The Big Tiny
A Built-It-Myself Memoir
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Dee Williams’s life changed in an instant, with a near-death experience in the aisle of her local grocery store. Diagnosed with a heart condition at age forty-one, she was all too suddenly reminded that life is short, time is precious, and she wanted to be spending hers with the people and things she truly loved. That included the beautiful sprawling house in the Pacific Northwest she had painstakingly restored—but, increasingly, it did not include the mortgage payments, constant repairs, and general time-suck of home ownership. A new sense of clarity began to take hold: Just what was all this stuff for? Multiple extra rooms, a kitchen stocked with rarely used appliances, were things that couldn’t compare with the financial freedom and the ultimate luxury—time—that would come with downsizing.
Deciding to build an eighty-four-square-foot house—on her own, from the ground up—was just the beginning of building a new life. Williams can now list everything she owns on one sheet of paper, her monthly housekeeping bills amount to about eight dollars, and it takes her approximately ten minutes to clean the entire house. It’s left her with more time to spend with family and friends, and given her freedom to head out for adventure at a moment’s notice, or watch the clouds and sunset while drinking a beer on her (yes, tiny) front porch.
The lessons Williams learned from her “aha” moment post-trauma apply to all of us, every day, regardless of whether or not we decide to discard all our worldly belongings. Part how-to, part personal memoir, The Big Tiny is an utterly seductive meditation on the benefits of slowing down, scaling back, and appreciating the truly important things in life.
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2014 by Deann Williams
Happy Enough(Olympia, Washington, April 2012)
For months now, I’ve been waking up at four in the morning. I’ve got this system down: I toss about in bed for a while, left to right, right to left, then lie flat on my back to stare into the knots in the wood ceiling. I watch my dog breathe as she sleeps, watch her legs jolt as she dreams of chasing rabbits. I look out the skylight window, watch the clouds and the moon; I stare at myself in the reflection of the window a few feet from my face, and wonder if I look as shadowy and pensive in real life as I do right now, a thought that causes me to make exaggerated sad-clown faces as in an old black-and-white movie—which cracks me up. I close my eyes and listen to the my own whistling breath, and wonder if have a vitamin deficiency, if I’m aging ungracefully or will die in the next half hour, which leads to the question of whether I’d want to be “found” in this position in these long johns with the elastic blown out at the waist, with dirty dishes in the sink, dog hair on the carpet, and a compost toilet full of pee. I rearrange myself, smooth out the blankets and uncrinkle my forehead, and think about the neighbors. I wonder if they are also awake and worrying about their vitamins.
Later, when I actually see the neighbors, I probably won’t follow this line of questioning. Instead, I’ll say something neutral like “s’up?” Or if there’s more time, I’ll bring up the clouds or the wind, or one of a thousand other things I’ve noticed floating around in the predawn backyard. I might describe the catfight in the alley or the way seagulls were cracking open clams by flying over and dropping them on the carport roof. I might not even mention that. People don’t really want to hear about that kind of long-winded stuff when they casually ask “How you doing?” while they’re dragging their rubbish bins out to the curb before driving off to work.
When I mentioned my early-morning waking to the old witch down the street, she explained that this is the time the “ceiling is the thinnest,” the moment that the earth’s creatures have the greatest access to the heavens; the time when nuns and priests wake to pray, shuffling in their prayer shawls and pouring themselves into the cosmos; the time the raccoons waddle down the alley into the nature preserve that is really just the woods behind the grade school, and the most common moment when people die. It is a magical time, or so she said.
Hearing all of that helped me feel less resentful about waking up so early, and now it seems less necessary to punch my pillow like bread dough. Instead, I wake up and I think about the day ahead or the day before, or I might try to decode a particular night sound—a porcupine or feral cats, a possum on the porch, or maybe college kids drunk and stumbling down the alley. I toss about until I can’t stand it anymore, until I pitch everything to the side of the bed and carry my dog, RooDee, down the ladder, like she weighs twenty pounds instead of fifty, like this is what normal people do.
If the weather is good, I’ll make a bit of tea and amble out onto the front porch to watch the sun crawl over the neighbor’s garage. On the surface, it’s nearly the same every time: I spend at least five minutes trying to make the dog’s blanket (a hairy but warm apparatus) double as a seat cushion and a backrest, then I’ll spend several minutes looking for my lost glasses, which I find on my head, and then I might notice that it’s warmer today than yesterday.
