What’s more important than the size of the room where we sleep? The community around us.
In our home in Western North Carolina, my two daughters sleep in a closet. They are not babies or toddlers anymore. My 16- and 9-year-old girls sleep in a closet, which we call, appropriately enough, the sleeping room.
When guests visit our 900-square foot house for dinner or a cup of tea, they peek behind the teal-blue pocket door and admire this efficient use of space. Then they shake their heads and warn me: This won’t work forever. Your eldest will need her own space, they say.
And I listen because I don’t want my attachment to our tiny rental duplex and its expansive view on Warren Wilson College to exacerbate the already challenging teenage years. If sleeping in a 70-square-foot room increases domestic conflict, I’ll figure out a way to expand our space beyond the campus where I have taught and lived for 15 years.
But for now, this sleeping room works for my small family. With light-blue walls and one window, the closet has just enough space to fit a bunk bed and built-in shelving for clothes. It’s the size of a generous walk-in closet, one of those dream closets featured on Pinterest or Southern Living.
Our nondescript red-brick campus housing overlooks a magnificent view of a pasture with cattle, sheep, and a donkey named Tallulah. From my kitchen, I can see a men’s dormitory to the east and the Appalachian mountains to the west. Several years ago, an appraiser for the college walked through the duplex, assessed the view and exclaimed: “Honey, you’re living in a cheap house with a million dollar view!”
When my youngest was a baby, the sleeping room was a cramped closet with hanging racks for clothes and enough space for a crib, replaced later by an Ikea toddler bed. When Annie Sky turned 5 and headed to kindergarten, her spindly legs were longer than the pine slats of the toddler bed. But the closet was inches too small for a twin bed.
Recognizing our quandary, my brother-in-law Jonathan, an environmental planner, turned to the wisdom of Christopher Alexander, the lead author of the book A Pattern Language, published in 1977. In this practical 1,000-page tome, Alexander describes a pattern as “a careful description of a perennial solution to a recurring problem within a building context.” With illustrations and photos, the book presents 200 design principles or patterns inherent in buildings and cities that people love.
“Bedrooms make no sense,” writes Alexander.
Instead, he encourages the design of “bed alcoves” located off rooms used for other functions such as studying, recreating, and visiting. Thomas Jefferson first saw bed alcoves when he visited France and integrated the concept into the design of Monticello.
If bedrooms make no sense, renovating a rental didn’t make financial sense to me either. But I decided to invest in our quality of life and remove two closet walls: Maya’s bedroom became a playroom for two, and the girls spent their first night together in the closet.
In part, I navigate my life as a single mom and professor at this small college by relying on the resources of an academic community that includes friends, babysitters, and a computer lab where my teenager can escape when she needs a break from our household. Indeed, this is a place, like the bar on “Cheers,” where everybody knows your name (and what you placed in your recycling bin last week). So while the girls have a small sleeping alcove, they also have a wider community.
Now I’ll admit that sometimes I wish for a dining room where six people could sit at one table with placemats and my grandmother’s china. When I am grading at night, I yearn for a desk in a study, rather than a bench at the kitchen table.
During those times, I pretend this is our Manhattan apartment, where 900-square feet would be prime real estate. Or I recall my three years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Central African Republic, where entire families slept in one room on straw mats. I know that for much of the world, a home is a luxury indeed.
But my choice to stay in this space isn’t about making a sacrifice or decreasing our ecological footprint in a super-sized culture. Rather it’s about what we gain by living in a community of disparate souls, together in small spaces, but with a view of the world around us.
Mallory McDuff, Ph.D., teaches at Warren Wilson College and is the author of Natural Saints: (OUP, 2010) and Sacred Acts (New Society Publishers, 2012). Her essays and op-eds have appeared in BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Literary Mama, The Rumpus, Patheos, Sojourners, and USA Today.