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Living small: in which two editors learn how to edit

August 18, 2012

The problem: 2 introverted adults and one equally introverted 11-year-old, used to living in a 7-room, 2400 s.f. house on nearly an acre of land in semi-rural Illinois with a view of a century-old barn and grazing horses move to a 750 s.f. apartment in Brooklyn. Can they do it without a) killing each other and b) causing a fire hazard?

Here is where we are going:

When dramatically downsizing, it helps to know what elements of your home are really important to you. What do you need to make it feel like home? We didn’t have a list before we started looking at apartments, but afterwards it became pretty clear:

1. Open floorplan. The first place Mr. Spy and I lived together was a loft. Our current place is a wide open split level with great flow between rooms. We knew that we didn’t want a lot of tiny subdivisions. This apartment’s main room is generously sized and open.

2. Spaces for privacy. We also all need to get away. In the evenings after dinner, Mr. Spy, AJ and I are often each in a different part of the house reading or playing music. This is more challenging in a small apartment, but not impossible. There are three rooms, there are three people. We can work it out. Moreover, the large room has a number of features that will break it up into smaller areas that will make it easier to feel alone together, particularly the two bay window areas that jut out in small triangles from the main rectangle of the room. These are each big enough for a comfy chair or a small table and chairs.

3. A view. The first house Mr. Spy and I lived in had a view of the decorative capitals of the former Chicago stock exchange across the street and a sweeping view of the west side of the city. We bought our current house because it looks out on a horse pasture and a century-old barn. Our new apartment is on the fourth floor on a street where nearly everything else is only three stories high. This means we have a lot of light and a view of the treetops. From one of the bays, we can see the park at the end of the street, from the other, the Manhattan skyline. And from the roof, we can see both of those things and the Statue of Liberty (or so we hear — it was too hazy the day we were up there to see her).

4. Character. This is a little hard to define. But we are drawn to older homes with some personality of your own. We don’t want a blank slate. We like something to react to. Some of the features of our new apartment that defined its character for us are its bay windows, the woodburning fireplace with built in shelves, the wood floors and woodwork.

5. Storage. Storage can get you into trouble. Our current house has a huge basement with lots of storage areas, large closets in every room, two hall closets, and an abundance of shelves and cabinets. The problem with a lot of storage is that it’s easy to store things. Consequently, over the ten years that we’ve lived here, we’ve saved a lot. It’s easier than figuring out what to get rid of. We are now paying the price. The new apartment has only three closets: one in each bedroom and one off the main room. All are reasonably sized, but none is enormous. There is a decent array of kitchen cabinets, especially for New York City, but it is nowhere near the amount of cabinet space we have now. There is also a storage area in the basement, but in a fourth-floor walkup, this is not going to be for anything we need often. Moreover, because of the windows we prized, we are sacrificing a great deal of wallspace for the bookshelves that fill our house. The solution, of course, is to get rid of a lot of our belongings.

6. Outdoor space. It doesn’t have to be much, but we need a place to grow things, even if it’s just a fire escape. We won the lottery on this one, though: we have exclusive rights to the roof over our apartment.

7. Something extra. Especially with trading down, we want our living space to have something special. With our current house, it was the large wood-burning fireplace, the skylights that made artificial light largely unnecessary for most of the day, and the views. Our new apartment has all of these things — yes, even a woodburning fireplace, a virtually unheard of luxury in New York City. The apartment also has two more things that we have now but weren’t expecting to find: a washer and dryer and a dishwasher.

We are now in the editing phase of the project. We are both editors by trade, so you’d think we’d be good at this part, but it is hard. AJ is proving to be the best editor of the lot, as he rids himself of most of his toys and books and a lot of his clothes. It seems that he’s outgrown everything in the last few months. It seems he is ready for a change.

Mr. Spy is practical about it and works methodically. I am much more prone to bouts of sentiment that can slow me down. But most of our things are in good enough shape to donate. It makes me feel better to know that someone else will be able to use them.

Our goal is to have a space that we love filled with things that we love. When I reach for something to put in the box, I’m trying to ask whether it’s important to me, or if it’s something that’s just filling space, that could be easily replaced if necessary.

