How to install a wood stove in three months and two days, and other misadventures

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It has four straight legs that are square shaped with just a hint of softness at the edges. To my mathematically untrained eyes, its torso is a rectangular cuboid of satisfying dimensions, I’d say about a foot and a half long, a foot high, and half a foot deep. The black skin is smooth, almost velvety, and tempts you to stroke its cool sides, and there is a big glass window through which you can look into the empty belly digesting nothingness. We’ve kept screws, a lighter, and a carbon monoxide detector in the hole on top, and occasionally hung a sports bra or towel to dry over it, but I suspect it has silently wondered its real purpose. So have we, as we squeezed by it in the corridor for the past three months. It is gorgeous, but too large to justify to keep as a sculpture in a tiny house.

A dear friend of ours, John Lebowitz, (https://www.facebook.com/john.lebowitz) is a talented artist and metal magician who has built wood stoves (and tables, sculptures, and other metal art) for longer than we are old. As we commissioned him to custom design and build a wood stove for our tiny house, we knew that it would be a unique work of art as well as a heat source. We had our artisan carpenter friend, Forrest, create the gorgeous cedar and pine Dutch door, something we get more compliments for than any other specific part of the house. Given that John is easily excitable, one of the qualities that makes him so fun to be around, he got all fire and flames (a Swedish expression meaning “very excited” that I’ve decided to introduce to the English language) when we first mentioned the project. He had never built a “tiny” wood stove before, but quickly saw its creative joy and potentials, and before he had even finished ours, he decided that he wants to tap into the tiny house community and offer his art. Besides simply being “small,” tiny houses demand that everything is built to exact dimensions and locations, everything has its place, and no space is wasted. Tiny housers who have designed their own homes, tend to be quite finicky about getting everything just the way they want it, which is why custom design is the way to go.

Our wish list included a stove that is as narrow as possible for our yoga-mat sized living room, but long enough to fit a normal size log (roughly 16 inches) to minimize wood cutting, and we were adamant about a window for fire gazing, and tall legs to get it off the ground, both for a better view of the fire, and to have a place to store firewood beneath it. This was the right kind of challenge to get John’s creativity working, and within weeks of our initial conversation we received pictures of his progress. He kept the rustic-meets-modern look that he does best, but added some feminine curves in our honor (We don’t have any actual curves to show off, but could be said to be rather curvy on the inside.) and the end result is sleek and elegant with some playful touches without being in the least frilly or over the top. It is absolutely beautiful, fits perfectly with the rest of our home décor, and couldn’t have been better, in our opinion.

Now when we finally have it installed, we can also insure that its functionality is top notch—the draft is excellent, fire starting is easy, and we never get any smoke in the house. At first, the window turned completely black with gunky creosote and soot that we had to scrape off with a razor blade and rub with newspaper and ash to be able to see the fire, but that was most likely because we used pine, which doesn’t burn hot enough. As long as we use cured (dried for a year or more) hardwood and keep it in the right burn zone between 300-500 degrees Fahrenheit, the window stays clear. The heat is lovely, and keeps the moisture down in the house, something which otherwise has been one of the few concerns we had, tiny houses are notorious for having condensation issues. The size seems just about right, as well, it doesn’t get too hot, which we were a tad worried about, we only need to make a decent fire when we get home from work in the evening, and add an extra log around 9 pm to stay warm through the night. There is often a glowing coal or two left in the morning, enough to make it easy to start a fire before breakfast, something I had seriously doubted I would ever want to do, being the kind of person who would prefer to eat breakfast before I have to make breakfast.

“The wood stove is sooo great!” “How cozy!” “Have you noticed how dry the house stays?!” “It’s such a pleasant heat!” So goes our daily exclamations glorifying the wood stove. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that it feels like our house got a new heart—the roaring fire holds the space with help of jazz, blues, and grapefruit scented candles.

“It makes it feel like a little cabin in the woods!” I exclaimed with satisfaction oozing out my pores, which made my smarty-pants (she inherited them from her dorky mother) daughter snort:

“And what exactly did it feel like before?” After the obligatory eye rolling, (I enjoy the smarty-pants better when I wear them myself), I specified that the wood stove made our small house in the woods (yes, yes, that is what it is) feel more like a vacation home, like a ski lodge or a lakeside cabin you would rent for the summer.

“Not just a too small house in backwoods Georgia, but a romantic getaway.” Either she is still too young, or duly indoctrinated, or simply too nice, but Ada agreed with me rather than making fun of her mother who insists on life always being an adventure, or at least a vacation, preferably both.

Seeing how much we enjoy the wood stove, it makes even less sense that it took us three months to install it. Prompt as he is, John had it ready and delivered right before the first cold hit around Ada’s birthday, All Saints Day. John and my father, my parents were in US for a brief visit, heaved the stove up the stairs, it didn’t take too many liters of sweat or torn ligaments, and left it inside the door, where it stayed all through the chilly November, the hustle and bustle of Christmas, the cold start of 2015, and all up through my 36th birthday in the beginning of February. All the while we suffered the stove’s silent reproaches and daily reminders of our slacker-hood.

“Are you staying warm and toasty now?” People in the semi-know would ask, and it wasn’t a lie to nod and smile. We did in fact stay warm. Right as the first frost night was about to blanket Carroll County, Sebastienne picked up a radiant heater from Home Depot, the kind that you screw om top a propane tank and keep in your workshop or garage, somewhere drafty and far away from children. With a window generously cracked, and the carbon oxide detector ready (the one hiding in the wood stove’s exhaust hole), we concluded it safe enough as long as we didn’t have it too close to the wall where it would make the paint on the window frame bubble, and didn’t stand over it when we lit it. Before I learned that lesson, it singed my fringe once, and the burnt hair smelled so bad that Ada couldn’t stop giggling throughout “80 days around the world,” a feat in itself—it was the old, marathonesque version that includes exhaustingly long scenes of flamenco dancing and a balloon silently drifting away over mediocre landscapes.

Besides being slightly hazardous, the propane heater was fast, cheap, and surprisingly efficient, and the house small and well insulated enough that we didn’t need to have it during the night at all. I dove into my flannel pajamas, fluffy robe, and wool slippers every morning, shivered as I turned on the heater and held in the knob for the required thirty seconds of thumb ache, and did half-hearted jumping jacks as I waited for the coffee water to boil, but by the time breakfast was ready, and Ada and Sebastienne moseyed themselves out of bed—the house was warm enough to take the hat off. If it wasn’t for how ugly the beat-up exchange tank was with its blue, white, and red label for “AmeriGas,” and the stark contrast between its commercial offensiveness and the velveteen black wood stove serving as a lighter holder behind it, we wouldn’t have had much motivation to change. It was the moisture problem, on cold nights that glass door to the porch iced up, and if we hung a blanket in front of it, it only got wet and glued to the door, but that seemed like a small problem in contrast to everything else we had going on.

