Learning to Decorate

I’m decorating my new apartment. It’s not that new anymore, actually — I moved in June, but then I immediately went to a literary convention, and then to teach up in Maine, and then I had a few weeks to unpack before I went to visit family in California. And then the semester started. So it’s really only been in the last month that I’ve been able to decorate. This apartment is larger than my last one, so decorating involves buying new furniture or refinishing old furniture. Which takes a while . . .

I never learned how to decorate as a child. I think some people do — they watch their parents put together rooms, and get a sense of what rooms should contain, what they should look like. What makes for a comfortable, beautiful space. But I didn’t learn that, I think for two reasons. First, I was growing up in the seventies, when ugliness seemed fresh and new. No, really — isn’t that what happened? After the sixties, beauty and comfort seemed old, done — and worse, reactionary. Art and architecture embraced the ugly, which at the time seemed powerful. It seemed to make a statement, although I’m not sure anyone actually knew what it was saying. Now, in retrospect, it just seems sad: those hideous sweaters and sweater-skirts, sweater-pants. (If you grew up in the seventies, you know what I mean.) On my university campus, the law school was once a famous example of Brutalist architecture. It’s now being entirely rebuilt, partly because it turned out to be impractical to actually use, but partly because no one wants to look at it. And the same sort of thing happened in decorating.

The second reason was that I grew up with a mother who prefers the modern and minimal: no curtains, a bed that is essentially a box. When I was in Middle School, I was put into a class called Home Economics that really should have been called Reinforcing Gender Stereotypes. (The other option was Shop, in which all the boys built things.) One assignment asked us to take a cardboard box and decorate it, as though it were a room in a doll’s house. I failed the assignment because my room was modern, minimalist. I lost points for the lack of curtains, for having almost no furniture. But our house had no curtains either . . . I fought against that minimalism in my own way. In my room, I put up bed curtains, bought Laura Ashley sheets. I wanted to be romantic (I was a teenager, after all), and so I wanted my room to be romantic. It’s hard to create a romantic modern, minimalist room . . .

I learned to decorate as an adult, the same way I’ve learned most things in my life: from books. I always cared about my living spaces, always thought of them as extensions of myself. And so I bought decorating books. I would flip through them in the bookstore, picking out the ones whose pictures made me go “Yes, that.” They had titles with words in them like “mission style” and “shabby chic” and “cottage.” And I started to create my spaces, buy the furniture that would go in them and that I would carry around with me, from space to space. The curtains, the pillows, the paintings.

I believe, more strongly than ever, that the spaces we live in are important: that they should be comfortable and beautiful. They should help us become, and function as, who we are. And I believe in saving money as much as possible, in doing as much as one can oneself. Which is why I sometimes have paint on my clothes . . . This week, I painted a bookshelf, a chair, and a mirror. You can see them all being painted here:

Painting Furniture

Decorating 2

I chose the color some time ago: it’s called Flax, and it’s a cream, but not a warm cream. Almost a beigy cream. It echoes the beiges and creams that are the basic color scheme of the apartment. The shelf was already that color when I bought it, and just needed some fresh paint to cover scratches and wear. The mirror was a cheap hardware store mirror I had bought, originally stained brown and with that shiny cheap furniture finish. I wanted it to look old, like a mirror I could have bought in an antiques store, or that my grandmother had given me. So I painted it Flax. It makes me much happier now, and looks just right in its corner of my bedroom, in front of the shelf.


The entire space is a work in progress, but I’ll show you what my living room looks like. It took a long time to learn how to decorate, because it was a process of learning not just how to put together a room, but of learning myself — my own tastes, what would make me happy. What would fit how I lived and what I needed. If a room, a house, doesn’t fit the people who live in it, it’s decorated wrong. So this is my taste, which might not be yours . . .

Room 1

I love my red curtains, which I bought at a home good store.  They were the cheapest and simplest I could find, all cotton so they can be washed in a machine.  I’m not a fan of anything requiring special care.  You can see the paintings lined up by the shelves, waiting to be hanged.  But I’m not sure where to put some of them yet. And my favorite Victorian slipper chair, which I bought at an antiques store, is covered with a sample of the fabric in which I will eventually have it reupholstered.

Room 2

My small table, which I refinished, with the chairs I reupholstered myself. You can just glimpse the chair I was repainting behind the table.  I found it, battered and needing care, in a thrift store.  It looks so lovely now . . .  And my birdcage, with birds on the outside.  (They always go on the outside.)  The bolt of fabric in the corner came just this week.  I’m going to sew it into pillows for the daybed (not pictured because it’s on the other side of the room, and also being repainted).

Room 3

And one of my desks (I have two), both of which I refinished.  This is the one where I prepare to teach — the other is the one I write on.  The wall is still waiting for more pictures.  And did you notice?  I not only have curtains, I have two sets of curtains (three windows, six curtains in all).  I think I have, at least, mastered the curtains part of decorating . . .

Dealing with Envy

If envy turned you green, there are days I would look like a cucumber.

At the moment, I’m reading Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. In it, she talks about how difficult writing is: how you sit down each morning in front of the blank page, and you have to fill it. She describes her writing routine, which involves writing in the morning, revising in the afternoon, in a room of her house in rural Connecticut. And I find myself envying her.

This is what my writing routine looked like yesterday: In the morning, I got up and prepared for class, which involved grading the papers I had not gotten to the night before. I went over my lesson plan, made sure I knew what I would be talking about that day. Then I taught my morning class. Back for lunch and to drop off my laptop. Then I taught my two afternoon classes. Then I went directly to physical therapy — usually I would have office hours, but it was the only time this week I could schedule an appointment, so I moved my office hours to another day. The physical therapy helps me so much — makes it so much easier for me to do my teaching and writing — that I don’t want to miss a week. Being able to write without back pain is a wonderful, wonderful thing!

Then I had time to run to the grocery store for oatmeal and sugar, and when I got back, it was time to Skype with one of my graduate students. Then dinner. Then a bath. And then, finally then, at about 9 p.m., I sat down in front of my computer, honestly feeling a sense of despair because I had not been able to write for about a week — all the other days had been even busier. Finally, I had time to write, and I didn’t even know if I wanted to.

But I started anyway, because one of my mottoes is “Do it anyway.” So I started, and then I was up writing until midnight, because once I started, I didn’t want to stop. I need to get back to novel revisions, but first I need to finish all the administrative work that one is given at the beginning of any semester. I’m almost done, but in the meantime, I wanted to write something else to clear my head — so I’m writing a fairy tale, called “Red as Blood and White as Bone.”

But envy . . . I envy other writers their time, their space, their financial resources. Their awards.

The way I’ve found to deal with envy is to tell myself, quite sternly, “All right, you can have everything she has. But you have to be her. Do you want to be her?” And when I think about it, I realize that I don’t. Do I want to be Dani Shapiro? No. She seems lovely, but no. Her childhood was a mess, and while my childhood was a mess too, at least it was my childhood, my mess. Would I have wanted to go to Sarah Lawrence, then get married and live in rural Connecticut? Sure, I hated law school, and sure, it was difficult getting through my PhD. But the furniture of my mind includes Alan Dershowitz and Derrida, and I would not trade that furniture. Not even for more comfortable furniture.

I want to be the writer I am, not the writer she is, even if that means being less successful. Even if it means working very hard, and being tired all the time. And trying, day after day, to find the time to write . . .

There is a day, in the life of every writer, when you realize that you have to cut your own path through the forest. That day, you look at the trees in front of you, and you feel your heart sink with despair. Because you just don’t think you can do it.

And then, you start to do it anyway. One tree at a time, one word at a time.

