What I’ve Come to Know from Tiny House Living

Dee Williams' Kozy Kabin Tiny House on the Road
Dee Williams’ Kozy Kabin Tiny House on the Road

The last few months have been pretty huge for me, friends. Part of that was going smaller – downsizing into my new tiny house Jolene, passing off my old house to my nephew – but there was more at work too, the messy personal stuff that happens when you love a lot of great people. Giving a keynote talk at the Tiny House Jamboree was an opportune time to reflect on what’s been going in my life of late, so I want to share some of that with you here. It’s about what you really learn from tiny house living: we are made to live with our full hearts, and it’s a real asset if your house helps with that challenge.

The Clutter I Still Fight

I was nervous and a bit raw when I delivered my keynote at the Jamboree. Maybe because there were so many tiny house experts in the house:  Jay Shafer, Lee Pera, Macy Miller, Alek Lisefki, Lina Menard and many others.  What could I possibly have to say to so many knowledgeable and experienced people? But one of the great things about the movement is that we all have unique perspectives to share.

My talk was called, “It’s not what you learn, but what you come to know that makes all the difference” because no one’s experience can really be distilled into three handy learning objectives. Our experiences just change us, slowly and sneakily. One of the main things I’ve come to know in my 12+ years of tiny house living is this: our days are too busy and too full of stuff.

I’ve had a lot of time to learn about my stuff, about why I purchase and own certain things, or don’t.  What I’ve come to know is that I still struggle with clutter – it’s just time and activity clutter instead of stuff clutter.  I zip here, drive there, feel scattered with emails, posts and conversations that may be nothing more than a photo.

Ultimately, all that clutter leaves very little space to wonder about the earth or its little creatures.  There’s no time to ponder my feelings or to examine my choices.  There’s no time to wonder what the neighbor is dreaming or what he’s praying will happen in the end.  All you know is that every morning it’s the same:  he slams himself into the car, throttles the engine till it ignites and he sputters into his day. There’s no time to worry on him or wonder after him; there is only enough time to wish he’d get a new muffler.

Minimalism isn’t just about paring down your stuff, it’s about getting to the heart of your experience.  It is about being authentic. It’s about showing up as you are, and vulnerably moving forward with the other people in your life.  Minimalism is also about choice – a choice in lifestyle and possessions, which inherently means it’s a privilege.  We are on thin ice if we neglect our humility and gratitude, and fail to recognize the privilege we have when we choose less or choose slow.

Going tiny is awesome.  I’ve learned so very much about myself and my community.  But what’s the point if all that learning doesn’t bring you closer, sooner to who you want to be?  What I’ve come to know intuitively is that home is where you place your heart, with your friends and in an environment that helps you discover and re-discover how you tick.  Home is a gift that drops me to my knees and picks me back up again.  That is what I’ve come to find by living in a tiny house in the backyard, and I needed to find it, because it makes the hard times easier, and there are hard times afoot.

Changes to the Backyard

Dee Williams tiny house
Dee’s backyard homes, then and now.

I drove through the night after the Jamboree ended, after we delivered the little house to Jonathan’s new parking place, and after I’d cried watching that house disappear past an old tressel bridge and the Arkansas River.  I drove to arrive back in Olympia and to Jolene, my new, tinier house, and back to the yard where I’ve lived for more than 12 years.  That yard, my home, is where my dear friends Hugh and Annie have greeted me after every adventure.  But this time was different.  Annie had been diagnosed with cancer about 20-months previously, and now it was time for her to die.

Annie and Deedles. Photo from Anne Claire.
Annie and Deedles. Photo from Anne Claire.

We all knew this. When I left for the road trip, I had squeezed her hand and said I love you.  I knew there was a chance I wouldn’t make it back from the trip in time to see her still alive, and I was at peace with that.  She smiled, “I love you too Deedles.”  I made it home in time to see her struggle a bit, to watch Hugh sit with her, to see how the sun continued to shine in through the front living room windows, and that we could still hear the neighbor kids bouncing on their trampoline.

I was returning the rental truck a few days later when I got the call that she had died.  I drove home, and over the next few days, fell apart and was put back together again.  Collapse and repair is what I have been slowly learning in the backyard, and what I’ve come to KNOW is a good path for opening and expanding my heart.  I am bigger today because of Annie — because she and all the other folks and critters who have shared this yard have showed me that change, while awkward, is workable, and really the only way forward in life.

Coming Along

Since Annie’s memorial, I’ve been focused on fixing Jolene into a livable space.  She’s so small, but I’m slowly figuring things out:  a shoe shelf with drawer below, clothes storage and a place for important things.  It’s all coming along well.  We’re transitioning well enough, happy enough.

Dee Williams' tinier house
Making life work in 56 square feet

I hope you are swimming through your own transitions as best you can.  I know so many people who are going through some sort of change right now.  Maybe it’s always been that way, but I’m noticing it more now.  I’ve been writing down snippets about how changes to the backyard have made me feel lately:

“I feel like a bag of hammers in the back of a car, or perhaps more exactly like a road flare and a tire iron.  That’s a good thing, right?”


“Today I feel like one of those bean seeds that we planted in the grade school, scooping little handfuls of soil onto our eager seed pods.  I think I moved a nano-particle of soil today, growing a tail and perhaps reaching up a little for the sunlight, and I bet that’s going to blow the socks off whatever kid planted me!”

When Jonathan’s mom spoke at the hand off event where I gave him my old house, she said, “It takes great courage to move toward change, and to jump in without knowing what comes next.  It is awkward, and can be hard to watch from the outside, but it’s absolutely the only way we learn to lean into each other and launch ourselves toward our truest potential.  Change is a gift if we choose to embrace it.”

What I’ve come to know in the backyard is that I’ve gotten some useful practice in leaning into the awkwardness of change, leaning into my community for help, and launching myself in the direction of authenticity. The backyard is changing, as it has been for a while. I’m trying to take the time to be curious about it.  Jolene is like a new shoe I’m trying on, and I’m curious about that too.

Even though all the moves have been completed, the “Tiny to Tinier” story has just begun.


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