My mother had a green coffee mug with the word “Simplify” written across it in white block letters. It had been her life’s motto, and it served her well. In her final years, she lived in a small senior apartment on an income of $1,100 a month social security. She managed to pay for senior lunch meals, cat litter, groceries, and all her other bills and still had money left over at the end of the month.
I need to find where I stashed that green mug, because its message has come home to roost with me this year. January was the month that I got out of a month-long stay at the hospital, left my home of ten years, and moved permanently—and with shocking swiftness—into a small studio apartment on the ground floor of my best friend’s three-story home.
I left not only my house, but also my marriage, my gardens, my dreams, my dog, and pretty much all of my previous adult life. Mostly, health issues forced it. My doctors tell me that many of their older patients are struggling with what to do with a life that no longer fits in the face of physical or mental frailty. Mostly, they say, their patients resign themselves to a life they no longer want nor can manage. None of their patients, they tell me, do what I did, which was leave everything and begin a very modest, frugal reconstruction of everything I’d been and done. “Not at this age…” they say. “At this age, they just give up…”
I have no idea why I was able to make such a radical, fast, and total life change. But I’ll ascribe it to this: one other time in my life, I suddenly got the message that the life I had been living was over. It was when I was living in the Grand Tetons of Wyoming, and a thought drifted across my mind from out of the blue: “Perhaps the mountains are done with you now.”
I’d been Rocky-Mountain-obsessed since the age of six, and my identity was completely tied up with those brittle sharp Teton snow peaks and the enduring currents of the Snake River. Done with me? Surely, you jest! But it was no jest, and I left the Rockies five months later with my husband never looking back.
That thought that had floated into my mind at that time came from some very deep place, deeper than bone marrow, deeper than consciousness. It seemed to morph out of the mystery of the cosmos itself, and once it made itself known, it became my truth: The mountains were done with me.
This sudden move from my old life I am making now came from that same mysterious place, where something numinous knows better than we what is required. I left the hospital knowing I’d have an income of $1,200 social security to live on—impossible in the pricey Northwest. I figured I might be living in a cardboard box on the city streets, but even that didn’t deter me. My old life was done with me. Again.
Within a week of my hospital exit, the opportunity arose to become a housemate of my friend and her husband, seemingly out of that same mystery that had ended my previous life. None of us were expecting this. It simply became. And I found myself looking at a lovely 12-by-17-foot space of clear walls, windows, and wooden floors. A bathroom was next door.
The green mug skimmed across my mind, blinking “Simplify” in large block letters. In the chaos of life collapse, I needed to furnish this unexpected space with what was most important. How to condense the life I’d lived down to its barest and most essential?
Well, it’s been an odd journey. Going back to MillHaven, my old home, has felt dreamlike, as though I’m a ghost there wandering amongst what was. I hurry through my infrequent visits, grabbing old stuff of mine that feels meaningful: my mother’s stainless steel bowl, my medicine pipe, a soup pot, Dinky’s cat food bowl, a literal armful of clothes, a small carpet, a container of kitchen utensils.
Old photos and art have filled my car trunk, feeling as necessary to my journey as air. Gifts from friends long loved and gone found their way to the new space. Two pieces of furniture: an old gate-leg table and an antique secretary desk came along. My friend Debbie supplied a bed and a cozy recliner, some end tables, and some lamps.
The dizzying swiftness of my life morph didn’t accommodate much planning. So here I am now, just barely three months into it all, surveying what came here to my new room (nicknamed The Fortress of Solitude), and what didn’t. I have time now to ask myself what I miss and what I don’t.
Strangely, I miss nothing from my old life. What I feel in the course of shedding so much is a profound sense of relief and lightness of being. So trust that if the mystery says you are “done,” well…you are done. I wonder if indeed this is the way to jump-start a new life—by not planning and letting your gut decide what follows you and what stays. What would you take? What might you leave?
