What Mindfulness Means to Me (and How I Practice it at Home)

by Grace Bonney

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Earlier this year, when our team was gathering to talk about our plans for 2014, we each discussed feeling happy and proud about the longer form posts we wrote in 2013. The online world moves so quickly and changes so rapidly, but we each felt so connected to the things we talked about in those essays and the feedback we received was so personal and meaningful to each of us. So we decided we definitely wanted to continue them this year, but with a bit of a different focus: mindfulness.

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I think blogs often get a bad wrap for being ‘mindless consumerism’. I understand that some people see products and feel that all blogs do is tell people to buy buy buy, but for me, it couldn’t be further from the truth. I feel like discussing design (new and old) is inspiring in the sense that it teaches me something new and gives me the confidence know the difference between when I can and should make something myself or invest in something that’s worth my money. But I realized that we don’t often take time here to discuss the ways we make mindfulness a part of our everyday decisions- how we choose to buy and not buy things for our homes. So for this first essay series, Max, Amy and I will be talking about what mindfulness means to each of us and how we practice it at home.

For me, mindfulness boils down to this: making calm, quiet decisions that not only feel right, but that reflect who I am in this very moment. I made a personal resolution when I moved last year, to never buy something without a precise need and purpose for it, and it’s lead to such a sense of freedom that I could never go back.

Click through for the full post (and photos from my home) after the jump…

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How I want to feel at home

Years ago when I lived in Park Slope, I was faced with a “good” problem: A slightly larger apartment than I was used to and not enough furniture to fill it. So I spent a lot of time buying ‘things’. Anything, really. I wasn’t buying expensive things; I was buying cheap box-store things and thrift store goods just to fill the space. But then I ran into this odd feeling- I couldn’t stop buying things. I realize now that I was unhappy and buying something gave me a momentary sense of happiness that distracted me from other issues I needed to deal with. I remember one day walking into a small store and not finding anything I liked and feeling this panic that I needed to buy something so I could go home and spend time finding a place for it. That’s when it hit me: I was buying mindlessly- and with an almost frenzied state of being. I was buying without purpose and to fill a void. It was at that moment that I decided to put down my wallet and try to figure out what buying things- and decorating my home- really meant to me.

Answering that question- why we buy the things we buy- can yield so many different results. Changes in life, changes in work and changes in who we are. But for me, choosing to examine my buying habits more deeply lead to some major life changes that required years of processing and understanding. But also lead to clarity.

In the spring of 2012 I was living in Greenpoint in a fairly empty and calm apartment near our office. For the first time in years, I felt such a sense of calmness and lightness at home. For me, calmness had always come from getting a room just right. Having all the right pieces to fill each space and knowing I’d gotten it perfect. But in this space, I owned practically nothing. I’d given away, sold or left behind so many of my belongings in a desire to start fresh and it felt liberating. When I adopted Hope a year later, nothing had changed in the apartment- except for a lot of new dog toys. I realized I’d lived a whole year without buying things for my home and I was completely happy.

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My favorite Lubok Verlag bag, Julia’s mortar and pestle and a beloved planter became decoration on our shelves.

I kept that sense of calm minimalism when I moved to my current apartment, and thankfully Julia shares the same commitment to clean, minimal living. But we’ve had to buy and build a lot of things to finish our home so it was a functional space that worked for us. In that buying process, mainly done at Ikea and The Container Store, it would have been easy to get caught up in the mania of large-store-shopping, but we kept level heads about us by going with a purpose, a precise list and only getting what was on it. At the end of the day we came home with exactly, and only, what we needed. It gave us a chance to fill “holes” in the room with things we already owned, loved and hadn’t gotten a chance to showcase yet. I never expected that buying fewer things would lead me to rediscover the things I already owned, but it has. Old flower pots became details on our bookshelves and beloved family tableware got a special spot on the dining room credenza. My favorite part is that paperwork that is special, but often hidden, has become meaningful artwork to us. Our marriage certificate, playful, but meaningful ‘adoption’ papers we created to celebrate Julia’s role in Hope and Turk’s life- all of these things that would be relegated to drawers or folders are now filling empty space in our home with a purpose and real meaning.

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Rather than buying a new plastic drip coffee pot, a treasured ceramic pitcher is now part of our morning routine.

