Book review: ‘The Big Tiny,’ by Dee Williams
December 9, 2015
Cultural trends often swing like a pendulum, with lifestyle choices being driven by many changing external forces. The most significant and recent motivator for the reshaping of a societal norm has been the grim predictions for the planet's future. The desire to live in massive, McMansion-style houses is being replaced by a more mindful approach, and neighborhoods of smaller, more efficient homes are on the increase. While some people are simply giving up their great rooms and dens, others are taking things several steps further in an attempt to decrease their residential footprint on the planet.
Author Dee Williams is one such person, and her journey into the increasingly popular world of tiny-house living is documented in her recent memoir, "The Big Tiny," which serves as a wildly entertaining glimpse into the process of narrowing the focus of her life to the essentials for achieving happiness.
Though not the only person to downsize to a Lilliputian scale, her motivation stemmed from a complicated stew of forces occurring in her life. Already fiercely independent and self-sufficient, she had purchased and renovated an average three-bedroom home in Portland, Oregon. Even though she felt she was settling for an average house in addition to the burden of a 30-year mortgage, she proceeded anyway, telling herself that it was what normal people did — it was her ingrained adherence to societal expectations and a benchmark of becoming an adult.
Finding that home ownership brought with it immense stress, mostly of the financial kind, she was determined to manage much of the repair and improvement herself. She took in renters to make ends meet, including one lodger who fixed up the house's unheated porch as a bedroom. Williams found that the tiny room was her favorite, and she often daydreamed about the charming simplicity of the small space.
This realization, coupled with her new reality of nonstop maintenance work, increasingly made her aware that her choices had led to the loss of free time, during which she used to rock climb and camp. She grew ever more doubtful about her decision to tie herself to a mortgage.
Also, her job as a hazardous-waste inspector for the state had made her jaded and cynical about the lengths mankind is willing to go in order to have the many modern conveniences that are taken for granted, with the "things" that pile up in our basements, forgotten and unused, but which cause irreparable damage to the environment in their production.
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She began to long for something simpler, and it was a medical emergency that brought things into perspective, along with an article in a hospital waiting room magazine about a man who had built himself a tiny house. She was transported back to one of her favorite childhood fantasies of living in the woods in a tiny tree house. And then it just hit her — "What would happen if I just … sort of … did that?"
She could not get her mind off of the idea, and it soon became an obsessive yearning, to the extent that she headed to Iowa to meet "Tiny House Man" from the magazine. She fell for his house instantly, experiencing an odd desire to hug it. She knew she loved the obvious things — its functionality and minimalism, for example, but it also represented something bigger and more meaningful, a shedding of the weight of society's detritus.
The core of her book details the incremental progress of actually building the house, nearly all of which she did by herself. The work was hard and certainly a huge challenge for one petite, albeit strong, woman with a heart condition. The writing is funny, self-deprecating and personal and will speak to anyone who has ever mused about downsizing to a smaller home.
Aside from diminishing her carbon footprint, Williams found that her tiny 84-square-foot house on its trailer brought her closer to those around her, especially with the little pocket of people and her dog — all unrelated — who became a family when she moved into their backyard.
She advocates against the modern notion of independence, which has made us all loners, isolated in an overcrowded world. The thinner walls of her tiny house adhered her to those around her and forced her out into the world to make bonds with her neighbors. "The Big Tiny," at its heart, is a story about community and connectivity, with others and, ultimately, with oneself.
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