five year old yell for me to look at the sunset! There’s a huge sense of accomplishment to see my kids focus on things other than electronics; but to be totally truthful, we struggle with screen time just as much as the next person. Some things come naturally and some we have to work at. The best tip for keeping things simple that I have is to turn off the TV (or put down the phone) and go outside. I’ve worked hard the last few years to purge unsupportive people and things from my life. Facebook is most often a huge waste of time and something that can really upset me if I take the time to read comments on this, that, or the other thing. I try to ignore the negative and focus on the positive. That means I have to let go of what people think about me and worry instead about what I think about myself. It’s actually really hard for me and I’m a definite work in progress.
*The Marines are building a "passive house," which is an extremely energy-efficient home which originated in Germany. You can read more about this unique style of home here on Michelle's blog.
Michelle Marine is a modern homesteader, blogger, and homeschooling mom of four kids living in rural Iowa. She writes extensively about frugal living, cooking with real food, gardening, traveling, and homeschooling resources, all the while helping to manage Oak Tree Homes, her family's homebuilding business.