My world is one of beetles and clouds, blisters and stardust, the smell of coffee and endless love, the intimate and the vast.
“We are never real historians, but always near poets.” Bachelard
From a distance, the forest seems impenetrable, the ultimate Strange, but once we step in through its foliage it opens up to us, transforms itself into personable trees, possible paths, and rocks to rest on. As the branches close behind us, the forest is our new reality, and the world we left mere speculation.
“It feels like this is reality now, and everything else is just a story.” Ada mused as the three of us, Sebastienne, Ada, and I, lingered in the kitchen after dinner, sharing our experience of living in our tiny house in the woods where we so far only have limited electricity and no plumbing. Ada put words to the feeling, the realization, that once here, everything else is a there, an elsewhere, and our past only a story in the thickening history book of our lives. The past is transformed into narrative. This is our reality. With the masses of mankind, we mercifully share the ability to sink into our ever changing world, emerge ourselves in whatever circumstance we wake up to. The ones who cannot inhabit their now keep hitting their dense heads into the uncaring wall of existence that separates them from the life that was and the life that will be. What Ada meant is that it already feels completely normal to wash the dishes by hand—boil the water on the camp stove, count each precious drop, and afterward empty out the 5 gallon bucket that is beneath the sink instead of a drain. We are already used to keeping an eye on the electricity meter to make sure the battery does not drop below 12.20, and to unplug everything we do not use. Peeing in the woods have become the kind of normal that might make you want to pull down your pants in a parking lot. Something to watch out for. This life that would have seemed Strange a month ago, is now our Normal.
Already when we drew the floor plan, I imagined this to be my writing spot. I dreamed of this moment. I sit at the gate leg table in our kitchen-living room with trees peeking in through the windows, and clouds waving through the skylight. Across the table from me, my darling wife grimaces, turns her soft skinned face into a mask of furrowed concentration, mumbles quietly to herself like someone in prayer as she reads and takes notes for her consciousness class, Alma, the hound dog, rests heavy nosed and long eared on the sofa, her silky lip spilling over the edge, barely out of pinching distance, and Ada is curled up on the floor in her time machine/spaceship (the box this computer arrived in), chuckling softly at something unsanitary and maladjusted in Calvin & Hobbes, as deliciously pleased at the inappropriateness as only someone as heartbreakingly kind and sweet as Ada can be. I admire the long-legged soon to twelve years old squeezed into a paper box with her careless, deer-like beauty, her father’s one-world-removed hang dog eyes, and a stubborn and self-satisfied resistance against the preteen tendency to stop making box ships. If everyone was as easy to love as her, the world would be a very different place. A woodpecker’s echo rouses this family of dreamers, thinkers, players, and creators, our eyes smile to one another, recognizing the luxury of having built our own house in the same forest as a woodpecker builds hers. I lean back to the sink to refill the water glass, a green mason jar, special edition. Everything is so close here. My family, tea, apples, the woods. Everything is within reach. Everything is right here.
I get the image of this house being a sailboat in the ocean, and of us being its novice crew. I would not want to cross the Atlantic in a row boat, the lack of shelter would corrupt my love for the vastness of the sea into something sickening and clenching, nor would I choose the sin city of a cruise ship in which the salty air gets a refrigerated quality, smudged with smoke and carpet, and the ocean forgotten. A sailboat big enough for my family would be just the thing. I imagine us cozied down below, playing cards and reading, snuggled warm in quilted blankets. I see us on deck—wild in our faces, feet wet, hearts wide, letting the ocean enter, licking off the salt on my lips. This little house is the perfect size to shelter us without separating us from the world. The woods are always lapping at our doorstep, breaking gently at our windows. Equally encouraging us to set sail and anchor down.
Another recurring fantasy is the house as my shell, my body. I imagine my head sticking out on top with the roof for a hat, my arms reaching through the windows, legs instead of wheels, the torso nicely snuggled by cedar siding, the door for…well…this and that. Like a snail or a turtle I take my house with me as I go, tut-tuut, ready for adventure, ready for a nap.
I have always been a homebody (interesting word, come to think of it), or “cave dweller,” as I say when in a self-deprecating mood, despite the seemingly contradicting truth that I have for varying lengths of time lived and worked or studied in six different countries, starting in Sweden, lingering for a substantial time in Berlin, Germany, currently in USA, and have traveled as a tourist to more countries than I remember. No matter if I stayed in a windowless hotel room with turquoise plastic sheets in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, or a bunk bed in barrack full of drunken youths somewhere in Australia—I managed to settle in, sweep the floor, light a candle, sit down for dinner, find a reading nook. I have had the luck (or discernment) of having friends and partners of similar inclinations and talents, which is how my longtime friend Lina and I managed to make a park bench in Havana, Cuba, feel homey and civilized (only for a day, albeit), and my cousin Anna swept flowers as a practice of domesticity and meditation every morning from the Laundromat floor on an island in Greece where we spent a summer.
Homemakers. (Not to be confused with “housewife,” though I do not mind that term either, I think of it as a married version of “homebody,” which is exactly what I am.) My mother is probably the best homemaker of all (though she worked as a high school teacher), and has spent a dominating part of her life feverishly dedicated to the making of beautiful and cozy home spaces. As I tell the narrative about my mother, it is wide pride that I joke that if she was the sole survivor of Armageddon, she would make herself a home among the rubbish and ruins, sweep the floor with a branch, stack cinderblocks into a modernistic sofa, and go looking for an iron. Step 1: Make a home.
So goes my dreams of home. That is what this house feels like: Home.
