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.


Feet pounding the tarmac, I ran quickly in those days. P.F. Flyers tied loosely on my feet and wearing old cut-off jeans and a cotton tee shirt, I flew down a road that intersected College Avenue. I looped around a leafy neighborhood rife with flowering dogwoods and azaleas. I felt powerful, immortal, invincible. I caught on to the high of running early on, and often saw the gaping jaws of neighbors driving by, shaking their heads, certain I was crazy. Endorphins became a needed part of my day, and barring blizzards or torrential rains, I would lace up, and go “jogging.”
It was 1975, and Frank Shorter transformed the landscape of fitness in America. I was inspired by his words, and his dedication to this new sport, this concept of being “healthy.” I would learn to eat larger salads, using greens other than iceberg lettuce. I would shun meats, and discover legumes, beans and yummy goat cheeses that were still outlawed in the United States. I would cut down on alcohol, and switched from drinking a nightly scotch, to imbibing a glass of red wine only on weekends, or with friends. It took some time for the wine fad to catch on in the ’70’s. How I remember the boxed Almaden wine that my parent’s bought. It was a big deal to brag that one was now drinking “wine,” with dinner, and Almaden, at that! How awful that stuff was. It took some time for my taste buds to discern a good bottle of red or white from swill, but it happened. Cheese was also a big discovery. I was shocked to learn that there were varieties other than American and Cheddar cheeses! In fact, I became so enamored of cheese, that I eschewed the dinners served at my college dorm, and purchased slices of exotic cheeses, to enjoy with crackers and condiments, for dinner.
My love of running continued through stints in Corporate Banking in New York City and a graduate program at Columbia University. I ran around the reservoir, and probably passed Jackie Kennedy, but did not realize it. Some days, I biked five miles around the park instead, letting the wind rush past me, feeling the power of pedaling around my favorite city, watching the distinct skyline of Central Park West as I flew.
As many do, I eventually left city life behind for suburbia, when my first child was born. I continued to jog and bike ride in those days. I was told by an OB/GYN that running could injure my uterus, and that the sport was not appropriate for women. Bystanders would gape as I ran in 10K races and hugged my daughter at the finish line. “You mean she is a mother?” they would exclaim. I loved exercise, and kept on pounding the pavement, and pushing myself. I swam, biked and ran, but the popularity of Triathlons was still a number of years away. In the meantime, I caught onto the Jane Fonda craze and was spurred on by a movie called “FLASHDANCE.” Thong leotards fit tightly over colored tights and leg warmers completed the ensemble. It was well into the 1980’s, and suddenly, the “feel the burn” movement had taken over, as I pounded on cement floors, wearing hightop Reebok sneakers.
A thought may have crossed your mind at this point of my first blog. And guess what? You are on the right track. All of this was wreaking havoc on my joints, even as I was staying aerobically fit. Cartilage was silently disappearing from my knees, my spine and my hips. My future was being mapped out, unbeknownst to me. It all collapsed on a fateful winter vacation, as I slipped down a small slope in Park City, determined to learn a sport I had never tried, while growing up. I heard a “pop,” could not get myself up, and was whirled down the slopes by a snowmobile, my` daughter, resolutely by my side. The doctor laid it all out for me: I had a severe ACL tear in my knee, but my knee had already been badly damaged through years of abuse.
“Abuse.” I thought. This was new. This was not good. What the hell had I done? I had gone down the garden path, with no sense of what damage I was doing to myself. Doctor’s and health experts seem to know what is best at the time, bemoaning the errors of our past and extolling the latest in lifestyle.
Now, I swim laps with older women in lanes next to me, “walking” in the water with weights on their legs. Am I an older woman? I guess so. When did this happen? Is this what I should be doing? Should I chuck my Speedo, high legged suit for a “moderate cut” model, and find a bathing cap with a chip strap? Not yet. I am swimming lap after lap, with my Garmin watch that keeps track of my stroke length and lap numbers. The less strokes per lap, the better. I am trying not to gulp in the chlorinated water, convinced that someday, the doctors will wag their fingers at me for ingesting poisons. Now, I am wary. Now, I know that danger lurks in every move I make. And yet, I visit my physicians, who urge me to continue to exercise, to watch my weight. The pain of my earlier forays into exercise follows me now. My knee hurts, my back aches, and the laps seem endless and boring. I watch runners with envy, but wonder if I should chase them, yelling at them, warning them of their inevitable demise. I want to tell them “I was once like you. I might look old, but in my heart, I am just like you still. Do not judge me for my moderate cut swimwear. Do not judge me for my high waisted jeans and bathing cap!” But judged I am, I am sure. But wait, my old attitude is still there! One that does not care what others think. Whether running, when others are driving, or swimming ponderously, lap after lap, I am trying, like an old soldier, to keep up. A cool footnote: Amazon sells waterproofed Apple shuffles with earplugs made for swimming underwater! It is a marvelous feeling to glide in the water, listening music I love. Note to self–please delete the Christmas music until next December!