Now when I look at new designs online or in a store, rather than feeling buying envy, I try to learn something from what the interior has done. Rather than seeing something beautiful as a list of things to buy, I see it as a chance to learn a skill (maybe how someone paired patterns well, or a bold black paint color) that I can apply- with my own two hands and what I already own- at home. I still buy things every now and then, but I make sure that I go through a few steps first. First, I have to Pin or save it for at least a few days to see if it’s just a momentary desire. Second, I have to know exactly what I would do with it in my current home (no saving for ‘one day‘ spaces). Third and last, I have to think it would add a sense of meaning to my home, not just decoration. Is it made by someone I respect and admire? Does it remind me of a person, place or time that means something to me? If it doesn’t have some special significance or make my life better in a real way (i.e: making it more functional and practical), then it doesn’t come home. It’s sometimes hard to pass up my favorites (old textiles and ceramic), but the overall reward is a home that is calm, clean and decorated only with things that have meaning and story.

I know it can be hard to know all of these things by just skimming a blog, but I hope that my experience can be helpful- or at least interesting- to anyone reading who things that design, home goods or decorating is a purely consumerist activity. For me, creating a home is about making a space that welcomes you and the people you love gracefully and with warmth. Buying and making things are often a part of that and I think mindful decisions should always be what leads to any home improvement or change. I would love to hear what some of you do before buying or making something- I think there’s so much to be learned from the way we each make our homes feel like a special place. xo, grace

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Our dining room credenza, where we got to use a beautiful piece of old wood and highlight an antique mirror I’ve had for years.

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Our simple, calm bedroom. No new artwork needed.

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Treasured family plates get used on a regular basis.

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Another family piece takes center stage in the living room.

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Cutting boards become our kitchen wall art.

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My favorite piece of artwork I own, a Sam Kweskin photograph, is the main visual impact in the dining room. No gallery walls, no large groupings, just one simple piece.

Suggested For You


  • How do you deal with items that are gifted to you that may not fit in? I come from a large family of gifters and often find myself holding onto things simply because I feel guilty getting rid of them.

    • rebecca

      i regift them or donate them to people/places that could use them more. but if they’re especially expensive or nice gifts, i try to find a way to make them work.


  • Yay. Thank you for *permission* to do this. I’ve been wanting to go more minimal, less clutter. Wonderfully written.

  • Love the article Grace. I definitely like to sit on things and revisit with both my design work and house purchases. I think I mulled over our wallpaper choice for 2 years but do still love it ! I aim to design forever objects and hope that my furniture choices will last if not a lifetime than a really long time. I love the layers and am a little bored by spaces that are not built over time, I think it shows.

  • Lovely. Congratulations on a more meaningful space to reflect, and I know it must mean more to share a calm space with someone who came into your life in an “aha!” moment- my fiance/finace-gay/partner/pet co-parent and life canoodler and I live in 370 square feet, and it has waaaay more STUFF than yours, but the things we have are special because of their nostalgia, their makers (friends) or their gifters (family). You made me realize that we haven’t bought anything in forever either, and whoa it feels great! A bank account balance of 9 dollars can’t take away the joy of a sleeping dog and two mugs of piping hot coffee.

  • I can relate to this so much. Our house right now is way too big for us. Our goal either this year or next year is to sell the house and downsize. I too, got fed up with buying things for the house for the sake of filling it up – even when the space wasn’t being used – so that it looks picture perfect. One thing I’m proud of our house is that I’ve filled it with things that I’ve made with my own two hands – sewed the curtains, made pillows, knitted throws.

  • I LOVE THIS POST. Sorry for the all caps, but it just really spoke to me. I graduated from college two years ago and have been making the gradual transition from college gear to real adult apartment and have been selective about what I buy and what I don’t…and that mindfulness has made my space a home, even if it is rented.

  • I’ve been wrestling with similar thoughts the last couple of weeks. Thank you so much for writing this! I look forward to Amy and Max’s take on this as well.

