I love good stories. My favorite books are stories, fiction or non-fiction, though I especially appreciate memoirs and autobiographies.
In my experience of reading stories about both real people and fictional people, I've found the stories and lives of real people are the most fascinating to me. Not that I don't love a well written yarn. I totally do, but you and I are as interesting as any fictional character. And the stories we've lived are worth telling.
Five summers ago was a very significant summer. In May of that year we left Maine to launch our great adventure of Life 3.0. We wanted to build location independent work that would allow us the freedom to have adventures. We wanted to travel and live in beautiful places.
That summer we were living with my parents in Nova Scotia, getting on our feet financially, before moving to the Gaspe peninsula. We had just uprooted our lives in the United States. Damien and I were launching a dream of being self-employed, working together online. In July and August the two of us (our first time away from the kids) traveled out west to Montana, Wyoming and Utah. We celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary in an atmosphere of inspiration and hope; big sky and big ideas.
We had our whole future in front of us. You always have your whole future in front of you but sometimes you are more keenly aware of it, and that was a season for us of great anticipation of the future.
It was during this time that I read the book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller. Partly because of where I was at, in the formative stages of a significant life change, and partly because of the zeitgeist of my internet world, I was very inspired by the book. Writing the story of your life, living your life's story, life as story... story, story, story was the message in my wider world and was echoed in other books like Bob Goff's book Love Does, another book I really enjoyed.
I made copious notes at the time. I wrote drafts for posts I never published. I felt I had gained another nugget of wisdom in my insatiable quest to understand myself and to live with intention.
Living a good story became another way to phrase the kind of life I wanted.
That summer I wrote the following in one of my journals:
I have felt the Spirit saying, "I've given you the desires of your heart to build a life at home together. Now open your hands, open your heart to the reason I've placed those desires in your heart. The endpoint is not to bless the Tougas family so we are happy. We are blessed in health, family, talents, gifts, resources, etc to bless others."
This was not a new revelation. This is the ages old story of a life well lived.
Energy and love is to move through us, changing us, making our lives rich with experience, relationships, and resources so we can bless others with the same.
And the ways in which our lives are rich are as varied as people are different.
The story that unfolded from that point in my life was not the story I thought I'd be writing with my life.
I believed if I lived with intention (or if I made all the right choices) I could escape a lot of the struggle, pain, disappointment, and loss that are a necessary part of every good story. Triumph is only triumph because of challenge. Joy is only joy because of pain. Beauty is only beauty because of ugliness. Contentment is only contentment because of disappointment.
I was optimistic, hopeful, perhaps naive. I don't think this is unique to my situation. To embark on any great adventure - marriage, parenting, starting life in a new place - one must possess ridiculous amounts of faith, a simple ignorance, or some combination of both. Most of us have no clue about the heartache we'll encounter in our journey, and it's probably better this way.
That summer I thought we had done the hard work, encountered the worst in the actual uprooting and moving process (which was very hard) and now we "had arrived" even though we hadn't actually "arrived" anywhere.
I hate this part of living a good story. That you must struggle for success and ache before joy; and that the whole thing repeats itself over and over in our lives. Even though I recognize those are the very tensions I find most compelling in the memoirs, biographies and fictional yarns I love to read.
Being back out west this summer I have been reminded of all this. Reminded of how I felt five years ago, the optimism and anticipation. Reminded of the dreams Damien and I shared and how progressing in some of those dreams facilitated amazing experiences in our lives but also painful personal and marital growth. And I am especially reminded of the importance of people in the story of our lives and how it is the connections we share that bring the most satisfaction from living.
Damien and I value travel and adventure. We value going places and having new experiences, and of course we value big nature experiences.
We love to go places but in this life season we don't have a lot of money to do so.
Talking about money always feels a bit awkward but I don't know how you can write about life and travel and adventure without talking about money. I am an intensely practical person and I always want to understand the details of a situation, not just the broad stroke picture.
One of the reasons money talk is awkward is because there is great disparity in the world, disparity in communities and in families. In other words, we all have different means. But we also have different priorities and values. I would actually be ashamed to admit some of the things we don't do and don't buy because we place greater value on experiences together, buying a winter ski pass for example, driving out west for this trip. Those decisions mean we've made sacrifices in other areas, we prioritize.
But some people have so little money to begin with that the budget is not about priorities, it's about survival.
So when I say we don't have a lot of money to travel, it's relative of course. We have a travel budget in the order of hundreds of dollars, not thousands. And for a Canadian family of five wanting to go interesting places it's really not much. In Canada, a full tank of gas for our car costs $50, half a hundred dollars.
