Sunday, July 24, 2011

Mynrva and The State newspaper.

Serious downsizing, living on a boat


Christine Johnson has been doling out the artwork she owns, asking friends to hang favorite pieces in their homes so she can visit them.
Paintings are the one thing she has a tough time doing without.
This summer, Johnson, 42, is downsizing from a loft apartment in downtown Columbia to a 350-square-foot pontoon boat she has restored on Lake Murray.

She can’t bring herself to sell her artwork.
Everything else is expendable.

She has to cull her professional clothes to three or four suits. That’s all that will fit in the closet.
A gourmet cook, she’s keeping the wok but getting rid of the KitchenAid mixer and Le Creuset pots.
When she considers buying something, she said, she’s guided by one issue: “Where am I going to put it?”
Her boat, she said, has become “an expression of me and my values and what matters.”
Johnson is a South Carolina native who moved back here about a year ago.

Before that, she was Rep. Christine Johnson, a state legislator in Utah, doing something she loved in a place she no longer wanted to be.  Her relationship with her partner had dissolved. She had just had a baby, as a surrogate mother, for two friends who are gay. Her daughter was moving away to college.
She found herself in a midlife crisis — 10 years early.

And so she decided to come home for a job as director of S.C. Equality, an organization advocating for the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, addressing the bias she has learned to confront.
Life on the lake provides freedom, tranquility, simplicity.

In February, Johnson found a place in Camden she thought she might want to buy. It had four acres and a pond. But the thought of furnishing such a large home “made me feel really heavy,” she said.
She shook off the feeling and went online to find a rowboat for the pond; she could envision herself reading the New York Times in a rowboat, she said.
What she found was a pontoon boat — cheap, small, rough — and a big project.
She decided to become one of the small group of people who live on a boat on Lake Murray, a group so small census-takers don’t take note.
“It felt healthier and lighter to live with less,” she said. “To be more conscientious about my role as a consumer. And I thought, ‘This could be really fun.’”
The boat didn’t have a motor. Its flat roof leaked.
“It was just a mess, a mess, an utter mess.”
The owner was asking $4,500. Johnson offered $2,250.
And then she set to work, learning how to do electrical work and plumbing, lay carpet and set tile.
She gutted the inside and hired a contractor to put on a roof.
“Part of taking on something that was a risk was having the opportunity to learn things I don’t know,” she said.
This past week, the boat was finished, for the most part.

Carl Sundius, who owns the marina where Johnson is docked, sometimes fixes up boats to resell. But he said the pontoon boat Johnson bought was too big a project for him.
“She’s tough,” Sundius said. “She did it. It’s turning around really nice.”
Johnson figures she has $7,000 in the boat she named “Mynrva.” She probably needs to invest an additional $1,000 on furnishings and storage.
That would leave her with an $8,000 home, along with plenty of money to travel — Thailand is her next dream destination — and to pay for daughter Olivia’s college education.

“I just had to stop and reprioritize,” Johnson said, “because my daughter has been my priority and, finally, I’m living with a degree of freedom I haven’t known for 20 years.”
She enjoys having a “dock family” who shares an affinity for the lake — people who come aboard with a beer, sit down to share a story or two. Folks take turns visiting each other, she said.
“At night, it’s really very still, but every now and then, there’ll be a little bit of a rock, and that’s lovely,” she said. “I don’t think we can deny: We grow up in an aquatic environment until we’re born.”
Johnson gets up early, makes coffee and watches as “the light starts dancing and animal life becomes more active.” Geese, turtles and fish live off the bow. Here, she is a little more connected to her natural environment.

For Johnson, the serenity of lake life provides balance. “The more our lives have been ramped up into making money, and work, and stress, and all this stuff, maybe the more we seek that balance.”
She has found her boat is just enough.

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