Laura’s note: Housework can eat hours, and the bigger the house, the more work it takes to maintain. Today I welcome longtime reader and occasional contributor Elisabeth Sharp McKetta to the blog. She writes about how moving to a very very tiny house changed her life. This is a longer blog post, but I think you’ll enjoy the story! We’ll hear from her husband in an upcoming post about his thoughts on the matter!
by Elisabeth Sharp McKetta
Above all I love three things: my people, my work, and being a flaneur.
My people: my smart, weird jack-of-all-trades husband. My generous, storytelling 4-year-old son and my insightful critical-thinking 7-year-old daughter who could argue a tree out of its branches.
My work: book-writing, coaching writers, and teaching online for Harvard Extension School.
And being a flaneur: when years ago I first heard the word (French, meaning an idler or stroller) I thought “yes!” and claimed it. I have always loved the feeling of being a wanderer, a long-distance walker, the world my home, any café my kitchen, any flat surface my desk, any grassy stretch my yard. I love to wander, both in cities and nature. I love to head into town with my children on their razor scooters and see what we find.
Earlier this year I went on a walking trip with my dad, who is retired and boisterously healthy at 70. We walked the Thames River path from rural Western England to London, starting at the green cow-pasture source and walking in the direction of modernity. We averaged 17 miles a day and slept in pubs, stooping under low ceilings and into overgrown gardens, making friends with small-town locals and eating sticky toffee pudding for dessert. For two weeks, we carried all our worldly supplies in small 18-liter backpacks from town to town.
Part of the pleasure in being a flaneur is in distilling an entire life to the necessary things: people and work (I travel with my laptop, for writers always have homework). Wandering in the world feels both healthy (walking is great exercise) and social (good conversations are bound to happen). I love the travelling lightly, the being portable, the having on my body all I need and want, and overall the feeling of being open to the world in a way that is impossible to do from inside a house.
Even before having children, I had long wished to replicate this feeling of ease and simplicity in my home life. After children, the need to simplify felt more urgent, for our life had been feeling increasingly heavy. I found that the greatest exhaustion I felt was when I crossed the threshold from world to house: after I had been out in my community writing, or meeting a student, or taking my kids on our bikes to some cool garden or museum—and then we’d park our bikes and enter the house and suddenly a weight would fall onto my shoulders.
There was just so much to do. A big house is never clean. A house with children always has too many random objects strewn about. A house with children and a new puppy (what fools, fools we were to get a puppy when we still had a baby!) generally has some mild crisis, a baby sock swallowed and barfed or pooped out, or some dollhouse furniture chewed, or else a beast rattling around in its crate, and the attendant guilt.
My husband—our main-house-fixer and the caller of plumbers when I treat the dishwasher too harshly or when one of the children accidentally flushes a diaper—felt the same way. The house was tiring him, and it was costing us most of our earnings and too often some of our savings. We own a big house in Boise, a 6-bedroom complete with indoor hot-tub and backyard office: “the 80s dream house,” our friends called it; it had room for everybody and everything.
But I found that in order to focus wholly on my people or my work, my two great loves, I had to be in the mode of my third great love: wandering, idling outside of the house. At home, I was always multitasking and half-listening. The kids behaved better too when not at home: rather than bickering about an object or being told “No!” in anticipation of all the household havoc they were always on the brink of wreaking, they allied themselves as friends and siblings and looked curiously at the world and its wonders; out of the house, I could say yes more. I could be the parent I wanted to be.
We own a 250 square foot adjacent dwelling unit (i.e. mother-in-law apartment) that we built in the backyard of our 2-bedroom starter home that we left because it was (oh irony!) too small. The architect built it to look like a teahouse mixed with a fairy tale woodcutter’s cottage, though we think it looks more like a houseboat. We refer to this dwelling as “The Shed” and have long joked about moving into it when life got too heavy.
But it was always just a joke.
The catalyst came one night in the spring of 2017, when the house was a disaster, the cleaner had cancelled, the dog had had diarrhea over 3800 sq. ft. of carpet, and the kids had gone to bed in a stalemate over a Lego ninja, and I was lying in bed entertaining a fantasy about jumping into a lifeboat and letting the whole ship of our heavy house sink. I had been scheming, as I often did at night, about how I’d keep our family afloat, financially, house-wise, and joy-wise, and a scenario had emerged, as wholly as a new baby emerges, down to every last detail, screamingly alive: we would go into my lifeboat together. We would move to the Shed. I would leap off the heavy ship with only my children, my husband, the dogs, and a small suitcase for each of us. We would be a family of flaneurs.
