Skillbillies: The Answer to How is Yes

There’s a new brand of American Do-it-Yourselfer on the scene.

Perhaps driven by the  escalating excesses of the last 50 years, spurred on by fears of global climate change and the environmental damage done, these  granddaughters and grandsons of the Hippie movement are coming into adulthood with eyes wide open, knowing the world they’ve inherited is jarringly scarred.

But if you think all the doom and gloom of recent years would instill a sense of nihilism in the Mayor of Pleasantville, let alone Millennials and GenExers, it seems to be just the opposite has occurred. It brings to mind the phrase, “The Answer to How is Yes,”  the title of a book by Peter Block, a consulting guru who trains businesses and individuals on processes and “puts the how-to craze in perspective,” by talking about acting on what matters in your community. Rather than asking “How do we fix these problems?” he suggests approaching issues with “Yes, we will fix these problems.” Seems simple, but is a change in thinking, a paradigm shift.

Young people who have grown up around the turn of the last century, with the knowledge that our world is not only flawed, but permanently, irreversibly f***ed in some cases – and that they will be the ones left holding the bag – have taken on the challenge, almost a call to herosim, like Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces – by merely “doing”.

This latest incarnation of the middle-class American hipster is traveling the world to work on organic farms in the international WOOFers program. She is opening vegan restaurants in New York City; he is starting shoe companies to benefit children in Africa. They are taking up old-timey stringband music, going square dancing every Monday, and combing thrift stores for their great-grandfather’s tweeds. They are keeping chickens and goats in the city for the milk, cheese and eggs, and selling their wares at one of the 7,864 neighborhood farmers markets that have emerged over the past 20 years or so (in 1994, there were 1,755). Further afield from urban cores, they are sharecropping land or living on little farms together, composting, vermiculturing, permaculturing, aquaponic-ing. They are gardening organically and viticulturing biodynamically.  They are canning and smoking and dehydrating everything in sight.

And they are laughing with each other and at themselves. They are Skillbillies.

A good microcosm (ha!) of this set is the tiny house movement. Once an random, unorganized gathering of a few dreamers who wanted to be more self-sufficient, less in debt to a big house and a bigger mortgage, the small house movement has taken off, evidenced by a recent two-day workshop in Seattle’s University District that drew over a hundred attendees. I drove down from my home on Orcas Island, nudged my little car into a miniscule parking spot and felt good to be back in Seattle, looking forward to hitting the adjacent  University Farmers Market for fresh pasta, fennel and Brussels sprouts to make dinner for my generous friend with whom I would be staying for the next two days.

I was there to explore the depths of my own commitment to building a little house for myself, to explore what that might look like. What I found was not just a jeremiad on the future of sprawl and the need for affordable housing, but an interactive, practical – and inspirational – workshop on everything from planning to design to vapor barriers to AC/DC wiring to alternative roofing to composting toilets and more. In a room packed with enthusiastic attendees, I was surrounded by people (young and less so) from Portlandia (of course), Seattle, Vashon, Lopez, LaConner, Bellingham, Eugene, Sonoma, Vancouver, Sonoma, Maui, North Carolina, France, Sweden and beyond.

Our fearless leader – and I mean the fearless part literally – was Dee Williams, who built and has lived in an 84-square-foot house for the past eight years. Williams told us of a life-changing trip to South America, where she observed poverty on a level she hadn’t seen before, but experienced generosity on a level she hadn’t experienced before, where people were happy with what they had and shared a real sense of community. She returned to her small craftsman bungalow (relative to most American houses) that she spent a large part of her time restoring, changed forever.

“It just didn’t fit anymore,” she says. “I was so wrapped around my house and keeping up with the Joneses.” This change was complicated with the fact that she had been recently diagnosed with congestive heart failure at a young age. She decided to give up her “big” house and build a little house as a “distraction from wondering whether I was going to kick the bucket.”

Saying that, Williams designed her little house around her tallest friend.

“I bought a set of plans and then completely changed them,” she says. Perhaps it set off the former architectural engineer in her. Perhaps it felt good to have complete control over a project, when her health felt beyond her control. Perhaps she wanted to see her world in terms of the human, gauge her life in terms of the humans that were in it with her, rather than sizing it by some outside economic model of the American Dream that says her house should be a certain size to be a “home.”

Williams told us about International Building Code (“International Building Code is awesome!”), which states houses need to be a certain size, understandably, to help prevent deleterious living conditions, to prevent developers from slapping up super-tiny shacks where too many people would live in poverty conditions, as what Dee saw in South America. But many people in this movement are working on ways to more easily find a place for these small houses in our zoning and city plans.

“It completely changed my relationship to stuff,” she says of building her home. She showed the workshop a  picture of her house with everything she owns laid out on the lawn. It looked like a rather small yard sale, not someones complete inventory. These days, she wakes up in her little loft bedroom looking out at the sky through a relatively large skylight (snugly constructed and watertight) at the clouds, the rain and wind and sun. Nature is now part of her “stuff”.

“You can’t wake up to nature making itself every morning and not have something shift inside,” she says. “I had to orient myself in nature; I’m a part of this.”

Williams’ perspective was changed. She had her eye on global issues, but wanted to be a part of her own community, to act locally. My friend Michael Greenberg, a community activist on Orcas Island, calls it “glocal.” Although when he said it, it sounded like he’d just choked on a chicken bone, at least you know the bone is from a humanely raised chicken from just down the road. After her trip, Williams came to see a flushing toilet as a Hummer, compared to most of the world’s plumbing situations, which would be more like a one-speed bicycle. It put things in perspective.

Guest speakers Brittany Younger and Angela (I’m finding out her last name) have both built their own small houses – mostly by themselves – manu propria – “with my own hand”. That in itself was inspiring. They didn’t have a lot of money, and they wanted to be self-sufficient. They didn’t have the building skills when they started. They learned as they went. They asked (yes, asked) “Yes” instead of “How?” The how came along as they planned, learned worked with mentors and gained skills, and they ended up with sound, warm little houses full of character, a new community of friends, and  the satisfaction of a difficult job well done.

*

For me, the Tumbleweed Tiny House workshop was a lesson on many levels. Firstly, it took the group, soup-to-nuts, through the process of planning and building a little house, from finding the perfect trailer or having it built; to making an airtight, water-tight, weather-tight foundation; to framing, insulating, wiring and roofing the structure.

Secondly, it gave me insight into the nature of our built environment. We all live in domiciles of which we (mostly) have little understanding. It was just enlightening to follow the process of how a house is constructed – however big or small.

Thirdly, it couldn’t help but start up an instant community. People started chatting at breaks with others who had asked similar questions. My next-door neighbor was into collecting coffee-making paraphernalia and lived on Whidbey Island. We clicked over that as the room made a discussion of making the best coffee in a limited space a priority. We exchanged email addresses. I met people from Lopez Island, a couple who has “an embarrassingly large house” and is considering downsizing considerably and setting out on a new adventure. And there was a guy from Maui who used to live on Orcas Island and knew many of the people I know. A small world.

*

When she moved into her little house in 2004, Dee Williams said her perspective changed drastically in terms of her social relationships as well.

“I thought: What do I do with all this time?” she says. “How do I negotiate new relationships with friends (the tall one included) neighbors, community? When she set her little house in her neighbor’s back yard, she negotiated the use of electricity, water and space with them.

The other thing this workshop did was make me think about my past. Being (a recovering) Mormon, my pioneer heritage has always been a part of my family conversation, and in the middle of this workshop on little houses, I had a flash – my great-great-great-grandmother showed up in the Salt Lake Valley with three children, two wagons and not much else. The first winter there, about 1854, she and her children lived in a converted chicken coop. And she was happy there, because she was in a community – (although a somewhat nutty religious community) of like-minded individuals that built a whole city and state one piece at a time. Her daughter’s husband, my great great grandfather, was the first choreographer for the Salt Lake City Ballet, and helped establish the first Salt Lake City Opera. They were Skillbillies in their own right.

What goes around, comes around. Here I am, living on Orcas Island, in a community of like-minded individuals, watching people influencing their community – and the world – for the better. They ask “Yes” instead of “How”.  I’m learning from that.

“It makes you think about how we are all tethered to each other and rely on each other,” says Williams, of her major downsizing. It makes you think “yes” we are tethered to each other. Yes.

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