I’ve been looking through a batch of old photos, ones taken at the home where my partner and I lived in our first years together, and find it quite striking how time changes my attitudes. Yes, of course, my tastes change dramatically as time goes by, like everyone else’s, and sometimes when I look at old photos (of house, hair, habit–) I am mortified, sometimes I’m mystified, and much of the time I’m just too busy falling all over myself laughing at my ridiculousness to worry much about it all. This time, however, as I looked at my pictures I was struck rather pointedly by another aspect of surprise in revisiting what had once been familiar almost to the edge of invisibility.The photos looked remarkably foreign. It felt a little odd that I’d forgotten so much so completely in a relatively small number of years; is my personal fad-of-the-moment so shallow that it’s obliterated from my memory the instant it’s not in front of me anymore? Well, yes, probably so. I know when we downsized significantly to move from that place we sold or gave away tons, including beloved antique and heirloom items that I feared I’d regret losing, yet in truth hardly ever even thought about again afterward. But the stronger effect was that I am amazed to remember now, on seeing this former home of ours, how much of its DIY character and even the design choices I made were directed and colored by the modesty of our income. Just as I had never clued in when growing up that my family wasn’t rich because I wanted for nothing truly important (thanks, Mom and Dad, for the choices you made!), I never thought of it in those terms either when my husband and I lived in our first together-house–au contraire! I was happy that not only did we live in a place that reflected our tastes and comfort level and our own labors but our friends and family seemed to enjoy visiting there, feel at ease there too, and even admire it as a nice place. No one would ever have mistaken it for upscale, palatial or a showplace, but its humble charms seemed to be more than enough for us to feel glad of it.People even hired me to do design (interior, objects, exterior and garden) projects based on what they liked of my work in, at and on our home. I was asked to allow a garden club to tour our yard the year after I had it bulldozed and reinvented it to my own tastes. I got hired to redecorate and consult on homes and offices and churches. Was it the swanky air of chic pouring out over every windowsill and sprouting in every flowerbed of our home, the hipness of our up-to-the-minute styling? Certainly not. But would I ever hesitate to invite any trustworthy person who came to the door to come in and make him- or herself at home or fear that I would be unkindly judged or seem uncool? No, even in my shyest and most anxiety-ridden moments, my insecurity never moved outside of my own being: I have always been confident of the niceness of my nests.Thing is, I was most taken aback by recognizing in these old pictures a home happily occupied by a couple of people getting by on teachers’ incomes and setting up our grand estate on the masses of free time afforded by our having two full-time teaching jobs, his having two additional ‘outside’ choir gigs and my doing extracurricular commissioned design and art projects. As an adjunct faculty member I was in the familiar position of working over a decade full-time before getting to the pay level of the New Kid who came into the department that year straight out of grad school into an assistant professorial position (and I got to argue plenty for a huge percentage raise in my paycheck just to scrape up to that point)–those of you who have worked in higher education know full well what I’m talking about and also why teachers rarely work ‘only’ the fabled nine-month year of the academic calendar without having to supplement by taking side and summer jobs. Still, we were most certainly affluent compared to many, just not in that fairytale way of Having Money to Throw Around.So the intriguing thing I saw in these photos was that much of my fanciful decorator achievements were then, as now, created by use of the designer’s equivalent of sleight of hand, smoke and mirrors. DIY. And lots of throws, slipcovers, repurposed and recycled and upcycled goodies of every sort. All of this to say that, far from being ashamed at the obvious poverty of my resources, I was and am proud of finding ways to make whatever I do have the best it can be and making my surroundings better with what I can manage. Nowadays I tend to think in those terms less because I actually can’t afford the more extravagant approach and more because I’d rather do it in a way that conserves and respects the resources more fully. And because I’m enough of a snob to know by now that what rich people consider Simplifying or Conservatism or Mindfulness is a far cry from the poor person’s point of view. The beauty of Home lies far less in decorative statements than in clean, secure shelter, in warm hospitality and kind hearts. If being impecunious can be motivational, then why indeed not do it well!
When I was an undergraduate, our university operated on a semester basis, and required all lower-classmen to take a course during the Interim month of January. As the courses offered during that period were designed in part as a testing ground for future standard semester courses (‘experimental’), in part as cram-courses for catching up a missed class in compressed time or as courses that otherwise didn’t fit into the typical academic demands of a semester or involved travel, they tended to be highly desirable classes anyway, and I opted to continue my Interim studies during all four years of my undergrad education. It came in very handy in my senior year after I’d taken a whole semester of the previous year to travel in Europe (non-academically, but spending my school funds all the same) and really needed to finish school in 3-1/2 years rather than the full four to compensate.
But the real benefit of the system was that I got to take a delightful course somewhat off the beaten path of my degree each January. One year, it was ‘Chinese Conversation, Culture and Cuisine‘–a supremely entertaining class team-taught by two brilliant New York Jews and their Chinese grad student (the team in itself a refreshment in the midst of a perfectly fine ‘white-bread’ west coast Lutheran uni education). Two days a week, one or the other of our professors would lecture on Chinese history and culture, slipping in lots of anecdotal hijinks from their respective times studying in China; one day was a practicum devoted to classic Chinese cookery, and was needless to say the day of perpetual perfect attendance for and by all in that class, given how hungry undergraduates always are for good food; and one day was spent focusing on the development of Chinese written and spoken languages, with some rudimentary training in making Mandarin-like sounds and practicing the beautiful strokes of character calligraphy to accompany what the sounds should, at least, have meant, though I’ve no doubt that what we actually said translated as something much more in the comical-infant-to-international-crisis-causing range. One of the few things that’s stuck with me for all of the intervening years was learning that the proper greeting was not Howdy or Hey, Baby, but Have you eaten rice today? And of course, that is heart and soul of compassion and hospitality in any culture or language. Would that we all might operate more fully on the basis of that concern.All of this wisdom aside, I guess it’s hardly rare for anyone as food-obsessed as I am to generally forget to eat once in a while. Here it is already 18.00 hours and I haven’t eaten more than a handful of pistachios. And those, not recently. Tasty though they were, I imagine I might not be just dreaming that I could enjoy a slightly more substantial repast before long. But sometimes I think a little semi-fasting is not a bad thing, because it may, for example, begin to ameliorate any damage done to my innards, and any, erm, expansive qualities reflecting that internal damage in my out-ards, over certain recent holidays by a slightly over-enthusiastic or exaggerated sense of my capacious personage’s actual dietary needs. Also because, being frank here (though I generally prefer the name Frances/is, should anyone ask), a short period of partial abstemiousness only serves to enhance the pleasures of the simplest foods.
And that’s what I’ll have today: the simplest. A little fridge-cleaning bite while paused from a somewhat overweening stack-up of household chores left too long undone, messes unattended. But I can’t say that I’ve any objections at all to a little truly simple food goodness, so I shall indulge in that momentarily. I’ll leave you with some verses to chew upon until my return on the morrow. Bon appetit! Or as we say in my family, Vær så god. That’s far more appetizing, I’m sure, than what I would have said in Chinese, no matter how good my intentions.