Love Letter to the Lost

You were born a carpenter, and you died a carpenter.

Every morning when you were young, men would sling belts over the line shaft to run their lathes and presses, working in stations by tall, bright windows in the days before Edison’s electric light. Your attic was filled with tufts of sawdust and wooden carriage wheel spokes, relics now of a bygone century; but scattered, too, with discarded fragments of the modern airplane parts you made and kept there decades later, when the war came and your country needed you.

There was nothing you couldn’t do, though your life was hardly what anyone would call glamorous. You worked long years for the railway. You kilned lime, one grueling day after another. During the Depression, when Roosevelt’s deal brought crates of groceries to town by train, you kept them cold and dry as the needy lined up each week outside your door.

And for a long while, you were lonely. You were alone almost forty years before you met my family and came back to woodworking, your love; but the day they introduced us, I felt sure I had already known you my whole life.

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You were there the day my best friend proposed, and you were waiting for us with open arms when we returned to you newly married. You gave us the confidence and the means to build our first home together. There must have been a hundred sleepless nights, alone in the misery of chronic illness, when I came to you and we worked together fulfilling orders until dawn, silent except for the thunder of the two o’clock train. You even stood close by on the morning we brought our brand new daughter home from the hospital. You were always there, and we believed that you always would be.

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The nights are fewer and farther between, now, when I lie down and close my eyes to sleep, only to hear the urgent voice of my husband from the bedroom door.

Nikki, get up! There’s a fire in the shop!

I can feel my heart rate climbing, the churning nausea, the pang of adrenaline. There’s never any stopping it, so I let it run its course. I remember fleeing the hazy apartment barefoot, the baby limp and still asleep on my hip – she, who never sleeps through anything! – bloodying my soles as I ran across the parking lot in time to see John’s silhouette disappear through the flame lit doorway, dragging a sorry length of garden hose from the standpipe.

Do you have your phone? Call 911! Oh, my God. Oh, God!

The fire was small when I saw it then, especially compared to the behemoth it became, but I knew we were going to lose you. You were already gone.

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I was so sure I wouldn’t be able to face it when we rounded that corner the next day, still wearing what were suddenly the only clothes we owned. My stomach roiled with dread. I just knew I couldn’t bear to see you.

Yet, surprisingly – at least, it was a surprise to me – I was calm. The baby ogled fearlessly at the rumbling fire trucks still pumping water over your smoking bones while I looked around and waited to feel the sting of my heart torn from my chest. As the minutes passed, I realized that what I felt was much like approaching the casket of a beloved friend, prepared to suffer the agony of facing a lifetime without them; only to look down and see an empty shell, and to recognize that nothing of the soul remained there.

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So why is it, then, that I could look at this pile of smoldering stones and feel no pain, but the memory of the fire still brings me to hot tears and a crushing, breathless grief? I care nothing for our things, or for our apartment, and I feel only marginally more sorrow now for our tiny house – which felt for many weeks after like the loss of a limb.

The truth is that I am a silly, sentimental person. Yes, of course our business is more than just a building – it is incarnate in the people who make up the Strong Oaks Woodshop, in our commitment and our faith and our camaraderie – but you were more than just a building, too, and as strange as it feels to admit, what brings me so much pain is to think of you in your last moments, standing alone there in the shattered darkness as those cruel flames stripped you bare and consumed every last sliver of your magnificence. You deserved so much better, my dear friend. We are in the business of salvaging beauty that might otherwise be lost. We are so passionate about saving history from destruction… and yet, in the end, we couldn’t save you.

I am truly, bitterly sorry.

People from far and wide, strangers and kin, our customers and friends of our friends have poured out their hearts and their material generosity to help us all begin to rebuild. That means a lot of things to us, this little shop that began once upon a time in a one-stall garage; not the least of which is that we have made something of ourselves. Somewhere along the line, it seems, we have managed to make a difference.

But the truth is that we couldn’t have done it without you.

I love you.

Yours always,
Nikki

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Living Riveted

It all started with a Craigslist ad.

Actually, scratch that. It started well before this particular ad with my bad habit of browsing Craigslist mindlessly on my phone, just looking for weird strangers who’d like to take my money. (Now that we have no money left, thanks to the Craigslist ad, I have successfully kicked the habit cold turkey. But I digress.)

Not to play the blame game or anything, but John did this for months on end. Months! While he was searching for the perfect truck to haul our tiny house back to Michigan, he was browsing Craigslist as soon as he woke up; during breakfast and his morning coffee; in the bathroom; in between killing sprees on DoTA 2; and for the last few minutes before he fell asleep each night. His list of demands was quite reasonable, he claimed: three quarter ton, 4wd or dually, diesel, manual, and a “reasonable price” — in a state where every hillbilly thinks his big rust bucket is worth a fortune because it’s loud and belches impressively disgusting clouds of black sludge. Pffft! It worked, though, and his patient diligence eventually paid off. John finally found the perfect truck (2002 Dodge 2500 5.9 Cummins 24v in case you were wondering, and I know you were); and with a bad case of truck envy, I took over his Craigslist preoccupation.

