Guest Post: The Up-Side of Downsizing

Hi Readers! Here’s a seasonal  essay by Corbyn Hightower, a writer and mom of three in the suburbs of Sacramento, CA. She has six chickens and a “disobedient husband.” More of her work can be found at www.corbynhightower.com. — L.

SIMPLY SUMMER by Corbyn Hightower

My oldest child—a preteen—is having a friend spend the night. I’m surprised how self-conscious I am on my daughter’s behalf. We haven’t many guests since the recession demanded that we downsize our life, at which point we sold our only car, axed the cable and Internet, and moved into a shabby old house by the rail yard.

It’s really hot inside, and there’s no air conditioning. Some doors don’t have knobs. Our chickens have rendered the back yard unusable, and our driveway has been taken over by raised garden beds. What we lack in decorum we make up for in freedom from too many Rules About Things.

The guest says, “Your house is colorful.” I look at this crumbling place and I see the salvation of its underpriced square-footage and prolific fruit trees. This has been safe harbor, even with the nearby train tracks. I bite back apologetic explanations for the bicycles in the dining room and the cords from all the whirring fans that kept us from wilting in this destructive heat. We harvested pounds of squash from our garden, and that’s going to comprise the bulk of our dinner. My husband steams it, seasons it lightly, and serves it with a pot of brown rice. Our young houseguest eats heartily.

The next day it’s just so hot, and our little neighborhood creek bubbles below the foot bridge with promise of relief. I send the older girls out, where they will break small green branches from the fennel plants that grow in great fluffy drifts on the shore. They will have to climb through the remains of a concrete ditch, make way under a bridge festooned with lovers’ graffiti, and wade through the murky water to get to the small, hidden beach made of smooth stones and small shells.

They return muddy, sun-pinked, and happy. They’ve collected fistfuls of fennel along with small glittering rocks and treasures. Our new friend has gotten splinter on her foot. I make up a warm footbath with crushed lavender, and my son tells her that it will help with the splinter, and with her emotions, too. “It’ll make you feel okay until it gets better. It will give you a peaceful feeling.” I smooth her hair down and kiss the top of her head, our initiate. She holds her foot up to me to investigate.

Later, I send my five-year-old out to water the garden. The tomato plants have blooms, and the other plants are straining upward, not full-grown but strong, with their broad leaves facing toward the sun. Yesterday we feasted on the first truly awesome strawberries of the season. The sparkling flavor and seeds made them taste almost carbonated.

My children will have a summer of these simple memories, ones in which I participate, and others where my only job is to remove the splinters and wash off the mud upon their return.

39 Responses

  1. Sounds like paradise, it really does–except I must have the Internet, ha ha. (And air conditioning, too.)

    But otherwise–yes, it sounds great. We live in humble accommodations of our own, and it sometimes stinks when I realize that practically everyone our age has FAR better accommodations. We do have the Internet and air conditioning, both are MUSTS for me, but the house could sure use some upkeep–one of the 2 bathroom’s shower quit working when a main pipe feeding it burst, you’d have to tear down the walls to fix it. Also its tub, made mostly of plastic, became brittle with usage and now needs replacing–so we have to bathe the kids in the other bathroom way on the other side of the house. The toilet in the first bathroom stubbornly clogs, taking sometimes 15 minutes of work for EVERY bathroom trip that any of us 4 does.

    And the bathroom with the proper bath & shower fix-up–the flooring needs replacing, it’s caving in. The sink’s out. (It’s okay with the first one.) The siding needs replacing all over the house, it’s flaking off and makes the place look downright tacky from the outdoors. I’ve had to fix several plumbing leaks–finally, at last, almost all of them are fixed. Some of the walls have holes in them where the previous occupants (we own it, they never did) knocked them in with their fists. Our bedroom had NO accommodations for hanging up clothes until 2 weeks ago when I built some onto the walls themselves. The boy’s room has pink walls that need painting. Some of the electrical outlets in the girl’s room need fixing, they “flop loose” in place so I had to cover them up to make it safe for them.

    Heck, when we got the place, the flooring int he

    But the home has passed safety inspections (CPS has been here for reasons having nothing to do with any of this), the kids love playing outdoors in the woods, and there is practically no crime out here to worry about. We’re surrounding by some 80 acres of woods, it’s quiet, right now as I’m tying this I hear crickets through the cracked windows. The dirt path in front of the house has practically no traffic at all–it’s a private dirt path, after all–so the kids can play in it (so long as they don’t wander down it to the point they’re on the very busy highway 150 yards or so away.) A good 70 foot long section of the yard is fenced-in so that they can play outdoors for an hour or so without needing constant hovering.

