I didn’t set out to think; it happened all by itself.
Some of you might know that Dan and I just bought a house. In fact, we bought the tiny little house next door to ours in the row of terraced houses where we’ve been living for more than a decade. We’ve been waiting for the chance for a while, and it happened, and here we are.
I love messing about in houses. I love decorating. I love stripping out rooms, and I’m not hugely keen on paying some kid eight quid an hour to labour at half the speed I can manage. I know, I know, an honest day’s work is worth an honest day’s pay, and I agree, but I do like to do it myself.
I have been doing it myself for exactly three weeks. Every day that I work on the house, I put on my overalls, cap, gloves and mask, and I toddle off next door with my keys in one pocket and my phone in the other, and I set to work. I set to work stripping out laminate floors and lifting carpets; I set to work dismantling a kitchen, taking tiles off walls and stripping dodgy plaster. I set to work with the strength of my back and the dexterity of my hands, and with the sweat of my brow. It is very satisfying.
As satisfying as this work is, though, it isn’t terribly cerebral. You do have to keep an eye on your thumbs when wielding a hammer, and you do have to turn the electrics off at the fuse box before uncoupling cookers and whatnot, but, on the whole, the work is vastly more physical than it is mental.
I did not set out to think.
When I say that I take my keys in one pocket and my phone in the other, that is precisely what I mean. I haven’t taken anything else into the house: no television, no radio, no mp3 player, nothing. I close the door of this empty house, I shut out the world, and I set to work.
I had not given a moment’s thought to what I might do with my mind while my body was working on the house, and I cannot begin to tell you what an extraordinary experience this has been.
My everyday life consists of reading and writing, researching, watching, listening and talking. My life revolves around communication and ideas, and, when I escape from work and do something for pleasure it invariably involves the same elements. I read a book, watch the television, chat with family and friends, and when I have to hoover, dust, cook or iron a pile of clean clothes, I invariably turn on a radio or choose a podcast to listen to, or switch on the television or watch a dvd. Like most people, I surround myself with noise, with distractions, with company.
I don’t know why I decided to work alone in the house, in the quiet; what I do know is that I will make it my practice to complete mundane, physical tasks in this manner in the future.
I didn’t have any earth-shattering ideas about the meaning of life, or the universe, or everything (we all know the answer to that particular conundrum); I didn’t come up with an amazing idea for a novel or a painting; I didn’t come to some sudden, inexplicable understanding of some problem or issue. I did not have a “Eureka” moment.
I did not direct my thoughts. I did not think about them. I did not channel my intellectual energies.
In the beginning, my thoughts were very like background noise. I’m not at all sure I was terribly conscious of them, and I don’t remember them, but I believe they were like shopping lists written on scraps of paper to be pulled out of pockets in some moment of exasperation. They were mundane, fleeting and even a little bit cross. They were the very essence of the every-day. I don’t know how long it took for this stuff to clear, and for the chatter that, after all, I wasn’t even heeding, to peter away to nothing; it might have been days.
I also spent some time wondering. I wondered what Dan was doing and how he was getting on; I wondered whether he was on-track, and when he’d want me to look at a piece of work. I wondered whether Lily would be in for tea, and what we’d have for tea, and whether I could get away with using lamb in the chilli, even though I know someone doesn’t like lamb, and how long I could leave it before popping next door to put the tea on. Then I wondered when I’d last made a cup of tea, and whether Dan would pop in with a cup for me if I just kept going for another half an hour. I wondered how far I’d get with the job I’d undertaken, and whether that rash on my face would come back if I stopped wearing the mask, and whether I’d get the first bath, and how grey my bath water would be, and how much I’d ache. I wondered whether Jess would be home for the weekend and whether she’d notice what I’d done, and if she did whether she’d be impressed, and whether Lily would need a lift to that thing on Saturday night, and where Dan and I would eat supper if I didn’t move the stuff that was delivered for Lily’s new room. I wondered whether panelling the door myself was a good idea, and whether Lily would like it, and just how many coats of paint I’d need to get the colour to look clean on the new bedroom’s walls, and how long it would be before Lily could move in, and just how much space her clothes would need in the new dressing room. And, Oh My God, we have a DRESSING ROOM! I wondered whether anyone had fed the cats, as I didn’t remember doing it myself, and where I’d find the energy to empty the cat tray, even though I knew I’d do it, because, let’s face it, you can’t leave a litter tray too long before sorting it out. I wondered why I was the only one who ever did the cat tray, and whether the cats actually cared as much as I did, and why the girls didn’t seem to care at all.
Eventually, within the last few days, I began to realise that I was contemplating things in new ways. I found myself enjoying thoughts and remembrances of my family, of my brothers and sisters, and of my parents. I wasn’t suddenly overwhelmed with nostalgia or gripped by filial love, but, somehow, my thoughts led me to an unusual level of contentment. The people and their circumstances are not different; I clearly understood them in the same way prior to this odd bout of thinking. But now? Now I find that I’m entirely at ease, completely comfortable with any feelings I have relating to them and their various woes. Old things, long forgotten, come easily, almost unbidden, to mind. I thought about favourite teachers for the first time in a long time, of the things they did and said that made a difference to me, but now I cast my mentors in the light of equals, and see them more easily as people. I thought about the things I have done or seen, or thought about doing or seeing, but with less trepidation, with fewer provisos. I thought about politics and religion, and sex and death without feeling like I had to explain or justify my thoughts, or stand my corner or blaze any sort of trail. I changed my mind about things, and then changed it back again, and found that I was content with either possibility.
I did not set out to think, but when it happened, all on its own, I enjoyed it so very much that I plan to allow it to happen again... probably when I get back to work on the house tomorrow.