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August 1, 2007

Improvement begins at home, with the cannoli of the universe

[I'm sorry this is so long. Apparently I have had some wordiness stored up inside.]

How August came to be the Month Of Making A House A Home

On Friday, July 13th, I woke up and decided I needed to move. IMMEDIATELY. Apparently the way I try to worm out of a conflagration of bad events is to pack up and get the hell out of Dodge. As it turns out, the universe at large did not think this was such a good strategy and wanted me to remain in Dodge for the time being.

(My mom sometimes wonders if I have turned fully crazy because I talk about The Universe a lot. But I like to think of "The Universe" as this dude who looks a lot like Luca Brasi from The Godfather. Sometimes he's got my back. Sometimes he swims with the fishes. We both like cannoli. Sometimes The Universe even looks like ... just the cannoli. It's a fluid concept.)

Anyway, I am a person who has never had trouble finding a place to live. Ever. I just get the show on the road and somehow it always works out. The Universe, he's got my back. YouknowhudImean?

But let me assure you that after five full days of dogged determination, a hundred phone calls and a wasted $60 for an online listing service, I finally put my head down on the desk, beaten by The Universe and July, 2007. I realized Luca Brasi had other plans for me, plans to stay put and figure it out ... whatever It was.

Where am I, and how did I get here? And is there any wine?

I moved into the teeny house in Encino-Adjacent at the lowest of low points, and I had more stuff than any one human should carry around. I was heartbroken, disheveled and also just plain broke. I hated how small the place was, filled floor-to-ceiling with the million boxes of my misspent marriage. I didn't care one way or the other about this house, I was just glad moving was over and it had a covered patio outside to sit and smoke. I could never smoke indoors, it was a long-held peculiarity of mine ... besides, Roy had terrible asthma.

The boxes were stacked in huge piles in the bigger bedroom and they filled the garage, the living room, every space was overflowing with stuff. I couldn't even get the stove serviced by the Gas Company for a week because the stove was piled high with boxes. It took a long time to dig out from underneath it all, but I did eventually get the clutter down to a livable amount. By the end of 2005 you could at least walk around the place. Then I pared down to a more acceptable level, and I pared down again and again until my house began to feel spacious, all 800 square feet of it.

This time of paring down has not always been easy or painless. Frankly, at first I did not want to do it. I thought that holding on to the things I'd collected over the years would bring me some kind of security or comfort or a sense of safety. After I moved, I was thisclose to becoming another woman altogether, one who'd once had a life and then something changed and she just stopped living. I could see the path to this potential life so clearly: The clutter would pile up, a new layer on top of the old layer from an old life, a life left unsorted. Year after year more rubble would be added to the pile like clutter strata until before long this woman, the one in the potential future, is sleeping on a corner of the bed and nobody could come visit and she is alone and ashamed. She would wonder sometimes how to fix it, and she would desperately want to fix it, but by then things had gone on for so long she was immobilized by stuff and fear.

I didn't want that to happen.

For some people, of course, this path is never even a possibility. But it was real and kind of alarmingly near for me. I knew that inside me there was a line drawn in the invisible sand and I could have stayed behind the line forever, and my life would have become an archaeological dig of junk and despair. Or I could cross over to something new and scary ... and free.

I'm not sure what was the one single deciding factor for me crossing to the other side of the line. I think it was Roy and the cats, to be honest. (Does that sound weird? Perhaps when we're at our most alone we cling to what we can, we cling to the one living, breathing thing that needs us.) Maybe that's why his passing has been even harder. He got very sick almost right after I moved into this house, and even though it was a coincidence and not the fault of the move or the house, I made the decision to try very diligently to get the house tidy and sorted out. I wanted the cats to be able to move around without fear they'd be trapped under boxes and piles. Whatever time Roy had left should be really nice, in a comfortable house with clean floors.

And I didn't want to be that woman, the one sleeping in a tiny corner of her own life.

