Tiny Negotiations with Space
My girlfriend and I were going to move. We had our minds made up. Our building had too many bugs in the walls, too much dust in the air, too much need for monetary and temporal investment to make it comfortable. And so we were going to leave and find another place. We had already put off one major move due to the pandemic, a trek across the country to a new adventure out West. While that move had only been postponed, we figured, hey, with a whole year left, we may as well be a little more comfortable.
Homes—however cramped, buggy, or dusty—are living complexities with which their residents interact and whom their residents only partially compose. Homes at once depend upon what and who is in them for their existence and yet transcend these parts completely. One might call them home "events," perhaps, as spaces work together with their inhabitants, objects, and focal points to create new and transforming habitats. They can advocate for themselves, keep secrets, frame relationships and even participate in them, and bring comfort or pain. I don't know if words can paint an adequate picture of what is primarily an intuitive phenomenon, I just know that a bunch of rooms and several inanimate objects successfully convinced my girlfriend and me not to move. At least for now. And the process of deciding to invest what we thought was an inconvenient sum of effort is transforming the space we inhabit, which in turn is molding us.
After a lackluster apartment hunt that we never fully committed to, Hanny and I looked around our place and knew that, despite staying put, we needed a change. The space by the door that was once a living room had become a dining room, then a living room, then a kind of storage (?) room for our dining room table which we had decided to sell. Also there was a couch there. What was originally our dining space was an alcove with a desk and bookshelves. What we had intended to be an office was a storage space and then a dining room and then a dining/tv room (?) and finally a storage space again. We had lost focus on our surroundings and lost step in our rapidly evolving (or declining) year. Our apartment, not shockingly, mirrored this.
And so we put ourselves to work. We cleared the writing and reading space and made it a home gym. The floor is now lined with workout mats that have a woodgrain pattern (because we're adults) and Hanny's workout equipment is arranged on a wire rack. The dining/storage space became an open and comfortable office for me to do distance work during the pandemic. The living room became a living room again with new shelving for the tv, record player, books, and games. Our bedroom was rearranged and gifted an air purifier to help with my allergies. Hanny went mad with organizing cubes and now my whole life is arranged in beige, patterned rectangles. Most significantly, however, the table we had been leaving in our living room became a decision point. I had argued to keep it for—this is not hyperbole—years. Hanny had been warning me of its imminent donation or sale for just as long because we needed more space. Seeing our need for space expand as we continued to spend more time at home, I switched sides and decided to offer it cheap to a neighbor. Before I could make the offer, however, Hanny had a change of heart. Too many wonderful dinners with her mother, too many pizzas for house parties, too many date nights, too many board games were reflected in our little four-top. We needed to keep it. So it now lives under the front window with two chairs.
There's an old Slavic and Russian folkloric creature called the Domovoy. The Domovoy is the master of the house, an invisible little dude who lives under the stove and protects the home's residents if he's properly respected but causes chaos if he's not. The Domovoy might ensure you score a bargain on a month of purchases if he's properly honored, but if you curse him or swear about him you might lose your cattle or fall victim to a hail storm. One might appease the Domovoy by burying clothes for him in winter, offering bread when the family is eating, leaving out a bucket of water for him to take a bath, and showing general hospitality to him. Besides this, careful and thoughtful care for the home pleases him greatly. You care for his house, he cares for you in return.
There's something helpful about approaching the maintenance of a household as a
negotiation with the spirit that runs it. We were negligent of the dust collecting on the windowsills and the spirit cursed me with sneezes. We put the place where I work in the middle of the living area and he constantly nagged me with unfinished tasks. We didn't arrange a proper space for our table and he interrupted our meals. We had given up on him and he was starting to give up on us. With a decision made to stay, we needed to patch up the relationship, so we made peace offerings: organization, cleanliness, investment, acknowledgment. Doing so not only empowered us to order our lives but to pay attention to the symbolic and emotional significance contained within and embodied by our living home ecosystem. It enabled us to listen, certainly to ourselves, but also to the messages being sent by the place that housed us. We learned the home's needs and tried to meet them. We saw the home's strengths and tried to nurture them. We honored a reality that we were ignoring: that making a home is a dialogue between the inner and outer lives of the residents and the home itself. And so the house and its spirit were able to contribute to our reimagining.
And as we invested in the space and appealed to its master, we were rewarded in kind. Working is simpler and less terrifying for me now and I close the door when it's done. Hanny has a place to exercise without tearing the house apart. I have a place to listen to records. We still have a table to share meals with family. In all this, with appropriate care paid, there are times when I sit in my chair and absorb the sense of calm and contentment that is peculiar to a well negotiated home.