A Tumultuous Downsizing Project

By late October our life had taken a nose-dive toward the uninhabitable center of the earth. We decided to put our house on the market for only the month of October to let fate determine whether we’d finally downsize to our little cottage. Fate decided. We downsized.

For three weeks in November we were betwixt and between two houses; not fully settled into one, not fully moved out of the other. Some people find the whole process invigorating (me) while others find it quite miserable (my husband).

It’s difficult to describe the amount of purging required to fit ourselves into 975 square feet of space. To make matters worse, those 975 square feet had already been furnished for the vacation rental market so there were two houses to clear out instead of just one. We dealt with the furniture first.

My sister was fortunately in the position to take several entire rooms – accessories, art and furniture. Julie, our friend and dearest of all realtors, took another significant portion of furniture and a variety of other things for the very extraordinary vacation rental properties she’s renovating. The two of them saved the day. We kept four rooms of furniture and sent the rest to consignment stores all across town. Then for the next two weeks we dealt with stuff.

For almost everyone I know (except maybe our friends the Markham’s), we accumulate stuff we don’t need. We had buckets of old photos, candles of every color and size, four hammers, three ladders, too many bottles of glue. I had several dozen pairs of shoes, purses I didn’t use, and a matching robe for every pair of pajamas.

Our gym upstairs housed three different types of stationary bikes, a treadmill and a full set of free weights. There were towels in every bathroom, multiple sets of linens for every bedroom, 25-year old Christmas ornaments, a music box my parents gave me 50 years ago, and every medal, racing bib and trophy from the past 11 years of road racing.

There was no chance I would throw everything down to the curb for it to end up in a landfill, so I sorted everything and tried to find the appropriate home for all of it. More than likely I’ve touched everything I own a half-dozen times each.

Eventually the purge ended, and we left our house with barely a whispered goodbye. We were exhausted.

The first week that we lived in the cottage our neighbor across the street walked out of his house and had a massive heart attack right there in the middle of the road. Another neighbor and I reached him about the same time while my husband dialed 911. The neighbor and I performed CPR until the paramedics arrived, and then they worked on him for some time before he was pronounced dead at the scene. It was upsetting for the neighborhood as a whole. I had trouble sleeping for several weeks.

Sunday before last was a beautiful warm day. I spent the afternoon working in the yard and decorating the cottage for Christmas. The man’s widow was out walking their two dogs so I worked my way across the street to offer condolences. The dogs were on especially long leashes and reached me first. Still wearing my gardening gloves, I reached out to let them smell my hands and instinctively bent over to say hello. One of the dogs jumped up and bit right through my nose. A trip to the E.R., a visit to a plastic surgeon, and eleven stitches later I was glad to still have something that resembled a nose on my face. Three days later my son arrived from Texas with his new wife and their two dogs.

We had planned their trip months before we sold the house that had extra bedrooms and plenty of bathrooms, so we booked them into an Airbnb down the street and kept their two dogs at the cottage – along with our three. It was a full house: five dogs, four people, and also love and fun all around. Their trip ended with a freak snow storm that hit Western North Carolina over the weekend leaving us with oodles of snow and only a generator for power.

Ours has been a tumultuous transition, but we do enjoy life at our little cottage – and for the first time since October, there’s nothing to pack, move or get rid of, nothing on our schedule, and enough time in every day for a run. Life is good.

Testing Trauma Naked and the Medical Touch

A little known fact of my life is that I am (still) a National Registry and Wilderness EMT. It was one of those things that seemed interesting to do at the time, four years ago, and I never gave much thought as to how or if it might become a permanent part of life.

Six months prior I had gone back to school. I spent months backpacking through the mountains, climbing the 50-ft Alpine Tower, and navigating high/low ropes courses, which, to my surprise, included jumping off the top of a 45-foot telephone pole.

Another semester was devoted to paddling rafts, kayaks and canoes in the cold, fast waters of the Nantahala. One of our early assignments was to capsize our kayaks and see how long we could force ourselves to hang upside down under water. Just before my instructor flipped my kayak, he told me the secret was to not let my mind convince me to tap out – not to panic. We could survive much longer, he warned, than our mind would lead us to believe. The point of every class was to push ourselves to our personal physical or emotional limit.

