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Being One with the Dirt

Last winter Sachi and I were invited to a small house party to celebrate Chinese New Year. We knew the hosts, Nik and Natalie, but few other people. Eventually, I made my way into the kitchen and met a friendly guy named Mike who had an interesting story, like so many who end up on Orcas. He is a professional potter who trained in China’s porcelain capital. 

Our conversation soon moved to the adjustments we all make in moving and how Orcas differs from other places. Along the way, he mentioned someone he knew who moved up from Seattle and was trying to adapt to island life. 

We talked about transitioning to a more rural, small-town environment and how things are generally slower, farther away, and less convenient. Compared to the city, anonymity isn’t as possible and the scuttlebutt travels quickly. These are common observations. But Mike said something that I’d never heard before and it stuck with me. His friend was having a hard time with the dirtiness of island life. 

Ever since, I’ve thought about that observation. Is it dirtier? What does that mean?

I remember experiencing this feeling before meeting Mike. Just after we moved, we were eating dinner at a cafe with farm-to-table food and cocktails. I asked the server for recommendations and she pointed to the menu with a fingernail stained with dirt. For a moment I was aghast. That doesn’t happen in Seattle. But on Orcas, it’s nothing. The cafe prides itself on growing their own food and it seemed like she came directly from the garden to our table. The food was delicious and dirt-free. 

In discussions about the dirtiness of things, context matters. Dirt, in whatever manifestation, is relative and I saw examples of that in Seattle.

Like many places, Seattle is surrounded by rural farmland. When there are events in the city like concerts or festivals, people arrive from all over. As a city-dweller, it was always easy to tell who had arrived from the small farming towns. They arrived in big trucks and were dressed in a more country fashion, with jeans and work boots. But it wasn’t simply their clothes. Compared to city people, there was a dustiness to their appearance. 

I remember noticing how they stuck out against the shiny urbanites and wondering if it was intentional or not. While I was perhaps smug at the time, I now see the contrast from a different perspective. 

Orcas Island has nicely paved roads, but most people use dirt or gravel roads on a regular basis. Most houses are surrounded by natural surfaces like rocks, grass, ground cover, etc. This is true for us now and will be true for the new house. By simply stepping outside and driving off the property, you can’t help but collect some pine needles or dirt. In the summer, the gravel roads ensure a fine dust coats everything. In the winter, the consistent rain keeps everything muddy or at least splashy. 

The reality of the surface became very real two weeks ago when we visited the construction site. I stepped out of the car and my phone dropped to the ground. Normally, this isn’t a big deal, as most surfaces are flat and a rubbery case protects the back and edges of the phone. But in this case, a rock was perfectly positioned to crack my phone’s screen on impact. Over a decade of having iPhones and this was the first cracked screen, thanks to living around gravel. 

The dirtier experience of Orcas has also had a slow, but obvious impact on how I dress. The first time I noticed it was looking for new shoes. I realized that I may never own another pair of shoes with white soles. They are impossible to keep clean on Orcas. The same is true for pants and shirts. My recent selections tend toward the earthy tones. This is mostly a practical consideration because I can live with dirt as long as it’s not so visible.

The same is true for vehicles. In the summer, the dust is so thick on our back window that we have to use the wiper blade to see. It’s an inescapable element of living on a gravel road and we’ve grown used to it. In fact, we’ve come to see it as a strange badge of honor that differentiates us from the tourists who arrive in pristine cars. If you want to find a tourist in the summer, look for a shiny car. 

This observation also works the other way around. 

At the end of last summer, Sachi and I rode the ferry to the mainland and made some stops at places like Costco. When we returned to the car, I noticed that it stuck out like a powdered doughnut among a dozen glazed. Dust covered every inch of its exterior. Then, I looked down. My shoes were dusty and dirty. My fingernails weren’t clean. I realized I was now the person arriving in the city from a rural location and making a subtle statement. My former self might have wondered: Why is he so dirty looking?  

This made me think back to the country guys in Seattle. They were arriving from an environment I didn’t fully understand. They were wearing what they wear every day and it’s the most practical choice for them. They didn’t need to put on new clothes (or airs) for the city people. The thought may not have even occurred to them. 

When I broach the subject of dirtiness among friends, the discussion usually turns to the definition of “dirty” and “clean” and I think it leads to the right perspective. Orcas Island and other rural places have fewer paved surfaces than cities. More people work with their hands than with computers. There are very different expectations about clothes and general cleanliness. But is it really dirty?

Visibly, the answer is almost certainly yes. But that’s not the whole story. In Seattle, we could walk the dogs for miles and miles and never step off a paved surface. We’d come home wet, but not visibly dirty. Clothes stayed clean more easily and white shoes worked. Yet, the city, like any city, has its problems with cleanliness. There might not be dust and gravel roads, but there is pollution, litter, and detritus. In the winter, the wet muck from traffic is far dirtier, oilier, muckier than you’re likely to find on Orcas. There is pollution in the air from millions of vehicles that drip all sorts of things into the water, eventually. And I can’t help but think of the noise. Planes, sirens, cars, industry, people. It’s another kind of pollution, but not dirt. It’s a city, after all. 

