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!
So the husbandly-personage and I were talking about Libertarian ideals and as usual, the conversation drifted as we meandered the miles homeward through another hot afternoon. I think you know enough about me already to guess that I’m generally less than hot on talking, or even thinking, politics. Always a topic for argument, disagreement, divisiveness when I’m out of the safe environs of my own little twosome. Even within it, occasionally. And I just plain don’t relish conflict at any level. When it comes to politics, that’s also occasioned by its being one of those few areas in which I am admittedly cynical and tend to lack my usual annoyingly perky attitude of perpetual be-nice-ness that assumes all the best of all humanity. I think when it comes to civility and unselfishness, ours is a race of creatures ill-suited to follow our best instincts.
Which is to say, I think a great many political systems, even democracy for cripes’ sake, look fabulous on paper. There are lots of admirable aspects not just to democracy but to constitutional monarchy, to communism, socialism, even anarchy, not to mention a whole slew of sub-categories within each. And don’t get me started on all of the world’s religions and pseudo-religions and cults, which I may have mentioned in crankypants moments I find are often freely intermixed with political, social and more personal beliefs to the point that I’m quite convinced few (any?) living beings have any clear concept of what any of the aforementioned means by definition, let alone in their originators’ intended forms, any more.
The problem–you can see where I’m headed–is that despite the beauty of many ideas’ intentions, they are very seldom enacted with anything near the purity of heart they might require to actually work. We Homo pseudo-sapiens just have a tremendously powerful tendency to do things to please and satisfy our personal inclinations. We work hard to define wants as needs, to translate privileges into not just constitutional rights but, by cracky, as pretty much divine rights and Not To Be Messed With, Dammit. It’s in this world that, while I think most thoughtful persons will agree that focusing on anything other than actual driving while driving is potentially dangerous not only to the persons in the vehicle being driven but to any others sharing the road and its vicinity, I still had this afternoon the not-at-all-uncommon opportunity to look over at the next lane and watch a driver assiduously texting from behind the steering wheel without the remotest indication that he was worrying himself about whether that was risky for him, let alone aware that we were in a car not one metre distant from him and hurtling along at the same mad freeway pace.
This is the same world where plenty of people know perfectly well that it’s an iffy proposition to suck tar and nicotine into your lungs but do so willingly and regularly and are quite content to share all of their available leftover smog with nonsmokers’ adjacent lungs without even having to be asked for the gift*. *(In this setting, feel free to assume I’m using the Norwegian version of ‘gift’, in which language the word means poison.) It’s the same world full of people well-versed in the basics of their home countries’ and counties’ laws who are still completely willing to flout and break those laws if and when they think they can get away with it.
Crotchety? Oh, yes, I certainly am when it comes to assuming people will do the right thing if left to their own devices. But I’m not exactly sure there’s any cure for that, least of all within any political, legal, religious or social system we’ve yet discovered, and even the most would-be benign autocracy slides off into murky territory and rots from the inside without a great deal of delay. Am I dark-minded enough to say It’s Just Our Nature? Just the way we ARE? Sounds like a quitter talking, at best. But yeah, there’s an element of defeatism or even fatalism involved when I see how far we’ve come along the ol’ human timeline, how many Golden Ages have crashed and turned to ethereal gnat poo in how many stupendous civilizations, how often the stubborn and unsanitary insanity of self-interest has brought down the greatness of the moment . . . well, fill in the blanks yourself. I told you right up front, now, didn’t I.
Meanwhile, I would like to reiterate my longtime belief, what perhaps you could almost legitimately call one of my few real articles of faith, that the majority of people are weirdly, strangely, pretty good at center. Go figure. That’s the basis for my muddle-through theory of salvation–well, continuity. It’s simply that, no matter how awful and disgusting we’ve managed to be as individuals, let alone to one another, and this also on a global level, despite the number of massive historic failures to succeed in being simply ongoing nations and cultures, somebody always seems to carry on. How improbable! How bizarre! How heartening. Okay, alla youse guys, I guess that means we have to soldier on in our own limping, screwy, fatheaded mortal way. If every one of us manages to be just a little bit less self-centered and, what the hey, less often deserving of placement in the time-out corner of life–well, I think we might have a shot.