Monday, November 17

Thin Walls and Wide Open Doors

This is Part 5 in my series about living in a small space. If you've missed any, catch Part 1Part 2Part 3, and Part 4.

Standing in my kitchen, I can hear my neighbor in hers. She's talking about her day, using the microwave, grinding her coffee.

In my bathroom, I can hear my upstairs neighbor plunging his toilet, starting his shower.

Not all small living is this intimate with neighbors, but for me, it often seems a natural extension.

I stand in the open door while the kids retrieve the mail from the box across the hall. The hallway door opens and other neighbors pass between us, greeting us and naturally glancing past me, seeing most of our house.

I'm not ashamed, I tell myself, hoping to one day make that true. I'm not the best housekeeper in the world, plus small children add their own special housekeeping style. But there is little I can do to hide it from my neighbor, since the routine of daily living opens up my life for them to see inside.

It is only obvious with what I can hear of my neighbors, they are not just limited to what they can see of me. One of our neighbors once commented on the great bedtime book we read the night before.

And that, gentle readers, encourages me to live small.

There may be very little that I can do about the sound of deteriorating children at bedtime or croupy crying before dawn, but what about the sound of my deteriorating patience or croupy attitude?

It is scary vulnerable to have so little boundary between us and them. We live off of what is perhaps the busiest hallway in our complex and neighbors or strangers are constantly coming and going. I'm not ever sure what can be seen or heard by passersby. It would be so much more comfortable to live in a turtle-shell hermitage.

But for hospitality.
The largest crowd we've ever had in our house. What you can't see is how much of our furniture we had to move out to the porch.

I've heard hospitality defined as welcoming someone into your daily life. We can fit no more than a handful of people within our four walls for a meal. We can host just one overnight guest at a time (and that is only if they don't mind sleeping sitting up or sharing the floor with how ever many children climb out of bed that night). But there is a certain hospitality borne out of sharing a laundry room, of knowing there are people eavesdropping on your children's bedtime routine, of preparing for the inevitable moments of the day when our door will be open and it will be as if we were entertaining strangers.

So I keep winnowing. I keep tossing the clutter, curbing my tongue, considering the thin walls and wide open door. I am not ashamed, I tell myself, hoping one day to make it true.

Monday, September 22

Easy Decluttering Tips

This is Part 4 in my series about living in a small space. If you've missed any, catch Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

About a year ago the kids and I got home unexpectedly early from a weekend visiting my parents and found the door unlocked and an empty house. Really empty. Like furniture moved out and nothing on the floor empty.

Fortunately, I quickly realized SOS had taken the kid-free opportunity to have the carpets cleaned, and sure enough, he showed up a short time later chagrined that he hadn't been able to put everything back before I got home.
Four-Year-Old Selfie, with Carpet

But I was inspired. There was so much room!

Just imagine what we could do with so much empty space! Hold a contra dance! Or put together a 5000 piece puzzle! Or maybe, just maybe, make a comfortable, non-cluttered home for a family of four.

With welcoming SmilesBabyGirl and the explosion of accompanying girl-baby accessories, I had begun to doubt our condo really could be a comfortable home for us. Had we simply run out of room? Was it time for me to acknowledge that the inevitable "time to move" was now?

With the wall to wall carpeting bare, though, I reconsidered. We could do it. I just knew it.

The first step seemed obvious: The big piles of stuff hanging out on our porch while our carpet dried? How much of it could go directly out the front door? Thus began a season of ruthless, drastic decluttering. (Okay, we are still talking about me here, and I like my fair share of STUFF.)

The first thing to go? A pile of old magazines with the book "5 Easy Steps to Decluttering" smooshed in between the October and November issues of 2010. How is that for a review of the book? Maybe I'll write my own "5 Easy Steps to Decluttering." Step 1 will read: Empty your house of everything. Step 2: Don't let it get back inside. Oh, look! I got it done in only two steps. A sure-fire bestseller.

My brilliant plan aside, every once in awhile, I will pull up search results for decluttering tips. I used to do this earnestly seeking ideas that would solve problem areas. Now I do it largely for amusement. Keeping a basket handy for everything that needs to be taken to a different room. Hee hee. The "30 day challenge" where an entire day was dedicated to organizing take-out menus. Hahaha.

