impermanence itches

My wife regularly leaves piles of stuff around the house. Stuff she intends to clear, dispose of, organise or tidy up. But stuff which stays there for days, maybe a week or more.

Laundry, spare bedding a guest has used, tubs of peanut butter, items to be cleaned and then recycled. Naturally,when I ask her about the stuff, tease or cajole her, she says she’ll sort it. But she has this way of allowing things to drift on indefinitely, of taking at least twice the time if not considerably more that I would take to do something. Perhaps this means she does ultimately do it better – she will not just squash duvets into bin bags and chuck them in the attic – but we have to sit and wait, slowly go grey and age for a period of time before that happens.

I try to get a sense of plan, what the idea or intention is, then make incremental changes towards it. But even asking for a plan can be dangerous. You are pressuring and nagging, spoiling the time off she has allowed herself. I’ll often try to just sort things myself if I can. But if I can’t, if they are her things and I don’t know what to do with them, and they still sit there staring at me, piling up, making the place look untidy, then I keep moaning, sometimes gently, sometimes less so.

We’ve been struggling to fix pictures onto walls lately. This is a supposed pleasure of owning a property. It’s taken us around eighteen months to find and buy some pictures we like. To hang them on walls is such a seemingly simple thing – but one we both struggle with. (My own rank incompetence when it comes to DIY is an ongoing source of frustration and shame). We have dented and chipped and damaged walls. Our dining table is currently littered with touch–up paint pots, more paint which we might one day get around to using, picture wire, those sticky picture tabs. It looks like we just moved in, we are in a state of flux. It is impermanent and it irritates me.

In my twenties and early thirties when single and moving into new flats every 18 months or so, I did it all quickly, unpacked and arranged boxes and had books on shelves as soon as possible. Within a few hours I wanted to feel settled, or roughly settled, and I did. I have never liked disorder and untidiness, strewn boxes or clothes or washing up in the sink for ages; the drifty uncertain indefiniteness of it. It is at marked odds with my wife. Together with her three siblings it took them around three years to start clearing the dusty dark, memory-clogged family home where their parents had died, where two of them still lived but had no future. Things grind slowly with her lot. We were both single for a long time before getting together, used to doing things on our own terms, in our own time.

Maybe it’s a common division between people: the careful planning perfectionists and those who just want to get it done. It might also be connected with our different perceptions of time, an area explored in Miranda Sawyer’s excellent book on the mid-life crisis, ‘Out Of Time,’ which I read recently. My wife is like many in never feeling like she has enough time, always frantic and stressed and slightly flappy. Whereas I usually feel like I have plenty of time, too much even, and feel severely guilty as a result. (See previous posts). I tend to work quickly and get things done fast, if not always well. So I should be able to get everything settled and sorted fairly easily, shouldn’t I?

Where did my need come from?  This need to be settled as soon as possible, this outright fear of casual untidiness?  Is it not a bit weird too? Especially when nothing is permanent. Everything is transient and providing your environment is roughly habitable we should accept imperfections. Although that itself is a sound stoner excuse to never tidy anything up.

Aged 6, our family moved a few hours across the country. This upset me a lot at the time. I dimly recall sitting with a comic in the corner of an almost empty living room near the circular wooden base of a lamp, crying. People were moving other bits of furniture around me, the living room of my young childhood and entire living memory was thinning out. I didn’t want to leave this house and the friends I had here in this town. What was so wrong with it? This was my whole life. Where were we moving?  It could have been the other side of the world. I didn’t know or care. I even had the wrong comic. I read the Dandy and my brother read the Beano and apparently they had no Dandy so I had to make do with Beezer – bloody Beezer! Who even were these rubbish cartoon characters? It was all so unfair.

It wasn’t like I was an army kid, moving countries all the time. But even so, was that a source, the fear of being uprooted and unsettled? We all must face it at some point, even at several points over a lifetime.  I am not totally OCD.  I can cope with a few bits out of place. But I do always want an uncluttered physical environment – which can be virtually impossible to achieve. Don’t we all on some level want to be settled and sorted, with a clear vision of where we are and where we’re going? The idea is calming and zen, but it’s equally impossible to achieve.

All the same it is easier to get closer to it if everything is sorted, if the washing up is done, if there are not exposed bits of chipped paint appearing to gesture wanker signs at you from a wall.

Now we have committed to decorating a whole room, painting, trying to hang pictures again. I fear how it might drag and drift.

Postscript: it did not drag and drift. We did it in a long weekend.