If it’s raining or cold outside (like it is all winter), I stay inside. I might jog in place while I brush my teeth, or I’ll put on a hat and mittens while I light the cookstove. I’ve even gotten into the habit of warming my underthings by dangling them over the stove while I make coffee. I’m so comfortable with this work that I don’t even see it as clever anymore, hardly worth mentioning except for the fact that I think I’m on to something: I’ve found a way to heat my bra without singeing the straps, and to drape my long johns without lighting the kitchen shelves on fire. It’s a learned skill, and definitely not the sort of thing I’d recommend for small children, but the facts are the facts: once I was cold and then I was not, and now I’m fairly certain that I have discovered something that I’ll want to do for the rest of my life.
I haven’t brought up my warm underwear with the neighbor for the same reason I haven’t mentioned my early-morning musing (especially the stuff about monks and nuns, and death, and that sort of hullabaloo). People don’t want to hear about your warm underwear and what puts a smile on your face when they’re in the middle of chipping the ice off their windshield or digging a drainage ditch across their front lawn to keep their basement from flooding. Winter is hard on all of us.
I live in a tiny house. I don’t mean a small house, the kind with one bedroom, one bathroom, a kitchen and nook for watching television, I mean a house the size of an area rug that’s easy enough to attach to my truck and drive down the freeway. It looks like a mobile gingerbread house, or a cuckoo clock on wheels. I don’t mind the comparisons; I like gingerbread.
The main floor of my house is eighty-four square feet. The sleeping loft that extends over the front porch adds more room. It hangs over the kitchen, bathroom, and closet, and stops about halfway into the center of the house, leaving the living room (what I call the “great room”) open to the pointy-roofed ceiling.
Every night, I carry RooDee up the seven-foot ladder to the sleeping loft. We’ve perfected the process: she takes the form of a fifty-pound soup cauldron and I pretend it is a piece of cake. There’s no drama or exaggerated grunting. No veins bulged, butt cheeks clenched, or near-fatal falls; we operate on autopilot. I lift with my knees, my dog acts like a lead ingot, and together we arrive happy.
My bed consumes most of the loft platform, stretching nearly eave to eave, and from there, the roof pitches up to a point four feet above the center of the mattress. That’s the line I take: knee-walking down the middle of the bed, taking care not to smash my head into the ceiling. I worm my way into my sleeping bag, under several layers of quilts, and curl into a fetal position with my hands tucked into my armpits. RooDee then rolls into the cave at the back of my knees and we sleep.
I sleep with the blankets over my head, barely moving, directing every ounce of body heat inward until eventually, I turn into a happy little bun in the oven. I might wake up when the rain starts or stops, when it shifts direction or rolls alongside the house like a tumbleweed, and if I’m lucky I’ll catch a break in the rain long enough to see that the moonlight is poking through a giant sphincter of black clouds, like something you’d see in a colonoscopy brochure. Nature has such an odd sense of humor.
I have to admit that up until now, given the fact that this is my life and my day-to-day routine, my little winter ritual has seemed fairly normal. But just now, writing this, telling you about it, I can see how it might seem unattractive and cold, and perhaps a bit odd. But I don’t mind; I’ve gotten used to it, and I like what it connects me to.
I’ve come to expect that regardless of my tender feelings, the Arctic wind will still plunge its way past the San Juan Islands, cleverly sidestepping any number of giant shipping vessels, orca pods, and sea life. It will still gather all manner of rain, sleet, snog, and fog that will shower down persistently for months—enough moisture to fill buckets and barrels, and make city parks into lakes; it will march up the alley like a tempest, kicking the lawn chairs and punching at the carport, and then body-slamming my house. But that’s what the wind is programmed to do: work through keyholes and whistle in bottle tops, and make me wonder if my tiny house is being pushed slowly across the lawn like it’s rolling through a carwash.
