Transitions and a New Year

ariel and mommy at the tiny cabin

2018 was a year of transitions. We spent January packing and repacking suitcases for Italy, trying to balance what our rapidly-growing baby would need over the course of three months and changing seasons. One year ago today we boarded a plane to Italy. We lived on a hillside just outside of Florence in a 15th century villa with 33 students, teaching courses and taking side trips to Rome, Paestum, Capri, and L’Averna. At the end of the trip, just as spring was finally taking hold, we traveled south to visit my host family for the first time in 11 years. It was a joyous reunion with them and other friends and professors, as well as a bittersweet departure.

Sometime in March, I was offered a full-time professorship that I’d interviewed for before going abroad. I began phasing out my editing business and thinking about book orders. Chuck, too, was thinking of the upcoming academic year—he’d accepted a position in the Department of Communication to start a film major, teaching a new set of classes in film production, editing, etc.

Returning to Conway, then, was both a homecoming and a farewell. We’d been weeding out our possessions since before I was pregnant, but there’s nothing like a move to force you to make hard decisions. We gave away furniture to family and had a big garage sale. We left our home semi-furnished for our renters, and there’s still a big, bad back closet of stuff we need to go through. It’s like the pink spot in The Cat in the Hat—it keeps getting pushed around from one part of the house to another. One day, maybe, it’ll vanish.

In July we moved an hour up the road to a two-bedroom apartment on Harding’s campus. The cabin is now only four miles away and living there is still our ultimate goal. But without daycare for Ariel, it has been convenient to be on campus to trade off watching her with my husband. A couple days a week when I finish my last class, Chuck hands her off to me to go teach his afternoon and evening classes. Ariel—always ready for an adventure—loves outings in the stroller. She lights up when she sees the students from our Italy trip, some of whom even babysit for us.

Ariel turned one at the end of September and we used the opportunity for an Italy reunion. A week later Ariel was walking, and she hasn’t slowed down since. That has dramatically reduced the amount of work I can do from home—now, at 16 months, she is into everything. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. She’s doing everything she can to figure out this world and how it all works.

ariel in the reading chair

If 2018 was a year of transition, then perhaps 2019 will be a year of arrival, of becoming. Many times in 2018 I did not know where I would find the strength for the task ahead. The checklist of things that had to happen seemed impossible in the time allotted. And yet here we are. More than once I cried out of sheer exhaustion, so one of my resolutions this year is to build in more time for R&R. But more than that, I want to live in a mindset of slowing down rather than speeding up. I’ve never trusted that I could accomplish what I need to get done by slowing down; now I think that may be the one thing I’m meant to learn. Like faith, I may not be able to see it until I’ve lived its truth, and even then I may not believe it’s possible.

Chuck has been out to the cabin a few times. The rain barrels are full of water; the bathroom has a stack of tile waiting. We’d like to be done ASAP, but we’re also happy with our current living set-up. We want to add onto the cabin so Ariel can have space to move around as well as a private room of her own. But for now we want to finish the “tiny” cabin and camp out there on weekends as we perfect the amount of water and solar power we need.

Next week Chuck is taking a group of students to Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, and we have a couple other trips in the works later in the year. Mainly we are looking forward to settling into our teaching positions, watching Ariel grow, seeing good movies, reading great books, and spending time with the wonderful people in our life.

From Big to Tiny

A lot of people have asked if the cabin is going to be a vacation home or a permanent residence. The long-term answer is: permanent residence.

But right now, Chuck’s youngest child still has two years of high school in the town where our current home is. He stays with us every other week.

The “plan” is to live in the tiny cabin every other week until Geoffrey graduates so that Chuck doesn’t have to commute two hours a day. Meanwhile, we continue getting rid of “stuff” and simplifying as much as we can.

We have nearly two years to transition from big to tiny. Our current home has been in the family since 1952. It will probably stay in the family, possibly remaining furnished, or with any heirloom furniture given to family members. The house itself is nearly 100 years old, and it needs continual TLC. Living there for the past 11 years has been a labor of love. It’s more space than we need (especially now that the kids are nearly grown) and a little more than we would like to maintain.

