The new old home

So – the move is done.  I have been in for a few days, the unpacking is almost completed, and I am (after many years of living in 1960s and 70s houses) reminding myself of the joys of living in a 150+ year old house, with not a straight line in it!  Almost every piece of furniture upstairs has had to be sured up with wedges to make it even vaguely level.  My miscellaneous vintage home wares and country furniture actually look like they belong here, rather than being an anachronism. The cat has moved in and seems to approve of her new abode.

What have I learned, as the detritus of my life has emerged out of boxes?

I have too many shoes.  No, really, I do.  Because I have never seen them all out at the same time in the same place, I never realised just how many pairs of very similar shoes I have.  I haven’t depressed myself further by counting them – I just know I have too many.  I understand why – I have difficult feet to find shoes for which are both stylish and comfortable, and therefore I tend to stockpile when I do find suitable ones, even if I don’t actually need shoes at the time.  But this is ridiculous.  I would have ample for most eventualities even if I gave half of them away.  Which is what I shall do.  The hospice shop at the top of my street is in for a surprise!  I have already sent half my handbag collection their way…

I have too much stuff relating to projects which I shall never finish.  Freecycle is helpful here – gifting my stash of fabric which I know I shall never make clothes from, and the things which were in job lots which I purchased for one or two pieces which I have used.  More challenging will be the process, which I must undertake, of getting rid of a proportion of of my yarn and fibre stash – realistically, much of it is in colours I now know I am unlikely to use.  I can make a couple of nice bundles and donate them to my local Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers for someone else to enjoy.

For the moment, I must set aside training as a traditional upholsterer. In this much smaller house, I do not have the room for the supplies, beyond my toolbox, or for pieces of furniture waiting to be worked on, and in a mid-terrace house it’s not realistic to do the amount of hammering involved, without seriously annoying the neighbours.  If I can find a workspace away from home, I can re-visit this, but for the moment I must leave it, and not beat myself up about it.

I have too many books.  I must admit this is a surprise – as I had already culled several boxes of books (to Oxfam) over the past few weeks, I didn’t expect this to be an area that would cause me problems.  But I have realised that as well as the books on the shelves, I had nearly as many again lurking in piles beside my favourite armchair, under the desk, under that pile of magazines that I never seem to get round to finishing, on the windowsill…I need to assess whether it is realistic that I will read them in 2015.  If not, it’s Oxfam again…

It really is possible to declutter, even things that have been around for years through umpteen housemoves, without feeling bad.  I have always had guilt about getting rid of things which were, long ago, gifts or which have some association with someone or some event.  I’ve been able to ask myself, as things emerge from the boxes, whether I am keeping something just through habit, or whether I am making an active decision to have it in my home.  Things (of no great value, but nice, and often recollected from my childhood) which I have inherited from my beloved grandparents, I have kept – a vase, a rug, the child size chair which they brought back for me from a holiday in Spain in 1973 and which now provides a suitable home for my very grown-up bear.  I have allowed myself, also, one small storage box of ‘nostalgia’ items.  Interestingly, it’s only half full.  The one area where I will have to put in some time is my office – I seem to have reams of paper and piles of files kept in case it ‘comes in useful’.  Going through several years’ worth of work output will be tedious, but should free up several shelves as I think it’s likely that very little of it will be relevant in the future (and most of that is probably on computer/backed up anyway).

Moving to a much smaller house has been a great discipline.  There simply is no argument with not having anywhere to put it!  The world really won’t come to an end because I only have a few tupperware food storage boxes rather than twenty.  If I can’t store it, I probably don’t need it.

I stockpile things as if I am expecting a siege.  The reasons for this, I know, go back to my childhood, but I must accept that in 21st century England it is unlikely that I need to stockpile groceries, ironmongery or toiletries.  At all costs I must avoid multibuys.  Any possible financial saving must be set against the costs in terms of my tranquility at home as I struggle to find houseroom for things I won’t need or use for ages.  What price turning my home into a warehouse for things I can buy any time I need them, just by walking up to the shops?  Is a few pence of saving really worth the aggravation of the item falling out every time I open the kitchen cupboard?!

