Today’s modern lifestyle is one of consumption. We overspend, overbuy, overeat, overtweet and laboriously work our thumbs ‘liking’ the banal and commenting on whatever Facebook post strikes us momentarily out of unconscious social patterning enough to warrant our reading. Don’t get me wrong; technology is great. And, really, who doesn’t love stuff? Lots of stuff? Even more stuff? If your hand is raised like mine, loud and proud, that is perfectly okay. Here is what I have been reflecting on over the past few months.
When I purchased my first home, it was a modest quaint little cottage. I was twenty nine years old at the time and wanted to achieve this goal prior to turning thirty. The transaction the day of closing left me a bit sweaty but at the end, I got my key and then there it was: all 724 tiny square feet of splendor, sweet yellow cedar siding, a brilliantly stout Holly tree on the left cobblestone pathway and crown moldings galore. The house sat dead center a quarter acre (railroad lot) which was perfect for my green thumb and had a front patio that was almost the size of the house itself. In hindsight, the place and its proportions were comical. My father dubbed it ‘the postage stamp.’ The living room was also the dining room with barely enough room to put my couch. Having been an avid art collector when I lived in San Francisco and Manhattan, the movers filled up my entire living room with just crates, and more crates of art. The step saver kitchen had a four foot nook which was also the ‘office’ and storage—two drawers and that was all you got. By all considerations, the bedroom was massive with one wall flush with closet space—
because coming from New York and the Sex & the City era, you can imagine the girl had some shoes with her.
I could get in and out of my queen sized bed on EITHER side and could put up an armoire on the opposite wall. The bathroom was also the laundry room with a closet tucking away the washer and dryer with not one inch to spare so luckily, I never lost a sock.
This move would mark the last time I could borrow a friend’s Suburban for the afternoon and a couple manly men to get from location A to B. Heck, my corn field out back was larger than my living room. So what happened at almost 4,000 square feet later?
Well, the American Dream, I suppose.
Less than twelve months in to my perfect little place, birds chirping at my kitchen window, freshly picked herbs on the counter, the opportunity came to purchase a very small three-bedroom house with a lovely waterfront view, checking in at 1,200 square feet. In my neighborhood this is still considered a ‘cottage’. Two weeks later, I went from yellow to pale peach colored cedar siding, spaces that differentiated living room from dining room, kitchen from office, etc. The patio off the dining room was lovely and I was happy there. But now I was faced with a dilemma that grew as did my appetite for the larger home, a bigger slice of the pie that is the American dream: how to fill all those empty rooms. My first clue should have been if the room is empty, then most likely I do not need it. But instead, I fashioned a yoga room with zofu cushion, a mat, and some candles. Within two years, I was outgrowing my second house and scouting for my third.
My third house was just two blocks up but was two stories; my rambler days were over. Come to find out this sucks when you have to shuttle up your groceries, and throw down your laundry. It has four, possibly five bedrooms, two living rooms, three bathrooms, dedicated laundry and a library. It also had the coveted lake, Olympics, Space Needle and Mt. Rainier views to which I was counseled that I would be a fool NOT to buy it. But with this logic came more rooms: 3,600 square feet of emptiness.
There is nothing worse than living in a house with stagnant spaces. There just is not enough of me to fill up all the spaces, to consume the full life that the house has to give.
So I bought beds, additional couches, leather club chairs, side tables and decorative durable goods from my travels. By 2006, my tush had so many places to rest in this house it is crazy, yet continually I find myself inevitably restless. To fill the gap, I would rotate which rooms I slept in, which bathrooms I used, which living room to spend the evening working or reading. I wanted life everywhere, no stagnant chi.
In yoga we have a yama called aparigraha. This is non-hoarding of anything that is not directly or readily needed in one’s life. With this, like the Bible and the lilies of the field, comes a trust and surrender that all will be provided as needed. This is anathema to what anything in our Western society would dictate or tender insidiously through the mainstream media. I was guilty as charged.
On Facebook there was a quirky little post something to the effect, “If a woman has tons of cats, she is an outcast. If a man collects millions and sits on them in a bank, he is called a genius.” I don’t do cats, nor do I make millions so I sit somewhere between the extremes of what is the appropriate amount of accumulating.
As I move more into a yogic lifestyle (plenty of ground to clear here, it’s an ongoing process) I opted last year to really parse it down. I furnished a home for a family in need, held yard sales, posted on Ebay, used Craigslist with wanton abandon, offloaded over 1,000 books and magazines. All of a sudden, when looking around, my house returned back to its former self, a shell of now somewhat vacant rooms.
My friends would come over and wonder what was different, why was the space so empty? I love the airiness and openness that having less can provide you. Once again, I have my dedicated yoga room with cross mats this time. I can appreciate the desire to critically observe and define what is useful, what is needed and what can be shared elsewhere.
Perhaps you have had an experience whereby you set off to shop a bit only to return home and find some of the things that in the moment inspired you had already lost your interest. You realize a) it takes too much time to go back and return it (lethargy) b) you have misplaced or did not ask for a copy of your receipt and now you cannot return it (disgruntled), c) you forget about it, let it sit and its purpose is never realized (apathy), d) give it as a thoughtless but convenient gift to some unsuspecting victim, a friend or a loved one (a**hole). It was only when I looked at my purchases in this light that I realized that those are four types of ‘states’ that I do not want to manifest in my life. I needed to apply my yoga as a practical tool on the everyday path to ‘consciousness’ as a consumer and participant in this lifetime. A yoga niyama is santosha, which means contentment in all circumstances, a bit of non-attachment but with gratitude.
My house has blank spots, awkward corners that might see a plant one day or share its energy with one of my daughter’s toys. I have not bought any art in years and still do not have enough space to hang it. If I had my druthers, I would sell most of it and enjoy some clearance on the walls.
Even my cupboards, the shelves under my bathroom vanities are devoid of post-Depression-era stockpiles of travel sized shower gels and shampoos. I am doing my best not to indulge in the unnecessary, but practice my mindfulness prior to making it to the check-out station.
I still have my vices, I think but I really cannot think of them like I used to. Outside things don’t give me contentment, they burden me with obligation. As my teacher says, “You do not own things; your things own you!” Things require maintenance, batteries, to be dusted, washed, put back, brought out. That requires time, energy, and desire, three things I do not wish to squander. Today, I am still in my home and I am tremendously grateful for the stability and grounding it has offered me, my daughter, and those who have come along the way in need of temporary shelter. My life is simpler, the place less cluttered, my bank account sagging and empty. Yet even in this emptiness of accumulation, the pure paucity of it all, somehow these four walls are just now starting to feel like a place I would call ‘home’.