Bay 4

Accessorize Accordingly

“Remember who you are. Accessorize accordingly.” –Justine Musk

I love this quotation from the fabulous Justine Musk. It sounds like fashion advice, but of course it’s more than that. It’s life advice.

The first part says, remember who you are. Not discover who you are, but remember . . . because you are that already. You may have forgotten it (have you forgotten it? I bet you have, even if only a little.) I forget who I am sometimes. I think, I’m a teacher and a mother. Which is true, but those are not who I am: they are what I do. I teach, I have a daughter. But who am I when I am not teaching, when I am not with my daughter? And at other times I think, I am tired, or I am lonely, or I’m in the dark. But those, again, are not who I am. They are temporary states.

So who am I, at my essence, in my core? I am a storyteller. I am a sorceress whose magic is words. I am those things even when I am a teacher, or mother, or tired, or lonely . . . You get the point. What are you at all times and everywhere? That is what you are. All the other things are only partial, or only temporary. What you want to remember, and keep remembering, is the core.

And then, accessorize accordingly. We usually think of accessories as small, almost trivial things: jewelry, perhaps a purse or hat. But we know, or at least those of us who care about such things know, that accessories make the outfit. And of course the word has a use outside of fashion: you can be an accessory to a crime. An accessory is something that helps, or supplements, something else. So who are you, and what will help you be that, stay that, remember that?

I think material things are very important. We ourselves are material, made up of the same elements that make our world. And the material affects us: whether we live in a beautiful place, whether we can wear comfortable clothes, whether we have access to healthy food. I think the phrase “accessorize accordingly” means decorate your life, choose the material elements of your life, in a way that reflects and reminds you of who you are.

So, you know, if you’re a sorceress . . . dress like a sorceress. This is me dressed to teach class, but I call this outfit “Sorceress in Disguise.” If you have the eyes to see it, you’ll see who I really am.

Fairy Tale Skirt

So, who are you? Remember, and then make your material life reflect who you are, deeply and essentially. Dress as who you are, furnish your home for yourself (not someone else’s idea of you). I think that has two important effects: first, it keeps you from having too many material things, because although the material is important, we overdo it, don’t we? It’s because we don’t know who we are, and try to be different selves by buying them. But that never works. And it helps you remember. You can stand in front of a class talking about grammar, but underneath you will know: I am a sorceress in disguise, a storyteller whose words are magic . . .

Crossing Thresholds

I redesigned my website.  Did you notice?

Well, not redesigned exactly, but changed the images, changed some of the organization. I’m also updating the pages.

I suppose it’s because I feel as though I’ve crossed yet another threshold. And now I seem to have arrived somewhere, although I’m not sure where yet. It feels stable, it feels secure, although after the last few years, I don’t quite trust security. After all, we’re on a planet hurtling through space, orbiting around a sun that is itself hurtling through space. Solid ground is an illusion.

But at the moment, the illusion feels rather nice, and I think I’ll believe in it for a while . . .

I spent this summer traveling: in June I went to Budapest, in July I went to Readercon and then to teach at the Stonecoast MFA Program residency. In August, I went to Los Angeles and San Francisco. At some point, I moved into a new apartment, and it sat furnished but undecorated for most of the summer while I crossed over the Atlantic and said hello to the Pacific. I love traveling, and I love living out of a suitcase. But it feels nice to be in my own apartment, which is already almost decorated. It feels nice to have my own furniture, and my clothes in the closet. It feels nice to know where all the dishes are.

We have a tendency to think that whatever we’re living through at the moment will continue forever: if we’re in crisis, we think we’ll always be in crisis. If we’re in a period of stability, we think the floor is solid and will never start shaking and cracking under us. But life isn’t like that, is it? It has its tides, just as the sea does. It’s a continual process of crossing thresholds and entering new rooms. The writer Elizabeth Gilbert said something recently that has stuck with me: she said, we are told to find balance in life, but finding balance means that most of the time, we’re off balance. We only ever achieve balance once in a while. That perfect equilibrium is always elusive, always dependent on our leaning first one way, then the other.

