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 I have been a struggling artist for many years now.  My struggle has been how to incorporate my love for the creative arts into my very busy life that already feels full to the brim with family and career commitments.  For many years I would try to satisfy my creative urges by learning new crafts and practicing them on my family and friends as holiday gifts.  While I love the idea of handmade giving and embraced it with gusto, the experience often left me frustrated and sometimes exhausted in the rush to get it all done, packaged and mailed in time for the gift to reach its destination BEFORE the holiday ended.  Often I was trying out new skills as I was making my gifts, only to remember each time that build-design is not generally the preferred sequence for a satisfying result.  Squeezed for time, my artistic desires always seemed to take last place in the never ending calendar of ‘to do’s’ that sculpted my days.

Over the past year, I have begun to adopt a different approach.  I have now made a commitment to myself to spend time on my creative process each day.  I have given myself the gift of time and space and resources to learn and practice and create the everchanging buffet of ideas and things I envision in my mind.  And with my wonderful family cheering me on, I have finally decided to bring a long held dream to life.  All the ideas, doodles, notes, thoughts and scraps of this and that I have foraged have come together to form Encore Arts and Design, a line of art and craft designs that give everyday objects an encore performance as something lovely and creatively useful.  As the designs rely on found materials that are diverted from their path to the landfill for an extended life,  each creation is unique and of limited quantity.  This allows me to incorporate many different creative methods into the various designs, ensuring I always have something new and exciting to try.  I have learned that for me, it’s all about the process.

Solar Garden Kite

Encore Arts & Design Logo

Encore Arts & Design debuts in July 2011 at the Shared Space Artists Coop gallery in Urbana, IL.  I plan to have a revolving collection of repurposed designs that will be featured each month at the gallery.  This month I’m featuring Garden Kites made from silk scarves and fabric bits–some are equipped with solar lights supported by repurposed wire hanging planter baskets; garden tea light lanterns–made from aluminum cans or old telephone pole glass insulators;

Desk Gardens planted in tins and petri dishes

Desk Gardens made from a variety of small tins and glass petri dishes that I’ve planted with succulents from my garden; Window Weed Vases made from discarded test tubes;  and Glass Mobils I call ‘Pipette Dreams’ that incorporate painted chemistry pipettes.  Each design has taken many hours of foraging from various local resale non-profits, research, thought, design, and experimentation to develop.  I’ll feature pictures of the various designs here and on my Facebook page Re-Purposeful Living as well as comments about their development. 

These designs can be purchased and shipped.  Interested in making your own encore projects at home? I’ll be happy to provide instructions.  Got a special object you can’t bear to part with and would like to give an encore performance (Mom’s china, silver or crystal for example), I would be happy to provide design consultation or work with you to give it a new life as something special and unique.   

 

'Pipette Dreams'Window test tube weed vase

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Test tube window weed vase

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On December 14th, 2007, I awoke in my newly built bedroom, freshly painted the night before.  I looked out 3 sparkling new windows at the garden that rose above the house in an old swimming pool, now filled in with rich dirt and shrubs that would produce a mass of fairy flowers in May.  Our little cabin in the woods was finally taking shape as an updated, livable house.  Just the week before, the contractors had completed the new metal roof, added new gutters and sided the bedroom addition.  New windows were sitting shoulder to shoulder waiting to be installed in my new office addition downstairs.  We had installed a new kitchen a few months back, and we enjoyed a brief breakfast in it that morning before I jumped in the car and headed into town for the day.  The collection of building materials and remnants resulting from the remodel was starting to grow, mingling with the previous owner’s steel and concrete collection.  It occurred to me as I was pulling out of the driveway that sunny December morning that we would soon need to figure out who would dispose of all this stuff when the house was done.  

An hour later I was back at the house, watching in disbelief as hundreds of gallons of water were being sprayed on my new bedroom in an attempt to keep the flames that had rapidly engulfed our wood frame cabin from burning down the surrounding woods.  Several hours later the fire was out and the house was gutted, nothing left but a silhouette of rubble and ash.  The large picture windows that once looked out on the surrounding woods and river had exploded outward as the new metal roof had contained the fire but incinerated everything inside.  The refrigerator and stove were identifiable only as metal frames.  The next morning it snowed 15 inches, ruining anything that might have remained in the house.  As it turned out, efforts to extinguish the fire had left us with a huge pile of concrete blocks and metal that would cost us thousands to haul away and had left the old house foundation unusable for rebuilding.  We would have to rebuild the house on another site on the property.   

