It’s All Fun and Games Until Your Car Breaks Down {Spirit of the Poor}

This is my contribution to this month’s Spirit of the Poor link-up, hosted by Luke Harms. (Do, pop over and read Luke’s post, and link up your own!) The plan was I was going to do something a bit more analytical. But life happened. Fear not, it is completely relevant.

I know I always tell you that I’m a bit of a mess. This week I have devolved into completely a mess.

First, my car broke down on the way to the airport. I got a tow truck and got the car to the shop, even with my three little ones. With some help from a friend I made my flight.

Then I had a great vacation (really, I did) before I had the most epic and miserable flight home in recorded history. There were throwing-up sick kids and I had to call for a wheelchair in the airport, and it isn’t so easy to fly with three little ones by yourself anyway.

I just wanted to be home. But before there was home there was borrowing a car. And I was navigating my icy driveway in that borrowed car before I realized that I didn’t have my own set of keys because I had given them to the car repair shop a week before, and now that shop was 45 minutes away and closed.

In other words, before I could get home from my vacation, I had to get the yurt door off its hinges. By moonlight. Which might have been romantic EXCEPT my two big kids were throwing-up sick and whimpering, and my littlest was crying like a baby, because that’s what she is, and my husband was still in the Bahamas.

I got the locked door open with a hammer and size G crochet hook. And yes, of course, there was a moment of Wonder Woman awesome, and we have greater strength than we give ourselves credit for, and wow, this pioneer thing is nonstop adventure. Isn’t it?

But also I suggest we might want to discuss the series of decisions that led up to this moment. And I mean not only tragic oversights #34, #35, #36 but also a long run of decisions over time.

I’m talking about how I have intentionally and systematically shredded my own safety net.

Of course there is an epic tale between the part where I lift the door off the hinges and the part where I accidentally leave my house key at the car shop, but that isn’t the story I am telling today.

Today I am telling a true and wild tale of downward mobility. Watch how this stacks up.

Part One:

We choose economic rebellion.

We choose to build our own house (yurt) on super cheap land and try to live as much as possible from the resources of the land instead of swapping cash for the resources of the land.

We choose to live a life where integrity is priority number one and security and convenience are priorities not at all.

Part Two:

We live out of town. Neighbors are spread out from one another and the roads are minimally maintained.

We are flat broke and without a financial safety net.

When we do decide to make money (and we just did) my husband commutes or travels, in this case to another country. I am single parenting in a long-run sort of way, with no cash for a nanny or even power for a television.

Life = monumentally inconvenient.

Security and convenience are happening to me not at all.

Did you ever read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America?

I’ve been poor most of my life, so before I read it I already knew. Things cost more for the poor. It costs more to do your laundry at a Laundromat than to have your own washing machine. It costs more to live in a rent-by-the-week motel than it does to live in an apartment, for those who can cough up the security deposit.

When you are broke in America, you get backed into corners. You make bad choices. You struggle.

When you are broke in America, you are essentially terrifically screwed.


So here I am, opening the yurt door by its hinges, by moonlight. And yes, I do trace this back to economics. I depended solely on a car with more than 200,000 miles on the engine. I have no electricity. I don’t live in the happening part of town. We don’t have the kind of jobs where Nick can come home at the end of the day and pour me a glass of wine.

I know what it is like to live without a safety net, because I land occasionally where the safety net would be.

Now tell me this builds character. No, really, please. TELL ME THIS BUILDS CHARACTER.


I can’t always justify it, why I keep doing the hard thing. Believe me, I know better than anybody else how ridiculous it is. How it doesn’t make sense by any calculations.

But I don’t want to be the one who is a slave to my affluence.

I don’t want to be the one who says, “No, I can’t go on that trip to another part of the world, because I’m terrified of what I will see, and also I could never go for a week without a shower.”

I don’t want to be the one who says, “I can’t survive without x, y, and z. And that’s the way it is. Even if x, y, and z make me feel guilty, or force me to live in debt, I’m going to have to have them anyway.”

I don’t want to be the one who says, “I know that the majority of the world’s population lives in conditions quite different from mine, but I can’t think about that. Because I can’t survive thinking about it.”

I don’t want to be the one who looks at me and says, “I could never do what you’re doing.”

A whole big chunk of the world is doing what I’m doing.

I don’t want to be the one who says, “Yeah. I know there is injustice. I know there is evil. I know there is oppression… But I am powerless to change it. And so I stop my ears so I don’t hear the call.”

I fumble on along my path, even if isn’t justifiable by any logic. I won’t tell you that this lifestyle comes easy. Or that all the choices I am making are the right ones. But I want to be free from the chains of guilt. And weakness. I want to be able to take whatever life tosses at me, free and strong and courageous, armed with my hammer and my crochet hook.

