Curating a place within collapsing space
When family life starts compromising all else, maybe all you need is one good room.
A month ago I slipped into one of those little panic spirals that I sometimes find myself in regarding the state of our townhouse and all of the stuff that threatens to burst from its seams. It’s hard to describe what these little attacks looks as they are happening, but I’ll try:
I’ll come home from the store with a Costco-tier package of paper towels, unsure where to put it, which will prompt me to rethink the entirety of how our pantry is organized. The baking supplies are heavy, so why do we store them so high? Why are canned tomatoes on a different shelf then the canned beans? So I’ll start shifting those around and midway through that exercise my mind will wander to how our dishes are stored. We spent good money on matching stoneware, so shouldn’t we store it in the glass door cabinets instead of the hodgepodge of clashing coffee cups that there now? At this point I abandon the cabinets with the un-cohabitating tomatoes and beans and will start precariously start taking out heavy stack of fragile plates, bowls, and glasses and start rehousing them across different cabinets.
In the middle of this exercise I start thinking bigger picture about those wooden shelves I’ve been meaning to install on the other side of the kitchen that would open up so many more storage options. But wait! Our dog’s crate is in currently in that space. So then I start wondering where in the house we crate her instead or, in much darker tones think you know this dog probably only has 3 or so years left in her and wonder if the shelves can just wait until then?
By this point I’ve lost 30 minutes of time anxiously mulling sundries around my kitchen with the bluntness of a toddler twisting a Rubix Cube, chasing an invented efficiency my brain has convinced me that every stressor in my life will be nullified if everything is placed thus so. I haven’t even put the damn paper towels away yet, and my wife is wondering what the hell I’ve been doing in the kitchen for a half hour while she’s trying to wrangle two kids.
I don’t know how I find myself in these spirals, but they crop up I’d say about once a month. If I were to guess, I’d say this OCD-driven cleaning and organization compulsion has almost certainly been bestowed onto me a some genetic destiny from my parents.
My mom, even while working retail 40+ hours a week, was a very dilligent and disciplined homemaker that strictly adhered to certain routines despite literally everything. Even if every country in the world unloaded their nuclear arsenal on one another, my mom would ensure there wasn’t a single item in the sink or an unscrubbed square inch of countertop before the last bombs dropped so we could start our post-nuclear holocaust life in the morning with an otherwise sanitized kitchen.
My dad on the other hand is quite slovenly with an obvious but undiganosed case of Obessive Compulsive Disorder that demands organization that only makes sense to him. When he came home late from a long day of work, the five or so Busch Light cans he drank into the early morning would often be lined up on the edge of the kitchen bar so precariously that a too-heavy step might send half of them to the ground. When out and about with him, as he ascends or descends staircases, he often times needs to hit each stair a couple of times just to make sure each landing felt right to him. In both examples, these were just small little actions that in his head, had to be done, or it would short circuit his current mode of being.
My parents led and continue to lead lives that feel a lot more stressful then mine, but when I notice stress in my own life, I find my response seems to be a bizarre fusion of their two neurosis: cleaning or organizing to an obsessive degree as a stress response. Even if I logically know that organizing shelves checks a very infinitesimal box in the face of a 20 year mortgage on raising two kids, in that moment, it feels like the most important thing in the world.
Anyways, I think this latest panic spiral was brought on by the fact that, over Memorial Day weekend, we visited neighbors whose house we saw for the first time.
There is something voyeuristic about that first visit to a friend’s house because the way people decorate and arrange their house implies things about their inner lives that feels very intimate to me. It’s especially thrilling when visiting neighbors with similar floor plans, because you can very directly compare where they place their priorities and energies in life compared to your own.
In our kitchen/sunroom for example, we have a large galleyway bar with high-top stools we eat our family meals at in lieu of a dining room table, which allows our daughter to look out the window and scout for friends walking by so she can quickly abandon her meal, descend down a ladder-like barstool and rush to the front stormdoor to gnash her gnarly, food-stuffed hands onto the glass to greet passersby. In the same space, this couple instead has a pair of leather chairs and a single ottoman, naturally warmed by panes of light. You can visualize their idle mornings in this space, making a coffee, feet popped up on a shared ottoman, asking one another about stories they are skimming in the latest Washington Post.
The downside of this is that I never feel less confident about the state of our own house after visiting a friend. Whenever I’ve been charmed by a friend’s place, and the good company and food I enjoyed there, I come back to our house with what I can only describe as a post-orgasm guilt. Why are all of our walls so devoid of pictures and paintings and instead poked with nail holes and scuffed with skidmarks from the pictures and furniture that were previously housed there? Why is our back deck so devoid of greenery and natural shade that it’s always too baked by the sun to fully enjoy? Cue David Byrne.