Getting rid of the junk, and the not-junk, too

I think I've spent almost three years here in this little house unpacking. My relationship with stuff is a complex one, and revising that relationship has taken a lot of work. Even now, after years of letting go, sometimes it's so painful it almost physically hurts. When Roy died, I had to restrain myself from running out to the curb to retrieve his little tiny self-heating blanket mat out of the bin before the truck came. I sprawled on the bed and cried like an idiot as I listened to the truck empty the big cans, taking away forever that little blanket.

But that old mangled up piece of fabric which had seen a lot of washloads and a lot of fur was not my beloved cat. It was just an old blanket. Sure, he loved it. But up until he left me I never really thought of the blanket one way or the other, just washed it once a week and put it back inside his little tent and I was happy he was happy. I did not love and miss the blanket, I loved and missed Roy and I WANTED HIM BACK GIMME THAT BLANKET RIGHT NOW.

But I had to let it go. Things carry energy and memories and he only used the mat because he was frail and sick and cold a lot of the time. It reminded me every time I looked at it how hard I tried to keep him alive and still he left and I was sad. And holding onto a grubby scrap of cloth just will not bring him back.

Other times letting go has been easy. I don't care at all about saying goodbye to pants that are too big for me now or towels who have seen better days. I loved passing on to the Goodwill a pretty duvet cover and matching pillow shams that I bought when I first moved into this house. They were still pretty, but they represented my attempt to rid myself of married linens, re-take the bedroom as it were, and frankly ya'll that is a war I have long since won. Yay me! And yay to the person who finds this treat in the Goodwill store.

Sometimes you have to let go so new things can come in.

The move here to Encino-Adj. required a giant moving truck of the 18-wheeler variety and a team of three men and still it took NINE FULL HOURS to load and unload. NINE hours, not including breaks and driving time. And that was on the day after four of my girlfriends and all their respective vehicles had spent a whole Saturday loading and hauling stuff to the house before the movers even arrived. I look back and I am embarrassed at how much stuff I had, how much of my life I wrapped up in clutter and accumulation.

But when you know better you do better, or so says Maya Angelou and I do not argue with her. Or Luca Brasi. So I forgive myself. I held on because I didn't have a lot of material things growing up and it felt like comfort and security to accumulate stuff as I got older. I held on even tighter when my marriage started to fade. HOLD ON FOR ONE MORE DAY. I shopped hoping to finally buy something that would make everyone happy. Now I know they do not sell my brand of happy at a store. (But I do have some great shoes.)

I appreciate everything I have. And sometimes I give things more importance than they deserve. But finally, finally, nostalgic and sentimental me has realized that in the end it's just a blanket, it's not a soul. And when stuff begins to crowd into your life, there's not a lot of room left for people and adventures. I wasn't very portable just a few years ago. I couldn't have people over very often, either, because it meant spending ten hours of prep time sorting, stacking, managing the clutter, cleaning and hiding all the stuff.

I want my life to be about living, not about moving piles of boxes from this room to that room. It's hard to feel grateful for what you have when you're struggling to hide it or move it to the side so there's a path to the computer desk.

Just go to Ikea, that will solve the problem!

I used to think the solution was to buy new things to hold my stuff. I had all kinds of cheap cubbies and cubes and plastic bins, filled and overflowing, if I bought something new I often bought something to house it in. I also used to be in debt thanks to my try-to-buy-happiness-on-sale approach. Now, truth be told, I still believe that you can buy things and they give you a happy feeling or make you pleased. For example, I adore my L'Occitane shower oil. I love pretty yarn. AND SHOES. How I do love shoes.

But nothing I buy gives me the ability to be in my own company and enjoy it. That was something that came from a place they don't have sales.

One of the habits that has been hardest to break is the urge to buy a really great Ikea shelving system as a solution to all my problems, or maybe some plastic bins in matching sizes, or a set of pretty boxes that I don't know what they'll hold, but Lord knows I'll find something...

