Leaving and staying

I’m thinking about selling my house. We’ve been an uneasy match for a while now, and the problem isn’t me, it’s the house. It’s not a bad house – actually, it’s a good house – but it’s a house, and I am not a house guy. A house guy can do things with his hands to help his house. He can paint front porches with minimum fretting and fuss; he can put up curtain rods or sand down doorjambs, or whatever they’re called. He probably has some sort of toolbox, and knows what’s inside it.

This is the first time in my adult life that I’ve lived in a house, and it turns out that I’m more of an apartment guy. In an apartment, any maintenance is localized and can be reached without a stepladder; your biggest challenge is standing on a chair to change a light bulb. Apartment chores don’t sit forever on a to-do list, mocking you for not being sure if you need some special tool to clean out the gutters. Gutters aren’t things that occur to you in an apartment.

But a strange thing happened the moment I decided to sell. I knew it would happen, because by now I know the treacherous shoals and rapids of my mind, but I was surprised by how forceful it was. It was this: as soon as I thought my relationship with my house was over, I was free to fall back in love. It’s a splendid house. It was built in 1886 and has ceilings too high for any domestic stepladder and walls the width of my waist. It’s cool in summer and in winter the pale morning light turns the rooms the colour of warm beer. Generations have lived and dreamed and grown happily old here. And suddenly I’m aware of all the space. I can wander upstairs and down and drift through the day from one room to another. I can get a reasonable cardio workout while trying to decide what sentence to write next.

I don’t know why I always need to almost lose something before I can start seeing past its problems, but perhaps that’s a thought-experiment I can apply to other areas.

This week Jonny Steinberg wrote a piece for Buzzfeed – of all places to find hope and solace – that has been fallen upon with hungry gratitude by people like me who love this country and want to stop feeling the way we’ve lately been feeling. It’s titled “Why I’m Moving Back to South Africa”, and explains his decision to leave behind a tenured position in the green quads and gentle meadows of Oxford and return to the mean, contested streets of Johannesburg.

For Steinberg it’s about the moments of interaction and human connection, the decision “to surrender myself to a world so much bigger than I am and to the destiny of a nation I cannot control. In this surrender is an expansion, a flowering, of what it means to be alive.”

But in a way it doesn’t matter what his reasons are. We all find meaning in different places and the relief of reading his rather beautiful and unblinking piece was in being reminded that some people do still find it a meaning worth finding.

The day before I read it, I’d made the mistake of looking at the social media early in the morning. The social media create an enclosed space in which rash opinions are encouraged but don’t dissipate – they reverberate and rebound off the glass walls to create an amplified microclimate of drama slightly bemusing to people outside.

On Facebook I saw a post from someone publicly musing about leaving the country. Although my respect for the man is partial at best, and I wouldn’t take advice from him on book choices or television shows, the effect of social media is the implanting of voices in your head. It doesn’t matter how worthless or habitually mistaken the voice, it’s still there, the most recent thing you’ve heard, and the influence of proximity counts powerfully in the hierarchy of opinions. All that day I felt heaviness and dread and doubt. Is everyone thinking of leaving? Should I be? Am I being feckless and reckless and Polyannaish by not thinking about leaving myself?

I thought about it yesterday. I replicated my house-moving experience, and imagined that I’d made the decision to leave, that I’m on my way out. I thought about what I’d leave behind and precisely what I’d be going to. Imagining it as a decision made, something real, helps you see past the problems of where you are, and past the glowing best-case projections of where you’re going. Afterwards I still felt thoughtful, but calmer. It’s a good exercise. Another good exercise is to spend less time on social media.

Times, 19 February 2015


[A note on this column: it took another three years before I finally moved out.]