84 square feet, 305 possessions.
The New York Times uses that tally in a Home & Garden story to sum up the day-to-day existence of Dee Williams of Olympia, Wash.
Williams, 51, runs Portland Alternative Dwellings, which builds small houses for people seeking to simplify their lives. That issue is literally close to her heart. Williams began downsizing after suffering a heart attack a decade ago. She sold her three-bedroom dwelling and lives in a "micro-house" the size of a large garden shed, which she built on a trailer and parked in the backyard of a traditional home owned by two close friends.
"I started seeing 'congestive heart failure' in my health records," Williams recalls. "If you look it up online, your life expectancy is typically one to five years. The notion of paying a 30-year mortgage didn’t make sense." Choosing a simpler life "gave me a chance to live close to my friends and be happy with the time that I have." She recently published a memoir, The Big Tiny, about her experiences.
Her 305 possessions include a mattress, quilt, propane burner and laptop. She's got clothes and some simple furniture, and a jewelry collection—four pieces in all (no rings). In my cluttered apartment, I might have that many possessions just in my immediate line of sight.
Williams' story isn't so much about about eschewing capitalist culture as it is about finding a community and lifestyle that fit her needs … and about discovering the things in life that really matter.
In some ways, as her home shrank, her world expanded. She came to rely on her neighbors—using their homes to take showers and bake pies, since her tiny house has no running water or oven. The backyard became a community unto itself, a vibrant social hub with different generations interacting in ways they'd never have done if she hadn't moved in. (Hmm … I've never even met the people who live next door.)
Williams gave up a lot, but gained so much more. "I started to feel that I belonged," she says. "It gave me a chance to live close to my friends and be happy with the time that I have."
Maybe those numbers, 84 and 305, are beside the point. Shouldn't life be measured in terms of fullness and satisfaction? After all, every life, no matter how fully lived or zealously guarded, is just a rental. Carpe diem.