In the following months while we waited for the ground to thaw so the new basement could be dug, our contractor laboriously moved most of the rubble up the hill to the front of the property and there it sat, waiting for its future fate.   In the end dispensing with the rubble pile moved to the bottom of the list of financial priorities.  Over the past two years I have puzzled over how to dispense with the heap as lilies and weeds have overtaken it in summer and snow camouflaged it in winter white.  Along the way the pile has grown as Scott has added junk retrieved during various river clean ups and projects.

As the snow melted this Spring I finally got up the courage to inventory the stuff.   There were two car tires retrieved from the river and a roll of galvanized metal fencing deck boards, sheets of plywood, steel poles, pieces of metal roofing and soffit, corner siding pieces, metal gutters, a roll of black plastic and PVC pipe all piled on top of an old pick-up truck rack. The truck bed is upside down with the wheels and axel removed to become the base of the canoe trailer.  And there are several mounds of concrete blocks, whole and broken, and bricks.  What a mess!

I wondered how much of it could be reused or repurposed into something useful instead of paying to haul it away.  So I spent much of the long cold spring designing projects that would make use of as much of the materials as possible.  Now that it’s finally warm enough to work outside, the great summer transformation is underway. 

I started with the gutters.  They always seem to grow a bumper crop of weeds and trees here so why not put them to work as planter boxes? We cut them down to fit and installed them on the outside of the back deck as planter boxes for spring lettuces and arugula—which we eat in large amounts.  

We used the bricks and a piece of the metal fencing to form a bed and trellis for climbing peas by the front door.  We also moved a number of concrete blocks back down to the old foundation (where they should have stayed to begin with), and built boxed to hold grow bags that I made from billboard vinyl.  I now have potatoes and pole beans planted in them—the holes in the concrete blocks hold the trellis stakes nicely!

I had planned for this to be the year we start a backyard chicken flock.  The truck rack seemed like a great place to fence in but I wasn’t sure we could make it portable so that we could move it around the yard to allow the chickens to free range.  After we unloaded all the junk it was supporting, it was surprisingly light.  Scott added some wheels that had been resting in the shed, turning it into a mobile chicken tractor.  We drew up a design and built a sturdy coop and nesting boxes from the plywood and sided and roofed it with the metal roofing material.  The floor is lined with the metal cloth to discourage raccoons and other marauders.  We used the corner siding pieces and deck boards to cover the chicken wire on the top and bottom of each side of the frame and the metal siding as a “skirt” around the bottom.  We cut strips of the black plastic to cover the nest door openings and keep out the rain.  We used a piece of the plywood and chicken wire as a cover and door to access the inside of the pin. Even with all the additional weight, the tractor still moves easily.  Now for the chickens!

Remaining in the pile are two 12′ metal poles, the truck bed, more guttering, 2 tires, more metal roofing, more galvanized metal fencing and chicken wire, several lengths of 4” PVC pipe and lots of concrete blocks.  I have some ideas for repurposing some of these things but am open to suggestions as well, so send them my way!

When I was growing up, I used to love to play what I called the ‘what if’ game. Perceived mostly as an annoyance by my family and friends, I often phrased life’s seemingly difficult questions as a series of ‘what if’s.’ What if things were different than we currently believe they are, what if this happened, what if that piece was in a different place, what if these two things went together instead of those two things? Although I was sometimes seeking to understand how others thought about certain potential states of reality that I might envision, more often my ‘what if’ questions were simply rhetorical; I didn’t really expect someone to answer, I just wanted to think through what the options and results might be. This led me to try many different possibilities ‘on for size’ to consider whether the result, were the option tried, might be worth it. This process also gave me many unexpected insights and new ideas that I otherwise would have overlooked entirely. Turns out that this kind of mental play is an important strategy for creative thinking and problem solving.

