Clarington, Ont. — Ontario’s job market was in a slump when I graduated York University in 2008, so I jumped at the first opportunity for employment. I started answering phones and doing admin work for an investment advisor in Toronto. It wasn’t glamorous, but it paid the bills. Over the next eight years, I made decent money with base pay, commission and bonuses, but I was unhappy with my career. I wasn’t passionate about the work, and my mental health suffered in the workplace.
I started having panic attacks. I ended up on long-term disability when they grew more regular and severe. My pay was cut, but my benefits and health insurance remained. When I tried to return to work, I was faced with criticism and anger from colleagues. “It must be nice to take extra time off in the summer,” they said. Our morning small talk over coffee was reduced to hurried hellos and a lack of eye contact. My return to work was unsuccessful.
At the same time, my relationship with the city became a growing source of stress. Saving money was difficult on disability, and I felt disconnected from my community. Bouncing from one cramped, overpriced apartment to another, Toronto never felt like home.
“It was only a matter of time before we left the city.”
Through therapy, sobriety, and patience from my family and friends, my panic attacks became less frequent. I was ready to start work again, but I didn’t want to go back to the bank. I needed something I was passionate about and could succeed at on my own terms, all with the understanding that my life must continue to change.
Through research, luck and pestering my now-boss, I became an online coach, which allowed me to transition my athletic skills into a career that allowed me to work from home. I took a big pay cut and worked only about 20 hours a week. Add in a partner who is unable to work, and our finances got tight. It was only a matter of time before we left the city.
‘We knew we were finally home’
My husband and I are outdoors people at heart. We camp, hike and canoe. Our home life is quiet and private, we don’t host guests or party, and we prefer to live neither seen nor heard. Our last apartment in Toronto was a one-bedroom walk-up in Forest Hill, a lovely little neighbourhood that shut down at 6 p.m. Living there gave us a taste of what we wanted in a small-town community.
By December 2018 and we knew we needed a break from the city (and our party-prone apartment neighbour’s playlist). I found the most basic and affordable rural AirBnB I could, booked a rental car with my rewards points, and for $59 a night we were on our way.
On the drive to the cabin we joked about moving into the AirBnB. The closer we got to our destination, the more serious our jokes grew. When we pulled onto the property, we knew we were finally home.
Our 200-square-foot cabin is located on the outskirts of Newcastle, Ont., in a small rural community called Clarington. It runs on a modest solar set-up of three, 100-watt solar panels hooked up to a pair of six-volt AGM batteries. The heat and stovetop run on propane, and occupants must either bring their own water from town or collect it in a rain barrel. There’s a small privy out back. Shower and laundry facilities are available at the main house on the property.
It only took one visit for us to approach the owners about the possibility of renting long term. By the end of February 2019, we had left Toronto behind for our new home town, population 9,000.
Happiness is waking up surrounded by nature
Our first night, I woke up at 4 a.m. needing the bathroom. It was cold and dark, and reality hit — there would be no stumbling down the hall to use the washroom. I had to get dressed, put on a headlamp and walk through the snow (remember, it was winter) to reach the outhouse. That frigid toilet seat was quite an introduction to the new challenges that would await us.
Our biggest challenges so far have been electricity demands and water supply. We need to beef up our solar panel system, but we’re divided on if we want to invest that money now or wait until when (or if) we purchase our own off-grid property. Working from home and running two laptops has demands we aren’t always able to meet, so we rely on the library when we have stretches of cloudy days.
Now that we can’t just turn on a tap and expect water to magically appear, we are working on being more aware of our water consumption. Cooking, dishwashing and hygiene consumes between 15 and 20 litres a day for the two of us and a dog. We recycle our gray water for the vegetable garden.
We thought we were clever moving in the winter, thinking we’d face the worst right away. We were wrong. Spring brings bugs — the dog and I have already had a tick apiece, and you can’t go to the outhouse without earning a few bites. As summer approaches, we’re coming to grips with the fact that a cooler will no longer suffice to keep our food fresh, meaning we may have to invest in a better solar panel system sooner than we thought or go without refrigeration completely.
These inconveniences seem small when we wake up every morning surrounded by nature. Our days start when the sun rises and we wind down when the sun goes down. Our new community is welcoming and we’ve already developed relationships at the bakery, grocery store and library. No longer do we feel the oppressive crunch of city life.
The simpler aspects of life have also been beneficial to our mental health. There are no more panic attacks. Our dog is happier. My husband, whose insomnia made it difficult to sleep, now slumbers through the night. We’re forced to practice mindfulness daily, to be aware of the decisions we make and the consequences of our actions like using water. Living in a small space, everything we own has purpose and a place, and that organization simplifies our lives.
Overall, we feel less chaos and clutter in our lives and minds.
How long we stay at the cabin is to be determined. Our dream is to find the perfect piece of land and build our own off-grid home — something to call our own, a modest dwelling where we can grow old in comfort and nature, and feel a sense of community in our small town. For now, we’ll squirrel away any savings we can and call this Phase One of our off-grid life. It’s an experiment to prove to ourselves that we can, and so far we are thriving.
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