When my late teenage/early twenty-something classmates ventured out to find summer jobs that year, I wandered into my instructor’s office to decide what I would be when I grew up. I had taken the 9-day Wilderness First Responder class during spring break, so he suggested I might take the 3-week EMT class during summer break.

I’m not nearly so comfortable in a classroom. If it had been more common in the 60s and 70s, I’m pretty sure I would have been diagnosed ADHD. My mind wanders, and short-term memory is not my best attribute. I passed the class, and discovered I loved emergency medicine. Not doing, mind you, but the learning of it.

There’s a process to follow in quickly identifying life-threatening issues and stabilizing a person for transport. When testing this process, we divide the topics into three areas.

There’s a pediatric test where the students must realize that little Bobby is having an allergic reaction, safely administer an EPI pen, and the appropriate oxygen treatment. The medical test involves a patient that is having chest pain, who inevitably has a heart attack right in front of your eyes causing you to administer CPR. The third test is trauma related where students must assess a patient involved in a major and near fatal incident. There’s major bleeding to remedy, severe head trauma to diagnose and mitigate, and a requirement to immediately transport the patient correctly attached to a backboard.

I’ve been a proctor for these tests for about three years. The students come in one by one racked with nerves. I remember the feeling well. They’re overly conscious of the time limit of each test, and it cripples some of them. We keep the rooms cool. They sweat profusely. We’re not allowed to show an ounce of emotion. Their eyes beg us to encourage them, or reassure. One student out of every class will come right out and ask if they’ve passed the test. We still don’t answer, although I admit that sometimes I look deep into their eyes and attempt to pass along a smile. Some of them notice I think.

We use life-size dummies with fake blood and sort of real-to-life looking props in class and for the tests. Sometimes we use real people as patients. Students are encouraged to show respect as we ‘dress down’ the patients, searching their body for signs and symptoms. My instructors called it learning to perfect trauma naked and the medical touch. In other words, don’t be creepy.

Sometimes I think of these things I’ve learned.

Show respect if you find it necessary to ‘dress down’ another person; don’t be creepy; find a way to pass along a smile; and, if you capsize, remember that you can survive much longer than your mind would lead you to believe.

Cottage Life

We’ve lived life in 975 square feet for about four months. I expected to give cottage life a definitive thumbs up or down within the first few weeks, but surprised myself when I couldn’t muster a decision. My husband was decisive early on, but only because he didn’t want to move again. So it’s up to me I guess to tell the truth.

There’s not a level floor-wall-door-surface in all 975 square feet. In past years that would have made me nuts. Maybe it’s age, or acceptance, but I actually coached the workers to hang some of the doors out of level so they appeared level to the eye. We’ve done the same thing to shelves, pictures, mirrors. . . you name it. I hardly notice anymore.

The size of the rooms were an adjustment, but there’s a full stop choke point in the center hallway. It’s bad enough if my husband and I happen to be there at the same time, but add Mr. Boggs to the mix and it’s a total impasse.

I guess we’d both agree it’s the bedroom, or more specifically the bed that was the biggest change. Having spent decades in king quarters, a queen’s bed is just shy of enough, especially when one of us is in the middle of menopause. Of course, we’d be fine if not for Bentley (the dog). There’s not enough muscle in the world to move a dog that doesn’t want to move over – no matter how small he may be.

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Our long-term plan is to add a garage, a guest suite, and a proper driveway. We want to paint the dark wood in the living room, upgrade the refrigerator, and bring over our own furniture, including my piano. Every day I debated whether to trade the baby grand piano for an upright so we’d have room for a dining table, or forego a dining table altogether. It was a brutal decision.

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This was the only room in the cottage that could hold my piano, or a dining table. That’s Bentley in the center hall above, and Mr. Boggs in the picture below.

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There’s lots of things that make this little cottage wonderful. It’s cozy, and full of character. When you settle in for the night, or wake up in the morning, it’s almost cocooning. Cleaning is a breeze instead of a chore, and there’s some amount of time spent every day rocking on the front porch. Folks walk by and stop to say hello. They tell us what a transformation the little place has gone through, or how they grew up with the original owner’s kids. And we won’t forget, it sits beside a native garden. It’s like walking into another world.

