Monday, August 16, 2010

loving living small(er)

Seattle is in the midst of our annual heat wave, with temperatures that are in the (gasp!) mid-nineties. Those who don't live here often laugh at us Pacific-Northwesterners and our bellyaching about the heat when we haven't even topped 100 degrees, but trust me it's a thing. No one has air conditioning in their homes, here, or few of us do. It's hardly worth it, for what amounts to less than two weeks out of the year. But it does mean that those two weeks have the potential to be fairly miserable. Our condo is partially below grade, basement level, a nice side-effect of which is that we stay cooler in the hot parts of summer and warmer in the cold parts of winter. But those who live above us in our 1928 brick walk-up aren't so lucky. "We've been spending a lot of time in the shower," a 3rd floor neighbor informed us yesterday, on his way back in from walking his dog.

I am actually quite fond of this weather. Sunday was a perfect example of why. J and I spent the morning at church while Andrew went to work at his new internship position. He arrived home just as we were waking up from afternoon nap, around 3:30. We were considering what to do when my phone beeped - a text message from one of our building friends. We are outside with ice cream, it read.

I immediately texted back, on our way!

We hauled baby J's high chair to the front patio where our friends J+K and their new two week old daughter sat, bowls on the picnic table and ice cream waiting. The six of us spent the rest of our day outside enjoying the shade of our building and the company of other neighbors who wandered in and out. I popped in to bake a pie at one point, K+J were in and out to change dipes, heat up food. Andrew started the grill around six and other neighbors showed up with food to put on it. Friends who don't live with us wandered by to hang out. Andrew took baby J in to bed around 6:45 and when she was down came back out, video monitor in tow. It was an idyllic evening, full of laughter and relaxed conversation. And this happens many, many summer nights round these parts.

We've had a few visitors come 'round this summer, cycling through for an afternoon, or an overnight or two. They sleep on the pull out couch and at some point usually get around to asking "so, how long do you think you'll be here?" or "is it starting to feel cramped, living in a one bedroom?" Most days my answers are a half-serious "forever" and a totally serious "not even a little."

I have a hard time imagining, though I am sure it happens, the sort of close and spontaneous community that we have found in our building happening somewhere where neighbors are separated by yards and fences. And I know for a fact that Andrew and I would be weighed down by more possessions that we don't need, if we only had the room for them. In fact, even in the small space we have we are constantly on the look out for what we can give/throw away or recycle. I think tossing stuff is almost as fun as making plans for increasing our efficiency in using our space. Andrew, who gets stuck implementing my schemes that make the final cut, might not agree. We didn't buy a small place because it was our ideal, exactly. We bought it because it was what we could afford, in the area we wanted to live in. And the priority was location, not square footage. It's a counter cultural choice, to a degree, but coming in after dark the other night with the echos of friends voices in our ears and the satisfaction of shared food and drink in our bellies we couldn't imagine living any other way.*

So I am starting to wonder, in what other ways would scaling back my expectations, making smaller choices, increase the satisfaction I experience in life? I'm talking about material expectations, mostly. What could we not purchase, in what ways could we live an even smaller material life? How can we increase quality - as I feel we have in our living situation - by decreasing quantity? On the one hand someday our condo will be crowded for three people. On the other hand, maybe close living is worth the other potential benefits- having the money to travel as a family, take more vacations, pay for J to go to college, the potential to completely pay off our mortgage before we're old.

I'm thinking about this a lot this week in terms of family size. We've always assumed that we would have two children, minimum. But what if we only had one? Recent studies are showing that only children score better on intelligence tests than kids from large families, and do just fine socially - contrary to popular opinion. They are also more likely to go to college, and obtain graduate degrees. How would the quality of our life as a family increase if the quantity of our children was limited to just baby J? What about the quality of her life? Would she miss having a sibling to grow up with?

This is the first time I have ever seriously considered having an only child. And I'm just playing with the idea with right now. These thoughts are symptomatic of becoming aware of how well most of the counter cultural choices we have made are working out for us, and the high level of satisfaction I feel with my family as it is right now, A+A+J. I believe that parenting is a vocation, and I know that as such there is a discernment process around choosing to bring any child, first, second or fifth, into our family that we haven't entered into in any meaningful way yet for anyone new. But it's nice to dream all sorts of dreams, and to feel that we're great as we are, where we are, right now.

*I just want to mention that I am aware that all of these choices - to live in a smaller space, to consider adopting or not adopting again, etc. are markers of privilege especially when viewed through a global lens. I don't mean to imply that we are in any way better or more noble or less wasteful than anyone else by choosing the way we do! There are those who do much better at small, simple living than we do. I just mean to imply that we're loving what we're doing. ♥


  1. Great post! And I wish we were you neighbors...

  2. We used to live in a kind of run down apartment in a great part of town, and we had awesome neighbours. Young-ish people who cared very deeply about where they lived - one would plant the front patch of garden, we had a BBQ out back for interested neighbours, we would go on the roof to watch the fireworks, hang out in the hallways to catch up on building gossip. One memorable Christmas season, we would go up and down stairs to attend parties. Eventually, people got pregnant, moved out, bought homes. I still miss the sense of community we had.

    Less stuff, more life.

  3. Sounds like a great place to be, for the foreseeable future! For my own selfish reasons I would love for you to have an only child, because that's our plan and I would love to benefit from your experience :)

  4. I love this post -- everything from how you describe a lovely summer evening enjoyed with friends to exploring how to live a more quality life with less quantity.

    I have a similar feeling of contentedness with our family right now -- since the adoption of our baby J -- though we always expected to have two children. I only wonder about what she might miss out on without a sibling, now and later.

    similarly we are also trying to decide our next move, and location has so much to do with our decision. I love our sense of community now. yet we want to find a place that our daughter will grow with too, as she gets older. I want her to feel comfortable at home, have space for her friends, etc. it seems so far away, but it's not.

    anyway, I love how you can express your deep satisfaction with your life at this very moment. it's a beautiful thing.

  5. Love the family feel throughout your building and neighborhood. I hope we live in a place like that some day.
    I am purging a lot lately. Before the move and even now. Want things to be simple and I don't want Isabel growing up with so much stuff that she thinks she needs stuff. Of course I'll have to break my shopping habit to achieve that.