Participate in Your Life: Meet the Ortons


 For this installment of Participate in Your Life, I have the pleasure of introducing you to the Orton Family. Several years ago, I met Erik during a conference in NYC where he was one of our guest speakers/performers. The next year,  I was able to meet his lovely wife Emily as well. They are an amazing couple, full of energy and laughter and they exude graciousness. Forever, I will equate the tagline, “You only live once” to them and their philosophy of life.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your family and your background?

My wife, Emily and I have five children, ages 6-17 . We’ve lived in NYC for 15 years in a two bedroom apartment. We moved there right after college. I’ve largely worked in the theatre and entertainment industry with some forays into creative media and graphic design.  Emily stays home with the kids and for the past seven years has home-schooled them, including our youngest Lily who has Down’s syndrome.
Erik & Emily 2013

In our home, we encourage creativity, entrepreneurship and a personal relationship with God.  We try to celebrate excellence
and ingenuity in every field. We love to sing and make music together. I love it when my kids tell me why they love geometry or the periodic table; when they say, “I’ve got a new song to play for you”, or when they show me a picture they’ve taken
or a drawing they’ve made. It has been important to my wife and I to teach our kids to think for themselves, to be independent and create their own individual paths in life.

This year you have packed up your family for 8 months and are sailing the Caribbean with them. Could you explain how this came about and what you are doing?
Years ago we decided we wanted to sail as a family before our kids left home. We all started taking sailing lessons in NY Harbor and for several years I window-shopped for boats.

In July of 2014 our oldest daughter, Karina, turned 17. Most likely she will leave home within the year after that. If we waited any longer, we would go – eventually – but not with all of our kids. Finally, we realized it was either time to go sailing this year or accept that it would never happen. And one of the goals was to go with all our kids; so we decided it was time.

I could have stayed at the same job. We could have kept living in the same apartment, driving the same car, living a great life. Because we have a great life.  We’re so happy.  We actually don’t think we could be any happier. We just believe this earth God gave us is beautiful and we want to see more of it.  We want to meet more people on it and we want to do that as a family.  We don’t expect to come back happier, per se.  But we do hope to come back with our minds and hearts expanded, to love, appreciate and understand people and the places we live more deeply.

Plus, Emily and I are both turning 40 in 2014. We’re considering this adventure an “intermission.” We’ll stretch our legs, get a drink, use the proverbial mens/ladies room, look each other in the eye as much as we can, and then dive back in for Act II. So in December 2013 we bought a boat, I gave notice at work, and we bought plane tickets for the whole family to St. Martin.  In February 2014, we flew down with what we could carry, plus 2 guitars, 1 fiddle, 1 mandolin, 2 ukuleles, 1 churango and a tambourine tucked in one of the guitar cases, and moved aboard our boat.  We’ve been living on it full-time ever since.

What have been some of the payoffs to living in close quarters with your family for months? Some of the drawbacks?

The one drawback seems to be getting seasick.  If you’re constantly on the move, your body gets used to being at sea, but if you stop and hang out at an anchorage for a week or even just a few days, your body de-acclimates and you have to go through that adjustment again next time you head out.  That’s no fun.

Payoffs – One payoff, is the new islands we discover, seeing sea turtles, hiking into the rim of a volcano, empty sandy beaches, all the exotic stuff you think of when you imagine the Caribbean.

But there are two things I did not anticipate. The first is the amount of work needed to get our boat ship-shape.  We needed to install a water maker, a wifi booster, and a host of other projects to make Fezywig (the name of our boat) function for our family.  Learning to do all of that has been a steep learning curve for us.  But the payoff is I’ve learned tons of new skills along the way: how to do electrical work, how diesel engines work, a bit of computer configuration, etc.

And we’ve also made some amazing new friends. That was the second thing I did not anticipate: the deep friendships.  On land, we’re all so busy going to work, doing homework, serving at church and in the community, and many, many other good things, but that doesn’t leave us much time for family and friends.

For over two months, we’ve traveled closely with two other sailboats.  Between our three boats, there are twelve kids.  The kids love to play together and we all help each other out. It’s really quite marvelous. The dads help me learn how to fix things, install things, and run a better boat.  We teach them how to write songs, play instruments and record their music. We get together for taco nights, we bake cookies for each other, our kids teach each other new skills, we share dive and scuba gear, and we sail together for companionship and peace of mind.  We rely on each other.  I never would have expected this.  It’s marvelous.

