A few years ago I was underemployed like the rest of the country - working several jobs and scrambling.... oh, did I scramble. And, in the midst of it all, my mom died after a long illness. I kept waiting for the "best of times" to come to counter all of the "worst of times" that I was having.
In December 2012, I'd kind of reached my "nearing the end of my rope" moment - it wasn't quite George Bailey on a snowy bridge about to throw himself into the river with a life insurance policy clutched in his hand, but I was feeling broken, chipped. A friend of mine, a drag queen who was about to embark on a life changing career singing Gospel music, pulled me into a weekly spirituality group where I would start to think differently about how I looked at things.
One friend from the group suggested that I was thinking too far ahead and worried about too far in the future - this was making each day full of panic. She suggested that I, like those in recovery groups, simply take one day at a time. She then suggested that each night, before I went to sleep, I ask God/The Universe/ A Higher Power/ ... Spirit?, "what do I need to know for the next day?"... I would meditate and if an answer of some sort didn't come then, I would usually wake up with a task at hand - something as small as calling an old friend, for example. I actually got a 'message' to call a friend I hadn't spoken to in awhile and it turned out that he was in the hospital for a minor thing but he was very glad to hear from me. Awesome.
One morning in December, I woke up as usual, hadn't had a message of any sort, and got out of bed. Along the way, I noticed a few things - it started with a little wooden box with three drawers that sat near my bedroom door atop a wooden filing cabinet. The wooden box was meant to keep jewelry, but I kept sunglasses I never used and watches I never wore and a bunch of odds and ends that I didn't know what to do with (for example: a package of jacks someone had given to me as a joke birthday present some time before). But the thing that I noticed every time I passed by it was the bottom left hand corner that had been chipped off in my move from LA to New York - nearly a decade before. I passed by it dozens of times a day and every single time I think: maybe I ought to get rid of that since it's chipped. But, then, as a Midwesterner, I would answer myself - that's ridiculous, it works fine and it's only cosmetic. My dad's voice would boom in my head: it would be "foolish" to get rid of it.
Then I walked down the hallway - past the bathroom with the old, crumbling vanity, the outdated lights from a previous tenant; the guest room with IKEA bookshelves left behind from a roommate who moved out and a bed from my current roommate that sat on an ugly metal box frame on wheels; the futon couch in the living room that had been broken by another former roommate who decided that the living room was her boudoir where she'd accept random gentlemen callers from parties she'd go to, the entertainment center that had been chopped up, the old boxy/tube TV, the curtains that had been bought in a hurry some years past but had never looked good, the holdbacks that didn't line up with each other... and so on.
I passed by all of this every day but for some reason I noticed it all (and more) in succession. But the tipping point came when I got to the kitchen counter and took a spatula out of the ceramic pot I'd been using to hold utensils. I had it turned towards the wall, bumping up against the crumbling backsplash that the landlord refused to replace. And that's when the lightbulb went on.
I looked around, and declared to literally no one at all since I was alone - "The reason that I feel chipped and broken is because everything I see is chipped and broken". It was such a revelation that I spent the morning cataloging everything in the apartment that needed to be replaced, fixed, made whole... it was kind of a big list and I was momentarily understandably freaked out: how could I have let this go for so long? I guess I don't want to give the impression that I was living in a hovel, I wasn't. But it was clear that because of money issues, I was not taking care of the place. And I think I could extrapolate and decide that I might not be taking care of myself either.
And that's when I kind of broke down.
You see, it wasn't just that things were chipped and broken, I'd never really thought methodically about what my home, my life, should look like - for example, what bathroom fixtures or what bookcases I wanted. To a large degree, I just accepted what was here when I moved in (a big wooden bar and an entertainment center that was too large for the apartment) or what was left here by various roommates over the years without actually asking myself - do I really want this?
I knew then and there what I would have to do - I would embark on what would turn out to be a three year home renovation project that would fix and replace everything that was 'wrong'.
My first buy was a ten dollar white ceramic pot from Bed, Bath and Beyond to hold my utensils. Throwing out that cracked blue holder was the start of it all - and it felt good.
