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  • Tracy Dahlby

Selling a Home Can Be a Painful Loss

Be ready for the impact of downsizing your soul.


Photo by Stephanie Harvey/Unsplash

This column orignally appeared in The Dallas Morning News.


It was the night before moving and row upon row of cardboard boxes snaked through our house in the Austin near-burbs. A home of 15 years, comfortable as a pair of old sneakers, had become a collection of bare, echoing rooms.


Our decision to downsize to an uber-efficient condo had seemed eminently reasonable in the five years it took to make it. Hey, no more driveways to sweep, yards to rake or storm drains to de-goop! Liberation was at hand.


Turns out there was just one problem.


“I’m already homesick,” I said to my wife.


“You?” she said.


She had a point: A career journalist, I’d left wherever home happened to be, for weeks or months at a time, to ramble and report on faraway places. Now I was boohooing a move 6 miles across town? But reason rarely wins the day. As haiku master Matsuo Basho aptly summed up separation anxiety:


“Sadly, I part from you; Like a clam torn from its shell …”


Forgive me, I’m waxing melodramatic; but clamlike attachment to hearth and home is hard-wired into human identity. When we make the break, scuttling like a hermit crab from one protective shell to another, we can feel acutely exposed. Little wonder the media consistently ranks moving right up there with death of a loved one and divorce as one of life’s most stressful transitions.


In her 2009 book On Moving, author Louise DeSalvo said she was eagerly anticipating the move from a house in Teaneck, N.J., where she and her husband had lived for 30 years, to an artisanal dream home, so was surprised to find herself beset with “a sense of loss almost as profound as when my mother died a few years before.”


“All I can say is that I’m feeling as if I don’t know who I am,” DeSalvo wrote, “that I’ve lost the self I was, that the real ‘me’ has been left behind, the real ‘me’ isn’t living here but rather an impostor self I don’t know. And I miss the real ‘me,’ want her back.”

DeSalvo’s book also recounts the moving experiences of major cultural figures like Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence and Sigmund Freud. Turns out many of them found moving every bit as fraught with personal baggage as us ordinary folks.


Until recently, Americans have been a famously restless bunch, changing domiciles a dozen times on average. Since the Great Recession, however, shaky housing and job markets have dampened the urge, persuading more young adults, the country’s most mobile group, for example, to stay put. In the case of some Americans, of course, as the Oscar-winning film “Nomadland” depicts, especially hard circumstances can also force decisions to pull up stakes.


If we’re lucky, though, the little death of moving, for a new job or a leap-in-the-dark adventure, can lead to a rebirth and revitalized horizons. And yet, grasping at a new lease on life nearly always throws up a psychological hurdle.


In his 2004 bestseller Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, William Bridges called it “the difficult process of letting go of an old situation, of suffering the confusing nowhere of in-betweenness, and of launching forth again in a new situation.”


Americans often underplay these rigors, but as Bridges wrote: “Throughout nature, growth involves periodic accelerations and transformations: Things go slowly for a time and nothing happens — until suddenly the eggshell cracks … the tadpole’s tail shrinks away … ”


In 2006, the shell cracked for my wife and me. We were occupying a high-rise apartment in New York City, a city we were certain we’d never leave. Then adventure knocked with the offer of a teaching job at the University of Texas at Austin and we headed for the live-music capital and a house in the Austin hills.


Those early days in Austin were like living in a dream. We awoke not to the roar of traffic but to birdsong and sun. Driving the twisty road from home to campus, I kept an eye peeled for darting deer, as I marveled at finding myself in a place as unexpected as Texas. The realities of defending a house from knife-sided hail and a heritage oak tree from predators, insect and human, would sink in soon enough. Life, as it turned out, wasn’t perfect.


We hadn’t lived in a standalone structure since the late ’70s. Newlyweds back then, we rented a funny little time capsule of a place in central Tokyo. Its sliding rice-paper doors opened onto a walled-in garden that some genius gardener had arranged like a slow-motion fireworks display. No sooner had the red hibiscus dropped its blossoms than the purple wisteria exploded in bloom.


But charm had its price. The house shunned modern fripperies like air-conditioning and central heating. Boiling in the muggy Tokyo summers, we kept open the windows while we slept, inviting mosquitoes and, on one occasion, a peeping Tom I chased down our dogleg of a lane and then, confused over what to do with a peeping Tom, let him escape. In winter, the house was a drafty igloo.


The transition from Tokyo to New York in the mid-’80s was the toughest of all. We left the bowing politeness of understated Japan for a city of sharp elbows and in-your-face encounters. In time, though, I came to love the nonstop commotion. Eccentricity was always a New York minute away. Our apartment building on East 49th Street harbored a cast of memorable characters including a building super who not only repaired whatever needed it, but drew mind-bogglingly accurate deductions about tenants’ lifestyles from what they deposited in the trash closets on each floor. In another life, he would have made a brilliant archaeologist.


Until we got to Austin, however, no one had ever asked us what a new neighbor did: “You aren’t crazy, are you?”


According to word in the ’hood, our place had housed a succession of quirky custodians. A guy favoring camouflage gear reported overhearing shadowy characters whispering conspiracies in the basement of a house that had no basement. There was the woman who caged a chimpanzee in the sunroom when he wasn’t on existential errands like coveting a neighbor’s pool table.


The best we could do was to rescue a lovable but incorrigible dog we named Stanley. He stole bars of soap from the bathroom and leapt atop the sunroom table to bark wildly at the man and woman and their wildly barking dog reflected in the upside-down universe of the skylight.


When Stanley settled down, he became the best dog there ever was, even as we grew weary of the chores a house imposed. We ended up staying for Stanley, fearing a move might befuddle an aging canine. When he passed last year, our downsizing plan moved ahead like a fast-track military campaign.


When you’re 71, as I am, these transitions can bring an increasingly audible whisper of mortality. And so, as I toured those empty rooms for a last time, scenes of our life there flickering in my head, I thought of Robert Frost’s poem “The Oven Bird,” with its title bird signaling summer’s end:


The bird would cease and be as other birds

But that he knows in singing not to sing.

The question that he frames in all but words

Is what to make of a diminished thing.


OK, you’re right: more self-inflicted drama. After all, our new condo is lovely. The public spaces are clean and bright. Signs are encouraging that the human idiosyncrasies that make life worth living anywhere abide here, too. I have a comfy chair by a window where I can read and write and daydream, free of the guilt that comes from chores undone.


In short, I have no right to complain. And yet, I know it’s going to be a good while before this new place becomes a home.

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