“A woman who goes,
with half a loaf of bread,
to a small place that fits ‘round her like a nest,
who wants nothing more,
who is herself not longed for by anyone else,
she is a letter to everyone.
You open it. It says, Live.” –Rumi
Yesterday, Day 5 of the deconstruction of a boathouse that will become a put-back-together tiny house for me, I wrote that my sunset stroll with Bobby was a dose of soul. And, partly because I ran into an old friend I haven’t seen in years. She told me she’s now 80, and she’s going to get together with another woman and they’re going to celebrate “octogenaria.” She also told me she’d downsized a lifetime of stuff and now lives in 500 square feet. “I love it,” she said. Then told me the saying about less is more is really the truth. Judging by the smile on her bright and pretty face, the truth can indeed set you free.
That’s why I changed the gender in the Rumi poem.
And besides, in the feminine, the message really is more provocative. Think of the vastness of Mother Ocean compared to the tiny wisdom-pearl of great price in the hands of a woman, herself a mother, who is pulled by a moontide of her spirit in the solitude of a small place.
Twice married over the last forty-five years, I’ve been in lots of houses. In the first, I built three new houses from the ground up. Digging, sawing, hammering and nailing, not simply calling-in and managing subcontractors. Each of those three was built successively smaller, getting the floorplan down to 1280 square feet. I was inspired to make a home that kept people and even things in close proximity. Limitations of space, I found, also had balancing benefits.
My old friend and guru Captain Ray (formerly Ray, the M.D.) found himself in his 80s living aboard a 42-foot Hinckley sailboat. The actual living space aboard was less than 300 square feet. As he got older I feared he would fall off his boat out sailing, or even lose his footing stepping aboard from the dock, and he’d be man-overboard with slim chances for rescue. I told him to spend some of his vast fortune for at least a little cottage on the land. He said no. “I can’t bring crap home from yard sales. It won’t fit on my boat. Not even room for an oil painting.” Ray said, too, that if he had a small house, he’d get a leaf blower and need a storage shed to put it in. Or, he’d fall in love with a new coffee table and have to remodel his living room to accomodate its feng shui. “There’s no way to stop the overflow,” Ray said. “It’s un-American. This boat keeps my shopping list short.”
In my second marriage, we owned an older house with a finished full basement…kitchen, bath and everything down there. Total square footage upstairs and down, 5400. Plus, I remodeled the barn on the place and turned it into living quarters! And got myself a bleeding ulcer while doing a makeover downstairs.
And now I’ve lived with my little dog Bobby contented and peaceful for a year-and-a-half in a cabin that’s 108 square feet. I think of Henry David Thoreau living in his 10’x15’ cabin at Walden Pond when his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson brought him a housewarming gift, a welcome mat for his front stoop. Henry refused the gift, telling Ralph that he already spent time sweeping the stoop, and he did not wish to also find it necessary to shake out a rug.
Life is full of many rugs for shaking out. “There’s only 52 weekends a year, you know,” Ray liked to say of priorities.
Shelter, the kind Mick Jagger sang out for, is a place to find solace from life’s big and little battles and is more about warmth and protection than some count of bedrooms and bathrooms, or a three-car garage. Shelter measured in higher square footage is costly in more ways than one. As the Eagles sang, “Late at night a big old house gets lonely, I guess every form of refuge has its price.”
Such price, as the Native Americans believed, was that every thing owned, all property, each piece of it, captures a measure of the owner’s spirit. “Is the battery charged-up? Where’s the key? Did we pay the insurance premium on time?” Too much stuff, and there is no spirit left for the title holder, who is diminished and weakened. Many tribes had giving-away ceremonies in the spring each year.
There’s only room, ya know, for just so many animal skins in a teepee. Can you imagine the pre-1900 Great Plains littered with storage units?
Ray always said home’s called a place to live, not a place for keeping stuff. “Live” is what Rumi’s letter advised.
Shelter, a coffee table-size softcover book published in 1973, still available from publishers Lloyd Kahn and Bob Easton, has “…over 1,000 photographs, [and] is a classic celebrating the imagination, resourcefulness, and exuberance of human habitat…There is a section on building materials, including…stone, straw bale, adobe, plaster, and bamboo. The spirit of the ’60s counterculture is evident, and the emphasis is on creating your own shelter (or space) with your own hands. A joyful, inspiring book.”
I watched my oldest son’s joyful inspiration take hold when he claimed for his own living space a vintage 1960s truck camper I’d mounted on a restored trailer.
Seems every time I visited John Luke he had created yet more life-affirming amenities in and around the old Avion. His outdoor shower was a design the Swiss Family Robinson would covet.
It’s clear to me that the original 19’x30’ dimensions of the boathouse is too big. It would fit a whole loaf of bread. Which, as Ray knows, would lead to a toaster oven and a weed-wacker.