And honestly, we have to lean, because that’s the only way to dance. I think, here, of a ballerina: she maintains the illusion of balance, that perfect en pointe, but she’s only ever balanced for a little while. Otherwise, she’s always in motion, always leaping and turning. As we are. As is this entire planet, spinning through space.

I don’t know where I am yet, but so far I like it here. It feels as though there’s a lot of work for me to do, and of course not enough time to do it in, because when is there ever? But for now, there’s a floor under my feet, and a soft bed, and food in the refrigerator. I’m going to put pictures up on the walls, and paint the cabinets. I’m going to see what work I can do that is worthwhile. Because in the end, that’s what matters. I’m sure there will be more thresholds in my future, more leaping through space. But for now, this feels nice. I think I’ll stay . . .

Cattails 3

The new images on my website are photographs I took at a nature conservancy near Concord, Massachusetts. It’s a wetland, and when I visited, the lotuses were blooming — acres of them. They were like sunshine on the water, under a cloudy sky . . . And the photo above is of me among the cattails. I’m not short, I assure you. But the cattails were very tall.

Being Hypersensitive

Recently, I tried a new face cream. Big mistake. Within three days of starting to use it, I had a red rash across my face. I’d been so careful, too: I’d read all the ingredients, and nothing looked irritating. But there was the rash, red and itchy. I could mostly hide it with foundation. It went away in a few days, and my face looks normal now, but lesson learned. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m hypersensitive.

I didn’t understand that when I was young, which made life more difficult than it probably should have been. But when I was doing my PhD, I came across Elaine Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Person, and later I read Sharon Heller’s Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight, and in both I recognized aspects of myself.

What does it mean when I say that I’m hypersensitive? It means that when I buy creams and cosmetics, I look for those that say “for sensitive skin,” because I tend to react badly to certain chemicals. Like, Red Rash Zone. But I can’t go without face cream either, because I burn easily, and even the wind will make my skin red and itchy. I need to protect it. And natural products are often even worse than what I can buy in an average drugstore — Mother Nature, much as I love her, is a treasure house of irritants and allergens. I don’t react as badly as some people I know: I can wear perfume just fine, although strong smells bother me. As do loud noises. And violence.

Because hypersensitivity manifests itself in all sorts of ways: it means, I think, that you have fewer layers of protection from the world than most people. You are more vulnerable to it. This can be a strength: you notice things that other people don’t. If we were in a room, I would probably intuit your emotions, perhaps even what you’re thinking. I would know from the expression on your face, the way you’re holding yourself. But it’s also a weakness. Things that other people find energizing might exhaust you, if you’re hypersensitive. I find theme parks mildly horrifying.

Because I’m missing some of those barriers, I have to build them myself. Some of them are physical: my apartment, which is a sort of refuge from the world, beautiful and soothing. It has thick walls, and soft carpets, and light that filters in through large windows. Books and art and music. Even my face cream is a sort of barrier. But most of them, and the most important ones, are internal. I have to be able to, emotionally and mentally, find a peaceful center within myself, so I can live in a magnificent city, and teach at one of the best universities in the world. So I can interact with sixty students, being there for them without feeling as though I’m losing myself.

I don’t quite know how I build those internal barriers. I didn’t have them as a child, which made childhood incredibly difficult. Imagine if you’re a child, sensing the world so deeply, alive to beauty, but also every criticism. You live intensely — I still do, and I don’t want to lose that intensity of perception. It took a long time to build them, and some of them are unconscious now. (One of them is kindness, and another of them is politeness, and if you don’t know how kindness and politeness can be barriers, then pay attention the next time someone is being kind and polite. Pay close attention to how you’re being shut out.) But I know that those barriers are necessary . . . And I’ve once again learned my lesson about face cream!

Rose 10