The Costs and Benefits of Living Simply — my 11 years in a tiny house

This is the 1st article in a series in which I explore my core values and how they relate to the core values of the college I founded. If you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or would like to share your own stories, I’d love to hear them! Please share below.

Image from a photo shoot of my home for a local credit union during my first year of living in the tiny home

September 2021 will mark my eleventh year living in my tiny home. It’s amazing how something that once seemed so extraordinary can become so commonplace. I have so much excitement going on with Wayfinding Academy and the fight to revolutionize higher education that sometimes I forget that I was once just Michelle Jones, first time tiny home owner.

When I say that I live in a tiny home, I don’t just mean that my home is small, I mean I live in a tiny home. My house is no wider than the width of a freeway lane and no longer than the length of an average area rug. The ceiling is lifted so I can fit a thin sleeping area uptop and that’s about it. I have everything I need to live at arms reach. I have a small bathroom with a compost toilet and standing shower with hot water, except on cold days when my water line freezes. Next to that, I have a small work desk cut from an old oak table that was my parents first piece of furniture they bought when they married. Across from this is a countertop, cut from the same table, which houses a small sink and stove. One of the gifts the tiny home has given me is that most of the things I own are either repurposed mementos from my life or are repurposed materials from someone else’s. I don’t have much room for the inbetween and that’s the way I wanted it.

The first time I ever saw a tiny home was on the front cover of a copy of YES! Magazine that my friend swiped from a doctors office waiting room. She said she saw it and thought I’d be intrigued. On the cover was a photo of Dee Williams, tiny house pioneer, sitting on the front porch of what looked like a small cabin on wheels, reading a book, drinking a cup of coffee, with a stone pig on one side of her and a small grey dog resting at her feet. My friend was right, I was certainly intrigued.

At the time I’d been going through some pretty big life changes. I quit what I thought was my dream teaching job, sold what I thought was my dream house, packed my Prius with only what I thought needed to survive, including my dog and cat, and headed for New Mexico. It was during this time that I realized I was much happier owning only a few clothes, a couple eating utensils, and some small precious belongings than I ever was living in a big house amongst things I never even looked at, let alone used. I was beginning to feel liberated and I didn’t want that feeling to end. Driving from Rhode Island to New Mexico gave me a lot of time to self-reflect and consider what I wanted for the future. I decided on a few key things: I want to live my life as simply and sustainably as possible; I always aim to be self-reliant; and I want the freedom to live however and wherever I choose. I don’t want to say getting that copy of YES! magazine was destiny, because I’m not sure I believe in that sort of thing, but it sure felt like serendipitous timing.

After reading the article a few times, I took a leap of faith and called up Dee to ask her if she would let me buy her a cup of coffee sometime since it turned out she lived just an hour from where I was living at the time. She responded immediately with something like “Hell yes! Come on down, hang out with me, come see my tiny house.” With a leap of faith and gesture of true kindness, Dee and I started what would turn out to be a twelve year (and counting) friendship.

The photo of Dee at her tiny home that was on the magazine cover

When I met Dee, she and her friend, Katy, owned a small Portland-based company called Portland Alternative Dwellings where Dee designed tiny homes and Katy built them. Once I decided this was the right path for me, we hit the ground running. Dee began to design my new home and I began downsizing my life. I was now living in Tacoma, Washington working as an visiting professor for a year and renting a two bedroom house from another professor who was leading a year-long study abroad trip with a group of students. I had one year to take inventory of everything I owned, and boy was it a lot. I had all kinds of things I could never dream of owning now — tea sets, large wooden serving tables, that giant oak table with a full dinner party set that I mentioned earlier, couches and lamps, and a big enough carpet to cover my tiny home from floor to ceiling. When and how I accumulated this much stuff, I don’t recall. It seems as each place I lived grew bigger, my stuff grew with it. It’s similar to that children’s book ‘If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,’ where once the mouse has a cookie he needs milk, then he needs a napkin, then a nap, then a bed, etc. Once I bought one thing I needed something to go with it: a runner for my table, or a case to display my grandmother’s china. The list goes on and on. Now I needed to figure out what was truly important to me and to get rid of the rest. Dee suggested that I start by placing a bunch of things in boxes and if I didn’t look at them or use them for over a month they went to Craigslist or Goodwill. It helped that I needed to raise some funds for my new home, so I was going to need to sell a lot of stuff anyway. In the interest of environmental sustainability and keeping material costs low, I tried to build as much of my home as I could out of salvaged wood, repurposed furniture, and items from Craigslist.

