We recently moved a chair from my daughter’s room to my own. It changed the space dramatically, created a place to sit in the evening, reading or stitching. It inspired me to heave into some clearing out and reordering of that room, a chore which has been hanging over me a while. My room tends to be the dumping ground for all the paper and clutter that builds up, all the unfinished projects and unopened post and various things-to-do. But now that chair is there, and I want to sit in it. It’s interesting how one item in a room can change so much. It brought back a memory.
When I was a child, I was fortunate enough to have my own bedroom, and like many children’s rooms it was usually a mess. I preferred getting things out to play with, rather than putting them away. Even a didactic Mrs. Piggle Wiggle story (The Won’t Pick Up Toys Cure, in which Hubert Prentice becomes trapped in the debris of his untidied room) failed to influence me.
At thirteen however I started earning a cash income from babysitting and bought what was in those days a decent enough piece of kit: a stereo turntable from the Sears electronics department. It sat centre stage on my desk and inspired a new obsession with LPs. Pride of possession planted its nefarious seed and with that stereo came a new appreciation for the space I called my own. This prompted me to clean and reorganise my room from top to bottom. From a messy slob to an obsessive neat-freak, I kept strict order over the wee corner of the universe that I felt belonged to me – my teenage territory – and I carried that impulse for many years: a place for everything and everything in its place.
So along I went, following the traditional middle-class storyline: finish college, get married, get a job, buy a sofa… the next thing to do was to save up a down payment and join the ranks of the homeowners. And then, something happened. Like one small mis-step throwing me off balance, I made a choice which skewed the plot entirely. I moved abroad to the UK, and into the upheaval of a transatlantic move whereby all of my furniture and most of my belongings were left behind. I brought with me only the bare basics of clothing and personal items, and a portion of books, with which to begin the task of rebuilding a household.
Next I had a child, and my attention focused onto that one demanding experience. The baby’s needs and my own fatigue trumped all else; any ideas of house-buying were shelved until things settled down. But they didn’t. Instead, a divorce sent me reeling into a situation where mere survival drove my decisions. Owning a house sat on the list of long-term plans, and there it festered for several years while I moved around, exchanging one rented flat for another. I was so preoccupied with raising a toddler and so skint that the first rung of the property ladder remained well out of reach. During those years I also surrendered to the chaos that a small child creates. Any last lingering remains of my neat-freakdom dissolved in the happy waves of clutter produced by Little Miss Entropy.
A nagging worry ate at me continually: how would I ever be able to afford my own place? I would need to work full-time, leave my daughter in daycare, focus my time and energy on a career and salary – all in order to afford the expense of a mortgage. This went against the grain of everything my heart told me to invest myself in, and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I opted for stay-at-home parenthood with part-time work to fit around it, and my earning potential followed suit.
Meanwhile something else was happening, something deeper than mere circumstances and which only gradually took shape. I began to resonate with ideas very different to the ones I’d grown up with. First I met a friend who described the choice she faced when offered the opportunity to buy the council house in which she lived. Her decision? To decline the offer, so that the property might remain in the public housing stock. Her reasoning was both simple and generous: the house had been there for her when she’d needed it, and should be available to others who might need it. Sod you, Margaret Thatcher.
Next the same friend put me onto Tom Hodgkinson’s wonderful books about living as an idler. In How to Be Free he muses that:
People object to renting in principle because, they say, you are ‘throwing money down the drain’, but the mortgage system is an organized way of throwing money down a different drain, the one owned by the usurers…. Putting a lot of time and money into mortgages and the ‘dream home’ is never going to be more than a distraction from the real issue, which is you, and your state of mind. The mortgage is a commercial exploitation of our longing for home.
Another touchstone was Erich Fromm, whose To Have or To Be captured precisely what I was wrestling with:
Speaking of having something permanently rests upon the illusion of a permanent and indestructible substance. If I seem to have everything, I have – in reality – nothing, since my having, possessing, controlling an object is only a transitory moment in the process of living…. In the having mode, one’s happiness lies in one’s superiority over others, in one’s power, and in the last analysis, in one’s capacity to conquer, rob, kill. In the being mode it lies in loving, sharing, giving.
The idea of buying my own place became entwined with this conflict of values, and it sits there still. On the one hand, I feel anxiety at being priced out of the property market, coupled with a very mild discontent in my current abode. I wouldn’t have chosen yellow for the sitting room; I would prefer hardwood floors to carpeting and laminate; I certainly wouldn’t have picked out this wallpaper or that light fixture. If I owned my own place I could choose these details myself, to reflect my own taste.
On the other hand, I harbour the fear of heading down a misguided path and losing my way. I know only too well that the neat-freak lurks within me, threatening to catch me up in those details of wallpaper and floor coverings, in the need to make it perfect, to assign those things the power to matter. My energy and attention might so easily be diverted from discovery and growth into owning and controlling, into having, not being.
There’s more to it though. It lies in the distinction between mess and chaos, between order and control. It’s a very fine line to tread, a delicate operation: to create in one’s home a place of comfort and beauty according to one’s view of the world, without venturing into the realm of control and perfection, without slipping into comparisons and envy and craving for the next improvement, and without confusing one’s surroundings with one’s identity.
I’m still working on all this. And now I’m going to go sit in that chair.