To be clear, I do not think this is as superficial as the “keeping up with the Joneses” need for nicer or more expensive “stuff”. I could give a fuck about someone having nicer things, and seeing something like a bigger TV or some fancy kitchen gadget does not register with me whatsoever. One of my favorite pieces of furniture is a coffee table with two folding wings that an elementary-school aged Yellow Belt could trip into with a leading karate chop and mince into pressed-cardboard dust. Every time I try to tell myself I’m above IKEA furniture, I find myself right back in their slow-motion water slide warehouse, stomach full of Swedish meatballs, pushing a $400 cart of deconstructed BLORFLUK’s and HOMBUOK’s all made with shitty dowels, easily strippable screws, and sheer minimalist charm. Once I get the haul home, I find myself totally drained of my adrenochrome but excited about the prospect of the handful of tiny little building projects I get. Crate and Barrel? Pottery Barn? Miss me with that shit and leave me with my adult Lego set that does the Stanky Leg after 6 months of light usage.
So while the quality of the stuff in a house matter doesn’t matter, I do think how much care is put into how a home is kept and customized tells a story about your family to the people that visit. In the same way I obsessively edit these meandering missives for a tiny audience, I find myself constantly wanting the edit the story our abode tells, and find it to be something that is very important to me.
Part of this is always ensuring a level of cleanliness. I feel literal dopamine hits when I walk into a room and there isn’t a bit of clutter on the ground or a tumbleweed of dog fur circulating about, or when the throw pillows are actually in the corners of the couch as you always imagine they should be. The closer our house resembles a Zillow listing, the higher my average mood will be in spite of everything else.
The other part of this editing of a space, are little, low-ambition projects that tell a story to visitors about the life we lead. For example, one little thing I’ve done since our kids were born was making a yearly tradition of framing and hanging a picture of them at their current age, starting from the bottom of our entryway staircase and moving up, which over time will create a living timeline that shows each kid age as you ascend each step to the second floor. I would love it if our entire house was filled with open-journal tchotckies such as these.
As you’d expect though, having two kids under four complicates this high-minded goal of maintaining a curated and clean house. Even though there is no earthly expectation for it, this obsessive personality trait I cannot seem to let go of that make homemaking a Sisyphean task guilt myself over time immemorial.
It goes without saying that kids are messy, as a lifetime of Bounty quicker-picker-upper commercials have instilled in all of us. However, as new parents we naively thought these messes could be quarantined to certain common areas of the house and that we would almost be able to segregate the “family” rooms of our house from the “adult” ones. It was a nonsense notion. Toddlers are like little Roman Generals that spare no quarter in gradually annexing each part of your house for their own glory.
The slow deevolution of our basement is a good microcosm for what’s occurred to our entire house. When our daughter was first born, we designed a kiddy-specific section of the room with colored mats, toy bins, and other Fisher Pricey ephemera. Beyond this threshold, we installed blackout curtains to contain and subdue all of the neon visual hell noise if we ever wanted to entertain adults on the other side of the room. It only took a couple of years for this vibrant principality to encroach past the blackout curtain Rubicon into the rest of the basement, as the “adult” portion of the room is now dedicated to her kitchenette set and her costume chest—toys dully splayed about the entire floor like a long-lost battleground my wife and I have since ceded. Even when we started decorating a nursery for our daughter’s little brother, she brazenly laid a stake on his birthright by putting all of her stuffed animals in his crib and periodically crawling into it to pretend-sleep, just as a brazen show of force to intimidate anyone who might encroach on her limitless boundaries.
Almost every room in the house now looms under the law of her oppressive regime, where we have rearranged floorplans and reorganized closet space to assume that little looting hands will pillage our sacred belongings, with little books and toys strategically placed and housed in each room to hopefully distract her. The older our daughter gets, the less “space” in our house feels like it’s truly ours.
Additionally, if toddlers are like little Roman generals, then you cannot underestimate the amount of tribute paid to them by the republic’s masses. We constantly feel as though we are dressing our daughter in clothes we didn’t pick out or or tripping over toys we didn’t buy. This is exacerbated by the fact my wife an I are only children, which makes for a quiet arms race where each pair of in-laws need to up the ante in terms of gift gifting, such that every visit is accompanied with a tall TJ Maxx bag and a crisis over what cabinet or bin we can stuff its contents into. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but sometimes being a parent makes you feel wasteful by proxy, and I fantasize of a dreamy evening where a Goodwill truck backs up to front door in the dead of night and allows me to clandestinely chuck all of miscellaneous crap that infiltrates your house.