  • What you wrote about your apartment last year – resonated with me. In the summer of 2008, I left an abusive relationship and moved out of a sprawling, flawlessly-designed but impersonal Tribeca apartment into a tiny one bedroom in Chelsea. I took nothing with me besides my clothes, my books, and my chef’s knife. I mean, literally moved into an empty apartment where that day i had a bed, couch, and a dresser delivered. A friend donated her old dining room chairs, which we still use and love, and little by little, I furnished my little space with things I loved. It was a sparse apartment but I could breathe in it. It was such a revelation! As we are now trying to make our new place into a home (we’ve a long way to go) we’re being very careful and deliberate about what goes in. I agree: good design/furnishing, must be meaningful and beautiful to you. For that reason, I can’t see myself hiring someone to decorate/design my space. It doesn’t feel right to me. Your and Julia’s home is beautiful and comforting, but most importantly, it reflects the both of you – and the family you’ve created. And isn’t that what home is?

  • Thanks Grace I needed this post. When something has got me frazzled I am drawn to shopping. I have now started to apply some of the skills you wrote about. It is a challenge for me, but I am making some progress. Surprisingly Pinterest has helped me a lot, as I can pin a product or image so I refrains from panicking that I will forget about it. If it is something I truly desire, need & have a useful place for, I can go back and purchase whenever I am ready. You are a wise woman Grace Bonney xo

  • As I’ve commented on your Instagram—I am so, so impressed with your new apartment and I can’t wait to see more detailed photos! I think the urge to buy can definitely be a struggle and I am still working out how to navigate the realities of want vs. need. My biggest home issue is that I am a slob, so all my hard work in decorating is kind of pointless when the place is constantly a mess! So one of my big goals for 2014 is to be better about keeping things tidy, which will, of course, make my home more calm and inviting.

    Also, I saw on Anna Dorfman’s most recent blog post (in the comments) that she had some issues with the ELFA shelves holding heavy books over time. Some of the other commenters also mentioned some solutions (such as using natural wood shelves with the ELFA brackets) that made the system more functional for them for the long haul. I’m guessing you’ve already considered these potential issues down the road, but I thought I’d share anyway, since you seem to be using the ELFA primarily for books.

  • I never comment on blogs though I read yours daily. I just wanted to say how beautiful this one was. I am so happy you have created this space and life for yourself and I only hope to aspire to it myself, slowly, weeding out the unnecessary, the hectic, the mess, of my own life. Thank you so much for this post.

  • I know I need to work a little harder to appreciate the things I already have & stop buying things just to buy things! Thanks for posting this.

    Also, gorgeous plates!

  • This is a much needed post for me. After moving into a big house a couple years ago, I’ve been doing the same thing you did in Park Slope, just buying to fill. Now I’m seeing the error of my ways with a house full of “stuff”. It’s not so nice! This year, I want to make a change and look at each and every object in my home and decide to either love it or hate and dig things out of closets that I love and might be able to utilize.
    Thank you so much for this post, it’s lit a fire under me! One of my fav books to read to my sons is Mindful Monkey, Happy Panda. I need to read it more to constantly remind me to live more in this way.

  • Very thought provoking! I have made some wonderful purchases – accidental finds and intentional selections both. But I made one purchase blunder as the result of seeing a beautiful room focal point in a blog somewhere. I happened to stumble upon a similar focal point piece at an antiques market a couple of years later and promptly brought it home, but have yet to find a perfect place for this piece. It is indeed pretty, but awkward in size and doesn’t harmonize well with the existing furnishings. Sadly. I wish I had given this some mindful consideration way back when I began coveting (even pinned!) that original room photograph. Just because I like someone else’s room doesn’t mean I need to recreate that look!

  • I love this piece in particular and where your blog is going in general. I am always excited to read longer, thoughtful and more personal pieces from each of you. Design Sponge is so much more than just a design blog! I’m bookmarking this as a reminder to myself to be more deliberate about the things in my own life.

