The walls without her in them

I’ve been struggling with renovating my house in West Adams/Crenshaw. I have owned and renovated multiple houses, in multiple locales, but all those I did by writing checks to people like contractors and interior designers. Andy and I want to do much of the work on this house ourselves, to do something with our hands, and to learn about it and ourselves in the process.

This doing for yourself is weird among our social group. When we first planted our garden, it had some setbacks, and it was what it was: a scrubby little thing. More than one affluent friend looked at the little plants and said–like somehow this isn’t bad manners–“you should have (insert landscaper name here) in to do your yard.” No, I shouldn’t. I’ve had so many beautiful gardens, big and small, in patio pots and in yards, that I know the essence of a beautiful garden is time. Every garden is a conversation between the gardener, the plants, the animals, and the space. You have to get to know them all. It’s better if you are polite and don’t go poisoning them, I think, or trying to be too controlling about what happens. We seem to have a nice equilibrium between the rats and the neighborhood cats and the possums and the raccoons, who come and use the garden at night while we keep the dogs in.

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A landscaper can come in and make a garden for you, but they can’t give you that conversation. You will own the garden, and you may enjoy it. But it won’t be yours in the same way mine is mine. I totally support landscapers and wish them all the business in the world. But not mine. Because I want to do it myself.

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Many years later, my garden is fascinating, and I routinely have people with their phones out photographing the garden and its butterflies. I won’t pretend I knew it would turn out this way; I didn’t. I just had faith that if we kept working with it, we would turn out nicely together.

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The same isn’t true of decorating interior spaces. There, I have no confidence. I rented and meandered for years. Andy and I lived a footloose life; it seemed always that I would just get the garden doing what it should do, and we’d have to leave it to the mercies to whoever came next. The inside of the house has never interested me as much as the outside. So decorating has always waited. Even in houses I’ve owned, I’ve just paid decorators and got what I got with the price I could afford to pay: lots of beige, lots of exhortations to leave the rooms empty, sniffing about bookshelves being “clutter.” These were all perfectly nice places where all the checkmarks were checked: clean lines; bare surfaces that never stayed bare between Andy and me, as we are always putting cats or books or shells or rocks or something on them; lots of Scandinavian light wood, nothing stored; and always the exhortations against clutter.

If you like your surfaces bare, then I’m all for you living in a bare space. But there is no objective reason why a taste for bare surfaces is better; it’s just associated with class and taste. Keeping things or collecting things suggests one might be poor enough to have to reuse things. Minimalism always strikes me as the decorator version of the aggressive thinness expected of wealthy women. And of course all the beiges. Endless paint samples of riffs on beige and off-white. Eggshell. It was all very appropriate and perfectly boring. There are some great decorators who do wonder with colors. I never really encountered any, and none I encountered gave me the confidence I needed to say yes to color, either.

And it was all designed help me fit in with the upper middle class academics I was surrounded by. I had spent years watching academics and the children of academics follow the lines of taste. Shopping trips where I would pick up something only to have a friend look up and down, curl her lip, and shake her head because of course, left to my own working class devices, I simply wouldn’t know how to dress the bod. (In reality, this was silly: I’m fat. Nothing “flatters” me except putting on whatever I like and giving zero f*cks whether anybody else likes it or not. When I do that, then everything flatters me. Come to think of it, that’s the style that works on everybody else, too. I was just too cowed when younger to call bullshit on all this head-shaking nonsense.)

Or another favorite: Me, holding up something I loved: “I love this!” Friend, looking up and down: “Well, it’s not my taste.” What the hell? Who cares? I said I like it. I didn’t say they liked it. Why would they think I’m asking their approval? Because…that’s what the culture of taste does. That’s how it operates. By claiming taste, you put self on top.

Yet another interaction:

Me: “I’m going to get a present for a friend.”
Mutual friend: “Uh, ehrm, that’s nice, but you know, that friend really has taste.” Implication: I don’t, and anything I get her will be the equivalent of the frageelay leg lamp from A Christmas Story.

