Deprivation introduces splendid specificity into one’s life. I’m writing this from a room containing a bed, about half the clothes I own, a stereo, and 14 books.
My days are wonderfully specific now, yet I hear the tinkling bell of acquisitiveness. An end table would work well there. These floors are cold and hard—what about a rug?
We have impulses towards perfectionism. Given comfort, we want total comfort—opulence, if possible. There’s no end to the energy we’ll devote to shaping our environment to our silly exacting specifications of ease. One idea came to me in my new digs that appallingly revealed the bottomlessness of our perfectionist drive. In the loo I found I had to reach behind me for what the Brits call the toilet roll. A better spot, thought I, is directly before me, and there was in fact space for a small stand as wide as my foot is long (I actually measured) and waist-tall. I was tantalized by the challenge of locating such a thing.
Ultimately, though, it is one thing to pen a column that sheepishly admits these foibles, which really can only be formed through an embarrassingly long exposure to abundance and whim-satisfaction, and it’s quite another to actually resist the urge to populate our world with all the conveniences it can hold. I admit that even as I write this I’m mindful of a furniture shop I passed this morning that just might sell a 12” x 36” stand. Quite free of any directive, my mind has even decided on an ideal material: treated wood. Not laminate, because it’s too cheap. Not plastic, because even though it would be least susceptible to warp by shower steam, it would not be handsomest.
What’s to be done? Why not fulfill our every creature comfort so long as doing so doesn’t decimate the environment or introduce unbearable moral dissonance (our capacity and tolerance of this varies). The problem is that specificity I mentioned. Too many options, too many spaces to fill, too many shelves to find. Where’s the end? Some people are happy with no end. But at a time when I’m trying to foster focus, I can see how it dissipates it. What we think will aid the organization of our lives in the end scatters it, and what we expect to provide aesthetic pleasure actually robs it. Instead of specificity, we end up with a sprawling, amorphous feeling. We become like a vapor.
Having just moved to New York, I had been here four days when I understood, for the first time, an aspect of my ex-wife. I was settled in nicely, having joined a gym, learned the ins and outs of the local train, and even made some friends, when I found myself wishing I had some of the things I’d just stored back in Minneapolis. But then I imagined those things—wood coat hangers and decorative cigar boxes, lamps, and clay dishes—and I thought, Good riddance.
This is how my ex-wife was. We’ve been apart two years now, so believe me, this insight was the last thing I anticipated from this moment. But it’s true. Possessions made her very uneasy. She was always divesting them. Even the minimalistic and beneficial things she bought like books and an exercise ball, she was quick to sell to the second-hand shop or list on Craigslist for a song. Who cared about the monetary loss? She could not tolerate clutter. Sure, there were things she cherished—Tatami boots, a massive two-volume unabridged OED, a two-ton desk made from a solid oak door, mounted with sophisticated carpentry (perhaps a dovetail joint?) atop some equally weighty plinths. So it wasn’t mass that bothered her. It was something else.
The culprit, I think, was that imposition on her attention. Because when you own a thing, it needs a place to be, it needs to be cleaned, repaired, and even if you’re not using it, there’s a pestering awareness of that fact. All this is onerous. We feel negligent. A thing unused harasses us.
We’ve all bought something we ended up regretting. We’ve all filled a space only to find it uglier occupied. We all have regrets. The challenge is to not make them again by bringing unwelcome bric-a-brac into our lives. Good luck to us all, and Merry Christmas.