the day before Christmas Eve

blue spruce with raindrops

I typically enjoy the December holidays: strings of lights glowing at the darkest part of the year, people generally acting a shade nicer than usual, the holiday providing an excuse to eat homemade fudge and imported panettone and buy myself a little something special—because who else but me can know exactly what I want? But this year, I feel low on Christmas-solstice spirit.

The house is still overcrowded with items to sell and things I want to keep but haven't yet figured out where or how to store. So my desire for yet more stuff is at an all-time low (though I did pick up some free Hermès perfume samples from Nordstrom and treated myself to a few used books by way of a gift certificate from my summer birthday).

Then on top of the regular mess, my housemate slipped the other night on a slick floor and dumped a boiling pot of minestrone soup (that he was making for me) onto his bare legs and one arm, giving himself a spiral of second-degree burns; two days on, his left leg looks half-cooked, popped blisters in a range of sizes—small, medium, large—revealing raw red skin dotting extra-tanned, taut skin all the way from ankle to mid-thigh. (The doctor wasn't worried. It could have been worse.) And then I had to clean up the soup-splattered kitchen the following morning, scooping up peas, carrots, zucchini, and potatoes off the floor into my cupped palms and flushing all the cooked vegetables in homemade broth with homemade pesto down the garbage disposal, which wasn't fun but preferable to being the one whose appendages got poached. It's the most wonderful time of the year. As a result, in between fetching bandages, I've been binge-watching Game of Thrones because at least I don't have to worry about being shot with arrows by giants or poisoned by my queen sister.

evergreen shrub

So we have no Christmas tree, no lights, no ornaments, no stockings, no holiday tchotchkes. Our holiday trees are the ones standing outside in the rain year-round, rooted to the ground, nature's yard ornaments. I sent my family a box of my own household castoffs, small things they each might use, because I couldn't bear the thought of shopping, buying anything. It seems I've lost my taste for thrifting, or at least for acquiring.

I did, though, end up tagging along with Jeff (right before his accident) to a couple Goodwill stores and found myself in line at the cash register, watching a reindeer toy in sunglasses dancing on the counter to a pop song I'm too old to know, thinking once again about all the multitudinous crap made for Americans in China and the question of who's to blame, the drug pusher or the drug user? We buy it because it's made, or it's made because we buy it? Who would waste even a fraction of their income on a dancing plush-toy reindeer in sunglasses? Many people, obviously. And then today I ran across a Guardian article about the town where cheap Christmas decorations are made in southern China; the photo of the migrant factory worker in a Santa hat splattered from head to toe with toxic red paint alongside a table with rows of inverted red polystyrene boots should be enough to dampen the holiday spirit of more than just me.

holly berries with raindrops

But then there was the story of the monkey in India who essentially beat, like a rag doll, his or her mate (pal? relative?) for twenty minutes back to consciousness after the other got electrocuted on a wire at a train station. Now that's a resurrection worth talking about.


timber (or, the wind in the pines)

CL screenshot: timber tree on roof

Thankfully, I sat out the big windstorm on Thursday, which offered some of Portland's biggest gusts since the Columbus Day Storm of October 1962. I've been sick for a week and missed three days of work, despite a flu shot in September, so I happened to be home safe for this particular extratropical cyclone. Even indoors, the winds did howl. The light that afternoon was eerie, more golden than usual for December. We set high-temperature records that day, the wind blowing south-to-north up the coast—so no wonder it hadn't seemed that cold when I'd opened my window to air out my sickroom. My housemate was rushing to transfer some scrap wood and furniture from his trailer out of the storm into the garage; he kept coming back into the house saying, "It's crazy out there." He said he'd swept the driveway clear of pine needles earlier but now you couldn't even tell, so many more had dropped. We gathered candles, matches, an oil lamp, and flashlights and turned up the heat, certain the power would be going out, but it flickered just once.

Other parts of the metro area weren't so lucky. While we were watching a movie for distraction, people across the city were waiting for the lights to come back on from over 100,000 outages or else wrestling with downed trees, pieces fallen off buildings, canceled or delayed flights, disrupted MAX lines. A few people were trapped in elevators. Tragically, a middle-school boy died and his mother was seriously injured after a dead cedar fell onto their car in transit. Farther south where the storm hit first, a homeless man also died and his dog was injured from a falling tree while camping with his equally homeless son in the mountains down near Ashland. Nature doesn't play nice, something easy to forget in the age of international space stations and Mars rovers. But it will become increasingly harder to forget as global warming effects heighten in coming years.

CL screenshot: fallen hardwood in yard

The day after the storm, Jeff came into my room, saying, "Guess what's the most common item in the Craigslist free piles today?" I looked out the window at the neighbor's old garage for a few seconds, thinking, "Roof shingles?" before focusing on the huge pine tree behind the garage in the yard next door and saying, "Wood!"

CL screenshot: tree in driveway

CL screenshot: trees down

CL screenshot: tree lost to the wind

CL screenshot: fallen tree in street

CL screenshot: free firewood from a fallen tree

CL screenshot: free wood from two trees

CL screenshot: Western red cedar

He later found out a downed tree at his aunt and uncle's house in Milwaukie had taken out their back deck and quipped to his mother on the phone that surely, with her brother being a retired insurance claims adjuster, the uncle and aunt must be well covered. Such storms should be reminders to us all to prepare or refresh our 72-hour emergency kits.

