The Home of Enoughness

A face, Loretta Young said, “is like the outside of a house, and most faces, like most houses, give us an idea of what we can expect to find inside.” Our house is 74 years old, built during the Second World War as state housing: good quality housing for the working class. It’s still a good quality house. Rimu doors, matai floors, cupboards that don’t fly open in earthquakes…

State houses at Arapuni Hydro Works
A house is the embodiment of the culture which built it, but New Zealand culture has changed. As Bill McKay and Andrea Stevens noted in their book on the New Zealand state house, past and present (Beyond the State: New Zealand State Houses from Modest to Modern), most ex-state houses have been adapted, extended, enlarged. But not all. To quote: “Having lived in the house now for several years, Aaron [Kreisler, ex-state-houseowner] feels he has grown into it. Instead of adapting the house, he has adapted to it.”

There is a fascinating depth to that idea which I would like to delve into. The idea of cutting your coat to suit your cloth is quite passé, but why? What is the allure of indebting yourself in order to increase your space beyond what you actually need? First you spend money on stuff, and then you spend more on enlarging your house to fit it. Why not instead take the house as it is, as your ally in living a life of enoughness?

I feel particularly blessed in that regard, as my house seems to have been neatly designed for enoughness. It’s not an ornate and draughty Victorian behemoth, or an eighties temple to overconsumption, or even a modern there-is-a-house-somewhere-behind-this-garage architectural ode to our cultural dependence on personal vehicular transport. It’s a 1940s row house/terraced house, with a slightly cottagey aesthetic.

A Day in the Life of a Wartime Housewife- Everyday Life in London, England, 1941 D2358
One can imagine the first occupants moving into it with the precious furniture that their family managed to hold on to through the Depression, each item carefully tended and given its own place. If there’s one thing that this house would not have seen a lot of in its early days, it’s clutter. Its ‘face’ suggests an interior of comfortable simplicity, an efficiency without sterility, a warm and unpretentious home. Slick modern luxury? No.

McKay and Stevens describe the ex-state house bathroom as “a surprisingly perfunctory space. It is tiny and speaks of a very different attitude to what is seen nowadays as an indulgent daily ritual.” Our very typical bathroom contains a bath, a basin (no stand, it’s attached to the wall) and a toilet, with the sum total of storage provided by a small medicine cabinet set into the wall. If you want to avoid accumulating clutter, the ex-state house bathroom is your friend, the tough no-nonsense kind of friend who will chuck your extra conditioner bottles out the window if you overcrowd the sill.
VIEW OF INTERIOR BATHROOM, FACING WEST - 1019 East Fourteenth Avenue (House), 1019 East Fourteenth Avenue, Tampa, Hillsborough County, FL HABS FL-557-13
Storage becomes a bit of a theme in McKay and Stevens’ description. “But the thing you really notice when visiting these houses is how little storage space they had compared with today’s homes. We don’t take up more space, but our stuff seems to; indeed, quite significantly more. A standard-issue wardrobe for these times was about a metre wide. With all the consumer temptations thrown at us today, this would barely be enough for a coat collection.”

On reading this, I immediately thought of what could be construed as my coat collection. I have one winter coat of wool, one jacket ditto, one alleged raincoat (showercoat, more like), and one red velvet coat, plus one large cloak. This seems to me like a lot, but I can assure you, it doesn’t take up half of the wardrobe space which the 1940s have bestowed upon me. Six dresses hang in the same wardrobe, along with a collared shirt, two skirts, my evening wear, an off-season dressing-gown and my wedding dress. And a hanging doohicky which holds scarves, hats, kerchiefs, belts etc. And that’s just the rail. What more do I need?

Second floor, northwest wall of northwest bedroom - Jacob Crow Farm, House, Crow Creek Road, 1 mile south of intersection of Routes 15 and 28, Cameron, Marshall County, WV HABS WVA,26-CAM,1A-17
“’There’s this fascination now for people making their mark with these über-sized houses,’ reflects Aaron, ‘where your kitchen has to be a chef’s kitchen and your bathroom a large walk-in space. [I am happy to say that I have yet to see a bathroom into which one cannot walk. Possibly he is conflating the idea of the large en-suite bathroom and the walk-in wardrobe?] The addiction to spending is huge. We are the generation that is allowed to carry large amounts of debt. And so the state house presents a different set of attitudes about ownership.”

