Shrinking our spaces, but not our selves
I’ve written about the house we used to live in both in fiction and for a live performance (2018 Ampersand Live, minute 18:26). It was our first house, which was also our last house, the fixer-upper that never quite got fixed up enough and in the last years that we occupied it, lost many of its functioning parts much the same way any living thing does. Not that the house was a living thing, but it mocked us the way a sentient thing might. A sentient thing with a grudge.
It was a one and half-story with full, unfinished basement – a forever work-in-progress. Eighteen hundred square feet of unremitting decline. It was not a house you invited people over to. If they happened to drop by, you met them at the door, which you pulled half-shut behind you.
One day, I thought, we would live in a nice house. But after our daughters were grown and we were nearing retirement, we were done with houses—with the maintenance, of course, which in the case of our house meant maintaining the existing level of deterioration. But also, we were done with the space a house affords. The uninhabited rooms of our house were spiritless, their shortcomings—creaky floors, truculent window sashes, cracks in the ceiling—ever more apparent now that no one inhabited them anymore. No one went upstairs except the cat since her litter box was there. Even though I had long yearned for a separate space for writing, I had after thirty years become used to having a writing desk crammed into the bedroom, and so the unused spaces upstairs had remained abandoned in all their drafty discomfort.
We moved to an apartment, which meant ridding ourselves of stuff that had accumulated over thirty years, most of it expendable with only a little bit of sentiment attached to it. Or the house.
We don’t miss it. We have our memories good and bad of it. We have photos. And the house itself doesn’t exist anymore, having been torn down, rebuilt, and flipped. The somewhat ragged backyard garden I kept has been replaced by a concrete slab and a strip of grass. Sometimes I miss that garden, which had its moments of fleeting splendor. It’s one of the things I like to remember about our fraught lives there.
We moved to a 724 square-foot two-bedroom apartment. We were happy to be in a new space where appliances worked and nothing leaked, and a rooftop terrace with a view of Mount Tahoma in the distance provided elbow room when we needed it. While the space was modest in size, it still accommodated a five-month stay of our older daughter when she was in transition between her life in Los Angeles and a new start in New York. Then at the start of the pandemic, our younger daughter and infant grandson left the uncertainties of the pandemic in Ecuador to hunker down with us in our part of the pandemic here. While our daughter awaited the start of a new job, her partner in Ecuador awaited a visa delayed by the pandemic-related suspension of services. I’ve written about all that as well here and here.
The presence of a baby in our lives was like a daily dose of magic as we watched this new little human test gravity with a swat of a chubby arm to topple a tower of blocks, exercise both small and large motor skills prying book after book from the shelf and hurling it to the ground, and other marvelous acts of baby genius. But after our daughter and grandson started their lives anew in Sacramento, the absence of a baby in the apartment was like an excision of the soul.
When my husband suggested we downsize to a smaller apartment to accommodate a future traveling lifestyle, my reluctance to further reduce our living space was outweighed by the prospect of leaving behind the hollow spaces once occupied by Ilio. The places Ilio once crawled, slept, ate, and touched were now indelibly marked. My husband and I would say to each other,
Remember how he used to play with the window crank?
How he used to pull books from the bookshelves and toss them on the floor?
How we used to sit with him in our lap so he could watch the world go by outside the window?
We are now more or less settled into our new 525-sq.ft. apartment, a smaller space, a tighter fit, and yet a space that spares us the twinges of the heart at such reminders. We no longer have the east window where Ilio would sit in our laps and we would point out buses and garbage trucks, bicycles and dogwalkers to him.
We’re still in the same building with a nearly identical floor plan as the last apartment. But those cranks on the south-facing windows, well, they aren’t the ones that Ilio played with. We still have the bookshelves whose lower reaches were blithely demolished by Ilio’s curious hands, but the room itself is different.
Soon it’ll be the anniversary of the start of Ilio’s stay with us in that other apartment. Someone else will be living there, unaware of the hands that once smeared the windowpane with baby-sized prints, or strummed the heating vent, or grasped the window ledge.
I wonder if these sentiments feel more intense because we are getting older and we face the finiteness of tender, ineffable moments. As we shrink the physical spaces we occupy and the belongings that can fit in them, how much more we will trust our hearts and brains to hold everything that matters.
What memories-to-come will define our stay in this new space? What stories will I write from this corner?
Thanks for this Donna. We are looking at the same move in a year or two. We still live in the same house (our first house) for over 30 years now. Built in 1909 it does often feel like it is sabotaging us day by day. It will be heart rendering in many ways to leave, but I am so done nurturing this old house into something it will never be. It has been a good loving shelter for so long. We have no children or grandchildren, but letting go of stuff, our home, our garden and neighbors is faced in very different ways by the two of us. It’s all emotion based. It represents dreams of the future that never materialized and memories of our youth. Another lesson in letting go. I have my own writing office/extra bedroom right now and I know I will have to face a new writing environment and challenges. Other peoples journeys are inspirational. Thanks again.
Tina, thank you for sharing this. Your sentence, “It represents dreams of the future that never materialized and memories of our youth.” says so much that I definitely feel. Good luck with your move when the time comes as it comes for so many of us.
You’ve set up your writing corner so beautifully.
Thanks! I hope I can keep it uncluttered!
So poignant, Donna. We too were surprised by how freeing it felt to let go of our house of 21 years and move into a smaller space.
Thanks, Ann. I remember seeing your beautiful house. But at a certain point, it does make sense to let go of a space and live smaller. I agree that it’s freeing.
This is a lovely, poignant essay. Thank you, Donna. Selling our house in Bellingham was difficult and painful. It was a perennial fixer-upper that we barely managed to keep upright, and we were never able to really fix it up. The burst of intense labor required to put it onto the market was exhausting, and it was discouraging to see it finally approach the house that we had always envisioned, but only in time to sell it.
All of that said, the moment that we sold that house, I began to feel lighter and far less encumbered. It freed up a lot of mental space. And, four years later, now renting a much smaller house in Spain, that lightness has not dissipated. I do hope that we will see you again in Granada. The city offers many adventures.
Thanks, Danielle. It seems like the “dream home” is often just that – a dream. We can find other spaces that fit our needs. I think your situation is quite dreamy. James and I hope we can make plans in the near future to spend more time in Spain, including a visit to Granada. Keep posting those beautiful photos of food!
Loved reading this, Donna. We downsized 5 years ago, got rid of 75% of our belongings–though I feel like our little house is filling up again and want to clear things out again. But I love reading about people’s spaces–new and old, and the memories of places. And I think less leads to a happier life—that’s how I’ve felt, the less I have to take care of.
Thanks, Kelli. It does seem like an unburdening to go smaller with fewer possessions. You’re right. I think it does lead to a happier life!