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Beauty & the bedside table

Listen here instead.

This mug. The chess set. The Monstera plant in the corner. The chook shed.

I’m sitting at the kitchen bench looking for objects that bring me joy. The chess set is a piece of handmade artistry that we splurged on in the Grand Bazaar and somehow lugged back in a backpack squeezed between winter jackets and a jar of olives that we were trying to pickle on the road (spoiler alert: it didn’t work). The Monstera plant was a refugee from a stranger’s front yard renovation. The chook shed was a 2020 COVID project from things that had been collecting debris under the deck. And this mug. Well, it came into my life over a decade ago as a result of spotting an open home-studio garage somewhere under the subtropical canopy of the Northern Rivers. It also has magical powers, so there’s that.

None of the things that hold my attention are new appliances. None of them are from a giant box store that we used to wander through for hours designing a home from the rug up. They’re there, for sure. But they’re a bit transparent. What I do see are handmade ceramic plates and teapots and jugs that we’ve collected during road trips. I see a guitar that I stole from a friend almost 16 years ago. I see antique canning jars from my grandmother’s cellar. I see books. So many books. I see a chopping board that Josh made from a Camphor Laurel tree cut down on the farm.

And when I write it out like this it almost feels arrogant. It makes my home seem luxurious beyond measure, decadent even. I feel a pang of guilt for all the beauty I’ve hoarded up in this one small space.

And all these achingly beautiful things have a thread of commonality between them. They’re less of a thing and more of a story. Specifically, they’re part of our family’s story.

I have finally, to my absolute pleasure, started reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. In 1845 he built and lived in a simple cabin in the woods of Massachusetts in an attempt to find out what is essential in life. In the construction of his cottage, he muses that “[architectural] beauty I now see...has gradually grown from within outward, out of the necessities and character of the indweller...out of some unconscious truthfulness, and nobleness...and whatever additional beauty is destined to be produced will be preceded by a like unconscious beauty of life” (Walden, 1845). So, a house is only as beautiful as the lives lived within it.

I’ve often thought of this as ‘embodied energy.’ Consider for a moment that everything we own was made from resources that were grown or hewn or dug out of the earth then shipped and formed or constructed or sewn or robotically assembled before we welcomed it into our homes. But some of these things have a weight to them, an inanimate gravitas that turns them into more than the sum of their parts. Something heirloomed or handmade or something you chiseled yourself out of a foundation stone from your family’s historic farmhouse. You know, that kind of thing.

A genuine timber item imbues not just its look, but the energy of the soil, the tree, the timber getter, the saw miller, the carpenter. Any imperfections speak of insects and storms, faltering hands, previous use. The beauty of the thing isn’t just in the way it looks, it’s embedded, embodied even, in the energy used to produce it. It’s (not-so)simple physics: E=MC2. Matter is energy and, despite the tacky chiasmus, energy matters.

For the better part of this century, the nouveau peasant, boho aesthetic has been sweeping through cafes, home decorating shops, and my Pinterest feed. Not even toy stores are safe from the steady surge of 50 shades of beige. It is neutral and minimalist and classy and biodegradable and I love it. But I also wince at the irony that I can use my Linen Lovers to get 30% off an item that was mass-produced in a Bangladeshi factory to look like something my great-grandmother would have had next to her wood-fired stove (in fact Smeg makes a stunning freestanding stove that looks just like great granny’s.) The consumer trend then, for those of us with the expendable budget to keep up with it, is to mimic, but not necessarily live, a simple, essentialist life.

This kind of irony deserves a postmodern French sociologist. Jean Baudrillard was interested in the role late 20th-century media played in our lives and in particular, was fascinated by the effect of replication on culture. He talked about things becoming ‘hyperreal’ - so real that they replaced the originals in the collective psyche. In other words, the way modern technology and media had allowed us to separate ourselves from reality by interacting with things that remind us of reality instead. Think - Disneyland or social media or those deli slices that come in a vacuum-packed bag (for freshness). It’s LIKE food, but is it really? He called this phenomenon ‘Simulacra.’

So that thing on the shelf (next to all the other things that look just like it) appears rustic. It looks a bit artisanal. It may be made out of natural materials or at a bare minimum, have been dyed a light tan. It’s made out of eclectic fibers, has a sloppy glaze, and has been ‘distressed.’ It has a genuine, sustainably grown timber handle finished with beeswax, a kangaroo leather strap, and smells like campfires and freshly baked hippies. They look like the kinds of objects rural peasants or Indonesian villagers might have in their homes. Or hippies. They harken a romantic narrative of working with your hands, a deep knowledge of practical skills, community connection, and slow, simple living. But they’re not. They’re a perfect simulacrum. A copy of a thing that has disconnected us from the thing itself.

I don’t want this to be a big steamy dump on buying nice things for your house. I want new bedside tables. Our current set are repainted Reject Shop specials we bought for $20 when we first got married. They do not spark joy, but they hold socks alright. I also want to renovate my bathroom. It’s a bit (a lot) ugly. I’d like one of those arched rattan mirrors and glasses that aren’t recycled peanut butter jars and a nice doona cover. It’s also why I need to read Walden, because Thoreau reminds me every morning over a cup of tea in an excellent mug, that the beauty of my home is about the life I make within it, not the Scandanavian mid-century coffee table that would look amazing in the living room.

Like everything, it’s about balance. So I want to pitch an idea. We’ve all heard of the slow cooking movement (sourdough has devoured much more of my time than I have of it). What I’m suggesting is slow shopping. That is, instead of using our affluence to feed the instant gratification monster and parody an essentialist life, to make an honest attempt to begin living it. By buying more intentionally we let the story of our lives fill our homes with objects glistening with meaning.

It’s the dinner plates you bought from the markets on a holiday up North. It’s the wonky beanie you tried to knit for your kid (with a decorative hand-carved button from a local woodworking shop to cover up the giant hole where you dropped ALL the stitches). The vintage cocktail glasses you’ve been collecting from thrift shops. And hopefully some nice bedside tables with drawers on runners. It’s a bit annoying, and also really rewarding to sit in your living room and remember how rich you experiences, in stories, in memories, in life. Because like my mug, our homes are made beautiful because of the lives lived within them, not furniture and throw cushions (maybe partly because of the throw cushions). Think of it as a weatherboard and tile autobiography. As Muriel Rukeyser penned, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” and the same is true of the place you cook your dinners and crawl into bed at night.

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