I've found one of the best deterrents to amassing many types of clutter is having only a few cubic feet of space unreachable to small children.

As far as the clutter so closely associated with those children? I'm still working on that. I'd use my nifty trick and schedule the carpet for another cleaning, but the kids' toys have barricaded themselves in the hide-away of the wunderbed. It's become a monster in there, waiting for the day when it can take over the rest of the house. I'd be more upset about it except I'm pretty sure the kids have it all under control. They periodically toss other household items in there as an appeasement sacrifice. How much easier can decluttering the house get?

Tuesday, September 16

Table Manners without the Table

This is Part 3 in a series about our small living space. Here is Part 1 and Part 2.

It was one of those moments where any mother would have beamed with pride. We had company over. Not our usual if-you-want-some-water-you-know-where-the-cups-are kind of company, but the kind of company where we actually found our dining table and brought out a wrinkled tablecloth to cover the goop which cannot be removed with mere soap and water.

We were doing this company thing for reals. Except we forgot the small detail of sufficient seating. But our guests were graciously making do, and one had found a decent seat on the bottom step of the stairs leading to CutieLittleBoy's bunk bed.

Let me sidetrack for a moment. SmilesBabyGirl does an amazing wedge impersonation. For being as robustly chub as she is, she has a unique talent of inserting herself in small spaces and then pushing outward until she is pleasantly comfortable.

So our unwarned guest was making as much of a chair as she could out of the bottom step when the Wedge made her way in-between the guest and her bowl of ice cream.

So maybe the beaming I was doing was not on account of pride. "I'm sorry," I said. "We're trying to teach our children not to beg for food." (Although, truthfully, there wasn't a whole lot of begging going on. She knew her rightful place, the rest of us were just slow on the recognition.)

Another guest innocently asked, "At what age does that become not okay?"

Good question.

I've spent a fair bit of time in the last six months thinking about family dinners, table manners, and raising model citizens. The question all comes down to this: Do you need a dining table to achieve the social-glue known as the family dinner?

A baby and four bookshelves ago, we similarly thought we had no room for eating around the table. Meals were eaten either on the couch or sitting on the floor next to the booster seat which must have had a fear of heights for all of the time it spent strapped to a chair.

Oh, and chairs! For awhile we didn't even have chairs. No room, you know.

But the time came where teaching our toddler a handful of table manners was undeniably more important than keeping every book we owned accessible. Heresy? Dear book-loving friends, do not be quick to judge.
Before babies we had books. And places to sit down. That blank wall in the picture is our front door.

More books and more places to sit down. It looks like I have lots of flowers, but really I just have an enormous mirror. From left to right: inside storage, a desk, a dining table with 4 chairs, our largest bookshelf, and extra seating.

And then another season came and went and with it a big-boy bed and even fewer bookshelves… and the table got ousted once again.
Same mirror. Big-boy bed from top to bottom: bed, bookshelf and standing computer desk, auxiliary kitchen storage, desk, our largest bookshelf (now more board books than ever before). This wunderbed is flanked by our "hall closet" (see the vacuum), and additional shelving. In the foreground is the aforementioned booster seat. It has exchanged its fear of heights for a nomadic lifestyle.

Priorities, dear friends. Even Maslow knew sleep is more important than the safety of eating with well-mannered children.

But as for our guests? Let's just hope they've reached self-actualization and can approach their invitation to dinner with creativity and lack of prejudice.

"Bye!" We call after them. "Thank you for coming! I mean, really, thank you for having dinner with us!"

Monday, September 8

Cold Showers and Other Niche Skills

This is Part 2 in a series about living in a small place. Read Part 1 if you missed it.

I chose to take a cold shower this morning. I took one yesterday, too. I have this to say: Brr.

The water heater for our building has been sputtering to a painful death for awhile now, and it finally did so early Sunday morning. Eighteen households without hot water on a day when no one is going to budge an inch to fix the problem. Our HOA elections just might have been decided this weekend.

But that was yesterday. Today maintenance was going to fix the problem. They just need to turn off the water for a "few" hours.

Gentle Readers, water is critical when there are two sticky-fingered, chalk-eating, dirt-flinging, diaper-stripping, juice-splashing children in the house.
It turns out yogurt makes some pretty nice splashes, too.