I’ve gotten used to these sorts of winter high jinks, and to be honest, I like them. I like the excitement of the windstorms and the rain pounding down a thousand different ways inches from my head. It reminds me of weathering storms while backpacking, climbing, or kayaking—huddling in the dead center of my tent as lightning banged down all around, or hiding from the hail in a blown-out school bus, a piece of junk littering the forest service road that paralleled my hiking trail. The winter weather reminds me that some things never change, and I am still the same girl who loved sleeping in her tree house and who preferred staying outside, and who still thinks reading by headlamp is romantic.
I like trying to decipher nature’s antics, like wondering why there are always more ducks on one side of their flying V formation, and why the crocuses have bloomed so early this year. I like that if I’m walking home and I notice that everything seems puckered up, furling inward—the moon, the mud in the lawn, the dried-up tomato plants and cornstalks, the raccoons that hide in the plum tree and the wind circling the lawn chairs—if they all seem condensed, sucked in, and tight-jawed, then that is a clue for me to follow suit and to curl into a tiny ball with my dog curled into an even smaller ball at my knees. And at the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, I usually don’t mind that I’m sleeping like a stick figure in a cave painting; that I’m tucked in like the cat sleeping under the hood of the neighbor’s car, like the gulls circled up in the marina’s maintenance barn, or like the adventuresome rabble-rouser I was in my twenties.
I should clarify that I do have a heater—a very nice $500 propane heater that I can turn on and off at will. It has a little exhaust stack that vents out the back of the house, and a tiny glass window in the front that lets me admire the flames as they dart about inside a four-inch-square enclosure. I installed the heater on the back wall of the living room, so I could admire it while sitting on the couch. I can also see it from the sleeping loft, a couple of meters away, and from the kitchen and bathroom. I can study the fire while I cook food or pee or dry off my dog by the front door, when I crack open a beer or take my vitamins, clip my nails or read a book. I can see the heater and its tiny fire from every room of my house because no matter where I go or what I do, I’m still always in the one room. And therein lies the problem.
My house is roughly the size of a tree stump—a big and tall tree stump, like a giant Sequoia that you could drive your car through and then drink hot cocoa on the other side like a tourist, but still a stump of a house, which is why I am afraid of fire. Think about it: a small fire erupts in the living room, which is also the kitchen and dining room, which is also the bedroom and bathroom. It has detonated out of the heater due to some small “oops” in the machinery that causes the tiniest flicker of a flame to brush into the smallest psssst of a gas leak. Almost instantly, the fire is massive, a monster devouring the rafters and side walls, collapsing the roof, exploding the canned goods and buckling the floorboards. In a matter of seconds, my dog and I are left with nowhere to run because there is no other room but this single, highly combustible, highly condensed space the size of a Yule log.
Fire was nothing I’d considered while building my house—not while I was reading about wood grain, kiln-dried lumber or sustainable forest products; and not while I was hefting great lengths of four-hundred-year-old cedar onto and off my car or even while I was pulling wood out of a pile labeled “Firewood.” It never entered my mind as I installed the wood cabinets, the oak toilet seat, and old fir door, or while I picked sawdust out of my hair and lovingly sanded the smoky smell off the cedar floorboards that had survived someone else’s house fire.
Fire wasn’t on the agenda until a delivery truck pulled up, weeks into the building project, and dropped off a propane heater. The instruction manual congratulated me for picking a unit that was designed with automatic kill switches in the event of a fire. Apparently, it had state-of-the-art technology, expert tooling, and a brilliant fireproof design with backups for the shut-offs and shutdowns for the turn-offs. Hummm, I thought as I thumbed through the manual, sure wouldn’t want a fire. Then I tossed the manual aside and busied myself with the best place to install the metal firebox.
Months later, on the first cold night of the year, I lit the heater and tucked myself into bed. The fireside glow was beautiful, transforming my small house into a ringside seat at the best mini bonfire ever. Dark amber shadows hung in the corners, and warm firelight gamboled eave to eave along the ceiling, stretching fourteen feet from a spot above the back living room wall to the point above my head.