Besides the obvious impact of having built the house ourselves, its diminutive size and simple setup strongly influence the feeling of home. The fact that I can probably, given some time, list every single item in this house—shows my intimate relationship with my material surroundings. I know what I have and where it is (most of the time, some things have not found their logical homes yet). Another factor is that the limited number of things make me use the ones I have more, also strengthening my bond to them, strengthening their sense of worth and purpose, and my appreciation thereof. I touch everything. I was the dishes by hand, the smooth porcelain slippery and cool, lemon zest in my nostrils. Even Ada claims to prefer hand washing to dealing with the dishwasher. Once clean, the dishes all get dry and put back in their places, something I never managed to achieve when having a big kitchen with lots of space and things to fill up said space. Similarly, the bed needs to be made for the bedroom to feel like a place of retreat whenever the living room spills over with beings, and so the cotton creases of the duvet cover gets caressed by morning palms. I also sweep the floor every morning and every night, a three minute exercise started out of necessity (dog hair and red Georgia mud), but now a satisfying finish to the dressing of the house. I never felt I could be the queen of my castle while living in a five bedroom suburban home with two living rooms, only a lost visitor and maid, my dislike of vacuum cleaners turned into hours of sweeping. 225 square feet is the size of my castle.
Upon rereading, I recognize how obnoxious my love of the domestic can seem, its country romantics and privileged poetics. Who on earth enjoys sweeping the floor? Do I not have anything more important than lemon zest going on? Answers: I do. And no. Being married to my second academic within the social sciences, I am versed with Marx, Foucault, and critical theory, hegemonies and oppression, and could perhaps write about the political and cultural system of corrupt capitalists and their lobbyists creating an unstainable world from which the poor and less fortunate have very little chance to rise. The tiny house movement is fertile ground for positive and creative resistance against an economic system based on greed and a culture of desire for More and Bigger. Not only does a small house offer wiggle room in a tight pocket, and less reliance on loans with its connected need for wage slavery, it is also one possible answer to the environmental abuse the current building industry daily deals out. So…somebody should write that book.
My world is one of beetles and clouds, blisters and stardust, the smell of coffee and endless love, the intimate and the vast. I have never been able to retain much interest for the middle level, the one of society, history, politics, economics, and whatnot. It is not that I do not find it important, or that I deny its impact on me and everybody, or even that I put my head in the sand in regard to the issues of the world—I try to be intentional as far as which industries and companies I support by giving them my money, and I have recently committed to be a fulltime vegetarian rather than the “only ethically raised meat-eater” I used to be, and I strive to treat my fellow beings with kindness and respect, but I have more of a Spinozan do-no-direct-harm kind of ethics than a go-out-marching-ala-Gandhi strategy.
I might not seem appropriately concerned with the world’s suffering, but at least I am not that interested in my own either. It is true that I have been spared from life’s most atrocious experiences, but I could tell tedious old stories of eating disorders, nightmares, family issues, heartache, social anxiety, jealousy, allergies, and chronic pain. None of that defines me, or even interests me very much (the heartache might be an exception as far as the tendency to gingerly poke where it hurts goes), which is why I choose not to write about it. Forgive me if I seem offensively well-adjusted, I only know how to stumble toward the light, but then again, every bug knows how to do that.
People often express envy for our simplistic lifestyle, minimalistic closet, and barebones design, as well as our lack of mortgage, microwave or double car garage, but rarely without adding a serious doubt that they could ever “do it” themselves. Setting aside the common fear of the building process, people seem to doubt their actual ability to enjoy a life with less stuff and climate controlled indoor environments, which might be a completely true and legitimate concern. This is where I come in. I hope to share my experience of building and living in a tiny (though compared to the whole world throughout the history of mankind—it is quite average, but I am referring to modern Northern American standards) house, which might both distill and kindle concerns. It might show an alternative way to live, show that there are choices and possibilities beyond shared societal beliefs. Also, I suspect that you will come to see that Sebastienne and I are not necessarily such radicals or activists, that even though we spend a fair amount of our leisure time discussing virtues and we did in fact build our own house, we are also lazy and comfort seeking, buy environmentally horrible Swiffer (name brand!) sweepers because they smell like lavender and vanilla, enjoy sci-fi movies in bed, and spend as much time reading on the sofa as we possibly can. I read philosophy for fun and have a weakness for existential Russian novels, but “Under the Tuscan Sun” and “Why French Women Don’t Get Fat” are two of my favorite reads. You can wire your own electricity and use anti-wrinkle creams. You can do pretty much anything you like, using the blocks available (little hint to the Lego! movie).
I am a poet without poetry, an artist without art, a monk without meditation, a nun without God. The “without” does not necessarily refer to the lack of (poetry, art, a meditation practice, God…) as much a lack of need for (poetry, art, a meditation practice, God…). I am okay just being here. I do not feel a need to do anything in particular. I have no meaning, no goal, no purpose, no justification of being. But here I am. Hello! As I tried to explain my sense of being as experiencing, and that I feel no need to collect the experiences into something like a person, which is also why I do not feel a part of anything like the classical view of family, community, society, or history, my wife teased me, and imitated me with an impressively metallic, robotic voice: “I am a solid perceiving machine.” Which made me laugh and correct it to “solid perceiving being,” with the solid referring to being as embodiment, the flesh and blood of it all, and therefore, ironically, my own demise and impermanence. I am a breath, an ear, and an eye.
That being, sweeping the floor and enjoying the dish soap do not seem stranger or more meaningless activates than anything else. This dear little house in the woods allows me to sink into the day, sink into the world, melt into existence. To be. As Bachelard wrote in his The Poetics of Space: “The house protects the dreamer.”