I slept last night “off-the-grid” in a solar-powered home—the straw bale house Shelly and Joe Trumpey ’88 and are building near Ann Arbor, Michigan. We had all the water and electricity we needed and more, the place was as comfortable, if far more interesting, than any other not-quite-finished house I’ve stayed in. And other than the stories behind each adobe wall plastered, each beam cut, milled, and placed, each stone they’ve laid in it, and the sweat (and occasionally, blood) poured into it, it wasn’t much different than spending the night anyplace else.
It didn’t really hit me until a few hours after I left.
I stopped at a K-Mart near Jackson to pick up some Diet Pepsi. I was only 25 miles down the road from the Trumpey’s place, but it seemed a world away. My world.
Five us in line at the only cash register open buying mostly stuff that will be in the landfill in a month, much of it on sale (which is why two of the folks in line have whole carts full of God knows what from God knows where). The woman in front of me is carrying a big box with a plastic “Swan Princess” castle she found on sale for $29.99—says she didn’t know what her granddaughter wanted but thought this would do, and the party’s today. I’ve got my aspartame-sweetened Pepsi and some socks made in Pakistan (having soaked both pairs I’d brought to the Trumpey’s place during the photoshoot).
The overworked woman behind the register is polite enough—nearing the end of a 12-hour shift, she tells a co-worker, with only one five-minute break. She completes our transaction with barely a word—the debit/credit card machine gives the instructions, her presence hardly necessary. She talks through us to her co-worker. We walk past them, almost through them, with little or no acknowledgement.
As I walk out I look back at the line, even longer now, with more somber faces, no one talking to each other except the requisite woman wailing at her kid. Then I walk back to my room to write a blog entry about two people who have put their vision for a better world and their philosophy for a better way of living into practice in the form of a home they’ve built with their own hands and hearts.
Hence the cognitive dissonance.
Now at the curmudgeonly age of 54, sometimes I look around at the world I’ve helped usher in and I despair for my children and grandchildren. The consumerism, the “brands” and their false promises of satisfaction and identity, the free market without a conscience. Our price-driven lives come at a terrible cost. The digital age offers terabytes of information but little wisdom.
Sometimes it feels as though we just go along because we can’t find—or can’t summon the courage to find—another way.
Shelly and Joe have. And although during my stay I didn’t once hear them whine about the state of the world (as I’m doing here), they’re doing things to help heal it. Their lifestyle—their efforts to grow most of their own food, buy local, reduce their carbon footprint, take risks to live as they think wisest for themselves and the planet, and their decision to live off the electrical grid while being as invested and perhaps more engaged with their community than ever—are the antithesis of what I experienced and inflicted on others in that K-Mart line.
The ways they come at this are too numerous to describe here. We’ll have more in the piece we’re publishing in the Fall 2010 issue of Wabash Magazine. But the house itself serves as a pretty good metaphor for the wonderfully creative (though admittedly exhausting) way these artists—one a third-grade teacher, the other a professor at nearby University of Michigan—have chosen to live their lives and raise their daughters Autumn and Evelyn. I’ve posted an album of photos from my shoot here, along with captions explaining a few of the features of the house.
I spent last night in the guest room (which was until very recently Shelly and Joe’ s bedroom, family room, office, etc.), having been warned ahead of time of the house’s unfinished state and that the guest room was dusty and cluttered.
And it was, and wonderfully so. Making something that really matters can get messy. And Joe and Shelly had never seen my office at Wabash, so had no idea that a cluttered but well-lived in room would make me feel right at home.
One of their collies bounced up on the bed after midnight and slept at my feet. Even more like home.
I slept off the grid last night, but it felt much like any other. Until I started thinking back on it. And on something Joe said as I was leaving. I’d congratulated him on how far he and Shelly had come in building the house, how I thought Wabash would be proud of him. “We’re pretty proud of it ourselves,” Joe admitted. “But you know, that’s the great thing about being an artist—you get to make things.”
Read more and see more photos here.