CL screenshot: downed pine branches with pine cones

Few tend to think of trees as living things but more like giant toothpicks-with-leaves stuck into the ground, carbon banked for later use—as furniture, toilet paper, firewood—instead of beneficial living organisms that clean our water, restore and cool our air, regulate our rainfall, fix our topsoil, and keep whole mountainsides from sliding away. So while I love the sentimental look and feel of a sparkly, brightly lit Christmas tree scenting a home at holiday time, the unnecessary massacre of so many pine trees each holiday season, even if farmed expressly for this purpose, is not worth its price, especially when as much carbon should be re-sequestered from the air back into the ground as fast as humans with their hack-and-slash lumberjack brains can figure out how.


meeting the Pow-Wow Tree

Oregon Heritage Tree sign: Pow-Wow Tree

On the first partly sunny day in what felt like weeks, the housemate and I took his mom's dog for a walk down by the river. I forgot to take a picture of this photogenic shiba inu (though you can see her here a couple years ago), but I finally met (if you can say that about a piece of living wood) the Pow-Wow Tree, Gladstone's two-hundred-thirty-eight-year-old bigleaf maple tree that was a former meeting place of local native tribes and that also once hosted, so to speak, the first Oregon State Fair. My friend has lived in this town since August, so I'd walked past that tree multiple times while visiting without stopping and reading the sign, too distracted by the Tele-Tales sign to the right of it and unaware that this particular "Tele-Tale" was about the old tree since the Tele-Tales sign itself references Mt. Hood, which is not exactly in the neighborhood. (Sorry—nobody my age or under is going to dial a voice recording to access local history; phones are Internet-connection devices.)

Pow-Wow Tree, Gladstone, OR

The Pow-Wow Tree looks her age: gnarly, shaggy, craggy, mossy, and one-eyed. But she's still standing, and that's all that counts. 

The Clackamas riverside only a couple months ago was lush and verdant in jewel greens and blues and the wheat yellows of late summer. Half-naked people were jumping off cliffs into the swimming hole or wading in the rocky shallows to cool off. Now the trees and bushes are skeletal and the river is running high, fast, and muddy. Even the dog wouldn't go in.

PGE water level warning sign, Clackamas River

amputated tree, Clackamas River

I got extra miles in by zigzagging the entire trip to avoid getting caught in the dog leash because said dog was so excited to sniff and pee on everything on both sides of the path. (Seriously, how big can a dog's bladder be? She never ran out of the stuff. Oh, and she also doesn't like other dogs. She once picked up a smaller dog in her mouth and thrashed it around like a chew toy. How can a dog be antisocial?!) The sun raised the temperature by about twenty degrees (hooray for nuclear fusion!), but when the clouds blanketed the river, brrr, cold! Rain misted my eyeglasses, making it hard to spot rainbows, if there were any.

After dropping off the dog (Bye, dog!), on the way home we stopped into the local library for the first time, a tiny but friendly branch offering free candy for those who used self-checkout. (Too bad I hate Tootsie Rolls.) By then, having forgotten that I'd finally found my stash of gloves when unpacking that morning, my hands were so cold they felt more like claws, barely able to grasp a book.

Bright side: At least I got some fresh air and exercise while stumbling upon the locally celebrated Pow-Wow Heritage Tree. Dark side: I miss summer and dream about skipping town.


a Clackamas County Thanksgiving for two

simple Thanksgiving table, 2014

This may have been my most relaxed Thanksgiving ever and certainly one of the smallest and quietest, just the housemate and me. There was no company to entertain, nothing to dress up for—only a morning of doing laundry, tossing a ball down the hall over and over to please my cat, prepping casseroles, and slipping dirty dishes into the dishwasher. The housemate's family was either out of town or otherwise engaged. My family is down in southern Oregon. So we cooked for two. The best part of Thanksgiving, anyway, is the leftovers.

Funnily enough, he didn't want to be bothered with wrangling a whole turkey just for himself (me being vegetarian), so he roasted a chicken instead the night before and made himself some boxed-mix stuffing and homemade gravy, as well as a big bowl of roasted-garlic mashed potatoes with fresh thyme. I made a butternut squash gratin, roasted Brussels sprouts, and a double batch of the ubiquitous American green bean casserole (only my family always adds grated cheddar). Oven roasting is my favorite cooking method, by the way—all that toasty flavor for so little effort.

Thanksgiving plate on secondhand Dansk dish, 2014

Since neither of us much likes pie other than pecan, for dessert—which we also ate as an appetizer while waiting for the vegetables to roast, having skipped breakfast—I'd whipped up a batch of cranberry-corn muffins, a tweak of an old Martha Stewart blueberry-muffin recipe. (For substitutions, use three whole eggs, half a cup of butter, and a variety of whole-grain flours, including one-third cornmeal, mixing the wet cranberries with extra sugar, and sprinkling the wet muffin tops with raw sugar before baking.) It's almost like eating cake.

