In the year 2010 I slept more than 200 nights on a couch.
I had both a bedroom and a bed, but there was this transitional feeling of sleeping on a sofa that I liked – this sense that you weren’t allowed to drift off from life for too long. My roommate and I took to sleeping on the couches that year and rolled off early in the morning to get on with our lives.
When I go visit my parents, I don’t sleep in that stupid guest room that’s not my room anymore – I sleep on the couch. This way I hear my father stirring in the morning when he reads the paper and thinks about our family so I get up and sit on the couch and think with him.
I’ve been looking for the right couch for almost a year now but have yet to make a purchase. I’ve caught a bit of grief for not getting it over with, but have convinced myself there is more weight to this decision than some folks realize.
This couch isn’t just a couch – it’s a representation of my life. It has to measure up to all of the other couches I’ve had if it’s to join the conversation of my living space. Because I think our surroundings should tell the story of who we are.
A friend of mine once said that he wanted to be able to associate a story with everything in his home. Some people go out to a store and buy things that look nice and slap them on the walls, but others have a place that communicates who they are.
I liked that idea, so I got to thinking about the story of my surroundings:
My kitchen table is the table from my father’s childhood, he remembers eating breakfast there and laughing with his family. Stuck to the underside are wads of chewing gum my grandfather left in secret over fifty years ago, now smoothed like riverstones by time and wandering fingers. Behind this table is a 3×5 painting of a microphone a friend of mine painted in college. Above my kitchen sink are two figurines – one I bought at a market outside of Nairobi and another my best friend brought me from his village in Lome, Togo. A Sunbeam clock with a large face and a smooth second hand my mother recalls from her youth hums above my stove. There’s an old globe in my living room with brown marks in the Indian Ocean because someone once bought the wrong wattage bulb. I have a lounge chair from the 1960’s that plugs into the wall and vibrates; next to it is a six foot letter “P” that once assisted in the spelling of “Express Fitness”. My mother haggled with the construction workers when they changed the sign for the gym and got the letters for free – the others she sold for hundreds of dollars. The dresser I keep my clothes in is the dresser I’ve had since I was born. Shelved at eye level above my father’s old desk is a dish I bought in Sudan holding a bundle of sage I was given when I left the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Reservation. This is next to a ray-gun my youngest brother made from scrap metal for my birthday.
I developed this philosophy that things are just things unless we allow them to be something else – unless they get to be a symbol of a well-lived life.
So, naturally, when it came to purchasing a sofa I imagined this magical couch that would fit right in with the story-line of my life. It would facilitate a time of rest or a conversation or the preamble to love. This couch would be striped by December light through the blinds and would wear the weak blue of my globe’s seven seas at twilight. It would shift people toward each other and bear the weight of gathering. It would make my apartment a home.
And it would look like one of those awesome couches from Mad Men.
I just haven’t found the perfect couch yet, I say.
Then I realize how stupid that sounds.
It’s a couch.
As I round a year without this integral piece of furniture, I wonder if I’m really avoiding something else. What if all of the things I imagine entering my life don’t come with a new couch? Sometimes people choose to remain incomplete for a while. The potential of what could exist seems too much to mesh into our lives at the moment – because we don’t know what it is yet.
But there comes a time (say, one year with no sofa) when one realizes that the idea of something is never going to equal the arrival of something or the remaining of something. It can’t. We play this trick on ourselves and create these pressures and don’t allow life to flow up against us because we’re too busy trying to channel life into what we want it to be.
I wrote on my birthday that, after a while, perhaps the real marrow and meaning of life no longer comes from squirts of dopamine juiced from endless options and a lack of commitment. Rather, good living might come from the simple decision to choose – sans answers and with faulty logic – to assign truth and meaning to something and live with the consequences.
We go our whole lives believing we’re expected to make the right decision when I really think we’re expected to pick a path and move forward. Anything else is a failure to act and an excuse not to participate.
Living alone, I’ve been in complete control over every aspect of my life, but I thought the other day that there’s not one picture of me inside of my current place of living.
Worse – there’s not a picture of me with others.
One day it will be as if I was never here.
When I think of the couch, community and commitment I’m avoiding, I’m haunted by the perfect gathering of things Dana Gioia recalls in his poem, Insomnia:
Now you hear what the house has to say.
Pipes clanking, water running in the dark,
the mortgaged walls shifting in discomfort,
and voices mounting in an endless drone
of small complaints like the sounds of a family
that year by year you’ve learned how to ignore.
But now you must listen to the things you own,
all that you’ve worked for these past years,
the murmur of property, of things in disrepair,
the moving parts about to come undone,
and twisting in the sheets remember all
the faces you could not bring yourself to love.
How many voices have escaped you until now,
the venting furnace, the floorboards underfoot,
the steady accusations of the clock
numbering the minutes no one will mark.
The terrible clarity this moment brings,
the useless insight, the unbroken dark.
That poem makes me wonder about the first people who settled down and had the luxury of accumulating things. There must have been one day when some tired person hung a pair of deer antlers on the wall to help them remember the providence they encountered. Each morning those antlers reminded them of the real and hard living they were responsible for if they planned to stay alive.
The things that inhabited their home were a representation of their story – sure – but more so a representation of their commitment to stay alive in a world that offers unending opportunities and very few answers.
A person’s life is the accumulation of decisions, not things – that’s it. And choosing to not commit is a decision as well.
So what’s the plan moving forward?
Forget buying a couch – I’m making one. I just need to track, ensnare and upholster a weak and vulnerable urban-dwelling deer.
I finally get hunting.