Later I began to formalize my ‘what if’ game into an analytical strategy. Although not a lover of algebra per se, I learned through statistics how different conditions can act alone or in concert to affect an outcome. And that experimentation involves testing varying conditions to determine which combination has the greatest impact on a given result (on paper this happens using algebra). This is how we come to understand the optimal conditions of water, light, temperature and nutrients (and the absence of disease and pests) needed to sprout seeds and successfully grow a given plant to produce its fruit. This approach has proved helpful for problem solving. I try to clarify which conditions are likely causing the problem or limiting the desired result and which conditions can be adjusted in what ways to get a better outcome. When I tried sprouting seeds in my basement earlier this winter and nothing was growing, I was able to narrow the problem down to one of several conditions: not enough water, warmth, light or nutrients. Turned out it was too cold and too dry in my basement. I moved the plant stand to a warmer upstairs room, bought a heat mat to control the temperature and watered more frequently—I now have some healthy seedlings ready for transplant! This approach of course also helps to prevent problems from occurring in the first place by suggesting the optimal conditions to begin with.

So when I approach a problem, I think first about the contributing conditions. Which of these could be changed in some way and how much of a change would be needed to really make a difference? What would need to happen to make this change and in what steps? This process of analyzing, ordering and projecting is for the most part the work of our left brain. This is the part of our brain that we rely on to engage in logical, rational cognitive processes like analytical problem solving that relies on an ordered process and structured rules, as practiced in the scientific process.

The other half of our brain engages in unstructured, unrestricted consideration of all the stimuli around us, seeking connections between the myriad information we take in. It is the job of the corpus callosum, the bridge of neurological tissue that connects the two hemispheres and serves as traffic cop and diplomatic mediator between these two disparate sides of our brain that go about sifting through information and thinking in very different ways. Our right brain’s thinking approach gives us the ability to see many different things at once and to consider linkages among things that we may not have previously considered. Since our right brain doesn’t need to follow the rules, it can consider new ways that wouldn’t be an option on the other side of the mental planet. This can generate many insights and options for solving problems that we had not previously considered. This in fact produces the pulp of creativity—the ingenious spark. It is through the constant communication, cooperation and collaboration of these two brains that occupy our skull that we are able to multitask at all. But sometimes these two sides of our brain don’t work well together, with one side or the other dominating and inhibiting the work of the other. When the left side is too dominant, this can limit our ability (really our belief in our ability) to access the creative capacity of our right brain (inherent in all of us) which is not fettered by a need to stay within the lines or follow the rules.

While my left brain has tended to dominate throughout my life and in some cases to be the overt manager of the right, directing it to look at only certain conditions in a certain order during problem solving forays (I tend to think in a sort of statistical equation), lately I have felt a battle brewing on either side of my neural bridge. It would seem that the once erstwhile ambassador has been sent packing by Ms. Right who is now telling Lefty to sit down, shut up, put the rule sheet and the statistics aside, and pay attention. I have been assailed of late by a seemingly constant barrage of ideas, what if’s, and strange connections that are stimulated by looking at what is around me in a different way—‘this could be turned into that’, ‘these things could go together’, ’we could do this differently’, ‘we could use this instead of that’. With no bridge-tender to mediate, Lefty can only sputter in dismay…”what makes you think you can do that?” Ms. Right retorts, “Because I can!” with tongue fluttering in a loud, wet, joyous raspberry.

So where has this revolt left me? First, with more ideas than I know what to do with. Sometimes the ideas come so fast I can barely get them on paper. I’ve taken to carrying a journal everywhere I go for those moments when the idea showers hit. Often one idea sparks another and another, taking me in different directions. While this is an amazing gift, it is overwhelming. I have pages and pages of ideas and drawings and doodles and notes. Most of my ideas have to do with designing and making things. But interestingly it isn’t really about the outcome of the creative process, but instead the process itself that is drawing me in and leading me on. And the materials I am most intrigued with are in fact the stuff we all discard every day, the stuff our left brain tells us we don’t need. We can follow the rules and recycle it if we’re lucky, but otherwise, we should replace it with another of the same as fast as financially possible. Well what if we don’t? What if we find a way to use it for another purpose—an imaginative, useful, or beautiful purpose that enhances our lives even more than it did in its first life?

Of course I’m not the only one asking this ‘what if’ now. The hip terms for this approach include “creative re-use”, “up-cycling”, and “repurposing” (all with a slightly different meaning and process). Professional and hobby artists and designers alike are practicing this approach in their art every day. But you don’t have to be an artist to be repurposeful, you just have to ask your lefty brain to sit out for a while and give your right brain a chance to look at things a little differently. If you are skeptical about your ability to think differently about things and your skills to repurpose them, I recommend reading, Drawing on the Artist Within by Betty Edwards.

