09/21/2011 11:19 am ET | Updated Nov 21, 2011

The Upside of Downsizing

When I downsized from a four bedroom house to a one-bedroom, two-bath apartment, I had to make some sacrifices. Which, in my case, meant going from three sofas to two, relinquishing the movie room for a movie wall, the six hundred square foot home office with fireplace for a twenty square foot corner of the dining room with a scented candle, and the two-car garage for parallel parking three blocks away. After donating twenty-eight boxes of books to a library in Africa and half my eBay china to underprivileged newlyweds in Tukwila, I was finally finding my inner Feng Shui, which is to say, I keep a third eye on the closest exit and leave my fate to the state of some Lucky Bamboo, bought on sale at Safeway.

But size is relative, I've discovered. You would think I'd learned this lesson long ago when I spent a year or so living in a mud hut in the middle of a rainforest in Madagascar, but all that seemed to do was scare the soul out of me and propel me into a furious state of accumulation, as if enough possessions could secure my place in suburbia and guarantee I'd always have indoor plumbing and walls that didn't wash away in a downpour. Now that downward mobility is turning out to be a synonym for growing old in the land of the free and the bankrupt, I'm learning to reassess my perceptions.

When I first moved into this apartment a year ago, I couldn't imagine how two people could actually be expected to live in five rooms, three closets and two bathrooms. It was like stuffing elephants in a pickle jar, as far as I could tell, but it beat a homeless shelter. Sleeping on a four-season porch so close to the shores of Puget Sound that if I fell out of bed I'd drown was a nice touch, I must acknowledge, but having to slipcover one of the sofas to match the other and live with just one room to dine in was really hard to adjust to. And when I realized that I'd have to put quarters into the washer and dryer and share a lint screen with my neighbors, I nearly got in touch with Dr. Phil to help me with my hardships.

"Wow, this is a huge apartment," people say when they walk through the first few rooms and stumble into the bedside ocean, "you're so lucky" (which I credit to fertilizing the bamboo). I immediately correct them and explain that it's not a four bedroom house and has no rec room, much less cathedral ceilings. "I had to paint the ceilings pale blue," I explain, "to give the illusion of more height." I inevitably get a look that says, "Are you on medication?" but before they can say anything, I smile and let my guests choose a couch to sit on.

The truth is, like so many other Americans who have divorced, lost their jobs, survived floods and forest fires or been scammed of their life savings by grinning bankers with three hundred dollar fountain pens and reassuring handshakes, I never saw it heading my way until life slammed into me so fast and hard I had to be peeled off the pavement like a two-dimensional Road Runner whose last words were Beep Beep.

Starting over is much more attractive when we watch it done in the movies and know the loser will end up with millions of dollars and a gorgeous love interest in the end. When it's real life, unless there's a television crew following us around and a major network writing us hefty checks for the privilege, having the material world yanked out from under us half way through life totally sucks. Downsizing is clearly a marker of sanity when it's done voluntarily, which it almost never is, but when it's forced on us it has the entirely opposite effect and leaves us howling at the heavy sky that's crashing down all around us.

But size is relative. When I lived in a mud hut, I was the richest woman in town. Surrounded by some of the poorest people on the planet and the richest ecosystem on earth, I had the buying power of Donald Trump and pretty much his attitude to go with it. I paid people to pick my coffee beans and grind them with an endangered species tree trunk, iron my clothes with a cast iron skillet heated over an open fire, and carry my backpack over the mountains because it cost less than the cost of a stick of gum to do so.

When I was a well paid professor with a stellar career and all the trappings, I defined my wealth by my credit limit and discovered it was endless. I kept my FICA score higher than my GREs, while shuffling debts like a two-bit hustler scamming change for a twenty, and grumbled about money being so hard to come by. My life was, in short, defined by a material façade I'd conjured from a world contrived by Madison Avenue and Oprah.

Don't get me wrong; I'd swap my apartment for my former sprawling home in a heartbeat and I'm still holding out for a billionaire husband because he's the only one who could afford a place big enough to avoid him. But having lived in a house made out of mud, I've got some insight to fall back on. As most of us know by now, the American Dream has been in so many respects an American Nightmare and it's kept us fast asleep. But the moment we wake up and think of ourselves in the context of the whole wide world, our perceptions of our place in it are radically altered.

For all the iPhones that are sold, more people still communicate by rumors. For all the laptops that are bought, most people still record their lives and legacies through storytelling around a fire. And for all the multi-thousand square foot homes that are mortgaged beyond their sales potential, most people live in homes made out of mud or straw or planks of wood and sleep beside their in-laws.

But it's not just about thinking globally that will give us some perspective. Perspective also comes of looking at our own lives to see how it is that we get by and get along beyond all the stuff that's smothered us with the surreal insecurities of seeking some security. When I left Seattle two decades ago, I'd been living in a studio apartment. When I returned last year, I felt defeated, squeezing myself and daughter and a couple of cats into a huge apartment. I'd assumed, absurdly, that life -- and hence space -- would keep expanding all around me as I grew older and time condensed around me. The closer I came to the infinite end, the more things I presumed I'd have to call my own (and leave behind for others to dispose of). When that dream was yanked away and I found myself selling twenty years of desires and needs at rummage sales and Craigslist, I had to return to that mud hut of my memories and redecorate my soul.

Size matters. But it isn't necessarily the size of our homes or the size of our bank accounts that defines our possibilities, but the size of our hearts and our imaginations. There's nothing romantic about being broke and out of work, not knowing how long the rent can be paid or the kids well fed, but there's a place inside each of us that no amount of stuff can snuff out. That's the place that turns a chipped teacup and a wild flower into a tender comfort, a feather found on the pavement into a sign of hope, a smile from a passing stranger into an unexpected joy.

I still want that retro Weber grill powered by propane but simply can't afford it, I still want that high status job that I once had where I came and went as I pleased and people prefaced my name with Doctor, and I still want to know that I'll have an income and healthcare when I'm old and my daughter's education will be paid for. But ultimately, what I know will see me through is none of that. What matters is that wild flower that I know can always be found with a walk out the door, that feather that will always fall on my path, and that smile that will always appear, however briefly, in the smallest moments of our lives to bring us to that place that truly matters.