Friday, March 23, 2012

Seeking Sweet Sanctuary


I  was awakened at 4 a.m. by the Dumpster lid being thrown open. Again.

Sometimes this occurs several times a night when people who are down on their luck rummage through my apartment building's enormous recycling and garbage bins searching for bottles and cans to redeem for cash. Perhaps they're even looking for food. That's sobering. Even heartbreaking.

But the bins are located immediately below my living room window, so mostly it's a nuisance.

When the crash woke me the first night in my apartment, my first thought was that someone had broken down my apartment door. Now that I've endured these nightly interruptions for three months, I just roll over and try to go back to sleep.

If I can't go back to sleep, I grab my laptop and write.

This morning I couldn't find sleep again. If I weren't so exhausted, I would be giddy. Today I am moving from this noisy apartment to my new home, which I refer to as the Duplex of my Dreams. Never did I believe a 1,000-square-foot duplex could be sanctuary to me.

Five months ago, I was a homeowner with a good job that paid a living wage. When I was laid off, I had to sell my house immediately before it became a short sale. A week before Christmas, I moved into this diminuitive one-bedroom apartment.

At the time, it was a sanctuary. I needed to move quickly, and of all the apartments I looked at, this one was clearly the best in my price range.

But I hadn't lived in an apartment for more than two decades, and the transition from quiet nights in a house to interrupted slumber in this apartment has taken its toll. Even with ideal sleep conditions, I am an insomniac. Most people likely could sleep through the noises that have robbed my sleep and frayed my edges. But I am a light sleeper.

After three months of o'dark thirty Dumpster action outside my front door and my oblivious, noisy neighbor whose television blares all night through our common bedroom walls, the sleeplessness has worn me out.

Now that I am working again, sleep is essential. So even though I will lose my hefty deposit, I am moving today to a quiet duplex in my old residential neighborhood sans Dumpster and noisy neighbors. The tenant on the other side of my duplex is an older single woman who owns a cat.

This apartment has its charms. Built in 1928, it has hardwood floors, French doors and a cozy gas fireplace. It's in the heart of a trendy commercial district with coffee shops, ethnic restaurants, antique stores and a tattoo parlor just across the alley from my living room windows.

If I were 25, this would be the ideal place to live. It has a great vibe and so much to do. The tattoo parlor is so close that I could get a tattoo practically by just sticking my arm out my window. Alas, I am not 25, and I don't want a tattoo. I just want to sleep soundly.

My new home also has charm. Built in the 1940s, it has hardwood floors, built-ins, windows for glorious natural light, a humongous kitchen, oodles of storage space and even a private, tiny backyard with a patio and garden space. My new sanctuary.

For the past three months, my cat, Anakin Skywalker, has been forced to be an indoor kitty. Now he can find his own santctuary by escaping the confines of the house to lie in the sun.

My new place is also within easy walking distance of this trendy neighborhood so I can have the best of both worlds: divine sleep, essential garden therapy and still being walking distance to my favorite coffee shop.

Last Saturday night, knowing it was the last weekend in my apartment, I took a farewell stroll through my trendy neighborhood to Ice Cream Renaissance, where I ordered my favorite: one scoop of Bittersweet Chocolate Love Affair ice cream on a sugar cone. It was the first ice cream I'd had in three months.

As I walked back to my apartment, I savored the flavor of the ice cream and my neighborhood. Because it was St. Patrick's Day, bagpipers wearing kilts were performing at Pop Culture. People had spilled onto the sidewalk to chat. I spied the owner of the Moroccan restaurant across the street listening to the bagpipes too.

Midway through my ice cream, I realized how amazing it has been to be a part of this neighborhood when I needed the sanctuary it offered. And how blessed I am to be able to move forward into my new sanctuary offering peaceful slumber and a garden to boot.

I took another lick of Bittersweet Chocolate Love Affair and walked home, dreaming of planting tomatoes, sunflowers and lavender.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Involuntary Simplicity: Living with Less

If you had four weeks to pare down your possessions by more than a third, what would you keep and what would you let go? What are your essential possessions? What can you do without? What should you have released years ago?

Three months ago, I had to unburden myself of a third of what I owned when I was laid off from my job and was forced to immediately sell my house before it became a short sale.

My friend Wess Daniels, a released Quaker minister, referred to my circumstances as "involuntary simplicity." This is the polar opposite of the intentional simplicity practiced by devout Quakers. He was spot on in describing my circumstances.

Thankfully, I sold my house and was able to pay off the mortgage. A week before Christmas, I moved from a four-bedroom, 2,400-square-foot house to a one-bedroom, 650-square-foot apartment. It has one closet.

We had lived in the house for a decade. The basement, garage and three enormous attics were crammed with "stuff and junk," to borrow a term from Lydia, my Swedish grandma.

