A Backpack is Enough: How I changed my ideas about the “American Dream”

Reading Karthik Rajan’s recent personal story on limitations reminded me of a story I wrote three years ago about when my version of the American Dream changed irrevocably.

Like many here, I grew up in a time when bigger was seen as better. Cars were behemoths, stretching for city blocks, or so they looked to my young eyes.

City buildings were so tall it was hard to see their tops! Other buildings took up entire city blocks; it seemed like hours to get from one side to the other.

OK, so I’m exaggerating a little bit, but you know what I mean. Big things — no matter what they were — were desirable; they seemed to say that the owners had “made it.”

“Big” Memories

In my family, there were a couple of uncles who actually “made it big,” and they lived the part. I clearly remember being 7 or 8 years old and visiting a cousin in a nearby town. His family’s house had TWO staircases, one for the grand entrance, and the other off the kitchen for either servants or the kids. I remember running up and down both staircases and being amazed and impressed that there were TWO! No one else I knew had two. 

And there were a lot of huge rooms. It seemed like a very desirable way to live (TWO staircases?), especially to an impressionable young kid. Those houses and the memory of the staircases are seared into my memory; they influenced my younger years of wanting and wanting and wanting . . .

big

bigger

BIGGEST

I never did acquire such a grand house; as an adult, I became sadly aware of mortgage payments and all those costs associated with homes that grew as the house size did (insurance, maintenance, utilities). I scaled back my wants and needs, but the yearning didn’t quite stop. I was happy, but maybe not as content as I could have been.

The Epiphany

Several years ago, I came home from a business trip to my 2,200 s.f. house (cathedral ceilings, skylights, three levels on an acre) that I lived in by myself, looked around at the gardens I had lovingly created (which were my pride and joy), and realized something.

I was done with big.

So, I sold my house and moved to a slightly smaller condo in the same town. Now I had “only” 1,500 s.f. to work with on three floors, and no yard to maintain.

In short order, I realized that even 1,500 s.f. was way too much for one person; I had an entire level that I used because it was there, but I didn’t need it. I began to think about moving again. But to what? Where?

Lucky for me, the “Tiny House Movement” had started gaining a lot of attention (TV shows / magazine articles / stories); the information was everywhere! Those living in really small spaces gave me the courage to realize MY American dream, which was to live in a small space that would give me freedom from high costs, freedom from a huge yard to maintain, and freedom to live a simpler and better life.

Double lucky was my finding (with my realtor, Lori Rudd) a small village on a bay right near Cape Cod, Mass., with 270 tiny homes, many for sale. Although the lower-cost ones needed to be updated, they were right on the bay! The village is quirky and fun, and it fits me perfectly.

The ChanGE

The weekend of May 1, 2015, I moved (with my two small dogs and one cat) to my tiny cottage in that village — and I now live happily in 525 s.f. (which is approximately the size of one floor of my previous condo).

I have a direct bay view from my sun porch as you can see above, and it’s a 30-second walk to put my feet in the sand on the beach. I walk around the village’s 25 acres with my dogs, smell the ocean air, and marvel at the luck that brought me there and the courage I found to make such a drastic change.

The best part is that I am totally content living here. It’s peaceful (except in mid-summer, when many rent out their homes for a few weeks), it’s different, and it speaks a language I finally understand:

Bigger is not necessarily better.
Lessons Learned

1. I now know the difference between “wants” and “needs” for myself. It’s a true relief to not yearn for things that don’t matter, and that won’t make me any happier than I am.

2. I understand what drives me. I understand how my background still influences me today — for better or worse. I don’t live with (much) regret, preferring to live in the now and make it the best possible time.

3. My past is not my future. I cannot rewrite my history, but it no longer sways my judgment, at least not in terms of wants and needs. I am grateful to be able to make decisions for myself, and I work hard to make sure those decisions are right for me now — without letting those memories rule me.

What’s in YOUR backpack?