My next step was to decide what I wanted the interior of my home to look like. The eighty-four square foot floor plan was mostly modeled after Dee’s tiny home but I still had some decisions to make on what spaces were essential to me and what weren’t. The living room of the home I was renting was large enough that I could use blue tape to mark out the outline of my tiny home and get a sense of the layout. I decided to add a few things. I wanted to squeeze in a small work space since I thought I would often be on the road between teaching jobs and needed a space to work. I wanted a small storage space for my photo albums and childhood journals that we ended up building space for under my seating area, and I wanted to be able to hook up water to my tiny home if I was parked in a backyard or a campground. With some finagling and some sacrifices, I was able to make it all work and thank goodness for that, or else I wouldn’t have been prepared for what happened next.

Before my tiny home adventure, I had only been to Portland, Oregon one time for a night on a road trip. Katy, my tiny home builder, lived in the St. Johns neighborhood in North Portland and asked me to drop off any building materials I found online or in my belongings into a storage unit close to where she was building my house, so I was now monthly making the 4 hour round trip from Tacoma to her neighborhood. I had no intention whatsoever of staying in Portland once my tiny home was finished, although I’d always heard from friends that if they ever saw me settling somewhere, it would be Portland. My job in Tacoma ended in May and I still had the summer before my tiny home would be ready for highway speeds. One of the perks of having a PhD is that I can usually send out some feelers to colleges for seasonal work and at least get an interview. I was admittedly strapped for cash and thought it might be a good idea to wait out my time in Portland and get a summer teaching job. I got an interview with Concordia University and something very unexpected happened, they offered me a full time salary position starting immediately. After some deliberation I said, what the hell, and I stayed. That changed everything. My tiny home, once destined for long distance travel, now needed a semi-permanent place to park. Dee suggested that I make up a little flyer seeing if anyone would be interested in letting me park my home in their backyard and ask the college if they would circulate it for me. They did and I got many more replies than I expected and it also made a big first impression with my new colleagues that I heard about for years afterwards. The people at Concordia were so welcoming and family-like to me, a stranger to them, and I am forever grateful. Someone who saw my post recirculated in a neighborhood newsletter offered me their yard to park my tiny home and I stayed there for a bit. The place I parked and lived the longest was with my now good friend, Rebecca, in the back yard behind her family home. (Fun fact: Rebecca’s daughter, Anie, is now a student at Wayfinding Academy, the college I founded, years after parking my home in her yard.)

Me in my reading nook in the tiny house

I’ve been incredibly lucky in St. Johns to be surrounded by such kind and giving people. I built my house thinking that it would make me more self-reliant, but it’s done the opposite. I’ve had to learn to ask for help from my community in ways I never thought I’d be able to do. If it weren’t for the help of the St. Johns community, I don’t think Wayfinding would exist today in the way that it does. It’s amazing how as soon as I started truly living my values, other aspects of my life followed suit. This philosophy is at the heart of the Wayfinding ethos. I’ve learned that, although we may not know exactly where our paths lead, if we know our purpose and have connected with our “why,” we can always use our values as a compass to guide us.

My cozy sleeping loft and skylight

When I woke up this morning, like many Portland mornings, it was raining. I laid in bed for a bit listening to the patter on the tin roof above me. I eventually got up, climbed down my ladder, turned on my space heater and put on a kettle for coffee. As the house warmed up and the coffee brewed, I took a good look at my home — the dimly lit lamp with a stand of two charming waltzing frogs, the painting of a walkway in Guanajuato, Mexico above my cozy seating area, the small platform I built to hold the knife block that my parents bought me for my first home. These little details that make my tiny home, mine. Once the coffee was ready I sat down at my desk, surrounded by my small travel souvenirs, and checked my email. With one click the world rushed in — COVID safety procedures, the Capitol under siege, meetings to make, gifts to send. I got up quickly, got dressed, and threw on my raincoat to start my morning walk to Wayfinding HQ. I stepped out into the morning rain, locked my front door and began to walk. After about a block of walking in the rain, my thoughts went back to my tiny house. The warm wooden interior, the smell of coffee, the feeling of the ladder on my feet as I inched closer to my soft bed. A smile of gratitude crossed my face. I knew that no matter what happened today and no matter how uncertain these days are, my tiny home will be there, waiting for my return, to keep me warm and safe.

If you would like to know more about tiny homes or Dee Williams check out her book: The Big Tiny

Check out the YES! Magazine article on Dee Williams: YES! Magazine: Sustainable Happiness

If you would like to learn more about Wayfinding Academy and the fight to revolutionize higher education please visit wayfindingacademy.org

Originally published at https://www.michelledjones.org on January 11, 2021. Gallery of more photos of the interior and exterior of my tiny home available there.

Founder/President of alternative community college in Portland, OR (wayfindingacademy.org). Lives in a tiny house. Eager to walk the Camino for the 7th time.

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