Our apartment is a mess. Papers that need filing, boxes that need filling, and accumulated possessions that demand a response – “Will you throw me away?” they ask, while I ask them, “How did you get here?”
For the past three weeks, I’ve been on Craigslist like an addict, searching for the perfect apartment. Not out of want, but out of need, all the while battling the loss of a dream about how our first year of marriage was going to be.
The place we love, with the dishwasher, the wood floors, the radiant light, the extra room for family, is no longer affordable – and after a good deal of angst, I am at peace with that. Because life doesn’t offer you an endless lease or guaranteed contract of comfort and happiness. Rent increases, delinquent landlords, unwanted critters, traffic noise and crazy neighbours are all part of the process of making a home for yourself in this wide world, and my husband and I are finding out that such a home is very different from our early, dreamy assumptions.
We just put down our damage deposit on a little apartment, sans dishwasher, sans closet space, but most importantly, sans the expense of our current place. Close to work, close to fresh fruits and vegetables, close to flowers and fresh air – it’s going to be an adventure. We’ll be setting aside the comfortable dream of stable incomes, room for family, extra wine glasses and spacious, graciously appointed rooms for a bohemian nest with wall-to-wall books and no elbow room, but plenty of coziness.
While the possibilities of our new place can be painted as rosy, the preparation for moving on has been all thorns.
How did we manage to own all that we do? When I met my husband, I was working towards owning only enough to fit into a few duffle bags so that I could go anywhere, without baggage. I love shedding things – throwing them away, giving them up, tossing out the misfits. My husband, on the other hand, holds tightly to everything – whether it’s notes from elementary school, or ancient tax forms. He’s the string to my kite, the fixed star to my wandering ways.
So you can imagine that moving is not an easy process. While I toss things out with extravagance, he finds ways and reasons to save them. Moving into a smaller apartment makes our joint packing even more difficult, as I envision a small pathway between the towers of stuff, while he thinks optimistically of extra shelving.
But we’ve been working on it – giving in to one another, kicking aside our differences. We’ve been finding things long forgotten – notes and pictures, past outfits, stories we loved, letters. Seeing more of each other’s lives through the scribblings and certificates and scraps we wanted to hold onto for remembering.
While my husband has been bravely learning to appreciate the gifts of a paper shredder, I’ve been trashing some old ideas and thoughts that have kept me from moving on, and fully into married life. I think I’m still at the ‘sorting out’ stage – so bear with me here, as I simply share, and hope that as these things emerge from closets and boxes of the heart to see the light, that they will eventually be put in their proper places.
BOX #1 – The battle for control
I hate to admit this, but letting someone else into your life means letting that great cloud of their memories, their past, their possessions and their junk into your life also. We’ve all seen the common cliche – the husband who has the room in the basement where he can hang his posters and keep that “ugly” old armchair, while the rest of the house looks like a magazine.
I definitely have that tendency to organize in a brutally selfish way that alienates those I love while trying to impress those I don’t know very well. For example, (and I am still apologetic about this) my sister and I shared a room for many years. During that time, I was the self-appointed interior decorator, and in one infamous incident, asked her to throw away all of her stuffed animals and kitsch that didn’t match my new colour scheme. (Sorry, my dear sweet sister).
The love of order came back to haunt me when I helped my husband move his things from his bachelor pad to our apartment last year. We fought over silverware, and instead of compromising, I left him with a lasting impression that given the chance, I would gladly and ruthlessly throw away all of his stuff that I deemed ‘junk.’ That unfortunate impression came to the surface last week during our packing, when I realised that in my zeal to purge our household, I was in fact implying that I didn’t really accept him.
Marriage is hard enough to adjust to – two lives mixing as one and all that complicated jazz – but given the high, rough seas that have threatened our happiness so far (loss of his job, far from his family, a new way of interacting with someone who doesn’t share the complete love of all of his past-times), it was a painful message to hear.
To me, things have always just been things – except maybe for a few special dresses and beloved books – but an observation at work gave me some insight into the damage I was inflicting on my man in my eagerness for order and control.
