Equal and opposite

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Seth and I spend most of our nights wearing headlamps. We probably have five between the two of us and we move through the darkness like miners in our small space. When you live in one room, you make compromises and one of ours means we take our nights in low light.

In winter, in Montana, it gets light early. We are only now coming out of the season when it’s dark by five and by the time we go to bed it feels as though we’ve spent as many hours in the dark as in the light. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but that’s how it feels. Something has tipped lately, though, and there isn’t always a chill the air. It’s warm in the sun and I’ve even seen blue sky. A few days in a row.

It’s big, spring.

We’ve not yet reached the time of year where we have to convince the children that it’s time for bed because it’s still light outside. We are getting close but for now we still move from bed to bathroom to table by the light of a headlamp while our girls sleep on a pullout futon in the middle of the room.

I suppose we could have arranged the room differently but, come to think of it, I’m not sure how. There are no walls, no curtains to block light and the only logical place for Eliza and Lucille’s bed to go was in the middle of the room, between our bed and the table, where it can fold out every night.

So we walk around them, quietly, while they sleep. The blue glow of Seth’s computer lights one side of the room while he studies and I usually read across the room, headlamp affixed to my forehead, until I give in and go to sleep.

Usually earlier than I’d like to admit.

Living in a small space means you don’t really have your own space. Every square foot is communal, shared. Because I took coastlines of the Southeast as my only lab science in college, I can only tell you this: there is some rule of science that goes something like every action has an equal and opposite reaction. I’m not sure who came up with that idea but I’m pretty sure he lived in a really small space with several other creatures because that’s exactly what living in my tiny house is like. Every move requires another to accompany or negate it. Nothing happens in isolation. We do not even breathe without affecting someone else.

But after six months of this endeavor, we are starting to breathe collectively. We are starting to settle in. We know each other’s rhythms, every move seems familiar. On the good days we move in separate unison. Art at the table, games on the floor, dinner on the stove, books on the bed. On the not-so-good days we ricochet off each other. Shoes in the middle of the floor, markers with no lids, water all over the bathroom from the grooming of toy horses, mud across the kitchen floor thanks for old lab that doesn’t care where she walks.  Even on these days we are a unit, though, in similar ways to when our girls were babies. We are all leaning heavily on each other to make this work and it’s hard to lean on someone and not feel close to them.

Blizzard

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The last few days of February we had a blizzard. A real live one. I thought I had seen snow living in Montana for twelve years but this thing that blew in on us and hovered for three days was different, it was the real deal. We hunkered down, like most everyone we knew. Schools closed and I didn’t come out of my orange and purple stripped leggings for days.

The first night we drove to our neighbor’s house for dinner. They live three blocks away. It was treacherous. My southern soul was awash in white, tiny flakes as Seth powered our Subaru through the snowy streets.

“I think you should drive slower,” I said to him.

“We’ll get stuck if I slow down,” he said. He grew up in Oregon, a place that evidently gets more snow than my native Carolina. I held tightly to the door handle and we got there in one piece.

That night we ate with friends. None of us could leave our neighborhood. And that was okay.

The next morning we trudged the half block to another neighbor’s house for brunch. The wind was blowing so hard I had to carry Lucille because I was afraid she would topple over. But there were potatoes and warm eggs on the other end of our walk. And company we’d not seen in too long.

That night we braved the roads and drove a few miles to another friend’s house for homemade pizza. These friends, who turned into family sometime back, had been snowed in too and we ate and let the kids bounce all over each other on a cold, cold night.

The next day I made biscuits, calling my friend who’d given me the recipe to ask if, really, there was that much butter in these biscuits.

Yep, he said. It’s measured in pounds.

I added the butter and didn’t look back. I made soup. Lucille and I took a nap. That night I slipped my feet into my snow boots, zipped my coat and wandered to another friend’s house for an hour or so of the Oscars. Jared Letto was really all I needed and I walked home under the street lights.

Schools closed again the following day. I stayed another day in my orange and purple leggings. I could get used to this, I thought. Eliza and Lucille played outside for the first time in days. Missoula slowly began to awaken and I felt as rested as I had in months.

We went to dinner at the butter friend’s house. He made flank steak. We saw some of our old beloved neighbors and watched our kids play dress up.

Sometimes we are forced to slow to crawl. Sometimes, when we give in to it, it’s exactly what we need.

So, so small

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I suppose I knew this day would come. The day when I would truly question just what in the world we are doing living in a space the size of some bathrooms. Seriously.

What were we thinking? We’ve had some dumb ideas and this one might rank at the top. Holy hell.