A zebra, of course.

Just thinking about it makes me want to go wash my hands and everything else the children have touched.

So yes. My options this morning were to take a cold shower before they turn off the water or to pack up the children and find the nearest heated shower with built in babysitter.

A cold shower it was.

And, it may surprise my neighbors to hear this: I survived. My hair didn't curl tighter, my fingers and toes did not get frostbite and fall off, my lungs did not get paralyzed in a permanent inhale of frigidness.

Several years ago, in the blissful idealism of youth, I once promised myself that I would take a cold shower perhaps once a month as a reminder that a warm shower is not an inalienable right. I figured the regular reminder that running water is a luxury, much more so warm running water, would keep me from getting too convinced of my entitlement to such comforts. "Don't take it for granted," and all that.

I think I kept up that plan for approximately 3 seconds.

When a warm shower is possible, a cold shower is… well, taking a cold shower is the stuff of idioms.

Ironically, earlier in the week (perhaps one of the times they turned off the water trying to fix the dying thing), I was reminded of this niche of skills I want to teach my kids. How do you survive when a water or power outage catches you off guard? How do you prepare when you know of one beforehand?

CutieLittleBoy has been carrying around a copy of a publication by the Southern California Earthquake Center, asking awed questions about the red, orange, and yellow squiggles covering the map to show the potential effects of "The Big One" all of California is dreading. That sort of preparation is important (just ask my dear, beloved SOS whose pseudonym is somehow getting more and more appropriate as time passes), but my desire to teach my kids these skills is so much greater than merely preparing them to survive the earthquake that will drop California into the sea. Yes, of course I want my kids to survive that, but I also want them to enjoy camping and traveling to places where a poorly run HOA would be an improvement on local government and infrastructure.

And that, Friends, is another reason why I count every day in our tiny house as an important inoculation against entitlement--for me and the kids. The average home price in our city straddles a million dollars and home buyers are paying about $400 per square foot. (We got a bargain!) Let's put the average home size at 2,500 square feet. In case you didn't know, that just isn't normal: not in the US, and certainly not internationally.

I may not ever choose to take a cold shower when a warm one is only a matter of finding the H in addition to the C, but at least I know I can if the situation warrants it. And maybe my kids will never choose to live in a tiny house, but at least they will know it can be done.
All cleaned up...
Could these really be the same children?

Saturday, September 6

In a Small Space (Part 1)

"Do you think it bad," SOS confided, "that one of the main motivations for wanting to invite people over to our house is to hear them say 'Woah, you guys do live in a tiny place.' Is that a problem?"

Ah yes, dear husband. I know what you mean. I've been thinking similarly. It could be pride. True. But I also feel as if we are on some sort of crusade to re-educate. When I say my house is small, I am not suffering from a false sense of modesty. Believe me.

A studio, 473 square feet. The only interior door is the one on the bathroom. Until a furniture purchase a few months ago covered a built-in, floor to ceiling mirror, it was possible to stand at the entrance and see the entire square footage, minus the bathroom. The HOA documents call our unit "Bachelor's Studio." The official website for the condominium complex doesn't even acknowledge the existence of these smaller units. The previous owner (and perhaps several more before him) was the kind of bachelor that gives single men the cringe-worthy stereotype. When we first looked at the vacated unit, there was a plate of butter in the cupboard, a half case of expired Coors Light on the porch, and piles of forgotten golf equipment in the closet. When we moved in six months later, the golf clubs were gone, the rancid butter and expired beer was not.
The kitchen before the sale went through. Notice the luxurious food prep area on the left (enough for a bottle of Tide and a Coors), and the 3/4 size stove on the right.

This is the kind of resident the studio was built for.  But Friends, Gentle Readers, this place has made a wonderful home for a young married couple with two kids.

The kitchen after we remodeled: the central area of a family home.

"They shouldn't buy a house with only two bedrooms," someone tells me of her newly married son. "When the babies come, where will they put them?"

I have nothing to say. Just blink. Blink.

I rarely ever wish for more space. (Doors, on the other hand… If I could invent a portable door that would block light and sound as well as safely contain children, I could live here indefinitely.)

