I am a person who is very sensitive to space, to the environment I’m in and how it affects the background noise of my brain and my emotions. When I read Alain de Botton’s Architecture of Happiness it all made a great deal of sense. What surrounds you directly influences your state of mind, your sense of yourself and of your place in the world. Some people are, I think, passively affected by these things. I am very definitely actively affected by them.
Last night, I was awake for hours when I didn’t want to be, tossing and turning and agitated. I ended up settling for two night-time cold and flu tablets to try to help me sleep. It’s been a long time since I have been so anxious and so agitated, though for months I have been feeling unsettled with a low-grade anxiety humming along in the background.
There are lots of reasons this might be. My life right now is in a state of balanced stress, or regular irregularity. I’m working in two jobs, one of which is freelancing for a strategic communications company and the other is teaching; both of these require attention and focus. We have a young daughter, with all the merriment and frustration that’s part of a family. My partner is studying full time and working part time. We’re both the kinds of people who do things, make things, have ideas about things all the time; this is not a naturally restful state.
Then there’s the rest; drinking too much coffee, probably, and drinking wine most evenings; not doing regular exercise. All of these things are contributing factors.
But. I put my finger, finally, on what it is that’s been a bit wrong.
Two months ago I started a sort of redesign of our home, using this great group where people have been ‘paying it forward’ offering things for free to the local community. I’ve given heaps away using this group, and it feels good. For a while though I was completely obsessed with checking and looking to see what amazing, awesome things people were giving away. I found this beautiful couch and jumped. Yes, I thought. Finally we can get rid of our slightly run-down, though beautiful, antique couch. I didn’t realise this would trigger a kind of existential crisis. A crisis of furniture. A mid-century turn. I was envious of friends who, because of moving house or getting together when they were older and had money had been able to start fresh with their house of stuff. It felt at the time like we’d always been having to make do — an incredibly privileged and ungrateful attitude that I’ve never felt before, since I am proud of my ability to find and use and fix things. It was too red, I decided. Too old. Ridiculous to call something too much of itself. I wanted a ‘look’ — made, constructed, deliberate. Even though I am none of those things. Somehow, stuff became personality. I got caught up in the wrong-headed notion of being of the world, rather than in it.
I realise now I had a grudge against the couch for reasons that had nothing to do with the broken spring and the slightly faded cushion. If you can accept (however foreign the idea might be to you) that stuff can become part of your sense of yourself, hopefully this will make sense. The associations became temporarily negative. We’d had a period of illness in the house, resulting in one or other parent sleeping on the couch for a couple of weeks. Then a house guest. Then another house guest. A close friend passed away, and then the mother of a sister-in-law. Plus, the friends who’d given us the couch moved overseas a few years ago, which of course has nothing to do with us but felt like a broken link, an Error: 404 in the context of our home. I realise now I was blaming the couch for making the house crowded and sad, when in fact it was just a crowded and sad house for a while. The strength of this association became resentment.
I wanted a new couch. A new couch would make everything better. I wanted to leave the stress of the last several years – study for a doctoral thesis, multiple house moves, a beloved sister’s death, a new baby – and start over. Start with new things, deliberate things. I wanted pale colours with splashes of strong vibrant hues – orange, turquoise, pink, green. I wanted clean lines and smooth edges. I wanted no clutter. Even in this I now realise I was following my original couch friends, who had gone from the antique turn of the century era to the late 60s. So even this crisis of faith in myself, in my overly-ornamented furniture, was related to friends.
I listed the existing couch on two for sale sites, since we needed some money. A friend ended up buying the couch and the two deliberately mismatched armchairs, and they sailed off in a ute as I pulled into the driveway shortly afterwards. This started a cascade of searching and hunting for the next bargain. I wanted a mid-century modernist aesthetic, I decided; cigar turned legs, pale woods, a circular dining table. Maybe an atomic era clock on the wall. Some artful turquoise ceramics. Plants.