What you are doing is a great example of participating in your own life.  What has driven you in this process knowing that there might have been risk involved?
A good friend once said to me, “I want to take risks. I just want to know how it’s going to turn out first.”  We had a good laugh at that.  The truth is, that’s exactly what a risk is: not knowing how things are going to turn out.  That can be very scary.  We all like to feel in control of our lives.  And whether we admit it or not, we like to be comfortable.  But we don’t often learn much just being comfortable.  I suppose I’ve always sought after a challenge, and I don’t particularly thrive off the idea of doing what everyone else does.  I wouldn’t cast myself as an iconoclast, but I do believe we all have an inner compass that tells us what will be compelling to us in our own specific circumstances, and if we ignore that compass, we ignore what will help us grow and become our best selves.
I suppose I’ve learned to be a bit more comfortable with uncertainty than some people.  I’m okay starting something before I know how it’s going to turn out. I’m a big believer in trial and error.  I also believe there is no reward without risk. Often we venture out (whatever that means to each person) and all we can see is what might go wrong.  When in fact, there are just as many scenarios of how things might go right.  For some reason we all have vivid imaginations about doom and destruction, and perhaps that’s what keeps us safe and alive—a healthy fear of danger—but on the flip side, there are all the wonderful and unforeseeable possibilities for growth and success.

I would say this, I’d rather go down in a sinking boat off the coast of Greenland, than going everyday to a job that I hate.  And besides, sinking off of Greenland isn’t really that likely : )  Sure, we all need to make money and pay the bills.  I’ve worked plenty of jobs in large part for the money, because providing for your family is honorable.  But I’ve been able to enjoy those jobs, and excel in those opportunities because they always moved toward a larger vision of the kind of life I want to build for myself and my family.  Sure there are risks in going sailing, but there are also the risks of not going. How often do we think about those other risks?

How do others react to what you have chosen?
The vast majority of people are very encouraging. My father repeatedly expressed concern for our safety but since he and my mom visited us on the boat, I think those concerns have faded.
A fair number of people want to know our itinerary.  We haven’t been able to give them one because that’s not the reason we came. It’s not about getting somewhere; it’s about being with someone. And those “someones” are our kids.Currently we are anchored off the island of Saba, a rather remote island in the Caribbean that shoots straight up out of the water like half a fjord. We sailed in yesterday afternoon from Statia (St. Eustatia).
Many people are curious how we’ve managed to ‘pull this off’.  The idea of buying a sailboat, quitting your job and sailing off with your family can feel pretty far-fetched.  I firmly believe anyone can do what we’re doing (or whatever path they choose for themselves) if they commit their mind and heart to it. In fact, I may write a book about how we did it : )  People seem interested.

Are there other goals or dreams you want to tackle next? What are they?
– A Big Wall climb in Yosemite.  A Big Wall climb is any route you ascend that requires camping out on the cliff overnight.  I’ve got my eye on a route on El Capitan.  I’ve rock climbed a fair bit since I was a teenager, but I want to get back to Yosemite and do something big.  I’ve already started to plan that trip.
 – An RV trip
through Europe or Central/South America
 – A house in the country. We’ve lived in NYC for 15 years.  I think I might be ready for a fireplace : )
Do you have any advice for those wondering if it’s worth it to take a risk, start a passion or choose something
perhaps unfamiliar but meaningful?
Whatever you might want to do, write it down. Don’t worry about how you’re going to do it just yet.  Just write it down.  Writing it down is the first step in making an idea concrete.
I believe in Stephen Covey’s adage of doing ‘first things first.’  Whatever it is you want to do, do that first.  Don’t check your email, Facebook or turn on the radio or TV first.  That will suck away your time.  (You can do those things, but do them second or third.)  Decide what’s most important, and do that first. That can be reading a book to your child, doing yoga, drawing a picture, sketching out an idea for a new business or piece of software. Whatever you do, don’t push aside an idea or enthusiasm for something just because it feels whimsical or doesn’t make money.
I write a lot of songs and stories.  While sometimes those songs and stories have made me money, and I appreciate that, the main reason I write is because it enriches my life. Even if only my family and friends hear them or read them, that’s good enough reason for me.
I’m re-reading a book called “Daily Rituals” by Mason Currey.  It’s a collection of daily routines and practices of great writers, composers, scientists, philosophers, inventors,etc.  There are a thousand different ways to do what matters most to you.  But each person has to find their own path, their own routine, their own approach.  This book helps remind me I need to find my own patterns and paths.  Creating this adventure for me and my family is one way we are finding our own paths.
To read more about this family’s adventures, check out their blog Fezywig or find them on Instagram and Facebook at Fezywig . To learn more about Erik, you can also check out his company O productions.


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