What about all our “stuff”? People ask me this all the time. We have over 2,000 books, and it’s been awhile since I counted. Our house is like a Poké stop for books—they find us and congregate, waiting to be collected.

We talked about going completely digital, but I can’t break the habit of holding a book and smelling its pages (not to mention my slight distrust of technology).

We’re thinking, for the long term, about a media cabin. No kitchen, shower, or loft; just a half bath, reading chairs, and wall-to-wall books. Maybe a couch with a hide-a-bed for when guests visit. We can display my grandmother’s artwork and set up our record player. With the weight of the vinyls and the books, we’ll need a strong structure, but we’ll keep it simple—simpler than our current cabin, e.g., no 12/12 pitch roof.

After all, we’ve purchased plenty of battery-powered tools and have learned a lot. But that’s on down the road.

For now, I’d like to make living in a 10 x 16 cabin work. We once rented a 400 sq. ft. studio apartment, and we had neighbors on all sides (and a bus stop out front). The small space didn’t bother us at all. Once we add the screened-in porch on the back, we’ll have even more room. But right now our focus is on getting the cabin done.

The weather briefly cooled to the 80s, but it was rainy. Yesterday the heat index hit 109. Also, school started and brought with it a 50-hour work week plus commute for Chuck. I’m teaching a class as well, in addition to managing my editing business.

Next time we go out there will be mainly mowing and maintaining the grounds. But soon, those Bradford pears that have been thorns in our side (literally) will erupt in vibrant colors, a nice backdrop for finishing the exterior and moving inside.

Tiny Cabin Update: Emergency Room

The day began simply enough: cool air, soft light. We were tired from the previous day’s work but motivated and optimistic.

Our neighbors, ever generous, let us use their electricity so we could plug in the air compressor for our nail gun. It’s so heavy-duty that I can’t wield it with any accuracy. Then again, I’m not all that strong.

Chuck hoisted the panels from the ground, and I stood in the loft to guide them into their proper place. A 2″ x 4″ acted as a lip the panel could rest against until we nailed it up. The first three panels Chuck nailed while standing in the loft.

We took a break and debated whether we should do the 4th panel with a ladder or take apart the scaffolding inside the cabin and reassemble it outside.

We had been up and down ladders all week, and we always did so with a great deal of care. Nevertheless, I now understand the expression you can never be too careful.

The board went up easily, and I stepped inside the cabin to make sure that Chuck’s nails were going into the rafters and not simply through the panel. All went in perfectly. He was coming down the ladder, and I heard him say, “I’m going to fall.”

Just writing those words makes me break out into a sweat all over again. I saw him mid-fall, and then he hit the gravel and rolled. My memory here is spotty. He sprang up, which surprised me, but then he looked as if he would pass out. He sat down on the floor of the cabin, and I had him lean back. A stream of blood dripped from his head. I yelled for help as I dialed 911 with one hand and held his head with the other.

Our neighbors, who were thankfully outside at the time, came running. Amy brought a towel and John gave me their address–I had forgotten ours since we technically don’t have one yet–and their boys stood by the road to flag down the ambulance, which would not have easily found us otherwise. (I shudder to think that I might have had to leave Chuck alone to run the 100 yards to the road.)

Meanwhile, we began asking Chuck questions to keep him awake. He knew who I was, but he didn’t know the year. He knew who was president, but he had no idea who was currently running for office (which, I’ve been told, is not the worst thing to forget). He didn’t know how he fell, and he kept asking where he was, how he got there, and why his head hurt. The blood gushed from near his eye; the cut was long and deep. I had no idea if any bones were broken or how hard he had hit his head.

Amy did her best to comfort me as she and a friend drove me to the hospital. When I next saw Chuck, he was slightly more aware, neck in a brace, rivulets of dried blood across his face. As they were wheeling him off for a long CT-scan. I heard him ask the attendant, “Is my wife okay?” It made me laugh through the tears, and I’d like to think that was the point when I knew he couldn’t be too terribly hurt.

Still, I sat in the empty ER room alone, the florescent bulbs casting everything in a sterile, cold light, all of the room’s carefully-chosen trappings without purpose, and I realized that without Chuck, my life would very much feel that way.

I didn’t have to dwell on these thoughts long, thankfully, as his boss (and friend), Terry, showed up only moments later. Soon after, a close colleague arrived, and then family–including his best friend Danny, who drove us home.