I think the reason I got to this place—this dark, claustrophobic place—has to do with the weather. Doesn’t it always in Montana, in winter? It’s been record-making cold outside. Double digits below zero at night. Howling wind. Days spent scurrying from car to the safety of somewhere in doors. This happens for a few days every year but it’s not usually this cold and it doesn’t last this long. Our rancher, the man who’s owned the ranch next to our five acres since probably the beginning of time and who I affectionately call ours, told us once that it always gets cold somewhere around the last week of November/first week of December. He said it one day as he was checking on his cows. He got off of his four-wheeler to talk to his new young neighbors. This was maybe ten years ago and I don’t think he’s been wrong yet.

Even though I’ve lived in Montana a while and even though we’ve heard the truth from a man of the ages, cold like this still shocks me. You can’t escape it so you stay inside. Which is a big, fat problem when you live in 282 square feet. Everyone else who lives with you wants to be inside with you too. Both kids. A husband who just seems so big. Don’t forget the two dogs one of which who weighs eighty pounds.

We also have a random assortment of things that might freeze sitting in various spots on the floor. Our coats, hats, boots and gloves are threatening to block the front door and our mountain of laundry is frozen, yes, frozen outside. The full-size fridge that lives outside has been rendered useless because everything in it is frozen—lettuce, salad dressing, tofu, sweet potatoes—all of it solid as a rock.

There are piles everywhere. Art paper, markers, pillows, shoes. It’s doesn’t matter how many times I clean these up, they somehow reappear. This is not that different from when we lived in a real house except there was space for everyone’s winter-day projects, space for me to escape. I have no space now only something to trip over everywhere I look. My Virgo soul is dying a slow and cluttered death.

There seems to be no end in sight.

Deep sigh.

I like junk shops, yard sales, thrift stores and craft fairs. When I die I hope to have a window sill or two filled with glass things that someone has to deal with upon my departure from this world. Preferably rose-colored, depression-era glass. But that might just be wishful thinking. Missoula has a number of quality craft fairs and this weekend I had my eye on the mother of them all. As we talked about our day this morning, I told Seth I needed an hour to go.

“Why don’t we all go?” he said.

My eyes widened and my voice went an octave higher.

“Really?” I said. But what I was thinking had more to do with lying in the street because that is what I would have rather done than take my two lovely children and impatient-with-crowds husband to this craft fair.

All I wanted was one hour without you people, I thought. One hour to look at earrings made of old guitar strings and ceramic coffee mugs that look like tin cans. One hour in a place of my choosing without someone whining about being bored, or that there are too many people or asking over and again for something just because it is right in front of them.

Seth read right through my reaction.

“Why don’t we just stay here?” he said. “By the way, you are incredibly cranky.”

I huffed away to do laundry at a friend’s house.

I came back a little while later having thought about what he’d said.

“I am cranky,” I said when I walked in the door. “I need order and quiet and I don’t have either of those here. Crap is everywhere, the kids are bouncing off the walls, Lucille is sick and this place is just so, so small.”

“I know,” he said. “I know.”

I went to the craft fair and pondered copper jewelry, wallets made from bicycle tires and screen prints for a while. I saw old friends. I chatted about the cold. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that the temperature will go up, the sun will come out again and we will one day live in a place that’s a little bigger than 282 square feet.

It’s the little things

We all have those tiny little things that can drive us slowly insane. The way someone leaves the toilet paper on the shower ledge instead of on the back of the toilet, the way someone leaves their giant shoes in the middle of the floor, the way someone can’t seem to hang up his coat on the designated hook. Well, that someone is my husband and the list of tiny annoying things he does is growing. Our shared space, i.e. our home, is not. Just in case you are wondering, those things about your partner that drive you up a wall do not disappear when you live in a small space. They are, in fact, amplified to a pitch, resounding and clear, that will make you want to sleep in a tent in the yard. In Montana. In winter.

The other day I was taking a shower and noticed that our homemade shower curtain had a hole in it. It had more than one hole it, it had five holes down the seam where there use to be magnets that held it together in the middle. I gasped out loud when I realized what he’d done.

“What?” Eliza said as she walked into the bathroom.

“Oh, your dad…” I said trailing off to stop the tidal wave of swear words that came to mind.

Seth and I had gone round about the design of said shower curtain when we were making it. I leaned toward one piece of fabric, Seth leaned toward two with magnets that would hold the two pieces together. I gave in, the magnets fell off. More than a few times. Then Seth said he had and idea to basically imbed the magnets by making a small hole in the fabric. I distinctly told him not to do this. I’m pretty sure he nodded his head in agreement.