I have started transferring my ideas to note card scraps and pinning them to my project board in my studio—I had so many ideas and was collecting so many materials that I had to create a studio in my basement to accommodate them all. And our house fire and subsequent rebuild several years ago left us with an abundance of stuff in the yard that most folks’ left brains would have hauled off to the dump without a second thought or consultation with the other side. Some combination of inertia and my resistance to sending things to the landfill has resulted in a jumble of concrete, bricks, metal, and wood at the front of our property. So these too have now become right brain fodder.

I have been trying to complete or at least advance several projects each week. Still I now have more than a summer’s full of projects on my studio board at this point. So I have taken to calling this my ‘Summer of Transformation’ (as opposed to last year’s ‘Italy Summer’). So over the next few months I will be documenting and sharing my various re-purposing ideas and projects and their results. In some cases it is already quite clear to me what some things are destined to become, others have yet to reveal themselves to Ms. Right. For the most part, I’ll be using materials I already have on hand, get second hand and were destined for the land fill. More importantly, I’ll try ideas and options “on for size’  and share my thinking process (right and left sided) so that my insights and results might help to inspire you to join in and repurpose something in your life, too.

This year’s Earth Day theme is ‘A Billion Acts of Green’ according to the Earth Day Network.  The thought behind this theme is that it takes all of us acting in many small ways conscious and eventually unconscious to ensure the health of our planet and our life upon it.  This means creating opportunities throughout our daily lives to integrate practices that are ecologically responsible and contribute to sustainable use of our shared resources. This also means that how we build more green practices into our lives can be as unique as we are.  It is through the many choices that we make each day that we can become more aware of the options that may be more environmentally supportive and sustainable than others.  When we seek and make more informed choices, even though they may seem small and inconsequential to us, taken collectively they can add up to big changes in behaviors across society.  Such behaviors as consistently rejecting plastic grocery bags in favor of reusable bags can save our oceans and substantially reduce our oil use.  Let’s run the numbers… 

  • Society’s consumption rate of plastic shopping bags is now estimated at well over 500,000,000,000 (that’s 500 billion) plastic bags annually, or almost 1 million per minute.  In a landfill, these single-use bags will take up to 1,000 years to degrade.  How many plastic bags did your family end up with last week? The average family can end up with over 20 plastic bags per week—I’ll do the math for you, that’s over 1100 per year! And that doesn’t count all the other plastic packaging we end up throwing away.  It is estimated that plastic packaging makes up up to one third of the contents of the average landfill.
  • Plastic bags and other plastic garbage thrown into the ocean kill as many as 1,000,000 sea creatures every year!
  • According to The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually. An estimated 12 million barrels of oil is required to make that many plastic bags. This increases the burden to drill for oil in more environmentally sensitive areas in order to support this use of oil.
  • Although there is a market for recycled plastic bags, it is estimated that only 3 percent of plastic bags in America are recycled. 
  • According to the Sierra Club, “A sturdy, reusable bag needs only be used 11 times to have a lower environmental impact than using 11 disposable bags.”

OK so that’s enough to convince me that I can do my part to reduce plastic bag use. But if you’re like me, you often find yourself inside the store only to remember you’ve left your reusable shopping bags in the car, or worse at home.  The challenge to sustained behavior change is consistent practice of the new preferred behavior in ways that can become automatic.  So to help me remember (age is not my friend at this point when it comes to remembering that I want to do things differently), I have created a number of reminders to prompt me to stick to the new behavior I want to commit to.  I’ve tried to engage all my senses, especially my highly dominant visual sense, to remind me to do what I really want to do—namely put the bags in the car prior to each shopping trip and take them with me into the store on my shopping trips. 

As a pleasing way to keep my bags in plain sight, I mounted a pretty hook (actually a repurposed curtain rod holder) by the door to hang my bags on so that they are convenient and in sight as I’m leaving the house.  I have acquired a variety of bags to hold produce, frozen foods and heavy items. Heck I even reuse the (re)fillable coffee bags that are “free” at the grocery store’s coffee bean dispenser.  I’ve learned to choose my bags carefully for durability so that I’m not discarding them after just a few uses.  Although I’m not especially picky about the décor on my bags, I find it does help to have pretty bags that I feel good looking at and toting around. 

I have recently discovered a ready source of used bill board vinyl (no, they aren’t made out of paper any more) that I have repurposed into a couple of sturdy bags—as well as into grow bags for my potatoes and beans (more on this in a future post).  These also have the benefit of having colorful, sometimes funky designs on them that make me smile. And I’m certainly going to keep doing things that make me smile!  Plus, I like the idea of keeping this vinyl out of the landfill and giving it a much longer repurposed life. So keeping my bags in plain sight is a helpful reminder and helps my kids appreciate and remember our family’s commitment to reducing plastic bag use.