I’ve started to see that Seattle is dirty on a more invisible or microscopic level that’s easy to ignore. It is there, however, and now I am seeing an incontrovertible truth: everything is dirty all the time, everywhere. Sometimes it’s harmful and easy to ignore. Sometimes it’s harmless but visible. But we all live in a dirtier environment than we like to believe. 

So, I think Mike’s friend has a point. Orcas can appear to be a dirtier place compared to the city. But the dirt is different. It’s more visible and washes away after a long day of work. It returns to the ground just as it was before. Being one with the dirt is part of the transition and how you become part of the island itself.

Video: Big Enough for What Matters to You

Building a business inevitably comes with a personal cost. For many, that cost is debt, long hours, and reduced quality of life. Years of toil are traded for a shot at striking gold and the allure is undeniable. The risk can seem worth the rewards and I applaud those who choose to take it.

But I also believe that now is the time for a new perspective that challenges traditional notions of business success and respectability. Who is to say that a small, sustainable business is less successful than a big, growing one? Is an entrepreneur who values quality of life less respectable?

I created the 47-second video below to explain this new version of success and the value of building a business that grows what matters to you.

Learn more about BIG ENOUGH

Podcast Interview: If You Ask Betty

promo for lee lefever interview

Most of my interviews these days are focused on entrepreneurship and business, which is very much the subject of BIG ENOUGH. At the same time, Common Craft is well known in education and learning development. This discussion with Betty Dannewitz, of the podcast If You Ask Betty, was a cross-over and one I really enjoyed. Betty is funny and insightful. We discussed how learning professionals could approach building a business that’s big enough and the power/pain of intellectual property.

Listen to the entire episode below:

Podcast Interview: Mike Stopforth at One-Eyed Man

Mike Stopforth and I go way back. Despite being on opposite sides of the world, we have stayed connected since the early days of Common Craft. It was a joy to speak with him and hear his thoughts on BIG ENOUGH from a South African perspective.

Listen to the full interview here:

Listen to The One-Eyed Man with Mike Stopforth

Find more One Eyed Man podcast episodes.

Podcast Interview: Jeffrey and Jillian at Managing Partners

This podcast episode will go down in Common Craft history because Sachi agreed to participate. She usually prefers to work behind the scenes, but made an exception for this podcast since it’s about couples who work together. This is your chance to hear Sachi’s voice and see that, despite her perceptions, she is awesome in interviews.

We loved speaking with Jeffrey and Jillian at Managing Partners and I think it shows through in the interview. They were super fun! Here’s a snippet that will serve as a preview:

Listen to the entire episode:

Learn more about BIG ENOUGH.

Podcast Interview with Taesha Glasgow – Business Bound

One of the things I enjoy about discussing BIG ENOUGH with podcast hosts is how many of them are entrepreneurial and working toward a business that’s big enough. I think that’s true with a lot of people making media and art. They are choosing to evaluate success differently.

Taesha, the host of the Business Bound podcast, lives and works in Leeds, England. She’s a great host who read BIG ENOUGH, which makes a big difference in interviews. Her questions were specific and gave us a chance to go deeper into the themes of the book.

You can listen to the entire podcast here:

Taesha also provided this 30 second snippet:

Learn more about BIG ENOUGH

Podcast Interview: Mixergy with Andrew Warner

Listen to the podcast

Andrew Warner and I go way back to the early days of Mixergy and I always come away from his interviews having learned something about myself. He read BIG ENOUGH and asked questions that took the conversation in directions I didn’t expect.

We discussed Common Craft’s evolution, how we thought about competition and copycats, and a lot more.

My previous appearances:

The Simple Life in Northern Sweden

I’ve always been enamored with Scandinavia and feel some connection to the region as a resident in the Pacific Northwest. While it’s not as cold here, the landscape and people have things in common. In fact, the Pacific Northwest was a popular destination for Scandinavians in the early 1900s, many of whom worked in the logging industry. I recently read the book Deep River by Karl Marlantes, which is about loggers who migrated from Finland and settled by the Columbia River.

My friend Jeff Henshaw shared the video below, which takes a look at a young couple’s off-the-grid cabin in northern Sweden. The host, Kalle, is engaging and funny and the photography is beautiful. In terms of simplicity, it’s more than I want. But I do find it inspirational to see people making this choice.

Kalle is also on Instagram

In 2006, Sachi and I visited Finland, Sweden, and Norway. Most of our time was spent in the Lofoten Islands, which are inside the arctic circle. It was the most breathtaking scenery I’ve ever seen.

Lofoten isalnds landscape in Norway
Lofoten isalnds landscape in Norway

Here are our best photos from Scandinavia and a video on YouTube.

Podcast Interview – Live with Marcus Whitney

I first met Marcus back in the early 2000s. He was visiting Seattle for a tech conference and we hit it off. We lost touch for a while and I reached out to him a few months ago. To my surprise, he was also working on a book about entrepreneurship called Create and Orchestrate. His book came out before mine, but we shared a lot of the same concerns about publishing during COVID, etc. I recently read his book and found it to be a practical guide to entrepreneurship from someone who had done it. Among other things, I really love some of his core messages:

  • Entrepreneurship is accessible to anyone
  • You have to put in the work
  • Balancing important elements of your life is a key to success

Find other episodes of Marcus Whitney Live.

Lee LeFever Circle Author Headshot

About Me

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

My Books

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