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Existential furniture

By RICA BOLIPATA-SANTOS Published Apr 23, 2022 5:00 am

I finally found the time to visit that mammoth furniture and lifestyle store. I have been to many versions of this store, the most exotic place being in Turkey a lifetime ago. Although not that much of a lifetime, as the wooden spoons I bought there still happen to be in my kitchen.

We went ostensibly as tourists, as patriots, so thrilled that such a global brand had finally reached our shores. We were sure we didn’t need anything and wanted maybe to kibitz and have some, um, meatballs.

The line was long when we arrived. The meatball dream swiftly flew out the window. Still, there were other things to see. Holding hands with my husband, what touched me most, apart from still holding hands, was being able to relive and remember the rooms I had made for our family.

When we were first married, our only new furniture was our dining table. Our sala set was a discard from my parents’ house. Our first bed was actually the bed from my dalaga bedroom. Our side tables were rickety numbers about to be discarded by a sibling. My mother had given me a baul to store my wedding gown in and that became our coffee table. It was a haphazard beginning full of odds and ends of other people’s lives, full of the promise of our new, unshaped one. How grownup we felt! How wonderful to set up “our own” table!

Editing a room is like editing one’s soul, I suppose. A cleansing of priorities, or an acknowledgment of what no longer serves, is a necessary ritual in life. I decided I would no longer hoard books because it was just too sad to do so.

I realize now, writing this, that in the succeeding years, in the different houses we would set up, most of our things were gifts or discards, the frugal me always shape-shifting to be okay with what was already available. What is a home, anyway, but a family? And wouldn’t that family be the same no matter what we sat on? And so, in our first home was the same style of mostly old things. A young family is very hard to afford, so we made do, altered our dreams with the reality life had given to us. It was chop suey but it was delicious and had sustenance.

Editing a room is like editing one’s soul, I suppose. A cleansing of priorities, or an acknowledgment of what no longer serves, is a necessary ritual in life.

In our home now, where we’ve settled, we began with secondhand furniture again. Nothing was new. As we had moved into an old house, we spent on changing its internal organs — replacing copper wiring, replacing a steaming-hot steel roof, re-polishing old floors from the grime and wear of years. We polished and buffed, it was gleaming but its old bones remained visible. It was empty, and we were emptied and yet somehow full. Blessed are the ones who can see plenty in empty rooms.

These rooms have served me well. I find that when I need to solve a conundrum in my life, I turn to the act of moving furniture. “Editing” is what I call it. And I am often ruthless. I am saddened by unused furniture or unappreciated objects of art. I like clarity, a version of sparseness where eyes can land and rest on a kind of emptiness. I need all rooms to be possible for reading and writing. And I must always have plants. And katol.

Editing a room is like editing one’s soul, I suppose. A cleansing of priorities, or an acknowledgment of what no longer serves, is a necessary ritual in life. I decided I would no longer hoard books because it was just too sad to do so. I remember passing my hands over our original wedding plates, astounded that the set was still almost complete, marveling at my ability to really keep things. I’ve consciously chosen to have no more Christmas gifts for people that just add more things to a life full of things. Every day I edit my writing room, keeping only items that not just spark joy, but spark gratitude.

Every day I edit my writing room, keeping only items that not just spark joy, but spark gratitude.

Back in the lifestyle store, walking around the different rooms now, in my old age, with his hand in mine, I felt an overwhelming surge of emotion for all that had come to pass in the history of my small life. What did I want when I was young? What did I envision to be a good life? What items did I think I would need to make me happy? I remember wanting so badly certain things such as linens and plates and candles, what I thought to be symbols of a life of order and ease. Or even happiness. Imagine that I actually became sad over things I could not have and completely missed all that I already did. I walked each carefully curated room and pondered on my young self and felt the bittersweet loss of rose-colored glasses.

There is an ease in old age when there is less effort to be a certain way, or look a certain way, or act a certain way. The imperfections of my spaces are a source of comfort now. I am aware that I may die with the furniture I already have and I have enough “stuff” to last me until I die. I think of garlic peels and lemon crushers and all sorts of inventions of things that move our hands away from the stuff of life, from life. There was a time when I was able to snuff out a candle with just my breath. There was a time when an empty room was full for me.

Recently, I vacated the oldest room in my life, my teaching cubicle in the university where I taught for more than 25 years. In the last version of this room, the baul was there. Chairs, a parol and a belen and my usual stash of books, whittled down to just a small shelf. I had plants, which was a challenge to grow in a fully air-conditioned department, and I had curious things from a life of teaching — presents from students, letters from graduating students, test papers, class projects, even a Santa Claus stuffed toy sat in one of the chairs.

I had thought it would take three trips to haul all that I owned and I steeled myself for the task ahead. I had not seen my cubicle in two years but everything looked the way it was in my memory, like no grief had passed, and they had survived neglect beautifully. I began to pack and realized that I had built my life to be easily moved, compact, not heavy, box-able, send-able, light and trim. The purpose of constantly editing my life made this packing swifter and less painful. I held many offices in this vocation and in each room I made something beautiful but I also made it easy to leave.

It would take just one trip to bring every item back home. I thought it was a triumph of sorts.

There are doors in whatever places and spaces we occupy in our existence. The space between entrances and exits are existential places worthy of our reflection and rumination. How easy would it be for me to stay? And how easy would it be for me to leave? In the end, one only has two pairs of hands and one bum to sit on.