After being diagnosed with congestive heart failure, Dee Williams decided she needed a big change. And she accomplished it by going small. Williams built her own 84-square-foot house, where she resides in Olympia, Washington. She'll be at the Tattered Cover LoDo tonight to read from and discuss her new book about the experience, The Big Tiny: A Built-it-Myself Memoir. In advance of Williams's appearance, we spoke with the writer and activist about how living small connected her to nature and her community in new ways.
Dee Williams: There were a lot of things going on. In the book I pin it to getting my diagnosis of congestive heart failure, which has a pretty crappy diagnosis tied to it. All of a sudden it's like being shot out of a cannon. You want to do all of these wonderful, awesome things. So I was kind of grappling with that, but at the same time I held out this great hope that the diagnosis was wrong. The idea of the little house seemed to marry those two really powerful feelings for me. I could live the life I want to live and at the same time hedge my bets. If I keep my job, for example, I can still be normal, kind of marry this extraordinary and normal existence. But there were lots of other things going on. I wanted to walk my talk as an environmentalist differently, and the little house did that, and I wanted to be able to work part-time, so the little house made that possible.
What was the process of building the house?
It was kind of like writing a book. It was excruciating. There was a lot of floundering. [Laughs]. It was awesome. I haven't ever had kids, but my friends who have delivered babies say you end up with this amazing thing so you don't remember how horrible it was. Your body naturally offers these different brain chemicals so you forget how horrible it was. In some ways I can't remember really struggling or feeling horribly lost while building, but I'm quite certain those feelings were there. It was also just one of the funnest, most exciting, most challenging projects I've ever done to take a bunch sticks and put them together to make a home. I think it's a part of all of our DNA. We're all builders. We were, not that long ago, right? To act on that was really cool and very rewarding and I met a lot of cool people who were walking by and wondered what the heck I was doing. I got to meet my neighbors in a whole new way.
Can you imagine yourself living anywhere but the tiny house?
Yeah. I think the lessons that I've learned by living small aren't about the house so much. I mean, I love my house. But it's more about pulling things into my life that make sense for me, that connect me to my friends and my community and my natural community and the world around me in a new way. I think those lessons would carry forward if I met somebody and we fell in love and wanted to co-habitate. It probably wouldn't work in my little house. Maybe it could, and I'd be willing to try, but I can't imagine shacking up with someone in my little house for longer than a short period of time. Leaving a pair of pants out can be a tripping hazard. Shoes could cause you to fall and chip a tooth. There's a lot of risk with two people.
What were unexpected challenges and benefits of the tiny house?
There was one challenge that I wasn't really expecting, and that was having to come to terms with my own prejudice around people who don't live in a really cool apartment or a nice house. And I had never seen this in myself at all. I had worked at shelters and soup kitchens and stuff like that, and I was really familiar with homeless populations, but I had never realized how much my own identity or ego was tied up in being able to point to a certain setup and say, "This is where I live." And that surprised me. When I would tell people that I hadn't seen in a long time that I was living in a back yard, there was a part of that that felt like it needed a lot of explanation. I didn't realize how much of my identity was tied up in looking like I was successful by having a house, having my own yard, at least having my own apartment or something. Instead, I was kind of living in someone's shadow and that was hard.
Benefits I wasn't expecting were just this great sense of community and connection. I wake up every day and there's this giant skylight over my bed and I have this new connection to nature and what's going on in my natural, urban environment with all kinds of seagulls and raccoons. There's a porcupine I can see waddling down the alley sometimes. There's all this beauty that I thought I already understood, but in a lot of ways living in the little house I've come to this new appreciation and awareness. And the same goes with my friends and my local community. I don't have a refrigerator and I don't have a lot of pantry space, so all of a sudden I really did use a local food co-op as my extended kitchen. I want them to thrive because they're my kitchen. Same with the library. I love the library and I have this new appreciation and awareness of how awesome the public library is, because I don't have a lot of room for books anymore. It's those kinds of connections that I've felt so blessed around and completely didn't expect them.
What do you hope people get out of the book and coming to the talk?
I hope they're at least mildly entertained. I hope they can connect to the story. I really do believe, and this is something that the little house taught me, that every day presents this opportunity to feel connected to our natural environment and to each other. Inside that connection we start to behave differently. I really believe it gives us this mojo for taking on really complex problems like global climate change or hunger or homelessness. There's just this kindness factor that's really needed in our world, and so hopefully people read the story and look around in their own lives and see how extraordinary it is in the simplest little ways. I want to offer a story to folks who are thinking about why they're living the life they're living and looking at maybe shaking things up a little bit and doing something different.
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Dee Williams will be at the Tattered Cover, 1628 16th Street, at 7:30 p.m. tonight. Find more information here.