Here's how I did it in 5 easy (but time consuming) steps:
- I made a master list of everything that I wish that I could do with the apartment. This included everything from updating electric switches (the hardware store on my block) to getting a real bed frame (Bob's Discount Furniture) for the guest room bed. There were items on there that I still haven't been able to get to (like getting someone to smooth out the bumps in the ceiling where I, in 2005, banged a broom in hopes that the rambunctious children above me might settle down - their mother came down and called me a 'faggot' by the way but I digress). This was a difficult thing of course because I kept thinking "I can't afford to embark on this journey" but I just powered through. I kept the list on my phone and as each item got done, it was a joy to delete it.
2. I started small. Not only did I start small with the ceramic utensil holder because it was cheap (I was, after all, at the time, underemployed) but it was something that I could do without a contractor or looking at stores. It was immediate gratification and getting a few small 'wins' right off the bat helped motivate me. I think the next thing I did was get rid of an old ugly soap dish that I had come to hate. Again - cheap (and again, Bed Bath and Beyond).
3. Looking is free. I looked EVERYWHERE in Manhattan so I knew exactly what was out there and how much each thing would cost. I took endless pictures of couches, chairs, lamps, bookshelves, and more. Want to know where to get discount furniture? (all along 125th Street and at Bobs on E. 117) and how the pricing and quality compares to places like West Elm, Ethan Allen, Raymour and Flanigan, etc? I can tell you. I can also tell you about Nadeau Furniture on East 11th Street and the cool stuff they have there. The woman who runs that business even offered to help me plan out what the new living room would be as she could see that even though I am a creative person, my confidence in picking out the 'right stuff' is low. I didn't take her up on it but there was some strange power in knowing that I had an ally out there who would tell me if some idea sucked or not.
4. I discovered the joy and pain of finding a contractor in New York. In April 2013, I got an amazing job as an events manager with a big global bank. The work was awesome, although intense and stressful but it afforded me to get some professional help in doing some things that I really couldn't do myself - like replace the backsplash in the kitchen or replacing the icky apartment style bland ceiling lamps hanging from the ceiling in the hallway. However, with the help of friends like Matt, Matthew, Tommy, Shane and others, I was able to wreck and remove one of the IKEA bookshelves that resented being moved from one side of the room to the next and promptly started to come apart to spite me. I was able to get a desk mounted on the guest bedroom wall, I was able to mount battery operated wall sconces next to the bed where there really was no room for actual lamps. So, it took a village. But I went through like four contractors through the process and learned probably the most valuable lesson for anyone living in New York City: reliable contractors are rarer than unicorns.
5. I had to learn to let go and realize that it was not all in my hands. I was determined to see all my options for each thing that I wanted to get, and, I swear, in every single case, once I had looked at ten different variations on the same thing, got discouraged by the price or that it wasn't the right thing, I would 'let go' and vow to move on to something else on the list... and then, somehow, I'd walk in to a store and there would be the most perfect thing.
Here's an example: for years I kept my ice in an old metal bread pan that yet another roommate had left behind. As anyone but me knows, leaving a metal bread pan in the freezer with ice in it isn't really a great thing for the pan. I wasn't planning on making bread so I didn't really care about the pan, but over time, the ice got 'funny' (and let's just leave it at that especially for those of you who might someday come to my home and want a cold refreshing adult beverage). So I threw it out and I was taking ice from the trays. Not the most practical solution. So I meditated on it and decided that what I wanted to keep my ice in was a plastic orange bowl - larger than a cereal bowl, but smaller than a mixing bowl. I looked everywhere. Home Goods. Gracious Home. Bed, Bath, and Beyond. and every corner dollar store that I passed. This went on for about three months. I eventually decided that this was the dumbest thing I could think of to be spending my time on and so, I ended the search. A couple weeks later, I was in Chicago for a conference over Memorial Day weekend. At one point, my blood sugar dropped and I needed to eat NOW. So I went across the street from the hotel and discovered Eataly. I'd never been in the New York store but knew that they had sandwiches and so it seemed like a good bet. Except that it was the Saturday of a holiday weekend in downtown Chicago. You can imagine how nutty/crowded it was and in the state I was in, trying to dodge hundreds of tourists was not an option. So once in, I turned around to leave... and what was sitting there on a display table? A perfectly sized plastic orange bowl for $19.99. It was literally as if I'd designed it myself. I didn't want to have to pack it so the minute I returned to New York, I went off to 23rd St, walked in the door and picked it up and upon return home, it went right in my freezer. Boom. This wasn't the first time that it'd happened and it definitely wouldn't be the last. Virtually everything I chose came after an exhaustive search but it was more often than not something that I discovered after I'd finished doing all the research.