No. The solution to having too much stuff isn't to go out and buy more stuff. Funny how that works.

From House to Home in 31 days...?

I wanted to move out of this house because I was sad, and July sucked, and I'm anxious about the future.

Nothing in my life is very stable right now, and for me (a stabilty-lovin' mudfoot) this is a really scary place to be. I am trying to Go With It, and often that involves wine and fervent prayers in the wee hours. Sometimes I plead with The Universe/Luca/Cannoli to just show me a little glimpse of the future. Please? And let it be a good one?

One night I looked around my living room and realized I have been living here, in this house, for almost three years and I have yet to actually move in. I was living in the past for the first year and a half, and I've been living for the future the rest of the time. And at the risk of sounding even weirder and self-helpier than usual, I realized in that moment of pure clarity that I have been living my life on credit, on emotional lay-away, waiting for my life to start, waiting for The Future. And now I am 36 years old and here's a newsflash: LIFE HAS ALREADY STARTED. IT IS ALREADY IN PROGRESS.

I have been waiting until....

Waiting until I pay off debt. Then waiting until I save money. Waiting until I have free time. Waiting until the book is finished. Waiting until it comes out. Waiting for the phone call. Waiting for the schedule. Waiting for more information. Waiting until I have a plan. Waiting until I weigh X amount. Waiting until I get my hair cut. Waiting until I find that right outfit. Waiting until I know. Waiting until I meet someone. Waiting until I move to really decorate. Why bother doing it now? Sometime in the future I'll live someplace else. That's when I'll get it all together. That's when I'll have a lovely little home. Why bother now? Why, when the future is coming?

I have been waiting until conditions were perfectly right to live fully. Apparently I think somewhere off in the future there is a really good life and if I wait long enough I will get to it.


Then Roy died. And lots of things happened all at once. And finally I lifted my head and looked at my current surroundings. My life is right here, in this house, right now. Today. I sleep in this house every night and wake here every morning and clearly I am not moving this weekend or in the certain near future. And even if I do move unexpectedly in two weeks, I can't wake up anymore in a half-way place, always waiting, living between What Was and What Will Be. This house is what I have to work with at this time. It's not about a big shopping spree or all new furniture, it's about having what I need and love and enjoy and making it comfortable and pretty and tidy. Living as nice as current conditions can be.

Moving has not ever brought me much happiness, anyway. I tend to carry my stuff with me everywhere I go.

It's a process.

Since that lonely first Christmas when all it did was rain and all I did was smoke alone on the patio avoiding the boxes and the future, I have learned some good things just from living in this house. Like how enjoyable it can be to have a small space. And how small things can go a long way. And I finally learned how to sit with anxiety and fear, and how to be truly alone.

Most importantly, I learned how to be grateful in this house. There were times I would come home and thank God for letting me have such a comforting place to spend the night.

But maybe gratitude is like a muscle, like a bicep or something, and I have to exercise it regularly or it gets weak. Or I get weak and forget to be appreciative. Maybe somewhere along the line I stopped being grateful for what I have right this second, and started hoping for a better (happier, kinder, softer, skinnier, less lonely, more vibrant) future. Or maybe somewhere deep down inside I don't think I'm worth the effort. Don't believe that me, alone, is a project warranting any more than simply removing the clutter and waiting for a better time to make improvements. Until conditions are right.

Well, this is the August when I actually move into my house. It's going to be a really great month whether it wants to be or not. I know that current conditions will never be perfect, but it will simply have to be good enough. I don't want to fall asleep in my house each night envisioning a future home with a future me where I am skinny and have a great companion and have money in the bank and never experience loss or sadness or blemishes ... while my current conditions deteriorate rapidly. It's another way of crossing that invisible line in the sand, keeping my life on the path I want instead of stuck on the fear path.

Work with what I've got. Exercise the grateful muscles. Stop waiting. Conditions are right now, and that is what I have to work with.

Posted by laurie at August 1, 2007 10:08 AM