The real cost of travel for us though isn't the destination. With good camping equipment and being comfortable with minimalist camping and traveling, it's not the travel costs that are the big expense. The big cost now is that as self-employed people growing a business at the same time we're raising three teenagers, we can't afford the time off. There have been seasons in our life where Damien was able to take a chunk of time off of work and we took trips/holidays/vacations mostly to visit family. But that is not our current life season.
Our restricted travel budget is not really the point of this post but it tells the backdrop against which the real story emerges, the story of people and connections.
The summer of 2011 Damien and I were eager to kickstart our online business ventures by going to Outdoor Retailer in Utah. We also wanted to be in the Rockies and see this area of the world. We had a bit more money in those days, we flew out here, but we still wanted to get by with cheap accommodations. Through my years of blogging I had gotten to know people online and I contacted them to see if we could pitch a tent in their yard, stay in a spare room etc.
One of those people was Katie Clemons. Katie had recently launched her online journal business Gadanke. She and her husband Martin were renovating part of an airport hangar into an apartment. I asked her if we could stay a night. She said yes, and we packed a lot into the less-than-24 hour period we camped out at their airport property in the Paradise Valley.
That one night was the start of something unexpected and unknown. It was a real pleasure to meet Katie in person, but the surprise for me was how well our husband's hit it off. An introverted, deep-thinker, engineering geek, Damien truly connects with very few people. But Damien made a connection with Martin, a fellow engineer deep-thinking sort who loves the mountains, and it is that connection, and the business they now share, that brought us back to this location on this trip.
Since meeting Katie & Martin five years ago they have completed their apartment in the hangar and been featured on HGTV. Katie has built a beautiful journal business that includes the kid's journals' Time Capsule and Between Mom and Me. She's given a Tedx talk and been featured in a bunch of press. And they are now proud parents of Niklas, an exuberant and inquisitive tow-headed toddler.
Katie & Martin are big dreamers and big do-ers. And they are generous and hospitable.
They also operate an Airbnb at the airport, one of their many ventures, and we are guests in those accommodations (plus pitching a tent) as homebase for our time in Montana.
All of this is such a gift. The connection and friendship and having a place to stay in one of Montana's most beautiful valleys.
The offer and availability of accommodations when we came to Montana allowed us to do the same with our home in Montreal.
After we left Maine and moved to Quebec I felt socially isolated. I loved the Gaspe Peninsula's beauty but there were very few women like me with which to connect. I was lonely and so I took a chance and reached out to an online friend of mine.
Krista had been reading my blog for years and we had gotten to know each other fairly well through comments and private emails. In the heart of winter, during a difficult spell, I sent her an email "could we chat on the phone?" She said yes and that started a most beautiful and close friendship.
I met Krista in person three summers ago when she and her husband Georges traveled to Quebec City and made the extra long journey to meet me on the peninsula.
Krista is a soul sister of mine. We've only met that once in person, which seems crazy to me because I can't imagine my life now without her friendship. It's an effort to maintain our friendship. We schedule phone calls about once a month and then deep dive into our lives - kids, husbands, vocation, personal growth, faith and spirituality - we share our struggles and joys and say "me too" more than I can count. I love Krista.
And so when I announced to friends on Facebook that I would be traveling this summer and we were looking for housesitters, Krista, an adventurous francophile jumped at the chance. She invited her close friend Anno to join, both of them flying into the city from elsewhere in Canada, to enjoy a Montreal vacation.
I have been following her Facebook feed while I'm here in Montana and it is a pleasure for me to experience her delight in the city and apartment I call home.
Both her and Anno could not have afforded this experience without the option of a free housesitting gig.
One of the dreams Damien and I talked about five years ago in Big Sky Country was doing a thru-hike with our kids, having a grand, life-changing adventure together. The following winter, the same winter I reached out to Krista, we set a date on the calendar for that adventure.
When we announced on my blog that we would be embarking on this journey, blog readers invited us to stay at their home as part of our adventure. People wanted to host us along our way; offering beds, showers, meals and shuttles on our resupply days.
I met Lori, through my blog, a year or two before our hike announcement. We had chatted about homeschooling and she was one of the first people to say, "when you come to Georgia, you have to stay with us. We live very close to the Appalachian Trail."
Lori and Robert Powell were our first hosts. We stayed with their family two nights before our hike began. After returning our rental car, they shuttled us around driving us to the grocery store, outfitters, and post office. They cleared their schedule for us, they helped us with whatever we needed to do. Lori made us a fabulous supper and the next day, loading their family of five and our family of five into two vehicles, they drove us to the start of the trail at Springer Mountain.
When we were hiking the trail we were a family of five without a vehicle, without a home, without a lot of money. It was a vulnerable feeling. We relied on the kindness of strangers all the time. It was incredibly humbling. This dependency, this need, taught me a ton about myself (that I don't have time to explain here). And it taught me about the goodness of people.