Listening to NPR while cooking, I heard a story about Northwest cranberry producers having a hard time breaking even these days, the cranberry market flooded with oversupply. The cranberries I used were indeed Northwest grown but had been stashed in the freezer for a year (and were still good). So let's all eat up more cranberries, which not only taste sour-lovely and look like rubies but also help prevent UTI's. At just two dollars a pound, we can support local coastal fruit growers and boost kidney function at the same time!

cranberry-corn muffins

As for gratitude this year, I'm grateful for my furry tabby, who squeaks instead of meows and acts younger than her age; for a warm home out of the rain and a bedroom without a spare freezer in it; for recently halving my expenses; for a paid holiday in which to cook and putter around the house; for my few good friends and for now living with one of them; and for the chance to, in a way, start over, yet again. So I toast you with my glass of Martinelli's sparkling cider: Happy Thanksgiving! And thank you.


good-bye, downtown: hello, small town

old brick apartment building aside new construction (April 2014)

Good-bye, downtown Portland and quaint old brick apartment building. I'll miss your original hardwood floors, public squares, walking conveniences, and ready public transport. I won't miss your construction noise, rising rents, or major earthquake hazards—or the Multnomah County Arts Tax, which should have just been tacked onto property taxes like everything else. (If you can afford to lease a house from a bank for 30 years, you can be the ones who hand over a little extra money for finger paint, clay, and a few more certified teachers. Some of those kids at the low-income school in NoPo I work at also need rain boots, winter coats, and parents who don't let them watch Walking Dead or Sharknado at age seven, but that may be asking too much from taxpayers.)

original hex-tile entrance with blown seed pods (downtown Portland, April 2014)

evening building shadows with birds (downtown Portland, July 2014)

Anyway, so I'm all moved. To celebrate, I took my first official suburban outing as a Gladstone resident the other evening when we walked to the post office and the grocery store. I now live in a small town swallowed up by an expanding metropolis, population 11,500. The police and fire departments, city hall, post office, and library are all more or less in the same block. I dare you to find a sidewalk in the residential areas. Night walks require flashlights. And the predominant profession in town seems to be barber/hair dresser. I've escaped Portland's gentrifiers, at least; Gladstone's too far away from the city center for hipsters.

varied downtown Portland architecture at sunset (September 2014)

hail on hotel luggage cart from downtown café window (April 2014)

downtown rainbow, March 2014 (iPhone photo)

downtown Portland construction (July 2014)

The new place itself, a low-ceilinged 1980s duplex with washer-and-dryer, dishwasher, and garbage disposal in unit as well as a water heater right next to the bathroom instead of three floors of old rusty pipes down—hot heaven, sweet bliss!—is a mess, stacked boxes piled everywhere like some kind of hillside Brazilian shantytown. I'm sleeping in an old military mummy bag, waiting for my night-owl friend and new housemate to refinish the mid-century bed and dresser we did a trade for and that he'd promised would be done by the time I moved in. On the plus side, he cooks all the meals and even packs my lunches, unasked—perks I didn't even have when I was married!

eastbound TriMet bus sign (June 2014)

Also a bonus, my newly-frisky cat currently lives in a Cat Wonderland of hidey-holes and towering tunnels. But I still haven't figured out where she naps, she doesn't come when called, and I'm terrified she's going to slip into the secondhand Miele dryer when I'm not looking. (I knew a family growing up in my hometown whose cat got roasted that way—in the dryer amid a load of warm towels.) She could also slink outside when our backs are turned and get decapitated by the family of raccoons that prowls the driveway in the wee hours. But other than the fear of murdered cat and my terribly long commute, things are going fine in our little alternative family. Any stray bits of mothering instinct fall on my tabby, who eats carpet fuzz. Pictures of the new town will follow eventually, when things at home start looking a little less cardboard shack.


thrifty moving

used moving boxes via Craigslist

The other day, I did an actual count and realized I've lived in at least 21 separate dwellings so far in my early-middle-aged life. That means I've almost doubled the American average of 11.7 moves, with additional household moves still ahead. So to me the moving process feels almost normal: Here I go again. I suspect the wanderer bug runs in my genes.

As a college student, I made use of my mom and step-dad for their helping hands, car trunks, and truck beds, packing things up with free newspaper and needing only a few boxes because of not owning more than a bedroom's worth of stuff, plus some basic kitchen and toiletry items. (Newsprint I later stopped using since it smudges everything—hands, glasses, vases—and moving is dirty enough, but at least newspaper is cheap or even free.)

shadows on used moving box

Then when I was married, I did what most lower-middle-class Americans do when moving: I went to U-Haul and bought a box of pristine packing paper, new plastic mattress bags, and sets of small, medium, and large brand-new moving boxes, packed the stuff up myself, and then paid movers to heft it up or down stairs and into and out of the rental truck because the ex and I had few local friends to ask for help, and our families were scattered across different states, mine at least seven hours away. (A big burly mover wearing a back support one time asked me as he was carrying a big cabinet on his back down a set of stairs to always please unload my filing cabinets before moving, for which I still feel mortified.) We did that a couple times, paying for movers. I believe it cost around $2,000 for us to move up from the Bay Area to Portland in 2007, which to me now is a mind-blowing amount but was definitely less than what our possessions were worth used—though not a lot less. Yet it was still cheaper to move them than replace them, which is the most important thing to consider when moving: Is the stuff worth less than it costs to store or move? (Rich people can of course just pay other people to do their dirty work for them. But paying for storage units is just silly; a storage unit means a person has too much stuff.)

