A Path to Building Minimalism
By: Jordyn Moullette // Founder of The Magical Field
I called it Blue. It was blue in color with white windows and doors, and there may have been a white picket fence too, but that I can’t remember. Blue was a modest, split-level house where some rooms were used more than others, other rooms filled with unused items labeled storage, and it was grounded in the rural Midwest on a curved street named after grandma.
The main level of Blue had a front foyer greeting a dividing flight of split-level stairs that made for an exciting exploratory decision to go up or down. Upstairs, Blue held my childhood bedroom with a dark wooden bedpost in the shape of a ship wheel and downstairs encompassed dads TV room with dated wallpaper and a dusty shelf with an antique clock placed inside a clear glass dome. I never quite knew whether this gold, fragile clock worked, but at the time, it didn’t matter because the ticking of time seized to exist.
My favorite room at Blue was a tiny crawlspace where even I, at a young age, couldn’t fully stand up in. This cave was where mom, dad, brother and I would all come together, and there’d be no distraction other than a radio playing in the background with a cautionary grownup repeating the word ‘tornado.’ Even though the outside world had a surrounding clouded sky with sirens going off, I somehow always felt safe inside this Narnia; especially when mom occasionally smiled at dad.
One day, mom wanted a larger house and dad decided to build one. After saying goodbye to Blue, brother and I got a tour of a brand new yellow house that contained a living room, family room, fireplace room and other rooms too. Adapting quickly to the move, dad would arrive after work to plant down in his old dark blue chair in front of a larger TV while mom reclined her feet up in one of the new chairs to read an old book in a separate room.
Eventually, mom and dad signed white papers that read “divorce” bold in black. As I began to live out of a suitcase tossing from one place to another, I was supposed to be happy now, or so I was told, because I’d get two houses, two beds, two alarm clocks, two TV’s and other things shaped like a box too. Although I was always fortunate to have a house to stay at, it was within this separation that I no longer felt like I had a place to call home.
After receiving laminated paper of my own declaring ‘legal adult’ and high school education status, I packed my Mazda 3 to the rim and set sail across the country. Landing in sunny San Diego, I was on a new journey in a world of palm trees, froyo, and sand between my toes, and far, far away from Fargo accents, my ancestors and cheese curds. While tending to my personal growth garden and riding the wave of hopes and dreams, I moved more than my fingers could count.
Four years later, I moved to Los Angeles and decided that this time around I’d “settle down.” For the next four years, I’d continue to pay an astronomical fee in exchange for a charmingly quaint residence that neighbored Paramount Studios with the Hollywood Sign staring at me outside the front door. Although comfortably sound with all I thought I’d ever wanted, I still couldn’t identify with this as "home."
Commuting in stop-and-go traffic to a designated parking spot in the zip code of 90210, I’d clock in and out, working overtime on Rodeo Drive, the shopping capital of the US. In off time, my camera and I documented the crowded streets of Downtown Los Angeles’s Skid Row, home to the second largest homeless population in the US. Observing these polarized worlds had me question all I’d accumulated, systematized, identified and been educated to know as a twenty something-year-old living on the West Coast.
What am I working for or toward and in exchange for what? What do I really need and does it align with my values and concerns? What do I deeply desire to create more of and with whom?
Questions like these are what sparked a path, if I could even call it that, to building minimalism. I said goodbye to the Hollywood studio, my Prius, 5 closets of vintage and designer clothing and a 6-figure job opportunity and as I cut urban ties, I was many times without a cell phone, had deleted social media accounts and chopped off my hair to find its natural color again. Whether couch surfing from one place to another or camping from a canvas tent next to a band of yipping coyotes, I’d start to tune into my inner nature, using it as a guide to figure out what my next step would be.
Exploring across far-off places in and around the red rocks, over boulders, steep cliffs, enchanted forests, snowy mountains, layering volcanos, lush jungle, vast deserts, shallow sea, deep ocean, pristine lakes, gushing waterfalls, running rivers and fields of wildflowers, I would be still. Awake to wind brushing against my clothes with sunshine beating down on my skin, I would listen. Here, each step presented itself in what I refer to as magical moments; where time seemingly slows down within a natural rhythm and flow, synchronistic events and breakthrough “ah-ha’s” are alive and well lit and here I am – so small -- and yet feeling familiarity with connection to every precious intricacy that embodies a sense of wonder, reverence and awe.
