The Mayday Experiment: Tough Choices, Strong Choices

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Regrets, I’ve had a few.

This week I did an interview with photographer Amanda Tipton, who is working on a project about, as she calls them, "strong choices." She and Sam Pike of The Forum Stories came to my studio, and we talked about the circumstances around my choice to pursue this project and to build a tiny house. Recounting the story to them from the beginning and explaining my rationale led me to several painful epiphanies.

When making a choice like this, forgoing the security of a retirement fund or investments and instead going all-in on a tilting-at-windmills project, you come to realize that to anyone else, you sound crazy. In fact, you even sound crazy to yourself much of the time.

And truth be told, I WAS pretty crazy when I made this decision. I was in the deepest, darkest hole I’d been in yet. No wonder I was watching so many YouTube videos about the end of the world…not only does my research naturally lead to such places, but my personal world felt like it was ending. I was leaving my relationship of 25 years and my home of 15, and facing the void of an unknown future. I’d been deeply betrayed and financially screwed by someone I had been friends with for almost as many years, and another longtime friend was instrumental in the implosion of my marriage. I was still trying to sort out and shake off the unbelievable mindfuck that was grad school and figure out who I was again — although grad school is not a decision I count amongst my regrets...it was a mindfuck, but in a good way. But that meant I’d moved to Ohio, and back again, only to go…where? In coming back to Colorado I had committed to it — but where did I fit in Denver, in a booming housing market filled with gentrification? My options were both limitless and incredibly constricting.

So I spent a lot of time in my deep dark hole, in my dark, 112 square-foot closet that was my new home, and tried to figure out what was next. Which meant figuring out what was important to me. And what did I want?

Unfortunately, as for most people, my wants are conflicting and ludicrously impractical. I want to live in Denver and Brooklyn simultaneously, spend most of my time at residencies making art, have a garden, bees, some chickens and a goat in the middle of nowhere and the city. All and nothing. What was most important? I started a list:

1. I needed to lower my living expenses so I could keep a studio and continue being an artist in the way I wanted to.

2. My work with nature was calling me to be nomadic…but at the same time, I wanted a sense of home. But if I was going to work with bees still, three months out of the year didn’t feel like enough…whereas in warmer climes, I could work year-round, though I don’t necessarily want to live there.

3. I’ve always wanted to get off-grid and be sustainable…could I do it?

4. The writing was on the wall about my neighborhood. It was (and remains) clear that the clock was ticking, and at that point, I had no idea how I could afford Denver’s new rent reality.

All of which is what led to the tiny house.

But at the same time, this project isn’t about the tiny house at all. It’s about the conversations – like the one I had with my bestie, Aaron Loki Johnson, as we spent twenty hours in a car driving to Utah to celebrate Easter with his family and friends on Kathy Munson’s beautiful compound. Somewhere near Glenwood Springs, I realized that part of my difficulty with this project was the timeline…I’m used to completing a project quickly and moving on to the next thing, or following my muse down paths in the studio. Usually my work happens in weeks or months, not years. This project, though it has measurable goals, is more of a long game, and one that requires me to continually don unfamiliar and uncomfortable hats: project manager, construction worker, designer, tour manager, communications specialist, filmmaker, accountant, fundraiser, sponsorship coordinator, booker, PR person and, finally, the more familiar roles of photographer, artist and writer, though the rigid discipline of this weekly blog is thoroughly unfamiliar. I need to be at least five people, and still earn a living and wash my dishes like anyone else. And I realized…this is the problem with keeping the conversation going about climate change. The problem of maintaining focus on something difficult is that it becomes emotionally and mentally exhausting, especially while trying to survive, like we all are. Staying in that place of crisis – the feeling of crisis over the environment that was the initial impetus for the project in the first place – is an impossibility if you hope to maintain any level of mental health. But maintaining that focus is crucial for me in order to do the work, as it always is. And same for us as a nation, and a world: We cannot constantly look at and talk about the thing we most need to look at and talk about, so we distract ourselves with Kardashians and Biebers…it’s simply too difficult to contemplate the potential end of our species, or the inability of the planet to support our grandchildren, so we shut down. And that’s what I’ve been doing, too…getting overwhelmed, and shutting down.

Like many artists, I am continually plagued with self-doubt, and question every idea endlessly. That tireless inner critic thinks everything is stupid, everything is a bad idea, and by the way, I’m going to shrivel up in a back alley and die alone and unloved and yadda yadda yadda. I know I’m not alone in this…enough of my friends have shared their dark nights of the soul with me that I no longer feel like the only freak who feels this way. In fact, this tendency is so well-known that art critic Jerry Saltz regularly posts Medieval torture pics illustrating the phenomenon on his Instagram and Facebook pages. In grad school, my friend Chris Purdie and I comforted ourselves, texting in the dark hours of the night when we thought we sucked the most, by reminding one another of the Dunning Kruger effect – if we thought we were horrible, then surely we must be okay, right? Because if we really thought we were actually good, well…then it’s possible that we just didn’t recognize our own ineptitude. This project has been plagued by those doubts, like every other…I have come to accept it as part of the process, but when in that deep dark hole, it’s hard to climb out.

But every time, what brings me back to life, what re-energizes me and reminds me of why I am doing this, is the conversation this project inspires. Last week, my Uber driver asked about the tiny house, and was so excited that when he dropped me off he jumped out in the rain to look inside (where it was alarmingly wet — it is past time to finish the roof and weather is almost warm enough!). Each person I speak to about the project responds with excitement and warmth, and sometimes even envy.

But every road taken, every long commitment, means saying no to other things. Each choice is a sacrifice of potential other paths. And as with any commitment, there are always temptations.

In the past couple of weeks, there have been a couple of serious temptations, on paths that I had always dreamed of choosing. In one, it was my dream job, something that I had even written business plans for in the past: starting an artist’s residency in an old church in upstate New York. I had even gone as far as bookmarking “church” on real estate websites on the East Coast for my frequent fantasy searches, and an artist’s residency was exactly the end goal I had in mind. My friend Michele Colburn, who knew this, e-mailed the job posting to me, and for the next 24 hours I was wracked with a growing horror that this – what I had always wanted – was staring me in the eye, but because of the Mayday Experiment, I had to say no. I was no longer free to choose that, when a year ago I would have jumped at the chance and done anything for that job. The one thing that finally let me feel better about it was a look at their budget: $80,000 to start the program from scratch and pay all program expenses – including salary. I thought of the long hours, the fact that wasn’t enough to pay two full-time people, the fact that I would have no time for my work, and the fact that, in the end, it wouldn’t have been mine anyway —  and that was always really the dream.

The other opportunity was another I had long waited for: my friend Mary Frembgen was looking for a roommate in Brooklyn, and my rent would actually have been cheaper than in Denver. A year ago I would have gotten rid of everything but my cat and been on the next flight. But now…tiny house. I can’t just walk away.

That’s the thing about choices — the hard part isn't the choice itself, but sticking to it. And on that, I no longer have a choice.  

Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is blogging about her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on Show and Tell. If you'd like to support her journey, you can pledge here. See more of her work at lynnxe.com.

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