I sat up in bed for an hour, watching the firelight play tag with the shadows, and I felt myself relax like I hadn’t in months. I fell asleep remembering the small campfire my friends and I had made in the Canadian Rockies, in a spot beside a river with snow spires circling the horizon, just beyond the forest canopy; that time, I woke up with frost on my eyelashes and the zipper of my bevy sack frozen shut. This time, in my little house, I woke up with my feet twisted up in the sheets. I’d dreamed about racing through a deep thicket, trying to outrun a forest fire, darting with one arm held reflexively over my head and my dog held like a hefty money safe in the other, and all the while the underbrush kept grabbing at my feet, tripping me up, slamming me to the ground. I woke up and looked around the house, realizing for the first time that I’d built a dense, bone-dry tinderbox of a house.
I reread the owner’s manual and retraced how I’d installed the heater, double-checking that I hadn’t placed insulation too close to the hot flue stack, or exterior siding too close to the exhaust cap. I inspected the smoke detector, nearly deafening myself by clicking the tiny test button. I bought a small bottle of specially made “gas leak detection soap” so I could test every fitting, starting with the knob on the gas tank outside the house and ending with the tiny brass nipple at the base of the heater; I checked again, and then a third time. Everything seemed fine, but at night, I still dreamed about fire. I carried a hammer up to the loft so I could smash out the skylight window and launch my dog and me out onto the lawn if necessary, and I dragged a fire extinguisher up the ladder and stationed it between me and the heater like a talisman—a warning to the heater to keep its shit together. Then one night, without really thinking about it, I reached over and flipped off the heater on the way up to bed, giving the heater a little tap and a smile. And that was the beginning of my nightly bundling routine.
Now I run the heater only during the day and late at night when I am awake, and I hardly notice that I’m dressed like an ice fisherman as I lumber off to bed. Instead, I mosey off to the loft in a not-so-sexy pair of wool underwear, curl into a puffy ball along with RooDee, and together we sleep, happily enough.
These days I find that I am happy enough in the same way that I am warm enough—the goal isn’t bliss or even comfort in some cases. The goal is to feel alive, even if the primary proof is chattering your teeth. There’s nothing like ten-degree weather to redouble your appreciation for wool, fleece, and that odd-looking stocking cap that your mother sent last Christmas.
Admitting that I’m “happy enough” makes me wonder if I’m falling short of my potential as a middle-class American; like I should want more out of life than this tiny house and the backyard, and the way it feels to sit on the porch and watch the sun come up. But it works for me, and besides, I’m not sure that I was any happier when I had a bigger, more normal house.
I used to have a three-bedroom bungalow with a nice yard and massive windows that looked out at the gardens in the front yard. It had a furnace that rumbled away in the basement, thumping, bumping, and popping the ductwork, like it was beating back the cold with a tire iron. I felt very safe from the elements.
The heater was a tireless companion, willing to work day and night, whether we were home or not; it puffed away on metered gas, blowing hot air into the bedrooms and bathroom, the shampoo bottles and kitchen silverware drawers. It pushed heat into our bodies, letting us walk around in boxer shorts and tank tops in the middle of winter; it prewarmed our shoes, the toilet seat, the coffee cups. It worked constantly without needing anyone’s attention and hardly being noticed at all until the gas bill would arrive and we’d all scream, “Turn down the thermostat!” and grow very quiet.
The heating bill usually arrived a few days after the electric bill, which came two weeks after the mortgage and insurance were due; then the water, sewer, and trash bill would arrive every three months, and the property taxes would arrive like Satan on a stick once a year. Somewhere in the mix were my monthly credit card bills, tied to all the other necessary household items: a couch, television, window shades, barbecue grill, new hot water tank, bedsheets, telephone, stereo speakers, flower vases, a shower curtain, washing machine, area rugs, garden hoses, lamps, lights, locks, a spade, mattresses, memory foam pillows, wineglasses, a dishwasher, lawn mower, end tables, two cubic yards of garden compost, scrub brushes, butter knives, a refrigerator, wrenches, pry bars, and an assortment of artwork and wall paint to make things look nice. I worked hard back then, strapped to my debt, but I was hardly miserable; I was happy enough “living the dream” as I raced from one place to the next and spent the weekends cleaning the gutters or reading a how-to book on home plumbing repair.
Now that I live in my little house, I work part-time and pay eight-dollars-a-month for utilities. There’s no mortgage, no Saturday morning with a vacuum, mop, or dust cloth. I have free time to notice the weather, so if my neighbor asks me how it’s going, I can easily explain how “the barometric pressure took a real nosedive at four this morning, and a lava flow of cooler, heavier air poured into my house through the open windows.” I woke up feeling like I was in Missoula in late September. I probably wouldn’t tell him that, though; it sounds weird.
