I have a job which calls for a lot of reading and writing. I don’t have an office; I read and write at home. And when I’m not working, I study, which is also all about reading and writing. And where do I do this reading and writing? Well, until very recently, like so many writers, I worked at the kitchen table.
And so every morning I’d clear up the breakfast dishes and dump them in the sink. I’d wipe the butter smears off the table, and push the ever-growing pile of craft to one end, or perhaps add it to the teetering heap on the spare chair. If the crumbs under the table were too bad, I’d get out the broom and sweep, and if the dishes were left from last night, I’d probably do the dishes, too.
Once the space was bearable, I’d fetch my stuff: laptop from a drawer in the little room off the kitchen; papers from the filing cabinet in the same room; books from the lounge room at the other end of the house. I’d set up and start. Five minutes later, my elbow would find a patch of sticky where someone spilled the jam, which I’d missed while wiping the table down. I’d get up, rinse the cloth, wipe the table once more, and dab at my elbow. Feeling exasperated, I’d make a cup of tea, then sit down again. It’s a miracle I ever started work!
At three, I’d pack everything up. Some days, everything would be put away, and I’d pick up the kids from school. Other days, I’d shove what I needed into my backpack and head to the local library, then return in time to cook dinner. Some evenings, after dinner, I’d go through the whole rigmarole of clearing the dinner dishes and wiping down the table, and setting up again, in order to read and write some more; then putting everything away ready for breakfast.
A few weeks ago, though, we had a minor revolution. A friend is setting up her own place for the first time. She texted and asked where we bought our couch. She said that she’s always loved it and had promised herself that, when the time came, she’d buy the same.
Hmm, I thought. We bought it fifteen years ago, pre-children. Being idiotic DINKS we chose an elegant cream linen couch stuffed with feathers. This beautiful couch is mind-blowingly comfortable. It also shows every speck of dirt and requires punching and fluffing after every sit to reintroduce air into the cushions. It has driven me crazy through eleven and a half years of children; at times I became one of those madwomen who tells her kids not to sit on the couch, and never sat on it herself. This couch has been nothing but a burden to this family: yet another job in a household where the work never ends.
I checked with my husband, then “Take it!” I texted back. “It’s huge and grubby and high maintenance: but if you want it, please take it!” Childless woman that she is, she said she’d love it, and set a date for collection.
I looked at low maintenance couches. Nothing grabbed me. Then I thought more about the lounge room and realised that we don’t actually use it. It’s not just the couch. We don’t watch TV; we rarely watch movies; we don’t read in there. The kids like to read up in the tree house, or on their beds, or flopped on a threadbare couch on the front porch where they can see friends and neighbours go by. My husband reads in the small room off the kitchen; it is lined with novels, and furnished with two wing-backed chairs. I read standing up. And I began to realise that, for all the people who come to our house each week, I can’t remember ever sitting with friends in the lounge room. We’re just not a lounge room family.
As I was thinking this, someone who had a big old desk of ours called. They no longer needed it: should they sell it, or did we want it back? Hmmm, I thought. Maybe we don’t need a lounge room at all. But I do need a study. And the desk was available for collection on the same day that the couch was going out the door.
The way things fell into the place, it was obvious. Even to pause and ponder feels a little silly: first world wondering gone mad. I need a study; we don’t need a lounge; the furniture is practically arranging itself. What’s the problem? And yet it feels slightly daring: Australians have lounge rooms. Everyone I know has a couch and a telly. Does not having them make us too different?
I began to realise that I’ve never thought much about the lounge room; I’ve just assumed we should have one. But this doesn’t take into account who we actually are, and what we actually need. It’s taken several years of crazy-making, and one friend taking the couch and another offering the desk, to realise that things could be different. It makes me wonder how else we live that is not about who we actually are, but is instead just a reflection of our middle class assumptions, shaped by advertising and glossy magazines and other people’s houses.
So we got rid of the lounge room. We now have a study. And today, I didn’t do the great pile of dishes in the kitchen: I couldn’t see them. Instead, I worked, and then wrote this. The desk runs into the middle of the room, with a view to the garden. Books form a comforting wall behind me, and on my right is a battered chair. Once it was the breastfeeding and story chair, but since we moved to this house a couple of years ago, it has been crowding a daughter’s bedroom. Now it is back in the common space. As I write, my oldest daughter arrives home. She wanders in and asks how my day was, then curls up in the chair and begins to read companionably. And I begin to think that this tiny countercultural act – no couch! no lounge room! – might just be a success.