Learning to live big by going small.

By Beth Kephart Illustration Ryan Peltier

I have crowded myself out of my own house. I am overwhelmed by it all. Jewelry boxes and closet shelves, dusty bins and pantries, my childhood journals and towers of books.

My husband, Bill—not a reader—watches TV. Tiny House Nation. Tiny House Hunters. Tiny House, Big Living. From his spot on the family room floor, two folded round pillows at his head, his feet up on a stool, he narrates the best parts. In the tiny houses, couches triple as beds and tables. Shower stalls double as storage bins. Bike wheels hang from living room hooks, chandelier-style. Families new to 300-square-foot life must make choices about what they really need.

Bill watches. I sit. Bill calls the tiny plays. Announces the leave-behinds. Gauges the gains.

I give a single ear to Bill’s banter, think about the word “need” and its multipliers—how “need” is a word thickened with provocations. Look at the shelves, look at the closets, look at the stacks, look at the drawers. It’s abundantly clear: I have lost my vigilance. I have forgotten what I need.

We bought our Pennsylvania 1920s Tudor not just because it was the house we could afford; it was the house that fit our family of three. Two bedrooms upstairs. Four small rooms downstairs. Thin, quickly scratched wood floors and hissy white radiators that reminded me of my grandmother’s home in Southwest Philadelphia. Maroon roosters on the kitchen walls—they’d have to go. A toilet perilously close to crashing through a rotted bathroom floor. A Japanese maple out front offering an umbrella of shade. A broken doorbell.

The house of our dreams.

We have changed our home through the years; allowed it to change us. Filled it, more and more, with things, added one room when a rising tide of claustrophobia made it clear that two work-at-home, work-together adults might just need more space. Even now, with our son grown and gone.

Need? Want? Where is the line, and who draws it?

Now Bill and I play the tiny games. We have 300 square feet, we pretend. How would we use it? I change the rules. We have 400 square feet. Now what?

What would we give up to make ourselves more free?

We play the game until it isn’t a game. We tease ourselves until I’m sick of theory and with sudden, surging determination, begin what will become so many feverish days of cleaning. I clear the jewelry boxes of the hoops and crystals and feathers I no longer wear. I thin out closets, toss broken shoes, sweep the pantry free of all we’ll never eat, shred old tax returns, dump file drawers. I hurry my hundreds of books off their shelves, out of their towers, and deal them (so many decks of cards) into piles to be donated.

What is left is what I need. Quiet and peace. The way the sun enters old rooms newly. The way my childhood is here, within reach; the books that I love, within reach. And the person I’ve grown up to be—within reach—sitting with her husband on a couch in a small house that seems suddenly big.

A small house still and suddenly capable of tiny, perfect dreams.

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Beth Kephart is an award-winning author, a teacher of creative nonfiction and the cofounder of Juncture Workshops.