I leaped out of bed, found my husband in his office across the hall, and proposed the impossible.
His face at first looked apprehensive, scared and white, as if it had been poached. I was talking in the middle of the night, not my usual hour, about abandoning ship, this ship he and I had worked so hard to navigate and keep afloat. But then the idea clicked and I saw the gears began turning for him, and he hurried to his desk and got his notepad and then the show was on. We spent the rest of the night awake, planning out the details.
We would live in a dwelling that cost literally nothing. My husband and I would share my old office, which stood in the back of the big house. We would have income from renting both main houses, which would more than cover our mortgages. As long as we didn’t spend it all at Whole Foods and on vacations, we could build up a treasure of savings, or at the very least we’d stop depleting our savings, and we’d stop stressing about money, time, and mess. We would take our partially weathered selves, our nine-year-marriage, and our rosy, new children, and enjoy it all properly.
We hacked out a list of systems:
- We would keep a vegan kitchen for ease and cleanliness.
- We would drop off our laundry each week at Jiffy Clean wash-and-fold, which would save me hours of doing everyone’s laundry.
- We would share my garage-office behind the big house, located two long blocks away from the Shed; it would be a quiet writer’s office in the early mornings and the evenings, and it would be a noisier real estate agent’s office during the 9-5 hours.
- Rather than an endless linen closet of towels, we four would share two towels and teach the kids how to hang them.
- We would keep seasonal wardrobes of 8 outfits each (Boise has two seasons: hot and cold) and store the rest of our clothes in a bin in the garage.
- We would keep all the kids’ toys in a bin in the garage and let them choose a few for their smaller toy bins that would fit onto the Shed shelves. To our astonishment, the kids did not mutiny; rather, they declared that in the Shed, all toys would be “sharing-toys” so they could double the goods.
- We would try to be out of the Shed between breakfast and dinner, even though we work at home and can set our own schedules; we would get memberships to all of the local organizations: Discovery Center, Zoo, Botanical Garden, pool, and we could go somewhere each day.
- We would stay in town in the fall and the spring, when Boise weather is lovely and the kids are in school, and we would consolidate our travelling into the winter and summer.
- We love hosting, so would keep a sofa that could convert to a bed and invite the kids’ sleepover friends to bring sleeping bags. In the warm months, we’d host dinners outside. In the freezing months, we’d host smaller dinners inside or bring meals over to friends’ houses.
Everything else we could continue as we had done before: James would be on morning kid-duty while I wrote before breakfast, I’d be on afternoon kid-duty while he saw clients, we’d try to do dinner as a family as often as possible, and I’d teach my classes twice a week at night.
It didn’t seem like shed-dwelling would be that hard. People had lived in small dwellings for hundreds and thousands of years, in less space and with fewer luxuries than we had. We didn’t see why it wouldn’t work. In our mind, it would look like early retirement, the way people downsize houses in their twilight years, but we would do it with kids and work. It would also look like camping, but with hot water and flushable toilets and quite comfortable beds.
For the rest of the spring, a taut new energy sparkled around us. We were planning something for our future. A big something—a something that, more than anything else we had planned, secured our future. If we move into the lifeboat, where might we go? What might be possible? When we told our friends our plan to leave the big house and move to the tiny one, they asked, “Haven’t you heard of moderation?”
We moved into the Shed in September 2017, so this September marks our first anniversary of being tiny house inhabitants. We are still honeymoony about the Shed. At least once a day, my husband or I say to the other, “I LOVE shed-dwelling.” For our time is spent in ways that align with our dreams. If I wish to spend time playing and telling stories with my children, I do—I can. I have the time and the mental space. If I wish to take the dog for a several-hour hike, I do—I can. If I wish to adventure with my children every afternoon, rather than doing housework, I do—I can.
Ordinary life these days has the simplicity of travel, where the only objects we steward are the ones we need, and where the only things on our home-to-do list are the ones that are truly necessary.
These days when our friends come to visit us on weekends or after school, they tend to find us in the middle of leisure activities: my son building a Lego village on the floor, my daughter deep in an art project involving mermaids, James and I sitting on the deck in conversation.
Our friends sit with us and have a beer. Sometimes they complain about their own massive house and yard projects. They say, “I guess that isn’t a problem for you anymore.” Then they glance around our tiny house and say, “I think this may be genius.”
We think so, too.
Elisabeth Sharp McKetta is the author of the biography Energy, as well as five previous books. She teaches writing for Harvard Extension School and was named their 2018 teacher of the year. She is at work on a memoir titled ShedDwellers about tiny house family life.