  • Man, that bit about feeling panic in the store when you couldn’t find anything really resonated with me. I recently felt that in my favorite thrift store and thought, “what is that?!” I usually end up buying more things than intended, but why was I so upset about not finding anything? I’ve realized I buy and acquire to fill a void also. I tell myself it’s ok because I shop at thrift shops and vintage stores, so it’s less damaging, monetarily, than if I was buying at normal retail stores, but the end result is still the same–my house if full of stuff I don’t need &/or stuff I intend to use, to display, to craft with. And it’s a goddamn cluttered mess! Like the previous commenter, Jo, I am a slob, as is my husband. So my crap is everywhere! But there’s still that void. I never found my path, career-wise, and now I’m a stay-at-home mom. It was a relief at first, to not have to worry about finding the right job or career, and just take care of my son. But it’s been three years, and a daughter, later and my brain is going stir-crazy. And I know that directly plays in to my desire to buy and acquire…but I don’t know how to fix it. So, this is my long way of saying thank you for these keeping-it-real posts & I’m intensely curious about one overcomes or works through these issues. I hope I get to where you are.

  • Thank you so much for this post. I’m trying to live more mindfully as well. Last May I moved out of a nice apartment I shared with a boyfriend and into a really generic apartment across town. It’s got more than enough space, but I’ve still struggled to find calm and peace and inspiration in it. I’m making progress, but I’ve decided that I want this year to be a year of feeling really AT HOME where I live, so even though I’m currently overwhelmed, I’m taking steps to remove things that I don’t love, and really think about the things that I want to surround myself with. It’s not easy, so it’s really good to read this and know that I’m not alone.
    I love this website, thank you for sharing all that you share with us!

  • Grace, thank you so much for this post! I came upon mindful buying a slightly different route: after reading about how products are manufactured, and the human rights abuses take place along the way so we (in the first world) can have inexpensive goods.

    My heart was broken. Who wants a nice blouse made by women allowed to eat and use the washroom only once a day? Or a chocolate bar from cocoa harvested by trafficked children? Sadly, we have all bought them without even knowing.

    After briefly being completely paralyzed and unable to shop for anything, I started purchasing thoughtfully, and carefully, only buying items where I could be sure of it’s history. Though it initially seemed impossible, it has actually been quite easy. And it’s led me to items I never would have discovered before, not to mentioned saved me money!

    Mindful purchasing has been wonderful : I feel good about the businesses I support; I only purchase things I really need; I love everything I buy. Finding that bargain is even more satisfying now (who knew that was possible?!!).

    We don’t have to stop being consumers, but being mindful consumers can be good for our homes, our wallets, and our spirit.

  • It’s funny how you have to sit on your purchases to make sure they are meaningful, when I look around my apartment, the pieces I love the most are the ones I saw, and instantly fell in love with. The purchases I love less are ones that I waivered on before buying. It’s always good to think about purchases, but the ones I fall in love with instantly, are keepers. And learning not to doubt my heart has helped me create my happy home. For me practicing mindfulness means letting go of the bad purchasing decisions I’ve made, I am only 25 and I have plenty design mistakes ahead of me!

  • Mindfulness is actually something practiced something very often in many spiritual practices, including mine! People sometimes turn into a machine and just let life slip away without the idea of mindfulness.

  • Wow Grace, this is wonderful. It means so much to find like minded people. I too have had the need to “fill” a space to try and find happiness. I recently wrote about it on my blog and felt a little exposed by sharing some very personal things that happened in my life. To counteract having to literally start over with very little physical belongings, I have made it a personal challenge to create a home that is full of meaning & intention. So what it’s not done yet, I am still so happy in my space.


  • There was a time when I would also shop to heal, but I think that working at Coach through grad school helped to cure me of that. When I first started working there, I wanted every handbag. But then after spending time with these items, I felt like I already owned them and wouldn’t want to buy them anymore. But every now and then a really special piece would come along and I would save for it–years later those are still my absolute favorite handbags. I learned how to look at and appreciate pretty things, but to not have the “need” to own everything.

  • I know it defeats the purpose of this, very touching and wonderfully written, post to ask you where you got something. But I almost fell off my chair with that starry cutting board!! If you could tell me who did it or how it was done, I may be able to try a diy.
    Thanks a lot and I’m so very happy that you have found peace and meaning in your house and your life.

  • Grace, you’ve inspired me to clear out my clutter this weekend, we have a whole store room full of it since we moved and it’s playing on my mind even though it’s hidden. We have moved into a much bigger apartment which I have been so tempted to fill with new things even though I know we struggled to fit all my current things into the old place.
    I take joy in putting up old pictures I love or displaying forgotten plates. I definitely think that a lot of what we want, we already own, we just need to display it properly.


