“Yeah that Laura Ingalls Wilder, her sisters and their parents all living in a tiny cabin were weird, weren’t they? And that guy, Abraham Lincoln, growing up with all his family in his one-room cabin, they actually made him president. What were they thinking?” These are my stock answers to people who imply that there is something wrong with my family because we choose to live in a very small cabin. How small is it? It doesn’t even have a bedroom, just a loft.
So how do we do it? How do we manage personal space and all the possessions necessary for a self-reliant, high-quality lifestyle? We learned to follow three basic principles.
The first principle we learned to follow was to determine what we truly valued in a living situation and make sure our attitudes about how we lived matched them.
It seems to have become a cultural norm in our country that a home must have a room for every small use. We are bombarded with media that tells us, “You need a living room, a family room, a home theater room, a kitchen, a dining room, a laundry room, a pantry, a mudroom, 4 bathrooms, a basement and an attic for storage, and a getaway room. Every family member must have his or her own bedroom so they can have privacy. You cannot do without less, and you will not be happy unless you have these things. Your success is based on these things. Bigger is better.”
I used to feel this way. Living in a tiny cabin by myself was great, but when I got married, I’d need a bigger space. After all, I only had one tiny closet for my clothes.
Then my boyfriend moved in. It happened very gradually. He moved in by bringing his stuff over a little at a time. So we were able to make space for it without feeling overwhelmed. We got a wardrobe and made adjustments for his other things. Two people living in a tiny cabin was still great. Eventually, we married and the cabin turned into a honeymoon haven. We were close and enjoyed each other’s company. We loved where we lived: on the foot of a mountain with hiking trails to waterfalls and beautiful views. We could walk to a Wildlife Management Area or the Shenandoah National Park from our front door. Our cabin had privacy, but we were near enough to excellent neighbors.
Then, unexpectedly, I got pregnant. All of a sudden, everyone, including me, thought we had to move. I was heartbroken. Living where we did brought me joy. Other people went home to television and exercise machines. I went home and hiked to a waterfall. Other people went out to fast food. My husband and I cooked out, camp-style, at an old chimney in our yard, a relic left standing from the old Conservation Corps Camp on which the cabin was located. Other people had friends over to sit in their living rooms. We had friends over for excursions, leaving on foot from our front door and walking back to it. It would all end because a baby was coming. We could not add on to the cabin because we did not own it. Everyone was telling us we’d have to move. There just wasn’t enough room for all of us in this tiny little cabin.
My husband even got offered a house for low rent from a family member. The house was at the end of their driveway right on top of a major road. While my husband contemplated moving to a house with only its space to recommend it, I began to mourn the loss of a situation I found satisfying to my soul. I did not want to raise my child in a place where I had to constantly worry about passing traffic. I did not want to live where I could not hike or walk safely. I did not want to live literally right under the nose of some of my in-laws. There were no waterfalls or even creeks. Our pets, used to going for hikes and the safety of being far from traffic, would be endangered. To everyone else, it looked like the sensible, logical answer to our problems. To me, it looked like jail.
I became depressed and turned to some of my favorite books in order to find solace in their pages. I reached for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods. As I read the book about the ultimate homesteaders, Laura and her two sisters, with Ma and Pa, living in a small cabin in the big woods, realization dawned. Here was a family of five living in a one-room cabin and doing it very well.
The children were not suffering from a lack of their own bedroom. The children were happy and healthy. Ma and Pa didn’t seem to have problems with their love life. They had four children in all.
Then it occurred to me that Abraham Lincoln grew up with his family in a one-room log cabin. He became president.
If these families could live in tiny, one-room cabins, why couldn’t I? That realization was the beginning of my personal attitude adjustment. From that point on, I dug my heels in and began making plans to begin living in a tiny cabin. My arguments and determination soon won over my husband and my family. Other people thought we were insane, naïve, or just plain weird. They didn’t see how we could even contemplate it. It would not be possible for them to live in such close quarters.
Before long, our son arrived, and although he had his own separate crib, he barely used it. We adopted a family bed. This situation worked extremely well for us. However, it was another eye-roller for many people. They would ask us, “Well, what are you going to do when he gets older?”
That solution was easy. As soon as our son got older and his sleeping positions included turning sideways in the bed and throwing his arms over his head into our faces, we created a type of trundle bed. Historically, trundle beds were smaller beds that fit under larger ones. They were pulled out at night so that children could sleep by their parents. Laura Ingalls and her sister Mary shared one attached to Ma and Pa’s bed. We simply acquired a smaller child-sized bed and placed it at the foot of our larger bed. It created a perfect situation for sleeping in our tiny cabin.
What about our love life? It’s still going strong. We’ve just gotten creative. Unless you prefer your love bedridden, your sleeping quarters are not the only appropriate place to enjoy romance.