I don't understand it but I'm very very clear that Something was guiding me throughout the process. Ive become good friends and very very appreciative of the Spirit that has been taking me on this journey of home renovation because it clearly knows better than I do about what I want/need. And it's shown me some really great deals - like the time I walked into Housing Works on 17th Street and discovered two dark wooden dining room chairs for $100. I couldn't believe my eyes. I snapped them up and got out of there asap, lugging them all the way home (to a cab, and then up four flights). They formed the basis for what is now my dining room table, and best of all, my living room is no longer a work space.
Along the way, I also went through and donated, repaired, or threw away all the clothes that no longer fit (or that I never liked in the first place) and the tapes that I no longer listen to (I don't even own a cassette player!) replacing them with digital versions. I also donated books I no longer wanted and things I no longer needed (a broken lamp got thrown away, two wall lamps from an old roommate got donated). and so on.
And, I took this one step further and went to my storage unit where I keep my collection of comics and went through and found about 100 that I didn't like and didn't want to keep. I knew that there was no resale value to them so I offered them to friends and now they enjoy them. I looked through boxes and found a vase I had forgotten about (now on my new bureau in the living room), rotated my art, and threw out a bunch of things (like, did I really need the stick with a small balloon on it that someone had given me on my 40th birthday cake - the one that had "Just Say No to Botox" on it? No I did not).
And speaking of art, I constructed an elaborate 'installation" on an apartment-long wall displaying not just my favorite Warner Brothers art, but various other pieces I've collected along the way. I also printed a few dozen photographs of my favorite people, got them in frame from A.I Friedman ($6 each and environment friendly) and have those hung up too. Perhaps my most interesting 'art piece' is a series of about 20 hats hung on dresser drawer knobs pounded into the wall. Each hat has a story and every single one is something I would still wear today (ok, maybe the Goofy hat from my mid 80s Disneyland adventure with one of my best friends is not something I'd wear, but the cheesehead hat from my oldest friend definitely IS something I'll wear again). This way, the wall is a representation of my life and those people that I have loved along the way. It's not finished, but I think it's exciting that it's an ever evolving work in progress- you know, like me.
The reno is not done - I still have a couple pieces in my bedroom to replace and I had thought that I would give away a couple bookcases that I had bought with an old boyfriend but decided to keep it (but it needs some repair) and then there is the second level - when my creative projects are sitting on a shelf waiting to be given attention, I feel like my creativity is also sitting on a shelf waiting to get some attention - and as the meme says, don't put off the things you want to do because someday it's going to be too late (but I think that's a separate blog post!).
But even though there are still some things to do, I feel like I've really managed to 'heal' much of the chipped and broken feelings I'd had before I started this journey. I can't say that I completely understand the relationship between replacing broken things in my apartment and feeling more whole internally, but there it is. Maybe it's something as simple as assigning exterior objects meaning and, once they are gone, so is the hurt. I definitely have felt an amazing change in my mood - and in my heart - every time the next thing was accomplished. It was almost a physical sensation - and kind of addictive.
Recently the bank let a lot of it's east and west coast people go after a merger and so I've been job hunting. There was this moment of panic last week where I briefly felt as though I was back in 2012 again and that I'd never work again (I'm sure we all know that feeling!).
And yet, this time I feel more confident. Not only is the economy in better shape than it was 2008 -2012, but my resume in better shape (and after spending lots of time at the gym last and this year, so am I) but the apartment is in great shape and it feels like it reflects how I feel now - shiny, new, created from the ground up, whole or at least almost whole. As whole as human beings ever get to feel I think. Now when I get up in the morning, I feel much better. I pass by a couple things that need to be done, but it's not EVERYTHING.
However, I've been unable to let go of the little broken bureau. It sits empty now - everything that was in it thrown away or reorganized in some way (thank you little orange boxes from The Container Store - $8.99 each) - atop a bookshelf so I can't see the chipped piece anymore. But I still know it's there and someday, I'll figure out what to do with it. But for now, it's a reminder of where I was - and how far I've come.