When I arrived in my new home in Riyadh, it looked like this:
These are in-progress pictures of the space that belongs to me in my old home. Renters have the rest of the house for one more month, and everything I own got crammed into basement storage rooms before I left:
Any open spaces you see in the pictures are now filled. I’m pretty proud of what I did. I would get my all-time Tetris high score for what I wedged under the stairs. I’ve been waiting for two years for the moment when the Beloved, who was already in Riyadh when I did this BY MYSELF, would stand in mute awe as our life’s goods were unloaded. I’m picturing a single tear. Hand over the heart.
Here’s where I live right now:
We left Riyadh in the middle of May with suitcases while the excess was freighted home to a storage unit. We did some more traveling on our way out of the Middle East, and now we and the suitcases are hanging out in my daughter’s basement until we can move back into our actual home. (We’re working off the rent by helping with a new baby.) It’s now the end of June, and I’m still living as I have whenever I’ve been “home” over the last two years: in a limited wardrobe, with limited personal goods, in limited space that belongs to other people.
There’s a big movement afoot these days to simplify American life. Downsize, strip away the non-essentials, minimize, reduce. I know a lot of friends who have fantasized about decluttering their lives to the point of monkhood. And on a day when you’re staring down at a kitchen drop-zone with a foot-thick pile of school calendars and sale mailers and team directories and premium notices, it sounds like a dream.
I’ve had my days, too. The forced clean-out before loading the storage rooms was pretty great, no lie. Jettisoned a lot of ballast. And in my little Saudi house, I’ve loved living light. I’ve loved knowing exactly what I have, exactly where it is, and that nothing is more than a few steps away. I’ve loved living with clear surfaces that stay clear. No files, no piles.
But for what I DIDN’T love, take another look at that original room: White tile on the floor, white walls, one overhead light, and brown rectangles for furniture. And at night, you didn’t have the outside view in the picture. It looked like an interrogation room. Within the first week, I would’ve given up one of my children if somebody asked. (Sorry, kids.)
Living in that space made me feel like a rat in one of those environments where scientists try to pin down the point at which they start eating their own children. I genuinely needed some softening in that room. A couple of lamps. A couple of pillows. A plant. Something pretty on the table. For my sanity.
So I figured out pretty quickly that the whole ditch-everything idea has its limits. I needed a nest, a refuge where I could be truly comfortable, a place to cushion the blows of expat life. Riyadh deals out some mighty blows, to be sure, but the principle applies to life anywhere, don’t you think? Our homes take care of us. The care you’re looking for (taxidermy!) might be different than mine (accent lighting!), but whatever it is, it really, really is needed.
The balance between enough and too much can be tough to find. Pottery Barn will have you believe that you can ALWAYS add more. And darned if you don’t find a use for that extra platter just when you thought you should probably get rid of it. Yes, I enjoyed life in my little house in Riyadh (once I’d feathered it a little), but it only worked in that through-the-looking-glass world of expat life. If I wanted to have a dinner party, I had to ask people to bring extra plates (which everyone did without a second thought because we were all in the same boat). There wasn’t a free room to host visiting family, so it was a good thing we never had any. Equipping yourself for EVERY contingency leads you straight back to keeping way more than you need, but having none of it sure limits your options. That refuge of a home, stripped of anything extra, starts to become a prison. The reasonable balance must be somewhere in between.
I’m back to living out of a suitcase. Our home is occupied by renters for one more month, plus I was always going to be at my daughter’s house right now for the baby anyway. I love being around my grown kids’ families as I never have been able to before. As I write, a five-day-old angel is breathing right behind me instead of on the other side of the world. Being here is a gift, but it’s my daughter’s house, not mine, and I still crave a place I can call my own. Some place I can hold in my mind through the day as the place where I will retreat at the end, smooth down my nerve endings, rest and recover in privacy. My lack of a nest has raised my nesting urge to somewhere near the level of a dog about to have puppies, so I find all my mental energy pointed toward what I’ll do in my real house as soon as I step back inside.
Do I need any of it? No, not on the level of food or love or capable medical care. But I have a feeling that I’d start to get pretty testy and weepy and impossible to live with if I had to go on this way indefinitely. Refugees around the world may have their food and shelter needs met, but they’re living as guests, sleeping on another country’s sofas. WITH the kids. Yeah, that’ll wear everybody down pretty quickly. If you look back ten or twenty years, how many regions of conflict around the world follow people who lack (or have lacked) secure homes where they can nourish their bodies and souls in peace?
I have a dear friend who has devoted her life to making things pretty. She keeps a crafting blog that intimidated me completely and made me think we couldn’t be friends when I first saw it. She does things like this, featured on a recent post:
If kids come over to my house they’re lucky to get play-doh. I mean, what does a seven-year-old care about printed goodie bags? But I’m raising my game now. I’ve learned what it means to me. I understand the value of something as vague and useless as “pretty” as I never have before. Souls need nourishment of lots of kinds—spiritual, social, intellectual—but also spatial and visual and tactile. We need to see and touch things that comfort us. So I made a quilt for the new baby:
And I’m going to start making a few for myself when I get home. After I find a place for my camel saddle and plug in my Turkish lanterns and hang my Balinese batiks and spread my crazy pictures all over the place, that is. And I won’t feel as if I’m being frivolous using my time that way. Those completely unnecessary things will help me feel like I’m home. At last.