Why do I need a truck, you ask? …if we’re being honest here, I don’t. I was toying with the idea of something small – a little Mazda or Toyota – with which to haul the gypsy wagon I planned to build on a decrepit old trailer languishing in our driveway.

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Photo (c) Tumbleweed Tiny House Company

Totally adorable, right? I had been anticipating the build for months, scoped out the right trailer, and painstakingly laid out all the quirks of my tiny space. It was going to be perfect for the Ukulele World Congress and my beloved ODPC Dulcimer Funfest this summer. Plus, how fun would it be to have my own tiny truck for towing it?

And then it happened.

While looking for trucks, I widened my search parameters to include the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, and I saw… an Airstream.

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Nestled there between a pile of junk and the burnt-out shell of a ’53 Buick, it stole my heart in no time flat; and the price was ludicrously low. Even in the roughest shape, just the iconic shell of an Airstream will often sell for between 6 and 10 grand, depending on the region. This one was listed for just $1500.

It didn’t take long to convince John that this was a seriously worthwhile investment. Many of you know how deeply I love language, and also how I detest certain portmanteaus like… (deep breath)… “glamping” – a combination of “glamour” and “camping” – but I’ll be darned if it isn’t a lucrative market right now. Airstreams are the Cadillac of the glamping world.

If I can manage not to get attached, that is.

Hmm.

Anyway, the owner recommended getting out there as soon as possible, as he had people practically lining up across three states to see the thing. John and I trekked over into West Virginia on Sunday after church, and while we were waiting for the seller to arrive at his shop, our spidey senses began to tingle.

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“Is that… an anvil? You don’t suppose he made that sign hanger himself, do you?”

John started peeping through the windows and moaned, “He has a power hammer. And a forge, and three anvils! He’s a blacksmith!”

I tell you, this experience could not have been more fated if we’d tried. Not only is the seller a welder and blacksmith (who owns his own business and runs an Etsy store on the side), he’s also the father of five homeschooled kids, a man of deep Christian faith, and one of the funniest, most congenial people I’ve ever met. He and John bonded like a forge weld in minutes, and they’ve already made plans to get together and do nerdy blacksmith stuff in the near future. There could even be some partnership in the works, since he has no access to wooden components for his projects and is all about the salvaging life.

He thinks our shop is awesome. We think his shop is awesome. Frankly, there’s a lot of awesomeness going around.

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Getting back to the Airstream… it turned out that the previous owner had removed and scrapped all of the inside skin (wah!) in addition to jaggedly sawing out the rotten floor, leaving next to nothing for stability during towing; so John and I returned happily on Tuesday afternoon with some braces.

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We stabilized the frame, wired up some trailer lights, and loaded boxes of mismatched hardware and original window screens. Our new friend’s young apprentice was hammering away in the shop while we worked, and John was drawn inside to the smell of that coal fire like a moth to a flame; but there was no time to waste in getting back to work, and he left the shop with many heavy sighs.

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Transport was a cinch. The truck pulled our new treasure without a fuss, and John drove it like a champ. We couldn’t have asked for a lovelier day or a better experience!

My rapid descent over these last few days into the technical world of Airstream renovation has been intimidating, to say the very least. There is so much information that it just makes your head spin. It’s hard to know where to start. The amazing part, though, is that this massive community of people has left no stone unturned, and they are ready and willing to share any scrap of information that could help out a fellow enthusiast. It’s truly a beautiful thing.

So begins our latest adventure as the owners of a 1970 Airstream Sovereign 31 — may it be an interesting one.

Live riveted!

“Call me Dean. Hazel is a nut.”

I’m sure you will be unsurprised to know that I descend from a long line of firecracker women.

When I was a little girl, my desire to be just like my grandmother was very prominent. The sun rose and set with her. I’d never known anyone else who longed to make art, to create lovely things with her hands, as constantly and even borderline desperately as I did; and I loved that connection. She painstakingly lettered anything from yard sale signs to city fire trucks, wrote delicate calligraphy, sketched wonderful likenesses in charcoal and ink, and, to me, seemed to leave some sort of beauty wherever she landed.

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“A Portrait of the Blogger as a Young Troublemaker”

If you ever took M-44 west out of Belding at Christmastime, you might have glimpsed a big front window painted cheerfully with families of snowmen, or Santa Claus on his sleigh, or Rudolph with his rosy nose. I sat behind her for hours while she sketched those hazy scenes in white chalk I could barely see, then brought them gradually to life with great big bottles of bright tempera paint. The greatest injustice I could possibly imagine, as a small child, was my mother’s outright refusal to let me paint on her windows at home. The agony! The despair! The tragic application of common sense! It was a hard knock life, I tell you. I only wanted to be like grandma – couldn’t she see?