And faith in a God of justice, compassion and FREEDOM for all.

Related posts:


  1. says:

    I don’t know if your decisions will build character, but they are the path to building a better world, to building the reign of God. Yes, it is difficult, and I thank you for dealing with the difficulties. Your story helps us make committments to face some of those difficulties ourselves, to shrinking our safety nets. We can say you are an inspiration, but to say it honestly, we must be inspired to follow your example, in some small way at least. You are an inspiration. (Now to examine my life and shrink my net)

  2. Stacey says:

    I love that you used a crochet hook, and I knew you were brave.

  3. Susan Schiller says:

    In the dark days it’s so natural to second-guess ourselves… in the times when it’s scary and doesn’t make any sense. You’re following your heart, living with integrity, and walking a tight line – this extremely narrow path – up a treacherous mountain. You’re on the leading edge of something huge, a movement that is bigger than you. I can’t imagine how you make it from day to day, but there are those holy moments when I’m sure it must seem a little more clear, when the light pierces through the dark fog of legitimate scares. You’ve faced bears, lions, frozen water, a dropped engine, sickness, poverty… and so much more, and you’ve overcome each obstacle. I want to be you on those very good days, the days of triumph…. but I’m not sure I have what it takes to live your life in the days of agony. There’s a feeling I have inside me right now, that these are your very best days. That from Heaven’s perspective, you are pleasing God very much. I feel joy in my heart each time I imagine you in your yurt, in the woods, listening to the mountain, and hearing the wind sing through the trees. I think of you pretty much every day and I send you love.

  4. Juliet Birkbeck says:

    I read this pretty much as soon as you posted it and have only just got round to commenting. I felt angry as I read it. As if I was being condemned for seeing what you see but not doing anything about it. I still feel a bit like that. I’m angry with myself not you but that took a while to accept. I’m moving towards seeing this as a challenge but scales from eyes is painful.
    I wanted to join this synchroblog because I loved the idea of being part of a group that challenged ‘others’ to see what is right! It doesn’t feel so good knowing that I now have to challenge myself but it does mean the blog is working!

    • says:

      So glad you joined.

    • Esther Emery says:

      Juliet, I understand this SO MUCH. And in fact one of the reasons for starting #spiritofthepoor is that I never tell this story, because I’m not interested in hurting people with it, even though it is my truth… I’m actually [struggling] to write a piece on this for Karissa Knox Sorrell’s Wednesday Wrestling series. I really do feel like the prophet Jeremiah, sometimes, you know? My life choices are a message that nobody wants to hear. I’m not clueless about that. But then do I not tell my story because of that? It’s really challenging. Anyway, I SO appreciate your honesty. It makes me feel like we can move forward and help each other and be kingdom together in the mess.

      • Juliet Birkbeck says:

        No, you must tell your story! You are out there in the wilderness, a prophet indeed, and just like those who listened to Jeremiah, I have to make a decision. Do I get over myself, grit my teeth and slowly move toward this challenging life you embody or do I denounce you as an extremist, cover up my ears and refuse to make changes.
        I’ve made my choice. I am where I am, but I need to be clear about where I want to go. I like Newell’s idea of a five year plan and I’m working on this. Sometimes it is good to be made to feel uncomfortable. I know that you are not trying to hurt people. I follow your story (and this synchroblog) out of choice because it is inspiring. And you are only truly inspired if you are moved to act on a new truth. It’s time to make moves!

  5. Caris Adel says:

    You are amazeballs and inspiring. You kick Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ass.

  6. Jamie says:

    Our downward mobility was kinda chosen for us but I’m not ungrateful. It’s an effective way to shatter the blinders. And I can totally go for a week without showering if I must. Growing up with six siblings and one bathroom- one learns to adapt. :D
    So I’m not sure if I knew before this incident that you crochet. Did I miss a blog post? I love to crochet though my projects are mostly dish cloths these days. I’ve heard the idea of repurposing thrifted sweaters for wool and I hope to try it sometime. Not sure if that helps the world much but it might make a small difference. :)

    Sorry I fell behind on this. I knew the synchroblog was coming but February is always even shorter than I expect. Glad to be doing this with you all.

    • Esther Emery says:

      I’m not great at crochet. I wouldn’t blog my projects, although for sure I also keep us in dish cloths! Thanks for joining us and being with us, Jamie.