Can you remember this space? In this deep sense of stillness, can you feel the constant beating of your heart? After spreading wings through thousands of miles with one suitcase and no address to my name, my inner nature opened doors to whisper, I am home.
Upon returning to my roots in The Northwoods of Wisconsin, I pondered with wide-eyes and curiosity on how to sustain the freedom that’d been created after taking a yearlong traveling sabbatical. I remembered back to when grandpa built houses with dad and as a little girl, I’d stay up at night, studying their blueprints that led to drawing my own versions of magical forts, teepees, yurt-like sanctuaries, treehouses and other small dwellings. I imagined what such space could be like as a grownup in real life someday, to adventure in and (re)discover more dreams.
With no prior construction experience and a tad bit of stubbornness, I decided to start small and embark on a new journey in joining the tiny house movement. What started as a napkin drawing of a blueprint, made way into a 3-dimensional reality after trading my Honda Civic that I drove across the US in exchange for a 38 foot long gooseneck trailer. After diving into this full-on investment and unknown territory, I’d spend days thereafter wandering through piles gathering reclaimed materials while accumulating hand blisters and backaches as I’d chat with contractors, bloggers, authors and do-it-yourself builders, sorting through perspectives of how to turn this moveable trailer into a 304 square foot livable structure on wheels.
Yet it’s not a tiny house that I sought after but rather, the straightforward act of building itself. Continuing the build of what now has insulation and wired electric, I find myself slowly rebuilding other aspects of life too; from sewing a 9-item capsule wardrobe with deadstock fabric and throwing ceramic mugs and bowls glazed for a future tiny kitchen, to meeting new people, making memories and growing within a synergized alchemy of dreams and rich celebration. It’s an ever-evolving story continuing to unfold one nail, one conversation, and one season at a time.
This is what brought me to Rettlers Building Minimalism retreat on the North Shore at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Grand Marais; population 1,300 that looks straight out of a Wes Anderson film and prides itself on being large enough to have a red traffic light in the center of town. On the stirring harbor of Lake Superior, a room of like-minded strangers filled a spirited green building at North House Folk School; a campus inspiring people, place, traditional craft and culture through the hands, heart and mind. Kicking off the weekend was an opening activity to contemplate how to live with less by listing what the top 300 essential items in our lives could be.
One of the keynote speakers, arctic explorer Lonnie Dupre, builds affordable houses six months of the year hauling materials on top of his weathered, cherry red car and then treks on one-of-a-kind expeditions by dog team, ski, and kayak the other half. Touring Scandinavian style properties of his with an assortment of colors including purple trim that I never thought could look so good, we were introduced to a wealth of concepts centered on living simply and closely with the land and its ecosystem. This ranged from creating maintenance free lawns to discussing where to place items such a toilet to save room in an A-Frame, and making good use of materials, such as building 16x16 cabins to get the most out of standard 16 foot timbers in an efficient and sustainably sound way.
Involved in the formation of North House, is Mark Hansen, who then welcomed us into his treasure chest of a workshop at home with sweet homemade cookies and steamy tea thoughtfully offered by his wife, Wendy. It was a show-and-tell that weaved through unique designs and intricate models for dreams that he’s too in the process of constructing. As we ventured through many of his handmade boats and cozy small shelters, some of which carry names such as “Wabi Sabi,” Mark added, “It’s surprising what all you can get done when you don’t have cable!” In fact, so much so, that he indicated he always prefers having three projects simultaneously in the works at any given time.
Mark expressed, “The trouble with normal is that it always gets worse. We need to think differently.” His words transitioned into day three where Nicole Ektnitphong of MN350 had us settling into a circle to share stories and open a dialog around potential ways to think outside the box when it comes to intentionally helping minimize climate change. As we retreating builders, adventurers, dreamers, creatives, farmers, homemakers, activists, minimalists and artists reflected on last minute questions from over the weekend, we forged a path of resonance, commonality and connection that linked together like dovetail notches forming a timber frame shelter.
With only so many hours in the day, how are we choosing to invest in them? If we catch ourselves saying there’s not enough time in the day, how can we rearrange our life? Can we improvise, innovate, downsize or be more resourceful?
At the end of the day, I see home, tiny or large, as an archetype to a way of life. Sometimes, it may be off the beaten path, other times consisting of roadblocks and detours, and no matter current whereabouts, a simple return to a space of being present with what’s loved most. Here, we can disconnect from the excess that may stand between us and our dreams and perhaps this, at the foundation, is what building minimalism is really all about.