|Helena Fitzgerald||Apr 1, 2019|
The world is turning over again, despite our best efforts. It's bright in the morning, lighting up the dead tree under the window. Soon, everything will bloom.
I have already lived in this apartment longer than I have lived anywhere else in New York, longer than I have ever lived in a single place other than the house in which I spent most of my childhood. It is strange, still, to experience things from the same place again and again, to recall a previous year that took place in the same rooms, the same bed, the same cats and sleep schedules and google calendars, without any fault line of disaster or sea change delineating one year from the next. It makes me feel grateful, and it makes me feel old.
Near the end of last year, a popular method of de-cluttering one’s home once again came back into the general spotlight (by that I just mean twitter, which I realize isn’t really the general spotlight at all, but rather an unbelievably skewed tiny fraction of the world). People got mad about it, but mostly it was just a more ordered, more ritualized, and more codified version of the impulse that overtakes so many of us every spring: To sweep out the cobwebs, to shed the excess we have been carrying on our backs, to make space for sunlight and clean air. The desire to be new again, as the world becomes new.
But cleaning one’s house is also about the opposite - not newness but oldness, not novelty but sameness, not going elsewhere but staying in one same place. The first time the decluttering method gained popularity here was about four years ago. I found my knee-jerk annoyance at it had to do with how few things I had at that time, how little I had managed to keep over years of constant moves, break-ups, self-generated crises, decisions that again and again took the form of chewing off my own leg to get out of a trap. This is one way of being young in a big city, and by and large most of it was my own fault. But by the time Thomas and I moved in together, I had barely more things to load into a tiny corner of the U-Haul he rented for us than I could have carried on my back at a dead sprint. I was angry at the idea of decluttering, then, because I had only just begun to be able to keep things, to accumulate, and I felt nervous and unsteady in it.
I understand now, years later, as I drag down bags of books to the curb, as I shoulder suitcases full of clothes to give away, as we dig out possessions from cabinets and corners and drawers and drag them into the middle of the floor, that being boring is a great privilege. This obsession with the seasons, too, this plant-like turning our heads to the light, is also about staying, about being in one place long enough to appreciate the changes wrought on it by outside forces, to notice the patterns and to assume they will come back the next year in the same way they have in all the years past. To rely on something, based on a foundation of gathered evidence, is the only assurance that builds real trust. The same things happen, in the same ways, at the same times, until we recognize ourselves within their frame, and come to count on them as part of our own skeleton, the door to my building as certain as the change in light in March and April, as the first warm day when I can drink iced coffee again.
Anyway, Friday was Thomas’ birthday. We didn’t do anything huge. We took the day off from work, we wandered around the neighborhood. We had a cake, we ate too much, we went to the park at sunset. Very late at night, we went to the same restaurant we’ve gone to to celebrate nearly every milestone in our relationship, the place where we went on an important early date, the place where Thomas first met my parents, where we went the night we signed the lease on our apartment, where we went the night we got engaged. It’s an old people restaurant, and going there makes me feel like an old person. We were there after closing, again, as they put the chairs on the tables and counted out tips, and the few other people left in the room were all old couples, white-haired and well-dressed and unencumbered by worries about being interesting to the outside world, leaning in close to the unbreachable spaces between each other. We were decades younger than anyone in the restaurant but I felt like one of them, as though through stasis we had put ourselves in their club early.
Lately, I worry a lot about being old; we both do. Happiness made me feel for a long time, and still makes me feel, like I’m getting away with something. Feeling comfortable in anything for too long makes me certain that some anvil is about to fall out of the sky, because what else could possibly happen after it all works out, after we get what we want, after love no longer encounters immediate obstacles. Before Thomas I lived my life, and my romantic relationships in particular, in a mode of permanent, furious crisis. It was awful, but at least I never felt old, and I never was afraid I would be surprised when disaster hit. I was always ready for the next horror, for the next battle, because there had as yet never been anything else. Sometimes, now, I still do not know what we are meant to do with each other if we are not fighting for each other, if we are not impeded from being with each other. It is a struggle to believe that something is left other than boredom, old age, and death. I am used to a form of love always looking toward the next tragedy, and so now, when the only next tragedy I can see down the road is the big one -- our own mortality -- the road itself seems very short. By this jumpy and distrustful logic, it is easy to look around the restaurant at the end of the night and feel that Thomas and I are no different than all the white-haired couples here where the waiters have been the same for ten and fifteen and twenty years, where the ‘90s is not a fashion trend but an immediate memory, where time at once speeds to a blur and slows to the pace of a single still photograph.
Celebrating birthdays feels foolish after a certain age, after sometime in one’s mid-twenties, certainly after thirty: What is there to celebrate? A birthday can feel like a party about about being closer to death, a reminder to everyone you know that you are getting more decrepit and less relevant, slowing down, easing out of the joys and tempests of the fast permanent crises of youth. A birthday is a celebration of sameness, of staying, of avoiding the destructions and disasters after which novelty necessarily follows.
But it is also a celebration of the fact that the same person has managed to exist, again, for another year. Thomas’ birthday was a celebration of what is ongoing, of the fact that I get to keep coming home to the same person, that I have done so for this long and not screwed it up, that somehow against all reasonable odds this good luck has decided to take route in a single location. We stayed out late with the old people to toast the fact that we were both still standing here, still rooted in the same life, that something had managed to continue. It was a party for the unbroken threads, the things that carry over, the remnants, the accumulations, the clutter.
Clutter in our lives means that we have kept something going. When I clean out everything disgusting that has built up in my apartment, when I find myself with unnecessary possessions I can put in a bag and give away, it is a small triumph: I have managed to resist the impulse to leave, to run, to destroy things simply because I can, because I want to know what the newness that exists beyond them might look like. To become visibly boring to the outside world, then, is a feat of nerve. The longer I stay in one place, the more it becomes a mirror, forcing me to confront what I am accountable for, what must be sat down with, taken apart, discarded or replaced. When spring arrives, pushing green up through the old frozen ground in the park again, when the bright yellow flowers that bloom on the tree outside our building begin to glow ugly and determined out of the casing of bare branches, heralding all the bright publicness of another fast downhill slope toward summer, what we celebrate is perhaps familiarity as much as newness. Here we are again, hopeful for the same reasons, willing to make the same mistakes, willing to sit in the same room, behind the same windows, and reckon for another year with the same old loves, the same unsolvable things, the massive, awful, heavy luck of getting to stay.