The Rooms We Occupy

I retain the unfortunate habit of hiding my cell phone from myself.

While moving around the apartment, straightening up and putting things back into their allotted place, I might find that my cell phone is perched precariously on a plastic granola tub on the top of our refrigerator. This discovery comes only after spending some twenty additional minutes searching through various, seemingly random hiding places that I have used in instances past. I search through the piles of clothes in my bedroom chair, behind frying pans, and on the floor beside the bathroom door.  While it may seem unsportsmanlike that I have knowledge of these hiding locations (and that I am, in fact, the person that puts the phone there in the first place), the mystery is maintained by spans of amnesic forgetfulness that I seem to experience while dealing with household objects and, on occasion, life in general.

But, there then comes a shining moment in my personality when I use these instances to explain or discuss a concept of literary novelty.

Like when the sight of a messy room leads to quoting Betty Friedan.

Seeing snack wrappers scattered over my desk, makeup containers on the floor, and worn socks lining the path to my bed inevitably makes me think about the space that I occupy here at the Casa de Guorong. My room is of decent size, and after emptying my two suitcases of clothing and a year’s supply of deodorant into the shelves and corners of the space, I am still left with a half-room of sitting/reading/living area. But as often as I see the floor in the half-room my moving body occupies, I also see piles of books and the trinkets I am collecting papering the walkways, eating up all available nooks and crannies with ravenous hunger.

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Eric’s room…which I also occupy

And I end up subjecting my roommates to Betty Friedan’s notions on Filling the Spaces that are Available to Us. This concept, more commonly referred to as Work Expands to Fill the Time Available, was used by Friedan to explain a complex phenomenon occurring in the households of twentieth-century America. With the explosion of technological innovation after World War II came the mechanical solution to almost any problem a housewife could face during her womanly duties. Dishes keeping you from waxing the floors? Put those plates in a dish washer and get off your knees! You have a floor waxing machine; now you can perform with double the efficiency and not even smudge your lipstick!

But it seems that the opposite was true for the American housewife. Women in the fifties were spending more time on housework that even before the advent of dishwashing technology. And, at least to Friedan, this was because housework expanded to fill the quiet, desperate hours housewives accumulated while waiting for their husbands to return from fulfilling work outside of home. The home was something that a man would come back to after occupying other spaces, like the office, the gym, and his mistress’ apartment, but it was the nexus of his female counterpart’s existence.

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Just please read this please

And, in a similar manner, my clothes creep from the bedroom chair and make settlements in spaces that exist to be open, free of clutter, like ironing linens crept into the housewife’s allotted time for the reading of anything else besides a cookbook. Time works against the absence of accumulation, and thus my two suitcases grew to fill both half-rooms in the two months that I have been living here. No matter how many times I have attempted to barricade the empty floor space from infestation, dirty socks multiply while I sleep.

I verbally marvel at this spectacle while my roommates nod in affirmation and with various degrees of interest. It is much to their chagrin that I start these tangents in the first place. But some things cannot be helped. Like seeing my words in big, bold Word Art, pushing the spaces of silence further and further into the white drywall as I speak. Expanding to Fill the Spaces Available. It is beautifully tragic.

This small-scale, militaristic occupation of inanimate objects serves as the residual of life experiences much like blackened, inky hands prove that you have read the morning paper.  Snack wrappers linger only when I am too busy out Living to throw them in the trash bin; makeup containers are the various faces that I wear, lipstick outlines keeping linear boundaries between myself and the outside world; worn socks are the steps that I have taken to get where I am, travels that leave me dirty and a little smelly more often than not.

And if these objects, these things, are the residue of experiences that we have, then the rooms we occupy are the space holders in which we contain those experiences. What remains of us in the rooms that we occupy, in the spaces we call ours?

This weekend alone, I occupied many rooms, many spaces that I had never occupied before. On our trip to Taichung, I occupied a high-speed rail car, two different hostel rooms, a few restaurants, and the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, among other places. I expanded from the city limits of Yilan, into Taipei by bus, and then through the HSR station, winding my way through the masses of congestion and frustration to our bullet train. The convenience of the HSR titillated my travelling fancy, and I was glued to the window for the entire ride from Taipei to Taichung. Ticket in hand, I occupied a worn seat shared by so many others going from Point A to Point B, just trying to make it home in time for supper, which would be no more exciting or bland than usual. But the space that I occupied was one of newness and excitement and extra leg room.