    And what do we pay per month to live here? We own the building (paid off), we rent the land space, and including the 80 acres of woods we have access to–we pay a whopping $50 a month.

    Someone in my family–I won’t say who (or whom?)–acts sometimes as if the children are victims of sorry parents, saying the kids “didn’t choose to live here–if you two want to live in this filth, go ahead, but don’t subject them to it.” My smart-ass reply: “I don’t hear them complaining.”

    The kids in the “essay” sure don’t seem upset either. Some people need to lighten up and quit thinking every family has to have a $150,000 house with a perfect manicured lawn and “hospital sterile” living space. To insinuate that parents like the ones in this essay don’t deserve their kids–I can guarantee you the family member I refer to would think so, and so do lots of other people in general I bet–is just wrong and elitist. I say “right on” to the parents in this essay–again, I’d HAVE to have air conditioning and Internet access, but otherwise, I could live like that (other than the train-tracks meaning you probably hear loud train whistles every 15 minutes, that would drive me crazy).

    LRH

  2. Darn, my computer was acting up, my typing was “lagging behind” me, and that one sentence got garbled.

    I was trying to say: when we first got the place, the kitchen’s flooring was totally caved in. We bought some flooring and nailed it in, and now the kitchen’s just fine–has been for sometime. But the other things could sure use some work–the thing is, unless you know how to do it yourself or have friends who help etc, it is EXTREMELY expensive to hire someone. Some of those things I figured out myself, others I got some help on–but there’s so much.

    But the kids are plenty safe, have plenty of room, they’re not hot in the summer nor cold in the winter, it’s decently clean most of the time, no one’s hungry, I have the Internet (almost as important, ha ha), and the kids have so much room to enjoy the outdoors–as do I. It beats the heck out of living in an apartment, and at $50 a month it makes it real easy to afford.

    Sorry for that 1 mangled line.

    LRH

  3. That is a beautiful picture of summer. An ideal I’d like for my kids at least some of the time. I love these vignettes of free range family life. Thanks Corbyn (and Lenore!).

  4. What a beautiful essay! Makes me think of Barbara Kingsolver’s book ‘Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.’

  5. […] Go here to read the rest: Guest Post: The Up-Side of Downsizing […]

  6. Three cheers for downsizing! Recommended reads: Your Money or Your Life and The Tightwad Gazette.

  7. That is a beautiful piece of writing. I don’t want to sit here in my middle-class, air-conditioned, wi-fi home and romanticize poverty–I wouldn’t trade down and I’m sure she would trade up, after all–but there is a gritty reality that cuts through a lot of the “I can’t send my kids outside without their armed guards” kind of crap. The thing every parent wants is to know is that “my kids are getting a good and healthy upbringing” and it sounds like these really are.

  8. Sounds like paradise — my kids would love to live in a place like this.

    We just started building a house — and as much as would have loved to stay in the apartment we live in now, I am so looking forward to having my own garden and harvesting my own vegetables!

    So long,
    Corinna

  9. I love the way the essay captures that a splinter is just a splinter. It’s not a catastrophe; it’s just a splinter. What a great lesson.

  10. [squee] That made me so giddy reading it! Reminds me of my childhood when I grew up on the horse farm and my brothers and I would spend all day making forts out of cane forests, hiking through the creek that ran between the farms, and roaming through pastures. I have to agree with some of the other posters, I would love all of that, but I would require internet and air conditioning (in Texas especially, Cali I think I could manage. Maybe.) for sure! Thanks for sharing Corbyn!

  11. I wish I lived there!

    Also, fennel is delicious.

  12. “I can’t send my kids outside without their armed guards” kind of crap.”

    Anyone see the new BMW ad?
    http://autos.aol.com/article/bmw-texting-and-driving-ads/?icid=maing-grid7|main5|dl7|sec3_lnk1|75085

    I am not sure if I like it for showing parents as crazed overly cautious helicopters or if I dislike it because of the final line….

  13. I’m not sure if the link above works: this one should.

    http://autos.aol.com/article/bmw-texting-and-driving-ads/

    I like it because it shows the absurdity, one we often discuss here, of being overprotective about some pretty minor risks but not thinking twice about the really (potentially) dangerous things.