Then summer arrived.

Lake Junaluska is a beautiful resort that comes to life in the summer. The lake is at the end of our street where there’s canoeing and kayaking, a 3-mile trail around the lake, a gym, fishing, tennis, swimming pool, shuffle board, mini-golf, ice cream stand, coffee shop, a playground for the kids, and a labyrinth for contemplation. Once a week there’s a community bonfire, an outdoor movie, and concerts.

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It’s a pretty nice place to go kayaking.
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A view from the treadmill inside the gym.

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The 4th of July parade shut down Lake Shore Drive followed by a picnic for just $5, and fireworks after dark. There’s half a dozen gardens throughout the resort with guided tours every Tuesday. Bands played in front of the gardens on the 3rd of July tours. Forty-nine people toured the native garden next door to our cottage that day.

I went back to our larger home one morning to water the plants. It was quiet and peaceful. The neighbors are separated by nearly an acre of land. There’s no pending construction, no further renovations, all the furniture is in its rightful place. There’s room for my piano, and a dining table.

I realized I couldn’t bear the thought of living through the construction, and the little cottage couldn’t be perfect without it. I wasn’t sure about the crowds, or whether the entire neighborhood would hear me play the piano, and every wrong note that might ensue.

We moved back home a couple of weeks ago.

I wrote in a previous post that this little cottage has tormented me every day since we met. The torment continues. My husband was ready to live out his days there, “snug as a bug” as he would say. In the end, I was the one that panicked.

When we were settled back comfortably in our larger home, he (once again) declared he would never move again.

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The cottage. That’s Dudley on the porch and Bentley is barely visible at the far left. There were always plants on the porch waiting to be planted, but the rocking chairs were our favorite pastime.

The Strategy of Staging

Our downsizing experiment has lasted almost four weeks, and we’re still married – although there was that meltdown near the end of week one.

We had furnished our cottage for the vacation rental market, so we really only needed to bring clothes and a toothbrush. He forgot his toothbrush.

The plan was to bring the bare minimum; no need to move too much until we were sure this downsizing experiment was successful. Except that every day of the first week we had to make an emergency trip back home to fetch something critical to our survival. After a few days of this routine, my husband announced he would not move back home – even if we hated living in this little cottage. It would be the understatement of all time to say he hates to move.

With the gauntlet thrown, we turned our attention to getting our house ready for market. The only thing my husband hates more than moving is getting a house ready for market.

I’ve spent a month of days removing anything from the house that would identify us: family pictures, pictures of the dogs, my running memorabilia. The garage, closets, kitchen cabinets, and even the refrigerator have been re-organized. Then we cleaned everything like there was no tomorrow. The last step was to edit, edit, edit: accessories, books, artwork, plants, and even the area rugs. Staging is the part that sends my husband over the edge. With every house we sell, he swears our house doesn’t even look like our house by the time I’m done staging. It’s wasted time to tell him, that’s the point.

Julie, our trusted realtor, walked through every inch of the house and gave me advice on my progress. We’ve worked together long enough that I could imagine what she would say about almost every accessory in the house. I have a propensity for decorating with dark bronzes. She would suggest something bright instead. And then there’s a few buyer-distracting accessories, such as the dog door stop that has his leg hiked. One time I took out all the bronzes, including the stampede of horses, and stored them in the garage. This time I’ve brought the dog, the fish coat hooks, and a few others to the cottage. Every surface has finally been re-arranged with an eye toward benign and bright in hopes of appealing to the masses.

Our forever home, the one with nine rooms and a mansard roof, hits the market today. Julie reminds us we can always move back home – if it doesn’t sell, if we don’t get the price we want, if we change our mind about cottage life. . .

It’s safe to say we’re hoping it will sell.

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Photos Courtesy Julie Lapkoff, Keller Williams

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A view of the back patio in full bloom last summer (with Bentley and Mr. Boggs).