The new couch didn’t actually go with any of these ideas. As a contemporary take on the “antique look” it was in every way an aesthetic fraud. It’s not pale, it doesn’t have cigar turned legs. Instead it’s dark gold with a vaguely baroque print, and there are gaps between the seat cushions waiting for the unwary buttock. An unkind person could call it beige. I am not beige. It’s a one night stand couch that I woke up in the morning and regretted. Now, too late, I recognise that I derive psychological as well as physical comfort from things. The old couch was genuine, it had history, and it was beautiful. It was made back in the day, it had been restored lovingly by my friends after being used as a broken down dog bed for years. Then they passed it to us when they moved house, and we loved it. And then for some reason after a long-term relationship I got disgruntled and broke up with it. And I know that it’s just stuff, but I don’t think I’m necessarily a complete materialist for wanting the right kind of stuff around me. It’s not for reasons of status or appearance, it’s all about comfort.
The comfort thing was bothering me. We are caught between two aesthetics. So while we’re part way through, why not get a new bed while we’re at it? The existing bed gives us both backache. I love the frame but the slats are shot. More online scouring. More hours wasted trying to optimise something that can’t be optimised. My internet research skills are almost pathological, and they combine in a perfectly (and I do mean perfectly) dysfunctional way with my desire to DIY everything. Maybe I could recover the couch.
I found a circular table, kind of a cherry glaze over the top. Not quite right, but it’d do — maybe I could strip the varnish. I packed up the glorious scarred table we’d been given for our wedding, and the four mismatched dining chairs, and installed the new table after calling in numerous favours from friends. For some reason I didn’t think to resurface the existing table, but I guess I’d tried to move my aesthetic to a different era by then.
No joy. Since the table arrived, the background hum and pressure of slight anxiety as I scour website after website, spending literally hours at a stretch trying to find things that are perfect all at once for this new look, is exhausting. I’m not able to make them go together. Last night I realised what it was that has, I think, been going on.
Whether simply by long association, or because they actually were great together, all the previous big bits of furniture have happened piece by piece, drifting into our lives with the continental speed of friendships and years. The couch: a gift from very dear friends leaving the country. The dining table: a wedding present. A previous coffee table, now on permanent loan to relatives: a housewarming gift at least 10 years ago. Then the other bits, the bits I’ve found and been proud of: a stunning bureau, at least 120 years old, rescued. A chest of drawers that belonged to Charles Blackman. A step-style bookshelf that I’ve had since I was a wee lass, which still bears my shaky print declaration ‘Fiona’s books’ on the top shelf.
These things sang in harmony with one another. They jostled along well together, although we had a bit too much furniture for the space. They worked. Not only that, the very thing I thought I was exorcising by changing all the furniture — the past few years — now feels unapproachably distant. What I hadn’t realised this might risk is a new feeling of distance from myself. What for Proust was the smell of madeleines and tea that generated his writing is, for me here, in part a sense of home and familiarity formed by remembrance and association of things past. The couch represented all those periods of upheaval, yes; but it was also given to us by loving friends; it hosted other friends, and my sister, in its curving embrace; it’s the object of a beautiful portrait of me asleep with my brand new daughter in my arms, surrounded by the chaos and rich clutter of life. Getting rid of the couch meant that nothing went alongside anything anymore, which meant it was easier to let go of more things, which meant I slipped further and further from myself.
Now I’ve changed too much at once, and everything is beige instead of the rich oak and the red brocade that we had before. I’m giving the table away on the same website I got it from, and the old table is coming back. I want to lavish love and attention on my furniture, which has in some unfathomable way become part of myself. I want to live in a mismatched house, where the history of each thing is unique and known and part of the story of my weird life.
Not that I don’t still want picture shelves and a retro wall clock. Hell maybe even some trailing plants in turquoise pots. But changing everything at once was a dumb idea. I regret the frenzy of dissatisfaction, of giving way to an impulse of stuff-buying, of self-constructedness, that isn’t really me or who I am. Like all other regrets in my life, though, it’s time to learn and move on.