Since leaving our home in the country to live and travel on our 47 foot sailboat, I realized I had left behind something in that 1200 square foot house that I didn’t know had a purpose in my life: empty space.
It was obvious we were giving up empty space when we moved out of our house and onto our boat. We were trading our open floor plan home for a boat just big enough for five people to eat, sleep, cook, play, and travel in. We were forced to drastically simplify, and as overwhelming as it often was, we loved it. Every item given, sold or tossed was like a window opening allowing fresh air to flood our life. After months of sorting through every item in our home, every paper, every cluttered drawer and corner, we finally drove off that early morning in November to begin life on our boat with all of our belongings in the back of our Chevy Suburban. It was liberating. We turned our attention from building a house to building faith and from gathering things to gathering memories. We drove off with hope, energy, a countryside before us and a sea calling us.
In our house on land, I thought the empty spaces that filled the hallways, the doorways, and the corners of the rooms were just holes that attracted the gathering of miscellaneous clutter. These holes I thought were useless, I filled with things that weren’t part of my daily life but somehow still could not give up. I could easily hide a stack of papers in the corner to be sorted later, a box of knick-knacks to put somewhere, someday. I could place them aside and not have to face them right away. I could let them sit in a dark corner, and I could live my life right beside them, while the empty space between me and it gave me room to process their importance, their place in my life. I thought the empty spaces were hindering my ability to live a peaceful life, and downsizing my belongings would reveal the life I desired. I didn’t realize that the material things that filled the spaces of my home were simply a tangible picture of my inner life. I didn’t realize that clearing the clutter was only the beginning of the real work that would begin in the soul.
Our days were busier than ever as we settled into the cabins of our boat. Eventually, the dust settled and we began to feel at home within those wooden walls. The slap of the line on the halyard during a storm, the creak of the line from the mooring ball rubbing against the hull, the rocking on a windy day. The sounds, the smells, the feel quickly became familiar, but the feel of the tiny space was harder to grow into, like a shoe that didn’t quite fit. It seemed we were always stubbing our toes on the ladder to the cockpit, bumping into each other in the hall and tripping over the winches on the deck. Even more painful was bumping into each other’s hurt feelings when emotions were running high.
Eight months have passed living life as a wife and mom inside a tiny space and traveling to unfamiliar places. In the last eight months I have tasted days on the salty sea where the sun was shining and the sapphire depths overwhelmed me with its beauty. I have tasted bitter tears on hard days when exhaustion reigned supreme and my strength to find good in the journey faltered. I have been near quiet shores where my spirit was renewed and I have been in the midst of storms that made me tremble. I have lived shoulder to shoulder with my husband, sharing every mundane moment and every high with him. We have brought our children in close and revealed a little bit more of the world to them. Through everything, I learned something. I learned what the empty space was for.
I learned the empty space around us cushions us from the emotional bumps and bruises we face in life. Big emotions take up space just like a couch or bed. They can be felt and touched. The empty space between bedrooms, in hallways, in closets and corners of the living room give us room, air to process the big emotions that tumble and flow throughout our days. Emotions like disappointment, grief, doubt, fear. The space around us provides places of retreat when emotions are hot, for the members of a family to be alone when the work of the soul requires solitude.
Living in a smaller family home is much more than living in fewer square feet. It is even more than relinquishing the material things in our life that hold no purpose or value. That is a crucial step, but not the most important. Living in a tiny home is challenging and rewarding not only because of the smaller space, but because at its core, it is an invitation to embark on the work of decluttering the soul, of laying bare the inner self. Living in a tiny home is an invitation to walk deeper into the emotional lives of our family.