The truth was, we weren’t slackers. Sebastienne had her first semester as a PhD student, and solely the required reading was a fulltime job. The first months she was alternately inspired, exhausted, excited, and overwhelmed, and acted like someone who tries to speed through a marathon: sprint, stop, sprint, stop, or like the whippet mutt I had in Arizona who didn’t know how to walk or trot, she raced through the desert from shady bush to shady bush, under which she panted while waiting for me to catch up before she galloped to the next one. Pacing is key for any long distance runner, and by the second semester Sebastienne found her groove, her speed, and that refreshing second wind that carries you so much further than the first one. That all said to explain that she was busy and preoccupied and not much of a wood stove installer last fall. Not to mention that her mother had a worrisome illness that sapped any extra energy and joy her concerned daughter had left after a day of studying.

I spent most of the fall trying to find my groove, too. After two years of house building, I was disappointed by how little free time it freed up to be done. I had expected sleep-in mornings, peaceful afternoons reading philosophy on the back porch, lingering walks in the woods, and hours and hours of inspired writing every day, visions based on a convincing forgetfulness of the reality that I work at paid jobs four days per week, homeschool my daughter two days, and have gazillions of house chores. I did know that there would be a lot of house chores, but since I tend to enjoy those, and the house is small, I wasn’t worried. None of the tasks turned out to be in the least horrible or overwhelming, (I did write a little horror story about the first time I emptied the composting toilet, but I’ll save those juice details for the book.), but the sheer amount of chores was staggering.

Our daily consumption of five gallons of water for drinking, cooking, tea, dishes, tooth brushing, nose rinsing, and hand washing is very moderate compared to the average American household’s 300 gallons per day, and with a dispenser over the impromptu kitchen sink, and bucket to catch the drain underneath—the system is so smooth that we currently don’t consider any improvements. We always have at least one empty water jug on the floorboard of the car to be filled at our convenience at the grocery store or at Hannes’s and April’s house. Lugging water isn’t all bad, it’s easier and cheaper than plumbing, but it is heavy and splashes in your face, and if you’re in a bad mood, it makes it worse, particularly on a cold day, but at least we don’t have to carry the water on our heads and hike through the desert.

Then it was the laundry. We are the kind of people who wash all our sheets and towels and blankets every week—I have allergies, we have a dog, grossness is gross, clean is better, and we want our world to smell like drier sheets. I don’t mind the laundromat, it is fast and easy to get all you laundry done at once. The atmosphere can be a little gritty as it is frequented by the same people you always see at the driver’s license offices and the social security offices, (I have obviously spent time enough there to know.), but a little grit is fine with me. So there I am, surrounded by other people like myself who don’t own a washer or drier, and I’m no longer embarrassed if I drop my lacy string underwear or my shabby boy shorts on the floor, but I’m still embarrassed if the book I read has a cover from a movie, in particular if it involves a couple kissing, or something equally pathetic, and I go to great lengths to hide it from the toothless guy in overalls next to me, I don’t want him to think I’m reading a romance novel, I’m not, it’s not my fault that they made a movie out of a great book, and that of course they pick a love scene, because, face it, sex sells, but the book has so much more depth, it’s a different story, really. Really. I smile to the man, who takes note of me long enough to kindly return my greeting before he continues folding his laundry, unfazed by the potentiality that the girl in the big green Eskimo coat might be reading trashy fiction.

Everybody at the Laundromat folds their laundry, and their commitment to neatness makes me wonder why that ability hasn’t somehow been rewarded in life with their own set of washing machines. I stuff all our clothes, towels, sheets, and dog blankets in two laundry bags as fast as I can, efficiency is my motto, when the washer blinks “done,” I’m already ready with basket in hand, but I don’t fold our laundry there, something that makes me feel like I’m less organized than the overalls guy. I do fold them at home, stack white T-shirts with white T-shirts, colors with matching colors, even a separate pile for stripes, we have many stripes, and I fold our underwear, and match all the socks. We don’t own an iron, which will forever render me a wild teenage slacker in my mother’s eyes, but I think I’m rather neat. So yes, laundry. I don’t mind it, but it takes up more hours and energy than I think clean linens should be given, not to mention that we spend $50 a month at it. Even if does make financial sense to have our own washing machine, we don’t have any water, and our limited solar power system doesn’t currently give us enough electricity to power a toaster.

We could only afford one solar panel last year—it powers the battery to run our DC system and gives us enough electricity to have light in the evenings as long as we use LED light bulbs and it hasn’t been cloudy for more than three days in a row, but not enough to plug in the refrigerator that is currently used as a pantry. We hope that by the coming summer we can take some of Sebastienne’s student loans to buy three more panels, which should be sufficient to run our full AC system and give us enough electricity for the fridge and to charge our computers, phones, and Bluetooth speakers as much as we like, and we won’t need to buy ice three times a week. During the hottest months, we bought ice that we kept in Tupperware in the freezer pocket, which kept the fridge sufficiently cool to keep the arugula from wilting and the butter (EarthBalance or SmartBalance or whatever non-butter butter we currently use) from liquidizing. The Indian man who runs the gas station at the corner with the giant posters of women with breasts bigger than the beers they are holding and stomachs flat enough to never have had a sip of said beers, starts to look at us suspiciously after a couple of weeks:

“Only one bag of ice?” he always asks, and I always answer:

“Yes, only one bag of ice, please,” with my most “I’m-nice-and-proper-and-not-up to-anything-suspicious smile.”

“Okaaay, one bag of ice, $2.07,” he grunts and looks at me as if he doesn’t for a second buy that I’m not up to anything suspicious, and sighs as if I rob him dry by using his generous service of bagged ice without buying any of the beer that he so boob-a-lusciously markets. The gas station is one of those that is frequented by the same kind of people who use the Laundromat, (and the driver’s license offices and social security offices), and since I am there to notice, I can’t help noticing that I am there to notice.

I aim to take up life’s misadventures as unopposed experiences to string onto the necklace of memories from my trip to Earth, but despite the stubbornly self-created story that I’m still this upper middle class Swede who is out on an adventure in America: “Ooh, isn’t this exotic and fun, it is almost like real life!,” which is true to the extent that I have the social safety nets that spare me from wringing my hands at night, fearing for the safety and health of my children, which allows me to maintain a more playful stance toward our lack of money—I have a growing suspicion that my adventure among those who live from weekly paycheck to weekly paycheck has turned into a rather long sojourn.

Besides water, laundry, and ice we also have to replace the propane tanks regularly, both for our fancy camping stove with oven, and the heater (before we installed the woodstove). We also go to the gym five times a week, not only to get fit, but to use the showers, a luxury I have come to treasure more than I ever thought I could appreciate hot water from a faucet. With the car loaded with water jugs, propane tanks, laundry bags, gym clothes, shower stuff, groceries, computers, (we drag around our laptops to charge the batteries and mooch Internet), water bottles and nutritious snacks, because you never know, our more-crazy-than-not hound dog perched on a soft blanket, and a long-legged daughter carrying art supplies, giant puppets, and miniature wolf packs—we look like we are about to go camping whenever we go into town. We’ve been forced to let go of our old saying “I rather die than go twice,” (inherited from one of my dad’s old hunting buddies), referring to how we rather carry all the groceries at once than being forced to make two trips. On the second or third trip to the car through the dark on the cypress chipped path that separates us from mud and elevates us the side of civilized humanity, my otherwise so brave and optimistic wife gets something cloudy and despondent in her eyes, and I know that she thinks that this just isn’t any fun.

Seriously burnt out on house building and house projects, we were both so bored with the house that even if we enjoyed living there, we spent most of the fall dreaming of fun places to move once Sebastienne gets her PhD five years hence—London, southern California, Boulder, Colorado…somewhere easy and fun, maybe an apartment with a balcony with a view overlooking something more interesting than brush piles; running hot water to splash in our faces like they do in the movies, disregarding my sensitive eyes; a gym downstairs with a pool and a sauna in which we sweat our non-cellulite thighs; a bar around the corner in which I can drink beer without aggravating my asthma, and we go to listen to music several times a week and don’t feel in the least self-conscious or bored or awkward, and we won’t long home to crawl into bed with a good book and a cup of tea to quietly rest in each other’s company…

Not only were we busy with the general maintenance required to keep ourselves clean, warm, and full, etc., and bored at the prospect of continuing that maintenance to maintain a life in the Georgia woods while working for low paying jobs and lugging our own shit around—the wood stove became that one very important paper that we hadn’t started to write yet, and the first blank page got blanker and blanker and longer and longer until it seemed like it would take the kind of heroic effort that we know we are capable of, but only when the sun is shining, we have at least nine hours of sleep behind us, caffeine in our veins, and two unscheduled days generously spread out ahead with nothing else demanding our attention—that is to say, not very often. Whenever I mentioned the wood stove, Sebastienne got that look I recognize from my own face when I hear Alma’s too long doggie claws clickety-clacking on the wood floor, a look that says:

“Hush, pff, sigh, yeah yeah, I know I should, but it’s so difficult, and not now, first I have to, shh…”

We have never installed a wood stove before. We don’t know what to do. We know that it involves cutting a hole in the wall, and making sure that our house won’t burn down. Something needs to protect the wall, something needs to protect the floor, and something needs to get the smoke out. Something. John, endlessly enthusiastic and supportive, remains available for our questions, and keeps suggesting that we go to “Bollen’s Hearth Shop” north of Bremen, (Note here that I almost managed to mention it without adding that it isn’t Bremen, Germany. These days, if someone says “Athens,” I say “Georgia Bulldogs,” not Acropolis, I’ve been here too long.), a mere 30 minutes’ drive out of town. This seemingly sensible suggestion is laughable to those who know us well. We never drive out of town unless we absolutely have to. We never buy something in a store if we can buy it online, preferably on Amazon where we know our way around. We never go to a small store where we’ll be forced to talk to people if we can go to giant store and use self-checkout. We don’t ask for help if we can google it, even if stand next to an unoccupied store attendant and have to search for information on the phone. We rather drive to the grocery store to buy water from the dispenser located outside the store where you don’t have to talk to anyone than walk across the street to our sweet and kind neighbors who let us fill our water tanks for free from their well. We might have built our own house, something huge and brave in many people’s eyes, but we never ever call if we can text or email.

The life of a social introvert can seem confusing for those who think that human interaction is easy and always the same. If I was psychoanalytically inclined, I would probably wonder why my first reaction to seeing another human being outside of my immediate family, (that is, Ada and Sebastienne), tends to be a momentarily shiver of dread, but luckily I’m not interested in that can of worms. Rather than getting lost in reasons why, I follow the penguins’ advice from the movie Madagascar: “Just smile and wave, boys. Smile and wave.” Similarly inclined, but differently gifted, Sebastienne uses the stork technique: By immersing herself completely in whatever she is doing: cooking, reading, or simply thinking—she is always trying to figure out one universe or another—she doesn’t see you, and by the introvert’s logic that means that you don’t see her, either, until she is ready to pull her head up out of the sand. Despite these tendencies, I don’t think we come across as shy, or even particularly awkward, not more than the Everyman. We are generally fond of the human species, (minus its tendency toward causing itself and other beings a tremendous amount of unnecessary suffering), host genuine emotions like caring and fondness for our friends, and are known to not shut up once we get going. Sometimes we hide from having to greet an acquaintance, and at other times we seem completely uninhibited—we have directed and acted in plays in our community theatre, I’ve taught yoga for years, Sebastienne has more charm and charisma than a beehive full of honey (or so I think), and in our early courtship, under the influence of liquids and falling in love chemicals, we did body shots on the bar counter, and other equally inappropriate public displays of “affection,” but we know each other well enough to laugh and roll our eyes when the one of us says:

“Maybe we should just go to Bollen’s.”

“Yeah, right, haha.”

I wouldn’t say that we are complicated or particularly complex, as far as people go, a person doesn’t have to add up to make sense, or even make sense to be. I do occasionally feel like an annoying 90s rerun of “Beavis and Butt-head,” (which I actually never saw, we didn’t have cable): As soon as I say anything, make any claim, or express any preference or opinion, I hear this little devilish voice inside of me:

“Not! Heeheeeheee.”

Most of the time, we compensate our laziness and antisocial tendencies with an ability to wiggle around until we find space within sticky situations, but the reluctance to step out of our comfort zone turned out to be a serious hindrance to get the stove pipe needed to install the wood stove. Home Depot is our go-to-store and has been so for the entire house building process. We know where everything is, we know each isle, and are comfortable enough with the employees to chat a word here and there, but we still refuse help to look for the right screws or to load the car. We know Home Depot, Home Depot is easy, Home Depot is right across the road from the Kroger that carries the dog food made from wild caught fish that our hound lives on, and sprouted bread, and almond butter, and has a water dispenser, and a Redbox for our Friday movie night. Home Depot is part of our world, our daily movements, and doesn’t require extra effort or courage. Home Depot doesn’t carry stove pipe.

Home Depot has a chimney kit you can order through their online store, but we can’t make the online store except our credit card, and Sebastienne doesn’t want to order through Amazon, since it would be too difficult to get spare parts, but she comes up with a clever solution: We go to the bank, we like our bank, they know us, we know them, they are nice and hand out lollipops and dog biscuits. It’s a drive-through, which makes it even better. We take out the $500 cash needed for the stove pipe kit, which we then take to the pharmacy where we buy a VISA gift card, drive to Hannes’s and April’s house to use the Internet, and finally order the stove pipe kit through the Home Depot website, hurray! This was in the end of January.

My birthday wish was to get the wood stove installed. Not primarily because it would be cozy to drink hot chocolate hazelnut milk in front of the fire, but to get rid of that uncomfortable itch I felt every day when I saw it standing there unused. Procrastination gives me stomach ache, I want to rip the bandage and get it done with. My birthday fell on a Thursday this year, and my hero, my wife, promised to set aside both Friday and Saturday to install the stove with me, days she normally studies. Two whole days, and the sun was shining, too! Hannes texted to say that the chimney kit had arrived, we technically still live with him and April, and receive our mail there, sometimes in the form of building supplies. I drove through the sunshine with a giddy “It’s finally happening! Is it finally happening?” feeling making my legs feel bouncy with anticipation. My life is so exciting.

The box didn’t fit in the car. The trunk door has got harder and harder to open to the point where it doesn’t matter how much we kick or booty bump it—we have to stick everything, including garbage bags, lumber, and other building material in from the passenger door, another reason why we don’t want people to help us load the car. Not to be deterred, I emptied out the box in the garage and loaded the content in piece by piece into the backseat, making sure that I didn’t lose any screws or instructions. Once I got everything back to the tiny house, the chimney kit filled the living room floor. After we had inspected it all, we realized that we still needed more pieces, which meant we wouldn’t be able to finish in the two lovely empty days ahead of us, and you could feel the giant, disappointing sigh hanging in the room.

