My downsizing decisions were the challenges many of us face when buried by circumstances and an empty nest. Although through the years we lived in too many places that needed repair, I have carried with me furniture pieces that tell a story, are thematically united, and help me feel grounded. After leaving a large home just off the Yale campus to move to a one bedroom with a small terrace in Boston's Beacon Hill, I was suddenly overwhelmed.

Despite using architectural models and what I thought were perfect measurements, I had too much for the space. I bought outdoor trunks for the terrace, stuffed them, and placed flower pots on them.  But suddenly it felt as if they were crowding me and the wonderful terrace felt as if it was closing in on me. 

Something had to go, but what? I had three unrelated desks that I couldn’t part with: a computer desk for writing, a smaller desk for my serenity journal, a writing desk for penning off notes. And how could I get rid of the dining room table of family celebrations?

Two books saved me

Clutter quickly overpowered me. Then two books helped me to find my way. It  was at a lecture at the Boston Athenaeum where Dominque Browning, then editor of House and Garden, talked about her new book: Around the House and in the Garden: A Memoir of Heartbreak, Healing, and Home Improvement. Words of hers that have long resonated with me are these:

“I cannot say my home healed my heart. But I can say that, as my heart healed, my home reflected it.” 

She talked humorously about cracked walls and falling ceilings and gardens where flowers no longer bloomed. Her home reflected her feelings at the end of a marriage. My home reflected a woman "at loose ends" as my mother might say.

In House As a Mirror of Self: Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home Clare Cooper Marcus reaffirmed what Browning saw happening around her and what I was feeling. Awarded a Fulbright Travel Grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship, she weaves together personal stories in showing us how home impacts our psyche and our soul.

Always someone who needed a sense of order in order to write, to think—I have been known to go without sleep for the sake of putting away laundry or cleaning out a bookcase. But I was faced with a bigger challenge, the challenge of a tiny space. 

It was Browning’s book that made me realize I needed to get my hands into soil, to plant, to let go, and slow down. (Her blog is Slow Love Life)

As for my trunks of books and collectibles on the terrace, someone else would have to enjoy them. I felt an urgency to plant. But before I could find the right little terrace table and hanging pots, there was the issue of the dining room table still stressing me.

A gratitude ritual

That's when I began my gratitude ritual. I sat at the table one day and after expressing gratitude for every family celebration, for every birthday cake, for every dinner party, I was able to wish away a cherry wood table that had belonged to my parents. A young couple enjoyed its good karma. 

I needed little pieces of furniture that fit the space. After finding a way to hold onto three of the most meaningful pieces in the living room and build order around them, I was able to focus on my terrace. It became my haven. During the summertime, even butterflies found their way to our little street. I managed to grow hibiscus which I sprayed with vodka to keep the bugs from enjoying their deliciously coral flowers. While it seems as if I was overly anxious about order, I was—I had a book deadline. 

By fall, I turned in my manuscript. And in the winter I sat out there having coffee in Auntie’s politically incorrect mink that was shedding, but warm. I overlooked the front lawns on Brimmer Street that masked the menace of wood pilings holding the brownstones that were beginning to tilt. But in their charming way, they gave me a sense of peace. 

Whenever I began to fret about my lack of space, it was a reminder to give away, to toss, to recycle. And in expressing gratitude while doing so—this simple act would always bring back my smile. Then I could wave to neighbors, invite them in, listen to their stories, and share a memory.

It was there that I learned to take life more slowly, to walk instead of run.  

Have you read these gratitude articles?

Copyright 2014 Rita Watson

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