The New Journey — Mind-Altering Spring Cleaning


When I got the new apartment, I amused myself by scrolling through the usual home decorating sites, used furniture on craigslist, local consignment store websites, and amazon. This time I would go modern minimalist. Something totally unlike me. Grays and reds would complement the white walls. I will have only a few distinguished pieces to bring out the personality of the living area.

I began to calculate how long it would take me to get new furniture. The answer was the same as usual. Never. And the truth was, I didn’t really give a damn.

This story might not be appropriate at all for a design blog, or for a marketing website, or for our sell, sell, sell culture at all. But it feels real.

I have never been a minimalist by choice. Scraping by to save ten dollars to buy a monkey lamp from Walmart or a pirate coconut head from a local place in Ft. Walton Beach was a treat for me. Most of my possessions are gifts that I carry around for sentimental reasons.

I have been around wealthy people enough to be amazed when they drop several hundred to several thousand in one day on stuff for the house. I remember my dad and stepmother doing the same thing, spending $500 on a doll for my stepmother’s collection one day in St. Augustine. Maybe that’s why I shudder at spending so much at one time.

Renting a former hoarder’s house was another wake up call. It suited my purposes since it was already furnished, but I didn’t realize the extent of the situation until I began opening drawers and cabinets. There was 30 of everything, all in different places, enough stuff to make you run screaming for the nearest exit. When I piled it all in the den, it was like a maze with little paths going through it. I couldn’t find my son on the other side unless he yelled out.

The former residents were a man and wife, both with dementia, and old people with dementia do things like that. It lets them find the tools they are looking for. It also fills a hole where they are emotionally empty. Or so I have read.

My longing to strip everything down to the basics was not yet fully formed. It developed. Over the course of about a year and a half I gradually lost four beloved animals, two houses, all my money, most of my ego, and the illusion of a family. It wasn’t the first time the bottom had fallen out, but it was perhaps the most drawn-out and traumatic of those times. The most life-changing, I would have to say. If you have ever been through one of those experiences you know that it leaves you with the strange sensation of drifting in the middle of a vast sea, with nothing familiar in sight.

In May my dad ostensibly took a bottle of pills and was taken to the hospital with respiratory failure. I didn’t realize he had been developing symptoms of Alzheimer’s over several years. I thought he kept telling me the same stories to make sure I remembered. My relationship with my blood family has never been stellar, but I had put those things in the past over the last 10 years. We went to see them on holidays, and my son spent summers with them in Atlanta. My father had become kinder, more spiritual, as he got older. We became friends. My favorite room in his house was filled with Native American relics, some of which he made by hand. It smelled of leather.

So when I found out that my stepmother had left the house and come down to Jacksonville with her son, and that my father was unconscious in the hospital, I drove up the next morning. There were complications.

They had let some kids move into the house to help take care of things. They had nowhere to go, the girl was pregnant, and more of their friends had moved in. The hospital had no idea how long my dad would be unconscious or what condition he would be in when he woke up. The house, which my parents wanted to leave anyway, wasn’t worth what was owed on it. The car was due to be repossessed. The squatters could not be gotten rid of without an eviction. They had been taking care of the cats which, due to my father’s mental condition and compassion for taking in strays, had now grown in number to about 35 with new litters being born weekly. I called every organization in Atlanta and even took a carful of cats across town, but no one will take cats in Atlanta during kitten season.

Some of the cats went to the pregnant girl’s mother’s house, where they escaped. I brought one litter of kittens back to Jacksonville. Some of the cats were truly feral and ran up the walls when we tried to trap them. The rest went into the back yard. I cried when I put them out. Some had never been outside, and some were very old and I had known them for many years. The squatters said I was an animal abuser.

The result of all this was that my dad lost everything. When he woke up, he was not someone I knew. He had strange tales of what they did to him at the rehab center, strange tales from the past of scuba diving for treasure and flying in an F16.  The squatters were evicted, after taking everything that could be pawned or resold. The house was sold at auction.

I picked him up in October and brought him to Florida, to an already volatile situation. The result of THAT was that all of us –me, my father, and my son– ended up on the street, so to speak. Imagine being locked in a hotel room with a teenager and a threatening demented person during a hurricane.

The rooms kept getting cheaper and more horrifying. Our neighbors kept getting shadier and meaner. I drove my son across town to school every morning, cleaned foreclosures or did writing jobs during the day, picked him up in the evening, watching the needle tick down towards empty. My father ate all the food and forgot that he ate it, threw things on the floor and out of the car windows, stayed up all night and threatened me if I confronted him. Sometimes he would walk off down the street with his cane and get his own room, or he would take a cab somewhere, or fall down and crack his head. My son said this is “new Pop.” I wanted the old one back.

The point of this horror story, which I have tried very hard not to go off on too many tangents during, is value.

My father lost a lifetime worth of belongings, but he was ok with it as long as I was nice to him. If I got stressed, or lectured him that he should care, he became wild and inconsolable. He has a nice senior apartment with a view of the river, and is thinking of decorating it like the Millennium Falcon. He is going to start over.

