Saturday, August 10, 2013

Living large in 540 square feet: Clear the clutter. Find your life.

Six weeks ago, I downsized to a 540-square-foot artist's studio I've dubbed Wisteria Cottage. I never dreamed of living in such a tiny space that has no kitchen. Or bathroom. Yet here I am, living proof that smaller is better.

If I've learned anything in the past few years, it's this: Life is a big adventure and we really don't know what's going to happen next. So it's best to hang on and enjoy every minute of the ride.

Along the way, it's helpful to be able to fly by the seat of your pants. Go with flow. For me, that has translated to clearing the clutter and finding a new life.

Less than two years ago, I owned a four-bedroom, 2,400-square-foot house. Through a series of events both unfortunate and in hindsight, fortuitous, I had to sell that house and immediately empty its contents.

Six weeks ago, I moved for the third time in 18 months. My landlord was raising my rent. Most of my reduced salary was supporting a substandard apartment. This time, I downsized from an 1,100 square-foot apartment to a 540-square-foot artist's studio I've dubbed Wisteria Cottage.

Although I don't recommend this crash course in forced simplicity, in the long run, it's been very good for me. In the short run, it's been a wild, exhausting ride.

How do you edit a lifetime of belongings down to the essential? More importantly, how do you determine what's essential for you in this point of time? Might that list of essentials change over time, as one's life changes, ebbs and flows with the tide of family and responsibility?

In my big move 18 months ago, I had to give away a large portion of furniture I'd collected over the years. Now in the last move, I had to edit further.

Wisteria Cottage does not have a kitchen so I don't need a dining table. For now, my years of hosting large family gatherings seem to be behind me. I got rid of my garage sale dining table but kept a Craigslist find from two moves ago: a kitchen cart with storage, a food prep surface and two pop-up surfaces that make into a table. It fits the footprint and it works for my current lifestyle.

Most importantly, it's adaptable. Much like me.

Wisteria Cottage also does not have a bathroom. No running water. No sink. No shower. No toilet. The cottage is next door to the house where my daughter lives, so I share their facilities. I use their kitchen. I do my laundry in their house. And yes, in the wee hours, when I need to uh--wee--I use their bathroom.

Some people don't understand why I'd downsize this drastically. One friend compared my new lifestyle to that of the Unabomber! When a woman at work found out about my circumstances, she blurted out: "Are you okay with living in a shed?" Then she gave me the phone number for public housing. (I don't quite qualify, and I love Wisteria Cottage, thank you very much!)

I do not regret this decision to further reduce my footprint. I welcomed it as something I am supposed to learn how to do--and with joy and a sense of adventure.

Here's why I've become the queen of downsizing and change: First, I'm getting to spend more time with my daughter. That's a big bonus.

Second, I'm saving hundreds and hundreds of dollars a month. I've already been able to pay for needed car repairs I couldn't afford when I was in the apartment.

The breathing room with my finances also is allowing me to do more than just survive. I bought Keen hiking boots--on sale-- for an upcoming backpacking trip. My last backpacking trip was before I had children--more than two decades ago. I bought a sleeping pad for camping and already have camped more this summer than the past five summers combined. I bought an African djembe drum and have played drums around campfires under the stars. In short, I've rediscovered me and am living life to the fullest.

Downsizing from 2,400 to 1,100 to 540 square feet has changed me and my perspective on what I value. I'm learning what's really essential for my existence as well as my happiness. Although I didn't have to rent a storage unit, I still have too many boxes stacked up, awaiting further editing.

As I've downsized, here are the conversations I've had with myself: How many towels and washcloths do I need? How many books should I keep? How many pairs of shoes do I need? Throughout the move, the words I repeated most were: "I still own too much stuff. Why do I have all this stuff?"

Last weekend, I helped my 79-year-old mom move. She's also paring down her belongings and determining what she needs in her new stage of her life. We're helping each other determine what's essential.

Mostly, I've either given away belongings or packed them away until I need them again in my next stage.

Sometime down the road, I'm going to have the luxury of a bathroom and a small kitchen again. For now, I'm living large in the 540 square feet of Wisteria Cottage.

If you're like me, you own too much stuff. I challenge you to begin your own step toward simplicity by reading this book about "throwing out 50 things." Click here to learn more.

Are you ready to declutter your personal space as you determine what's essential in your own life? Who knows what adventures that might set into motion?

To read about an Oregon family of four living large in a 540-square-foot cottage on Sauvie Island, click here: