As someone who writes about full, vibrant living, you'd be surprised by how often I think about death. A decade ago, a mosquito bite nearly killed me, and since, the thought of death has yet to escape my head.
At first, this dark thought was maintained by the shock of how close I had ventured to life's edge. However, I began stumbling upon benefits of having the thought of death in mind. Benefits in big ways: realizing the future was more of a question mark than a guarantee, I placed more value in the present. And smaller ways: death's consideration made public speaking less intimidating. After nearly a decade of toying with the thought of death and its various surprising effects, it recently dawned on me: remembering that you are going to die is the ultimate catalyst for a better life.
I found myself frustrated and stuck in Las Cruces, New Mexico last week.
Due to our federal government shutdown, I was locked out of White Sands National Monument and driving down to Big Bend National Park wasn't any more promising. Congress appeared gridlocked. The weather was uncharacteristically cold and gusty—and when I say gusty—I mean blow the lid of your peanut butter jar away at fifty miles per hour while you're making a PB&J kind of gusty.
It took almost a month, but I have finished converting my Honda Element into a tiny home on wheels!
As someone who works seasonally and uses the majority of their year to travel, read, and write, the nomadic "van life" has always appealed to me. With no rent to pay, the ability to move home anywhere at any time, and the resulting focus of such minimalism, I intend my near future to be a rare combination of adventure and productivity.
A couple weeks ago, I finished converting my Honda Element into the world's tiniest home on wheels. As a dude who travels with little interior design experience, the conversion came out better than I could have imagined.
One of the main features that took my Element from livable to friggin' sweet are its patterned fabric blackout windows. Made with a shiny, insulating material called Reflectix, most projects using this material end up feel like the inside of a low budget spaceship. I wanted a more homey, bright look to my space that didn't feel quite so shoddy or depressing. Patterned fabric, adhesive spray, and black duct tape proved the perfect solution.
In addition to looking great on the inside, these window shades blackout virtually all outside light. They also make it impossible to see into my Element, so I can comfortably sleep, with complete privacy, anywhere I'm allowed to park.
We've been taught that the good life is found in comfort—in luxury, in relaxation, and in doing as little as possible. Those best living the American Dream have the constant experience of the highest comfort with butlers, drivers, cooks, maids, secretaries, and assistants to anticipate their every want and need. At that pinnacle of comfort, one shouldn't have to do so much as lift a finger, every desire as satiated as possible in every moment.
Is constant comfort, ease, and luxury the real pinnacle of human experience, though? The rightful aim of the western world?
I don't think so. In fact, I've increasingly come to see comfort as false gratification, as the wrong target most are unknowingly aimed at.
I don't believe I’ll live to grow old. It's not that I think I'm going to die young or burn out before thirty because I'm living so hard. Rather, I know all too well that life could end at anytime.
When I was sixteen years-old, a mosquito bite almost killed me. I went to bed with a piercing headache, and if it wasn't for my mother's investigation of “strange noises,” I would have been dead the next morning. More than a close encounter with death, though, I struggled with the consequences of that illness the following two years.
This mosquito transferred a virus to me that infected the fluid surrounding my brain, causing it to swell and compress my brain resulting in multiple grand mal seizures, a stroke, and leaving me in a coma for four days. Over the couple years it took to fully recover my speech, my struggles were a constant reminder of how close to the edge of life I had gone. Every time I lost my train of thought, every word that wouldn't come out mid-sentence, every time I was told,“It's alright, Ethan” when I stopped a conversation dead in its tracks, was yet another reminder of life's fickleness.
Inspired by two books I read this spring, I started a philosophy discussion group in Silver Gate, Montana this summer.
My first encounter with the idea came from Shantaram, an incredible chronicle of an adventure in which the main character is swept up from the slums of Bombay into the city's all-powerful mafia. His first encounters with the mafia leaders occur at their monthly philosophy meetings. The second encounter came in Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, where I learned of Franklin's Junto, a weekly discussion group composed of a dozen rising tradesmen and artisans in Philadelphia.
In both books, these discussion groups seemed a vital ingredient for success, communication, and organization of both character's communities. I simply thought, "Why not try to start my own?"
I released an application a couple weeks ago for a Chautauqua, a gathering with the purpose of exchanging ideas about how to live. It was meant to be a six-day experience of wilderness, introspection, and discussion hosted at the Range Rider's Lodge—a big, beautiful log cabin structure I manage in the summertime located a mere mile outside of Yellowstone National Park.
As the innkeeper of the Range Rider, I got a sweet deal to rent the entire building at the end of September. By day, I envisioned long hikes, mountain climbing, wolf watching, and exploration of some of Yellowstone's best, often overlooked areas. By night, a couple speeches and small group discussion of the things that underlie our actions in life. I envisioned us riding the high of alpine forests and breathtaking mountain vistas while we shared the whys and hows of our lives.