‘Every now and then we have these experiences that slice our lives into before and after’.
Recently I read this statement on Elaine Fraser’s Instagram feed where she was posting quotes from Shauna Niequist’s book Present over Perfect. She shared enough gems from Niequist that I ended up buying the book for Danelle for Christmas – and I hope she reads it quickly because I want to get into it too.
While Elaine shared a new thought every day or so, this one struck a chord. I’ve had a few ‘before and after moments’, but my mind turned to one immediately as a standout. It was like I knew intuitively that THIS was the ‘before and after’ moment that had given new shape to both us and our family.
You would probably expect me to say that my ‘big’ moments were the day I decided to follow Christ, or the day I got married, or the birth of our kids… and I guess they were, but instantly my heart and mind flashed back to an altogether different experience.
Maybe its because (nearly) everyone gets married, has kids, buys a house etc… Don’t get me wrong – these are significant, but perhaps the before and after moments need to be thought of as unique and specific to our own lives and our family’s life… (or maybe I’m just trying to alleviate my own guilt at not seeing these as the biggies…)
The one I keep returning to was our 6 month trip around Australia way back in 2009. I still think of our (family) life as ‘pre-trip’ and ‘post-trip’ and while that might initially sound somewhat odd, I have come to see it as a pivotal, shaping experience for us.
So much so that any time someone indicates they might be interested in some extended travel with kids in tow I can’t affirm them enough.
For us life ‘before’ the trip was neither remarkable nor unremarkable. We had made some very conventional, predictable choices and to some degree fallen into line with the rest of middle class suburbia. We had bought houses, had kids, kept steady jobs and followed a fairly standard trajectory for people in our life situation. Our kids went to the local school and we had slotted into the local community.
We had also made some less conventional choices by leaving a secure pastoral role in a good church to plant a new missional community and by engaging with some of the fresh missional thinking that was just taking form in the early ‘noughties’. It was largely untested R&D type work we were in and it didn’t all go to plan. (We learnt many things that ‘didn’t work’…) As part of that period I found myself raising personal financial support as we kicked off ‘Upstream’, and then Forge. I had a role coaching Baptist youth pastors for a while and when that ended I stumbled on the idea of starting a ‘hobby-business’ in reticulation.
It was 2007-8 when the financial boom hit Perth and property prices went nuts. We heard of the idea of building a house and selling it on completion. Banks were lending money to literally anyone – even missionaries whose ‘on paper’ salary was around $15K – so we borrowed an insane amount of money to fund house, land and all finishings and then we borrowed extra to fund the interest payments while the house was being completed. It was utter foolishness in hindsight – except for the fact that the property market was about to explode. In that one year we made over $200K and wiped out our mortgage. It was a shock to the system for us low income pastor types who had resigned ourselves to paying a mortgage off over the rest of our working lives.
I remember being on a train to Kalgoorlie on the day I heard that our investment project had sold and that we were now no longer $150K in debt but we were $50K in front… It was a disturbingly liberating feeling – disorienting even, but with it came a sense of freedom and dare I say it, power. That’s a word I dislike – and I dislike that I felt it – because it speaks of where I find security, but it was the truth nevertheless.
Around that time I also found myself surfing eBay regularly and ‘watching’ big ole converted bus style motorhomes. It wasn’t a result of being debt free. It was just something I would do as I dreamt (quietly) of what it would be like to own one and to travel around the country. I eventually suggested to Danelle we look at buying one and travelling around Oz for a year. She laughed, baulked… but didn’t shut things down completely.
The kids were 6 & 8 and slotted into school and friendships. We were well connected and embedded in the community. There were friends to think of… family… our small missional community… But I was also tired after 8 years of pioneering work and really felt the need for some space – for some ‘R & R’ away from the ‘R & D’. Our missional community was struggling to survive and it seemed that maybe this was a way of bringing closure to that time of life.
We had built a second spec home and finished it off just as the market stablilised. We lost $5k or thereabouts on this one and it was here that I developed some retic skills, as I needed to finish the landscaping work to save some $$. It was a bummer not to make more $$, but we were still in front financially so we just called it a learning experience and moved on.
We began planning the trip in 2008 – it gave us a year to anticipate and think it thru. I’ve discovered anticipation is half of the fun, so now I plan the following year’s holidays well in advance. We bought a 1996 GQ Patrol – a sensational car that was going to be our tow vehicle around Oz. The bus idea had gone out the window and we were trying to work out the ‘best compromise’ for travel. Space, ease of operation, ease to tow and comfortable to live in. We finished up with a Jayco Eagle bought from the nice people in the next street.