All the time I save leaves me free to cavort and volunteer, building other little houses with friends, helping to care for my elderly neighbor, or staring mindlessly at the clouds forming into balloon animals and broccoli spears. The other day I spent a couple of hours packing sauerkraut with my friends, nattering and talking about local politics while we shoved stinky cabbage into little jars. Before that, I collected a load of fruit to be delivered all over town as part of a church fund-raiser, and then I took my dog for walk down along the old railroad trestle that used to be the shake mill but is now just a massive expanse of busted-up asphalt, blackberry bushes, and Scotch broom. It’s actually quite beautiful down there, loaded with herons, otters, salmon, and seals; stunning despite the shopping carts that the kids have drowned in the mud and yellow warning signs about contaminated shellfish.
It’s nice to have time to amble around, or do whatever I want; to drop everything and help the neighbor build a chicken coop, or hop in on a spontaneous game of Pickle Ball in the backyard. A year or so after I moved into my house, I volunteered to show my house in a green building fair, an event that included vendors like the Rebuilding Center and Habitat for Humanity, as well as local homeowners who had installed solar electric systems, recycled fir floors, and energy-efficient windows in their houses. While I didn’t have fancy systems in my house, I still figured it’d be helpful if people saw how beautiful salvaged cedar siding can be, and how wonderful a door pulled out of a dumpster (like mine) could be.
At the fair, I met a teacher who thought it’d be nice to show her students my house, and that’s how a few months later I found myself hosting sixty-four fourth-graders in my yard. They were studying global climate change and asked some very important questions like where do I poop, where’s the bathtub, and why not build a giant slingshot to shoot my dog into the loft instead of having to carry her? They wanted to know if I was happy living without a television, without running water, and without space for a “husband” (whoever he was). I offered a quick “Heck yeah!” and then suggested that we all try to fit into the house at one time; it would be “the new International, Intergalactic, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Hotshot, Full-of-Snot Record!” I screamed. All sixty-four of them raced into the house, standing on the toilet, piled on the kitchen counter, smashed into the loft, and squeezed into the living room like a jar of human pickles. Everyone was giggling and I was thinking this was a great teaching moment, where they’d finally come to see that even something teeny-tiny can be big enough, and that’s when tragedy struck: someone “cut the cheese,” as my brothers would say, and the entire class emptied out of the house in seconds like clowns pouring out of a circus car. We all collapsed on the lawn fake-coughing and laughing hysterically, and intensely proud of the new record we’d set.
I probably overemphasized how glorious everything is, using the word awesome too many times. I positively gushed about how awesome it was to live debt free, not really considering whether any of those kids fully understood how crushing it is to juggle bills, delicately staggering the payments throughout the month and shuffling money from one credit card to another. And they probably thought I was full of shit when I said it was awesome to live without a television and refrigerator, “free from that infernal, constant humming and drumming so now I can hear the tree frogs at night . . . blah blah blah.”
If I had been perfectly honest, I would have admitted that I’m happy only 85 percent of the time, roughly 300 days out of the year. The other days, I wish I had running water or that the house was warmer; or I might want a 72-inch plasma screen television and enough space to invite all my friends over to watch the Oscars. I might want a flushing toilet and an endless supply of cheap beer, and a cutie-pie to play naked Scrabble with in the living room. I might want more privacy and solitude, and for the city to get new garbage trucks so on Friday mornings I wouldn’t have to listen to all that hydraulic whining with heavy lifting and slamming back down. I might want a lot of things . . . but that doesn’t mean I need them.
Here’s the raw truth: 15 percent of the time, you might find me grousing while slopping my water back to the house, or pouting about how I don’t like going to the laundromat to watch my underwear occasionally float by in the viewing window of the nearby clothes dryer. My complaining might result in my stomping off to bed, where I’ll check out of my life and watch three or four episodes of Battlestar Galactica on my laptop computer screen. In the morning, I’ll wake up late for work, cuss, and quickly yank rain pants over my pajamas so I can rush off to the office, where I’ll spend most of the day trying not to make loud plastic-pant crinkling and swooshing noises, and hoping that everyone believes I’ve just arrived from doing something important outside.
