Zen Minimalism Versus The Soul of a House

img_2064With a sigh of relief I learned the news that our house of twelve years had sold. In fact, it sold in such an expedited fashion that the VanderZwaag family (primarily my Husband and me, as two of our children are adults living on their own, and one is in college) is now betwixt and between our home and the townhouse that we are building in a nearby town. If the fates are kind, we will be in our new digs by the middle of May. It is now early March and so here I recline, on a sofa in a leased, furnished apartment, clothes, books and knick-knacks relegated to a storage facility. This situation provides the perfect “test” opportunity to examine the current fad of living with pared-down possessions. This practice is said to lead to a Zen-like experience of calm. The bestselling book THE LIFE CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP is all the rage and has, until now, only touched my life around the edges. Its philosophy sounded hokey; yet another claim to a life-altering experience, putting a lot of cash in someone’s self-help, deep pockets. Don’t get me wrong. I am not a pack rat. I have always been thoughtful of the work my husband and children would have to do if I left this world with chaos at home. As we have moved from home to home, I have seized the opportunity to get rid of junk and bring along only the most prized of possessions for two adults, three children and at various times, a cat, several dogs, goldfish, hermit crabs and hamsters. To this end, I have never fully lived up to my goals. I am a sucker for memorabilia, particularly the clay kind brought home by kindergartners, with a squashed hand print on an irregular mass of kiln-dried clay, or the expository composition books of a fourth grader, pondering the vagaries of life.
We have moved many times over the years, which was not the plan when I was a newlywed. I pictured a scenario kind of like this: my loving husband and I would live in an urban city until child number one came along. Then, we would find our dream home in a nearby suburb and make a life for our family, digging in and forming roots to home, the community, our history. But, as we all know, life does not always go according to plan. Job opportunities popped up in other cities which were too good to pass up. And so we moved. A home was vacated a few years after we moved in, because we realized we were not cut-de-sac, new development kinds of people. And so we moved. And again, and again. This move, and first downsize since we “upsized” over thirty years ago, is the eighth move in our marriage.
Has it been hard for the children to transition? Yes, absolutely. They tell me this now more than they did then, because they were coping like the soldiers they were, when they were little. Lets face it, they did not have much choice in the matter. “What is good for the parents is good for the children” was a mantra that rang true to us. We, the adults, needed to make life decisions that would benefit the whole of the family. And yet, we all ultimately sacrificed the wonder of a life dug deep. Old friends, long-term memories of a place through time, these are things we all sacrificed. Each move required the making of new friends for all of us and the reaching out to a new community in the hope that we would leave a mark of some sort; something for which we would be remembered. Facebook made the later moves easier. One of the great benefits of social media is the ease with which friendships can be maintained, online if not in person.
With each move, I made it my mission as Mom and Parent to create a home out of a house, as quickly as possible. Would Zen Minimalism have helped create these homes? I think not. Our homes were made of puppies, children’s artwork affixed to the fridge, the hum of a dryer filled with clothing, toys and stuffed animals. They were made with cozy throws and reupholstered family heirlooms. They were made with crock pot dinners and closets bulging with backpacks, boots and sneakers. Our existence, these past 30 years has hardly been one of minimalism.
Now comes the big challenge. Our two daughters are impressive, accomplished adults living on their own and beginning their life-journeys as adults. Our son is soaking in a liberal arts education in another state, coming home for spring and summer breaks. It is time to take stock of it all and, dare I say it, downsize. We do not need a big house. We do not need a big yard or even a neighborhood filled with children. We crave a simpler way of life that will still accommodate our family when we get together, but will be just the right size when it is just the two of us. We have our bucket list to tackle. We have trips we want to make, and hobbies to pursue. Years ago, we put these things aside to attend to our top priority : our family, of whom we loved more than life itself. It is a terribly hard transition to make—you go from sixty miles an hour for years and years, focused on the most important thing in your life—your children. You go from that to a quiet, a void that is like nothing else. I’m getting used to it now, and relishing the things that I can to now that I could not for years: going to a movie on a “school” night, deciding to eat out at the drop of a hat, taking an entire Saturday to read a book. There is bliss in this.
But back to minimalism. This move, this downsize, has forced my hand and made me reveal all of my cards. I am not good at this. I wish I were. For months now, I have tackled closets, paraphernalia, coats, food cupboards, all in the name of downsizing. The amount of furniture and clothing sent to consignment feels staggering. The numbers of trash bags filled with excess and sent to the Green Drop, endless. The amount of my children’s artwork tossed—well, uh, none of it. Hey—I have my limits!
This furnished apartment where I now sit is cool, modern and sleek. There are no distractions to keep me from writing. It is convenient to have washer, dryer, and master bedroom all on one floor. I can feel the Zen-thing, sort of. I am not necessarily finding it freeing. Seeing my favorite vase filled with flowers would be enticing, as would a stack of my favorite books (have I mentioned that I have a hard time giving books away-they are my friends.) Our new town home, when it will be done, has been inspired with a sense of the new—we plan to buy a contemporary rug and sofa for the Great Room, and some Eames chairs to go with the old farmhouse table. We want to embrace modernism with the older pieces of our family’s past. I’m hoping I can pull it off! What I doubt we will wind up with is a sleek, soulless space. The lifeblood of a home lives in the little things. I will treasure my back issues of The New Yorker, and the dog toys strewn on the floor. My home will never be featured in Architectural Digest. It is the soul of a home that matters, in the end. The walls and floors echo from the life beating within. Hopefully, it will be a life well lived.

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