Given our last few holidays have been in a full Jayco expander van, I chuckle when I think we travelled for 6 months in an Eagle… It seems so small and flimsy now! After a couple of test runs with the camper we felt pretty confident when we hit the road in April 2009 that we could make this work.
We were still in investment mode and after the last failed project we went for something safer. We borrowed $250k and put it into a property syndicate that was returning 40% PA and had been very reliable. We figured we would travel and make $100K while we were away… It was a nice theory and if we had been a year or two earlier it would have succeeded. Around the time we left, the syndicate director became hard to contact and while occasional emails and texts assured us all was well, but we had become a little worried that all was not going to plan. The GFC was starting to ripple out and while we wanted to believe the best, it was clear we stood to lose a bit of that money.
Before leaving we had also been thru a ‘trial’ at Quinns Baptist from December to April. It was a trial in more ways than one and it hadn’t gone very well. The church was quite polarised when we arrived, and our presence and leadership accentuated that. While we were gone the church would vote on our future ministry and hopefully we would come back to lead them. While the trial had been difficult we felt sure it would all smooth out and we’d come home to leading a church and running a hobby retic business in the background. We’d make some more savvy investments and live a fun life.
Of course we didn’t realise the impact 6 months on the road would have on us…
So what happened while on the road for me to give it ‘before & after’ status?…
We had fun – lots and lots of fun, as we explored, adventured, learnt and discovered. Fun matters in family life and – fun is serious business. Many of our friends in the neighbourhood were busy people, struggling to even take half of their allocated annual leave. We were regular holiday takers, but this cemented in us the value of enjoying being together and of making space for family holidays.
I remember someone told me about the value of camping for family life, but me and tents don’t get on that well… The camper however became our Taj Mahal and we loved it.
I don’t have much sympathy for those who tell me they are too busy to get away and then complain about their life. We make our choices… I think our kids have been shaped by this choice into people who find fun easily and who will make ‘time-out’ a priority for their own families.
We discovered we could live really (really) simply – There isn’t a lot of space in a Jayco Eagle so both big and little people’s toys were kept to a minimum. No one struggled. We had the bare essentials and we were forced to focus on other things – the environment around us – the people we were with.
We read a lot – we read to the kids each night – Enid Blyton’s famous five… I still remember the suppressed laughter as we read about Dick & Fanny… a joke our kids now ‘get’, but were oblivious to back then. ‘Dad – what’s so funny!’ Sam would ask. ‘Mum! Tell me!’
We travelled light with clothing and we never ran short. I recently did another clothing audit in my own bedroom and wondered why I have all this stuff!
What is it about being at home that sees us continually acquiring more stuff?…
We realised we could live well on a very small budget – Different from ‘living simply’ – in travelling around the country we lived significantly cheaper than we did while at home. We didn’t try to travel particularly frugally, but even when we stayed at upmarket caravan parks we still lived much leaner than an average week at home. I would say that when all was spent (food, fuel, accomodation, fun) we lived on half of our back home budget.
Half… that’s crazy hey?
It was far cheaper to live on the road than to live in a suburb. I think this discovery actually gave us an ‘ace up our sleeve’, whereby if life ever got financially ugly we knew there was a way to live cheap if we need to – just pack up and travel…
Danelle discovered home schooling – If not for the time away our kids may have spent another 5 or 6 years in primary school doing what every other kid does. But 6 months of travel convinced her (and inspired her) to make home schooling her role when we got back. As we got home there was no thought of re-entry to regular school life and I know our kids have loved and benefited from it. They have been one year back in regular school and are doing well academically and socially. Sam can even spell his own name now.
Home schooling spun off in other advantages. I saw a lot more of the kids as they were around home – and I did my share of teaching. We had some more fun times – memorable times. This way of life afforded us the option of organising school around holidays rather than the current system of having to fall in line with school holidays… something I am pretty dark about now.
Home schooling taught our kids to think differently about ‘the system’ a learning I hope doesn’t get bled out of them over the next few years.
My relationship with money changed – The experience of paying off the mortgage had left me somewhat elated, so when the news came in half way thru the trip, that we had been taken for all of our $250K and were now in huge debt – greater than we had ever been – I had a number of reactions. The first was anxiety – a struggle I had never had before and rarely experienced since. But I remember lying in bed at night from Townsville onwards realising we were coming home to an uphill struggle to get back in front financially. I felt devastated – and I don’t use that word lightly – which was odd because pre the investment era I had hardly given money a second thought. We needed enough to live on and that was the deal.