The most devestating thing you can do to a person who has lost their home, their reputation, and in some cases, their sanity, is take away their possessions. Many people choose to sleep outside instead of in shelters, given the choice of leaving their shopping cart on the street for the birds and thieves. Their whole world is in that shopping cart. It’s all they have left to control. When evictions take place for the sake of renovation, many people simply go over the edge while the news crews look on in pity at the small rooms and bare cupboards. Those small rooms house special talismans of lives lost, precious scraps of memory, that often end up in the dumpster as the police come along to clear the area.
So, I am trying to let go. I will never have a perfectly ordered household. Just wait until the kids arrive. And what might seem like junk to me maybe the only way my husband has to remember a part of his life that he would otherwise forget.
Mind you, we’re good for each other – him to ruffle my feathers while I help him shed his winter coat. (How’s that for a mixed metaphor? It must be that I haven’t written in awhile and haven’t gotten all the literary cheesiness out of my system).
BOX #2 – Instant gratification
Another musty closet idea that has held sway for too long? The entitlement to ‘nice things.’ In letting go of our apartment, I wrestled with a host of assumptions about how my life was going to turn out. Growing up poor, with enterprising and imaginative parents, was a valuable education, but also instilled a secret fear in me that I would end up the same way. Therefore, I have tried my damndest to be successful, to avoid the tragic scene of my husband coming home to tell me he’d lost his job, to run away from the reality that I might have to sacrifice my dreamy plans of sitting at home, writing books, while someone else works at a job they don’t like to pay the bills. I’m embarrassed to admit that – but it’s true.
So when we married, my husband had a lucrative job with full benefits, and we began to build a life to match. We bought lots of toys, and didn’t save anything. I would shop for groceries as if I was feeding ten instead of two, adding every whim to my shopping cart without discretion. “We can afford it” was our general mantra – and when the crunch came, I wasn’t ready for it.
You’d think that a self-respecting East Vancouver girl who grew up without any perks, but lots of love, would have some skill in thrift, but I laid all that aside in pursuit of an expensive apartment, a full wardrobe, and a lavish entertaining menu. After years of school and scrimping, I felt somewhat liberated. I didn’t have to worry anymore about our bank account. I fell fully into extravagance, and loved every minute of it.
So now – when things are pressing in on us, when my dear man is working temporary construction and coming home exhausted while I continue toiling instead of writing. Moving has forced me to look into my closet, and I don’t like what I see.
I spend time thinking about my grandmothers and my parents these days. And my dear departed friend Lucy, who once told me I’d have to marry a millionaire because of my extravagant ways. (Extravagance defined as using too many tissues, or buying a new pair of shoes simply because I loved them, not because I needed them).
Likely, the lives of my grandmothers and mentors were not romantic when they were young, living through war, depression, personal heartache and lack of food in the cupboards, but I envy their habits and their sensibilities.
Learning to be patient, and satisfied with less, is my new challenge, born out of necessity. I don’t know who told us that we had the right to buy what we wanted, when we wanted it, but it’s not true. Neither is the belief that stuff accumulated can satisfy you. In fact, all the stuff we have now has become a burden, not a blessing. My closet full of dresses doesn’t cure my insecurity – in fact, it mostly complicates the issue, as I have too many choices to consider in the midst of my internal image angst.
And don’t get me started on the seduction of the new – we’d be in a lot better position as a planet if we didn’t want everything to be new, and weren’t too lazy to restore the old and the durable. My dad is especially good at that, both with people, whom he treats with love and respect, no matter their state of togetherness, as well as with things. He’s an expert scavenger, finding treasure in unexpected places, and the free section of the Buy & Sell. He’s also great at transforming things: one year we went up to an abandoned ski hill where the locals sled and play. My dad constructed a sled out of old wood, twine and orange plastic fencing that he’d gathered from the area, and we had a wonderful time. He’s a rescuer in the best sense of the word.
My mother loves pickled pig’s feet – because my grandmother ordered groceries once a year, and those came on a boat. There were no returns or refunds. One year, a barrel of pig’s feet arrived as a mistake order. Suffice to say, they made do, and even though I will never likely enjoy such a delicacy, I intend on making do, and making it a joy as well as a great story to tell my kids.
Moving on from domestic dreams fuelled by an industry of selfishness and love of convienience and order may not be easy, but I’m ready to throw it all out. It’s just a pile of junk that won’t fit into our new apartment, or my heart. I suspect that there’ll be more room then, for some of my lover’s favourite things, and more space for compassion and surrender. Now that’s the kind of place I want to live in.