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So, I stopped getting gifts for people other than wine and books. But wine mostly.

I’ve spend years listening to sniffs that something I liked was “kitchy” or some other class-loaded claptrap. And I listened. Even worse, I internalized. I internalized all that nonsense, accepted that my taste was terrible and theirs awesome. Then, even worse, I began teaching in programs with architects, who have supreme confidence in what is what, and how you, since you are notanarchitect, can’t possibly have any real taste or design sense.

Now I knew better than this. I’d read Pierre Bourdieu and his critiques of taste and distinction. He’s my favorite social theorist. I knew better than to let this stuff get in my head. But it got in anyway. (This would be a good time to plug my colleague’s new book: Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s The Sum of Small Things, about new ways of signaling status and taste in urban contexts.)

On top of that was the house search, and everybody else’s house search. Howls of laughter at the former occupant’s taste and lives. “Can you believe they had yellow shag carpet?” And ” This was a great house, except it had awful green porcelain in the upstairs bath.” I participated. In my house hunt, I remember sneering at a crucifixion scene, painted using a stencil, in black in a white living room–huge–in an otherwise darling house in Expo Park. Even in this house, owned by Ms Pillow until she passed at 104, I’ve sneered at her baby blue and intense pink.

All this was the same nonsense. And all of it has led me to paralysis around just picking some stupid paint. At first I thought I would just paint everything white. But I did’t want everything white. And thus the house has sat for five years while Andy and I worked on the garden, and I dithered. And I sat here, hating Mrs. Pillow’s pink and blue.

I would use trial balloons on various people. “I really like this one thing”…only to be greeted with pursed lips and awkward looks. Never “OMG, that could be SO FUN depending on what you do with the rest of the room!” Never ever. Ever. Always sighs. Always.

And thus, more paralysis.

I’m not sure when my revelation happened, but I think it has been all my thinking for the book about Heidegger and dwelling. Yesterday, though, it occurred to me that of course, decoration seems garish without the person in it.

Along with that big crucifixion stencil, the house had evidence that a gay son or (more likely) grandson also lived there, along with probably his grandmother, if my deductions from the bedroom contents were accurate. There is a story there of people’s lives; you can imagine grandma and her strong Catholicism, and all the dogma laid aside for the sake of a grandson she loved more than doctrine. She existed/exists with that stenciled wall in an ecology of love and devotion that the rest of us understand only when we stop gazing and start seeing.

Of all the pictures of Ms. Pillow I saw, even when she was very elderly, she did herself up fine, with full make up and church hats. One of my favorite photos shows her in a leopard-print pantsuit with her hair picked all the way out in a big afro, wearing big gold-framed glasses, a huge gold lame belt, and the best smile. She had this incredible pink suit from the 1980s with huge mother-of-pearl buttons and sassy peplum. She liked her pink, and she put it all over–herself and her home. No mere human being could wear that pantsuit or that pink suit. They required Ms. Pillow. On a hanger, they would be grotesque. On her, they were transcendent. (Ms. Pillow’s heir was not related to her and didn’t take some of her pictures when he sold the house. I have not had the heart to throw them away in case somebody somewhere wants them.)

Without these women, of course the places they made seem wrong. Off-kilter. Garish. They themselves–their spirits and actions–were what made their choices, however tasteful or not by conventional standards, the right ones for them in that place and time. The rest of us don’t have to understand it, and our judgments, never really wanted and seldom solicited but gifted to one and all anyway, are irrelevant, the grist of our status hierarchies.

Screw this. Wear what makes you happy. Give all the gifts you want to. People can regift. Paint the whole room kelly green if you want to. Put glitter paint on your toenails. Get the pixie haircut even if it doesn’t “balance” your figure.

And the rest of you are on notice. You with your beige walls and your sheath dresses and $400 sunglasses that look just like $10 sunglasses, all that frippery you use, trying to make us believe you aren’t a wounded, mewling meatsack like the rest of us. I see you there, trying to hide from the world. You can try that weak-ass shit on me again, but I see you anyway, all you, and it’s beautiful.