The “Ah Ha” Moment
In 1992, the summer before my freshman year at college, there were severe back to back storms that caused the creek near my parent’s home to flood. Our basement flooded within a few feet below its ceiling with putrid black waste from backed-up sewage pipes. Some homes in our neighborhood had to be abandoned due to extensive structural damage from the flooding and our neighborhood was deemed a disaster area by the federal government.
The following clean-up was horrible. Each block had debris piled high on the street as people removed destroyed possessions from their homes. My parents’ home had no structural damage but, like most home-owning Americans, they used their basement as storage for any and everything they had collected over the years but didn’t want to deal with: furniture, books, old electronics, knick-knacks, old clothes, baby mementoes, pieces of projects they always said they would finish “next year” … Those unused items, most of them barely remembered until the day they were rediscovered in the muck, would now be taking up space in a landfill.
The aftermath of that flood was a defining moment for me. My parents had been raised to believe that living in a big house filled with lots and lots of stuff meant success. In the immediate wake of the flood there had been many talks about the devastating effects of climate change, reevaluating what was important in life, and downsizing material things. But after the clean-up was completed, it was as if all that talk had been forgotten. I watched in disbelief as my parents and their neighbors went on to re-stuff their homes and basements with unnecessary items just as before – even though they knew it wasn’t a good move.
After that flood I made the decision to follow a different path than my parents: I decided to move away from using the acquisition of things as a measure of personal success and live my life a simpler way.
Making Things Simple
After I got married I moved to a more rural environment where I felt free to pursue the long-term changes I wanted to make – namely downsizing, living more sustainably in a smaller space, and being closer to nature.
Upstate New York seemed the perfect place for me. I got a job teaching in a small school district while my husband worked at a small college. We were renting a little one–bedroom cottage on half an acre of land at the foot of the Catskill Mountains, and we loved it! We weren’t living as sustainably as we both wanted yet. We had a well and septic system, we were still on the grid, we shopped at the local farmers markets and “organic” food stores, we used one car and shared our commute to and from work. Still we saw living somewhat rurally as an important milestone, and we had detailed plans to take us to the next steps – saving up to buy our own land, build a small cottage, and grow our own food.
But fate decided to take my husband and I in two different directions. We divorced amicably, and after my divorce I rented a small studio apartment and regrouped. I downsized all of my belongings again until everything I possessed could fit in my small living room. And I decided to go back to school for another Master’s degree, knowing it would help me become a better teacher, but also knowing the new educational debt I’d be acquiring would make my dream of getting that small cottage out of reach for quite a while.
In the years that followed I witnessed the horrors of hurricane Katrina from my little colonial apartment in upstate New York. I lived through Hurricane Irene, which completely decimated homes in my Hudson Valley neighborhood, and I saw the apartments of friends in New York City flood during hurricane Sandy. If I had held on to any doubts about climate change, if I had any lingering belief that the flooding my parents experienced in the 1990s was just some once in a lifetime fluke – those doubts were completely erased by then. In graduate school I met my boyfriend and one thing we connected on was the idea that living sustainably, small and off-grid, was the way to go.
But the reality of financial debt from my coursework was a barrier for me to achieving those things. My student loans, plus the cost of my rent, would make it impossible for me to save to buy land and build a home. My boyfriend knew how to build. He had built alternative homes out of stone with a good friend who was a contractor. “I’m going to build you a house”, he said, and went on to add that it could be done for much less than what I was thinking and we could make some kind of arrangement for land. His idea sounded great, but I was skeptical.
Then one night while looking at possible layouts for my little dream cottage, I stumbled upon a picture from Jay Shafer’s book about small houses on wheels, and it opened up a whole new world. Here was a perfect tiny space that blended simple design with a cottage aesthetic – and it was on wheels! A good way to by-pass taxes for a permanent structure. My boyfriend and I looked into designing our own tiny house on wheels. We sketched out the plans that very same night. I joined our local Transition Town group in an attempt to connect with local people who had goals similar to ours and was introduced to the idea of “land sharing”. We were put in contact with a farm owner who was too overwhelmed to take care of the land. My boyfriend and I set up an agreement with the farm owner so we could build a tiny house on their property and start growing food there, too.
In September of 2013 my boyfriend and his friends began building my tiny house, working on it part time (my posts on the tiny house’s construction are here). My little house on wheels was finished four months later. I moved in January 2014, during one of the worse winters to ever hit the northeast! That winter was tough, but I made it through – and without the outrageous fuel bills and home emergencies that my peers had to endure. And after such a harsh welcome to my new life, everything else about my transition to off-grid, tiny house living seemed like a piece of cake in comparison!
Living simply means different things to different people, and the ways to go about it are just as varied. Downsizing and living in a tiny, off-grid house was the best step for me. It has taught me that quality of life is important – not the quantity of stuff one can collect. Gone is the constant stress of trying to keep up with bills. My debt is minimal (soon to be completely nonexistent), and I am able to save money. Downsizing and living on a farm has made me more self-sufficient and conscious of living sustainably. I have more energy and free time to pursue the things that make me happy in life, and I have a community of people to turn to when I need support.
I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to take that “next step” into the more simple way of living I always dreamed of. I hope my story can inspire others to begin their own journey towards simplicity, however they may define it.