Living a full life - in a tiny space

Having an abundance of living space has long reigned as an American ideal. We dream of big rooms, plentiful closets, and three-car garages. By that measure, less is definitely not more.

Now the first glimmer of a move away from bigness may be on the horizon. In recent months, three sets of friends have moved to tiny quarters, radically reducing their living space. In the process of shedding thousands of pounds of furniture and belongings, they're finding new ways to live and fresh ways to relate to space, unshackled by needless stuff.

One couple, empty nesters, began by going from a seven-room suburban house to a four-room apartment nearby. A year later, they indulged a longtime desire to be city dwellers. Home is now a 450-square-foot condo in a historic Boston neighborhood.

Another friend, a single professional woman, bid farewell to the four-room apartment she had called home for 19 years. Her new petite maison is a 225-square-foot room in another suburb. And in Wyoming, a just-married friend, a decade out of college, moved with her groom into a 400-square-foot cabin. "We are so happy!" she exults in an e-mail, describing their "bite-size" quarters.

Three cases hardly count as a trend. But in a nation obsessed with bigness - think SUVs and sprawling suburban colonials - there is something heartening about a willingness to take such a dramatic step. It's a process worthy of a sequel to the movie "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." This one could be called "Honey, I Shrunk the House."

My friends with the tiny condo have entered a Lilliputian world they barely knew existed until now. They installed a Murphy bed that folds up into the wall. And they're shopping for scaled-down appliances: an 18-inch-wide dishwasher, a combination washer and dryer, a small vacuum cleaner.

Still, no one pretends that downscaling is easy. What to toss? What to keep? What's expendable? What's not? Decisions can appear endless.

The new city dweller describes the challenge. One evening before the move, she left a voice-mail message, saying, "If I were writing an essay about this day, I would give it the title 'My Father's Boots.' " She explained that years ago, her father gave his boots to her husband. They didn't fit, but sentimentality prevailed, and the boots stayed during three moves. Now the time had come for them to go. "They're on the porch for the Salvation Army," she said.

For her, as for other house-shrinkers, paring down brings moments of relief, with victorious cries of "Good riddance!" There are also moments of regret: "If only we could keep this." And inevitable questions arise, such as: When does the statute of limitations end for parents whose attics and basements are still cluttered with the childhood possessions of now-grown children? Is it OK to toss the papier-mâché volcano from a fourth-grade science fair? And the fifth-grade diorama of Bunker Hill?

For that matter, what about the statute of limitations on our own extraneous stuff, such as the college French textbook we tucked away in the attic decades ago?

Radical downsizing is not just for empty nesters, newlyweds, and those with sticker shock over the high price of real estate. As longevity increases, so will the ranks of retirees making later-life moves to smaller places. They, too, may face daunting choices as they pare down.

In the meantime, the current pioneers in Lilliputian living can serve as models for the rest of us, proving that sometimes, less can indeed be more. Acquiring and letting go - the cycles and the lessons go on.

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