woven baskets (natural storage)

But then my personal and financial circumstances changed. I returned to begging for boxes from grocery stores, which worked out okay, though such boxes are not made for household moving, sometimes containing air-holes; plus, things like banana boxes might contain dried-on sticky fruit juices. Liquor and wine boxes are much better for moving than produce boxes, both stronger and cleaner; though on the small side, they're at least easier for someone like me to carry herself. Grocery stores will also give away larger boxes that once held things like paper towels and toilet paper. But the begging process can take time and multiple trips to multiple stores on select days specific to different stores.

What's even better is using Craigslist to find free boxes. You can certainly pay for used boxes and packing materials on Craigslist and save money compared to buying them new, and for some, this is the easiest way to go: one big load and twenty dollars up front. But if you have more time than money and temporary access to a large vehicle, you can also find people willing to give their boxes away for free just because they want them out of their garage "TODAY!!!" or simply to be generous. That is community reuse.

free Craigslist moving box

The free boxes and packing paper I've gotten on Craigslist are invariably clean. (Dirty ones, of course, I just wouldn't use. Do double-check any boxes labeled "kitchen" or "bathroom" for stains, as they might have contained seeping liquids.) Cardboard boxes are made to be reused multiple times, so it's not only cheaper to do so for the individual but better for the environment: fewer trees needing chopping, fewer chemicals polluting the waterways, and so on. I used to store my moving boxes whenever I had the space, knowing I'd need them again. But since, as long as the global economy keeps tick-tock-time-bombing along, there will always be a fresh crop of moving boxes, it's better to free up that living space and declutter by passing those used boxes on to someone else in a big reuse cycle.

I've been sitting here writing this morning in a mostly empty apartment (while I should have been packing), sunlight streaming in the main window. I downsized a queen mattress through the magic of Craigslist into a full-size futon to free up a little bedroom space. I'm selling off the pricey vintage chocolate velvet mohair down-wrapped sofa and instead bought a funky ethnic-print cotton velour sofa for cheap from my favorite thrift store (no, it doesn't have bugs, and yes, we're steam-cleaning it), one I won't worry so much about ruining and that's deeper and better for lounging, though still in my favorite tuxedo style. Most of my furniture has been or will be sold off and the remainder—the metro shelving, woven storage baskets, the teak bookcase, a small wooden chest, a couple lamps, a few mirrors and pictures, my plants—moved in multiple trailer loads over a few weeks on evenings between rainstorms. (Though I usually try to move house during the summer when the weather's clear, this particular move was unexpected and poorly timed, so we've had to dodge clouds.)

It's a major boon having a good friend who's a furniture refinisher with big muscles, a hand truck, moving dollies, and his own trailer. A former teacher, Jeff half-jokes that in his new reseller profession he's just a glorified furniture mover. But this way, I didn't have to rent a truck. In between packing up my kitchen, I'll be planning how to pay him back—maybe partially in back rubs.

red geranium (November 4, 2014)

Moving house is chaotic and stressful, no matter how organized we are. Personally, moving always makes me feel inadequate—not strong enough, not energetic enough, not minimal enough. No matter how much stuff I sell or give away, when faced with all those stacked boxes, it still feels like I have far too much, my mind scrolling through cultural metaphors of drowning and being weighted down. Possessions are literally weighty, their mass felt every time we lift a box—physics in action.

But even though the process is hard—living in limbo for weeks, hands roughening like sandpaper, muscles straining, the to-do list a mile long—I appreciate moving house regularly because it forces me to reexamine my life as evidenced in my possessions. Our stuff is proof of who we are or were or want to be: our interests, taste, personalities, and propensities. Why keep stuff for a dropped hobby? Or, in reverse, where's the stuff for the hobby we've always wanted to try? Do our belongings represent the life we want to be living? Do we like the life we're living now? That's worth some extra self-reflection.

So for me, it's the staying in one place beyond a couple years that starts to feel weird. Eventually I'd like to change that. I'd like to feel at home somewhere, put down roots, grow a garden, collect more friends—all while reducing my overall acquisition of stuff. This last month, amid all the downsizing, I've been devouring library books on tiny and hand-built houses, books by Lloyd Kahn, Dee Williams, Paul Oliver, Ryan Mitchell. In giving up so much of the furnishings Americans are trained by corporate marketers to buy out of manufactured need (You are full of holes: Fill them with purchases), I seek a light at the end of this messy tunnel—a little dream home to make real.


too much stuff

wooden message blocks via the Goodwill Outlet

As I write this, I'm sitting with my tabby cat on a shared vintage floor pillow woven with real fur strips and wool (and she very obviously doesn't have a problem with dead-animal fur because she sits on this thing as much as she can, now that the sofa is gone), using my former entryway trunk for a table. Empty used boxes and huge bags of preowned packing paper line the walls. Half of the stuff visible in my recent apartment tour posts is by now already gone: either moved to my new place, sold off, or soon-to-be-sold.