To briefly summarize three long hours, we found out that Chuck has an orbital fracture but not a concussion. The doctor did an excellent job sewing up the gash–thirteen stitches in a crescent shape around his right eye. He was told to rest for two weeks.

He’s black and blue, with a hematoma in his right arm, but after nine visits to various doctors and the chiropractor, he is walking fine and feeling much better.

We would, of course, like the cabin to be finished, especially before the summer heat sets in. But first there are more important things to rebuild. And plenty to be thankful for.



Tiny Cabin: Bees, Rafters, Monkey Bars

After much debate, we decided to redo the rafters on the tiny cabin. The first time around, something was amiss. The directions said 92″ boards, but the notch didn’t line up where it was supposed to. We lowered the crossbeam in hopes of cinching everything together, but it didn’t quite work.

What we have since realized: we needed 96″ boards. (Another page of the manual had 96″ boards listed, so we think the 92″ was a typo.)

Wednesday we got an early start and managed to have all of the rafters down by afternoon. This time we had scaffolding, which made the process much easier–and far less scary. Though it was bigger and higher than the elementary school jungle gyms I grew up on, scaling it made me feel like a kid again. The hundreds of hours I spent doing daredevil tricks on the monkey bars reminded me of a time when I thought I was nearly invincible. It was just the confidence boost I needed, though my stomach wasn’t convinced enough to untie the knots.

We decided to leave the crossbeam up knowing that rain was on the way.

Rafters partly down

The first item on today’s agenda was to take down the previous crossbeam, which was hanging by a couple rafters. We sat the crossbeam on the scaffolding, and as I was banging out the nails on the final rafter, a high-pitched buzzing sounded close to my ear. I turned my head just in time to notice a perfect hole bored in the wood and a large bumblebee shooting out of it.

My jungle gym skills were put to the test as I raced down the scaffolding and ran. I had no idea how many bees were coming for me. They weren’t vengeful, though. It turned out that there were just two, and they spent the rest of the day buzzing around the cabin looking for the entrance to their former home. We propped the plank against a tree hoping they would find it, but the bees knew where their home should have been and wouldn’t look elsewhere.

Rafters Down

The hardest part was securing the crossbeam. It was a test of balance and strength (amid searching bees) as we nailed in the first couple rafters and then hoisted the crossbeam into place. The day was heating up, so we took periodic breaks in the dwindling shade.

Chuck cut the rafters while I measured and marked where they would need to go. I nailed in the ones above the loft, but I wasn’t tall enough to get a good angle on the ones above the scaffolding, so Chuck did those. I was glad–blisters had already begun popping up on my hands. We managed to put up all but one rafter–and only because the saw batteries were dead and we couldn’t finish cutting the board. At least we’ll know exactly where to begin tomorrow.

The crossbeam sits much higher now, which will give us more room in the loft. Best of all, everything lines up.

New Rafters

Our next step: the roof!

Tiny Cabin Update

A lot of people have reached out and asked, “How’s the cabin going?” so it’s definitely time for an update. The short version: the rafters and cabin are still where we left them, kissed by alternating rain and shine.

The next step: roofing. As much as I’m ready for the cabin to be “in the dry,” especially with all the rain we’ve had this year, I’m not looking forward to roofing.

For starters, there is a chance, based on the way the rafters are sitting in the hangers, that the OSB boards won’t line up perfectly at the top. We certainly don’t want our cabin to leak! In the words of a friend, we’re going to have to go forward before we know whether or not we’ll need to go backward.

We rushed with the rafters because we knew six days of storms were coming. Now, in order to take our time, we may need to wait until the semester is over in five weeks. We’ll lose many gorgeous 70-degree days, but right now we don’t have as much time or energy as we feel we need to keep moving forward.

April is perhaps too soon for a 2016 retrospective, but a year’s worth of ups and downs have squeezed themselves into three months. An immediate family member was diagnosed with cancer, we’ve lost a friend and two relatives, and we’re facing a challenging situation with a family member who is struggling with mental illness.

