Dee Williams, author of the new memoir The Big Tiny, lives in a house she calls "painfully small," an 84-square-foot cabin that's "nearly thirty times smaller than the average house in America, smaller than a parking spot, smaller than some SUVs, and smaller than the square footage of tissue provided by a roll of toilet paper." It was an abrupt turn of events; before making the decision to chuck almost all her worldly possessions—she currently owns "305 things"—and build her own micro dwelling, she loved her life owning a beautiful 1927 house in Portland, Ore., a fixer-upper with "two foggy windows on either side of a droopy bump-out porch." The mortgage? Not so much. Still, it wasn't until she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure at 41, after fainting in the grocery store and being attached to heart monitors for days, that she decided to uproot her life entirely.
Weeks later, while in her cardiologist's waiting room, she read an article about someone in Iowa City who built a home just big enough to sleep and, with a canister of propane, cook in. She bought a plane ticket, talked logistics with "Tiny House Man," and went back home to build a minuscule home of her own. She sold and gave away almost everything she had in her beloved old house, hitched her new abode to her truck, and headed north to Olympia, where she made a home on a plot owned by an old lady named Rita.
While her heart problems instigated the change, it's clear from the text—Williams' languid descriptions of frost on the skylight or the sounds of "seagulls crackling open clams" are proof enough—that she has an unparalleled appreciation for tiny things, be they figuratively small, like the way the wind slices through her house's cedar walls, or, as is the case with her choice of residence, literally so. When all's said and done, the delight she experienced at the thought of owning a tiny home came from the inspiration that fuels so many other micro dwellers. She writes: "In the end, Thoreau, Whitman, Hafiz, and a dozen other writers put me up to the task of seeing if I dared to 'live a life worth living.' They left me no choice but to pull the rug (along with the couch and all the other furniture) out from under my old normal life."
People called her homestead "a mobile gingerbread house or a cuckoo-clock on wheels," but she doesn't mind the comparison. "I like gingerbread," she writes.
Despite the fact that the book is fairly exclusively about the life lessons Williams gleaned from more than a decade inside her hand-built home, the text itself rarely strays into saccharine territory, thanks mainly to her casual mentions of Whirley Pop popcorn and, you know, cat heads. Plus, she's full of cheeky one-liners—"'Lard help me' I muttered as I threw out unused Crisco"—that make her seem like your favorite kooky aunt, the one who loves her dog more than anything and will wax poetic about a strawberry patch at the drop of a hat. As for this notion that small spaces can teach big things: "The facts are the facts," Williams writes. "I found a certain bigness in my little house—a sense of largeness, freedom, and happiness that comes when you see there's no place else you'd rather be." Below, 16 stories plucked from the book:
16. "Now that I live in my little house, I work part-time and pay eight dollars a month for utilities. There's no mortgage, no Saturday morning with a vacuum, mop, or dust cloth. I have free time to notice the weather, so if my neighbor asks me how it's going, I can easily explain how 'the barometric pressure took a real nosedive at four this morning, causing a lava flow of cooler air to pour into my house through the open windows.'"
15. "Brad asked how it felt to finally be here, to be done, and I said, 'Amazing. Like I just delivered a four-thousand-pound baby and somebody should write an article about it for the Journal of Medicine.'"
14. "The transformer posted on the telephone pole in front of Rita's house had just exploded like a bomb blast. [...] I realized I hadn't been seen lightning at all; it had been transformers blowing up all over town, wires crackling and shorting out as they were blown by the storm into tree branches. I noticed that my house was likely the only house lit up in the neighborhood, the only surviving source of electricity in a multiblock radius. [...] 'Oh my God,' I said to my dog, snickering as I walked in the house a few minutes later. 'That was epic! Ridiculous. Let me tell ya what just happened.'"
13. "I don't remember noticing the subtle shift toward spring when I lived in my big house; maybe because I was so preoccupied with other things, or maybe it was simple proximity. Spring now launches itself like a space shuttle mission inches from my head, and so graphically I can practically hear the 'Three-two-one, GO, GO, GO!' as the sun peaks over the garage."
12. "I've found that I crave a certain predictability in each day. [...] I'll return home and walk the dog, make a bit of dinner, chat with Rita, read a book, or watch an episode of Glee. Each day will present itself and end with a string of predictable events, safe and tidy, where I can float through life as the planet rotates (again) from winter into spring, and the only rebellious thing I'll do for months is decide not to get a flu shot."
11. "I started showering at work only if absolutely necessary and instead showered fairly regularly at Rita's house. It was less problematic, except for the occasional need to race across the backyard wearing nothing but a towel."
10. "I stepped out of my little house, reveling in the way the sky was so blue it looked fake, like a filtered photo doctored to make you feel an immense sense of optimism—and then, a few minutes later, a bit of horror. I found a cat head."
9. "I try not to mention [...] any of my absent-minded dillydallying when people ask how I spend my free time now that I'm not working as much. Instead, I might mention that I recently helped someone tear down an old garage, and that I've been volunteering at the Salvation Army soup kitchen; and then I'll talk about my other amazing volunteer activities like installing grip bars along the kitchen counter at Rita's house. All of this is true [...] but I also spend an awful lot of time goofing off."
8. "There were a lot of logistical questions when I first moved into the backyard: Where should I set the house, park my car, get mail, and stash my ever-changing array of 'found' items: wood scraps, a light-up Santa, and other riprap? [...] These things were easy to sort out, like figuring how to engineer a little house to drag it down the highway."
7. "I was autonomous—a close neighbor, who also took showers at Rita's, stored ice cream in her freezer, and watched Wheel of Fortune with her."
6. "We were shooting the shit about how fast we could run if we had giant Slinkys strapped to our shoes, when one of the boys suddenly looked at me and suspiciously asked if I was Kellen's aunt. 'Well, no,' I said calmly, smiling. 'I just live in the backyard.' He pondered this for a minute and then belted out in shock, 'Oh my God you're one of the homeless people!' Kellen and I simultaneously went to bat with explantions. 'She has a house in the corner,' he said. 'It's really cute and nice,' I offered, using a schoolteacher tone, 'and I live there with a Keebler Elf and several small woodland creatures.'"
5. "I recently and counted and categorized all my stuff, and discovered that I have 305 things, ranging from my toothbrush and silverware to my truck and all that crap seems to have accumulated in the glove box."
4. "I haven't done much redecorating over the years. I have the same bamboo blinds and the same wool rug that collects dog hair like it's spun out of Scotch tape."
3. "Everything fit precisely, tucking into hidden drawers that were built into the toe-kick below the kitchen counter, or into one of the two wicker baskets that I'd salvaged from Goodwill. [...] Even Buster, my thirty-pound ceramic pig, who had been parked outside my old house for years, sitting like a smiling cinder block on the front porch, was able to squeeze into the little house."
2. "I had fallen from the sleeping loft when the ladder dropped out from under me, a crazy freak accident that I couldn't have repeated even if I tried, and I wouldn't. I dropped seven feet, broke my sacrum and coccyx, and chipped my last lumbar vertebra. In a single second, I had effectively busted my ass and was reduced to nothing but a bellow."
1. "Home became the place I most wanted to be when I was feeling good or bad, busy or lazy, confused or clearheaded. Home was where Rita lived; it was Hugh and Annie's house, the carport, the driveway, the fir tree, the garbage bins, the wind that came out of the south and smashed into my house, and the smell of cedar that still wafts out of my loft even after almost a decade."