Life's a work in progress, right? But that includes our changing mindsets and philosophies. Sometimes as the years tick along, priorities change. As much as I've enjoyed collecting all this pretty stuff, I am now facing having to offload much of it. I'll essentially be moving a one-bedroom apartment into one bedroom since my friend currently has a two-bedroom apartment full of his own stuff. I'm just lucky he's being flexible and agreeable and willing to sell off some of his own less-than-loved belongings. (It helps that he's a vintage reseller used to turnover.)

The problem with owning stuff, even thrifty, somewhat sophisticated vintage stuff, is that it accumulates almost as fast as the dust bunnies under my former chocolate mohair sofa where the vacuum head didn't reach. Shopping in thrift stores and buying secondhand things that mostly were made in the USA way back in the day when America still made things doesn't remove me from the consumerist loop. Even living in a modest 500 square feet, I was still buying stuff I didn't need to fill space I didn't use to fit a certain standard aesthetic, i.e., because otherwise the place would "look funny."

In the developed world, it's so easy to acquire things. That's what drives American consumer culture, the bulk of our GDP. It's much harder getting rid of those things. Faced with that workload, I initially felt overwhelmed—depressed, even—by all I owned that needed to be sold, though it became easier when taken piece by piece, one Craigslist posting at a time.

Once I'd made the decision to share housing again with the goal of saving to own my own small (or tiny) home outright, I began looking at all the stuff in this apartment through that lens. It's like when a kaleidoscope pattern shifts with just one turn or click. So much had been bought (thriftily, yes) just to fill space rather than because it was actually used or needed, despite in-denial protestations to the contrary. Did I really need seven large vintage mirrors? Did I need a whole queen-sized bed for just one petite person? Did I actually require a dining table if I ate most meals on the coffee table and never had more than one friend over at a time, despite daydreams of hosting dinner parties? Did I need a vintage secretary hutch if I always did my writing feet-up on the sofa? Did I need the armchair I never sat in? Did I need a whole long closet full of clothes and shoes? Obviously, no.

Suddenly, every time I walked past something I owned that I didn't really love, I'd pick it up and set it in a large basket that had become the get-rid-of pile, which quickly morphed into two piles, and then three. At the same time, I began posting bigger items—furniture and furnishings like lamps, pictures, and mirrors—on Craigslist, figuring if they sold, that would be one less thing to move. I have nothing against donating to charity shops or using consignment stores for resale. I have a small bag headed for Goodwill myself. But in the past, all that stuff would have just been donated to Goodwill. Then years later I learned (light bulb!) I could take the better quality stuff to a local consignment resale shop, with hopes to recoup a fraction of the cost.

But this time (bigger light bulb!), I'm selling my unwanted stuff myself piece by piece for a profit, even though it takes more time. Why? Because I can. Because I have time. Because I have a better grasp now of what secondhand things are actually worth. Because I want the money more than I want the stuff. This should be the price, anyway, for buying things we don't really love or change our minds about later: finding a good home for something in the hands of someone who wants and will use it. Though I've always culled my possessions regularly, doing it larger-scale feels almost reckless, certainly counter-culture, and somehow more freeing—this time especially since I don't intend to replace the stuff I'm getting rid of (with a couple of notable exceptions). That is downsizing.

And you know what? This process has actually been making me feel happier. Each Craigslist buyer has come to my building really wanting whatever it's been that I'm selling: a big funky lamp, a vase, a chair, a mirror, a coffee table. The transactions have involved meeting new people face-to-face, even for just a bare minute, and shown me that most people are basically decent—despite how flaky some people on Craigslist can be—and that the ones who communicate well and show up when scheduled are more or less like me, and we're all just trying to make life a little nicer for ourselves and our families.

Another large benefit of collecting and selling in the secondhand market is that older things tend to hold or even increase their value compared to cheaply made newer things (think IKEA products). So far, I've made a modest profit on everything I've sold. As my reseller friend Jeff said the other day, "You've already become a vintage reseller without even trying." Who knew? Now I've got a new side gig.

What's funny in all this is that I could easily have chosen a studio apartment in this building and saved myself $135 a month in the last fifteen months (i.e., $2,015), if it weren't for my dining table. When I think back on it now, having a big housing decision (studio versus one-bedroom) like that hinge on one piece of furniture seems more than a little silly, though it wasn't just the dining table but what the dining table represented—dinner parties with friends—and the fact that I would gain two walls of windows instead of one wall and thus double the light, which for me was huge. But was it worth $2,015? These are the kind of questions more of us should be asking ourselves: Is it (whatever I'm spending my life doing) worth it?


thrift-store decorating tips: the main room

main room, right side, with reclaimed-teak bookcase and tall vintage lamps

See that big window? It used to look out onto a brick wall. I know I keep talking about all the natural light in my apartment lately in tones of wonder, and yes, I did like that brick wall, but its being gone makes all the difference in how well this space photographs, so I can finally show this place to effect, give it justice. (And if you suspect I'm exaggerating, just compare the main-room photo in this post back in August versus these newer ones.) It actually gets so bright in here on sunny afternoons, now that the building next door is gone, that I must close at least one curtain if I want to see anything other than my reflection or the layer of dust on my laptop screen. It almost requires sunglasses in here on days between rainstorms. This is not a complaint, mind you, simply . . . adjustment. (The downside is all the head-rattling drilling and beeping noise on weekdays and most Saturdays, which is why I'm moving.)

