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?

Zero-Based Budgeting

Not to be confused with zero budgeting, which is not a good thing, whether it’s because you simply don’t have a budget, or because you have a lack of anything to budget.

Injured Piggy Bank WIth Crutches

Zero-based budgeting – a concept I recently encountered – is the idea that each year’s budget starts from zero, and everything has to be justified. This is different to the usual sort of budgeting where you get as much as you got last year, whether you needed it or not (which explains a lot about government departments and their spending habits).

Jack Lew said “The budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations.” The same could be said of our belongings: they reveal a lot about who we are, who we think we are, who we would like other people to think we are, and who we would like to be.

What if we applied the concept of zero-budgeting to our stuff? Imagine emptying everything out of your house – including the furniture – and only carrying back in what you felt was worth the effort. Of course, many of us have so much stuff that this would be impractical, as we wouldn’t get through moving it out, sorting it out, and moving things back in before the day’s end.

The Big Wet Couch

Although now I think about it, the looming realization that anything you don’t move back in before bedtime will be prey to anyone who wants it might perhaps focus the mind in a wonderful way.

I admit, I’m not planning to do this myself. For one thing, the weather is hardly conducive to having everything outside. Yesterday it rained ice off and on all day. But I do sometimes sit down and wonder to myself what I would take and what I would leave, if I had to move to the other side of the world.

Moving house is basically the same as taking out all your stuff and putting it back, it’s just putting it back in a different house, and generally with an expensive interlude. It is remarkable how your enthusiasm for something can wane when it’s actually going to cost you something.

I stare at my possessions, drawing fine distinctions of worth and value. This teapot, perhaps, but not this one. These books, but not those. Looking at life this way has made me realize that I could actually do without a lot of the stuff that I have. Quite happily. So why not start now, avoid the rush?

Project 365 #23: 230110 Who's Been Sleeping In My Bed!?!

Take bedding, for example. When the poet spoke of “only half a bed,” I’m fairly certain he didn’t mean the rest to be covered with pillows, cushions, bolsters, and whatever other unnatural forms of padding have snuck in there.

Last month I went through the linen cupboard. We now have two sets of winter sheets and two sets of summer sheets for our bed and one set of each for the guest bed. Two blankets and a duvet (with a cover or two) for each bed as well. A sufficiency of pillowcases, allowing 1-2 pillows per head. What more could one need?

The June-prune list is therefore rather linen-heavy:
one queen-size duvet cover with matching pillowcases
three sheets
two pillowcases
a tablecloth
five CDs
one bath cushion shaped like a duck (alas, poor ducky, he grew mildewed)
and two mismatched glasses.

pruning-shears-24437_640

I also (and not without a pang) pruned out the Historical Sew Monthly – a paring of time, not space.

After all, 2015 was to be my Year of Finishing Things, not starting them. I haven’t finished many of the projects I had underway at the start of the year, but I have certainly made progress toward that goal, and the year is far from over.

One thing I did finish was the extending rewrite of Dead Man Talking, a stage comedy/farce which was originally a 20-30 minute bibelot and is now what I believe the Germans call “abendfüllend” i.e. evening-filling. I was able to put back in all the complexities of plot I had to leave out when it was a short play, and I think I am justified in saying that the plot is now a dastardly and cunning one.

Villainc

Of course, it still wants some rewrites before I send it on its way, but I am fairly pleased with where it is at present. I shall put it aside to simmer gently while I return to the speculative fiction work I first-drafted last year. Speculative fiction is a much better name for it than fantasy, I think – fantasy suggests that everything goes exactly the way you want it to, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

But first, I am rearranging the study/library/writing room – yes, I know, I’m spoiled – and doing a bit of pruning in there while I’m at it. Mostly rubbish and recycling, so unlikely to find its way onto the July List.

What’s up with you? Pruning? Budgeting? Finishing things, or starting over? Always happy to hear from you!