Fitted kitchen cupboards hide a multitude of sins. Or, in this case, stuff.  My kitchen here has few cupboards – four small wall units, one base unit plus a corner unit with a carousel for pans.  But it does have three open shelves running the length of the kitchen, which I have used to display/store my crockery (including vintage tea things) and vintage enamel bowls and jugs.  I now know exactly what I have got.  Duplications have become apparent, and have been weeded out.  I can see that I have enough – plenty – and will not be tempted to acquire more.  The cupboards contain only consumables, and some cookware.  I only have what fits comfortably in the cupboards (less than half of what I had before).  So far I have managed to cook a range of meals without feeling the lack of any vital piece of kit.  My surfaces are largely clear, and the kitchen feels very tranquil.

At the end of the first week in my new home/olde worlde cottage, I am keen to pare down my possessions even more.  I want to have even more space around me, to reduce the visual noise of my stuff.  I realise that I only really tolerate the ornamental in my home if it also fulfills a function – my ceramics are bowls or tea cups, regularly used and not merely gratuitously ornamental.  Even the cat is a vermin-control operative!

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All change – new year, new home, new start – the opportunities for simplicity

Regular visitors to this blog may have noticed the absence of new posts recently.  This reflects a time of upheaval in my life, both professionally and personally.  I have left the security of a permanent day-job for the challenges of working freelance (need a facilitator/writer/researcher? You know where to come!).  But also, after 25 years together, my partner and I have separated.  As we live in a tied house which comes with his work, I have had to look for somewhere to live, as well as rising to the challenge of setting up home by myself for the first time in a quarter of a century!

Well – the cat and I have found a delightful character cottage to rent in a small town in Somerset, near to the M5 and mainline railway whilst not far away from the friends and contacts I have made since we moved here from Wales in 2012, and at the heart of a thriving community with shops and services.  I wanted to find somewhere that would be a real home (rather than just somewhere to live) as I embark on this new life, so I was delighted to find somewhere which was not a soul-less new-build on an anonymous estate.

The cottage comes with a nearby garden, complete with potting shed, and there are already two big vegetable beds and scope to grow-my-own on a significant scale.  There is a wood-burning stove to supplement the gas central heating.  And a lock-up garage/wood store across the road.  I appear to be all set up for The Good Life…

We live in a large house, and so I haven’t needed to get much in the way of furniture as there is enough to share.  However, living in big houses for the last several years has inevitably resulted in Too Much Stuff, and this has been a wonderful opportunity to galvanise me into action – the biggest decluttering exercise of my life is underway!  Ebay, Gumtree, charity shops and the dump have all been involved in my campaign to reduce my Stuff by at least 30%, and preferably 50%.  Fortunately, the timing coincided with the Christmas and New Year break, which has given me time and space to do at least a couple of hours’ decluttering every day, and make significant inroads into my Stuff.

I have before me, therefore, a challenge and an opportunity. I may not have actively chosen this whole ‘life begins at 45’ experience, but I am determined to embrace what it offers me, and the first thing it offers is choices.  What do I want in my new home?  How do I want to live my daily life?  I am being offered the chance to live much more simply, which (as readers of this blog will know) is something which has been exercising me for some time.  This is my chance to make a fresh start in the way I live.  I have often said that I aspire to William Morris’ maxim to ‘have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’, and now I have the opportunity to put it into practice.

The white goods do need to be bought new because I really need them to be under warranty.  The other bits and pieces I am consciously buying mostly vintage or second-hand.  I acquired a handsome day-bed on Gumtree, and a leather armchair on eBay.  My bedroom curtains are being re-purposed from a pair of 1950s Welsh wool blankets.  I am now the proud owner of a very beautiful Deco chest of drawers, which I expect will outlive me.  And I am being very disciplined about how much furniture, and how much Stuff, will fit into a small cottage and still allow me enough space and order to actually live in it.  And work in it – the second bedroom (with stunning views!) will be my studio and office.

So – over the next few months, I hope this blog will chronicle my first steps in my new life, and I hope you will accompany me as I make choices, face challenges, and work out how to live simply in my new home.

A culture of fear? Consumerism, education and global politics in 2014

I recently read somewhere that the sale of SUVs and other large, bulky and ‘safe’ vehicles had increased sharply in the USA immediately after 9/11.  The analysis was that people, rendered fearful of everyday activities by events over which they had no control, were subconsciously choosing to fortify and protect their families in ways they could control, e.g. the kind of family car they bought.

Then I watched a documentary about the advertising industry, and how the whole basis of consumerism is based on fear – fear of being left behind, fear of social ostracism (e.g. the Listerine campaign which suggested that unless you used their product, you would have bad breath which might even prevent you marrying), fear of germs, etc etc etc.