Fifteen months ago, I was thrilled to find an apartment with hardwood floors and a great layout at the lower end of the rental market in a central downtown Portland location. Score, right? On the plus side, there's plenty of storage in here for such a small apartment: one long, narrow bedroom closet, a deep storage closet aside the entryway that I call The Garage, and a walk-in closet off the main room, leading to the bathroom. The floors, other than the kitchen and bathroom vinyl, are original blond oak in the entryway and main room and something rougher in the bedroom and walk-in closet, whose carpet I asked the manager to have pulled up and the wood refinished before I moved in. The ceilings are fairly high, nine feet. And the doors all have their original hardware, meaning beautiful glass knobs and brass fittings (some of which have been painted over by careless workers—Grrr!—since who cares about rentals?).

But despite the many positives of this apartment, I compromised on light and soon came to regret it. While lamps and candles make for cozy evenings, nothing can replace regular doses of sunlight. My lamps were switched on pretty much anytime I wasn't asleep because, though I had moved into a south- and west-facing corner apartment, which normally would get good sun, most of that light was blocked by neighboring buildings. And though the light's been wonderful this past month, the price for it has been high. Moreover, after the shiny fifteen-story building goes up, the light situation in this apartment will be even worse: future tenants will have no direct sunlight at all. Yet light is critical to health and mood, especially in gloomy-most-of-the-year climates that compound seasonal affective disorder (SAD) effects, as in the Northwest. The point is that if you crave natural light and don't like living in a cave, make sure the place you rent or buy has big windows and plenty of light. No hip vintage lamp can compensate for that lack.

view of main room from entryway

With that caveat, let's get on with the tour. Continuing into the apartment from the entryway into the main room, you must veer right or run into the dining table. Frankly, I never ate at the dining table—a no-name, round, Goodwill-thrifted, mid-century piece beautifully refinished by my talented vintage-reseller friend Jeff, who sanded down and oiled the beat-up legs and replaced the original wood-grain laminate top with white Formica for a more contemporary look. I love that table so much it was worth its hogging up the apartment's center, even if it was only used for folding laundry and wrapping packages. (I didn't have a dining chair till a few months ago, so I ate at the coffee table, seated on a floor pillow.)

refinished round mid-century dining table with new white Formica top; lone Thonet chair; Drexel secretary

vintage dining table detail

Opposite the entrance and beyond the dining table, a large paned window is the natural focal point of the room. Though the former old brick wall across the alley blocked a lot of light (see above), it also muffled most of the city street noise, so there's another of life's little trade-offs. The apartment windows are all original, giving lots of character, though this also means they're uninsulated and chilly in winter, especially in the main room around the large metal window that won't completely close. (If I had stayed here this winter, I would install some temporary weather stripping from the ReStore to reduce heat loss, which I should have done last year.)

And that's about it for the room tour itself. The kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom all lie off the main room on the right (west) side. The deep storage closet sits to the left of the entryway. Altogether, the apartment's about 500 square feet, fairly small as American homes go, but a good size for me—even too big. One person doesn't technically need this much living space.

A simple living proponent, I believe not only in slow food and slowing life down generally, but, too, in slow decorating in small spaces. As someone on a tight budget who strongly believes well-off Westerners must drastically be reducing our rapacious consumption of Earth's resources and limiting both our space and our physical possessions, the only way to align my ethics and aesthetics with my finances has been to switch to secondhand use, secondhand goods. In slow decorating, it's taken lots of time to get this place looking as well as it does (or did, rather). And of course my personal tastes won't necessarily suit everyone else's, nor would I want them to. I've been in this apartment for 15 months, and I still wouldn't have called the space "finished," though it was getting there. The ceiling fixtures were never switched out and I still only have one dining chair, for example. But at least nesting is a highly enjoyable process for me, as good as, say, world travel.

So from real-life experimentation, here are some well considered and hard-won decorating lessons I've researched and practiced over the years as an amateur design lover, long-time secondhand shopper, and professional educator, with the goal of helping spread the joy of secondhand use—proving that previously owned things can indeed be better than new.

geranium pots on windowsill

Living Room Decorating Tips:

