How My Home Saved Me When My Life Fell Apart

It was 9:59 on a Tuesday night. Before me towered a wall of ladles, garlic presses, cheese graters, and whisks — in front of which I'd been standing, stupefied, for nearly an hour. I knew I needed utensils. Badly. For weeks, I’d been cooking with a bent metal spoon and a battered pot borrowed from a friend. My cupboards held a motley mix of paper napkins, soy sauce pouches, and pepper packets swiped from the supermarket deli. Yet the moment to make an actual decision left me paralyzed. My mind was crowded with seemingly trivial questions: Brand name or generic? Cherrywood or bamboo? Six bucks for the set of flimsy spatulas, or a single, sturdy flipper for the same price?

I agonized over my options until a salesgirl broke my trance to remind me of the store’s imminent closing. Empty-handed, I wandered out to the parking lot and drove back to my bare apartment.
Photo: Courtesy Anne Sage.
By now, I was accustomed to fruitless shopping trips. Since arriving in L.A. with only a suitcase of clothes and a Trader Joe’s bag of mementos, I’d visited every flea market, thrift shop, and big-box store in a 15-mile radius. I’d lounged on love seats, inspected armoires, and fondled sheet sets — and rejected them all. Twice, I’d loaded a cart at Target with throw pillows and decorative accents, only to abandon my haul in the middle of the aisle and retreat to the safe embrace of my Mazda.

Three months after my move, that car felt more like home than my echoing one-bedroom did. The Mazda was an artifact, the sole remnant of my old life — a life I’d departed with such haste that I’d knocked off a side-view mirror while backing out of my narrow San Francisco garage for the last time.

Three months after my move, my car felt more like home than my echoing one-bedroom did.

My five-year marriage, as well as the media start-up into which I’d poured the entirety of my husband’s savings, also floated in the wake of my destruction. The latter I knew would live on in the able hands of my co-founder. As for the former, there wasn't so much of a silver lining. The relationship’s already shaky foundation had crumbled under my single-minded pursuit of my own interests: my all-consuming job, my impulsive spending habits, my emotional inconstancy. Having discarded the very things I proclaimed to hold most dear, I withdrew behind a paralyzing curtain of isolation, self-loathing, and doubt. Clearly, I couldn’t trust myself with such sacred entities as love and devotion. How could I possibly trust my ability to handle trivial matters like tufted versus flat-weave?

Gradually, as I processed and healed, I began to fill my echoing rooms. The purchases were minimal at first: a silverware sorter here, a vintage lamp there. In an effort to correct my previously careless ways, I bought mostly secondhand and never on the spot. A church yard sale yielded a chartreuse velvet armchair and a midcentury bar cart for $13 including delivery. A teak drop-leaf table took up residence in the dining room, where it sat for three more months with no chairs to accompany it. In the slowly unfolding quarters of my new home, I discovered a prudence that suited my soul — and a safe arena in which to restore my confidence, establish my priorities, and determine what I wanted my world to look like as I moved forward.

In the slowly unfolding quarters of my new home, I discovered a prudence that suited my soul — and a safe arena in which to restore my confidence.

From the tumult of this lonely, yet necessary time of introspection arose the concept for my book, Sage Living. That year I spent rebuilding my sense of self and my sense of place connected me deeply with the power our living environments have to reflect and influence our personal evolution. As I began to emerge from my self-imposed emotional quarantine, I wondered whether it was possible to decorate a home as an exercise in self-direction — rather than allowing external circumstances to dictate both interior life and interior design.

So, I went in search of other spaces that demonstrated this sense of empowerment through design. I met a mom who downsized from a mansion to a bungalow so she could spend more quality time with her kids. An event planner who set up her minuscule Brooklyn studio to continue her family’s grand traditions of hospitality. A nutritionist who renovated her kitchen in order to rocket her career to new heights (and who secured a cookbook deal in the process). I connected with activists and entrepreneurs, health practitioners and home-schoolers, couples, families, and singles. Their stories became the 28 tales of courage and growth that comprise the book’s pages. Their individual values and goals inform their unique and thoughtful approaches to decor. And their journeys, like my own, embody the powerful message that to take your life into your own hands is a beautiful thing indeed.

Anne Sage is a writer based in LA.

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