John, who should have been named Jack for his ability to pop up, showed up to witness our rumored progress, which at that point wasn’t very impressive. He suggested that we go to Bollen’s.

“We are not going to do that. We’ll never go to Bollen’s.” Sebastienne finally confessed, half embarrassed, half defiant.

“I think Lowe’s carries stove pipe, too,” he then suggested, without showing too much surprise at our refusal. Lowe’s! Lowe’s is Home Depot’s twin just down the road. We bought the Roxul insulation for our roof there, and have no complaints besides that we don’t know the store layout as well, it is a three minutes longer drive, and is located next to Walmart instead of Kroger. Still, it didn’t seem too much of a hassle, we can handle Lowe’s.

Standing in front of their glorious stove pipe section, we saw that they had a whole chimney kit.

“Hrmph, it didn’t show up on their website, how should you know?” Sebastienne grumbled defensively to herself. I didn’t say anything, I hadn’t even looked online. They didn’t have the pipe we needed, though, the one that would match the kit we had bought online. One of the employees lumbered by with a cart full of something tall that I was too distraught to take a closer look at. Fueled by frustration, Sebastienne responded in affirmative when he wondered if we needed any help:

“Do you know of any other place in town that sell double walled stove pipe? We just need that one part (she pointed at the display drawing of a chimney), but you don’t seem to carry it.” The big man in his blue apron didn’t look to be much of a socialite, either, as he scratched something, furrowed his brow, and when he finally spoke, it sounded like he was wondering aloud to himself:

“I think there is that one place up in Bremen…”

“Bollen’s.” I suggested helpfully. Sebastienne snorted, she looked almost angry:

“Well, ha, we just don’t drive out of town.” To which the man just shrugged his shoulders and left. Sebastienne’s eyes met mine, we were too tired to laugh, but the laughter was there, teasing us, tempting us to see the hilarity in the situation our stubbornness had led us. After less than a minute of jaw clenching, Sebastienne gave me the look that she gives me right before she suggests something that she knows that she shouldn’t suggest, it goes against her better judgment, especially when she knows that I will say yes, I pretty much always say yes against any judgment if it means that I can get what I want sooner or easier. With a mix of hesitation and hope, both delighted and resigned to the fact that there is never anyone around to make us see reason, she blurts:

“We could just buy the stove kit here, the whole thing, then we can get all the parts today, and we’ll know where to find replacements. We just have to return the other one. Home Depot pretty much always take returns. I think even from their online store.” She drifts off at the end, that’s not the fun part.

“So we could have bought the whole thing here three months ago?” I laughed, I couldn’t help rubbing it in, it was too delicious to resist.

“It wasn’t on their website!” Her protests weren’t very defensive, she knew I was grateful that she had tried to order anything at all.

We bought the whole stove kit that day, found two square garden path rocks that fit perfectly under the stove, and got the right screws to attach the copper plate and porcelain spacers that we had decided to use as a fire wall. It was that easy.

Next morning, with hole saw in hand and a queasy, anxious smile:

“Do we have any alcohol at home?”

“I don’t think so…ooo!” I suddenly remembered that at our housewarming party Chris and Amy had given us a handful of tiny bottles, the kind that you get on airplanes, full of suspicious liquids. One was mouthwash blue and called “Kinky,” which I didn’t think would help this morning’s hole business, but there was another, less toxic looking bottle that promised whiskey and cinnamon and something as encouraging as “Caramba!” I poured it into the shot sized ceramic cup with cutesy hipster birds that we got from my mother, and thus fortified, Sebastienne cut a fourteen inch hole in our wall.

She started with the hole saw on the drill to open up a space big enough to get her hand in to remove the sheep wool, and once the insulation was gone, the jigsaw cut pie shaped pieces out of our pretty wall. To mark the location for the hole without turning the wall into Swizz cheese, Sebastienne drilled holes all around the edges from the inside, which were then relatively easy to follow on the outside with the jigsaw. All those years of “tracing the dots” finally paid off.

One crazy coincidence: Without too much measuring, we had decided on where the exhaust pipe should be based on that it couldn’t be too close to the loft ceiling above or the electricity line below, and relatively centered between the studs that we knew to be 16” inch apart. As we opened up the wall, we landed dead center in a 13 by 15 inch rectangle—we had apparently put random blocking and an extra stud right there. The hole should ideally have been 14 inches, but we made it work, grateful that we hadn’t decided on an inch over in either directions, which would have led to an awkward and chilly view of the woods.

We had long pondered how protect the wall from catching on fire without placing the woodstove in the middle of the room. Fire protection is even trickier than water resistance, our earlier building challenge, since you can’t simply add more surface—heat moves through most materials. The solution we came upon is both simple and beautiful: We ordered a 2×4 copper sheet via Amazon, which arrived rather bent and beat up, but after ten minutes of bending, folding, and stepping on it, and finally hitting it flat with a mallet—it had that beat up, scratchy look we like best. The important thing to remember with fire protection is the heat transfer, even the screws to attach the metal can’t touch the wood. Sebastienne found 1 inch porcelain spacers and plastic sleeves meant for the job, but the screws we bought were a little too long, a problem we solved by sawing them off to the right length. The result is quite amazing—the copper and the wall behind it, cooled by the 1 inch air gap, stay significantly cooler than any of the surrounding walls. We now wish we had bought a bigger piece of metal, which we probably will once the winter season is over and we’ll move the woodstove to clean the chimney.

The final installation challenge was the actual chimney. Any job that requires ladders is automatically my job, I love heights and grand views so much that my ex-husband planned to build a tower in the backyard to keep me content in suburbia, (yeah, he’s a pretty nice guy). The chimney didn’t require that high of a climb, I was a mere nine feet off the ground, but the tricky part was to get the six foot heavy and sleek metal pipe up and screwed into place.

“Esh, it will be fine!” My optimism soared this close to the finish line. Standing on that step on the ladder that says “this is not a step,” I hoisted up the chimney pipe as Sebastienne pushed below. As long as I had the bigger part of the six feet below me, or centered in my arms, all went well, but as the center of its gravity shifted upward, my balance got increasingly challenged. Leaning toward the house, I teetered, shivered, and sweated in my big coat.

“Uh-oh.”

It wasn’t working, I couldn’t give that final umph needed to lift the chimney in place without risking losing my footing.

“Abort mission. Backtrack. Backtrack.” Slowly, carefully, I slid the chimney down into Sebastienne’s waiting arms. Standing on the ground, again, looking up, we both huffed. We toyed with the idea of getting help and a longer ladder… I looked at the chimney. It was put together by three separate two foot long pieces.

“Hrmph. Does it really need to be six feet? I could easily get up four…and then we wouldn’t need help…” Sebastienne looked at me, I could see that she was trying to evaluate just how crazy my idea was. Of course she didn’t want to ask for help either, but…

“I guess it would be tall enough. It’s a pretty steep pitch, and we do have a metal roof…everything I read said that it needed to be two feet above the highest point within ten feet…but…the draft should be enough.” She bit her lip and shrugged her shoulders. I got the four feet up without too much hassle, and the stack looked plenty tall to both of us.

“Taller would just have been wobbly.” I commented convincingly. Sebastienne laughed:

“Yeah…”

We bend the rules a little, but not to the point of danger.

Wohoo! We the woodstove is installed! It only took us three months and two days. Now it is time to chop wood.

Our forest is a wonderful mix of pine and hardwoods, but as we cleared the land, we targeted mostly the young pines south of the house—they grow fast, don’t give any substantial shade during the summer, and block the desirable winter rays skimming the horizon. We have a lot of pine fire wood. As the first fires in our new wood stove revealed, the pine doesn’t burn hot enough to get out of the creosote zone, which means that we can’t use most of the firewood we had precut and dried. We’ll use it in the fire pit in the summer, it won’t go wasted, but it still means that we don’t have any cured wood ready to burn.

“We are a disgrace.” I cheerfully concluded. Sebastienne nodded in agreement:

“Yep. A complete disgrace to all homesteaders.” She didn’t sound too sad about our fall from grace either, as we loaded the small bags of firewood from God knows where into our shopping cart outside Kroger.

“Five dollars per bag…a bag lasts a day. Three bags won’t even last us until Thursday. And the whole reason we got a wood stove was that we have so much free wood! On eight dollars an hour, I have to work a lot to keep the house warm.” I don’t know why I sound so happy about it, besides my perverse fascination with the absurd and ridiculous.

“We weren’t prepared.” Sebastienne tried to defend our honor.

“We didn’t prepare, that’s why we aren’t prepared. It’s the end of February. What were we thinking?”

“We were thinking of other stuff. Next year, this year, we’ll be ready.”

As soon as Sebastienne gets out of school this summer, we’ll cut up the hardwoods we have laying around the land like a giant’s game of “pick up sticks,” rent a splitter from Home Depot, and get enough wood to last us from November through March. We’ll build a better and larger woodshed closer to the house, every step counts when it’s below freezing and you carry an armful of wood. Next year, this year, we’ll be ready.

HUGE THANKS TO JOHN LEBOWITZ!

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Introduction

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This is a memoirs of sort, about how my wife and I built a tiny house, and how we live our first year in the Georgia woods without many of the usual comforts of modern life—we only have limited electricity, no plumbing or running water, and no central heating or cooling. It isn’t very glamorous, nor is it a trial to survive. It is life, challenging and sweet, tedious and fun, mundane with hints of glory.

It is almost a do-it-yourself book about how to plan and build your own tiny house, and how to create a smaller and simpler life tailored after your personal needs and desires. How it is possible to carve out a little more freedom—internally, financially, and how you spend your time, without having a big savings account. It is only “almost” a do-it-yourself book—I try not to give too much advice or make lists, I dislike generalizations almost as much as I like them. I can’t claim to have any new insights, answers, or solutions, instead I hope that by simply sharing my experience, it will illuminate some of the many possible questions about building and living in a tiny house. If it will inspire or offend, is entirely subjective.

Before I invite you into my kitchen, I would like to introduce myself. I hadn’t intended to write about myself, to bring an “I” into the story, but my lack of faith in heavy-handed truths, made me think that the subjectivity of the author better be revealed. Who I am—where I come from, where I live, who I love, how I spend my days—is not important in itself, only as indicator of the story’s origin. My eyes are my windows to the world, and the view gets distorted and formed as it pass through the retina and the filter of my personal past. If you know a bit more about me, it might help you decide what to take seriously and what to dismiss, what you relate to and what is not your cup of tea.

The fact that I am from Sweden, for example, might explain why I am such a solitary homebody. Instead of thinking “What a depressive loner,” (which isn’t entirely wrong), you can now nod in understanding: “She is just Swedish.” It might conjure up images of Greta Garbo and not a sociopath. Cultural relativity is something fifteen years abroad have taught me to respect. So let’s begin with that. I’ll be brief.

I left Sweden the day after I finished high school, and spent the following years roaming around Europe’s capitals, sunny islands, and grey suburbs, alternately attempting to study and work, but mostly raked up student loans and created an eclectic job resume. After what felt like a lifetime, but in reality wasn’t much more than a handful of years, I followed my then husband to Tucson, Arizona.

By the time I arrived in Georgia seven years ago, I didn’t think of myself as Swedish. Sure, I still had that Muppet chef accent, and I was glad that our daughter grew up tri-lingual, and I mainly read her Swedish children’s books—their primary colored everyday simplicity was liberatingly free of pink princesses; I thought ribbons and bows belonged on Christmas presents, not baby girls; I occasionally ate pickled herring, gravlax and boiled dill potatoes, enjoyed Bergman movies, shopped at IKEA and H&M, and made saffron rolls for St. Lucia; I thought that walls should be white and floors should be wood, and that society should help its poor and weak, and I would never say that “I am excited” about anything, wear sneakers or other sport related clothes in public, or have writing on my T-shirt, and I talked as fondly of God as I did of Santa, and with the same amount of seriousness. All that was part of the cultural baggage I lugged around with certain amount of pride, but in a quaint, detached way, slung over my shoulder like a fashion scarf that you don’t really need, but like the color.

Flag-toting patriotism and sentimental nationalism are as embarrassing as team jerseys, and arbitrary border lines, drawn by geo-political agencies and dogmatic belief systems, are booby-traps to avoid. That said, no matter if I condone the borders or not, I can’t avoid being influenced by my place within them. I may not agree to being classified as Swedish, but I can’t deny that I come from Sweden. After twelve years in North America, I’m more aware of that than ever.

This is also a book about a cosmopolitan Swede living in rural Georgia, USA.

I’m a fan of Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provance,” France Mayes’ “Under the Tuscan Sun,” and less known “Almost French” by Sarah Turnbull, but unfortunately I can’t lure you with the beauty and charm of southern France, the history drenched Italian countryside, or the glamour of Paris, but I’ve got fireflies, ice tea, and y’all.

Small town Georgia definitely has its charm, and the friendly politeness is not all surface. I general, people here are kind, and value kindness, a quality ruthlessly underrated in much of the world’s metropolises. Drivers wave to joggers, joggers wave to drivers; the cashier at the supermarket tried to include me in the conversation with the man being served, so that I shouldn’t feel left out, something that would never have happened in Stockholm or Berlin, and the delightful women at the bank refuse to take my id, and handout lollipops to Ada, (who is now a lovely, but rather glum looking pre-teen with her gray hoodie pulled tight,) and dog biscuits to my half crazed hound, who knows the routine so well that she starts wagging her tail as soon as I pull up to the drive-through window.

So here I am. But I feel like I’ve forgotten something important. Like my right arm. My wife. I had a husband, now I have a wife. That is as much as I’m interested in divulging on the topic of the sex of my loves and partners. I am queer in the same way as I am Swedish: I am from Sweden and I fall in love with people, not genders, but you won’t see me waving any flags. Sexual preferences interest me as little as patriotism. Love, however, is something I can talk about all day. And I do.

