We knew that our young daughter had internalized our commitment to place over space. At school she was asked to define “neighborhood” and she wrote confidently from her own experience: “A neighborhood is a place where people live, work, and play.” Not bad for a six-year-old.
At its core, the simple life for us was wrapped up in our appreciation for walkability. That summarizes our family’s definition of a good place, and that’s what we tell our realtor every time. We want to be able to walk to the coffee shop, grocery and pub. We’ve resided in apartments and townhouses. Once we even tried a single-family home. Today, as a family of four, we live in a downtown high-rise with two teenagers. We haven’t owned a lawn mower since 2001.
The urban life necessitated a smaller home out of which blossomed the simple life.
Place over space wasn’t a philosophy of living my husband and I carefully studied and neatly selected. It found us along the way, growing stronger with every move and a growing family, from Atlanta to Germany to Washington DC, to London, Indianapolis and Austin among other places. But we were hooked on the more simple, less stressful life we gained as a family by making where we lived more important than raw square-footage.
We discovered early on that where we live impacts how we live. Exchanging space for the abundance that comes with places long on convenience and community promotes freedom by discouraging consumerism. Minimalism was assumed and required.
With less square footage, there was room for less stuff. It acted as a natural barrier against the swell of today’s consumerism. Buying stuff for our kids capriciously, out of guilt, or out of pressure from advertisers was at odds with a tiny house. There literally wasn’t space to put the overflow.
It then became rational to rid the house of things that had outlived their purpose. Each month I’d mercilessly move from room to room with a large garbage bag. What was no longer useful deserved falling into hands where it would be. We’re recycling, I’d explain to the kids. When a new pair of shorts came into the house, one pair left. Our kids knew the routine. It’s our getting and giving game, they called it.
I allowed their closet of toys, just as I did my own closet space, to tell me how much was enough. When things bulged and didn’t fit, my thought wasn’t to shuffle things down to the basement or to the attic. I had neither. Or to visit the Container Store to buy a new organizing system which would magically calm the chaos. Or hire a personal organizer to help me make neat categories and piles of my cacophony of stuff. As a mom, my simple small home was a revolution I could legitimately orchestrate and a principle I desired my kids to internalize at a young age.
This contrarian idea of living with place over space promotes adventures out of the home. Kids need help getting outside of themselves: fresh air, imaginative, unregimented play and interaction with the unfamiliar or the unplanned. Mine were no different and during the season, I avoided play-dates, opting instead for after-school playtime on the school playground. For other families living in small spaces, the school playground functioned as our communal “yard.”
Pushing my stroller of kids leisurely around town to public playgrounds—since we had no yard—afforded the organic classroom: passing townhouse after townhouse in rapid succession with house addresses helped teach my toddlers their numbers. Science arrived with the enchanting discovery of spider-webs on one of the many unforgettable walks.
Our babysitter who lived in a well-heeled bucolic neighborhood in northern Virginia jealously regarded our doll’s house (as one friend put it to me) in the middle of town. If I lived here, I’d be able to walk to Starbucks or Trader Joe’s with my friends, said the teen not old enough to drive. From her front door, she couldn’t walk anywhere. Independence—seeking teens are happy with the minimalist urban life because it allows them the privilege of getting around by foot or public transportation.
Because we’ve chosen to live the way of the small and simple, our kids have experienced various statehouses and city halls in walking distance. It was easier to explain certain functions of government when waving to the local firefighters at the historic firehouse embedded in the neighborhood or recognizing cheerful police officers directing traffic. Today, our non-driving teens have Austin at their feet. They can walk and bike everywhere and enjoy a taste of independence they need.
My homemade baked Italian Bread was always a staple in our home. It depends on just five basic ingredients: flour, water, salt, sugar and yeast. Each ingredient serves a purpose; each part contributes to the whole. No more, no less, is needed nor appropriate.
Likewise, there is no excess in this closet. Can we imagine for a minute what our homes would be like if they resembled the straightforward simplicity and grace of a loaf of Italian Bread? Simply delicious, really.