the positive of the negative: living with less (part one)


1st, Bristow had her second round of chemo today. Here she is on her way into Sage this morning, modeling her “chemo cape” that Auntie Caitlin and Uncle Cody and her besties Macey and Jax gave her. (Thanks again!) We appreciate any prayers and love you can spare sent her way, as she got pretty nauseous after her first round. She’s pre-loaded with meds this time, so hopefully she will be nausea-free. Her 1-month ampuversary was this past weekend, and she is still rocking and rolling with the tripawd lifestyle. A few minutes ago, I took her outside for her first frisbie fetch session post-amputation. Where she goes off-screen is where she wiped out. 3-legged sharp turns and acceleration are still being worked out, but she jumped back up and went for it. (Then she stared across the parking lot at Macey and Jax’s door for at least a minute, hoping they’d come out to play. Unfortunately, they moved in May, but she has not given up hope!)

2nd, we just returned Monday from an 8-day trip. A (thankfully) super fun week of obli-cation (not meant derogatorily–just meaning that travel was for scheduled family events and not just M and I on a beach somewhere) that felt more like a vacation than I expected: Wisconsin for a 60th wedding anniversary celebration and then to Atlanta for a wedding. I will write more about the latter later (Have you ever been to an Ethiopian wedding? No? Well, put it on your bucket-list, folks.).

But for now, let’s chat about something else I love: Decorating, Decluttering, Detoxing your space. This subject came up over lunch with my parents on Monday. My mom (a non-keeper) wants to hire me to work some magic on the cache my Dad (a “collector”) transported with them when they moved 2 years ago. Jury is still out on whether he’ll accept my services. (Dad, you say the word and I’m there!;-) Now, on with the post (that my husband said I could have split into 2: It’s a long one, so grab a glass of wine and get comfy!)…


Negative space. If I have gleaned one morsel that has most stuck with me from the many design blog posts and home décor articles and celebrity home tours I have seen, it’s to create and use negative space well. That home décor is as much about UNdecorating as it is about decorating—subtracting over adding. I love this blog post about “Quieting the house”, and I value Julianne Moore’s take (though somewhat extreme for my tastes) in this article. This one, too.  And one more. She loves a Belgian aesthetic (and the Belgian designer Vincent Van Duysen) or Scandanavian approach: Clean, simple, utilitarian. I do as well, but I don’t take it as far as she does. I have far too many plants that I like to keep around to clean the air and bring the outdoors in.

Here are a couple examples of small changes I made in my living room after reading the aforementioned articles.

IMG_2673IMG_3003These small open surfaces carve out just a bit more negative space, creating a little more breathing room.
IMG_2999   IMG_3001

A resting place for the eye (and bottom, in the case of the chair). Still not as extreme as Ms. Moore, but I am working on it.

(Then there’s the challenge of keeping the newly cleared areas from collecting clutter. Perhaps a post for another time….)

Like Julianne and Emily, I do love a neutral wall—a clean palette for whatever the “paint” of art and object. I have often wrestled with the idea of painting the neutral walls, thinking I need to spice things up, but I always come back to keeping it clean, basic. I feel freer to express myself in the room itself if the walls are an empty canvas. I like a simple color palette with a splash of color. I also like each room have it’s own color palette while still allowing for flow from one room to the next. For example, I have a lot of white-family throw pillows that migrate from room to room. Soft-whites like bone and ivory and eggshell are my go-to color for rugs, slip-covers, throw pillows, bedding, towels (white-white for these). It feels clean. I like being able to see the clean-ness of things. This also means more actual cleaning, as white shows dirt and dinge more easily than other colors. Hence, I have no white couches—just a faux leather (read: vegan-friendly) chair that is easy to wipe clean. Pillow covers and bedding and towels can all be thrown in the washer w/ some Oxy Clean, and I try to buy washable rugs, too, though the faux fur ones do not always wash-and-dry well. (I learned this the hard way after puking on one.)

Natural elements in a home make me happy. Plants, sticks, stone…all calming components for me, an outdoorsy-tomboy. I love bringing them inside and incorporating them into my design. I have a father who is a biology professor who specialized in botany for his doctorate, so plants have always been a part of our vernacular. Growing up, Dad would casually point out what was growing around us and use its proper species name. To this day, I remember the specific names of my childhood house plants: dieffenbachia, rhododendron, philodendron…. They were not just plants—they had names. And plants not only beautify a space, but they contribute to your health of those living in the space. I love this Ted Talk about the importance of plants in our indoor spaces. Until a few months ago, I even had a fountain inside, as I found it was not getting used/enjoyed enough outside. A mini-garden with a babbling brook greeted you when you entered my home. (I also love creating inviting spaces outdoors. Stay tuned for an upcoming post about making the most of a postage-stamp garden.)