  • Make a big window the focal point, instead of the TV. I only have a TV at all because it was a (very nice) hand-me-down, but my sofa is instead pointed at the window, while enabling easy movie viewing via the angled TV seated low on the metro shelving to avoid eye and neck strain (see photos below).
  • Remove rental blinds and hang curtains or shades promptly after move-in. (Don't wait and waste a whole year like I did.) Decent natural-fiber curtain panels are easily found at the the thrift store. IKEA, sadly (because the quality is poor), is the most affordable curtain-rod source option without going a total DIY route, though you might get lucky at Goodwill and find a new rod set in box . . . with hardware . . . in the right size . . . that you actually like. (Good luck with that.) Thrifted tension rods, though, are a good option for smaller windows or for double coverage.
  • Add a large plant. If large enough, the plant in a striking pot can not only process air-based toxins but function as a dramatic statement piece, like my hairy Dracaena marginata, or the currently popular fiddle leaf fig (Ficus lyrata). Large plants are of course more expensive than smaller ones because of paying for prior growth time but worth the investment if you already know how to keep plants alive. Buy from a local nursery, or if that's out of budget, there's always IKEA (where, at least recently here in Portland, you can get a four-foot fiddle leaf fig for just $13).

kitchen view from main room

  • Hang round vintage mirrors adjacent to or across from windows as portholes of reflected light—alternate windows floating unexpectedly on interior walls. Round beveled mirrors tend to have more visual impact than rectangular ones because most windows aren't round, giving more oomph in less space. By contrast, large rectangular mirrors can mimic whole walls or full windows by essentially disappearing into the wall. So the shape choice really depends on what effect you're after. I own both circular and rectangular vintage mirrors but prefer the circles. Plus, circles, being smaller, are easier to move. Regardless, I strongly recommend buying vintage mirrors because, like most everything else, they will inevitably be better made, thicker and of better quality than newer mirrors, with a solid backing (though they might need to be rewired for safety). Such mirrors can be found fairly easily at resale shops, so check back at your favorite vintage store from time to time, especially if you're looking for a particular diameter.
  • Select sturdy coffee tables that don't require trips to the emergency room, constant dusting or fingerprint wiping, or the perpetual refinishing of water-glass rings. That means buying nothing made of easily dented soft wood like pine (think children and their toys—bang, bong, crash!) or anything with dark glass or sharp corners. I prefer metal or marble coffee tables for their durability, but I also don't have children to worry about. Nesting tables, like easily found mid-century sets or new acrylic ones, can be a good solution for small spaces. Here are a few pretty contemporary coffee tables as examples. Look for similar vintage or secondhand versions to reduce the price tag, while opting for reuse.

seating area

  • Find a square cubby-style bookcase like this reclaimed-teak staircase style (that doubles as a cat exerciser!), and dress it up. I found various rocks and natural materials over time at thrift stores: local Oregon thundereggs and ancient leaf fossils, carved primitive stone tourist-trade figures, a stylized myrtlewood bird from the Oregon coast, a Russian carved-and-painted wooden treasure box (a long-ago gift), a framed family photo, and a gleaming brass bowl atop a pile of stacked books. (I'm also secretly hoping I can one day use my long-owned stair-step bookcase as an actual set of stairs!)
  • Place inexpensive can-style uplights in hidden corners for a warm, unobtrusive glow. I stole the idea from my friend Jeff and used one at the junction of the sofa and metro shelving by the wall. They take up much less space than a lamp and add variety to lighting scattered around a room. Remember the rule of three lighting sources per room, preferably non-overhead. Plus, can uplights can easily be found secondhand at Goodwill for around five bucks.

repurposed metro shelving entertainment center

  • Rethink the entertainment center. A basic six-shelf metro shelving unit is an extremely versatile, easily moveable, and inexpensive storage piece. On castors, it can be wheeled around, reconfigured, used with or without wheels, or even dismantled altogether for flat storage. This practical, industrial piece works just as well in a kitchen as the garage. I found mine secondhand on Craigslist five years ago and have used it for kitchen storage and in this apartment as a media cart (holding a flat-screen TV, radio, modem, router, and printer) and visible closet, with a variety of baskets storing everything from candles to an emergency hand-crank radio to hand-sewing supplies to vintage board games to medicine-cabinet items.
  • Source original art. With patience, good original pieces—professionally framed photographs, drawings, and oil paintings—can be found inexpensively at resale shops, thrift stores, and garage sales. Tip: Please avoid ironically hanging amateur oil portraits of people who look like your grandparents unless they actually were your grandparents. (And yes, I realize my current art collection has a solitary, antisocial theme.)

gallery wall of vintage art

  • Buy old furniture and furnishings, whatever your style, at thrift stores, garage sales, vintage shops, estate sales, or auctions. Though vintage or antique pieces at the lower price end will often need some light refinishing, reupholstery, or a new paint job, they will almost inevitably be better made than comparably priced contemporary options and maintain or exceed resale value, a win-win. 

vintage Drexel secretary with original white ceramic knobs & brass cuffs

  • Use round things to help break up all the right angles of most furniture: rounded lamps, round dining table, round coffee table, rounded chair backs, a vintage globe, round mirrors, a rounded pouf—even round knobs on a cabinet. The Franco Albini ottoman qualifies, as do the classic George Nelson bubble lamps, the Noguchi table, and those beautiful, pricey marble-topped Saarinen Pedestal tulip tables.
  • Mix furniture periods, even if your style mostly leans a particular way, such as antique aside a touch of high modern, or vice versa. It just makes everything more interesting. I prefer an eclectic look: antique Thonet café chair, mid-century round dining table and low MCM sofa, industrial coffee table, vintage designer ottoman, reclaimed-wood bookcase, vintage lamps, and so on.