Now I wanted to be somewhere else. I wanted to be back where we were 2 years previous – debt free and feeling ‘powerful’, but instead I felt weary and defeated and there was no quick fix or easy way out. I struggled as I considered the shape my life would take when we went home.
We contemplated ending the trip early and just trundling home asap to get started on earning $$ to pay off the debt, but we made a conscious choice to not be floored by it and to continue as we were. We would allow interest to accrue on the debt and deal with it when we got home. While the anxiety never completely lifted we were able to keep a positive frame of mind and put in the drawer marked ‘when we get home’.
This was a valuable decision and while it was difficult, I think it was our way of saying ‘we will not let this control us’, even if it was eating us up at times.
It was the beginning of my 7 year wrestle with money and its place in our lives.
I discovered financial planning – Again, making money was never really part of our lives pre trip. ‘Enough to get by’ was the mantra we had lived by, but the loss of $$ and the time on the trip gave me a window to consider what we would do when we got home.
I did some sums and realised that if we lived really tight and if business went well, we could probably clear the $250K in 5 years. So I came home with a plan – I was a man on a mission and as with most things I get into, it became a bit obsessive. I kept a log of where our money went. I kept a record of how much we were earning and after one year we were well on the way. I was now a serious retic guy as well as a pastor. We cleared the debt ahead of schedule in 4 years and my body told the story of it with all sorts of overuse injuries flaring.
Had it not been for the loss and the experience of the trip I don’t think we would have had to grapple with the challenge of finances.It was way too easy to get in front and equally way to easy to kiss all of that money goodbye. If not for the loss I would have never contemplated the possibility of paying down debt rapidly by hard work, but in that time I learnt that you don’t have to settle for the 25 year plan.
That said, even now I struggle to be in any debt and I’m still processing my own relationship to money. There is some good – some growth – and some darkness that lurks and snarls at me. It is tenuous and fragile.
We took the road less travelled – and it did make a difference. The choice to take 6 months out is becoming more common but it was still seen as a bit odd back then. Homeschooling has grown hugely in popularity, but then it was still the domain of denim skirts and head scarves.
My physio once introduced me to his work experience girl as ‘this is Andrew – he’s semi-retired…’ and I realised that is how he perceives me, possibly because its how my life looks from the outside.
Being your own boss has much going for it and I doubt I will be working for anyone again over the rest of my working life. I work at my own pace – I am not chasing work and I take days off when I want to. Yesterday was a ‘work day’, but I took Danelle & Sam, because its my business and I can…
Pastoral work also allows the sort of autonomy that I need to feel alive in.
We flew blind into a storm
Around the same time we heard we had lost the $250K we got the message that the church had gathered and we had been ‘voted off the island’. That was a knock. We knew it was a possibility, but didn’t really expect it to happen. We knew we had stirred and made enemies, but we wanted to make sure there was no mistaking who we really were and what we were about.
At the crucial meeting there were enough ‘nays’ to send us packing. The church then had an ugly fight and we got invited back again. Long story and best forgotten…
But we then had to make a decision – to accept or refuse… It didn’t feel like a healthy environment to head back into, but it felt like the right call, the one God seemed to be leading us towards, so we just swallowed hard and said yes. And into the storm we flew… because it was hard again when we got back. Conflict and tension was rife, but we had committed to being there so we fought thru the struggles and kept going despite resigning internally every second week.
I think pre the trip I might have just said ‘screw this’ and walked away, but we had a sense that this was where we were to be for a long time and that taking a few knocks was just going to be part of the experience.
Seven years on I couldn’t contemplate being anywhere else, and often we imagine this as our last stop in paid Christian leadership. But then.. occasionally when I hear of a basket case, beat up church that is in chaos and mess I think to myself ‘I’d like a crack at helping them get healthy again…’. Its not a scary proposition, nor a hopeless one. We’ve been there done that and seen what God can do.
I’m sure there is more that I have missed but I have no doubt that 6 months of travel shifted something permanently in our identity as a family and we have benefited from it. So if you are contemplating a similar experience I can not say strongly enough, ‘DO IT!’
Don’t be put off by the obstacles and challenges. There will never be a perfect time to take 6 months out, but the sheer act of choosing to make the space will create new openings and learnings you will have never contemplated previously.
There was ‘before’ and there is ‘after’ and in between was a 6 month trip around this great country of ours. More than that there was an unexpected internal journey that began and continues on today both for us and our kids.