    “Stay focused on safety” is admittedly over the top, but overall, I like the ad.

  14. there is alot of beauty to be found in living a simpler way.

    I too found myself apologising for my house when my daughter had a sleepover for her birthday. OUr house is beautiful but very small (we also have 7 people who live in our house – we have international exchange student live with us and my four girls all share a room) but every child that comes here thinks its great and always say they love our house. I must remember to look at things as children do! They are usually right on the mark!

    We’ve also try really hard to bike or walk to school on the days I dont have other engagements and need to take the car, to save costs on crazy fuel prices in Australia. You truly do meet more people, see interesting sights and stop and give people the ‘good morning’ nod or wave. Its nice.

  15. I actually remember days like what the writer discribes.. I was never ashamed of where i lived, it was home. I was safe, well feed, clothed, and most of all loved..

    Now I am ashamed because I bought into the “you have to have” Your child needs, you must….

    Time to rethink my priorities.

  16. Thank you for this! We live in a very nice, but small, three bedroom bungalow. Both sets of parents think we’re crazy for making the two (soon to be three) kids share a room. We also take a lot of flak for not keeping the place spotless, for not keeping a pristine front lawn, and even for growing (gasp!) vegetables in front of our house. Know what? None of us is complaining, and right now we agree we wouldn’t like a larger house. Go figure.

    And @Kimberly – I know what you mean about the “you have to have”. We get it from the parents: “kids need to have their own rooms so they have personal space”. Really? How did humans survive before? It’s astounding.

  17. I know all to well the beauty of pet chickens, but the utter destruction they wreck on the backyard… oh my poor backyard – what once was shabby, but reasonable, looks like a warzone from multiple chicken digging sites. It is a chicken paradise which they make up for with eggs and cuddles.

  18. Sounds like you could run a summer adventure camp!

  19. to december baby dont be ashamed about kids sharing. I know a few families whose older children all have to share. (and these teenagers are some of the most wonderful wellbehaved girls I know!) They are all of non western culture though and people seem to think it is ok for them. As I am a white australian people often think its tantamount to child abuse to have my four girls share! apparently they need their own space and beautiful things. I’ve found my kids dont really hang out in their rooms (never have really) it is a place to sleep and go to read if they feel like it. That is enough. They really DONT NEED their own personal cell filled with their every desire.. I dont want them ignoring us and sitting in their room anyway.

    Apart from the occasional staggered bedtime (when the giggling all gets to much for mum!) its worked out great. I’m awaiting another set of bunks so three of my girls have actually pushed two beds together and are sleeping together at the moment in one big bed. The toddler is in a crib next to them. They think its a great idea as it is winter here at the moment. They can keep eachother warm.

    My mum says she often used to sleep in her sisters bed. I like to think I am instilling some old world value into them while we have limited space (it wont always be like this). Houses used to be shacks with two rooms and people had like 10 kids!

    I love when I meet other people who don’t think its weird to have numerous siblings bunking in together, and it is getting more common. (when once upon a time it was the norm) I’ve become friends with a few parents at school who also seem to share the same thoughts (once we find out how everyone lives🙂

    Plus as a parent who wouldnt love younger siblings sharing a room with older ones so they can dob on any dubious behaviour😉

  20. I think this is a good general reminder for everyone, kids or no. In the fall, a friend invited me and several other women to her house for fondue and to watch Sex and the City 2 (and laugh at it). She couldn’t find her fondue pot (we used a candle), she had to rummage for the movie, and two of the people who were supposed to come didn’t. But you know what? I remember it as a very fun evening. My own mother was a very nervous entertainer. When people were coming, we started cleaning a week in advance, and by the time the “big day” was there, it didn’t even feel like our house anymore. I’m trying to get over that as an adult. Most people are not as judgemental IRL as they can be on the internet.

  21. I shared a room with my sister until I went to college where I shared a dorm and then an apartment until I got married. I’ll never forget the first time I was alone was when my new husband went away on a business trip. I didn’t know what to do with myself! Now after 24 years and 2 kids I kind of look forward to maybe having the house to myself for a day!

    I’m with Kenny, make the best of what you have, but I’m not going to go back unless it becomes necessary. I like my air, internet and garbage disposal. There are still a lot of things that my kids friends have that we don’t, I won’t play the keeping up with the Jones game.