I’ve also made sure that I have a bag reminder at my fingertips when I’m leaving the car in the store parking lot.  I made a key chain charm out of a reusable cloth bag that had finally met its demise.  The bright green bag cloth stands out among my keys as a gentle reminder to grab the bags before I leave the car.  Lest these personal prompts don’t do the trick for you, your shopping venues may even get in on the act.  One of our local chains now has a reminder posted on its doors:  Did you remember your reusable shopping bags?  Plastic bags are provided free by most retailers (although some like Aldi are beginning to charge a small fee for their purchase) but these costs—which can be very high for retailers who purchase millions each year—are passed on to you the consumer.  In countries where retailers charge for plastic bag purchases, consumers have been very quick to change their behavior, with as much as 80% turning to reusable bags in the first year over the pay-for-plastic ones.  It’s amazing how fast these little nudges can work! 

And just to make sure I always have an extra bag handy no matter where I’m shopping, I stow one away in one of the zippered compartments of my purse.  This lets me tell most sales clerks, ‘You can keep the bag,’ as I seem to pull my colorfully stylish fabric bag out of nowhere.  For those bags we end up with despite our best intentions, our family has a recycling station in our kitchen specifically dedicated to plastic bags—mostly this contains our newspaper bags that the local paper promises are accepted at the grocery store.  Lately these have become covers for our dog’s bandaged paw on his outdoor walks in the spring mud. We proudly are part of the 3% that recycle our plastic bags—even though our contribution to the grocery’s recycling bin is admittedly getting smaller each year.  Recycled bags are now used to make plastic lumber—oh and more plastic bags.

So this Earth Day, I hope you’ll join me in considering the many small changes to your family’s lifestyle you could make to protect our planet. Have a conversation with your family about ways they would like to reduce, recycle, reuse, and repurpose in the coming year.  Make it a fun and creative opportunity for everyone.  Set a few priorities and get everyone in on the act of making prompts to remind each of you to stick to your intentions (research tells us it take 45 days of consistent practice to change a behavior). Perhaps you’d like to see your electricity or water use go down this summer.  Create funny reminders to turn off light switches when you leave the room (be sure to put them at the level of little people’s eyes too) and unplug electronic device power cords after devices are charged.  This “ghost power” consumed by some power cords can inflate household power use by as much as 30%!  Cover an old fridge magnet with a printed reminder indicating when you’ve got the garden hose running—simply flip it from ‘water’s off’ to ‘water’s on’ to remind you. 

Track the impact you’re having each month on your electric and water bills and celebrate your savings with your family.  There are a number of carbon footprint calculators available online to help you establish your current baseline and then track how your small changes can reduce your household’s overall footprint.   Here’s one from the Earth Day Network.  Challenge your family and friends to a change in foot size this year! You can record your Earth Day action pledge at the Earth Day Network, too, along with over a million other fellow Earthlings—102,005,419 as of this post and counting. 

Want to consider other ways to “Green Your Home,” check out Recycle Bank’s Green Your Home challenge for many ways your family’s small actions to “green up” every room in your home can add up to big change for our planet and make every day Earth Day.

Happy Earth Day!!

 
 
 

My Gift of Fire

Friday December 14, 2007 began as a cold, clear cloudless morning.  I woke up in my newly completed master bedroom, thrilled to look around at finished, freshly painted walls and ceilings and excited about our nearly completed house remodel.  The holidays were just around the corner and I had no more business travel until after the new year.  I had to admit that I felt I had somehow been holding my breath for months while we moved rooms around to accommodate our burgeoning life into a small, rather humble cabin on the Sangamon River we had moved to the previous year.  Still, despite the nearly completed addition of 2 new rooms, I was anxious about how we would ‘fit’ ourselves in this space.  Scott’s remedy in the past had been to apply a rather hard-lined approach to redecorating: pick a room that felt cluttered and out of control, empty it completely of its contents, consider the room’s role and function in our current life context, and restock the room with furnishings that befit the room’s purpose one piece at a time until the room felt “full enough” but functionally comfortable.  I was looking forward to this approach to clutter reduction as soon as the construction was finished and we could get back to normal life once again.  Perhaps that would happen over the holiday break, I told myself.