I have spent a little less time actively pursuing our similarities as an adult; but they are plainly there, and there I suspect they shall stay. For example, that skillful command of expression and body language which can stall any hooligan in his tracks:

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What? What did I do?!

Truthfully, all of the women in my family inherited this, but she was the master.

She once informed me as a matter of fact that when children grow up to be teenagers and then adults, they don’t care as much about spending time with their grandmas. She told me that it was perfectly natural, but at nine years old, I shook my head and I vehemently disagreed. I would never love anywhere the way that I loved grandma’s house!

I have returned to that moment so often. I carried it with me all the way to Virginia, and even from six hundred miles away, I practically glowed with pride as I snapped pictures of my first hand-lettered sign hanging above the woodshop’s door. I sent them off to my mother with single-minded intent: “Please show these to grandma, and tell her I still want to be just like her someday.”

Every frustrating smudge of ink, each delicate stitch of embroidery, hour after hour of scrupulous attention to serifs and silent upstrokes; I always think of her.

Her obituary can tell you the details. It will say how she loved local history and dedicated years of her time and energy to the historical society, as well as to the fire department women’s auxiliary. She loved and supported the many firemen in her life; especially her husband, who was deputy chief, and her son. (In fact, she even completed her own Fire 1 certification once upon a time, and I hear that she didn’t nick so much as a single traffic cone.) The numbers are all there: 85 years of life, 65 years of marriage, 3 children, 7 grandchildren, 9 great-grandchildren, and one little great-great-grandson. I know my mom and her siblings and my grandma’s many friends could tell you decades’ worth of stories I have probably never heard.

However, I am a granddaughter. I am a young sprout, even yet. I have soft memories of charcoal pencils, cabbage soup, and old roller skates. Sketchbooks stashed in every room in the house. Television re-runs all day long with Andy Griffith or Gilligan and the Skipper. Red daylilies and embroidery hoops, crooked haircuts, and the gentlest of back rubs whenever I felt tired or troubled. I remember a woman who could make a little child feel more treasured than anyone else in the world.

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Graduation, 2008

And that tenderness, especially, is how I will always long to be just like my grandmother.

(November 16, 1930 – February 2, 2016)

Looking East

People, look East! The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able;
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look East and sing today;
Love, the Guest, is on the way!

It’s hard to believe that John and I have been living in our tiny house for eight months, but I think it shocks other people even more. We are asked regularly how the house is coming and whether we’re nearly ready to move in, and upon answering, the most common response seems to be:

“Well. That’s nice to know. I haven’t seen pictures of it on your blog.

Okay, okay, I know. It’s a sensitive subject here, too.

Although the physical side of things has been a bit slow in the going, our philosophical discussions have only been gaining speed. Will we build more houses? Bigger houses? Smaller houses? Tiny houses, earth houses, off-grid self-sustaining houses?

…and more importantly, why?

The concept of home resonates deeply with both of us. Home ought not to be where we go to isolate ourselves and escape the Other. Home is the center of our family, the provenance of our works, where we cultivate an interior life oriented to gratitude – and so naturally to generosity – and it is our foremost opportunity to practice the virtue of charity. Home is not an empty shell saddled with the burden of maintenance and property tax and utility bills, but the living, dynamic threshold upon which we meet Christ in neighbor and stranger alike.

We are looking East. We are learning what it takes to be the good we wish to encounter more in our community. We’re examining what a fruitful home looks like, and we are preparing the skills we’ll need to turn these good intentions into a deeper peace and a greater sense of connectedness for those around us. Even with dirty windows and untrimmed doors, we look to the Guest with joy and hope in our hearts.

Merry Christmas, from our home to yours.

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Magic Bread

Hold the phones, people.

Did you hear me?

STOP THE PRESSES, I SAY.

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Photo (c) Amazon.com

This thing (the T-fal Actibread) is witchcraft. And by “witchcraft” I obviously mean “shut up, I don’t know how it works” — but regardless of all that, we need to talk about some serious stuff, my friends.

John Mark, being the stout and brawny farm boy he is, knows the value of a hot, freshly baked loaf of homemade bread. Knows and reveres. His mom would pick one day out of the week and bake eight or ten loaves in an afternoon (which never lasted until the following week, because 1. she had eleven children and 2. certain friends of theirs made an uncanny habit of arriving at the house just as bread was leaving the oven), and it was always the perfect complement to any meal. My stomach problems are enduring and persistent, but even through the misery of 24 hour daily nausea, I don’t think I’ve ever had trouble tucking away a satisfactory helping of my mother in law’s bread. It is so. darn. good.