I felt like there was no way I could repay the kindness of the families that hosted us on the Appalachian Trail. Some of them were complete strangers to us, friends of Facebook friends. And their hospitality and generosity of spirit is part of what made our hike successful. We couldn't have done it without them.
Early this year as Damien and I strategized this summer trip - how could we possibly afford to do this? what about our cats? what about my needs for a homebase, for routine, structure and some measure of predictability? - the part that was most clear is that we could share our Montreal apartment in our absence. We could make our home a homebase for another family's adventures. Or someone could use it as a personal retreat space.
Sometimes we feel we don't have much to give in this resource-intense season of raising and homeschooling three teenagers on one income. But we have a home.
And when I offered our space on my blog and Lori's was one of the first emails in response, I was so delighted. Finally, a small way to repay her family's hospitality during our hike.
In that last week of June as we got our home ready to host seven different families in our absence, I experienced a deep sense of "this is what I'm meant to do, this is part of my calling, part of my life story"; to prepare a welcoming space for people, to share my home with travelers and strangers.
As we scrubbed the house clean (I have minions to help with my labor), stored personal effects in closets, set out books we're giving away; as I spent hours writing a document of what to do in Montreal, best transit routes, neighborhood recommendations, etc. what I experienced most of all through the process was joy. Even though the weeks were so busy and time was tight as we prepared to leave for 6 weeks, sharing our home with people did not feel like a burden, but a blessing.
This was the living expression, an expression that felt right for me, of what I wrote five years ago, "we are blessed in health, family, talents, gifts, resources, etc to bless others".
Five years ago, when I was reading those books and blog posts about living a good story I could not have anticipated the very painful parts of the past couple years.
We were in Big Sky country, talking big dreams, full of hope for the future.
We were going to live an adventure!!, forgetting (or selectively choosing to ignore, or simply not realizing the extent to which) we would pay a price for that adventure. An ordeal, a death of some sort is always part of the Hero's Journey; always part of a good story.
We thought the hike would be like a Hero's Journey, and it was. We accepted the call, we were given help, we weren't sure we would make it, more help came, we worked harder than we thought was possible, we experienced a transformation, we came home changed.
But the price we had to pay was not what we expected. It was not financial, it was not the investment of everything we had in terms of physical resources or the draining of our bank accounts (which did happen). The price we paid was personal, it was the inner places where the death and rebirth needed to happen. And I had no idea what was coming.
If we are to experience any significant growth in our lives, if we are to become better people (not bitter people) through our experiences, the Hero's Journey is the path we'll take. Sometimes we will make decisions to hasten this growth, sometimes situations will be forced upon us, but we have to accept the challenge again and again if we are to live a good story, which is to live a good life.
Everyone's good story looks different.
For me, building kindred-spirit relationships with people is a good story. Sharing is a good story. Hospitality is a good story.
Everything about this trip is a good story.
I am contented to be writing this story, living this story.
Ironically though, to live and write this story, we had to be in a place of need. I was lonely when I met Krista. We had very little money for this summer's adventure. The families staying in our Montreal home this summer feel likewise.
I am often tempted to believe it would be so great to do things in our own strength, on our own dime. To take vacations in that gorgeous, high priced guest house. To pay for it with our "hard-earned money". To feel impervious to loneliness so we wouldn't have to depend on other people.
But it is our need that drives us to each other, that helps us make the connections that are the life force of any truly great story.
I'll tell you straight up: I don't want to be in financial need and I have a hard time relying on the generosity of other people. But in the same breath I acknowledge that I want to share, I want to love, I want to give. You can't have one without the other. I must receive in order to give.
Returning west to the place Damien and I felt so hopeful all those years ago, full of dreams and aspirations has stirred my soul in ways I hadn't anticipated.
When we got off the trail and I felt so broken and adrift, questioning who I was and what I valued, where I had gone wrong to experience the pain I did while hiking the trail, Damien, trying to helpful, recommended I revisit what I had written before the trail, to remind myself of the hopes, dreams and our aspirations for the experience.
The thought of that actually sickened me. In my deep struggle and my shame at feeling broken I felt like a fraud for having been so hopeful. The last thing I wanted to do was read the optimistic words of my pre-adventure self, it made me feel stupid and naive.
When you're in a state of despondency it's not necessarily the best time to recall your previous ideals, but to simply face forward and hope, beyond hope, that those ideals were not misplaced. Your good intentions, dreams, and aspirations took you on the path you were meant to take and that all will be revealed, in time.
I can go back and read those words now with compassion, affection, and gratitude for who I was then and who I am now.
And I can clearly see this is a good story.