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Departing from the HSR station in Taichung, we boarded a crowded public bus, where we sat with bags and suitcases stacked on top of us, wedging our limbs into wherever space remained. This cramped, stuffy bus was where I caught my first glimpses of Taichung, a sprawling city with a strangely American tinge, a city of skyscrapers and Starbucks, squat pots and night markets. At the hostel, I occupied a room with ten other people in bunk beds, two by two by two. Some of these people I knew, some of them I didn’t. I scrambled up the ladder to my bunk that night, occupying the very first hostel bed of my life. Never mind that my bunkmate snored; I was living in a communal space that connected travelers from all over the world, for one, brief moment that would never happen again. For that instant, the spaces that we occupied overlapped.

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And after a slew of festivals and bike rides, this group of nine tourists occupied one of the more tourist-y locations in Taichung: the National Museum of Fine Arts. And there, the rooms that we occupied had a weighty splendor, heavy with artists’ intended meaning and the individual interpretations of every viewer who ambled past each air-conditioned exhibit.

And there I found the inspiration for this blog post: Saudade, by Wang Po-Yen. “In Portuguese, ‘Saudade’ is a word that describes a nostalgic longing for the past or a sentimental feeling towards the passing of time. Studying or working, the beginning or the end of a relationship; for various reasons we constantly encounter new places.  The time we spend in the rooms where we live are akin to a journey. We familiarize ourselves with the locals and scenery before we eventually part ways.”

saudade

The exhibit is a series of digital panels that overlay natural sceneries with the rooms that the artist has occupied during various phases of his life. While the artwork was of high quality and was aesthetically pleasing, I found myself standing in front of the exhibit lost in my own reverie. I harkened back to the rooms that I have occupied, the spaces that I have filled.  The den in my grandmother’s old house, where I shattered a vase I knocked from an end table and cried while Grandmother cleaned up the glass shards and quieted me in her sweet Southern drawl. The frat house I happened upon my first week of college and vowed to never return to. My hotel room in Cuba, furnished by artifacts of another era and smelling of old leather. The airport terminal in Shanghai where I slept, waiting out the storm that kept me from returning home. The computer lab at National Taiwan University, where I sat in front of an email marked ‘urgent’ and read the word “cancer” on loop as my world fell apart. The Galt House lobby that middle-school choir kids called The Gaudy House. Places that I hadn’t thought about in years. Flooding back into the space that I was occupying here, in Taiwan.

In my freshman dorm room, while I was waiting for sleep to find me one solitary night, I instead found a small crack in the cinder block walls just within reach from my bed. This crack became my own personal secret, a piece of knowledge that I carried with me and shared with no one else. I actually may have never told anyone this story until just now.

But I found use for this crack on the night that I moved out of the room, not only for the end of the semester, but for good. I was going to the eighth floor of Minton Hall the next year, where I would meet one of the best roommates and friends of my collegiate experience (You my friend, Karri Blanton). But on the night I left the sixth floor, I wrote a note to the future occupant of my room. I told her that everything was going to be okay. That there were going to be some stressful and unpleasant times in this room. That this room would see things that we wouldn’t trust anyone else to see. But after a year, she could look back at the empty room that had she frantically ransacked hours previously to make it out on time, and she could think of this space as either a space that she merely occupied, or a space that she Lived in.  And I told her that I hoped she Lived.

We remember rooms and spaces not for their brick and mortar, but for what happens in them. Experiences from anonymous persons coat the space like the wallpaper in old buildings. The patterns are continually layered over each other instead of being removed before applying the next motif, in an effort to reinforce the walls. This creates a unique mosaic of human history both shared and exclusively your own.

We have the opportunity to make our mark on the Spaces we Occupy, the Space Available to Us.  But we will also, inevitably, leave with blackened, inky hands, residual from the experiences of those who came before. I often wish that I could see the hands of those who will come after, to meet the faces paired with those inky hands and hear the stories that they will tell. But for now, leaving my own, forgetful and tangent-prone ink trail will suffice.

 

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“Women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time the very walls are permeated by their creative force, which has, indeed, so overcharged the capacity of bricks and mortar that it must needs harness itself to pens and brushes and business and politics.”

― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

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