…which is why it didn’t take more than a few months for my dear husband to realize that, by deciding to sacrifice an oven in the planning and building of our tiny kitchen, we had in fact made a terrible, terrible mistake. It’s not one that we regret, really, considering the outrageous power draw of some electric models and the obvious dangers of fussing with propane in a small, enclosed space; but John was missing that bread, and I wasn’t going to argue with him. I knew he meant business when he took time out of his work day to research countertop bread machines and to choose the one he liked best, and within a few days, that sneaky Amazon had offered us a deal we couldn’t refuse: the T-fal Actibread, for just $75.

I made my first loaf today.

Now, I live with a man who can’t handle Minute Rice, because it requires being covered for a whopping seven minutes with no interference. He has ruined countless pots of rice by lifting the lid several minutes too early, and his excuse is always the same: “I can’t leave it alone! I just know it’s doing something sneaky and Chinese in there, and I WILL NOT STAND FOR IT!”

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So whether you are a parent to very small children or you have a spouse like mine, the window in the top of the machine provides hours of magical entertainment. Every time it engaged in a new process and started making a different noise, John would drop whatever he was doing and sprint across the house shouting, “What’s it doing now?!”

I confess that it’s probably a little premature to gush about a product like this after only one use, but seriously, you guys. I put in the ingredients in the order the manual specified, closed the lid, and didn’t touch it again for three hours. AND THEN BREAD POPPED OUT. MY WHOLE LIFE HAS BEEN A LIE.

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There are fifteen settings on this thing, and each one corresponds with a basic recipe in the accompanying booklet. It even makes gluten free bread! (I’m looking at you, Alison and Sarah and Lish!) It also makes cake, pizza dough, and jam. You can set it to make a 1, 1.5, or 2 pound loaf, though the sizes vary vertically and not horizontally. The non-stick bread pan is officially the single easiest thing in my kitchen to clean.

For folks who only need a small loaf of 6 to 12 generous slices, this bread machine is well worth the space it takes up, even in a tiny house kitchen. John is in a beef stew and French bread coma beside me as I write this, all tuckered out from raving (with a full mouth) about the perfect, crunchy crust and the fluffy hot center. There are four enthusiastic thumbs up between us. Good work, T-fal!

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Victory

Some seven or eight years ago, in your average high school chemistry class, there were two shy and nerdy girls. One of them owned her personality spectacularly and made the most of being quiet, intelligent, sweet, and unfailingly kind, while the other one tried too hard to convince everyone that she was tough and mean, instead. (I’ll leave the deductions to you, Sherlock.)

…though actually, now that I’m writing about it, I can’t remember if we had chemistry together first or if it was French. Our French class was filled to capacity and beyond, and as a result, she and I were shafted the privilege of single desks and sat together at a table next to the door — facing the wall instead of the teacher. It was always a surprise when Madame called on one of us to speak, because we were usually deep in conversation with each other, and it was guaranteed not to be about chiens or chaussures or boulangeries.

We learned almost exactly zero French that semester, but what we did learn is that our friendship was clearly destined to be awesome.

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(As a side note, we need to work on getting some better pictures of the two of us. I just don’t feel like an ’80s prom theme adequately represents our friendship.)

It was maybe three years later that an equally shy and nerdy young man showed up at St. Charles on a Thursday evening for choir rehearsal, carrying a guitar case, of all things. I was instantly intrigued. He turned out to be pretty much a genius, on track to graduate with a double major in math and computer science in just three years while interning very, very impressively in the IT department of a well known multi-level marketing company. He also had the kind of innate musical talent that causes guitarists with decades under their belts to weep bitterly. I found it hilarious that when he wasn’t writing and repairing detailed computer programs that I still only vaguely understand, he was busy being an unexpected sort of rockstar, too.

We were fast friends in our shared awkwardness, and banding together was sort of a necessity, because the two of us – still known around the parish as “the guitar guy and the violin girl” – were the youngest members of the church music program by at least 30 years.

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Then I woke up one morning and realized that they were both going to the same small, private Catholic college in Grand Rapids, and they had somehow never met each other.

So I fixed that.

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Just for fun, I sometimes like to affect an air of exaggerated smugness and exalt the fact that I originally introduced Jess and Michael, who have been madly in love for these many years hence and are now just one day away from tying the knot; but in all very serious seriousness, as the only person who really knew each of them individually before they knew each other, I have something of a unique perspective on their relationship.

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Of course, their time together hasn’t been perfect. Whose is? They adjusted to each other’s funny little quirks in the same way the rest of us do: by being annoyed and indignant, huffing and puffing and grumping, until they eventually realized that they love each other as more than the sums of their parts — faults included. For example, Jess has been well known for her unwillingness to make important phone calls, whether to the bank or the doctor’s office, and to put off those interactions until the task becomes so daunting that it snowballs into a sort of paralyzing anxiety. Michael, who tends to be very logical and succinct and task-oriented, has no idea what the big deal is. It needs to be done; why not just do it?

