Thursday, 28 November 2019

Boundaries, space and peace

In the blog post before this one, I wrote in part about how we live in our household of four separate adult individuals. DMW, one of our friends who comments here, wrote this in response (in the comment thread that developed):

"Why are we so stuck in the conventional? I love it that you have found a way to allow your lives to be so separate and individualized, yet so intertwined! It seems you are all very respectful and mindful of each other, and each other's needs. I suspect that took a lot of cooperative trial and error to get to! I don't know that I could do it without a good chunk of space of my own. I seem to need a lot of space, and a lot of my own things around me. Of course, I've had that luxury for a long time, but may not have it much longer. Have thought of combining with grown children and their children. Kids would shift that dynamic significantly though, I think!"

There was so much in that interesting and thoughtful comment, I felt I couldn't do it justice in commenting back. I wanted to pick it up here and consider it at greater length.

"so separate and individualized, yet so intertwined!"
That is a perfect description of our lives here!

"I suspect that took a lot of cooperative trial and error to get to! "
Yes — it is actually a balancing act that we do find challenging and difficult. One of us, Hebe, sometimes comments that the daily struggle (that's not overstating it) to live together in peace and kindness is something very nourishing for our souls. She says when we experience intense irritation and find each other unbearable, the problem is never "them" and always "me". It gives us a chance to notice reactions in ourselves we'd likely remain blissfully unaware of otherwise, and gives us a chance we might otherwise never have to notice to develop patience and forbearance towards one another.

We are also careful to discuss any changes or developments fully and make decisions slowly. One example is the plants in the garden — there is an overall shape and plan to our garden, but within that we have fitted all our individual special requests and requirements. For instance, Alice wanted to grow roses, I wanted to grow vegetables and herbs, Hebe wanted us to leave in place some wild plants we might otherwise have weeded out (eg Heal-All, Dandelion and Yarrow) as they are powerfully medicinal, and Tony wanted a pond. But we all agreed on planting fruit trees in a grassy section sown with wild meadow flowers, both for the bees and butterflies and also so our small garden could be both a place to sit and relax and wander, and return a food harvest. Going for trees in effect made our food patch aerial and still left us grass to sit on that simultaneously offered the planting variety pollinators need. As our garden is not very large, that took a lot of discussion and consultation.

"I don't know that I could do it without a good chunk of space of my own."

I think you put your finger on something important here. This is an issue many minimalists pick up. Marie Kondo (KonMarie) speaks of the necessity to zone homes so that each person has his or own space. This cultivates responsibility. I have noticed that in homes where there's a lot of clutter putting pressure and stress on the people who live there, the household members typically blame each other and fail to identify their own contribution to the problem of accumulation. Zoning the home and restricting a person's storage of possessions to that person's own zone very quickly makes clear who has issues of accumulation, dirt or untidiness to address. 

In our household, though we are by nature people who dislike confrontation and conflict, all of us having a strong need for peace and harmony, we have nonetheless learned to be more candid and direct than we naturally feel comfortable being, to make sure when there is a problem it doesn't escalate. At first this could be misunderstood as hostility or criticism, and we've had to learn to keep our nerve and insist on speaking up when we have an issue about something. This preserves clarity and peace between us. It defends a mental "space of my own". As it's said, good fences make good neighbours.

Some other minimalists and tiny house dwellers speak of the importance of having one's own special place of retreat — even a shed or an attic or a cupboard will do. The fewer possessions one has, the more realistic this is. A place for quiet time, a place to reflect and be still. If you live with other people, it is essential to have a refuge for withdrawal. This is true even for people who feel no need of it — because others need a rest from them. I remember when our friend Giles used to come and stay as a weekend guest, while our children were still young. He'd make a practice of withdrawing to his room to read for stretches of time during the day, which gave him space from us and us from him. An excellent guest! And by 8pm every evening I would require my children to go to their rooms — we in effect practised the monastic Grand Silence. Often one or other would protest she wasn't tired, and I'd explain that, while that might be so, I was tired of the company of other people, and keeping peace between us was achieved by keeping space between us. So, some forms of quiet space are achieved by timing and silence as well as house layout.

"I seem to need a lot of space, and a lot of my own things around me."