This morning, I helped a friend load up a moving van with 11 of our bookshelves, a rocking chair I never used as much as I thought, a small hall table that never really fit, some garden tools I won’t need anymore. It feels good to get rid of the the clutter, but it’s sad too. My friend arrived while AJ was still sleeping. As soon as he got up, we moved the bookshelves that we’d emptied last night out of his room. Shortly thereafter, he had a meltdown about possibly missing his online fantasy football draft. He claims his 15 minute crying jag had nothing to do with moving, with all this change, but we’re not so sure. Lately, if you ask AJ if he’s excited about moving, he just shrugs his shoulders and says “I don’t know,” or “not really.” If you ask him if he’s sad that he’s leaving, you’ll get the same response. He’s been maintaining a position of complete emotional neutrality. But this is the only home he remembers living in. We moved here 6 weeks before his first birthday. He learned to walk here. The railing in the kitchen still has marks on it from when he was teething. The railing was a perfect height. He learned to ride his bike in the driveway. He used to run laps around the dining room table here and later around the house. I’m used to leaving the space behind and taking the memories of that space with me. But AJ has never had to do this. Even if you want to be disoriented, the experiences is still disorienting.

What I hope for on the other end is cleanliness. Space. Clarity. Fewer distractions. More time together. Security. Peace. Can a house do all that? I think it can, but only with our help.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. eleanorio permalink
    August 18, 2012 11:15 am

    I have often said, ever since having to go through my mother’s house after she went into the residence, that we have way too much stuff and if the house were hit by lightning and burned down to the ground, I would not miss anything so long as the people I loved were safe. But I think I am deluding myself. There are still things I am attached to: the plate my daughter made in preschool, the cut-glass jewelry box my son gave me for Christmas when he was in grade one, my recipe box, all my cookbooks. It would be hard indeed to decide what goes in the box and what does not. I wish you strength… all of you.

  2. August 18, 2012 9:45 pm

    Eleanorio, my mom sent me a link to an article in tomorrow’s NY Times about our relationship with our stuff: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/19/opinion/sunday/clutter-storage-and-happiness.html?hp . There are plenty of objects that mean something to me. My grandmother’s desk The lanterns my brother got me in Thailand. My books. I don’t think we need to divorce ourselves from all of these things. But we do need to focus on the few that are the most important.

  3. August 19, 2012 6:16 am

    I did lose a lot of belongings almost three years ago and there are a few items that still give me a pang when I remember they are gone. But not very many. Starting over like that was very liberating, and while I don’t recommend the methodology involved, the process did help me sort out what matters in terms of stuff.

    I didn’t realize you have both a dishwasher and a washer/dryer in the unit. That is wonderful–having a washer/dryer in our Boston place was very high on my list of priorities. I know people do haul laundry to laundromats but I sure didn’t want to do it myself.

  4. August 19, 2012 11:41 pm

    Your description of the new place makes it seem wonderful. I hope you will share pictures when you are settled. It sounds like an adventure.

  5. August 20, 2012 2:51 pm

    It looks like a salmon steak! But I do think it is a good layout — it’s going to be an adventure. Divestment will surely help. The dishwasher and washer-dryer — excellent.

  6. August 20, 2012 4:17 pm

    edj, it’s an entirely different thing to be getting rid of one’s belonging by choice than by accident. I expect there to be some pangs, but not the kind that I’d have if a random assortment of my belongings were wiped out. In this case I get to pick what’s left behind and have no one to blame but myself if I miss them. Julia, there will definitely be pictures! Readersguide, it DOES look like a salmon steak. And also, you are making me hungry. I just came across a blog of a family of 8 living in an 800 s.f. house. I am feeling better about our apartment. And yes, not having to schlep my laundry up and down 4 flights of stairs is an excellent thing.

  7. August 20, 2012 6:23 pm

    Holy cow, eight people in 800 square feet? Now those are tight quarters.

  8. drgeek permalink
    September 5, 2012 4:50 pm

    In the last five years, Mrs Geek and I moved from an 1800 square foot house with a separate storage unit to a 950 square foot house with an attached garage. Along the way, we picked up a new family member in the form of our son. We gained a patio, yard, and shed, but those areas ended up being filled with things that we never owned prior to buying the house. With a three bedroom home, we originally had the luxury of using one room as a bedroom for the two of us, one for an office, and one as storage. Having a child converted the store room into a nursery, and brought another good sized pile of stuff into the house.

    All of which is my way of saying: we feel your pain. Good luck.

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