Many people still look dubiously at us when we explain our living and sleeping arrangements. They couldn’t do it. At first, this attitude bothered me; to me, it implied that they were better than my family because they lived, “normally.” Now, I realize that we have crafted a way of life that suits us. It encompasses our values to live small without making a large carbon footprint. As we have become more fearless in discussing how we live, other people have shared their stories of family beds, trundle beds, and living in tiny quarters. Now when people tell me they couldn’t live as we do, I don’t take offense. I just note to myself that we obviously don’t value the same things, and quite frankly, I would never choose to live as they do.
The second principle we had to learn was how to organize our living space and the things we need to pursue the lifestyle we value.
Homesteading, gardening, and processing food from the garden require tools and appliances. We are scrappers and “do-it-yourself” people. We like to find ways to do what we want with scraps. Thus, we keep some materials on hand that other people have discarded. We also homeschool, which requires its own set of materials. These life choices require space. Because our space is limited we had to learn to organize it to provide for our life choices without crowding ourselves.
We have found that—whether a home is 800 square feet or 8,000—if the occupants do not organize and manage their possessions in the living space they have, on a regular basis, these things soon manage and direct the occupants. In our small cabin, we are much more aware of this than most people because we don’t have extra closets, rooms, an attic, or a basement in which to store things. When our space becomes cluttered, we become more stressed.
The solution is always to evaluate our space and our stuff. If we have an object that we do not use or value, it goes. If we find that we need to bring in something new to the house, it either needs to change places with something old, or we need to create a space for it.
Some of our favorite pieces of furniture were created by my family and friends. These pieces of furniture serve many purposes or help to create storage space. Our couch separates our living room from our kitchen. Behind it we placed a piece of furniture that we made out of packing cases from a library and discarded boards from a local sawmill. It serves as an organizing area for the mail, a laundry folding table, a place to put our drinks when we sit on the couch, a storage unit for our laptop, and portable DVD player, our family board games, and our homeschooling materials.
Because we do not have a coat closet, a shelf that was made from recycled boards from an old house, and antique nails turned into hooks, serves as a coat rack and storage area. Baskets on the shelves hold various objects that we use. Apple crates from my husband’s family farm fitted with curtains act as other storage units on which sit our TV and printer.
Another way that I find to save space is to use things that serve more than one purpose. Our best example is our set of mason jars. Not only do we store most of what we grow in our garden in these containers by canning or freezing, we also use them to store leftovers in our refrigerator and as drinking glasses. Using mason jars to store leftovers gives us the advantage of actually seeing what food we have to use. I notice that when I store things in opaque containers in the fridge, they go unused and spoil.
One method of space management that has helped us is monitoring our behaviors. First, it’s important to put things away, right away. Letting things sit out for more time than we use them, creates clutter.
Second, we needed to stop going to thrift stores unless we were looking for something specific. In the last few years, thrift stores in our area have boomed. They provide an endless stream of very useable, like-new things at bargain prices. When my son was about two, I started going into thrift stores and buying toys for him. I couldn’t resist the bargains. We accumulated a lot of toys. He’d play with them for two weeks and then forget them. I managed to find some space by storing things outside in a stall of the stable on the property, but after a while the house and the stall became cluttered. I had to re-evaluate every toy and soon found that there were very few that he played with on a regular basis. Hence, the thrift stores got a lot of the toys back and I stopped going to them unless I had a specific item I was trying to find.
Third, we have to store the things we use most in the most accessible places, while things that we do not use often go out into the stall or far back in a cupboard. This means we cannot acquire delicate things. They need to be able to handle being stored outside. These methods of organizing our possessions in our small space have worked well.
The third principle we find essential to living well in a small space is having respect for each other mixed with a great willingness to solve problems.
Living in such a small space means that we are constantly in each other’s company. If there is a problem, there are no extra rooms in which to isolate ourselves. It is simply not possible to avoid each other. We have to be able to communicate respectfully and solve problems. This takes great effort sometimes. It also takes being mindful that, especially in a family, there must be give and take.
When someone needs personal space or privacy, they simply ask for it. When the weather is good, this often means the private time is outside. I may choose to go on a hike alone. My son usually decides to go outside and play. My husband often goes to sit outside by the fire to relax. When the weather is not good, one of us may go upstairs in the loft for some private time. Private time may also be in the form of asking not to be disturbed. For example, when I am working on something that needs undivided attention, I will ask my son to only speak to me in an emergency. I may not be totally alone but I have the privacy I need to get work done.
Sometimes when we all want to be inside doing separate things we need to compromise or problem solve. For example, when someone wants to watch a DVD but the others don’t want to share the program, our portable DVD player with a set of earphones works well. There have been times when my husband is watching something on the DVD player with earphones, while my son listens quietly to a recorded book upstairs, and I am reading a book in the living room.
Knowing what we value, keeping our space organized, and respecting each other help us face the great challenges of living in a tiny cabin. Learning to live in our small home has given us great rewards. Our family is not just close in space, we are close at heart. We have built a life around the values we have chosen for ourselves, not what our culture has dictated to us. As a result, even though we don’t live in a mansion, our lives are rich.