Yet 2016 has been surprisingly bright and beautiful as well–a trip to Washington state for a conference and to visit friends, a yoga retreat with Kevin Gardiner, an exhilarating Springsteen concert, and wonderful moments with loved ones.

The journey to building our own cabin began nearly a year ago, and we are more resolved to finish it than ever. We’ve learned about construction, patience, and as The Boss would put it, “the ties that bind.”


Tiny Cabin: Building the Bathroom Walls

I surprised myself by nailing together the bathroom walls in less than thirty minutes. However, we immediately realized that the 8′ studs were so tall that our loft would be cramped. (Though we are following a set of plans, we have made modifications, which indirectly affect other things…)

Bathroom wall

The walls came apart quickly. Chuck trimmed them down once we had settled on the best height. I put them back together, undaunted–time was on our side. Or maybe the act of banging nails was so deeply satisfying that I didn’t care.

In fact, later, as Chuck went to buy the 2′ x 6′ boards for the loft, I nailed down an additional sub-floor. The OSB we originally used had too much give, so we decided to add a layer.

We raised the bathroom walls and connected them with a small metal plate. One of the bathroom walls will brace the 2′ x 6′ loft boards in the middle. No bigger than the loft is, the boards (which will be nailed into the studs of the front and back of the cabin) would have held us without the additional support. Still, it certainly can’t hurt, and we like the aesthetics of it.

Bathroom wall upBoth bathroom walls up

Building the bathroom frame has inspired us to do more research into how we will get water to the bathroom. We have vague ideas of how to catch, filter, and heat it, but soon we will need to fine-tune our logistical plan. Luckily for us, so many others have solved these problems and generously shared their experiences. We know that it isn’t a question of if, but how.

A <2 minute video on off-grid plumbing

An article on tiny-cabin plumbing

Rain was in the forecast, so we spent nearly an hour getting the tarp over the walls. With tired arm muscles, such a task is all the more challenging.

Tarp covering the tiny cabin

Tiny Cabin: Clearing a Path to the Pond

Among all of the ephemeral childhood memories I have, a few remain vivid.

The first time I went fishing, for instance: four years old, sitting on the high bank of my grandma’s pond, the red and white bobber on my fishing line disappearing beneath the water, me jerking the pole up with all my strength to hook the catfish.

It got away with the worm, of course, but the thrill of the unseen manifesting itself, however briefly, was enough to cement this memory more than any big fish story I’ve had since.

Our land has a sizable pond, but we haven’t been able to reach it due to the overgrowth. I saw it last winter before we signed the paperwork, but I haven’t been able to get close to it since.

As much as we want to work on the cabin, now is the best time to clear paths, as we don’t have to worry as much about poison ivy, ticks, and snakes. Leafless Bradford pears are also easier to trim back and cut down. I can contend with three-inch thorns as long as I can see them.

We came home bruised and scratched, though triumphant: we cleared a path to the pond!

Bradford Pear Thorns

Three-inch thorns on Bradford pear branches

Brush Pile

Ever-expanding brush pile

Cabin Site 2-16

Tiny cabin site

Pond picture

A view of the pond

A Few of My Favorite Things…for the Tiny Cabin

I’m the kid that collected scores of stuffed animals and named each one. I had a rock collection, a stamp collection, and to this day I have my threadbare Blanky. I still regret my decision in 3rd grade to sell my Care Bear collection in a garage sale. As I grew up, I continued to surround myself with things that were special to me, whether a postcard, a painting, or a pressed flower.

My astrological sign is Cancer—the crab with pinchers. I like my shell and, by extension, my home—it’s a reflection of who I am and the things I value. I need that space to be a place of rejuvenation or else the pinchers come out.

My senior year of high school, our house caught on fire. I didn’t lose my possessions, but the experience made me ask what was really important. Had we lost everything, what would I have wanted to save? Aside from the obvious answer, my family, there weren’t very many things that made that list—a Swedish plate my grandmother gave me for a watercolor palette, my grandma’s handwritten book of poems, my mother’s quilt.

I’ve spent a lot of energy over the years sifting through my possessions and paring them down. It’s hard to choose what isn’t making the cut; it’s much easier to decide what is.

In a tiny cabin, there will only be room for the essentials and a few of my favorite things. Here’s what is on that list:

My grandmother’s oil painting on barn wood of two bluebirds.

