--2 With This Pen: If I Had a Hammer
Feb. 28, 2017

With This Pen: If I Had a Hammer

Is a Small House Movement really optional?

August 7, 2011, 1:00 am
By Jamie Figueroa

It was not unusual for a Santa Fe dinner party. At the table set for nine presided two body workers (as in the healing arts), two authors (who doubled as teachers), three musicians (one who doubled as a teacher; the other two doubled as community arts workers, traveling throughout New Mexico), a folk artist, and me, a former body worker who had begun to take her writing more seriously and was about to return to college after a 13-year hiatus.

The husband hosting also played chef. Course by course, he maneuvered the tight kitchen, motoring the path from table to stove while simultaneously stirring his opinions into the dialogue. Over bean soup, we welcomed his visiting friend, a mixed-race writer with a fairly new book out. The friend and I constituted the people of color section and held down the south end of the table. I watched as he picked the beans out of his soup. I searched for a way to connect despite the most obvious options—mothers of color, white daddies, writing, literature…


Despite our proximity, conversation between us never ignited. We instead listened as one of the couples spoke about their experience of living in a co-community housing complex, complete with a shared garden, farm animals and outside communal dining area for a sort of perennial picnic feel. Residents occupied separate homes, but the homes were all spaced closely, as if holding hands. This topic of dwelling spaces led to a concept I had never heard of, the Small House Movement.


The visiting writer debated whether he and his family ought to buy land and build something ecologically conscious in the Texas town where they had been banished (due to job availability) or pick another more conventional route.


While our host delivered the main course (something we could eat with our hands, green chile flecked throughout), I observed us. We were young (under 50), included women with short hair sans makeup, men with shaggy do’s, tattoo-stained skin, equally shoe-wearing and shoeless, well read, politically engaged, progressive, compassionate, and yet… I have to admit the surprise at my own confusion and increasing sarcasm, the Small House Movement?


My mother eked out a living while raising my two sisters and me solo. The option of living in anything other than a small house (most often, a very small apartment) was nonexistent. According to income level data of people of color in the United States, we were spot-on in our demographic, working poor, which really wasn’t working for us at all. At one point, the house we lived in lacked a phone and adequate plumbing. Deep in the woods outside East Liberty, Ohio, it was not a political act or sustainable living. Our garden, teeming with ticks, rabbits, black snakes and deer, was not a statement. It was our survival.


I’ve always tried to be mindful of what I’ve actually needed and what is just excessive—a tricky thing when living in a capitalist culture whose unifying cross-cultural bond is consumerism. But I’ve also always lived in a small house (apartment, duplex, rented room) because that was my only option. Is it called a Small House Movement when you can afford something larger and you opt out? Is the word “movement” synonymous with choice and who gets to decide the difference between a “movement” and survival? If I had a larger income, would I live in a larger home? Something other than my one-bedroom, one-bathroom, crumbling adobe, snuggled in next to the local liquor store?


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