Saturday, 8 October 2016

The portable, flexible, invisible beauty of minimalism

As long as I can remember I’ve been interested in nomadic living. Since I was a girl I’ve looked at nomadic dwellings and storage solutions, fascinated by being able to fit in anywhere then just get up and go.

Over time, as tiny houses appeared I pored avidly over the creations of Jay Shafer and Dee Williams (I love her), listened to their accounts of how to live in a tiny house, watched every video by Kirsten Dirkson I could find. I love this one – and I’m especially interested by the very last thing Kristie Wolfe says, right at the end of the video: "If you’re going to be off-grid it opens a whole world of selection."

Many people have difficulty with trying to start up off-grid because official permissions are not forthcoming or because other members of the family feel tiny off-grid living is a step beyond where they’re prepared to go. That’s what happened to Dan Price – he loved his family and they loved him; but they couldn’t face living his vision and wouldn’t go with him.

I am a quiet, rooted, low-energy person. I like to stay in one place. I love where I live – near the ocean but also on the edge of a valley given over to public parkland full of trees and home to wild animals and birds. So, though nomadic solutions interest me for their space-economy and versatility, I don’t actually want to move around.

I read once – a long time ago, I’ve forgotten the details of the writer and publication – about a study of eco-villages around the world. It was to do with which one came out as the most Earth-friendly of all. Findhorn in Scotland won, not because of sophisticated technology but because of their practice of sharing. That opened a whole new exciting world to me – I realised that by sharing we could help both human society and the wellbeing of creation better than any other way. The great thing about that is that anybody – a child, an old person, rich or poor people, people of differing nationalities – all of us can share. Everyone can contribute to this great and urgent work of protecting Earth against Mammon. I quickly saw that the more minimalist a life I led, the greater were my possibilities for sharing.

I love watching Grand Designs, and sat down the other evening to see a recent episode featuring a couple in England’s West Country. They work for a living creating artefacts out of steam-bent wood, and wanted to substantially enlarge and link the buildings of the dwelling they had – a small Victorian game-keeper’s cottage and a separate stone bathroom built into the side of a hill. They did a wonderful job, and the result was beautiful.

But my attention was caught by a phenomenon with which I’ve by now become very familiar.

Kevin McCloud (whose series Grand Designs is), interviewing the couple at the start of the build, made much of the inconvenience of their bathroom arrangements – exclaiming in horror that every time they wanted a pee in the night they had to go to a separate building. This assumption is very common. I remember reading about a tiny house dweller who had originally not installed a bathroom, opting instead to go outside into the woods. Then she discovered there were bears in the woods, got scared, and installed a bathroom.

Do they not know about chamber pots? Nobody has to even set foot outside their bedroom to pee in the night, much less go outside.

One of the most exciting things about minimalist living is its portability – very versatile. Here are some of the circumstances of my life where the versatility of minimalism is so effective. I love off-grid living, but my husband is not attracted to it. Our family needs to be in a town so we can manage with only one vehicle between three households (and our household has five people); that way we can all get about on foot and by public transport, and benefit from the infrastructure of a town with its wholefood co-op, libraries, employment opportunities, cinema, restaurants, and myriad other things that a town has and a rural location does not.

At first I thought the best solution would be to build a shed in the garden and live in that – so I could live off-grid alongside my on-grid family. I found the drawback was that the vibration of a group of holy people is tangible and healing, energising. It renews and upbuilds the spirit even – maybe especially – in sleep. I wanted to be with them, within the circle of their aura, not separate from them. I wanted to sleep at my husband’s side; and he didn’t want to live in a shed.

So I did some more thinking. Thoreau put his finger on it in this wonderful passage from the first chapter of Walden. The difficulty comes from fixtures and furniture – the unwieldiness of them.

We have got used to embedding our human needs and functions in a context of associated furniture, and the bulkiness of the furniture requires the designation of living space – separate rooms. So we have a bathroom for the bath, sink and toilet, a bedroom for the bed and clothes closets and dressing tables, a kitchen for the sink, fridge, freezer, pots and pans and food storage, a living room for the TV, sofas, coffee tables etc. We end up needing a quite large house to accommodate the separate needs of even one person.

I realised that if all these things became packable and portable, detached from designated rooms, sharing would become easier, life would be more flexible. And I saw that it is perfectly possible to live an off-grid life even in an urban setting with a modest-sized garden and sharing with other people who don’t want to live off-grid.

I think showing you what I mean may take more than one post, or this will get so lengthy as to be cumbersome. But let me start by showing you what I mean about sleeping and working arrangements.

For a start, nobody needs a bedroom.

Just now, our household has a bug. We’ve had (some of us still have) very debilitating heavy colds. A lot of coughing and sneezing, snoring in sleep and waking in the night. Normally I sleep with my husband, but just now I’m sleeping separately until we are both well again. This is easy, because all of us here sleep on the floor.

So this is a room with very little in it – my mother occupied it when she lived with us for a few weeks recently, after a hospital stay, and so may another member of our family if she comes to live with us for a while. Just now it's empty, and we like to keep it fairly free of furniture to give us somewhere to sing and dance and exercise. I’ve been sleeping in this room.

