When we got engaged, we looked at two-bedroom rentals within walking distance of campus because we needed more space than Z’s little 1920s one-bedroom apartment offered. With his three pieces of Craig’s List furniture and five batik wall hangings from Zimbabwe, the place looked spacious, but I come with a certain amount of baggage. I wasn’t prepared to begin a new life in a new city without my precious things: Amish-built furniture, objet d’art, childhood sock monkey, a herd of bulky Irish sweaters (too hot to wear in Seattle, fyi, but I like having them available should the weather take a turn), and the cloud of paper that follows me wherever I go, like Pig Pen’s dust. If we had stuffed all of my things into his apartment, we would have instantly been candidates for Hoarders: Newlywed Edition.
I loved Z’s apartment. Loved the woodwork and the big bank of windows overlooking a shady tree, how it felt to live smack in the middle of things, but most importantly, I loved its oldness, its crookedness, its sense of history. I imagined a bevy of nurses living here in the 1930s, walking to work at one of the many hospitals here on First Hill. I imagined what it might have been like for them to look out our windows and down to Elliott Bay, a sight we can’t see now because of a high rise full of partying youth that sits between us and the ferry-laden waters. It seemed like a simpler time, and I liked being in Z’s apartment pretending we would be living a simpler life together.
Neither of us are that strong at math, but when the apartment across the hall from his became available, it didn’t take a genius to figure out that it was cheaper to rent an entire bonus apartment in an old building whose only modern conveniences are electricity and running water than it was to rent one of those new, two-bedroom places with leather furniture and cappuccino machines in the lobby, triple-paned glass, walk-in closets, dishwashers, and personal washer-dryers that aren’t shared by the building’s inhabitants in a basement that some days smells like Satan’s backside. We decided immediately that the apartment across the hall would be a writing studio for me, a place to keep our newly acquired Kitchen-Aid mixer for our “baking center” (a use that had “failure” written on it before I ever tried my first batch of cookies—I’m not that strong a measurer, and it turns out a ring on a finger does not instantly make a woman domestically inclined), and guest quarters should family or friends decide to trek across the globe to see us. My only concern was that should Immigration Services ever get wind of our two-apartment lifestyle, they might make assumptions about our marriage that are untrue. (Though if they stopped by for tea and saw how often the bonus apartment is used as a storage facility, then they would believe! It is often nearly uninhabitable because of picnic gear, off-season clothing, stacks of finished books waiting to find homes, half-finished craft projects, and the other detritus of our life together. Plus Hudge parks her bike there when she rides over for a visit.)
The problem with having two living spaces separated by two locked doors is that often I simply forget to go to the other space. The apartment where we live our lives is like a Nest of Inertia, and I often find it nearly impossible to lift myself off the sofa and walk across the hall to write at my desk, as if there are 100 lb. weights holding me down. I have this idea in mind that if those locks did not exist, I would wake up every morning and skip across the hall, plop down at my desk, and write for a giddy eight hours before skipping back “home” to greet Z when he returns at the end of the day. Instead, I think about going to the studio. I think about the light I love and how much I want to be there at the desk, and still, I sit under the weight of the identical apartment that feels more like home. It seems lonelier in the studio that has less of Z in it, which makes no sense. Both apartments are empty—Z is at work. What’s more, I LOVE my writing space. I feel like myself—my pre-married self, my childhood self, the self I was before I was born—when I am at this desk, yet too many days I deny myself the joy of being here and instead curl up in a ball on my corner in the Nest of Inertia and write. Or worse, I don’t write and instead just think about writing and hate myself a little. Or even worse still, I don’t write, don’t think about writing, and instead, invent things to do that have nothing to do with writing at all, like reorganizing the cutlery drawer.
There is no time I like my writing studio more than when we have a house guest who takes up residence in it and so being in it to write is no longer a viable option for me. My brain becomes electric with ideas. My fingers physically ache to be on a keyboard that is sitting on my desk. The books that surround the desk suddenly feel like all the books I should be reading right this minute. I’m very nearly jealous of our guests because they “get” to live in a space that I have access to every other day of my life but too often ignore. Their presence, perhaps, frees it from being a lonely place where I am meant to face myself on the page every day and suddenly becomes a vacation getaway, where my ideas suddenly seem 100% more creative. The guests sit on the sofa, and I sit in my desk chair, spinning around while we talk, noticing things on which my eyes would not even land if this were one of my solitary writing days.
Last week Belle was here, and we spent time in my studio talking about her latest poetry manuscript and the pile of papers I’m trying to turn into a memoir if only the fog would clear in my brain. While we talked, I spun and scanned like a cheeky six year old sitting in Daddy’s Office Chair, feet off the floor, twirling. The chair would slow and I’d zero in on a particular book I felt a need to steal away from Belle’s domain and drag back to my lair across the hall. One such book was one I bought exactly 24 hours after declaring to Z that I would never, with God as my witness, buy another self-help book again. It is called Simple Steps, and promises on the cover that in ten simple weeks you can gain complete control over your life. It joins a host of other books that promise peace of mind to the Highly Sensitive INFP #4 Child of Divorce who is also an Anxiety-Ridden, Meditative, Mystic Disorganized Writer with big plans to start and maintain an illustrated journal. But this one—only TEN weeks to a healthy, more organized, thinner, stronger, de-cluttered, spiritual lifestyle?–who wouldn’t want that?
I remember when I bought the book three years ago, Z just shook his head in amusement. Not only was I already back-peddling on my no-more-self-help-books proclamation, but we’d just gotten married and while Z knows I’m not perfect, he really does not understand why I’m constantly trying to change these inherent parts of my personality. I’ll never be particularly tidy. I’m never going to be the housekeeper my mother is. I’m always going to nod off when I try to meditate. Why can’t I just accept myself the way he does?
Who knows. Each self-help book is like a little bundle of hope about the person I could become.
Had I been alone in the studio when I re-found this as yet un-read book, what would have happened is I would have started another journal with the plan of changing my life. I would have spent the first week following the authors’ simple steps (Week #1: drink 64 ounces of water a day, walk 20 minutes a day, save $2 a day, and clean out a drawer a week, preferably at a time of day when you are hungriest so you won’t eat anything). Before the day was out, I would have felt exhausted and defeated by this simple list, probably while I was drinking a Coke, and sitting amidst the contents of a half-decluttered drawer.
But because Belle was here as witness—and because Belle is wise and knew from the title that this was not a good book for me—it became, instead, a hoot. I skimmed each chapter and would shout out the requirements of each of the remaining nine weeks of the “simple” program, and we’d poke fun at the ideas and howl. Each week added on another list of behaviors and activities to include with the previous weeks’ activities: keep a food journal, do isometric exercises as well as your walk, add another 20 minutes to your walk, work on your posture, do yoga, fix everything broken in your house, redecorate your house with stenciling, quit eating carbs, stretch, clean out your pantry. And my favorite after all of these activities, as if I’d have the energy or inclination: daily serenity time. When I closed the back cover, it was clear that the amount of pharmaceutical assistance I would need to accomplish all of these activities would be toxic, and I’m not convinced I would have had any time left over to bathe daily despite the section on cleansing routine and dental hygiene.
Simple my ass.
But, it has made my life in this set of little 1920s apartments seem a lot less complicated. Belle has gone home, sadly, but the studio is mine again. Week One: skip across the hall, unlock the door, write.
And P.S., other ways I’ve simplified my life include putting Simple Steps on the pile of books heading to Goodwill next time we rent a car.