  22. I love it! We sold our house last year to pay off bills and we got rid of so much stuff I forgot existed! We moved out of 1900 sq ft house (4 bd/3 ba)+ pool into my mother-in-law’s 2nd home (900 sq ft 2 bd/1ba) by the beach. Yes, great location, but way smaller than the house we just sold. We just had a family gathering and one of my nieces asked “where are the other bathrooms?” I found it amusing, yet satisfying. We have less stuff and my husband & I spend more time outdoors with the girls. Especially on vacations because we pay way less rent than the mortgage we had. Our 2 young girls love it and we always know where we all are in the house.
    When we first moved out, I read an article about living in a smaller home was better for families. I agree because in a smaller home, you are in each others faces interacting more rather than a huge house in hiding in your own room. I love the decision we made for our family!

  23. I’d love to live in an older home, in part because then we could get away from the obnoxious homeowner’s association. We rent, and I’ve always said I’ll never buy a home with a HOA, and this experience has confirmed my opinion. I’d far rather live in a run down house than deal with a HOA telling me what I can and cannot do with my property. If the kids have some really neat places to explore on the property and nearby, so much the better.

  24. LRH your place sounds awesome, but I gotta ask, where do you live that you can get a finished house for 150K???

  25. Possibly one of the most beautifully described summers yet. The memories these children have will be precious in later years.

    Now, where did I leave that $500 a week summer camp pamphlet?. . . Hmmm.

  26. I think its good that you invite people over in spite of your humble household. My house is nice but by no means super fancy. I have friends with much fancier houses with nicer furniture and more room, etc. Yet, they hardly ever invite people over to their home. Actually I know a ton of people who have such huge fancy homes and furniture but NEVER entertain guests! What is the freaking point of having all that if you never use it!!!???

    I love entertaining and my best friend is the same way. We are always having parties, huge playdates, dinners, etc. I am not going to let our lack of anything hold us back from entertaining. I find we are in the minority a lot though. I hold regular playdates and parties with lots of kids and yet we are rarely hosted at other’s homes. I was the only mother in our mother’s group that would invite the whole club to their home even though I have seen many other’s houses and they were much bigger and nicer. It just baffles me.

  27. I don’t mind the BMW ad. I like that they are coming out against texting and driving and that they show the reality that is the soccer moms who are guilty of it. It is a very stupid thing to text and drive or yak away endlessly on a cell phone and drive.

  28. “LRH your place sounds awesome, but I gotta ask, where do you live that you can get a finished house for 150K???”

    I don’t know where Larry lives, but in much of the US away from the coasts and outside major urban areas, that’s the price of a comfortable, affordable, but not luxurious or brand-new house in a nice neighborhood.

    We paid ~105K for a 20 year old 1800 sq.ft. 4Br/2B house in a pleasant, suburban-like area within the city limits in a small city in western PA, 5 years ago. No garage, but a decent yard.

    I know it must drive coastal/urban dwellers mad to hear such numbers, and those of us who live in such areas wonder how the rest of you manage not to literally starve.

  29. I paid less than $150,000 and we have a 10 year old 3 bedroom two bath house in a nice neighborhood with a large yard and a 2 car attached garage and unfinished basement. We live in a fairly cheap housing market and we bought it before the housing crash. We got a deal because they were trying to sell fast and I think they sold cheap because the walls and carpet needed to be replaced and the basement leaks. In our area a $150,000 house is about 3 bedrooms 2 baths and fairly nice.

  30. It’s all a matter of where you live. 150k is low for my area and I don’t live on the coast or within a reasonable, daily commuting distance to a major city. I work in a town 20 minutes away and you can get a huge, fancy house for 150k there (but why anyone would live there is beyond me).

    I’d love to downsize. Actually, I want to buy a smaller house in a more expensive neighborhood with more kids so I guess that really isn’t downsizing in a traditional sense.

  31. It’s a shame the author would be embarrassed by living a natural life, especially embarrassed about a child observing it. Children are much happier playing outside in a paradise like that than watching tv or surfing the web.

    I’m quite a bit more downsized than the author, though by choice. I sold my car just so that I would have to ride my bike everywhere and stop wasting my time in traffic. I live in a tiny place so that I can spend my money on travel. I have the internet because I work from home, but no tv for my family!

    Kids don’t care. They think it’s fun to play outside and make up games.

  32. It TOTALLY drives me mad to hear such numbers! Everywhere I’ve ever lived (coasts) $150k would buy you a small studio in the city, or a big fixer-upper in the ghetto. Maybe. Housing prices are out of control in the coastal areas. How are people supposed to buy into the market if they aren’t gazillionaires?