  • What a wonderful, thought-provoking post! So many design and personal-style blogs are simply about shopping and amassing more and more stuff.

    I was intrigued, though, by LL’s comment regarding mindful purchasing… I’d love to see a related post about manufacturers and retailers we CAN feel good about purchasing from… mindfully, of course!

    • alix

      thanks! i think in general, we only post about brands on d*s that we feel good about purchasing from. you won’t see anything on here we don’t believe in or wouldn’t shop from. :)


  • Wonderful essay and I appreciate your thoughts and those of the other commenters which are of great interest to me, as I am in the process of refocusing my blog on this very subject – the rewards and pleasures of mindful living, which are key to building a truly rich life (emotionally, intellectually, financially) . thank you!

  • What a great post. My boyfriend and I are currently renovating/rebuilding our very own home and this post has come as a perfect reminder that we need to take our time getting it ‘right’ – researching/ thinking through purchases, making/building things where we can, making sure we have space to breath when it is all done. I only hope our home has the same sense of peace yours appears to have when its done. 2014 is my year to focus on mindfulness in all aspects of my life – so it makes perfect sense that I should start with my home!

  • Oh, I can relate to this post. I remember being deep in the consumerism mindset. I’d walk into a store and find nothing I want, then think out of all the stuff here…what would I want? I did the same thing with the countless catalogs that arrived at the house. I remember shopping for a car, and long after I bought one, I still kept looking! It took months to get out of that mindset. I heard a Tim Ferris interview talking about ‘mental bandwidth’. I used so much of my mental bandwidth on things that didn’t matter or that I truly didn’t love, there was little energy left for acknowledging and creating what I truly wanted.

  • Thanks so much, Grace, for this thoughtful post. I really think that most of us are drawn to your site because the mindfulness of all of you has come through here from Day One. We all go through stages of what we think of later as ‘mindless-ness’ but they steer us back to our true selves. The knowledge that so many people are beginning to think this way is a tribute to the human spirit that truly wants not just a better life for the self, but for the community of all.
    I also get tired of the blogs that sell, sell, sell, but I take your recommendations to heart, because they are tried and true. This is my go-to site for honest and innovative design, art and products crafted with love and meaning. Your integrity of purpose is always present, and I’m just amazed at the work, time and real energy this team puts into this blog. You all have a real passion for your work and lives, and thank you so much for being here!

  • Oh Thank You! I was feeling overwhelmed with all the stuff I had brought into my space in the last two and a half years. I started purging…came across sewing patterns, and in some of them I had bought duplicates. ugh..what had I done..I have resolved to limit the amount of “creative stuff” I thought I needed and to only add that which I will do “now” rather than a “future” project..and yes, I am learning to stop the obsessive shopping, and to also limit the amount of time I spend online.

  • I love this and it’s exactly why I started to read Design Sponge in the first place! This space and your book is so inspiring in more ways than just finishing a project. Yes, a finished project is wonderful, but the process is way more meaningful and it is truly your site and book that has been the inspiration for our current home. Two years ago we were living in California and after deciding to move back to the NY Metro area we started looking for a house. I was already inspired by Design Sponge and changing the ways I was doing things. Less perfect…more meaning kind of thinking. So after a few house hunting trips, we bought a house that that I did not even see in person for a year after we bought it. Every time someone would say “you’re crazy” I would just calm myself by looking at the pages of the Design Sponge book and planning each space in our new (c. 1900) house. Two years later I am still inspired by your calm writing style and thoughtful way of creating a home or space. So…thank you Grace!

  • Please continue your essays. Each one has been a gift to me and to others (judging by the comments!) This one was lovely. You are lucky in Julia, as I am with my spouse, to have someone else in the household who cares about its homeyness AND functionality AND aesthetics. Like you I focuses on the first and third, but need to keep after the middle value.

    On a practical note regarding ELFA shelving for books. When we downsized, we put our books on ELFA shelving and have had no problems. Of course I can thank my practical, handy spouse for solidly anchoring them in our apartment’s concrete wall. A pain and a mess, but solid. He also said that alining the uprights is essential to success.

