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My Body My Home
Meandering through my home and compiling a list of summer projects I'm struck by the notion that I treat my house the same way I treat my 50-something body. Mostly I care about how it feels and how it works -- not how it looks. People who visit comment on how "comfortable" the place is. Comfortable's good. It's not "beautiful" or "stunning." But most days it'll do. But then there are those other days . . . as when I've agreed to host a big party or my in-laws are coming to dinner. I rush around cleaning and think I have it nailed. Then, 2 minutes before the guests arrive, I notice scratches that have always been there and think, "The food had better be good cuz this place is not going to impress..."

Living in the U.S., I absorbed the notion that "bigger is better" and that "newer is definitely better."  American couples live in spaces that could accommodate 6 Chinese families! More times than I care to count I've attended functions in homes that looked like they'd never been caressed by a child's muddy hand. Proud owners of spotless mansions would beam as their guests raved about how wonderful their houses (and by extension their selves) were. Before the event even got started I'd wish I were home in my little place that was "not quite up to par."

Then I moved to New Zealand. A colleague with three rambunctious children invited me to her home for "tea." (We call it dinner.) Carefully attired, I found my way to a meandering home behind a "typical" English garden. I was enchanted until we got to the "lounge" (living room). Clutter is putting it mildly. Toys were scattered, drapes askew, old cups sat on the coffee table. Was I here on the wrong day? I felt like I was intruding on their private lives. But no, I was invited to join the family for tea. They saw no need to tidy up. After all, whoM were they trying to impress? Over the years I was invited to many homes and, while host and hostess bustled a good deal with food and entertainment, no one (and no house) showed any sign of the manic cleaning that used to go on in my place getting ready for guests. Eventually I learned to do without it myself, to prepare for guests with a focus on food, comfort, and entertainment.

Mostly, with home and body, I care about how it feels and how it works. But from time-to-time I yield to that old judgmental gaze. I step on the scale or look at a photo and think, "not quite up to par." I see spots on the windows and decide to give them a good cleaning, "Just in case someone drops in." And after that there's nothing to do but shake my head and laugh.

What do you think? Anybody share my neuroses?
Hi Amanda,
I think one reason for the difference between new zealand and the US is the definition of what is your home. Your home for new zealandars, and I'm imagining as I've sadly never been there though heard many great stories, is also one's land. This kind of view then makes cleanness and order take on a different form. You allow different kinds of shrubs and plants to grow as long as they don't bother the horses say, or the important plants. A healthy balance is what is important; nature is wild and you don't try to tame it too much.

I would also suggest a similar view of the body. The body in your example is not necessarily only a metaphor as where does our body start and where does it end. Is our body only our physical body, or does it have extensions - to our house, our car, our land. I think in both of these places the extension of the body is different. I don't know new zealand to say anything about it, but for many in the US, buying a new house or a new car is like having gone to the gym and getting new biceps. They feel improved, upgraded.

Personally, I like the New Zealand approach. But, I wasn't born there, and for me guests usually means tidying up. Though I'm improving and have started to allow people to come to a messy house - I didn't use to do that. I think they don't mind.
Hi Virgina,

I appreciate your note, which raises some intriguing aspects of self, nature, and other. In many ways I think Kiwis respect wildness more than Americans. They certainly take better care of their environment (There's a major effort to protect streams from No. American contaminants. Whenever I take my hiking boots back after hiking in the US the nice man at customs insists on cleaning them with bleach.) At the same time, coming from the western US we were struck by the thorough fencing of sheep farms. Those fences enclose every foot of space and are well-maintained.  I'd always thought of the fences as an effort to contain nature (the sheep). Now I wonder whether they might be at least in part about protecting wild areas from the sheep. So yes, wild is appreciated in NZ in a way that it's not in America.

Sometimes I think this extends to presentation of self. For instance, when I went there I carefully grew and painted my nails because it made me feel "done." I quickly realized no one else bothered with this and learned to keep my nails short&plain. I also learned to let my hair just "be." It's always been a little wild, and the kiwi who cut it for me finally said, "Don't bother to brush it. Just comb the tangles out and leave it alone." It's a different look, but somehow more congruent with my kiwi self as I know it.

I do like the kiwi approach. Now I'm part-time in the US and part-time there, so it's a bit hard to maintain. I agree with you - I don't think people mind a messy house. They're focusing on other things.

b.t.w: I see in your profile that you're in Paris and would be interested to know how that setting compares with the US experience. We're off to visit next week & I found a fun book in a used book store: Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't be Wrong. It's by a couple of Canadians - a bit dated and sometimes inaccurate but they have some interesting perspectives on what happens when No Americans encounter the French.

In response to Amanda Barusch
Just wanted to respond to your last note. Have a wonderful time in Paris! It's a marvelous city. Just beware of French restaurants in August -- as I recall all the chefs go on vacation.
Here's a pointer to some thoughts on French vs American relations to the body, which dovetails with this discussion; and Misia had some nice recommendations here on Paris itself. Also, you might look for Robb's Discovery of France, which I've heard great things about but haven't managed to get my hands on yet.
Books Discussed
The Discovery of France
by Graham Robb

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Latest Post: November 21, 2009 at 12:39 AM
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