The Mayday Experiment: Not Getting Any Younger

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Two years ago today I bought a trailer, on which I would build a tiny house. I had no idea that two years later, I would still be working on it. But then, the raft of tiny-house movies and reality TV shows hadn’t come along yet to warn me — and neither had reality itself.

I remember frantically searching for the trailer after my friend, Philip Spangler, arrived straight from Ohio. Because Phil would only be here for two months (which turned into three), we knew there was no time to waste — and yet there were no trailers in a town with a building boom and Burning Man around the corner, and we drove around for a week looking for the right thing, finally settling on a twenty-foot between-deck dovetail that we would modify rather than wait for a specially ordered trailer. This, of course, was mistake number one in what would become a long string of mistakes, and our eagerness to start didn’t save us any time or money, because the next two weeks were spent cutting angle iron, welding and grinding. We wound up exactly where we would have started had we ordered a trailer, saving only a couple of days.

What I didn’t know then. My “budget” had included an allotment for hardware that would have built about half of a shed. I had assumed – based on misleading blogs and pie-in-the-sky wishes — that it would take me three to six months to build the tiny house. I had no plan for fitting in the work around jobs and commissions and freelancing, and my assumptions about the quality of found materials was based more on building an installation than a dwelling.

That whole reality thing. It’s a bitch, isn’t it?

Still, last week I was excited to have time blocked out to finish the stairs in the tiny house. One more sheet of cabinet-grade plywood and my flip-up desk would be done, too. It was leveled and ready to go, and everything else was in place where I left off last time. I had just enough time in my schedule before heading off at the end of the week for the Tiny House Jamboree in Colorado Springs and the Arise Music Festival.

This is what was on my mind as I went to the gym for an Aqua Yoga class and a good workout, excited to have a whole day clear for work as soon as I got back home. It was not what was on my mind when I left, in a rickety homemade poolside wheelchair pushed by a couple of sweet teens who work at the rec center. It’s too embarrassing to recount in full, but suffice it to say: Bad shower design led to a back and leg injury that left me barely able to walk.

I had hope, though: a good massage, some muscle relaxers, and I’d be out there in a day or two, right?
But as with my hardware-expense estimations and grasp of time, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I couldn’t work on the tiny house – I couldn’t even get in the tiny house, with the step a foot above the ground.

For the first time, I started to think about what it would be like to age in the tiny house. I am, as they say, not getting any younger, though in my mind I think of myself as sort of ageless; all artists are sort of the same age, really, living in worlds of our own making.

But the stairs that I was so eager to finish: Would I be climbing them in fifteen years? Would arthritis, or injury, or simply age make climbing my tiny, three-foot-by-three-foot stairway a burden instead of a clever design solution? Would I still be able to hitch it, jack it up, level it and tow Tiny?

I never thought of the tiny house as my permanent home, of course; over the long-term, my hope is to buy land and live in it while I build something else. But more and more, I see it as a long-term solution. Buying a house in Denver looks like it will forever be out of reach at this point, and I crave a garden too much for an apartment to be a solution. Though I hold out hope about future affordable housing units coming for artists, I also know there are a lot of us, more than there will be spaces to live.

All week as I healed, living on muscle relaxers and lots of White Flower Liniment and being thoroughly unproductive, I learned to accept my limitations. Living alone, I found myself asking if it was more painful to walk to the door for a pizza or to just try to make one…walking to the tiny house or running the saw was just out of the question. I made plans for the website, worked on my books, and had a lot of Netflix with no chill.

But this has been the lesson of the tiny house all along: learning to accept my limitations. When an entire day can be spent building something that in the end is wrong and has to be redone, or one miscalculation can waste hours, you eventually learn that it is done when it is done. Deadlines are blown by paying gigs or other projects, and the learning curve is steep. Keeping momentum with the constant stop and start is difficult, but forward progress is always happening, however slowly.

I’ve stopped having anxiety when people ask me how it's going, though I always feel apologetic and lame when making an explanation. When I talk to friends who are going through similar struggles with their own tiny houses, I realize that where I am is normal for anyone trying to change their life. Changing your life is hard. I constantly feel guilty that I am not doing it better.

Recently, the great environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote a story in the New York Times about his creepy stalkers, who constantly watch him to catch him being a so-called “hypocrite” – using plastic bags, riding in cars, doing the things normal people do. This is an argument often used against environmentalists, and one I constantly struggle with as an artist: Why are we not perfect? How could you drink that bottle of water offered you? How dare you preach to others when you aren’t doing exactly that yourself, every day? The critics in my head, of course, rival McKibben’s crazy stalkers – I second-guess everything I throw in the trash and have trouble throwing away anything remotely useable. Every day, I feel myself failing.

But then, that’s the thing: Why haven’t we changed yet? With climate change knocking on the door, how dare those of us who sound alarms still drive cars? Why are you using something with plastic in it while railing against it?  You're typing this on a computer that uses electricity, right?!

In the end, change is hard. We have to do our best but accept our limitations. We still live in the world we live in. If it were easy, we would be living in a different world by now. There is no choice, however, but to keep trying, and to realize that the trying matters. We can always fail better tomorrow.

Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is writing about her  tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on westword.com.  If you'd like to support her journey, you can pledge here. See more of her work at lynnxe.com.

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