Those are the days that most remind me of my old life in my big house where I’d charge around and act like the world owes me more; or where I’d rush through the days and watch television at night, and at the end of the week I couldn’t remember if I’d actually called my mother or simply wished that I had.
Now, more often than not, instead of feeling pissed at the rain for turning my bones into soggy oatmeal, I’ll walk over to my friends’ house and they’ll make me laugh and feed me warm soup; or, in the case of a particularly hateful moment with my composting toilet, I’ll remember watching the little kids in Guatemala roll up their pants cuffs and walk across the muddy mess that was overflowing from the school’s bathroom, and I’ll realize I have nothing to complain about. I’ll remember like an apple to the head that I’m lucky to have what I have and I’m not entitled to any more than those kids, or their fathers, whom we’d see walking along the roads at dawn, carrying their machetes out into the fields for the day.
“My house is warm enough” is what I might eventually realize as I fall asleep mummified in my sleeping bag, and later I’ll wake up to see that the clouds are sprinting across the moon like a movie where the director wants you to think time is passing very quickly. Nature can be kind like that.
I chose the 85 percent success rate, starting with the crazy decision to build the house myself, one stick of wood at a time; then the decision to build the house on wheels so I could come and go as I please. I chose this path because the idea of building a house sounded like the old, fun me—the woman who thought it was a total jazz-up to hang by her thumbs fifty feet in the air, scaling some rocky crag to get a better view of the valley below. I chose this because I thought I could be happy living in a one-room house without running water or a refrigerator, and I imagined I’d learn something about myself by stripping myself down to the basics—by living with two dinner plates, three spoons, two pairs of pants, a dress, and my wool skivvies. And I figured I could be happy, at least for a while, living in the shadow of my friends Hugh and Annie’s house, in their old garden plot just off the alley.
I thought I’d find something in all of this, and I got more than I bargained for. I discovered a new way of looking at the sky, the winter rain, the neighbors, and myself; and a different way of spending my time. Most important, I stumbled into a new sort of “happiness,” one that didn’t hinge on always getting what I want but rather, on wanting what I have. It’s the kind of happiness that isn’t tied so tightly to being comfortable (or having money and property), but instead is linked to a deeper sense of satisfaction—to a sense of humility and gratitude, and a better understanding of who I am in my heart.
I know this sounds cheesy, and in fact, it sounds fairly similar to the gobbledygook that friends have thrown at me just after having their first baby. But the facts are the facts: I found a certain bigness in my little house—a sense of largeness, freedom, and happiness that comes when you see there’s no place else you’d rather be.
I found myself at Home, and that is (as I hope to tell the next set of fourth-graders) awesome!
“In The Big Tiny, Dee Williams creates a portrait of humanity through her own compelling experience. That she has written about home and life with such humor and vulnerability, and in her own unique vernacular, makes her story all the more universal.”—Jay Shafer, author of The Small House Book
“Williams has built an engaging and inspiring how-to/memoir that goes beyond the DIY perspective.”
“The Big Tiny is irresistible. Dee Williams is as much fun on the page as she is in person. Comic, silly, and soulful, she takes us on her journey to simplify her life and along the way tunes in to our own inner desire to pare down to our nearly naked selves.”—Jim Lynch, author of The Highest Tide and Truth Like the Sun
“The Big Tiny is a beautifully written narrative, one that goes beyond happiness and living simply. The power of Dee’s words will touch your heart, make you laugh, cry, and change your life.”—Tammy Strobel, author of You Can Buy Happiness (and It’s Cheap)
“The Big Tiny is comedic, eloquent, and damn informative all at the same time. If Dee Williams’ story hasn’t inspired you to reevaluate your life already, this book just may be the swift kick in the pants you need—the final awakening blow all rolled into one biblio-burrito of bad-assness.”—Derek “Deek” Diedricksen, HGTV host and honcho of Relaxshacks.com
“Dee Williams aims for happiness 85 percent of the time, but I think you’ll be 100 percent happy with the wisdom she shares in this beautiful book.”—Chris Guillebeau, author of The $100 Startup
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