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The beginning (before photos): Nine Rooms and a Roof

De-Cluttering My Life

My husband and I bought a small cottage to downsize one last time and live a simple, care-free life by the lake. The decision has tormented me every day since.

There wasn’t an immediate need to downsize, so we’ve spent the last few months readying the cottage for the vacation rental market. We could make a little money while creeping down the path to old age, and then we’d downsize. But it’s such a sweet house, and it has everything we need. Not an ounce too much. We found ourselves daydreaming about the day we’d live there.

Then we’d come home and our house seemed so excessive – and so much work. We started seriously considering downsizing sooner rather than later – maybe within the next year.

A year seemed like enough time to reduce our footprint, but moving into a house that’s a third the size of our current home was overwhelming. A decision looms everywhere: will this fit, will that fit, do I need this many shoes, books, house plants, or flower vases? Sometimes the answer is don’t-even-ask-I-can-not-possibly-part-with-that. The longer I attempt to downsize the more I’d rather toss everything and start over – except I don’t think I have the nerve.

That’s when I set a goal of getting rid of one thing a day. Some days are easy with dozens of things making the cut. Other days I close my eyes and hold my breath as I hand over a solitary pair of shoes at the Goodwill drop-off.

I’m familiar with the guideline that things should either be functional or beautiful, but we don’t need thirty wine glasses in our cupboard or three sets of china – no matter how functional or beautiful, and I won’t even admit to how many decorative pillow covers there are in the linen closet. Those beautiful, silk pants with the side-slit up to nither have been hanging in my closet with the price tag still attached for years. It was a daring purchase at the time, and I realize if you haven’t been brave enough to wear daring by the time you’re 58, chances are good you won’t – or shouldn’t be daring now.

After several weeks of this torture we had a change of heart – or clarity of mind. There’s a better way to find out if we can survive life in a small cottage with three dogs: we’ll move in. Now. Before we downsize.

The vacation rental strategy is on hold.

We met our landscaper at the cottage yesterday, and it was dreadful. Our little sliver of a back yard is filled with mud. The porch isn’t finished, which denies us that final check-off on the last inspection, and our lead carpenter has had the flu for over a week.

Some days are downright discouraging, but nonetheless we are on a path to giving this little cottage a trial residency – and that’s exciting. I guess no matter which house we ultimately live in for the immediate future, I’ve learned some things about the soft under belly of our belongings.

There have been days during this cleansing process that I looked around the room and imagined if I could only take one thing, what would it be? I’m glad I won’t have to only choose one item from each room, but it makes you think hard about what’s most important.

Another thing I realized was how good it feels to free myself from things I felt a responsibility, or an obligation to keep. It’s agonizing to imagine getting rid of mother’s china. She loved that china, but she didn’t use it and we don’t either.

For the life of me I can’t remember the details surrounding the conversation I had with my dad as he drove me to my high school graduation so long ago, but his advice from that day was that you can love something, appreciate its beauty without having to own it. That advice has been more helpful than ever these past few weeks.

The downsizing won’t go away during our trial residency, but there’ll be oodles of time to sort out my strategy. And if things go awry somehow in our tiny house experiment, we’ll just move back home.  🙂

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Almost ready for occupancy.

Where We’ve Been

Marriage is not always pretty. It can be downright fussy. Until you realize without warning, it’s perfect. I’ve walked down the aisle four times, and ran out the front door three. Maybe it’s not the perfect record, but I’ve always said, I am where I am because of where I’ve been.

The anniversary of my last walk down the aisle was last Monday. Eighteen years ago, at 39 years old, I knew from the get-go this marriage would not go down in the Guinness book of records for the longest marriage ever – we wouldn’t live that long. What I did hope for was a ‘good’ marriage. I felt certain I could accomplish this small feat with the perfect partner.

For those first few years it was obvious you don’t pick the perfect partner – you create one. Then I realized he might be feeling the same way about me. Getting the little things right seemed incredibly urgent. I couldn’t believe he didn’t understand how important it was to turn the lights off when he left a room. He found it amazing I couldn’t be happy with the same cleaning service, gardener, or dry cleaners.