I love my wife. I adore her. She is so toe scrounging cute with those giant brown eyes that go from wounded four years old to sparkling intellectual in a heartbeat, and rounded cheek bones that I have to bite my lip not to pinch too hard. She is like a chipmunk or squirrel, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but luckily not as bouncy or busy, despite all the sparkle, she is as soft and comforting as your favorite old sweater. She is my best friend, my family, my home, my raft down the river, my paradise. She makes everything better, like Sriracha Hot Sauce.

A writer friend of mine said that I am…here she carefully searched for the right, not too offending, word…cheesy. She added that I didn’t seem to mind, which is true, I rather embrace my cheesiness, which I hope makes it less painful to witness. My wife says that I’m corny, which is also true, but I prefer seriously absurd and absurdly serious.

This is also a book about love. And it might get cheesy.

One warning: I have read a few books, fiction and non-fiction, and I have intermittently studied philosophy, psychology, English, and art, but I have no university degree and I have a horrible memory, which might explain why I never remember who said what and when. Also, I don’t really care who said what and when, and that irreverent and disinterested relationship to academia is probably the more truthful explanation to why I never know if it was Nietzsche or Tolstoy or Buddha or my wife or Rilke or the taxi driver or Tom Robbins or a professor or Kundera or a dream or Cohen… If I have anything like wisdom, it was probably sung into my subconscious by Leonard Cohen.

What I get to is this: if you within the covers of this book find ideas or linking of words that you suspect someone else originated, you are probably right.

As far as I know, I got the idea of dragons from the dinosaurs via the cosmic energy field, or was it my daughter who first told me about the scaly, winged beasts? I am partly kidding, but to illustrate the futility in the search for the origin of ideas. We do not live in an insulated vacuum, no ideas are simply “ours.” We inhale the world through our senses from the day we are born, and before, while still in the womb. Even if you are not a believer in a shared consciousness where people can simultaneously get the notion to build pyramids at the opposite ends of the world—there is no denying how influenced we are by our situatedness within this time and place with its culture, media, and shared identities, and how we soak up knowledge through osmosis. To me, the author is never the Author, and I, as a separate I, don’t really matter. Ideas, on the other hand, are there to share.

I do not think Jesus would care if we did not remember to paraphrase him correctly when we speak of the values of kindness or mercy, or that Buddha wants to be cited when the topic of suffering and its alleviation is mentioned. I choose to believe that they cared more about the message than the messenger, and would tell me to repeat the following idea: Good ideas cannot be repeated often enough. Even on the back of milk cartoons.

I am not trying to claim ownership to any of the ideas expressed in this book, I have only collected, edited, and shared the ideas I’ve been given. If I fail to correctly give credit to whoever deserves it, blame it on my poor recall ability and lack of sincere effort to do so. I apologize if this offends your sense of justice. I am profoundly grateful for all word-linkers and idea-sharers out there. I thank you for your songs, lectures, books, poems, movies, conversations…you inspire and move me, and the beauty you call forth makes life not only tolerable, but a privilege.

This book is also my penny to the pot to try to make the world a better place. Of course, there was no getting out of it. It is with existential humbleness that I share my agnostic and paradoxical beliefs that stumble toward something like kindness, something like spaciousness. My daughter asked me the other day what my one wisdom or advice to the world would be, and flushed with excitement and gratitude I rambled for half an hour. That is a question that fires me up even more than if she had asked me to list my top 10 songs of all time (Leonard Cohen’s Halleluiah and If It Be Your Will, Nick Cave’s Into My Arms and Shipsong, Lou Reed’s Coney Island Baby…), and I apologized for my overzealousness. Ada smiled good-humoredly that twenty answers would do. In an attempt to narrow it down, without getting too bland, I came up with: “Life is an awkward yoga pose, you just have to move around until you feel a little less awkward.” Ada seemed pleased, but not very impressed, as she nodded to herself: “That sounds like words of wisdom, I guess.” Dissatisfied, I later texted my ex-husband’s new wife the one thing I wanted my daughter to know if I died in a car accident: “Happiness is closer to poetry than it is to laughter.”

That about sums it up.

Mecan and Alma

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Dante’s tiny house article

Dante, a freelance artist, designer, art student, photographer, and tiny house fan, wrote an article about us and our tiny house. She also has a great blog: http://lobsterpowers.tumblr.com/

The article is well written, and the pictures beautiful, and we really enjoyed getting to know her and her boyfriend as they came out for the interview. It is strange to read what someone else wrote about us, but I think she got us pretty accurately. (Unfortunately, I never was a scuba instructor, though, I only studied toward the teaching certificate, but that’s a petty detail.)

Tiny House in the Woods

“It’s liberating to be able to build your own shelter and to know that you don’t have to have as much as you think you do. You don’t need very much to be okay.”

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Maria and Sebastienne Grant are two very bright women living in Carrollton, Georgia. A couple years ago, they decided to embark on a journey of building their own “tiny house”. The tiny house movement has been gaining steam recently. It’s a movement that is giving people power to build their own shelters using the money that they can save and live more simply and debt free. These very small custom spaces are also built on a trailer bed, allowing the owners to move as they please. This is the story of one couple’s experience.

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Maria grew up on a farm Sweden. She’s been a Jill-of-all-trades; everything from childcare to scuba instructor to yoga teacher. Her passions currently lie in yoga and writing. Her partner, Sebastienne, is a theoretical psychology student at West Georgia University. She also is a wonderful chef at Farmer’s Fresh, a Carrollton kitchen that works with local farmers in the CSA. Together, they co-parent and home school Maria’s daughter, Ada, during the week. They are a very homegrown kind of family who are doing things their own way.

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Maria and Sebastienne came to the conclusion that they wanted to build a tiny house after looking at houses in the area and talking to banks about mortgages. Sebastienne found out that she could be saddled with a mortgage on top of student loans if she worked at the same place for a year, even though she would only be making around minimum wage. This was not an appealing prospect, so they started to look for alternatives. Both women wanted a place that they could really care about. The couple started their building process slowly. They started collecting appealing images of houses, figured out what they needed to live and drew a plan. Next, they got out some sidewalk chalk and measuring tape to drew it out in real space to feel what it would be like.

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Both women had limited experience with building prior to constructing their house. They started out thinking that they couldn’t do it themselves, but during every stage of building, they gained more confidence with their skills. At every stage, they thought of hiring out someone else because they thought that they couldn’t do it, but they became so excited about having the house be a particular way that they decided to do it themselves. This excitement continued throughout the entire project. They found that they had fun building this place and understanding more about the building process. This confidence also translates into learning about how to live without certain comforts, such as temporarily living without running water. Maria boils water in a tea kettle and then bathes in a tub. These things build confidence for her, knowing that she can be more self-sufficient.

Sebastienne says that “It’s liberating to be able to build your own shelter and to know that you don’t have to have as much as you think you do. You don’t need very much to be okay, even though we are told that we need all of these things to be okay. ‘We need big houses, luxuries and stuff.’ Of course it would be nice to have a hot shower, but we’re actually fine. We just got a toilet a couple of weeks ago. It makes you less afraid of losing things. It would make me less afraid of quitting a job that I hated, for instance. You have a lot more space in the world when you don’t feel like you need so much.”

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Many people that I talk to about the subject of tiny houses are interested in how to raise child in this kind of space. Maria says that Ada loves staying in the tiny house. Ada is a fan of the Laura Ingles series like Little House on the Prairie and enjoys making art projects and playing make believe. All three women are homebodies. They work, study and cook three meals a day all at home. They use the library for internet. One of their favorite activities is reading aloud together.