The task of downsizing was daunting. It also was enormously freeing. What didn't fit in the new apartment would be packed into a storage unit.

Did I really want to pay to store boxes of my son's favorite toys? Over the course of birthdays and Christmases he had amassed a collection of very large toys with piles of accessories: a pirate ship, a castle, a cowboy Western town, a Robin Hood set and enough Star Wars action figures to populate a toy store.

If my son were still a little boy, I would have kept all of his toys. But he is nineteen, and said he didn't need to keep any of his old toys. I kept one of the large playsets and most of the Star Wars action figures. My mom helped me box up the rest and I drove it to the homeless shelter. It was mid-December, and some kids at the shelter would be delighted on Christmas morning.

These kinds of decisions had to be made hundreds of times. Why was I keeping my cross-stitching patterns and supplies when my eyes hadn't been able to focus on the detail work for years?

Why was an entire shelf in my kitchen storing a gaudy set of 1960s china that had been passed down from two previous generations? I had never used it, and my daughter didn't want it either. Donate!

As dozens and dozens of boxes and bags were carried out of the house to be donated, I began to feel unburdened. Lighter. Able to think clearer.

Three months after downsizing, I still keep a donation box by the front door. As I continue to sift through belongings, I fill a box with what I no longer need and drop it off  at the American Cancer Society thrift shop, where the ladies know me and my story by now.

I vow to never let "stuff and junk" take over my life again. Before I bring anything new into my apartment, I get rid of something I already own.

A few years ago, before these big changes in my life, I dreamed that my family was forced to evacuate our house and could take only what we could carry. My arms were piled with useless stuff, including my humungous "Betty" doll from childhood. I am embarrassed to say that at that point, I was still holding onto Betty, who was stored in a box in the basement.

What a struggle it was for me to take just a few steps with all this stuff in my arms! I kept dropping stuff and was in despair about trying to determine what was important enough to tote around with me.

I no longer have that dream.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

When Good Things Fall Apart so Better Things Can Fall Together

I'm sitting in my favorite neighborhood coffee shop, La Bella Cafe in Uptown Village, where the barista greets me by name and knows my drink of choice: skinny Big Train Chai. It's a lazy Saturday afternoon and I've come here to relax and write. It's special time I anticipate each week.

However, today the regular barista who knows me by name is not working and the shop has run out of my favorite chai. I am not a coffee drinker, which is a rarity here in the rainy Pacific Northwest, home of Starbucks and Seattle's Best. So I ordered a nonfat Mexican hot chocolate instead. And I was pleasantly surprised at how spicy and delicious it was.

On the oversized chalkboard near where I sit, someone has written this apropos quote:

"Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together."

It's certainly true in my life, even down to the most minute circumstances. If the coffee shop hadn't run out of my favorite chai, I wouldn't have tasted the delicious Mexican hot chocolate. I would have missed that experience of trying something new. And I am all about trying new experiences.

If I were to step back and look at the bigger picture, this quote is very appropriate for many areas of my life. I'll bet it is for yours too.

Good thing that fell apart: Being laid off from a job that I had poured my heart and soul into for four-and-a-half years.

Resulting good thing that fell together: Starting a new job at the Columbian newspaper that uses my writing skills, but that only requires 40 hours a week. It's so refreshing to be able to leave work and know that I did my job and now have the evening or even an entire weekend for my own pursuits. How refreshing!

Good thing that fell apart: When I lost my job, I had to sell my charming 90-year-old house before it became a short sale.

Resulting good thing that fell together: Becoming a renter for the first time in a long time freed up my time, money and energy that I was expending to maintain a large, vintage house and a yard.

Good thing that fell apart: When I sold my house, I had to downsize very quickly from a three-story house to a one-bedroom apartment.

Resulting good thing that fell together: Before I moved, I had to examine countless boxes of stuff that we had hidden away in the attic--and I got rid of about half of what I owned. That was extremely freeing.

Good thing that fell apart: When I had to downsize and move quickly, even though I was under tremendous stress, I was too busy to stress eat and I was moving my body double time to clear out the house.

Resulting good thing that fell together: My health! As I was going through boxes, I found my workbook about mindful eating and I started examining at my relationship with food with new eyes. Without even trying, I lost 10 pounds in December. That was such an encouragement to me that I joined our community gym and started working out regularly. I have lost a total of 22 pounds and several inches so far. I'm more than a third of the way to my goal in just three months!

I even joined a dragon boat team, the Mighty Women, and I'm anticipating my first dragon boat race this spring. With all the paddling and other exercising, I am changing my body to a much stronger, healthier and smaller body. That's definitely a better thing!

Many good things fell apart in the last two years of my life, but they have been replaced by better things. I'm happier than I have been in a long time. I am living. I am having adventures. I am paddling my own canoe--and having the time of my life.

The next time something good falls apart in your own life, don't despair. Be on the lookout for a better thing to fall together.