I began to think about fear, and began to see other signs of how pervasive it is.  Maybe it always has been; but when I was a student 20-odd years ago, we had no tens of thousands of pounds of debt looming over us.  No one I knew had a job during term time.  Our grants were enough to live on (albeit frugally).  We got involved in protests – marched – joined Greenpeace – protested against the Poll Tax.  Worried about the state of the world, and looked for ways to change it.  It never occurred to any of us that these activities would be a hindrance in finding jobs in the future.  Very few of us were desperate about our grades – all work and no play seemed a poor way to make the most of a university education.  At some point in the final year, it began to dawn on some that they might have to start looking for a job.  But for most, this was the first time we had seriously thought about it.  Most decisions about O levels or the new GCSEs, and A levels, had been made on the basis of what subjects we were good at, and enjoyed, rather than with analytical care to ensure those choices got us into the courses which would ensure a career path.  There were exceptions, of course, for example my sixth-form friend who was thinking about medicine and who therefore made sure she did biology, rather than physics, at A level.  But I recall little fear about the future.  Something would turn up.  Even for oddballs like me with a particularly esoteric humanities degree.

I listen sadly to the 18 year olds of today, and their parents, worrying about fees, debt, finding part-time work in term time as well as in the holidays, juggling workloads, choosing student clubs and societies according to what they think will look good on their CVs, and for the most part doing degree subjects selected for their future employability, rather than interest, passion or a thirst for knowledge.  What happened to learning?  What happened to impassioned debate over 3am coffee about historiography or philosophy?  What happened to the ideal of a university education for the sake of broadening the mind and producing a generation of people who could think, use their critical faculties, make cogent arguments, be analytical?  I grieve for that – education (even at school) seems now to be utilitarian, geared to passing exams and gaining qualifications which seem to be of less and less value with every year that passes.  And fear is now in the education system pretty much from the reception class onwards.  How can this be making the world a better place?

The whole consumer culture seems to be based on fear, too – I must buy this or that or my children won’t love me/my friends will think I’m tight-fisted/people will laugh at me/I’ll be a failure because I don’t have the latest thing.  Even the housing sector is fuelled by fear: if I don’t own my own house (even if the mortgage company actually owns most of it) I will be at the mercy of my landlord, and have no security for my family.  That’s quite apart from the concept of consumption, and home-ownership, as a mark of status.

And then of course, there is Gaza.  And Syria.  And Ukraine.  And the ebola virus.  Everything becomes something to be afraid of – the flight to see far-flung family or to go on holiday.  The person at the airport who looks unwell.  Where will the next war flare up?  Is there anywhere left that is safe?  What is our personal equivalent of buying an SUV after 9/11?

My challenge to myself is simple (but not easy).  Will I too live fearfully, the safe space I occupy becoming smaller and smaller with each new danger?  Or attempt to see the world around me not as threat, but as gift and opportunity?  To ask myself what really makes me safe (not much – most big things are beyond my control in this globalised world) and what is instead just a waste of money, time and energy?  To attempt to live a life that is about growth, not the shrinkage of fear?

Where does our food come from? Open Farm Sunday

Where does our food come from?  It seems many of our children haven’t a clue.  A few days ago saw the publication of research http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-22730613 which suggests that a significant proportion of children have no idea about the difference between wheat and meat, or dairy and plants.

This weekend could give families all over the country a chance to change that – Sunday 9 June is Open Farm Sunday.  The weather forecast is pretty good for much of the country.  With so many farms, large and small, all over the country taking part, you’re never far from a participating farm.  Take the opportunity (and the children) to visit, and maybe start making the connections  between what happens on the farm, and what we all eat.  If you eat food, surely you want to know more about where it comes from?  Full details at http://www.farmsunday.org

New location for my domestic blog

Welcome to the new location for The Michaelmas Blog!

For over two years I have been blogging intermittently at http://www.TheMichaelmasBlog.blogspot.com – this was my first attempt at blogging, and became my ‘domestic’ blog as I also developed the art blog, and subsequently two other blogs (of which more in due course).  However, I have been finding Blogger increasingly clunky, and as all my other blogs are now on WordPress, and as I have been spoiled by the flexibility which WordPress provides, I have decided to move The Michaelmas Blog over to WordPress as well.  If you have been following the Blogspot blog, I’m afraid you will need to follow this new blog in order to be notified of new posts – I may post in parallel for a few weeks, but after that I will only be posting on WordPress.  Apologies for the inconvenience, but hopefully the increased ease of use will result in more posts for you!