Perhaps that’s something we can use to help ourselves, as our culture careers down the slope of constant-growth consumerism like an out-of-control shopping trolley toward the muddy ditch of debt and buyer’s remorse. If a house speaks to us of the culture that produced it, perhaps we can use the house as a way to reach back to that culture, or rather, a way for that culture to reach out to us.

I can’t help feeling, though, that the past is most likely to reach out and smack us round the head, shouting “what on earth do you need that many clothes for? How many bodies have you got? And what do you mean, his and hers bathrooms? Haven’t you got any bladder control?”

double-sink-1416377_640My house is 74, after all, and at that age you’ve got past any awkwardness about asking people embarrassing questions.

How old is your house? And what might it say to you?


I love this word. It means… well, as is so often the case with Greek words, it has a spread of meaning. It speaks of proportion, fairness and moderation. It is a question of what is appropriate, or fitting – like lagom. It is, in fact, the antithesis of taking more than one’s share. John V Taylor, in his book Enough is Enough, uses the word equipoise, meaning balance.

Beam and feet (close shot)“It is not poverty but balance we are after, and balance, I believe, may well mean for us in the affluent countries a reduction in our standard of living. But it would be an absurd exaggeration to say that for three-quarters of our population in Britain a reduction of standard would come anywhere near poverty.”

People tend to shy away from the idea of a reduction in their standard of living, but it is worth noting that ‘standard of living’ and ‘quality of life’ are not the same thing. ‘Standard’ refers largely to the physical, most notably wealth – how much you have, and how much you have compared to those around you. ‘Quality’ is more about how good your life is, rather than how many ‘goods’ you have.

This is rather like the difference between absolute and relative poverty. Absolute poverty is how little you have compared to what you need. Relative poverty is how little you have compared to those around you. I have always thought it strange that developed countries make such a to-do about so many percent of their population being under the poverty line, when the line is set as a percentage of the average. That means that if everyone in the country had their income doubled overnight, exactly the same number of people would be under the poverty line. Useful as an indicator of inequality, yes, but it doesn’t really say much about how many people are actually in genuine need – to my mind, a much more important thing to know.

Thomas B. Kennington - The pinch of poverty - Google Art Project
Moderation isn’t a slump in your quality of life. It doesn’t limit your enjoyment of the world. As the philosopher Epictetus said, “If one oversteps the bounds of moderation, the greatest pleasures cease to please.” Eating chocolate is a pleasure. Eating an entire block of chocolate results not in pleasure but nausea. Having nice things is a pleasure. Having your house so stuffed full of nice things that you can’t see most of them, let alone have room to appreciate them, is not a pleasure but a source of stress (and much unnecessary housework).

Moderation, in short, is not a miserly form of self-denial, but a way to more fully enjoy your life. But it can be very hard! It’s a struggle sometimes even to remember that we don’t have a duty to have, when our world is so geared to continual growth – the complete opposite of moderation.
John Taylor illustrates: “to take another example which is no flight of fancy, a well-known company produces 9 million articles a year, knowing that the demand for and actual use of these articles cannot exceed 5 million. The further 4 million are necessary for ‘growth’, though they meet no need. They have to be pushed (with a commission on sales) as courtesy Christmas presents which other firms may buy to distribute to their business associates. But any system of accounting which can describe as ‘growth’ 4 million articles thrown new-made into waste-paper baskets must be deliberately blinding itself to the reality of the whole.”

Papierkorb 2009
To look at it metaphorically, moderation dines well and ends the meal enjoyably replete. Consumerism – well, consumerism is Mr Creosote. Continual growth cannot go on forever. The After-Dinner Mint of Doom is coming. Of course, it doesn’t have to be doom all round. Some changes may be forced upon us in time, but most of us in the developed world currently have the ability to make our own choices about how much we consume, of what.

Perhaps it’s time to say, “Thank you, I’ve had enough.” Or, as a friend of mine taught her children to say, “Thank you, I have had an elegant sufficiency.” More cake? More toys? Thank you, I’ve had enough. What about some more clothes, or another little gadget – you don’t want to fall behind the times! Thank you, I have had an elegant sufficiency.

Of course, good manners can – and should – extend further than a polite refusal. Perhaps it’s time that we started asking questions of others at the table. May I help you to a share of these resources? Allow me to offer you a fair price… Can I serve you with some clean water?

Glass-half-fullἐπιεικής is not the boring middle-of-the-road. It is the pathway to a beautiful life, not only for us, but for others. And that’s why I love it.