Yes, I also feel the need to have my own things around me. I have tried hard, several times, to manage without a space to call my own. Though I can keep it up for a few weeks or months, it does wear me down over time. I have very few possessions, but I do like them to be where I can see them all in one place. For that reason, I actually prefer to have fewer things and a smaller room, because if I had a whole house to myself I would never have my own things around me — they'd be scattered throughout the rooms of the house. I am always willing to give up my belongings, that's a discipline of simplicity for me, but I do treasure and enjoy them.

"I've thought of combining with grown children and their children. Kids would shift that dynamic significantly though, I think!"

With my own children (when they were young), I was immensely indebted to what I'd learned and observed in monastic and other community settings. Instead of rotas and allocated chores, we adopted (at my preference) the monastic way of noticing what someone needs or what needs doing. Rosters and allocations tend to leave untended unallocated margins and encourage a "not my turn" attitude, which feels cold and unloving.
I realised, too, that the monastic practise of "custody of the eyes" (similar to minding your own business) gives other people breathing room in densely populated settings. You maintain Chinese walls. You chose not to hear and see. In a communal setting, the privacy of each of us is the gift of all of us.

There are also rabbit holes down which one can disappear — eg the bath, a book, a computer — allowing one to be present but not present, so obtaining the advantage of non-geographical space.

When my children were little, we began the practice of being honest and open with them about whatever was happening in our lives — rather than drawing battle lines between children and adults, where the adults present a solid front against the children, issuing edicts and fait accomplis. If there was any matter over which it proved impossible to reach agreement and accommodation (this happened over television at times), we simply removed the source of contention from the household altogether. 

We also, with children, adopted the approach of cauldron magic rather than sword magic. That is to say, we followed the feminine (uterine) energy of the circle in which each person's place is equidistant from the centre, each one of equal status and worthy of equal respect. Of course the needs of a two-year-old girl are not the same as those of a fifteen-year-old boy; but they are equally to be respected and considered. No one is more important than anyone else. Discipline is a matter of self-control and of natural consequence. That's cauldron magic. Sword magic is the other kind of energy — masculine (phallic), top-down, hierarchical and authoritative, with an emphasis on leadership, obedience and command, and discipline achieved through reward and punishment. We chose cauldron magic. We liked it better.

One final thing — a comment about kids.

I found it demanding but do-able to run a household as a young woman. I had five babies within six years. We lived in a small (3-bedroomed) row house. We often had stray adults living or staying with us. Making it all work was not easy, especially with church work and writing etc as well. But I could do it.

However, in the second half of my adult life, as a grandmother, as a stepmother, and as the adult daughter of an aged mother whose memory is failing and whose choices are increasingly less shrewd, I have found the only effective and respectful course of action was to more or less withdraw. My ideas of how to raise children and run a home are substantially different from my daughter's; we have different priorities. It is not appropriate for me to impose mine on her, nor would I find it acceptable to have hers imposed on me. My mother asked of me what I could not give, and refused what I did have to offer. At this stage of her life, it would be very helpful for my mother if I were to move in with her — but I couldn't do it. I have found that distance and space have protected these relationships which are very important and precious to me, where too much intimacy and proximity would have led to deterioration and conflict.

For this reason, I personally would not be in a hurry to move in to an already formed household structure (including children). I know it can be done — my daughter's mother-in-law has moved in with my daughter and family on a permanent basis. They make it work because they are all exceptionally kind and gracious people, but I think it's quite a challenge in their small house. They have very little personal space, and a lot to fit in. I think you're absolutely right that kids shift the dynamic, but I think it may be having two mothers under one roof that creates the problem, not the kids as such.  It's hard enough running the thing with just your own approach, without having to constantly factor in somebody else's — unless the home is big enough to zone into territories.  Some people are very comfortable with a three-generation household, but it either needs agreement over what kind of magic to use (cauldron or sword), or serious and possibly unequally weighted forbearance.


Anonymous said...

Goodness! I'm honored!
I love the description of cauldron versus sword. I want to examine that more in depth. And yes, I really do think I need a space of my own at this point. We will see what the future will bring.

Pen Wilcock said...


Waving to you! May all go well as you explore your pathway forward. May you find it full of unexpected happiness every day.

Anonymous said...

Thanks and blessings!