vintage oversized brass lamp, shade detail

  • Use oversized table lamps as floor lamps. Inspired by Abigail Ahern, master of juxtaposition, I set two oversized vintage table lamps directly on the floor and skipped side tables. (Note, though, that tall folks might not like looking directly down into the light source.)

vintage herringbone lamp & gold velvet chair

vintage brass lamp closeup

  • Finally, consider maintenance and disposal at the crossroads of any purchase or acquisition—in other words, how easily it will be to maintain and get rid of anything you buy. This is the least sexy part of thrifty decorating, but one of the most important parts. What comes into your home will eventually need to leave it, even if that time is after you die. So ask yourself whether that item is worth your a) "life energy" to afford it in the first place, b) time cleaning or otherwise maintaining it, and c) time selling or donating it. If it's not, pass.

main room view into bedroom

A home, by definition, is a sanctuary from the world outside. And when it no longer functions as such, when the outside encroaches either physically with construction noise and dust, or blocked light, or loud neighbors, or mentally with worries about finances or safety, it sadly is no longer functioning as a refuge. But I will miss this place and the convenience of downtown living.

What's ahead? A new experience of living with a good friend, something I've never actually done before—roommates, yes, romantic partners, yes, friends, no—with its own pluses and minuses, the next chapter, so far blank.


thrift-store decorating tips: the entryway

view of main room from apartment entryway

Welcome to my home! Or at least this is how it all looked up until a few weeks ago before I started selling things off in preparation for moving (because of skyrocketing Portland rents and the major demolition/construction party next door). I already gave you the kitchen tour, and you do have my apologies for proceeding out of order, but things have gotten hectic around here. So it's better, at least for me, to offer up what comes out of my head when it does come than let unfinished posts pile up. (Please also forgive and don't look too closely at the embarrassing line of dust bunnies hiding under the sofa. Though I do vacuum often because of sharing space with that cute, furry cat in the photo above, the vacuum cleaner head does have a hard time reaching certain spots. And yes, I should just move the sofa once in a while. What can I say other than I like decorating more than cleaning?)

This house-tour series is my way of celebrating and grieving at the same time—a wake of sorts for the past year-and-several-months of my life. It's ironic that just when I had the apartment styled almost how I wanted it, the Universe yelled, Time's up! Truly, this is the hardest apartment I've ever had to leave because a) it's been all mine, b) it's in mostly original (early-1900's) condition, c) I finally have decent light (temporarily), and d) the layout is just about perfect.

In this charming vintage apartment with original oak floors, you walk into an actual entrance room—though, granted, this does eat up square footage—a holding area of sorts in which to remove or put on shoes and outerwear. Especially for shoeless homes like mine in places with cold, wet weather, entryways function as physical and mental way stations enabling the transition between indoor and outdoor life—clothing as the attired "armor" in which we face the outside world.

To that end and to the right of the entrance, I'd placed a small trunk for double-duty scarf-hat-glove storage and temporary seating, plus an extra-large vintage beveled mirror leaning against the left-side wall and another glossy-black-painted bamboo mirror hung above the trunk on the opposite right-side wall, in addition to a rotating shoe tree for pretty high heels (all secondhand, of course) and various thrifted hooks on two walls for scarves, coats, umbrellas, and shopping totes. For guests, I set a large white planter in the corner, holding like-new grass slippers, though hand-crocheted or handknit ones would be even more comfortable and quirky.

entryway mirrors with original antique Western Electric wall phone

Also in the entryway, there's even a built-in delivery box, formerly accessible from the exterior hallway, as well as the original vintage phone hung on the wall with a corded earpiece that still buzzes visitors into the building's front entrance (though the manager and maintenance buttons no longer ring downstairs for anyone). I love thinking about long-ago residents opening the tiny square closet door each morning and picking up their new creamy milk in glass bottles and their freshly shined shoes. These days, the building's little delivery closets lining the interior hallways are all blocked off and intentionally made useless for safety reasons, but they offer a quaint glimpse into a more trusting and convenient past.

entryway trunk/bench, pot of slippers, and antique delivery wall box

Simple Entryway Decorating Tips:

  • Double up mirrors to visually expand a dark, narrow space.
  • Add a storage bench for shoe donning and removal.
  • Include a shoe tree or cubby system for tidy shoe storage.
  • Drill up vintage hooks and a small shelf to hold tote bags, umbrellas, and outerwear. 
  • Hang original art, preferably made by friends. (Hi Carol!)
  • Place a console table (if space allows) with a lamp and tray for keys, mail, and assorted emptying-the-pocket items.
  • Offer a basket of clean slippers for guests (especially if a shoe-free home).
  • Place a little rug, something hard-wearing like jute or coir by the door for foot-wiping or, if the clearance threshold is too low, something textured or colorful that can easily be cleaned.

left-side entryway viewed from main room

The entrance to a home sets the stage and mood for the life lived within. Ideally, an entryway would frame a dramatic view—the Ta-da! effect—or hint at the quiet coziness and lovely surprises to be found ahead.

What are the essential elements of your home's entryway?

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