  7. Caiobhe says:

    Reading this I am there in the car with the sick kids and the isolation and the door without a key. Frustration, exhaustion and battling. and yet…. I also understand why you are making those choices, and it is your integrity in this almighty wrestle with life that makes me want to hear your story and be inspired and challenged by you. So thank you for all of this. Keep going. It all matters.

    • Esther Emery says:

      I do keep going. Even if don’t know WHERE I’m going. I put this on your site, too, but I’m just thrilled that you joined this link-up this month! I feel a kindred in you for many reasons. thank you for being a friend to me and sharing your process so I don’t feel alone!

  8. rachel lee says:

    this is POWER. HOUSE.

  9. “I don’t want to be the one who says, ‘Yeah. I know there is injustice. I know there is evil. I know there is oppression… But I am powerless to change it. And so I stop my ears so I don’t hear the call.’”

    This is the same feeling I have and constantly get stuck on! There is so much injustice that we partake in every day (both knowingly and unknowingly), and so it is very easy to get completely overwhelmed by it and by the question “where can we even start to change this?” This is the question my husband and I ask of ourselves in our daily lifestyle choices and the question I try to challenge my youth and children and their families (in my ministry) continuously… And there is a bit of this that is true: Though we have the power to make changes in our everyday lives, we ARE powerless to make changes to systemic injustices at deep-rooted levels BY OURSELVES. I used to serve as a community organizer, and one of the first things we learned in training was that we NEED power (“the ability to act”) in order to make change. However, although we all hold within us a power to be agents of change, no one person has the power to make change by him/herself… Rather, power is built when people take claim of their own power and are organized together in community.

    And that is one thing I think you, Luke, and Newell are beginning to do by starting this conversation… building community and building power in order to make change. Thank your for this!

    • Esther Emery says:

      Emily, you’ve put words to it exactly. I find that even this very brazen things that I do, like living off the grid or building our own house out of reclaimed materials are not actually doing much to change anything. There are periods where I think it’s all bogus. I use a lot of gas because I drive a lot. And I have four months of the year that I can’t grow anything. And out here in the Idaho hills I feel removed from other progressive communities, so I’m failing at living this principle that building community builds the power to make change.

      But our link-up is giving it a shot! Each post is not the whole story. But a lot of posts together and a picture starts to emerge. thank you SO MUCH for sharing your wisdom here. It is really, really, really appreciated.

      • I hear you. I am realizing more and more that we truly are living in the tension… There is so much injustice and so much privilege we each participate in (knowingly and unknowingly), that no matter what choices we make to try to simplify our lives, we are still all participating in or contributing to some other unjust system… And often our choices to simplify in one area lead us to participate in unjust systems in another area… Catch 22. Though I try to make lifestyle changes in many areas of my life, I know that others are lacking, and I, too, sometimes feel that what I do is bogus. I think that the first steps, though, are educating ourselves about our privilege and its impact on others and finding even a few ways to be intentional about simplifying our lives so that we might leave a much smaller carbon footprint.

        Yes! I agree with you about the link-up! Looking forward to seeing and participating in the next one!

  10. Alia_Joy says:

    A hammer and a crochet hook? Dang, I can’t wait to meet you.

  11. Vanessa says:

    Yes, people don’t want to hear it, but keep writing anyway.I think if people feel judged simply by you stating their choices, that’s on them. If people’s discomfort continues to bother you, write about the baby steps that got you to making the changes. I think the bigger issue is how you will sustain this longterm; social justice by voluntary poverty & simplicity is a long, rewarding but tough road. (convent mission style life, plus kids? yowza. i couldnt hack the convent, much less a yurt.)
    This resonates and I’m glad you wrote it I’ve lived-some- of what you write about- as someone who was broke for 20 years (not by choice) while supporting a household. I was voluntarily broke while living in community and serving in projects here and overseas. There is a difference.

    . I think the question is not whether your family’s personal choices are making a difference on a larger societal/geopolitical scale. (The answer to that will always be kinda depressing, IMO.) The question is whether your family is being molded and transformed spiritually in the ways that bend toward fostering justice and discourage consumerism. In my experience, it is almost impossible to do that without radical changes (and what’s radical for each family will differ). Maybe
    that lens doesn’t work for you- for me, it takes our choices out of the realm of playing-poor-vs-truly-poor.


  1. To the Well says:

    [...] I’m not sorry I told my story this week, about how frazzled and frantic it can get. Living close to the bone, living close to the [...]

  2. [...] Esther Emery, who has chosen a life of homesteading and intentional subsistence living, wrote about the difficulties and blessings of this choice.  I don’t want to be the one who says, “I know that the majority of the world’s population lives in conditions quite different from mine, but I can’t think about that.  Because I can’t survive thinking about it.” [...]

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