On the flip side, Michael’s natural talent for math and computers means that he spent rather a lot of time indoors as a kid, and as a result, has had to be lured outside with matrices and differential equations the way you might bribe a feral cat with a can of tuna. He hates, with a passion bordering on neuroses, to be wet, dirty, sweaty, hot, cold, or anywhere within spitting distance of mud, sand, water, bugs, or direct sunlight. This has been a hard sticking point for Jess, who loves being outside almost as much as she loves books, which is… a lot.

If you’re thinking that it’s in pretty poor taste to write about two people you admire and start listing off their less than perfect qualities, then you’re probably right; but hang tight for just a second. This is all relevant.

Because, you see, they adjusted to these things. They were inconvenient and often frustrating, but like I said, Michael and Jess had already decided that they were in it for the long haul in spite of their imperfections; and just like that, things began to change. It was only a little at a time – certainly not a landslide – but at some point, Jess made a doctor appointment and settled her car insurance on the same afternoon without breaking a sweat. And Michael, bless his heart, allowed us to teach him to swim and to ice skate, in the same year!

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He even agreed to lie down in the grass for one of their engagement photos, even though you can tell it’s quietly killing him inside and he’s wondering what he could possibly have done wrong to deserve this pose.

Most importantly, though, the two of them have continued this pattern of patience and humility through much more serious, earth shattering revelations than Michael’s refusal to get a dog or Jess’s insistence on clean underwear every day. They have weathered tremendous storms together and come out stronger for it.

One common piece of marriage advice is that your spouse ought to encourage you to be a better version of yourself, as opposed to letting you carry on in ways that are self destructive or damaging to others for the sake of avoiding argument, discomfort, or hardship. That’s how marriages succeed, little by little, over many years of care and sacrifice; and I just want to stand high on the rooftops and shout,

“Look at them! Look at these two, they’ve got it!”

Michael and Jess have a running start at the kind of marriage that inspires everyone around them to be better, because they’re helping each other to be better; and it makes my heart swell with love and joy to see how far they’ve already come. Two of the people I love most in this world are about to become a single, unstoppable force for good. It will be difficult, of course, and the great G.K. Chesterton once said that “Marriage is a great adventure, like going to war” — which is at once a terrible and a wonderful depiction of the sacrament. It is a thing of beauty. It is no small undertaking.

And I wish them every victory.

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Rule One (and a Bookshelf)

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Rule One: The Doctor lies.

I’m not a Time Lord, but I do occasionally make statements involving promises like “big reveal later this week” that are just plain stupid. As I twisted myself into strange pretzel-like shapes unfit for even the most hardcore yoga practitioners in an attempt to photograph my house without including all the raw edges and the black handprints on the walls that scream “my husband is a dirty welder,” it occurred to me that I am in something of a predicament.

The tiny house is so close to being finished that if I post a big update right now, it will be really fun and exciting, except for the part where I don’t have window trim. Or a sofa. Or light switch and outlet covers. Or a bathroom door… which raises some really uncomfortable questions from our visitors, because we’ve actually been living in the tiny house for almost a month; but there are some experiences you just can’t express with words. Am I right? Seriously, though – our house has exploded with beautiful colors and curious objects (if you’re with me on Facebook, you know about my animal-shaped kitchen gadget problems), but it’s lacking just enough of the important stuff that I am hesitant to ruin the surprise.

I’ve expressed this sentiment to a handful of persistent individuals who have threatened to throw me out a high window in response, but I still just can’t bring myself to do it. My personal goal for wrapping up the last few details is June 7, so that in honor of our first anniversary, John and I can proudly share every last nook, cranny, and special quirk of our unique little home!

In the meantime, since I’m still working on a slightly longer post about what it’s been like so far to live together in 192 square feet of awesomeness, here is a detail shot of my super snazzy corner bookshelf that I finished last night.

IMG_9302Despite pulling all my project measurements out of dark and uncomfortable places (mostly because you get the dimensions you get when you’re working with scrap or salvaged materials), I came out with exactly enough space to store all of my books, right down to the last inch. It was amazing. Cutting and painting the plywood was nothing special, but I also cut and finished the metal and did all my own welding on the mounts! And I only whined a little bit about blistering my thumb and forearm with hot flux, but that’s more because my husband’s hands and arms usually look like he got into a fist fight with a burning house, and he’s not exactly very sympathetic on that front.

And finally, last but certainly not least, you may have noticed that I changed the name of my blog. If you’re thinking about commenting specifically to say that Rush is not one of the greatest bands of all time, here’s a bit of advice: Don’t. I have always loved this song, but as time goes on and my life grows ever more beautiful, I find myself more and more deeply moved by a single expression:

The blacksmith and the artist reflect it in their art;
They forge their creativity, closer to the heart.

(Rush, “Closer to the Heart”)

Because if that doesn’t sum it all up, then I don’t know what does.