I find myself in an interesting spot as the faddishness of the Tiny House Movement, minimalism, and simple living returns. The definition of a "Tiny House" is given at anything less than 1,000 feet, or sometimes, anything less than 300 square feet per person. Those within the movement talk about what a huge cost savings building a tiny house can net. And of course that's true in the everyday expenses of home ownership. A solar panel company tried to assure me of the cost benefits of going solar… until I mentioned our electricity bill rarely tops $30.

But in many other ways, tiny houses are not cheaper. And that is what motivates me on this crusade to re-educate. Since a family living in the Bachelor Pad goes against the HOA's Rules and Regulations (Shh. Don't tell anyone.), SOS and I looked into building a Tiny House not too far away. O.M.G. The building fees matched those for a mansion. No wonder developers don't like building more modest housing.

We don't even have to think as radical as building to wish for some changed perspectives on legitimatizing smaller housing. There are a number of really fantastic design ideas for furniture and room layout that could make a place of this size seem incredibly versatile. (For a fun time-waster, try searching for things like "small apartment design" or "tiny apartment transforms".) But unfortunately, until there is a greater demand for them, places like Target aren't going to try and duplicate the engineering for their Room Essentials collection. Which means only wealthy Manhattan execs can afford to maximize the space in their tiny apartment.

So, Gentle Readers, thus begins a series of posts to re-educate. Because bigger isn't always better.

Thursday, May 22

Thoughts on Packing and Traveling Home

The summer before I turned 15, I went on a mission trip to Bolivia... by way of Europe. A friend had invited me to go with her, and as she lived in the Netherlands, it made perfect sense for me to travel to the Eastern Hemisphere before traveling to the Southern Hemisphere. Well, "perfect sense" maybe not, but that is what I did.

As you might imagine, packing for a trip involving two entirely different continents can be a challenge. What made the challenge more unusual, however, is that the mission agency we were to travel with provided their own duffel bags for our use. As my departure date approached, I became more and more anxious that I had not yet seen the bag I was required to use. I understood that mailing a bag from Europe to California was somewhat cost prohibitive, but surely, it would be waiting for me at my hosts' house when I arrived.

It wasn't.

There had been some miscommunication. My friend had her bag, but mine was still on its way. Every day I eagerly watched for the delivery. "Dutch post is very quick," I was assured. "There is still time for it to get here."

There had been plenty of time for it to arrive, provided the bag had ever been put into the mail for me. But it hadn't and so the night before our flight, I packed as best I could into a suitcase and hoped I would be able to carry it suitably while everyone else hauled their duffle bags.

In all the time I spent in Holland, I never saw a traffic jam of anything larger than bicycles returning home at rush hour. But as any good Murphy's lawyer knows, that day there was horridly slow traffic all the way to the international airport.

We were so late. I worried about missing our plane, and sighed with huge relief when we walked through the doors to the terminal and saw everyone else milling around, waiting for us.

There was something else waiting for us. Or me, rather. The duffel bag.

And so in the busy international wing of Schiphol airport, as we moved through the line to check in our bags, I repacked.

To say I was stressed at this point is an understatement. Speed packing has never been my thing. Neither have large audiences. Nor having my private belongings exposed to public viewing.

And then someone asked the question, "Just think what kind of life God is preparing you for in this experience!"

I conjured up this elaborate scenario of multitudes of last minute packing jobs as I traveled from one bustling airport to another. The inevitable future lifestyle requiring such last minute flexibility and spacial reckoning only served to make the experience seem even more dramatic. Years later it occurred to me that instead of asking "What does God have in store for me that this is my practice?" I should have thought "Look at all of the practice I have had leading up to this crazy experience!" I probably would have been less stressed.

I remembered this all recently in the midst of washing dishes. A soapy cereal bowl slipped from my hands and bounced across the counter onto the floor, shattering in many tiny pieces. Once I had picked up the largest glass shards, I went to pull out the vacuum from its place, nestled between our dining table, the toy box, and the violin.

That's when it hit me. Last minute flexibility and spacial reckoning? That is my life. I don't do much packing for international travel these days, but living in a small space seems like one long stretch of packing and repacking to try and meet life's ever-changing demands. In my more frustrated moments I long for the magic solution that will finally, finally allow for a place for everything and everything in its place. But then it is for me to remember that my 473 square foot studio condo is just the duffle bag I'm using on this leg of the journey.