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Maria and Sebastienne had been training Ada for a few years before making the move. Before moving into the tiny house, Ada would receive so many toys and things that they do not remain special for very long. Living in a small space creates a kind of forced sense of attachment to material possessions that made the few things that they have very special. They all live in a space with only their favorite things. Whenever they go shopping, they must ask themselves and each other if a purchase will be a favorite or will make their life better by coming into the house.

Maria says once she has things that she and Ada become too attached and cling to them. Building and moving into a tiny house forced them to get rid of things and both were relieved once they did.

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Maria grew up on a farm in Sweden. She loved caring for the animals and took extra special care of them, even so far as tying pink bows on the bull’s tails. She had so much fun working on her farm, but felt disconnected when it came to caring for her childhood room. She wanted to create a space where she would feel as comfortable at home as she did on the farm. Her tiny home has a total club-house feel. In creating this house, she wanted to live in a space that would allow her to spend more time doing what she loves and less time working to pay for her life. The couple agrees that they have more chore to keep up with, like fetching water and dumping compost buckets, but it all feels like part of life now.

Maria says “I’d rather carry my own water the rest of my life than having to work more. I love my free time to be home to just write, read and putter around the house.”

This kind of living also allow them to enjoy each other’s company more. Maria emphasizes that couples who live in tiny houses have to really like spending time together in order to live in one, but neither woman is a lone wolf in this home.image

Sebastienne and Maria make a great team, especially when it comes to building. Seb tends to be a researcher, scouring books to learn everything about the subject, while Maria prefers hands-on tinkering to tackle a project.. Even without prior building experience, Seb taught herself how to wire the house’s electricity by reading about 8 books and some blogs about electricity.

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While moving throughout this beautiful home, my boyfriend Colin and I remarked about how spacious it felt. Maria mentioned that she wanted a hallway in their home to allow some space for movement. With my current situation, I doubt that I could even move freely through our own cluttered space like we could in Maria’s. Even with two residents and three guests in the house, I found it to be very comfortable, intimate and cozy. As we sat in the kitchen and chatted, I became a little chilled. Maria just heated up a pot of tea on the stove and the entire house warmed up in minutes. These homes are very energy efficient. The Grant home runs off of solar power and a generator when needed.

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Personally, I am totally into this kind of lifestyle. I believe that we will keep seeing a trend toward micro-living. The millennial generation values can be reflected in some of Maria and Sebastienne’s. We want to live with more freedom from debts and payments, spend more time with the people we love and doing things that make us happy, and also live in highly custom spaces with low environmental impact. I can’t wait to start planning my own tiny house that Colin and I can dream about building one day.

To learn more about tiny houses and Maria and Sebastienne, please visit their blog at http://tinyhousebigdream.me/.

Maintenance

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We have lived here for soon three months, months full of the usual fussiness of life, there always seems to be something, but life in all its something-ness seems a little lighter, a little more manageable, pocket-sized, when living in a small house. It is like when you travel and only bring your most comfortable shoes, flattering pants, and black shirts—you never have to think about what to wear, everything works effortlessly. Our house is like a suitcase full of favorites. It fits us.

I cannot say that it fits us effortlessly. There are quite a few chores to be done in a tiny house, especially since it takes some effort to keep it clean and fresh smelling with four wily beasts (Seb, Ada, Alma, and I) romping around. There are days when I do not finish the morning chores until it is time for lunch, given that I eat my lunch early, and it feels rather funny to dry off the breakfast dishes and empty out the drain bucket right in time to put on the beans. There are always at least five kitchen towels on the laundry line, the floor could always use mopping, and soon there is time to chop firewood, which will add to my routine. It is all pleasant and peaceful, I feel like old “Pettson” (a Swedish children’s book character), who tinkers away at his days, invents this and that, and talks to his cat and chickens, only I have a hound dog and woodland birds, instead. The stories I tell them.

Not that maintenance is something I tend to enjoy without a fair bit of existential angst. I feel with Switters, one of my favorite antiheros, in Tom Robbins’ Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, as he rants about all the tedious things one has to do:

“There’s birth,” he grumbled, “there’s death, and in between there’s maintenance.”

Sebastienne and I both confess to be better at starting new projects than at the upkeep that comes after. If it is absolutely necessary, we can stick to a project that has run dry, say, the soffits… We worked toward the goal of finishing this house for two years, and despite the intention of remaining awake to our days, we frequently had to walk with our wills in front of our feet, something we are both capable of, but choose not to make a habit. The fun lies in the creativity, in the act of creating something new, not in the routine. If I believed in an intentional God, rather than the semi-accidental one I think we are all part of, I would accuse him of the same tendency—he seemed mighty creative in the making of the world, but he is definitely slacking off as far as maintenance goes.

Besides the everyday upholding of order, I have close to an endless amount of building projects to putter with. I built us a bed, a shelf for the foot of the bed, a spice shelf, and a bathroom door, (Seb built the bedroom door in her psychology class, do not ask me how she got away with it.), all satisfying projects to be able to construct and install in an afternoon. It does feel like a luxury to finally have a toilet, especially since the mornings are getting chilly, and it will be great to get enough solar power to run the fridge, and we will not have to buy ice every other day, but otherwise we live so comfortably that I feel no rush to get anything done. Less exciting tasks like installing the gutters and gable vents will be done in time, and I can plod away at my own pace without hurting my arms or interest. If I rather write, like today, or want to enjoy the fall by clearing walking trails in the woods, or want to spend an afternoon with Proust—the house waits without any impatient sighs.

The progress is slow, and not going anywhere more particular than where we are now. I should perhaps not speak for Sebastienne, who is already knee deep in her PhD program and looks forward to years of intense work, but as far as I can tell, she seems enough emerged in her studies that no future is necessary. That a lot of the work can be done while sitting on the sofa with a cup of tea at her lip and a hound draped over her legs, does seem to ease the blow. I, on the other hand, do not have anything to look forward to, which is a rare blessing. I wake up and live my days.

PS: Forgive the shoddy picture quality, I used my phone. I “need” a new camera…

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All the coffee maker I need, these days.
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Chilly morning studies.
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Bathroom door

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Extra clothes storage under the bed.

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No existential angst there…

Home – writings from the tiny house

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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.”

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Move-in-ready!

As I write this, I sit at the kitchen table in our tiny house. It is just after 5:30 am, the dark woods are impenetrable to the eye, but I hear the neighbor’s roosters crowing hesitantly. It has rained for two days, and our solar system is running low, so I choose to write by the light of the oil lamp and a couple of candles that my mother sent us. I plug the computer straight into the DC outlet, rather than through the invertor, and I am as glad to know what I am talking about as I am that it works.

We moved in to our little “Getaway” in the woods! The house has reached a level of finished that we find decently comfortable to live in, but it is far from done. We do not yet have a fully functioning bathroom, our kitchen is only half set up, and we must build the internal doors, get a proper bed, buy and install the larger AC solar system, put up the gutters to collect rainwater, decide what plumbing we want, and get and install our heating and cooling apparatuses. Not to mention that we need to deal with the land itself: I would settle for a pristine forest glen full of wild flowers or an unkempt English garden or any natural looking and easily maintainable garden style, but the current mix of brush piles, leftover building materials, trash and weeds give it that rugged, not to say redneck, backwoods feel, which is not exactly what we are going for. There is still a lot of work ahead, but…we moved in, yay!