The Best Worst Idea Ever

Well, we finally reached the point where we couldn’t avoid it any longer. I was not going to have a house floored with OSB, and especially not grubby, ugly OSB with expandable foam insulation smooging out of every seam. The inevitable had arrived. It was time.

We considered a regular hardwood floor, since salvaged lumber is our material of choice; but for one, we didn’t want to overindulge in Mike’s generosity, and for two, we didn’t want the whole house to look like one big barn fest. We needed something to break up all the long, narrow planks and dark patina. I insisted that this was very important to keep our house from looking dark and cramped, and John has given me the power of the Final Decision on all matters of aesthetics.

…we wound up using wood anyway. Of course.

Because, you see, there was this one time that I saw a thing on Pinterest (a bad idea) and showed it casually to my husband (an even worse idea) as one of those ideas that, you know, we might try someday in the quasi-distant future. I should have known that John would say to me, “Why wait? We should totally do this now. Our house is all one big experiment, anyway, and this looks FREAKING SWEET.”

Hello. Welcome to our rational, thoughtful decision making process. We are adults, I promise.

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(source)

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These are the examples I showed him to introduce the concept of end grain wood tiles. We had already spent several months discussing the possibility of cordwood construction for future sustainable building projects, and we knew we liked that look for flooring, too; but we’d never considered using square cuts and arranging them like regular tile. It also just so happens that since the New York barn back in October, the shop has been saddled with a truckload of 4×6 beams that tend to rot faster than we can use them.

The internet offered surprisingly little information on how best to grout wood tiles, by the way, so like everything else, we blazed our own trail into the wilderness and made a metric butt-ton of mistakes.

Mistake #1: I had the bright idea that we should drywall all the way down to the subfloor before we put in the floors, because I figured that if the grout met up directly with the walls, then I could work neatly enough to create a seam between the wall and floor that did not require trim or baseboard. This was a reasonably successful idea. The less brilliant part of my plan was to get ahead of myself and paint, too, because there’s nothing like half an inch of floor sanding debris to make a beautifully painted interior look like the Arabian Desert threw up in your house.

Mistake #2: Do you ever do that thing where you get so caught up in one detail that you let it rule all of the other details, and it’s not until you’re almost to the end that you realize the first detail was not that important and actually made everything a lot more complicated than it needed to be? Yeah, that thing. John got so hung up on the size of the space under the front door that he was convinced the tiles needed to be well over an inch thick. Our floors could have been much lighter and required a lot less grout, but we learned a valuable lesson there, too.

Anyway, back at the beginning of March, we were so naive and optimistic – you know, like we always are right before we get in over our heads. We estimated that the flooring process would take a week or so. John spent a few evenings chopping beams, and then I stuck them to the subfloor with construction adhesive over the course of two days.

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John took on the terrible task of sanding the entire floor and applying the first generous coat of polyurethane to all the tiles.

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We were already a week into it by the time we even got around to grouting. Some totally reliable source on the internet (yes, that is sarcasm) recommended polyurethane mixed with fine sawdust as an alternative to regular grout, and if there’s one thing the shop has in abundance, it’s sawdust! Though, unsurprisingly, the coarse kind doesn’t work quite the same way.

Also, John discovered that one-size-fits-all latex gloves are a lie.

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We started mixing our coarse sawdust with the remnants of a year-old five-gallon bucket of poly. What could possibly go wrong with our plan?

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The answer is “everything”. It sucked.

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The mixture was noxious and impossible to poke into the gaps between tiles, and we were burning through the polyurethane so fast that this method was already on track to cost us several hundred more dollars than anticipated. It was also going to make sanding a nightmare. I suggested that we could fill the gaps with dry sawdust first and pour the poly over it, which we did by hand for maybe fifteen minutes before John demanded that I give in to my barbaric side and dump the sawdust on the floor all at once.

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I’m sorry, you want me to do what?

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I have to admit that it was actually a really good idea, and broom sweeping the sawdust throughout the whole house took a grand total of three minutes. Even if there is something really wrong with making the biggest mess ever on purpose.

After that, I modified one of my furniture finishing hacks to help apply the polyurethane. We invested in 79 cents’ worth of diner-style mustard squeeze bottles, which did an excellent job filling in all the cracks as cleanly as possible. John was a trooper; he does not love fine detail work the way that I do.

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I wish I could say that that was the end of the story, but it definitely wasn’t. I went through this process twice with polyurethane and then twice more with fiberglass resin. The sanding and filling and re-sanding took us close to four weeks, and I could probably describe the grain on any given tile in our house at the drop of a hat.

It wasn’t until two days ago that I finally applied the last coat of finish, almost seven weeks after we started.

Our mistakes cost us a whole lot of extra moolah in the grouting department. What we saved in free lumber, we made up for in filler. Like I said before, we learned a tremendous lesson on this one; but holy smokes, does that floor look amazing! The grain on each unique tile stands out beautifully, and you can see big, fat flecks of sawdust through the translucent amber grout. It’s really neat.