That can be hard. It has been one of the most significant challenges for me on our journey. In the hallways and corners of my soul I stacked emotions, wounds and memories that took time and solitude for me to process. In the hallways of my heart I stored practices that I kept just for myself like journaling and listening to music alone. Living in a tiny space, the empty spaces I didn’t know I craved were gone. It often felt like my emotional skin was being rubbed raw against the people I loved the most, and unfortunately I too often took it out on them. As a hardcore introvert I needed solitude, but in a small space there were few places where I could be alone, where no little eyes could see me, ask me for a snack or to play. There wasn’t a consistent place where I could process, in solitude, the many emotions I encountered traveling, to let myself feel them, breathe them out, let the tears roll, or bask in a happy memory. Instead they piled up like derailed train cars creating emotional messes that eventually caused family tension. It often felt like I was putting out my emotional fires instead of having the space to naturally let them flow through me.
Now we’re transitioning to life on land and trading a transient lifestyle for one with roots. We’ve come back for many reasons, but not because living in a small family home was impossible. It was challenging, rewarding, liberating and sometimes exhausting. But I learned that living in a small space requires the work of daily inventory of the self. It requires that you ask for what you need and for what you want. It begs that the work of the soul, the spiritual life, be taken seriously. I learned that we actually do need space, but that that space doesn’t have to come in the form of a large spacious home. The space we need can be in the form of a plot of untouched land, or hiking trails, a place to walk and breathe and ponder. The space can be in the form of a barn, a lake, or even a closet. It can be unglamorous and empty, as long as it is a place where we are allowed to feel freely.
I wouldn’t trade anything for the eight months I spent living and traveling on a sailboat with my family. Living in a small space was worth every challenge, and even though we will soon be living in a not-so-small home, the education I received in those 47 feet will stay with me for a lifetime.
This post was written for inclusion in the June collection of the Small Family Homes Blog Community. Read below for more writings on the truth about living small from our community of writers. Check back next month for a new topic and posts in the series and follow our community board on Pinterest for the latest small homes and family minimalism pins!
Minimalist Meg– “The Truth About Living SMALL” : What does living in a small space look like for a family of 4? Probably not a whole lot different from you.
Little Bungalow– “Less Space, More Happiness” : In a small home, less space doesn’t equal more happiness. Except, of course, when it does.
600 Square Feet and a Baby– “The Truth About Living in a Small Family Home” : Living small as a family of four is sometimes uncomfortable, a bit awkward and never boring. Sharing the awkward and imperfect of living small with 4 humans that you always wanted to know (or maybe you didn’t.)
Shelley Vanderbyl– “Five Things You Don’t Need in a Small Home” : Gatekeeping is about recognizing what things you don’t need or want, and trying to keep those objects from coming into your home.
The Streamlined Life– “The Truth About Living Small: Less Possessions, Greater Value“: Just because you’re a minimalist family doesn’t mean you aren’t sentimental.
The Justice Pirate– “What Small Home Living is Like” : No matter if I lived in a cardboard box or a small home, I just like being with my family, who are my home.
Our Nest in the City– “The Truth About Living in a Small Family Home” : My post gives three challenges to living in a small home with our family of five, and counters them with three ways we “cope” and thrive despite it all 🙂
Fourth and West– “You Can’t Have it All” : Small space living requires compromise and sacrifice.
RISING*SHINING– “The Truth About Living in a Small(ish) Family Home” : A smaller home is why we’re able to live such a full life.
Family At Sea– “The Meaning of Space: Thoughts from a Former Tiny Home Mom” : After moving onto a boat, I thought the hard work of decluttering and downsizing was done, but I didn’t realize that living in a tiny space was the beginning of the real work of the soul.
Real Food Simple Life– “The Realities of Living in a Small Home with a Big Family” : A look into the benefits and challenges that a family of 6 (going on 7) experiences living together in an 800 square foot home in Scotland.
Tiny Ass Camper– “I Didn’t Know Tiny Living Was For Me” : My thoughts on the give and take of living tiny.
Family Pedals– “Location Trumps Size” : The truth is, it has been our home’s location–not size–that has determined our happiness in a given space.
Birch and Pine– “It’s Not Always Easy” : Living tiny often means defending your own life and choices: daily.