Here is my bed, rolled up for the day. 

Tonight I’ll unroll it and sleep by the fire, where I have a view of the garden trees in the moonlight.

No need for a bedroom with a double bed, plus a spare room with its own bed for times like this when we need to sleep apart.

And, while we’re in this room, let me show you my office. 

Normally, I like to sit near my hubby to do my work while he is alongside at his desk, up in his attic. This is where I usually sit. My 'office' tucks under that little table that he made.

But just now because of my hubby’s cold he is breathing through his mouth which means whistling through his teeth; and if I have to listen to it I will have to kill him. So I have taken my office downstairs.

This is my office (it was a Vivobarefoot shoebox).

It has everything like diary and pens and correspondence etc in it. It also has my library – yards and yards of books all tucked up neatly in a Kindle – and my speaker so the music stored in my i-phones library can fill the room if I like, and my electronics store 

 to connect things up and to access my massive archive of papers. All this needs electricity of course, but that comes from the solar panels on the roof. 

Meanwhile my glasses, toothbrush, spork, knife, phone, pen, ear-buds, fold-up shopping bag, coin-purse and handkerchief travel with me everywhere in my bum-bag (US ‘fanny-pack’).

I love the tiny houses Jay Shafer designs, and the many similar, but the one drawback (to me) is that everything is so small and poky – a mini-bathroom, mini-kitchen, mini-loft-bedroom, mini-living-room (complete with small tub chairs), mini-desk etc. When all you need is a room, with a certain amount of storage for the basic flexible necessities.

Kitchen and bathroom arrangements can likewise be made way more flexible and portable than they normally are. And I am a big fan of ease and convenience – I confess I don’t like to put myself out! If something is hard I generally give up. So, minimalism doesn’t bring hidden hardships or I wouldn’t be doing it. It’s mainly about questioning assumptions.

 During the day, the room I’ve been sleeping in is needed by other people – for exercising, and for a pop-up studio for some of the artefacts currently in process. So I de-camp to our family room where I can curl up in the corner of the sofa and write.

I could easily sleep here too (and sometimes do) if the room I slept in last night is needed for someone else at the time.

I personally would prefer to have no furniture beyond a couple of storage cupboards and maybe one or two of the low tables my hubby makes. I’d have cushions and sheepskins, because I like to be comfortable, and they’re easy and light to move and pack. But my household values the armchairs and sofas and the kitchen table. And the beauty of minimalism is it allows you not only to share space but to also share completely different lifestyles. There’s no reason at all why an off-grid minimalist lifestyle cannot nest elegantly and invisibly inside a regular lifestyle. It just vanishes.


Suze said...

Ah I love this post. I honestly thought of you yesterday. I saw the most beautiful shed that I would love to have as my escape place and wondered how Korembi(?) was featuring in your life. I like the idea of tiny homes but feel if I could I would build a home with wings for individuals/families to sleep etc in and have communal areas. I'd love to afford to build a compound for my family. After all one can share facilities such as kitchens, laundries and gardening stuff. Once again I think of sheds and a little space for me and I how those lovely tiny homes are not practical with an arthritic back. I think you are reaching great compromises. I love how your family is able to respect each others needs for space and quiet times.

Forgive me if I ramble I have had surgery and am still on heavy pain killers.

God bless.

Pen Wilcock said...

Oh - I hope you are soon well, Suze, and free from pain. God bless you, may you heal completely. xx

Sandra Ann said...

I look at these photos and instantly they transmit, peace. Ah, thanks for letting me pop by, pause and exhale :-) xx

Pen Wilcock said...

Hooray! Well, peace and joy to you - brightness to your day. Blessed be. xx

Jenna said...

Love this post and photos, Pen. I've just purchased a home--too big for just me but sort of the smallest available for legal habitation. I'd be just as happy, I think, moving my deceased husband's 12x24 shed someplace but for the regulations and rules. :( I'm intrigued by your notes on furniture; mine was ruined in the house so I'll be looking for what I need here soon. I, too, see no need for wampus things that take me and somebody else to move and that dictate the use of the space. I'm making a studio/office of the master bedroom; my twin bed will fit nicely in the second one. Thanks for the peak into your digs.

Pen Wilcock said...

Regulations aside, something everyone in our household loves is large airy rooms with high ceilings. Generally speaking those comes only with big houses. That's where sharing works so brilliantly - we each have our own large airy living space, but only one furnace, TV license, woodstove to buy fuel for, freezer, bath, council tax, buildings insurance. etc. If we all lived separately we'd have small poky rooms plus individual bills for all those things.
May you be happy in your space and find just the way to arrange things for your peace and wellbeing. xx

Ganeida said...

I think I don't share living space well ~ even with my nearest & dearest ~ but I planted cucumbers this year & am calculating how many neighbours could benefit from the expected glut. With more than ordinary luck that may extend to tomatoes & beans. My veggie patch is small, intense & permaculture but there is no reason it can't supplement 4 or 5 households.

Pen Wilcock said...

Yes! Sharing! That's why self-sufficiency is neither a realistic nor helpful goal. God bless your veggie patch. x