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I can’t share a photo of the whole floor, though, because that would spoil the big reveal on its way this week…

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Landslide

There are two main reasons for avoiding your blog like the plague, especially when you’re attempting to chronicle such a behemoth undertaking as, say, the building of a house. The first is that nothing is happening – or rather, so little is happening so incrementally that Tolkien himself would be hard pressed to write a scintillating narrative around the week you spent stapling insulation to the ceiling and trying to scrub fiberglass slivers out of your tongue; and the only thing worse than having folks clamor for a blog update (because they’re too nice to straight-up call you a slacker) is the feeling that you’re throwing junk at the wall to see what sticks, and the end result seems to be a sort of chronic, unforgivable dullness.

“Yesterday, we cut drywall. Today, we cut some more drywall. Tomorrow, we will continue to cut drywall…” and on and on, ad nauseam.

The other option is that everything has suddenly started to happen all at once, and your life is such a constant landslide of insanity that it feels like there’s no point in sitting down to write about where the project is at, because it will change again in, oh, about 3 minutes and 18 seconds. Plus there’s that nagging fact that you’re busy working on the house. Every single day and night. Friends? Hobbies? Dates? Parties? I remember those things – vaguely. What I remember more vividly is having lived with some combination of 12 different people in the 8 months since John and I got married, and as much as I love all of them, I really just need my own kitchen and a cast iron skillet that doesn’t always taste like soap. So we work, and we sleep, and then we work some more.

Hey, I never said they were particularly good reasons, but it happens.

On the flip side of things, when I visited this blog to see where in the timeline I needed to pick up my narration, my jaw dropped. The woodstove? Was that really the last development I took the time to mention? Embarrassing. I guess I could feign alien abduction, I could play the chronic illness card, I could point out that feeding a blacksmith is practically a full time job and having a roommate who’s newly addicted to musical theatre causes amnesic brain damage; but really, I just let one of my favorite activities slide through the cracks, and I’m sorry. I will do my best to catch up.

We did spend several days putting up insulation, which was a really bad idea without a respirator. Working with your face tilted up toward the ceiling, combined with that irritating biological compulsion to breathe, will leave a fine layer of itchy slivers all over your mouth the inside of . You’ll cough and feel like you’re suffocating for days. I don’t recommend it. However, if you have to insulate in a tiny space during the dead of a disgusting winter, what I do recommend is working with someone who makes you laugh.

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Also, naps. They are good for you.

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And strange friends, like James, to keep you from taking your life too seriously.

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We were hugely blessed by the donation of some free insulation by Tom, a dear friend and coworker. In fact, across the board, the support we’ve had from our friends and family cannot possibly be overstated! When it came time to drywall, which is the bane of every home builder’s existence and with which we had desperately little practice, Wyatt brought his many years of contracting experience to the table without batting an eyelash. John’s older brother, Jake, also volunteered an incredible amount of time during the drywalling stage, which even included coming straight to the house from karate class.

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Drywall was a huge turning point in making our weird little shack look like a home on the inside. Talk about a morale booster!

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The psychological trauma of drywall mudding was not captured on film. To be honest, we did a very poor job, both for lack of experience and lack of time; and that was one of several compromises we made in an attempt to keep perfection from being the enemy of good. Our walls are a little lumpy and a little bumpy, and from certain angles, it’s all too easy to pinpoint the truly awful spots. For a little while, that made me feel bad. I don’t like doing substandard work. Neither does John.

Then it occurred to me that WE ARE BUILDING OUR OWN HOUSE. We’re on track to own our first home for under $10,000 before either of us turns 25. And whose living space is picture perfect, anyway? That’s the point – it’s for living in!

Anyway, after the abject misery that was drywall mudding, Jake and his wonderful fiancée, Melanie, helped us to prime the walls and ceiling.

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I had originally planned to leave the entire house a delicate shade of off-white. It’s a popular color for tiny house interiors, because the increased reflection helps to maximize natural light and make small spaces look bigger. John was not on board, but I was persistent. He complained that he wouldn’t be allowed to breathe inside, much less touch anything; but again, I was firm.

Until the first time his shoulder bumped a wall as he was climbing to the loft, and a dirty smudge followed his progress like a black eye on my beautiful ivory paint. I relented immediately. We compromised on an attractive shade of blue for the walls, called Thundering Clouds, and decided to leave the ceiling white to make good use of all our ambient natural light.

And that, however briefly, concludes the major milestones of January and February. Much of the last month has been focused on our floor, which looks frankly awesome, but which also took a great deal more time and money than we expected, because – like most things – we had no idea what we were doing. It all worked out in the end, though, and we love it. Seriously. Love it.