My living situation is unusually advantageous in that I have the “main house” to use as needed. It is a bit like a co-housing situation in that the main floor that houses the living room and kitchen (along with a TV room, library, and piano room) is shared space. If I want to cook something big, I do it upstairs. All three of us visit there, and share most meals and morning coffee or tea.
I’ve been granted garden space, and the stewardship of a nice, thriving stock pond. In many ways—all of them lucky and unintended—my life as it settles here may look much like my old life but much, much smaller. I find that my passions remain: I may begin teaching again about bees and gardens, but on a smaller scale. My garden can be measured in feet rather than yards. I’ll have two bee hives instead of six to tend.
My health limitations can be managed here because my responsibilities are few. My life is small and simple enough to be joy-filled now, rather than stress-filled beyond my bearing. I didn’t expect to be living in a small village of three, and I would say that a condensed life (any life, really) is better with supportive friends and helpmates.
I like my life so much better in one room than I ever did in a house. Each item that came with me is precious, from the soup ladle of my dad’s, to the serving spoon from my grandmother. Everything in this sun-filled space has a tender story connected with it, a memory of wonder, a sheath of respect embracing it.
It remains to be seen how I’ll do on $1,200 a month. And how long this period of my life will last. In these elder-hood years, life can shift in an instant, and so I treasure every minute now of peace and joy, knowing that everything changes, all the time.
Simplify is my motto now, and I wish I’d arrived a that perspective years ago. If life were to ask this of you, would you be grateful, terrified? I truly would love to hear!
I think we all could and should simplify. Why do we need “stuff” in great quantity? At 70, it became easier to let go. It takes a lot of precious energy to manage that stuff! And now that energy is better used on managing me.❤️😊 Nature is plenty..and my family will have more of me as we indulge more in sights and sounds around us.
It seems that it is easier to let go in our elder years, at least for me!
This is beautiful Susan !! I have so many questions!! What happened to your bees ( the hive within your home )? Your beloved pets & your husband ?
Please don’t think you have to answer any of my questions 💞
The bees in the bedroom wall are doing great and I believe the house will be rented with them in it. Not sure yet. I took Dinky with me, and Hubby and I split time with Carter, who’s here with me in The Fortress of Solitude a few days a week. This is GREAT for Carter, as Randy and Debbie, my housemates, have two dogs who love playing from morning to night with Carter. I call them the Three Amigos. Hubby and I are parting ways. It is hard..
Thank You Susan for responding and being so honest re your life!!! I was sharing your story with my husband and he is very anxious to read about your journey 💞
dearest sister of my husband who is also best friend to me and you! As you know I am almost 83,omg! I also had a simplify mug but I can’t see my way to downsizing too much as Jay and I still feel like the adventurers we’ve always been. I’ve tried being very old and it was so boring and depressing so I struggle around physically but still soar mentally when i’m not worn out so I just don’t know about the end of life life!
Yes, I’ve spent the past 4 years in that state of “very old” and it was quite scary. My energy is far better now, and I’m delighting in this “reprieve!”
I am presently reading your book, Susan, Heart in the Wild. A beautiful book that speaks to my heart and love of nature. I’ve had the paperback for years. I don’t know why I haven’t read it yet except that I love and have thousands of books. I was reading your bio on amazon.com and came to your website. I love the idea of downsizing because three bedroom house and yard and all the maintenance and upkeep sometimes feels like a heavy weight. And as I head toward retirement and my 70s, I am feeling a desire to fulfill dreams before it’s too late. Dreams of a slower life lived somewhere with more big trees and moss and ferns and black bears and river otters. I have signed up with my email address to follow your blog posts as I think I can learn so much. I have always loved animals and nature but have spent so much of my life working in other fields to pay the bills. I look forward to retiring and simplifying down to what is truly most important to me. Kathy
You are following in my footsteps: I’ve downsized to a small studio room, and suddenly, there is room for what really MATTTERS to me now: Gardens, animals, bees, and bringing my gifts–however small or large–to the world in the time I have remaining.