30 January 2021

Thankfully, for my sanity

The house on Victoria Road remains in a state of perpetual metamorphosis. I made two payments yesterday, one to the loft conversion company and one to the Ikano bank, the bank that deals with zero percent Ikea loans, marking both the end of kitchen project from three years ago and also this most recent project of converting the loft into a fourth bedroom and bathroom. I thought that this would be the end of this round of renovations, but having carpeted the upstairs, we need now to redo the flooring downstairs, which means first renovating the fireplace with a nice feature piece: a cast iron log burner. I don't really want to prioritise this, but there is a key principle of renovation: never do anything that you will have to undo to do something else. So sure you can do the floors, but don't do them if you think you're going to knock down that wall — you best argue with your partner about that first before you decide. I learned this principle from a friend of mine, someone with much more experience and wisdom about British construction who came over one night several years ago after I bought the house and laid out the whole process. You gotta think about the tile you like, he said, and the door handles — everything.

Thankfully, for my sanity, the experience has only been sort of like that: everything hasn't needed to be decided, piece by piece. I've never actually been asked about door handles, although as I think about it now, I have managed to develop an opinion about which kind I like. For the first project, a guy called Wayne did everything for us and in the matter of a few months, we had another bedroom and bathroom and new Ikea kitchen. I hardly remember the process now. The loft conversion, the next phase, was needed to make space for all the children I had in my twenties, but was also the right choice in terms of investments. Adding a bedroom to a terrace house in a desirable postcode is classic British wealth building. We called Wayne again, but in the end decided to go with an established loft conversion company that had done our neighbours' house. A man called Rob came that time, in an Audi, looking vaguely like the father of a girl I had a crush on in high school and talked to us about fire doors and Grenfell, and we paid our deposit but then lockdown started and everything was stopped. I worried through the summer that my deposit had been lost, that this was just my luck, but they started responding to emails in September and then at the beginning of the second lockdown, on a Tuesday, they put up the scaffolding and things started to move again.

My motivation for all of this, this paterfamilias organisation of the house, the physical structure we all live in, is motivated almost entirely by a phantom Evangelical Christian guilt about doing the right thing. The right thing is the thing I have always managed to do in almost every area of my life, for years and years. Doing the right thing has never been about what I wanted to do — in fact, wanting to do something was a sign that you shouldn't do it. It wasn't about the joy or fulfilment of doing the thing, but the joy and fulfilment of following God, something separate from the thing you were doing. Of course, that belief in a personal God, a God obsessed with me, was the one part of the whole system I couldn't abide and all that's left is the obligation and guilt. The discussion about the fireplace and log burner, what I wanted or didn't want, made my whole depth of internal conflict evident in a terrible way — it's an investment, Mario, I wanted to say to the Polish builder who came to measure and give us a cost. While it might be possible for me to care less about this, it's a task in an endless series of tasks that my life has become and financial stability — investment in things that have some potential to appreciate and which my wife doesn't dislike — is a key part of this. But it's a task, Mario, something I need to get done. I'm sorry I'm not full of joy.

Last night, I watched a poetry reading at my college back home on Zoom. I studied creative writing at a small liberal arts college, and wanted to be a writer for much of my younger life — not the sort of writer I am now, but the sort that writes about the long stretch of horizon in the Illinois farmland, the sort of writer that would produce a novel that went on for pages and pages with descriptions of people sitting in silence. I was supposed to do an MFA, to go home after being in Japan and reclaim my American sense of agency, and have people I respected tell me that my writing spoke to them, to get that same feeling I had as a nineteen-year-old in a private college with fourteen other writers in a workshop convinced that what I had to say mattered. That feeling of safety, that I could say things about myself and I wouldn't get judged. That people would celebrate my revelations, the deeper, the darker, the realer, the better.  What happened to that confidence, I wondered, staring at myself on the webcam, now how many years later, how many thousands of miles. Now I want to be a politician, to always hedge what I say, to never reveal too much. What had gone wrong, I wondered, why wasn't I willing to tell the truth anymore. 

I woke up to more British snow and a refund for the furniture that came on Wednesday and didn't fit in the house. That problem had taken up more than two hours after taking up three days of trying to get it ordered in the first place, and I was now dreading another conversation about flatpack furniture and sofa placement and scolding for whatever bad attitude would percolate up when everything that had been resolved would need to be resolved again. I keep having vivid dreams about these disagreements, the rennovations, that something has gone wrong and I need to fix it, to do the right thing, to not be annoyed about it, to be happy enough that my family can tolerate me. The log burner will be nice, to be fair, and the flooring. And having my partner still tolerate me after 15 years is what I'm told saves me from whatever rabbit holes selfish, middle-aged men fall into when they think about being younger. You don't need any of the things you think you need — you don't know what you've got until it's gone. Of course life would have been different with a different set of choices, but other things would be different too. You wouldn't know what you missed, you would have longed for the cast iron log burner in some other universe.