Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Small House

I recently saw a news story on the Yahoo! main page, mentioning the "tiny house" movement. Apparently these people are radically downsizing by building very very small houses; the pictures accompanying the article show small, custom built cottages usually off by themselves in beautiful, natural settings. The article I glanced at was mentioning the peace of mind that the occupant of a tiny home had come to find.

Since my friend's search for her condo touched the same sort of chord in my own thinking, I thought it would be a good topic for me to struggle with next. I never knew this writing could be so difficult; no sooner do I pick a topic than I end up entirely muddled in my thinking. I intend to slog on and hope it gets better as I keep practicing.

I wrote here recently about the fact that I and my family live in a one bedroom condo, six hundred seventy some-odd square feet. (I'm not so good with exact numbers). As I said before, it's really from economic necessity and not from choice. I have no doubt that if my husband were working and making a salary at all like mine, that we would upgrade by at least a full bedroom. And my life plan currently still has as a goal "3 bedroom house by 2014," and at least on paper, I still endeavor to make it happen.

But I do have to ask myself if it's worth my while. Because I am beginning to believe on a gut level what I have always heard and read, the physical equivalent of the cliched saying, "Money won't buy you happiness." I believe it but simultaneously act in contradiction; it's as if a devil and angel from the old cartoons are sitting on each shoulder. I'm troubled with conflicting desires, and nothing wins out except maybe cognitive dissonance and self deception. Maybe it's just attachment to my first home, but there's only one good reason I can think of for moving into a bigger home than this one: so I can fit more people into it!

My husband wouldn't be thrilled about an idea like that one, and I admit that I wan't thinking too much in that direction. But it's been an odd sort of day and I'm tired, and my brain is off into uncharted territory, so I'll drop a little bit of  the intended formality of these pieces and chase this doggy down.

What makes me think of fitting more people, to begin with, is a notice I saw in my local Starbucks this evening asking for foster parent volunteers. My thought was that even if we wanted to be foster parents (and I am 100% sure that my husband does NOT want to be a foster parent, especially not at this present moment) we would no doubt be disqualified by the simple fact that we don't have enough space. The social workers who would check us out might question our judgement at having the two kids we already have crammed into one bedroom with the both of us, much less our judgement in believing we could fit anyone else.

I am constantly perplexed by a feeling of shame at this, but perhaps that's a different kettle of fish entirely; this isn't about that particular shame.

So let me take this in a different direction for a moment. My parents have a three bedroom, two bathroom house, and they share a single bedroom, leaving them with an office and a guest room. My in-laws have a three bedroom house that they share with my brother-in law, and their spare room is also an office. I suspect that many of the very nice houses in this neighborhood are similar, with many people that I know having several extra bedrooms devoted to various uses. The people I know all feel fully entitled to their houses and their "extra" rooms. No one I know finds this the least bit odd, and I have a hard time being critical of their attitude. This is complicated.

 I'm not trying to imply that the people I know and love are wrong or that they choose wrongly, so writing about them in this way is hard to do gently, gingerly.

It's that the area I live in is undoubtedly affluent; the people I know have space, in their homes, yards, gardens, property, backyard pools. They buy things they don't need; no criticism exactly, because I do it, too. I am not as well off as many of my friends and family members, but I have the potential to be. It could be partly envy speaking, a "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality. I have to admit that that layer is there. It's more a values question, for me. So I'm not as affluent as some of the people I know; yet clearly I'm better off than a lot of the people I meet and interact with every day, and I am indisputably wealthy compared to a subsistence farmer in Haiti, a beggar in India, or a drug addict on the streets of San Francisco.

Put that way, I have more than I need. I therefore question my own train of thought. Because what am I choosing to do with MY affluence NOW?

That said, I still can't help but slip back into old habits and the previous train of thought. If I am wealthy, how much wealthier are the people who surround me? And what should they be doing?

But that's too abstract. I started with the tiny house movement, so let me reanchor there. I already have a "tiny house" by my standards (which I realize are distorted by the values around me).

Another thought occurs in that the wealth is not wrong or bad in and of itself. I live in a prosperous and above all, peaceful world. It's quite beautiful, in some ways. I just can't shake the feeling that beneath the surface of this are some darker truths. If I am to commit myself to truth-seeking, then I have to look underneath, no matter the consequence.

Back to my condo. I said it was small by my standards. I believe this is a good thing, a healthy thing. My neighbors will not envy me, for example. I am not causing them to need to keep up with me. It falls into the delightful category "live by example." My family does fit. We adapt. This week I have been reading a book called Throw out Fifty things; I, in my tiny house, am struggling to pare down even more. I wasn't successfull today, even after reading and thinking and keeping it all the back of my mind all day. Our attachment to stuff is mighty powerful. Even telling myself "you can buy it again if you need it," doesn't make it any easier.

If I HAD the extra room, would I really use it for another child? It's one of those hypotheticals that can only lead me to shake my head and say, "it depends."

I don't have a satisfactory conclusion to this one. I guess I feel that the tiny house movement is misguided; I have to wonder if these people shouldn't just get themselves an apartment or a condo like mine?

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