The contrast of the bright yellow tea towel on a black counter, the red pot, the gray flecked pan, and the thick, curvy wooden spoon: a still life straight out of a Wes Anderson movie. I pause and take stock of the sight rendered possible by overhead lighting in what is essentially an old-fashioned kitchen in an 1890 building. And yet, the unexpected beauty of the scene jolts my brain into enjoying the fact that washing dishes in the middle of the night gifted me this tableau.
After a week of moving, furniture assembling, and the general demands inherent to having fixed geographical coordinates again, I almost left the physical evidence of dinner in the sink. I’m relearning how not to live out of a suitcase even though I yet have to unpack.
Today marks one week since I moved into this new home to the sounds of fireworks. Only my brain hasn’t caught up with my body yet; it is still looking at the stars on a transatlantic flight from Seattle to Frankfurt. It is still wondering about its power to continue rebuilding a life word by word when writing and editing pay so very little a suitcase is about the only rent I can realistically afford. It is still figuring out how to re-enter the world of real work that pays real money and offers a modicum of dignity despite the five-year hiatus on my CV. It is still hoping for better mental health, something I could never afford to access in the US despite having insurance.
Those thoughts percolate while I go about my daily life, taking stock of my new surroundings and of the extraordinariness of what, to the unsuspecting onlooker, is the epitome of simple, no-frills domesticity. And yet, it took a very long time to get here, course correction happened frequently, and I still have a long way to go until the next meal is a certainty rather than a question mark.
To stop my brain from defaulting to panic mode, I ground myself in the moment and the generous gentleness of it. Life no longer hurts as much as it used to, and when I remind myself of this, I cannot help but be surprised anew. Major depressive disorder felt like a death sentence during the five years it incapacitated me; I was quite unable to imagine another life then, let alone why even bother to stay alive.
Depression kills joy and imprisons you in a world of darkness and pain so airtight death seems like the only solution. Please trust that it is not, no matter how often you think about it; force yourself to get through the next hour and the one after that. Little by little, resistance to the parasite in your head will build up. One day, you too will look around and be amazed not just at how you survived but at how you thrived against all odds. Now I can see I did even though progress was so tiny as to be invisible.
Although my parents are still tangling the reality of stage 4 cancer in Paris and neuropathic toxicity means my stepmom can no longer have chemo, we’re not half a world apart anymore. I’ll attend the next oncology appointment with them at the end of January, and now that I live so close I can be there the same day if needed. Meanwhile, my birth mom’s physical and mental decline took a nose dive in the six years I spent in the US so I’m hoping it’s not too late to help her navigate the next stage of her life.
Looking at my surroundings is the best way to embrace the now and all the possibilities it offers instead of squandering it fearing the future. 2019 was the year my family and I learned to live differently as my parents came to terms with the reality of stage 4 cancer. We aren’t unaware of what lies ahead but we made a conscious decision to make the most of the time we’ve got left together and we recommit to it every single day. We cherish the present moment and endeavor to stretch it as far as it’ll go.
Right now, how to make the most of the space in this small Dutch apartment occupies my every thought as I review what few possessions I have and what additional essentials I need to acquire. There are still a few more in Paris but everything fits into three suitcases, one backpack, and a couple of tote bags. Whenever my eyes come to rest on the joyous mess around me, I can’t help but smile. All of it, including the ginormous pack of toilet rolls bought on a whim because it was on special offer, is evidence of the new life I have been writing up since the summer of 2018 to pull myself out of illness and hardship.
I’m not there yet but I am no longer isolated, no longer adrift, no longer trapped in my own head holding my own hand. Despite the surrounding chaos, everything in this home has a meaning, a purpose, and a place; the temporary mess feels like defiant victory against the inertia of depressive darkness. And it is beautiful and bright, bursting with joy.
When our mind is on the next best thing, we no longer see what is directly around and in front of us. We’re so busy projecting ourselves into the future that we miss the present and even dismiss it as a hindrance we categorize into lists of chores. And then we try and come up with ways to avoid doing them because they take us away from teleporting into a future we know nothing about.
Is there ever a moment so unpleasant we can’t find any redeeming grace in it by reframing it as a step toward greater ease? And when did we become such helpless creatures that we need to relearn how to take care of ourselves and of one another? When common sense is given the Japanese hipster treatment, bloggers boast about their cleaner for clicks and bucks, and the antics of rogue robotic vacuums set the internet on fire, has the human race finally given up on itself?
Instant gratification culture has made us lazy and careless; many of us inevitably choose the path of least resistance and coast. Until one day we wake up buried alive by our possessions and realize we’ve been hoarding junk because we became oblivious to our environment. And who wants to live surrounded by the refuse of decaying or dead greed? Where is the poetry, where is the grace in that?
When we fail to consider the impact of our environment onto our psyche, sooner or later, it hits us with a few home truths and a crash course in the difference between need and greed, mess and filth, convenience and laziness. And, inevitably, between life and death.
But what if instead of bemoaning the drudgery of life we embraced it as incontrovertible proof we are in fact still gloriously and messily alive? As Tracy Emin’s controversial “My Bed” showed those who could see it, everything is art if only you open your eyes.
The simple joy of spotting beauty in everything and everyone is a life-affirming practice. Even the most annoying of noises can be melodious after a while if you listen with intent. It is also oddly self-limiting: the tiniest of wows goes the longest of ways. As a result, you may find yourself wanting less and less (of whatever it is); when you’re busy appreciating what you have, you have no interest in coveting what you don’t.
And when we direct our attention to the task at hand, life finds a way of showing us the common and the familiar under another light. The more we look, the more life begins to wow us in innumerable tiny ways, as it reveals to us the lyric poetry of ordinariness.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.