I got back from Budapest and immediately started to prepare for teaching at Boston University this semester. I’m teaching a class I really enjoy — a class on rhetoric to freshmen, not classical rhetoric as defined by Aristotle and the ancient Greek rhetoricians, but a broader, more modern rhetoric, focused on oral, written, and visual communication. We get to talk about traditional oral storytelling, the development of the reflective essay, modern modes of communication such as photography and film . . . It’s going to be a lot of fun, certainly for me and I hope for the students.
But the last few weeks have been too much transition, in too short a time. Last week I found myself feeling as though I did not know where I was, or even who I was exactly. I’ve traveled in the past without this sense of instability, but that was travel — I was going somewhere, with my life temporarily packed into a suitcase, and then I would come back. There was a here, a there, a me at home and a me traveling. This time there was a me at home in Budapest, then a me at home here in Boston. I was teaching in a new program, my daughter was moving back into the dormitory for her second semester of college. Nothing was fundamentally changing (I was still teaching at the university, still in the same apartment in Boston), and yet everything felt different. It felt as though the ground was shifting under me.
So I did the logical thing. I organized my closet.
I had all my Boston clothes in two closets and a chest of drawers in two different rooms, which meant I was always walking back and forth, trying to remember what fit with what else, what matched with what. The shirts and skirts were in one room, the sweaters were in another, so I would find myself standing in front of one closet thinking, What sweater goes with this skirt? and then maybe taking the skirt over to the other room, to check. I could not trust my memory, partly because I was jetlagged, partly because I might be remembering a sweater that was in another closet altogether, in Budapest. Anyway, I don’t carry my sweaters around in my head — that’s what the closet is for.
The first step was putting away all the summer and spring clothes. There’s snow on the ground, but when I pulled out one drawer, I would see short-sleeved shirts, and part of one closet was half filled with floral summer dresses. In my jetlagged state, I would spend a minute staring at them before thinking, No, winter dresses. What is the temperature again? Cold, rainy or snowy — that’s January in Boston. So I bought some storage boxes at the local hardware store and put away the clothes for warmer weather. My closets are not deep, but my ceiling is high, and there is a quite lot of space to go up — space that is usually wasted, but perfect for stacked storage boxes.
Then I organized the clothes that were left, the fall and winter clothes I will actually be wearing until spring comes again, which around here could be April, who knows. I put everything I actually use in two places, the larger closet and the chest of drawers. The other closet will be for my daughter, when she is here rather than in the dormitory. I used hanging shelves for the sweaters, so now they are right next to the skirts, and I can see immediately what goes with what else. Shoes are below, except the heeled shoes, which are on a rack above, and winter boots, which are in the coat closet below the coats.
I know, I know, that’s a lot of detail you didn’t necessarily need to hear about. But the process of putting my closet together was also a process of creating the place I live in, which was also a process of recreating myself. We don’t simply exist. We exist in relation to places and people — we interexist, so that my existence in Budapest is defined in part by the table where I do my Hungarian homework, the convenience store around the corner where I buy rétes. I am a person who eats rétes, a person who does studies Hungarian. Here in Boston, I was jetlagged and feeling a sense of vertiginous displacement, so I tried to define where I was in relation to something — the season, at a minimum. It’s winter, I will put away the summer clothes.
To be honest, I got a bit obsessive about it. I spent a day going through all my clothes, checking to see what I had, making sure it still fit and sparked joy (yes, that is a Mari Kondo reference), unfolding and refolding, going to the hardware store for more storage boxes, scrolling through the Ikea website for drawer dividers. At certain points, I felt pretty silly. But at the end, as I grew reflective, I thought the following:
Home is something we make, not just someplace we are. For most of the year, my home had been in Budapest. I had made that home, with a lot of help from a lot of wonderful people (especially during the renovations the year before). Over time, it had become a warm, welcoming, comfortable place. And it was mine, my very own apartment with a view of the Nemzeti Múzeum. Now I was back in Boston, in a rented apartment. I had to make it home again, at least for a while.
I started with a closet — probably, I’m not sure but it seems likely — because clothes define who we are. They demarcate different aspects of our lives, different roles we fill in relation to others. There are outdoor clothes and indoor clothes. In my case, there are teacher clothes — after a semester of not teaching, I had to think of skirts and sweaters that matched, of dresses that looked professional but did not prevent me from writing on a chalkboard. I had to become Dr. Goss again, and that meant dressing the part.
I’m so busy this semester — I have so much to do, mostly for other people (my colleagues, my students, my daughter) — that I wanted to make my own life as easy and intuitive as possible. I wanted to be able to move through my own apartment with a sense of fluidity and grace. I wanted, at a minimum, to be able to find the clothes I could wear (for a Boston winter) in one closet, one chest of drawers. So I could devote the time I had to other things — creating lesson plans, writing stories, watching Netflix with my favorite college student when she has a free night.
And finally, that I, at least, need a sense of order and routine in my life. Not just to function well, but in an existential sense. Because part of me knows, always and every moment, that we are on a small planet hurtling through space, so the solidity of the ground under our feet is always an illusion, and we are here for such a short time, like flames that spark up and then flicker out. Every moment of this precious life, every breath we take, is an improbable gift. We are always, every moment, in transition. But if I thought like that on average, ordinary days, I would probably go mad, like the heroine of an Edgar Allen Poe short story. So the existential anxiety has to stay below the surface. On the surface, I have to live my life, with intention and meaning — I have to create intention and meaning, a sense of solidity and continuity.
I think we all do this, every day. We create the solidity and continuity of our lives through our thoughts and beliefs, our actions. Anyway, that’s why I organized my closet.
(The image is Interior in Strandgade, Sunlight on the Floor by Vilhelm Hammershoi. This is a woman who has organized her closet.)