For now, I will leave you with a glimpse of that charming madness:

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…as well as a fervent promise to write the next chapter of our story very, very soon. We’re in the home stretch now, folks. Stick with us – it’s going to be a wild ride!

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The Problem of Poop

You should see the looks on people’s faces when they ask us about our utilities and we eventually get around to explaining that, no, we’re not building to hook up to any kind of a septic system. The plumbing is all self-contained within the house, and we’re just not interested in having to deal with blackwater disposal. The wheels start to turn… the brows begin to furrow… and then:

“So, um, are you going to have a toilet? How does that work, exactly?”

Is there just a hole in the bathroom floor? Or a bucket lined with Walmart bags? Will your turds be carried majestically away by trained pigeons and deposited on some unsuspecting farmer’s manure heap before they’ve even begun to smell?

Well, that last one would be kind of impressive, but no.

There is a surprisingly wide range of bathroom accommodations for tiny homes, if you choose to include one at all. Some people prefer to save space inside by moving their toilet facilities to an outhouse, like John Kamman and Grace Brogan, who live in a yurt in northern Minnesota. You know, where it gets to be thirty below during the winter, and there’s frost on the toilet seat. That you have to walk OUTSIDE to reach. Oh, and you have to get up at 3am to stoke the 24/7 fire that keeps your house from becoming your icy tomb. Commendable, sure – I applaud them – but no thanks.

Others prefer to forego no modern luxury and put a regular toilet (albeit usually a low-flow) in a tiny house, which works fine if you’re parking it someplace where you can hook up to the grid for water and septic. Similarly, some choose to use a chemical RV toilet and dispose of the waste at designated parks.

Both John and I have always been slightly uneasy at the thought of flushing away nearly two gallons of potable water with every bathroom transaction while there are people on this planet dying of thirst. Neither of us professes to be perfectly energy- or resource-conscious; there are a few probably unnecessary lights on in the house at the moment, my laptop is plugged in, and John is playing computer games with his brother using the television as a big monitor. The amount of water wasted in conventional toilets just happens not to sit well with either of us, so we decided to do something about it in our own home.

One of the most common alternatives is a composting toilet. These run the gamut from a five gallon bucket filled with sawdust (which we actually considered, given that we work in a woodshop; but the sawdust is supposed to be damp and fresh, not kiln-dried) to a much fancier, urine-separating model like the ones made by Nature’s Head. The price range is typically $1,000 or more, but what we dislike most about composting toilets is that they require a fan to be running constantly in the ventilation system, unless you’re cool with your house smelling like human waste in varying states of decomposition. They can be really great if you’re already a hardcore composter and like to use really, really organic fertilizer on your garden, but none of them struck our fancy. You can read more in The Humanure Handbook if you’re interested in the science of composting toilets.

We very nearly decided to go with an incinerating toilet, instead, which John claims was a decision based on economics and efficiency – and not on his love of lighting things on fire. In the Incinolet, a liner is placed in the bowl before each use, which then drops into a sealed compartment in the bottom of the unit and is, well, incinerated. Incinolet boasts extreme cleanliness, since waste never comes into contact with the toilet bowl and cleaning involves only emptying a small amount of ash into the garbage. The height stipulations for your ventilation are really strict, though, and if you fail to vent less than a certain distance above the roof, any small change in the breeze can easily fill your home with the smell of burning feces. The going price starts just under $2,000.

John and I had prepared ourselves to shell out an enormous amount of money for an Incinolet, until the one time that wasting an inordinate amount of time on Pinterest finally did me some good. I happened to scroll past a pin captioned, “The Toilet That Will Change the World!”

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I read that the Laveo by Dry Flush uses no water, no harsh chemicals, and next to no electricity. It was developed for use in areas with very little access to water or power, and it only needs to be charged (via your standard electrical outlet) once every three months or about 300 flushes. Upon flushing, the bowl collapses and vacuum-seals the liner, then drops it into the bottom compartment. No squick, no smell. The disappointing factor is that the Dry Flush takes huge strides in saving water and electricity, then makes you put your poop into a plastic bag and throw it in the landfill. However! The developers promise to be hard at work making a biodegradable, compostable bowl liner, which would be just about the awesomest thing ever.

We’ve been weighing toilet options for almost a year, at this point, and John and I both feel really good about the Dry Flush. The unit itself is just $420 (and available from Home Depot, which offers free shipping), and though the cartridges are absurdly expensive at $1 per flush, we’re really enthusiastic about supporting a fledgling business that’s doing such an awesome thing.

There’s also the fact that we currently spend 10-15 hours at the shop every day except Sunday, anyway, which significantly minimizes the number of opportunities to use our toilet at home. Hopefully, by the time we make it back to Michigan, biodegradable bowl liner cartridges will grow on trees – or at least cost less than $55 per refill.

And there you have it! A detailed answer to the question everyone wonders about, but nobody really wants to ask.

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