Sometimes I think he does that. Nods. I think he’s with me, he gets it, he’s listening. It turns out that’s not exactly true. He nods, yes, he nods with a look of understanding on his face then he turns from me and does exactly what he wants he do no matter what I say.

When I mentioned this he reminded me of a few things that make him a little crazy too. Clothes in the bathroom floor, books in front of the drawer he needs to access every morning to get clean underwear. A week’s worth of coffee cups in my car. My perpetually missing water bottle.

After a few cups of coffee Saturday morning, Seth told me I was cranky. Luckily we can be honest even though that honestly usually involves four letter words.

“Dude, you’re bugging the piss out of me,” I said. “Pick up your shoes and stop laying your coat on the back of the couch.”

“Well if we’re talking about pet peeves, that stack of books right by my drawer needs to go,” he said.

“Where am I supposed to put it!” I said.

“How about the bookshelf above the bed?” he said.

“It’s packed with your anarchist books!” I said.

“Well make some space,” he said. “And the clothes in the bathroom floor…”

“Speaking of the bathroom,” I said. “What did you do to the shower curtain? I thought I said not to put holes in it.”

“Oh, it’s gonna work,” he said. “It’s gonna be perfect!”

“WTF?” I said.  “Seriously?”

I walked away for a minute, which is to say I took three steps across the same room. I shook my head and wondered how he honestly thought that could be true. There were holes in the shower curtain.

After a few minutes of flipping through one of the egregious books that seemed to be blocking his passage to his underwear, I decided to drop it. I was cranky but I wasn’t going to admit it.

“What are we doing today?” I said.

Without missing a beat, Seth said exactly what I was thinking.

“Getting out of this two hundred eighty two freakin’ square feet,” he said.

Turns out, on that, we could agree.

Tiny house, Northside

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The other day someone asked me how much I missed Arlee.

“Oh, that place,” she said. “How could you leave it again? Don’t you think about it all the time?”

I played along a bit trying to check myself.

“I do miss it some days,” I said. “But I think about it a lot less than I thought I would.”

I’m not sure this was the answer she was looking for but it’s true.

Sometimes I let myself go there on a wave of what if. That farm on five acres. Days like today when it is sunny and bright I wonder what the mountains look like, if there’s snow on them and if you can see the frozen creeks from our pasture. I miss driving once down “main” street, landing at Wilson’s (the gas station/grocery store) and reading People magazine. I miss the groan and click of our pellet stove on a cold morning. I miss walking in the brown grass, seeing Oby’s mules wandering around as I survey the fence line. After owning the place for twelve years, there are still snarls of wire that need to be dealt with, rotting posts that need to be replaced. I learned how to fix fence when we first moved there but I haven’t done it in years. I think I could remember how. It’s one part old truck, just for the hell of it, one part barbed wire, one part leather gloves and a whole lot of tightening, pulling and cooperation. It’s a sunny day in October. It’s a wet, green day in May.

I have a picture of Seth fixing fence that I keep on the bookshelf over our bed. In it is everything I came West to find and I keep it close to remind myself of that. And him, Because some days we just don’t see that much of each other. There’s nothing wrong, life just moves fast. It may be why I don’t pine for Arlee this time. Or the deep missing just may not exist this go round may be because we left well or, that we are where we really wanted to be.

Honestly, I’m surprised sometimes how little I think about our farm life. Here, I wake up with my daughters an arms length away. They crawl into bed and lean their soft skin against mine. Eliza puts her cold nose to my cheek and circles it around to say good morning. Lucille wakes up talking and chatters while lying on top of me until we all give in and get up in the dark morning. In these moments I don’t think about those five acres, fences that need repair and a farmhouse settled into the pasture because we are not there. We are here, in a tiny house on the Northside. And really, that is all that matters.

Tripping over each other

We are starting to trip over each other. Just a little and quite literally.

Eliza puts on her shoes while Seth tries to put a book away. Lucille builds a creation while I’m trying to make the bed. We say excuse me, I didn’t mean to, oh, sorry. Our bodies move in this small space and we are touching each other, without meaning to.

Imogene, our very old, very fat yellow lab wants to sleep on the floor but she snores and bedtime, well; it isn’t the best time for the sounds of a freight train to come rolling through 282. She takes up 40 square feet on her own, sprawled on the “living room” floor. She’s so big. This place is so small. I nudge her outside each night as we put the kids to bed. She’s not happy about it.

Eliza has homework this school year. Reading mostly. Her teacher says she needs to practice, read aloud and play word games. The only place to do this is on the bed. But Lucille likes to walk from couch to bed while we’re trying to read. She can do that in one not-so-big step without touching the carpet. The game pieces fall to the floor and we have to start over. Seth is cooking dinner, which Lucille wants no part of so I pull her close and have her move my game piece. Imogene is usually snoring in the background. Dinner sizzles on the stove. We’re all in one room. Every night.

Eliza asks me to put her to bed even though I’m ten feet from her even if I don’t. Some nights I write, sometimes I watch a movie. I can see her face the whole time; hear her turn over in her sleep. Last night I saw Lucille’s foot peeking out from underneath the covers on her bed. Pink skin, red blanket. We are so, so close.

Lucille works hard to get her unicorns into bed each night. One pillow pet, wrapped with a unicorn blanket, baby unicorn tucked inside the blanket. If the unicorns fall to the floor during our bedtime routine, Lucille get mad, stomps over to whomever happens to be sitting in the other bed and pouts.

“It was such hard work,” she says. “Now they’re on the floor.” We go back and retuck baby unicorn into the unicorn blanket wrapped around the unicorn pillow pet. We put Lucille back in bed with all of them. I take three steps and get back in my own bed.

When I take a shower in the mornings, Lucille comes in to warm up by the heater. Most days, when I get out, both girls are in the bathroom. Lucille stands on the toilet to put on her lip gloss, Eliza looks in the mirror to adjust her skinny jeans. I ask them to step out so I can dry off. There isn’t space for all three of us to stand in the 5 x 6 room. They wait right outside the door, ask for milk for their breakfast cereal as I towel off.

It is tight. Winter is coming.

In some ways it is so easy living in a really small space. Clean up is quick, adding more stuff isn’t really an option so we don’t. But there are other, less tangible things that are harder to define: time to one’s self, space to think through something complicated. These are things we are still working to figure out.

But every night I go to sleep under the glow of Lucille’s pillow pet unicorn. I see the curve of her face in the purple light and I’m still glad we are here.

Four people, 282 square feet.

Of all the not-so-mainstream ideas my husband and I have had over the years, this may be most difficult to comprehend. For all of us.

We’ve lived on five acres inconveniently situated 25 miles north of where most of life takes place. We’ve planned a wedding on  those five acres with no church in site (still a sore spot with my grandmother), we’ve grown food, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. We’ve milked goats. We’ve built a tree house tethered with ropes, high in the cottonwoods that everyone said was too tall. But we needed a place to launch the zip line. We’ve built a wood fire hot tub and spent many a winter night soaking it in after the kids went to bed. We’ve taken our little girls on really long road trips that seemed improbable, even to us as we loaded the car. Even though we’ve lived on one income for most of our married life, we somehow managed to buy two houses and have been really, really lucky to be able to move between them.

So we’re going to again. We’ve moving to Missoula in a few weeks to take advantage of proximity. Seth is going back to school. We feel as though we need to be close in. One wildcard is enough so we’ve rented the farmhouse and we’re packing our stuff. But, this time, we’re not packing that much stuff because we are moving into a space the size of a large bedroom.

It used to be a garage. Now we’re calling it an apartment. It’s a slat roof, coragated steel sided structure that we’ve slowly turned into a bright flat with skylights, a kitchen and a bathroom that is barely big enough to turn around in. I’m not kidding. It’s tiny.

The whole apartment is 282 square feet, corner to corner, side to side. It has wide French doors that lead into the backyard of the house we own in Missoula. We’ll be seeing it everyday but from a different view.

Our neighborhood in Missoula is possibly the best one on the planet. It’s funky. It’s old. It’s full of character and, sometimes, characters. It’s where we come every Christmas Eve to celebrate with dear friends, it’s a place that’s kept us even when we chose to leave it and head back to five acres in the country. They both keep us. And that’s okay.

The only thing that makes leaving Arlee alright is that we’ll settling back into the Northside.

We’re not choosing to live in 282 square feet because we’re uber environmentalists, though we do care about such things. We’re not doing it because we masochistic, though some have suggested it. And we’re not doing it just so I have something to write about, though I’m going to.

We’re moving into 282 square feet with our two daughters, our two dogs and our two bunnies because we are sick to death of being poor. We’re tired of credit card debt, we’re wary of crushing student loan debt, we’re ready for a little bit savings and a positive balance in our checking account. Because we have this amazing privilege of having an option to do so, we’re moving somewhere where we won’t have to pay for housing, where we might send Seth to school without paying for it for the rest of eternity, where we have a shot of escaping the middle class debt trap so many us are stuck in.

We have no idea if this going work. Some days I think we’re crazy. But, as with all of our hair-brained ideas, we’ll be in it together.

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