This post is by Billy Ulmer, author of the Life in a Tiny House ebook.
With 10 years in her 84 square foot house on wheels, Dee is often called a pioneer of the tiny house movement. I think it’s brave enough just to be an early adopter of a new idea, but Dee was one of the earliest adopters out there. She tracked down Jay Schafer, father of the modern tiny house on wheels, from a photo in a magazine and flew to his little house to learn how it worked. Her home and story have been documented in books, magazines, radio, a touching TEDx talk, the National Building Museum, and now with her own book: The Big Tiny, out April 22nd. Spoiler alert: I love it. The story is great, and she can really turn a phrase.
I’ve worked with Dee at PAD for a couple years now, all the while hearing bits and pieces of her compelling story: the serious heart condition that made her re-examine her life, her experience in Guatemala with Habitat for Humanity that weighed on her first-world conscience, and her tiny house that she “parked” in a friend’s backyard, where she helped take care of her elderly neighbor for the past decade.
Reinventing the House on Wheels
I visited Dee to find out, how does a pioneer become a pioneer? What experiences led her to want to blaze a trail so new that it barely existed? What kind of attitude makes that possible? And how has her life been shaped by 10 years of living in her little house?
My talk with Dee veered between some of life’s meatiest subjects, like how facing mortality re-frames your everyday life, and how to reconcile our culture of privilege in the context of a struggling global community.
But what I walked away thinking about was that despite building the house in part to be “self-contained,” her little house actually taught her to be interdependent with others. Interdependent with her friends and neighbors Hugh, Annie and Rita, and with the community of wild animals and untamed people in her scrappy corner of Olympia, Washington.
This is an abridged and edited highlight of my conversation with Dee, but there’s much more in my ebook, Life in a Tiny House.
Billy: What has surprised you most about living here?
Dee: Living in the house itself, I’m still surprised how much I love it. And I’m very surprised that it still fits me.
The other thing that surprised me is how much growing up it’s accommodated. I feel like in the last 10 years I’ve been able to work through fearing my death. Not the dying part, but fearing growing ill. Needing to sleep in somebody’s living room, and being relegated to one of those hospital beds. And I’m watching a fan overhead for whatever moments I’m awake during the day. And my friends are taking shifts to come take care of me, and I’m putting everyone out.
Those senses of being needy and needing help were very frightening for me. I’m not afraid of death – I’m afraid of dying slowly. Withering. So it’s been really good for me to address that discomfort, because that’s not about needing to have somebody change my Depends and feed me pudding. It’s about me needing to lean in to people better, and me needing to learn how to trust that when people give me things, they’re doing it from an open place in their heart, and that they believe I’m beloved.
All of that is probably stuff I could have spent a lot of money on therapy to do, but I’ve gotten to do that in the back yard, and in my house. And I didn’t ever… Growing emotionally wasn’t a part of my plan. [Laughs]
Billy: First…that’s beautiful. Second, when we talk about tiny house locations, we often ask “Where do you park?” But that’s such a weird way to talk about it. It’s really, what community do you place yourself in the arms of? Nobody is really independent, but the smaller your footprint is, the less you even get to pretend you’re independent. When you start sacrificing things like a washing machine or running water, there’s some door you need to knock on to meet that need.
Dee: Part of the reason I bought the solar electric system was because I wanted to be autonomous. I didn’t want to have to ask for electricity, and I didn’t want to put anybody out. I didn’t imagine that I was going to use Hugh and Annie’s shower, Rita’s shower, their kitchens… In my mind, I was fully contained. And then my understanding of things changed. And my understanding of each of our places on the planet has changed.
Like you said, who do you want to rest in the arms of? No matter what your situation is, whether you’re living in your own house, you’ve got some housemates, you’ve got a partner, or you’re living alone: you’re still resting in the arms of a beautiful community. You’ve got this natural community all around you. If you live in a city, you’ve got all this infrastructure.
None of us, not a one of us, is living alone. Ever. It’s a myth. So I think I just needed to recognize that. And man, it’s good to know I’m not alone.
Billy: Do you think you would have found that out if you’d kept your “big” house in Portland?
Dee: I’m pretty stubborn. [Laughs] I don’t know that I would have done that growing. I really do think that placing myself in the very awkward position of living as a 40 year old in somebody’s backyard, and having to put up with somebody else telling me where I could plant a garden… You know, I was really used to calling my own shots.
This is the beautiful thing about living in the shadow of somebody who’s 80: Rita. She’s ex-CIA. She knew my comings and goings. And she knew if somebody else was in the house with me. She could barely see my porch, but she seemed to always be able to count shoes. You don’t get away with much, living this way. And there was a part of that that felt like, oh my god, I’m like a college kid returning to their parents’ home. And that kinda sucks. But the other side of it is, I want somebody to ask me whose shoes those were.
I appreciated that sense of enough autonomy that I didn’t feel spied upon, but enough connectedness to know that I was missed, or I was wanted. I don’t think I would have given myself permission to quite feel that way in my big house.