the joy of limits
‘our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning’ Wendell Berry
Limits are a curious thing. We commonly sense there is a clear line of trespass for a range of goods: food intake, staring at the TV, resource extraction, suburban growth, car speed. Then there fortunately exist things where generally no constraint is needed: creation of art, appreciation of nature, love, among others. Yet a third category of things lives in the shadows- those things we often don’t think to limit (often in the name of personal freedom and liberty), but might be better off individually and collectively were some boundaries observed: plane travel, ambition and wealth, our number of offspring, time texting on the iPhone. And yes, perhaps even the size of our homes. Here I wish to consider this last category, as there may be some unexpected riches laying unobserved in embracing constraint, some added creativity unleashed by a box we willingly place ourselves in.
Certainly many in the micro house movement sense a joy in inhabiting a limited space- a simplicity of existence, the elegant economy of form of a well designed small structure, an added freedom once unshackled from unneeded rooms and unwelcome mortgages. Could this joy found in limited space be a footnote to a larger realm? It seems a relevant question for this site. To start, I would consider the benefits to limitations on movement, of geographic constraint.
At Carleton College every fall, students living on campus with cars were once required to sign them into ‘dead storage’, a muddy dark parking lot back in the woods. To drive cars during the school year required special permission from college security. While some suddenly discovered new religions to allow off campus car use to attend ‘services’, most stayed put in this rural Minnesota college town, staying together after class on evenings and weekends. There was drinking, but also a blossoming of creative activity on campus as students found ways to entertain. At the time, an unpopular policy, and seemingly un-American. Yet years later, few question the fact that this limitation was crucial in forging the surest of bonds among us, and to a small patch of campus in the middle of a cornfield.
There are other periods many of us have been willingly confined in time and place: summer camp, graduate school, long cabin weekends– all of which often lead to a harvest of meaningful memories. Contained geographically, many find there is a certain freedom that only comes from stability, a blossoming of creativity and friendships, a deepened understanding of the place inhabited. Xavier de Maistre, sentenced to house arrest after a duel, famously wrote a travelogue titled ‘Journey Around My Bedroom’ that explored the richness of every object and memory in his chamber. For de Maistre, as for Proust, “the voyage of discovery lay not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes’. For most, such constraint can be torturous if conditions are forced or unwelcome. Yet when not, geographic boxes frequently come to be experienced far more as a comfort than as a cell. And when the box fades, the potential to be able to go anywhere, anytime may become momentarily vertiginous.
Apart from deepened understanding and relationship, geographic constraints may promote efficiency of use, as it often does in tiny dwellings. Urban garden plots are an apt example. With DC’s urban gardens oversubscribed, most gardeners make do for years with single 10’x6’ plots. Initially frustrated by the limited area, necessity becomes the mother, and some gardeners come to value every inch, happen upon a long list of more intensive and efficient gardening techniques. These plots easily outproduce plots 2-3x that are less well attended. In comparison to rural gardeners and farmers, some of these urban gardens are the highest yielding plots around. For those that start with great amounts of land, like unused extra rooms in suburban mcmansions, a wealth of options leads to inefficiency of use.
There are perhaps more subtle lessons as well from the garden. As I planted, I found it tempting to constantly uproot and rearrange plants to gain just a few more inches of growing space. But transplanting plants over and over was never good for their health. It was far better to plan carefully, plant deliberately, and keep them put. Certainly for the garden to stay healthy, we gardeners needed to stay in place, steadily, to water and weed. There was no app for that.
We humans are not so much like the vegetable. But after a career in international development, I found the continual movement across time zones presented a challenge to social life, good brain functioning, and a sense of place. There were many good people in this professional world, but it seemed few of us ever were ’grounded’ except on a plane. I became envious of my tomatoes, which got to stay rooted in one place all season. It seemed plausible that after generations of tribal living, humans might not be terribly well adapted to constant movement among places and cultures, and perhaps prone to jet set melancholia. It may not be the case that just staying put directly leads to psychological well being, but constant movement impacts other conditions- a sense of community and personal connections, that certainly do.
So as many of us build and use our tiny houses on wheels, most of the time these wheels do not turn, and perhaps for the better.
(c) 2013 Brian Levy