Everyday is special after you edit your life and live with the abridged version of yourself.
This is a story just about that, and how I learned that you don’t have to wait until the third act of your life for editing . There is renewal, practicality and emancipation.
As a visual journalist/designer, I have spent my career editing pages for publication, and more recently for websites, phone and tablet apps.
Nothing, however, prepared me for what I call the editing of my life. Editing the work of others can’t compare to the exercise of dealing with the roles of space, economy and redundancy in your own life.
At 67, an age when many people contemplate a third act in a tranquil place where they can nap during the day and sleep well at night, I have opted for adventure in a city that Liza Minnelli reminded us doesn’t sleep.
New York City calling
It began when good friend Bill Grueskin, former academic dean at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, invited me to join the faculty for a year as the Hearst Digital Media Professor in Residence. I accepted, rented a one-bedroom apartment in the Upper East Side and returned to academia (I had taught at Syracuse University years ago) and discovered the magic of New York City and all that it offers a music and theater aficionado.
When that year was over, I knew I could not get rid of my New Yorker designation. I decided to continue my association with Columbia (I am now Senior Adviser for News Design and adjunct professor), and get me my own apartment . I opted for a co-op apartment (going through the application process for a New York co-op is another story). The apartment is 800 square feet in a charming 1929 building, in the heart of the Upper East Side.
First, however, I had to sell my 5,400 sq. ft. Tampa, FL., home, one that I had designed with the help of two architects. It was a house on the river, with pool, Jacuzzi, five bedrooms and four and a half bathrooms — what a couple needs to raise four children, with three dogs and as many cats. We collected rich memories — and the memorabilia that goes with them — as we saw the kids go from elementary school to college. All four got engaged in that house, and we held baptism and communion parties for our grandchildren there. My wife Maria died there, too, in 2008.
After her death I remodeled and redecorated (she liked antiques, I liked modern, so there was a moment of fusion ). The house changed enough to have a sense of the new, but the memories and memorabilia stayed, too.
Big House for Sale
Imagine, then, putting that big house for sale, and, more challenging, dismantling its contents.
Bittersweet is the word that comes to mind as I began the dismantling of Villa Tortuga (the name we gave our house), one drawer at a time, one room every week, the task insurmountable at times, with occasional thoughts of “do we have someone come in and take it all away?” . Common sense and my sentimental heart prevailed.
How does one go about the act of disposal — getting rid of things that you once thought defined you ( clippings of your columns in the college newspaper where you were the editor), the 20 or so plaques honoring you at the end of a project, and the photos by the hundreds, from the times photos were printed at the corner drug store. The cruises, the baptisms, the weekends with friends, and the more valuable ones, with one’s long-gone grandparents: your life as a scrollable photo gallery without an end.
Also the photos that reminded you of happier times (I saved those), as in Maria and I enjoying a safari in South Africa, or eating churros one February morning in Madrid. Photos were the most difficult part of the editing. They also were conducive to my sitting cross-legged in the midst of the chaos to just have a reminiscing break. On occasion, I cried.
Saying Goodbye to Things
But part of the editing of one’s life is saying goodbye, often with that moment of reflection when you say: Ok, let me think about how great this was. Not easy to look at a photo from the past, conjuring the image, then reluctantly letting it go. Whatever you do, don’t look back, or you will retrieve it and keep it again.
I did a lot of that: assimilating and honoring a moment but getting rid of the evidence. Years in journalism have taught me that you can’t edit without crossing over lines with a red marker or hitting the delete button. Tough, I know.
Editing your life is not a process that can be done on a tight schedule. Allow for moments when you pause (as when I found a baby’s pacifier on one of my wife’s purses, a reflection of the caring mother and grandmother she was), or when you rediscover a treasure (letters I had sent to Maria daily 30 days prior to our wedding in 1969, letters I had no idea she had kept). On such occasions, you decide that you need to get out for a run, or go for a latte or a glass of bubbly. And that’s OK. Good editors and writers know when to pause.
For forty years I collected art from around the world, with emphasis on Latin America, so part of the editing was to take a look at this collection and decide what to take with me to my reduced space in my new habitat. My neck hurt as I looked at the two-story high atrium of Villa Tortuga where so much of the art work was hanging, with gallery lights on them. Every piece of art came with a message (Oswaldo Guayasamins bought in Ecuador, or that Argentinean modern art piece found in a Buenos Aires gallery , not to mention colorful sculptures by the Israeli artist David Gerstein and a collection of Cuban art by Orestes Larios Zaak).
When I say editing, I mean sharp editing: usually in the first run through many things survive that later will not. That was the case here.
What do I really want and need in my life?
I stood in the atrium and had this five-minute conversation with myself: What do I wish to see everyday? That helped, and a second round of elimination took place, sort of like the Miss Universe contest when 15 contestants are narrowed down to 5.
In my case, it was 10 pieces. The rest? I invited my four children to let me know what interested them. Their choices felt great. Those pieces may not be in my “museum” anymore, but they are where my children and grandchildren enjoy them, and me, too, when I come visit.
Real editing took place when I disposed of about 165 larger trash bags, donated tons of goodies to friends and neighbors , and then it was time for the kitchen, the most utilitarian room in a house, but one I was avoiding the way I do anything with cheese in it.
Do I need eight sets of china? No. So, which is the one set of china that I wish to take ? The Galician Sargadelos, for sure, gloriously modern and classic with shades of blue and white. It is the set of china that we always saved for a special occasion. It is now my daily china because everyday is special when you start living with the abridged version of all that is you. The other china? The children will have their choice of their Mom’s plates and cups for all occasions.
Same for cutlery: I took the good silverware that I found in solitary confinement in a closet in the downstairs guest room. Ironically, the good silver was seldom at our table. I now pick at my plate of fruit with those incredibly elegant forks. They seem happy to be back in active duty.
Small apartment, big memories
In my new apartment I am surrounded by only the books, the art and the furniture that I am comfortable with and that bring me great memories of my life BE (before editing).
Only five awards hang on a wall in the hallway, and one of them made my Mom beam and I think of her every time I see it. My wife’s antiques have adapted well to life in New York. In my new life, the inspiration of the two most influential women in my life.
The day I had to turn the house over to its new owners, and after the movers had taken every item , I slowly walked from room to room of Villa Tortuga, selecting one happy moment that I had savored. I then walked to the deck overlooking the Hillsborough River and raised a glass to all that was good in this fabulous spot.
And I also got rid of my car. For the first time in decades I don’t have a car, or a big house with a swimming pool, Jacuzzi, extra bathrooms and extra everything. What I have in the iCloud of my mind are memories. What I have in my new home are the meaningful items that survived the editing and, I hope, will survive me.
Dr. Mario Garcia is CEO/Founder of Garcia Media and Senior Adviser on News Design/Adjunct Professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism