Saturday, September 20, 2014

Lessons from Britain

Our home here in Santa Fe is still under renovation, but we've turned one major corner. People who come by to work or drop things off no longer survey the scene and wonder what kind of crazy people would live in our place. We now get constant compliments calling our place "really nice" and "wonderful." One of the things I love about it is how small it is, and I know I didn't get my preference for small spaces from growing up in New Mexico. The American west, when I was a kid, was all about big houses with giant great rooms. Because land was relatively cheap, people would take advantage of the space they could have.

No, my preference for small, cozy spaces definitely comes from my time in Britain. I first lived over there when I was seventeen, attending the United World College of the Atlantic in south Wales. That was the first time I'd ever seen drizzle that didn't let up for weeks. Her in New Mexico, rain visits for a few hours and then is gone, and drizzle is rare. We tend to get pounded with big droplets that saturate everything before the sun comes out to bake it all dry again.

A lot of people find the weather in the UK oppressive, and I did too for a long time. It's difficult to go from a place where you can see mountains 40 miles away out your window to a place where visibility of one mile is extraordinary. It's possible in a situation like that to feel claustrophobic even when hiking outdoors. I wasn't used to dryness being a luxury, but in a climate where your laundry will get wet again between the laundry room and the dorm, and then stay wet because there's nothing like a dryer in the dorm, mold and rot become all too constant companions.

I have good memories from this time too, though. I remember lying in my cot as a second year, when I got to sleep right by the window with my bed up against the radiator. I'd fall asleep to the sound of raindrops hitting the glass, but be secure in my little cocoon of warmth.

When I moved on to Oxford, even though I had my own room, it was a small room and as this was the time when I was battling a yet-undiagnosed sleep disorder, it paid to have a small area to take care of. I soon figured out how much work it took to keep a living space in order. My energy levels were so low, that there were points in my life when I wouldn't even bother to fold the sun-shade in my car because I didn't have the energy. People laughed, but I was quite serious. I shouldn't have been driving either, but at the time I had no diagnosis or test results to show what on earth was going on. It was in the UK that I saw people living in little cottages and cozy spaces. Few could afford the square footage that a western American family was accustomed to, but they were no poorer for all that. Even now, when house hunting, just stepping into a large house made me feel tired. I imagined all the hours it'd take to clean and want to get out immediately.

This last time I lived in the UK, when my husband did his PhD in London, we moved into a space so small that even my British friends thought it was extreme. While it certainly had its downsides, it always felt manageable. My sleep disorder has long since been treated, but we did have a baby in the UK who screamed a lot. A rough night with him meant only getting sleep in 20 minute increments. All during this time, I felt too exhausted to keep the place in perfect order, but I never felt completely overwhelmed by the housework.

Besides that, it was wonderful to be in a small space with my children, because even when I sat at my computer and worked, I got a lot of interaction with them. I knew what they were doing and heard what they said and they needed only to call out to get my full attention. On a visit back to the US, where I stayed with relatives who had typical, American-sized homes, I found it almost impossible to multi-task. I either followed my boys around, or got work done. There was no doing both. Some people value having the space where they can shut the rest of life out for a while. I don't. I like to be in the thick of life and living whenever I'm at home. I like having my boys able to explore and play on their own without ever being entirely on their own. This way I can helicopter, without butting in unless their play gets dangerous.

When we came back to the US, for a year we rented a small home in Los Alamos that was still too big, and was laid out to provide separation and privacy. My children could easily get out of sight and out of earshot, so when we went looking for a home to buy, I told the realtor to show us small places. Our current home was one of the first candidates. It took me all of five minutes to tour and I told her that this was the sort of thing we were looking for. To her credit, she took me at my word.

The more I live here, the more I love it. It's not cramped or confining. It's got all the types of space we need, and only as much as we need. People see that I have two sons and a husband over six feet tall and wonder how it is I could commit to a place that will soon be packed to the gills with people and life, and there may come a time when we upsize, but it's not part of my firm future plans. I'm curious to see of my boys really do outgrow the space, or whether we ever feel like we need more "stuff" and places to put it. For now, though, we're quite happy as we are.

(I know, the title and the timing made it look like I'd talk about Scotland. The truth is, I've been to Scotland all of twice in my adult life. I lived in the UK long enough to appreciate what I don't know, and my degree in politics from a British university only confirms that. The Union was and is a matter for the people who belong to it. I was only ever a visitor.)

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