By 7:45 a.m. I had rushed out of the house on my way to an appointment, running through my head the long list of To Do’s that needed completing.  At 8:00 a.m. my husband, Scott, was interrupting my mental cataloguing of To Do’s, calling on my cell phone.  I wondered what I had forgotten to do before I left as I answered.  He greeted me with a rather befuddled, “Uh, I’m standing here watching our house burn down.”  I was sure I had either misunderstood him, or wasn’t really paying attention.  He repeated the observation again and this time I realized I had heard him correctly.  After several tearful calls to our insurance agent, our attorney and my business partner, I took my last drive to what I had come to know as home.  I parked at the end of our lane and walked the thousand yards to our property, feeling all the way that this was somehow a dramatic turn in the course of my life. 

Scott had not exaggerated.  The house was completely engulfed.  Just after I arrived the windows exploded on either end of the house.  The beautiful view of the Sangamon River that I enjoyed over coffee every morning from my livingroom was no more.  The smell of all our possessions burning was acrid.  I thought of the Christmas tree newly decorated in the livingroom and the baby grand piano my father had given me for my 10th birthday that I had painstakingly hauled around in numerous moves over the years.  His glasses were still in the piano bench where he had left them 16 years ago when he died.  Scott’s family history records scattered on the dining room table. Our cat, bird, fish, hamsters.  All gone.

And still the sun was shining and the crystal blue sky was marred only by the billowing smoke from our smoldering home.  I had begun this beautiful day at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and here I was not two hours into it and suddenly I’m catapulted to the bottom of the pyramid.  I did a quick check of all the primitive faculties.  Finding those still in tact, I settled for level 2 and thought, “How interesting; I have no clothes and no place to sleep tonight.  In fact, I don’t have anything except the clothes I have on, my trusty laptop, and several vehicles filled with Christmas presents and Ikea closet parts for my new bedroom—“Oh yeah that no longer exists,” I remembered.

 John Lennon’s song, Imagine, began to play as the background music in my head—“imagine no possessions; it isn’t hard to do”… as the surreal scene of an endless stream of firefighters, news reporters and neighbors filed through my smoke filled yard.  Shortly though the insurance adjuster arrived with forms and assurances.  We were covered.  There would be a place to sleep and money for food and clothes.  Ok, so maybe I could scurry back up to Maslow’s level 3 now. Things were looking up. 

Within 24 hours, our family, friends and church community quickly filled in the gaps with dinners and fellowship and support.  Within a few days we had begun to replace our wardrobes and had a temporary house full of borrowed and donated furnishings.  The holidays were especially sweet because we were thankful just to have each other.  We adopted 3 kittens to celebrate the lives of the pets that didn’t make it out of the fire.  Yes, we were quickly moving our way back up Maslow’s ladder. 

We now turned our attention to rebuilding our house.  Our insurance benefits gave us one year from the date of the fire to build a house and replace our property. In the world of home building, that seemed like an eon.  After all I had watched dozens of houses go up near us in less than 6 months from land clearing to move in. They reminded me of those instant, blow-up houses and factories they used to mock in cartoons when I was kid.  Trouble was I couldn’t find an instant house plan I liked.  I looked at hundreds of plans in books and online but couldn’t find anything inspiring.  They all seemed too big, too new, and didn’t look like they would fit well on our property back in the woods. They just didn’t look like houses I would want to come home to, but I didn’t quite understand why.  

I remembered some friends’ had talked about building a ‘not so big house’ following a recent move and thought that perhaps we should consider that too.  The ‘not so big house’ principle of favoring quality of space over quantity is advanced by architect and writer Sarah Susanka.

Susanka contends that the “starter castles and Macmansions” we have grown accustomed to seeing in new housing developments are designed to impress rather than nurture. In the end more rooms, bigger spaces and vaulted ceilings do not necessarily give us what we need in a home and more often result in a house that doesn’t fit our real needs… Or, as we’ve come to the jarring realization, our pocketbooks.

Susanka’s design principles are simple: compose a space that delights and expresses “you”, attend to the process of entry so that the pathway to the house sets the stage for the rest of the journey through the house; create long, clean, uncluttered interior views that allow light to penetrate and reflect throughout the house; incorporate sheltered and personal spaces; design multifunctional rooms that can do double duty; and cultivate a sense of wholeness and integrity through use of repeated design features.  She encourages us to consider that bigger is not only more costly but inherently unsatisfying.   Do more with less she advises.