Oil Painting of Bluebirds - Jackie Guerin

A wooden cup from my dad.

Wooden Cup with Colored Pencils

The antique jewelry box from my mother.

Antique Jewelry Box

My grandma’s glass blown “Bluebird of Happiness” by Arkansas artist Leo Ward.

Bluebird of Happiness - Leo Ward

Against these things, the rest fades quietly in the background.

Front Wall Down

While the front wall held up in spite of storms and six inches of rain at the end of November, this time we weren’t quite so lucky. We had hoped to have the side walls framed out and the walls up by December, but the work was going slowly. I often wished I had paid more attention in high school geometry, though thankfully I hadn’t forgotten everything. I think it’s all still in my brain somewhere, beneath fifteen years of other information.

Chuck, meanwhile, figured out how to use the saw to cut boards at a 45 degree angle. But in spite of our successes, the measurements were off for our side walls. We noticed this when the studs were slanting toward each other at the top. We then realized that the base was 2″ wider than the top (116″ vs. 114″), which meant that the boards for the roof pitch were too short. We used the mallet to try to beat one of the side walls into shape, only to have the wall fall apart.

In these situations, it’s better to start over anyway. We figured out where we had gone wrong, and now we just needed to know how much longer the top boards should be. We needed Pythagoras.

Luckily, the sands of time had left the Pythagorean Theorem unburied in my mind: a^2 + b^2 = c^2 .\,  Since we had the distance for “c” (our hypotenuse) and knew that “a” and “b” had to be equal, we were able to calculate the length needed rather than “guesstimating.” 116″ x 116″ (“c” squared) = 13,456 divided by 2 = 6,728, the square root of which is 82″. For some reason, we came up with 82.5″ that day, and it worked.

The walls are nearly finished. We still have to frame out a couple of windows, but then we will be ready to raise the walls. As a precaution now that winter has begun here in Arkansas, we left the front wall down and stacked the other walls on top of it. To ensure that rain would not fill the ruts between studs, we placed OSB board on top and then the tarp.

What we need next are several nice days during which we can finish framing the windows, raise the walls, and start nailing the rafters up to support the walls. Chuck’s Spring Break is seven weeks away, but there’s no guarantee that the first week of March will be lovely, or even remotely conducive to working outdoors. Last year we had a late snow that week.

Until then, we can cut grooves in the rafters, continue planning, and rest up for our next chance!

The Grasshopper and the Ants

As a child, I watched Disney’s Silly Symphony (1934) based on Aesop’s fable and learned that the ants had it right: be prepared so that you don’t find yourself hungry and cold when winter comes. In other words, be industrious in anticipation of impending doom. The grasshopper was lazy, I was told, and only cared about himself. The ants mercifully took him in, but the Queen declared he must play his fiddle to earn his keep, a deal the grasshopper gladly accepted.

Being a productive member of society should mean contributing something. Often, however, being “productive” is translated as earning money rather than finding a vocation. Earning and spending money is the best way to contribute—keep the movement going, the motor running. Never mind the beauty passing along the way.

But for me, the greatest commodity is not money, but time.

Earning money is only “worth my time” insofar as it pays my bills and keeps me from defaulting on my debt. Because I value my time, earning money for the sake of having money to spend doesn’t feel like a good trade. I would rather not spend money in exchange for more time.

People who know me well see that I struggle with balancing the industrious ant and the creative grasshopper. Can one be both? Is the grasshopper’s laid-back attitude the very material from which his music is made? Were he more industrious, would the music be as sweet?

Sure, the ants took in the grasshopper and fed him with food they had worked hard to gather, but when it was snowy and too cold to go outside, when it was impossible to leave and gather and be industrious, who do you think was entertaining the ants with his fiddle? The grasshopper provided a valuable service—something that could enrich the ants’ lives.

I suspect that the fable presents two extremes. One group suffers a spiritual hunger, the other a physical. It takes both groups to satisfy the needs of the whole.

I’ve never been afraid of hard work, but I am drawn to something simpler. Life in a tiny cabin will mean less expense and less debt. With less house to maintain and less pressure to earn earn earn, I’ll have more time—more time to notice, more energy to love, more space to write.