BootsnAll Travel Network

Needs Assembly

I made another trip to Ikea yesterday, and now I think I’ve finished buying stuff for my new apartment. It should all be here and fully assembled by the end of the day Thursday, and from that point I think I’ll be finished “settling in” and can get on with living in Portland, Oregon. I think this is the first time I’ve ever been so clear and intentional about assembling a new life around myself. Is that because I’ve been absorbed in child-rearing, the needs of various partners, and whatever my job was, for the past four or five decades? Probably. So how does one assemble–not just the furniture with screw-holes in the wrong places and instructions that seem to refer to pieces not included in the package–but a whole, vibrant life: without a job, without family, without pre-existing friendships or any form of anchor? How, as Alice Walker says, do we choose to “be free indeed”?

My new friend Betty, the woman with the fantastic garden, lent me her copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, and I’ve been devouring it. One of the prisoners in the writing workshop heard about this book on Oprah and swore to me that I HAD to read it, and now I see why. Gilbert and I have similar neuroses (the habit of thinking everything to death, the habit of gnawing over the ethical ramifications of every smallest move or decision), and in laughing with her, I laugh at myself with real pleasure. This bit about her life in Italy is one of my favorite parts so far:

Il bel far niente means “the beauty of doing nothing”…. The beauty of doing nothing is the goal of all your work, the final accomplishment for which you are most highly congratulated. The more exquisitely and delightfully you can do nothing, the higher your life’s achievement. You don’t necessarily need to be rich in order to experience this, either….. For me, though, a major obstacle in my pursuit of pleasure was my ingrained sense of Puritan guilt. Do I really deserve this pleasure? This is very American, too–the insecurity about whether we have earned our happiness…. But while the Italians have given me full permission to enjoy myself, I still can’t quite let go. I wanted to take on pleasure like a homework assignment, or a giant science fair project.”

Oh lord, yes, that is so ME. What Stephen Brody does so effortlessly, so floatingly–that pursuit of pleasure and civilized ease he so beautifully cultivates, is a golden ring I am striving to reach as the merry-go-round spins on. It shouldn’t require so much effort and work to let go, to take ease, to assemble a new kind of life not based on sacrifice, perfectionism, and striving; but breaking my habits of relentless self-discipline and obsessive time-management, habits that have been the secret of whatever success I’ve achieved up to the present moment, takes real innovation.  I want to lie back on this cloud of possibility and allow magic to happen (and it is happening), but something in me is accustomed to tightening up. I find myself creating a new day-plan and syllabus, writing out a schedule and following it. For what? Do I REALLY want to go meditate thirteen hours a day for ten days in a row? Is that what will bring me into this moment most effectively? Why do I even think in terms of “most effectively”?

Eat, Pray, Love is divided into three parts, as the title suggests. She goes to Italy to eat, to India to pray (in an Ashram run by a guru I met once and considered following), and to Indonesia, I suppose (it’s the part of the book I’m just now getting to) to love, all the while seeking balance. I’m seeking all of that right here in Portland, Oregon, where I still get lost every time I leave the apartment, where I don’t yet have my bearings, where I am bewildered by bridges and expressways and distances. Now that I’ve bought all I need to buy for the apartment, I can stop getting into my car and start using my legs and the trolleys and buses. I haven’t even found a park to walk in, and the beauty of Portland’s parks is one of the reasons why I came here.

I should clarify one thing, for those who wonder how in hell I found a studio apartment (with parking) in the cool part of town for $288. It’s something called Section 8. In places like New York, San Francisco, and Houston, Section 8 is no longer an option: the waiting lists for government-subsidized housing are so long they’ve been closed. But in Portland, it was possible for me to sign up last August and to get an apartment by February. There are certain rules. First, you have to be poor. Living on Social Security, as I am now, takes care of that piece. Second, in this particular building, you have to be at least 62 years old. I am the baby of this twelve-story, block-long building, which was established by the Union Labor Retirement Association of Portland and is home to about 350 people. Last night I went to the monthly “Civic Association” meeting, where my new neighbors planned the next bingo party, assigned a committee to investigate making the shuffleboard court more accessible, and then tucked in to a whole table full of cookies and a great vat of coffee while I started hyperventilating, ducked into the elevator, and fled up to my fifth floor aerie in a state of identity-crisis. I was much more comfortable on the street this past weekend, invisible among the pierced and tattooed twenty-somethings, the dog-walkers and the child-minders, the cross-dressers, the bicycle riders in spandex, and the grizzled masses in hiking boots and flannel shirts.

Tonight I’m meeting a woman from the Unitarian church who sent me an email and invited me to join her at the International Film Festival. That promises to be much less a threat to my identity–whatever my identity is. 

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3 responses to “Needs Assembly”

  1. Is this a cue to interrupt? That “pursuit of pleasure and civilized ease” you say I so beautifully cultivate is not so “effortless” you know: striving, perfectionism and self-discipline yes; time-management, ‘guilt’ and effectiveness no. It’s a tight-rope between obsessiveness, as you call it, and the squalor into which it’s so easy to fall. Avoid too exclusively the young and the old, who tend to represent both. Cultivate dignified poverty, it keeps one thinking, but about relatives, not about ‘identities’. Decorate your apartment in your own way and live in it. Screwed-together furniture from IKEA is not a model for life. And what on earth does ‘hyperventilating’ mean?

  2. Kathryn says:

    Welcome, Stephen! Ikea is great for shelves, dressers, and simple, practical, functional pieces that don’t need to be beautiful. The rug (Persian, 1955, in flame colors), the bed (heavenly) and the comfortable couch & chair are what I splurged on. And of course my own books and pictures. I’m almost assembled on the purely practical level; the rest of the assembly will take time. Hyperventilating is what I do when I get a touch of panic and start breathing quickly and shallowly. I’ve done this all my life. In my youth I used to faint sometimes. Now I just hold my breath until I MUST breathe again. Sometimes I feel like I can’t breathe at all–but then I do, of course. I love your description of the tightrope between obsessiveness and squalor.

  3. Oh yes, I agree about “simple, practical, functional pieces”. But I should have finished that sentence and said “screwed-together furniture from IKEA is not a model for life; a Chippendale chair is”. That doesn’t mean one has to have one, only that the pursuit of ‘art’, which embraces everything from furniture making to writing and all the rest, is essential to establish the rules of harmonious integration and fitness of form as the key to what you call “floating”, not quite the same as “assembly”. But you’ve heard all this before from me, as you know it doesn’t take much to set me off on one of my many hobby horses. I look forward to seeing this new apartment in the process of its gently-breathing and uncomplicated development

    Incidentally, as a guide to a life devoted to pleasure seeking and dedicated artistry my model remains your compatriot Gore Vidal, who achieved the immense distinction of being the most hated man in America I believe but in my opinion one of the most remarkable, intelligent, honest and amusing of the twentieth century. “I seem to have been born without guilt of any kind”, he writes in his Memoir; “duty yes, guilt no”. Chuck away the neuroses and fuss, do exactly what you feel like making sure it includes something useful and be kind to your friends, it’s about as simple as that

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