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Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream by William Powers

As described by the Publisher:

Why would a successful American physician choose to live in a twelve-foot-by-twelve-foot cabin without running water or electricity? To find out, writer and activist William Powers visited Dr. Jackie Benton in rural North Carolina. No Name Creek gurgled through Benton’s permaculture farm, and she stroked honeybees’ wings as she shared her wildcrafter philosophy of living on a planet in crisis. Powers, just back from a decade of international aid work, then accepted Benton’s offer to stay at the cabin for a season while she traveled. There, he befriended her eclectic neighbor—organic farmers, biofuel brewers, eco-developers—and discovered a sustainable but imperiled way of life. In these pages, Powers not only explores this small patch of community but draws on his international experiences with other pockets of resistance. This engrossing tale of Powers’s struggle for a meaningful life with a smaller footprint proposes a paradigm shift to an elusive “Soft World” with clues to personal happiness and global healing.

In my reading experience, the mark of a really good book is that is speaks to me differently over time. The first time I read Twelve By Twelve, I read it to understand what living a simple life, downshifting and downsizing, could look like. I was totally intrigued by the idea of living simply and off grid in a tiny home. The examples of Dr. Jackie Benton, and the lived experience of the author, were exactly what I was looking for.

But now, five years later, reading the book again, I find a new through-line that I completely missed. Or maybe it’s just that I am now at a point in my life where I could recognize it and appreciate it.

In the Preface, the author notes:

By sharing this journey in a very intimate fashion, I hope to help release fresh questions and insights about where we are, where we are going, and ultimately, how we might uncover hope for personal and global healing.

Twelve by Twelve is not Jackie’s story, nor a story about living in a 12' x 12' shed. Twelve By Twelve is the story of how the unexpected inflection points in our lives, and the questions those inflection points raise, help us weave the old with the new. This is a book about the tapestry of life.

In 2007, William Powers returned to the United States after a decade of international aid and conservation work in Africa and Latin America. Upon his return “home,” not only did he confront culture shock, but he became disillusioned. His creed—we can learn to live in harmony with each other and nature—was stretched to the breaking point. Doubt that the past decade of his professional life had been for naught gnawed at him.

Twelve by Twelve is Powers intimate journey of reconciling his international aid experiences, his personal beliefs, and the immediate circumstances of his life. He begins with the question: How could humanity transition to gentler, more responsible ways of living by relacing attachment to things with deeper relationships to people, nature, and self?

In response, and very unexpectedly, Powers finds himself meeting Dr. Jackie and eventually living in her 12' x 12' shed home. He says:

I had to face this challenge to find a way out of my despair; to learn to think, feel, and live in another way. The Twelve x Twelve seemed so full of clues toward living lightly, artfully in the twenty first century.

And what was he to do? “Not do, be,” were Jackie’s instructions. “There is someplace absolutely essential beneath doing.” This was Jackie’s unique approach to living in today’s world. A blend of spiritual passion and secular practically. Powers translated her credo in very simple terms: see, be, do. Achieve an outward nondoing; an internal readiness.

And so the story of Twelve by Twelve begins.

Living in the 12' x 12' shed gives Powers the time to see and to simply be, as he decides what to do. Some of the observations he makes along the way include:

  • The idea is not to live better, but to live well: friends, family, healthy body, fresh air and water, enough food, and peace.

  • I thought about my heroes. They don’t conform to any outward program, manifesto, or organized group, but conform only to what Gandhi called the “still, small voice” within.

  • I’d gone into a cocoon and felt my inner world shifting, but I had no idea if a butterfly would emerge or a stillborn half-creature. Would I be wise enough to identify the changes I’d need to make to align my life with the health of the planet?

  • Could part of the solution to our ecological crisis be found in rediscovering ways to maintain a place for idleness?

  • It occurred to me that the times when I slowed down—in the 12' x 12' and at other points in my life—were ironically the times when I got the most work done.

  • The more I treated my life energy as sacred and lived frugally, the more I was able to indulge myself; I could gush generously where it counted.

His conclusion after living in the 12' x 12'?

There are two types of problems we face in life: convergent and divergent. Convergent problems are like engineering problems, putting the pieces together to arrive at a definite answer. Divergent problems are those of the heart and spirit, diverging into greater mystery the more we try to untangle them. Perhaps a lot of the modern dilemma is that we try to solve divergent problems with convergent logic.

Only after leaving the 12' x 12' did Powers fully grasp the extent to which his heroes shaped their inner lives first, then moved on to shape their outer environments through living beyond the paradigms. By allowing themselves space to change, instead of clinging out of fear to what they knew, they were embarking on a journey of transformation.

The first time I read Twelve By Twelve I read the story of simple living. The second time I read Twelve By Twelve I read between the lines and discovered a new way to look at my life.

Be, see, then do. And live beyond the paradigm.


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