We do have the big house” in town with Hannes and April where we use the shower, Internet, and laundry, etc., and we have Paul and Terra across the street who let us fill up our two 5 gallon water tanks, which we need to do every other day. We are grateful for friends who feel like family.

The past month was a whirl wind of work. The evidence thereof is that I am currently wearing wrist braces on both arms and am typing slowly with my pinkies. (Insomnia makes me more patient with time consuming tasks. The hours before dawn feel like bonus time.) I have a crippling combination of carpal tunnel syndrome and “tennis elbow” since I, during the last two days’ rush, built and painted a sink cabinet and two small chests/drawers, spray painted two chairs, polished the floor twice with a car buffer, and scrubbed the whole house with yummy smelling oil soap. The floor buffing is what did me in – crawling on all fours for hours while holding on to the vibrating machine intended for much shorter and upright use made my neck wish it could snap off and go and find itself a more comfortable home.

The most exciting new development is that we got our small DC solar system set up. Sebstienne deserves a load of credit for teaching herself about solar power and electricity (Paul is a good go-to for questions) and ensuring that we now have power enough to use any lamps we need, run the ceiling fan (which she also installed), use the computer (We have already watched movies in bed, which feels like utter luxury.), and almost everything we need besides the small fridge (we put ice in the freezer part) or the still non-exciting air conditioner. To get the solar panel up on the roof was tricky, but nothing compared to knowing how it works, and hooking it up to batteries and invertors and power systems.

Sebastienne has an enviable amount of patience for reading the fine prints of instruction manuals, driven by an endless curiosity to figure out the “why” and “how” of it all, which proved very useful during the house building process. Instructions make my eyelids as heavy as pregnant possums, and I have very little interest in anything that I cannot figure out by myself with the use of logical reasoning and trial and error attempts. Fortunately, there is a surprising amount of things that fall into the latter category.  Also, I have plenty of endurance and focus for the actual work, and I got us up and going every morning, which proved very useful, too. In the end, we made a house together – a monument to our teamwork.

The moving day was hot and the humidity had the quality of reversed rain, which came as no surprise, seeing that it was August 1st in Georgia. I was rendered fairly useless with my gimpy arms, and it took us the whole morning to fill the small U-Haul truck. As we got to the land, John Lebowitz and Angie Pace and her girls were there to help us unload our peach boxes full of books and tea pots, and with close to heroic effort, they managed to squeeze Ada’s mattress through the hole to the loft. Despite our skepticism, the sofa slid in through the door without much of fight, and two hours after our arrival, we were already sweatily sipping the iced green tea in the living room.

Now, a week later, Sebastienne is building a dog pen (Actually, right now, she is on the sofa with the hound, blinking sleepily and sipping the tea I made her.) so that Alma can use the dog door, but she is soon about to shift gears completely: In two weeks she will start a PhD program in psychology, and even though we still have plenty of work to do on the house, her priorities have to alter radically. Building will be an occasional weekend and break activity, rather than the all-consuming work (besides our paying jobs) of the past year and a half.

This blogging process is coming to an end as well, (I think). I intend to write one more post during the coming weeks about downsizing, how we fit all our stuff into the house, and how we live here, and there might be a handful of sporadic posts throughout the fall. As the New Year ticks awake, I will attempt to wrestle all this (house building, living small, life in the woods, etc.) into something pleasant and readable in book shape. I will let you know how that goes.

PS: Excuse the bad picture quality, my camera is dying on me.

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We built a porch! (How to impress your kid.)

“…and what are you going to do today?” Ada’s voice reached me all the way from Sweden where she was visiting her grandparents.

“Build the back porch.”

“Oh, Mama, you say that as other people say that they are going grocery shopping!” She laughed pleased, and I could not help feeling very proud that my soon to be twelve years old thinks that I am cool. I know it will be harder when she is sixteen.

I remember a conversation Sebastienne and I had while driving to Asheville some time during our early courtship when we both shared the belief that our teenage selves would have been happy with how we turned out, which we took as an indicator of not being completely off track. Not that we were particularly ambitious as teenagers, I had a foggy vision of either becoming a scuba dive instructor in Thailand, a writer in an attic apartment in Berlin, or have a vineyard outside Siena, and I believe Sebastienne mostly wanted to leave Texas, but as most half-depressed and over-read youths we did know that we wanted something Good, something Beautiful, and something True. And Love, of course.

As most half-happy and decently well read adults we have become rather post-structural and skeptical that there are such things as goodness, beauty, and truth, at least in any objective sense. Still, without being able to rely on any authority on the validity of human values, we feel comfortable enough that we know what ours are and we live to pursue them. And we do have Love. Our young selves with their frizzy hair, pimples, and baby chub would be glad to see that we did not settle for anything less. They would be relieved that we did not become complacent or resigned, that we still have noble heroes (Seb – Dalai Lama, M – Joan of Arc), and strive to be as giant as our 5.3 feet allow us. And they would think that we are pretty cool to be able to throw together a screened-in porch.

People often say that we must feel so proud to have built a whole house, and on a theoretical level, I guess we are, but the project was too long, and too broken down to be able to feel the entirety of it. Each day we worked on something small, painting a wall here, and putting up window trim there, and each task on its own seemed unremarkable and quite mundane. That we by the end of it got a house is difficult to comprehend. The porch, on the other hand, only took us 6 half-days to build from the time we went to Home Depot to get the lumber, down to the finishing touches. I get that.

Framing is by far our favorite part of building, to out of a pile of planks be able to build a three dimensional structure. Lego for adults. It is fun how much we have learned, now do not need any plans, but can make things up as we go along. Play with it. The discovery of Simpson Strong-tie connectors has definitely made it easier to build things fast, straight, and strong. After the base frame, we added balusters to make the porch feel more tucked in, since it is quite far off the ground. We already had the metal roof (we bought it with the rest of the roof a year and a half ago), and chose to leave it without a sub panel or drop ceiling, so that we can hear the rain. The screen door ended up being too tall for us to get the roof angle we wanted, but Seb cut off almost a foot from its center, then hammered nails half way down one side, cut the heads off, added some glue (liquid nails) and put the pieces back together. She used pet screen on the door to make it tougher. We painted everything semi-gloss white (Behr’s “Polar bear”) except the door and the floor, which we painted high-gloss gray (Behr’s “River Bend”) to match the rest of the house. We stapled on the screen, and added pressure treated and painted 1x2s.

Now we have a cozy and bug free place to hang out, drink tea, and wonder what our eighty years old selves will think of us, and we of them.

Coming up soon (very soon): We move in on Friday August 1st, and before that we have to hook up our solar panels for the DC system, finish out the closets, polish the floor, and pack and clean!

We love the Simpson Strong-Tie wood connectors, they make building easy.

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Seb checks the angles of the roof rafters. Notice the guitar pose. My rock star wife. :-)
Seb checks the angles of the roof rafters. Notice the guitar pose. My rock star wife. :-)
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The mega long connector

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