I am relieved just to be able to open my eyes and face the day. I am grateful for every bite of food, a secure place to sleep, the life of my son, and what is left of my physical and mental health.

When I look around and think what I might want to add, what would really bring more value to my life . . . .

Sometimes I think I might want furniture for when I have guests. But I never have guests. I could save that money to visit friends (my true family) and my mom, who are all hundreds of miles away.

I also thought learning something new might add value. I would like to start building furniture from reclaimed objects. I started designing my own pallet couch and chaise lounge.

Then I realized, while I was doing one of my combined ballet and martial arts workouts, that the living area and smooth floor has just enough space for me to fly through the air. I also kind of like the bare white walls that come up to a point, and the jagged corners. I have a cool red console table that someone was throwing in the trash because it had a broken hinge. I have an old mantel that I may or may not use.

I ask myself, what would it be like not to have things to remind you who you are? Will you still remember? Or maybe you will find that you have become someone completely new.

I will build the sofa and then sell it. Then I will build something else and sell that, too.

I made a stack of books that I don’t read over and over to get rid of. The Taoist motto is true. Once you get to a certain point, success and failure are the same.

In the documentary “Minimalism”, one of the philosophy’s main proponents says “Use things and love people, not the other way around.”

I would like to expand that to say, love all creatures (I’m still working on the people part).

I’ll let you know how it goes.









The Psychology of a House

life as a house 1


I spent a lot of time explaining to my wonderful high school students how a word’s connotation differs from its literal meaning. The most ready example is “What do you think of when you hear the word home? How is a ‘home’ different from a ‘house’?”

Well, they said, home is where you feel comfortable. And safe. And loved.

Some people spend their whole lives looking for home.

Plenty of research is out there to tell you how your home or office space impacts your physical and mental health. Obviously, it should not have mold in the walls. Tripping over vagrants on your way up the stairs tends to be dirty and depressing, as is finding any human waste or remains on the threshhold. (According to a friend who rented a cheap apartment in New Jersey).

Plants green up a space and make it come alive. Blue light should be avoided to save your eyes and neural pathways. Feng shui is a whole pseudoscience explaining how things should be arranged in each quarter using the five elements of Chinese medicine — metal, earth, fire, water, and wood — to maximize the chi of your space.

Even government office workers  who have nearly blended into the dreary walls after years of loyal service post pictures of their kids and lhasa apsos around their desks to make them feel more at home.

But what about the psychology of the built environment?

I first started thinking hard about this (as opposed to daydreaming casually) when I first saw the film Life As A House starring Kevin Kline and Hayden Christensen before he turned to the dark side and became Darth Vader. It became my favorite new movie almost no one has seen.

A couple of moments in this film let you know that the “house” is a metaphor for something bigger. Just consider the process of building a structure. First you have to tear down what’s already there. It’s hard work. It might even be sad, to take down something someone spent years investing their time and money in, especially if it was your time and your money. It is extremely difficult to reduce to ashes something that feels so familiar but isn’t doing its job anymore.

This condemned place is your soul. It’s a haunted house. It is filled with a lifetime of ideas and beliefs that may not suit the person you are today. It is a rigid structure. The walls are composed of past experiences, relationships, and all the things that make up your perception of life. It leaves a lot of floating dust and a pile of rubble when it comes crashing down. Then you realize, once the dust clears, that you can see the sky and feel the breeze in your hair.

Before you do anything else, you lay the new foundation. This step is very important. It must be a good, solid foundation on stable ground. You don’t want to build on an earthquake fault line, sinkhole, or wetland because the foundation will crack. It might not be today. It might not be tomorrow. But it will happen.

Once the foundation has been laid, the new framework can go up. The frame is composed of your main support beams, load bearing walls, and roof trusses. The job of these things is to make sure the building is sturdy so that it will not collapse or blow over in a strong wind. The frame is made up of your strengths, the valuable construction lessons you have learned, and your will to put the wisdom gained to practical use.

The outside of the house can be wood or concrete or shingles or brick. It can be big or small, linear or curvy, ornate or minimalist. It can even be pink. The outside is the face you show the world. It might be a reflection of you, or it might not. The facade of your building is there to insulate you from weather, noise, and whatever else lurks outside.

Now comes the fun part. You have a lot of clean, empty space to work with. It is up to you if the inside of your house is dressed to impress, or if it makes you feel like yourself. You can fill it with appliances and sculptures. Vintage furniture and photographs may grace your building. You can fill it with friends, with anger, with passion, or with solitude. You can begin to haunt your own building all over again.

The thing is, it can be the most stunning estate with a view of the sea and million-dollar paintings lining the walls, but it might never be home. I’m sure Mary Engelbreit meant the very best with her infamous “Bloom where you are planted” quote, what with her chair of bowlies and optimistic skipping flower children.

But sometimes people just tell you to “Bloom where you’re planted” like its one of the Ten Commandments. And then you feel guilty, like a sinner. Because you don’t know how. What they don’t tell you is you have to experience all the grief and loss and sweat and tears before you have room to bloom. Lightning strikes the tower; the house burns to the ground. Or you tear it down yourself, brick by brick. Only then can you build yourself a life.