And then there’s the need for functional-yet-aesthetically-pleasing places to sit and sleep and eat. Part of why I love the furniture in my 800-sq-ft home is the story behind each piece. I love knowing I got it for 75% off because of a small scratch or dent. I love knowing I used Discover CashBack bonus to get discounted gift cards that translated into 20% off the already discounted-because-defective price. I feel a tickle of pride as I pass the perfect vintage buffet we found stashed behind several other much-more-expensive ones at a consignment store a block from our house—and when I reach for the vintage mid-century knobs I found to replace the corroded ones that came with it. (Black Sharpee covers a multitude of sins and scratches.) And I love that my home is beautiful without having cost a small fortune and without putting us into debt. (The home itself is debt enough, as we bought it right before the market crashed. L) I love knowing I found a beautiful piece at a garage or estate sale. My piano, for example, was from a moving sale down the street of my home in Indiana. I paid $300, and then had it moved (4 blocks) for another $100. The movers—who also sell used and new pianos—said it should have cost between $1500 and $2000 based on the brand, age, and condition! It’s acquired some bumps and bruises from moving to CA, and then 4 times since, but it is still beautiful and produces lovely, warm sounds when its ivories are lovingly caressed.


I also adore art that has a story. On the walls, I have 3 paintings by the fabulous Pamela D. Williams (my uber-talented sister), a couple of my own (I am not as talented as she is, but I enjoy painting.), one of my husband’s friend’s works, and 2 I have purchased from lesser-know-but-amazing artist’s themselves. I also have 2 paintings that used to be for loan at my local library growing up. When I was back in town several years ago doing research for a book I was writing, I stopped into the library, and they were having a silent auction of all the paintings they had in their collection. (When I was a kid, you could check out paintings, just like books, and hang them on your walls, then return them for something new. What a fabulous idea! I wish we had local programs like that today.) I found 2 I remembered and loved and put a low-ball bid on them ($5 per), never thinking I’d actually be awarded them both. Now they hang proudly on my walls, and like my other displayed artwork, they have a story.

I heard Nate Berkus talk on Oprah once about surrounding yourself with things you love: Favorite books, a memento from a trip, your grandmother’s china. You don’t have to display every piece, but include a teacup on the mantle. I want every room to hug me when I enter. Not suffocate me but embrace me (refer back to Julianne Moore’s articles above). I have been working with 3 friends currently to help them purge and reorganize their living spaces. (Let me know if you’d like me to help you!) I find joy doing it, and I love using the question “Does it spark joy?” to help them decide what to keep and what to toss or donate (from Maria Kondo’s book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing; haven’t read the book yet but this article summarizes it well.). 

The same principle can be applied to things you don’t love or that incite negative emotions. Perhaps it’s a piece of jewelry from a boyfriend who broke your heart, or leftovers from a former marriage.  A few years ago, we bought a crappy Chinese scooter for Michael to drive to and from work in an attempt to save money and to allow us to be a one-car family. That thing was trouble from the very beginning. (Run far away if someone tries to sell you a BMS scooter!) It spent more time not working than it did working, and every time I pulled the car in beside it, it reminded me of the intense fight we had about buying it. My mood would take a hit whenever I saw it, and it did not help our marriage to be constantly reminded by the animosity it fueled between us and the regret we had at purchasing it. Furthermore, keeping it made it difficult to let go of the resentment I felt toward my husband. It was such a thorn in our side that in the end we nearly paid someone on Craigslist to take it off our hands. Maybe you have nothing that takes up that much physical space haunting you, but even if a small photo reminds you of a hurtful time in your life, take it out of the frame. If a certain wallpaper takes you back to childhood memories you’d rather avoid, pull it down and paint. Listen to your spirit as you move through your space. Take note and take action. Even small changes can have big impact.

I am a weeder. My husband knows if I’ve been watching “Hoarders” because he’ll come home to find several headed-to-Goodwill bags by the front door. When we first moved to CA, we were renting, and I kept more items than I would have preferred because I never knew which rug, for example, would fit the living space in the next home, even if it didn’t fit in my current home. Once we purchased our condo, I purged. Big time. And I have continued to do so. We have VERY limited storage. And we pay A LOT of money per square foot to live where we do (the beautiful Bay Area). Doing the math, it costs more for us to store an item in a closet than to potentially have to buy another one if in the future if we get rid of it and then need it again. I am known for my sorting/organizing/weeding and have assisted friends and family members in this process when their stuff has become overwhelming. I consider it a blessing to help free folks from their things. (Like I said, let me know if you want help!) And it usually inspires me to come home and do another pass on my place, too.

But it’s not just about decluttering for the sake of decluttering. For the tax write-off from Goodwill donations. For bragging rights at yoga class about how simply you are living. The best part: Finding new headspace and heartspace that results when physical space is cleared. It’s amazing how we insulate ourselves with stuff and bury our families with things. Belongings just as quickly and easily take over our minds and hearts as they take over our homes and offices.

My lovely pro-minimalism friend Dana has helped her family go to extremes in terms of eliminating stuff in their lives. Check out her posts. Again, I have not quite moved into this level of minimalist living, but I do attempt to employ and apply minimalist philosophies into my everyday living and decorating. Just writing those words now makes me want to go clean out a drawer or two.

I could wax on and on about this topic until the wee hours of the morning, so I will press pause for the moment and leave you with 2 questions to discuss in the comments section below:

  1. What tricks work for you when decluttering and organizing?
  2. What post-purge positive effects have you seen in other areas of your life (or the lives of those with whom you live)?

Remember: Stay tuned for an upcoming post about making the most of a postage-stamp garden. I’m giddy about writing it already!


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