I embraced Susanka’s principles with gusto and set about working with our architect to design such a house that would nurture us and inspire a more creative life as Susanka promised. I poured through Susanka’s franchise of books trying to integrate her principles into a new perfect home design.  On a trip to the bookstore to look for more inspiration, I chanced upon another book by Susanka sitting forlorn and out of place among the board games.  I’m not even sure how it caught my eye to be honest. But there it sat, clearly waiting for me, “The Not So Big Life”.   As Susanka had discovered and applied her principles of more meaningful, not so big design, she had apparently also discovered that they could help her design a more meaningful life; a not so big life that felt less stressed and empty and more comfortable, nurturing and livable.

OK, I was intrigued.  Susanka begins by questioning the way our lives are working and advocates a remodel, a way to experience our lives differently.  Our lives, like our houses have grown too big, too crammed and cluttered with obligations and activities, too fast, with a valuing of multitasking so that we literally can do more at one time than ever before and are encouraged to do so.  Susanka contends that this is actually destroying our quality of life rather than enhancing it. The antidote to this lifestyle is a new way of thinking, a new design.  To redesign a house so that is more livable, we need a blue print the creates a more functional space; to redesign our lives, we need a new blue print that helps us identify and dismantle all the conditioned patterns and beliefs that have limited our ability to be more observant of the here and now of our lives rather than the past and future that keep us running away from truly experiencing the joy of the present. 

Like the design principles Susanka explains in her books, her life enhancing strategies are simple but powerful and transformative.  Notice what inspires you and makes you feel most alive and build elements into your life to support these things.  Identify what isn’t working in your life and uncover the real obstacles to change. Remove the old patterns that clutter and create frustration in your relationships and work.  Tune into your dreams and wake yourself up to the possibilities that are right in front of you.  Look at things in a new way and you will see through the existing structure and obstacles and a new shape will gradually emerge.  Improve the quality of what you have; you can’t manage what you want into existence but you can be the instrument of its creation by getting all the tools in place and then letting things unfold as they will. Create a time and place to meditate and contemplate daily in order to invite your inner nature to become a player in your outer life.  Proceed through the construction phase or your new life knowing that there will be unexpected changes but all the while be aware of the change that is taking shape and being revealed from day to day.  As the remodeler of your life, you are the designer and the contractor, if you follow your blueprint and use the tools in your internal tool box, you will experience surprising and dramatic results…more light, more delight, more awareness of the beauty that surrounds you, more room to breathe and to engage in things you really care about.  A not so big life, but one with big rewards.

After reading Susanka’s manual, I quickly realized that I was not a victim of the fire that had ravaged our home, I was in fact a beneficiary.  I had been given a great gift.  Just as I was given the opportunity to design a new space to live in, one that would meet my daily life needs and those of my family; a space to work, play, create, retreat…to live more respectfully on the land we believe we are stewards of, I had also been given the opportunity to redesign my life.  Susanka’s principles for a not so big life were not necessarily new to me, but she certainly presented them in a context and with insights from her personal experience that truly resonated with me and helped me think about their application in a whole new light.  I realized that before the fire there was a lot in my life that wasn’t working, there were in fact significant design flaws that cluttered my life and made it feel stress filled.  I always seemed to be looking to the next thing for enjoyment rather than enjoying the moments I was in.  As I reflected, I realized that simply losing all our possessions unlocked an enormous amount of stress that I must have been carrying around.  I’m convinced now, in fact, that the things in your life will create stress if you allow them to.  A fire can certainly make that kind of de-stressing very quick indeed.  It’s simply all gone.

Now I have the opportunity to consider deliberately each new possession we acquire with a strict scrutiny test:  do we NEED it?  Will it create beauty and flow in our lives?  Must it be new or will a nearly new item suffice?  Can I repurpose something and turn it into a more unique, personal way of meeting our needs.  This deliberate approach to refurnishing our home has lead to a more deliberate approach to my daily actions, using many of Susanka’s prescriptions and practices.  It feels good to conserve, contract, repurpose, reuse, recycle.  Simply to live more simply and enjoy it as I do.  This has given me a greater feeling of control over a life that felt at times very out of control. This sense of confidence is a critical rung on Maslow’s path to self actualization.  I am now positioned to create and cultivate a life in which my actions are aligned with the person I am inside.  My fire gave me the opportunity to change not just what I live in but how I live.  What a gift at mid-life.  A true do over!  And the blue print for my new life lays out the vision, opens the door, and offers the pathway through my inner spaces, where the light is reflected and illuminates many long views ahead.  My life is filled with moments I now live rather than anticipate.  And I am surrounded by things that are uniquely me, my response to life’s gifts.