It’s hard to stay mad at our little legionaires for their curiosity and the clutter they invite. Kids don’t have a screen of infinite internet to retreat into, and 80% of their world exists within the confines of your house. Rummaging though the cabinet space of every square inch of their house is practically a toddler luddite’s version of going on a Wikipedia wormhole of reading the episode summaries of the season of Game of Thrones you decided to skip—it’s just something to do to pass downtime. During the day when my daughter wants to sneak into the bathroom to unroll an entire toilet paper roll, it’s hard to not just let her, because it’s fun and man, they fit a lot of toilet paper onto those Mega rolls.
But when your kids are asleep and the house truly feels like your own again, you dream that your house to revert to its equilibrium where everything in its right place, and exists in the ideal form you’d be willing to invite people into your house to see. It’s just that the amount of work it takes to get there and maintain it feels limitless with the invasive clutter kids invite.
The one vestige of individual ego my wife and I maintain in this collapsing space that is our house is a single room we consider our panacea: the bump-out room on our ground floor that we call “The Nautical Room”.
There is something about this room that feels almost like a holy place—one that we feel that visiting during the day, or in the wrong mood, is an odd sacrilege. Before my wife brought her laptop into the room to to teach remotely for the year, it was a household discussion—we were both mutually worried about bringing work energy into The Nautical Room. As soon as the school year was completed, it was cermonoiusly removed.
The Nautical Room is a small room painted light blue with a galley-style coffee table, two clear acrylic chairs, and a massive tufted loveseat an old roommate requested us to recover from a foreclosing yarn store and “insisted” she was going to pick up from us but never did. The couch is the room’s massive centerpiece, with visibly distressed upholstery that’s worn from a decade plus of transient knitters scootching butts on it, but it’s massively comfortable despite its shabby looks.
We call it the “nautical room” due to all manner of vaugely sea-related estate sale knick-knacks that populate the room, such as the wooden ships that adorn the fireplace mantle, the ship wheel that hangs above it, or the tiny bust of a Gordon’s Fisherman looking gentleman, that all combined wouldn’t look terribly out of place on a Goodwill aisle endcap. The room contains an electric fireplace that we rarely light, instead opting to turn on the Christmas Lights strung around it.
If you can’t tell from the description—I don’t think this room would be the leading shot in a Better Homes and Gardens moodboard. Considering how unremarkably and kitsch it’s decorated, it’s remarkable how much reverence we give The Nautical Room. But there is an intangible energy to it that’s very calming. It feels naturally cooler then the rest of the house, perhaps due to its proximity to the AC unit, but perhaps due to how shaded it is by the trees outside, where the the only natural light that hits the windows is filtered through a stained glass window. The dust hangs in the air in a way that feels very serene and makes you feel serene being in it.
Additionally, The Nautical Room is Feng Shui’ed with all of our media passions. The built-in, wall-spanning bookshelves to the east are stuffed to the brim with literature of actual merit curated from my wife’s graduate studies awkwardly juxtaposed with my weird coterie of science fiction, fantasy, presidential biographies and board game collection. To the south west sits our shrine to vinyl hipsterdom: a white IKEA Kallax shelf that holds our record collection with a sound system on top. On the wall above, we have lightweight mounts for 6 records, which seasonally change depending upon our moods and tastes of the time, which makes the whole room feel somewhat fluid.
It doesn’t seem accidental that most of the cultural artifacts that pepper our personalities have collected in this room, because at times, The Nautical Room feels like a portal into what our lives might look like without kids. While I think my life would feel devoid of purpose without my kids, it feels healthy to have a small refuge that indulges in the alternate reality of all of the literary and musical sub-genre rabbit holes I might go down in another life.
I think because of this, we rarely let our toddler in The Nautical Room as it feels like some final encroachment on the adult portion of our personalities. The room itself almost discourages such visitation: Although my daughter can break into just about everything in the house, the ceiling bearings that hold the glass double-doors to the in place are so difficult to open it shields it the room from the chaos of our waking hour family life. In the evening, when our time is more our own, there is something special about cracking through that guarded threshold to share a bottle of Kombucha, listen to the Modern Baseball boys lament about the lost loves, and play The Castles of Burgandy to remind ourselves what just being in a couple was like.
We used to feel somewhat feel guilty about treating The Nautical Room this way, as if we are somehow cheating on the rest of the family by having this private domain away from it. But now more then ever, I think having one place of calm within a chaotic household within a chaotic world feels like a good, achievable compromise, and one I want to lean into more. As I go back to work, I think I need to find a way to let go of my obsessive peccadillos about maintaining an unrealistic portrait of how our house should be maintained. I’m proud to be a man with a family, and the story of our house shouldn’t whitewash the neon colored clutter, safety proofing plastic and diaper packaging that accompanies it. Give me one room to obsess over to treat as the refuge, and maybe that’s all I need.
Programming Note: Effective this week I will need to scale back the rate in which I am blogging here to (optimistically) one post a month. Thanks to anyone that has been occasionally popping in to read these thus far.