Living in Public in Seattle 🏙🌲

April 07, 2019

By: Lee LeFever

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.

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

When I wash dishes and look out our kitchen window, I often sneak a peek into our neighbor’s house. It’s hard not to, as our houses are close together and the blinds on their family room are always open. They sometimes see me and wave through the window. It feels a little voyeuristic but is really a factor of city life. We live near people.

Our neighborhood of Mount Baker in Seattle isn’t downtown, but you could walk there. It’s a typical residential neighborhood, organized by blocks and tenth of an acre lots. Having lived at the same address since 2003, we know it well and count many of our neighbors as close friends. We’ve grown used to being, to one degree or another, a part of one another’s lives. We know when they leave for work, forget to put out the trash or are up later than normal. And like looking through our kitchen window, it’s mutual. We all live parts of our lives in public, by default.

The thought of living in public had never occurred to me until we started spending significant time on Orcas Island. Traveling back and forth brought the differences between island and city life into sharp relief. The city began to look different after each visit. People seemed to be everywhere, all the time. And there were so many things to do. New restaurants to try, shows to see, people to meet. What I formerly took for granted suddenly seemed new, and I had to ask myself: is this what I want?

Returning to the island also felt different each time. Island residents often say that when they arrive on the island, they let out a sigh of relief. I know the feeling, but never really understood what, specifically, made us both feel that way.

The best I can tell, it feels like pressure being released. For me, part of that release comes from a feeling that my daily life is more private. We have neighbors on Orcas, but I couldn’t throw a rock to their houses. Their windows don’t face directly into our kitchen. They don’t notice when we come and go, or when our recycling bin is too full. For the most part, my life feels like it happens without watchful eyes, and the pressure is off.

The relative privacy we feel, of course, comes with a cost. We may not live in public while at the Yurt, but on an island, being watched and judged is inevitable over time. And unlike the city, we’re not one of a million people. We can’t just blend into the crowd. Word travels fast and those who feel they are keepers of the island’s culture soon learn who is doing what, when and where. We’re learning that keeping a low profile and adapting to the island’s ways is best for newcomers like us. Orcas Island is a place that gives us that choice. Unlike in Seattle, we can choose to live in private.

Further, there is a feeling of relief that comes from there being fewer demands on my time on the island. There are festivals and community events every week, but it’s not like Seattle where there are dozens on a single night. By simply being in the city, I feel I’m obligated to take advantage of the bounty. I can’t seem to escape the feeling that I’m missing out, even if I choose to stay in. My FOMO is as real as it is irrational.

I don’t know if it’s my age or purely the experiences on the island, but I’m far more drawn to a life outside the city than I ever imagined. For the first time, I can empathize with people who want to get away and live in the woods. I can imagine a life with less convenience and greater self-sufficiency. I find myself asking: if I had to choose between island and city life, which would I choose?

There are no easy answers, but I know the relief we feel when rolling off the ferry is real and relates to having a choice to live more privately. It’s a choice of adopting a slower, more deliberate pace that depends less on a city’s events and more on an appreciation of nature, a small community, time with friends and honestly, feeling good about not doing much at all.


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On most Tuesdays, I share a story from my life on Orcas Island and a recommendation for something I love. I'm interested in how to design work and home for lifestyle, livability, and fluffy dogs. Learn more.

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