I asked him what he had learned the most after being married to me for 18 years. He said patience. After we I laughed, he told me he’s learned that I’m hard-working, thoughtful, a good listener, and that he appreciates that I have what he calls positive ambitions. The funny thing is I would have said all the same things about him.

He holds my hand when we walk together, and kisses me before he leaves to go anywhere. I think he’s the smartest person I’ve ever known. . . and the last time I wrote glowing things about him to this blog, his ego got so big I could hardly live with him for a solid year.

The first marathon I ran was 10 years ago, which means he’s spent more than half our married life enduring my long-run days, and the resulting middle-of-the-night gimps to the bathroom. It crosses my mind that we’re both getting older and you never know what these middle-of-the-night gimps may be preparing us for.

Our resolve has been tested at times, but our best decision seems to have been to approach everything as partners. We would end up being partners in businesses, investments, as parents to each other’s children, and with our families – although we both agree the most important partnership has been in life itself.

The fast-paced and adventurous early years have transitioned to simple, sometimes lazy days of retirement where it seems more important than ever to be at peace with yourself and each other. We are here, after all, because of where we’ve been.

 

My Garden Path

This summer’s project can be summed up in one word: landscaping. I was determined to reveal my progress last week until I saw the pictures. Another week of work, I thought, and it will be ready for prime time. It’s been another week and then some. . . let’s just agree to view my efforts through the lens of potential.

Ivy has been the predominant landscaping material house after house – not by choice. I have seriously wondered if there is some life lesson I should be learning that only ivy can teach. It eludes me still.

Ivy was everywhere.

Eradication consumes the larger part of year one. Mine is not a sophisticated approach. Grab it by the roots and pull. One pull always leads to another, and another – and you never know where it will take you. Roots become entangled – a pull here is thwarted by a root crossing over, which can change the direction of your effort 180 degrees, and send you on a wild chase under the fence, across the yard, or straight up the mountain.

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Mounds of ‘pulled’ ivy, and Mr. Boggs

A garden from long ago taught me there is only so much wilderness you can expect to tame, and I’ve attempted to be more realistic in my approach. The best results seem to come about naturally, as if this little spot of ground or that shady area in the corner is ready to become something different.

The dogs always play a role in my landscaping plan as well, and it has served me well to wait a bit and let them chart the path.

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The dogs created a path through the garden before I started pulling the ivy.

This was the year my husband also got involved. His first order of business was to organize a thorough clean-up.

Ardy and his crew spent three days taking out dead foliage, pruning overgrown limbs, and clearing the fallen trees. They sorted out the hardwoods for firewood, and burned the rest in four self-made fire pits around the house. The fires burned for two days after they left.

After suffering through a constant string of poison ivy outbreaks, we realized Bentley must be bringing it back down the mountain and transferring it directly to me. Abel stopped by and weed whacked the whole mountainside, and I’ve been free of a new outbreak of poison for over two weeks.

Dudley, Mr. Boggs and Bentley (right to left)

A Garden of Potential

With a clean slate (or, at least almost clean) we visited the Lowe’s Garden Center discount cart weekly (or more) and it was shocking what could be found there – $5 hydrangea, $2 canna lilies, $1 coral bells.

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The ferns are placed in such an even line around the rock that I wonder if this was a flower bed long ago – before the ivy took over. 
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There were day lilies underneath mounds of ivy on the other side of the path.

The $2 lilies found a home in one of the fire pits on the far side of the front yard. Fifty years of dead trees were removed from behind the house and now we can see all the way through the forest.

The patio being cleaned last August before we moved in, and at its most barren state this February.

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By May, the ferns have taken over with just one lone day lily peeking through.

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The sun hits this side of the house late in the day, and it seems to shine a light on a path that leads through the garden and up the mountain. . . some day.

The excess spring rain has nearly destroyed the potted plants, Dudley chased a critter underground and tore up the herb garden, and Mr. Boggs plows right through the ferns smooshing them flat to the ground.

As with life, each season brings new challenges, unexpected catastrophes. . . and sheer delight. There’s lots of work to be done before this project looks like my inspiration photo at the top of the post, and I wonder what sweet journeys lie ahead on our humble garden path.

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