Susanka reminds us at the end of her guide that just like the houses she designs for her clients, your not so big life needs an owners manual to help you develop routines that support your personal growth and keep your life in livable balance, a life that is a joy to live rather than a burden. You will know when your not so big life is a good fit for you when you begin to experience the symptoms of inner peace:

  • A tendency to think and act spontaneously rather than act in response to fears based on past experiences or future anxieties
  • An unmistakable ability to enjoy each moment
  • A loss of interest in judging other people
  • A loss of interest in judging your self
  • A loss of interest in interpreting the actions of others
  • A loss of interest in conflict
  • A loss of ability to worry
  • Frequent overwhelming episodes of appreciation
  • Contented feelings of connectedness with others and with nature
  • Frequent attacks of smiling
  • An increasing tendency to let things happen rather than make them happen
  • An increased susceptibility to the love extended by others as well as the uncontrollable urge to extend it

 

I hope that you too can experience a “gift of fire” in your life that allows you to be open to the principles and possibilities that a not so big life can bring.  Through my blog posts I hope we can help each other discover and practice the principles of Re-purposeful Living, a life re-purposed that transcends the cluttered spaces of our homes and our souls and brings us abundant joy.

For Openers

Although I’m new to blogging, I’m not new to re-purposing.  I’ve been using things in ways they weren’t designed for since I was a little girl.  I probably spent more time trying to figure out how to turn stuff into furniture for my doll’s houses than I did playing with the dolls themselves.  My Grandmother fostered my creative spirit with her scrap bag that she kept in her closet.  This magic bag was filled with colorful material, thread, buttons, papers and other odds and ends.  It always smelled of cocoa butter–her beauty treatment–and Watkin’s linament–her remedy for life’s aches and pains.  Whenever I needed a piece of bric a brac or just plain inspiration, I would rummage through her bag and somehow pull out just the right adornment for whatever I was trying to make.  The bag seemed bottomless to me and made everything seem possible.  And Granny always complimented my creations, even when they weren’t quite straight.  To her they were always just the right solution.

I realized early on that it’s all in how you look at things.  If you are willing to suspend the belief that things can only be what you see them as, then you begin to see things in many different ways.  Throughout my life I’ve relied on my creative instincts and the skills I learned by trying to make things work together that were designed to be something else.  To see the possibility that seemed to elude others.  As a result I’ve come up with some very creative ways of filling my life and my home with unique and unexpected experiences, art and objects that provide life lessons and serve everyday needs.  This approach has also allowed my family to live a little more lightly, reduce our impact on dwindling resources and do more with less.  So for example, what was at one time a lobster crate and served as a link in the day to day livelihood for a lobsterman and his family in some New England fishing community, now in all its rough patina is topped with a simple piece of glass and serves as my livingroom coffee table (and the subject of the header for this blog).  A rusty bed frame contributed its parts to a canoe trailer that now supports a family hobby and the community group that stewards the river we live alongside.  A friend welded together the leftovers from the bed frame as an afterthought, which I topped with a couple of pieces of discarded slate–another table born.   A third table in my livingroom is made from the rims of old oil drums.  Old bridge timbers stacked on our property by the previous owner were cut to fit the window ledges on the side porch and have become my favorite summer morning coffee and evening wine bar retreat.  These are tangible examples of the lifestyle I have come to call ‘Re-purposeful Living’.  It is how I approach life everyday.  I find that this approach not only gives me continuous grist for my creative mill but it also gives new life to things that would otherwise go in a landfill, saves money, and creates some very unique solutions for many of life’s needs.

I look forward to sharing some of my ideas, solutions and examples here as well as highlighting and reporting on the growing number of ways that my community is making Re-purposeful Living not only possible but encouraged.  Perhaps you are finding that your community is supporting you to be more Re-purposeful in your life as well.  I hope that together we can share ideas, inspiration, and encourage each other to live a little more lightly and more meaningfully, less dependent on stuff in our lives and more abundant with the stuff of life.  I can’t wait to hear how you see things in different ways in your Re-purposeful life.  Visit often.