  • You’ve got it, Grace! My husband and I have been through a nearly identical cycle of “home-making.” In 4 yrs. of marriage, we’ve had 3 apartments (and one 3,000-mile move), and are just entering the weeding phase after years of simply trying to fill empty spaces with Something. (Especially this dauntingly massive Savannah apartment we’re in now!) The more we get rid of, and the more I take on projects to refurbish or repurpose things we already have, the more our most recent apartment feels like home.
    (And thanks for the reminder that not everyone needs a gallery wall. Art can be clutter, too!)

  • Thanks for this piece Grace. This is just how i’ve been feeling over the last year or two. Lovely to hear this in our consume-consume world. I’ve been all about function, practicality, beauty…and less, please less. I have enjoyed D*S just for that kind of inspiration.

    Last year i relegated my favourite armchair to the bedroom, where it became a clothes rack, because it was getting ratty and too expensive to recover. Well, over new years i pulled it out to accommodate our house guests and had the idea of draping my beloved hudson bay point blanket over it to hide the frays. Well, it was brilliant! I love that i can enjoy two of my favourite things everyday again. Old is new again and not going back to the bedroom. It makes me smile every time i walk through the house.

  • I found this interesting and inspiring, we do surround ourselves with stuff to block the view we don’t like on occasion, forgetting the view is actually pretty good once we actually look again and allow ourselves to see what we have beyond the stuff.

    Wow where did that come from…. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, x

  • Your post reminded me of Tom Shadyac’s book “Life’s Operating Manual”. I think you would enjoy reading it.

  • I really enjoyed this post. I’m a bit of a hoarder but I love the idea of a calm and clear space. Not likely to happen with a 4 year old and a 9 month old’s clutter all over the place though :-) x

  • The part about living near where you work really resonated with me. I recently have been able to experience that and it’s a total game changer! I feel so much more relaxed knowing I can walk most everywhere I need to go.

    Great post, thanks for sharing!

  • Hello,
    Where did you get that amazing photograph of the ocean? Who is the artist? Thanks so much.

  • I definitely agree. I often don’t buy household decorations because I tend to be very frugal, but I do have to remind myself of this when it comes to grocery shopping or other types of consumerism.

    My husband and I are planning to sell our house (and everything in it!) in a few years to move cross-country, and I can’t wait for that purge. We have several things around the house that were gifted to us or that we have some attachment to now, but I look forward to being able to sell/donate those things soon. That vision actually helped us clean out our attic right after the new year – an entire SUV and trailer of donations and recycling! It literally made me feel lighter.

  • Hi Grace! I really enjoyed this post. You touched upon a few things I enjoy about this blog: you guys aren’t a one trick pony. You constantly mix it up with a new series of blog posts so things always stay interesting in refreshing. You don’t just showcase beautifully decorated homes (we get enough of that on Pinterest, don’t we?) and though I DO enjoy those posts, I’ve also enjoyed Max’s “Living In” posts, your history of design posts, and Biz Ladies, to name a few.

    Secondly, I’m going to be moving into my boyfriend’s apartment after living in my current one for the past 5 1/2 years. We’re in the process of streamlining our furniture and seeing what else we need to get (which included a trip to Ikea this past Sunday!) Since storage space is at a minimum at his apartment, we’re really going to have to get creative with cubbies, boxes and compartments. I’m looking forward to (and slightly fearing) going through all the *stuff* I’ve accumulated in this apartment over the past 5 years and only keeping what I really need. My boyfriend and I are both big fans of design and beautiful objects, so I’m looking forward to creating a space that’s both homey and beautiful, yet tidy and refined (we’re both freelancers and work from home, so a clean workspace is a must). I pretty sure he’ll be on the same page! ;)

  • Grace, this was truly inspiring to read!!! A friend of mine moved from Chicago to Brooklyn this fall and she had to pare down her possessions A LOT! I became slightly jealous of her to getting rid of things that were cluttering up her life. It sounded so liberating! So my husband and I decided why not do the same. Why wait till we move and are already crazed by packing. Let’s get rid of stuff now. We’ve slowly been going our possessions, but I’d like our home to be much more minimal. I look at all our things, a lot of stuff that isn’t serving a purpose and it feels slightly suffocating. After reading your post, you’ve given me a fresh perspective and I like how and what you decide to add to your home. Keep up the amazing work!!! Thanks for sharing!