    We don’t starve because salaries are higher. (But not THAT much higher) And I guess we must save less. We get mortgages rather than paying cash, so we are essentially leasing our houses from the bank rather than owning them outright.

    Anyhow, IMO a house should be more like a zoo than a museum. Your home sounds awesome.

  33. We bought a 180K house last year, granted the yard was nothing but dirt and weeds at first, the bathroom tile needed calking, and a few other small problems, but my kids are happy, well fed, educated, and healthy. Isn’t that all what matters?

  34. The house next door to me is $125,000, 1600 sq ft, 3 bd/2 bath, double wide garage, fully remodeled, new lawn and beautiful flower beds. And if you don’t like that price tag, there are several others in liveable but worse shape for $76K or so. Salt Lake City suburbs.

    This sounds like how I grew up. 9 kids in a 3 bedroom house. The oldest got the privilege of sleeping in the laundry room. 1 bathroom for 11 people meant you didn’t get to shower every day. We spent most of our time outside because there was NO ROOM to stay inside. If you got a sliver, you went to “Dr. Dad,” who also handled slight infections and loose teeth, plus checking your throat to see if it was red enough to justify staying home from school. Mom took care of bruises and scrapes with herbal remedies (doctors are EXPENSIVE!). Our tomato plants were the envy of the neighborhood, and there was a horse pasture behind us.

  35. “Some people need to lighten up and quit thinking every family has to have a $150,000 house”

    This struck me as a bit funny because in the county where I live, $150,000 is the LOW END price for a one bedroom one bathroom condo.

  36. sounds wonderful! they can even eat the tomatoes from your garden huh? no supermarket run for pasta sauce!

  37. I haven’t seen any modest decent house with 3 bedrooms in the $150,000 range in the west, east, south, midwest, unless it’s in the high crime area. I’ve moved to the west and now to the midwest within the last 2 years and there is nothing out there in this price range. Maybe the list prices are not reflective of what is actually bought, it is a simple life, and in many ways its much healthier then city living.

  38. I don’t know where Larry lives, but in much of the US away from the coasts and outside major urban areas, that’s the price of a comfortable, affordable, but not luxurious or brand-new house in a nice neighborhood.

    Yeah, but part of what we pay for our homes is the fact that we get to live on the coast and/or near a major urban area : )

    I know it must drive coastal/urban dwellers mad to hear such numbers, and those of us who live in such areas wonder how the rest of you manage not to literally starve.

    You get paid more around here. Also, in NYC groceries are apparently cheap. Comparatively speaking, that is.

  39. My family experienced this same situation during the ’60’s affluence boom. We were the only “poor people” I knew.

    My Dad’s back was broken in a work injury he was never compensated for.

    My parents had 5 kids and another on the way. My Dad had a high paying oil field job. I remember having a beautiful home and pretty clothes.

    All that changed. Our family was on welfare for the next four years while my father recovered, and then returned to college in a era you just didn’t see “old guys” attending college.

    I remember whining and being resentful and angry of my lifestyle change. Summers were spent weeding and picking vegetables from the garden. Wealthy ladies from the other side of town would accompany me to the garden, pointing out which tomato or lettuce head to be picked. I was not amused when my parents named the chickens after us. I never wore “store bought” clothes until the day I left home.

    My mother delighted in it all. She came from a well to do home and seemed to revel in the farming, canning and sewing. She exhorted us to keep our heads high, not to ever let others shame us or make us feel less worthy.

    I felt shameful and unworthy anyway.

    Two weeks after my 18th birthday I joined the military for the education benefits and just to have a coat to wear in the wintertime.

    It’s hard to reconsile how, in my life today, I still feel “poor”. Compared to others I seem to be. I drive a 15 year old car. I can’t afford a trip to Hawaii, much less Europe. My TV was state of the art in 1992. Payday is a week 1/2 off and I’m putting off grocery shopping as much as possible. I don’t have a million dollars saved for retirement.

    OTOH – my lifestyle today is vastly more impressive than even those very well off were back in the days of my youth.

    I’ve managed to pay off a mortgage in spite of occasional 20% interest rates and housing prices 6 times what they were. My house has 3 bathrooms, a three car garage, and a TV and telephone in every room – including the kitchen. I choose not to, but could eat out in resturants every day and every meal.

    I guess it’s all relative.

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