On Becoming Domesticated

imagesToday I need to clean under the dinning room table, vacuum the carpet in the living room, fix the grass borders in the backyard, clean the back windows and plant the cactus someplace in the backyard.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, on of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance, wrote: “The man who is happy in his domestication, who sees his domestication as the good graces of the Gods being bestowed upon him, is no longer a threat to the world, to others and most importantly to himself.” But I didn’t see this one coming. Who could of imagined that by the almost middle age of 42 I would become happily domesticated? Ten years ago, not my mother, my father, my sister, my daily bartender, my palm reader, my marijuana dealer, my pharmacist or my psychotherapist could have seen this coming. To be domesticated basically means to feel comfortable at home. After a lifetime spent feeling terribly uncomfortable and anxious in the numerous places that I lived, its nothing short of a miracle that I not only have my own home but am comfortable in it. The comfort aspect of domestication is not what concerns me. I am grateful for it. If you look up domestication in the dictionary you will find several definitions. If you read through all of the definitions you will arrive at one, which says: To bring down to the level of the ordinary person. I suppose this is that part that concerns me.

At the moment I am writing by my kitchen window, which looks out into my expansive back yard. It is a cold Southern California morning. I am looking at my two German Shepherds pace around in the pea gravel that my wife and I recently purchased. One of my dogs, which is named Camus but lacks the intelligence of the author he is named after, is engaged in a long and steady urination, which is getting all over his front paws. The fact that he is peeing all over himself doesn’t seem to bother him in the least. I am reminded that, contrary to certain people’s opinion, I am nothing like my dog. If I was peeing all over my feet I would like to think that I am civilized enough to move my feet out of the way. My other dog is sniffing around in the pea gravel trying to find an adequate spot to relieve herself. And I get to observe these kind-of-wildlife undertakings from the heated comfort of my kitchen nook. It is this aspect of domestication that I am grateful for. I too spent many years out there in the cold looking for a place to pee.

However, I wrestle with this notion of being brought down to the level of the ordinary. Ordinary? Oh gosh. In my twenties and thirties, when I was still naive enough to think it was only a matter of time until I was recognized as a great American writer and painter, I disdained the idea of domestication. I had nothing but indignation for those who had embraced domestication and I looked upon these “masses” as having given up on their unique greatness (whatever that meant). I would walk by a man gardening or watering his front lawn and I would have to restrain myself from calling him a “sell out.” I would see families moving into beautiful middle and upper class homes and think of these people as mediocrities. Becoming domestic was a threat to my dreams of literary and artistic eccentricity. And as wrong and judgmental as I was about the motivations of those individuals who had embraced domestic comforts, I was not far from correct about domesticities effects upon creativity.

Today I need to clean out the garage, sweep up the pea gravel that has gotten all over the driveway, water my plants in the front yard, sweep the backyard deck and straighten up in the house. Maybe I will do some touch up painting on the walls which have been chipped and marked up. I also need to walk the dogs and unload the dishwasher. Due to my extensive studies in Eastern philosophy I am well aware of how ones outer environment is a direct reflection of their inner environment, and vice versa. I am also aware of how a person’s external environment interacts with their inner life. It is important for me to have everything in my home look curated, cared for, dusted and organized. It is one way that I attain inner peace. However, for those of us who can not afford a housekeeper, maintaining a home that is a direct reflection of an inner life that is balanced, calm, caring and refined requires a continual, almost athletic effort. It leaves little time for making art. Or I should say that being domesticated becomes the art.

I am sure there is extensive information out there on the historical and sociological aspects of human domestication. I wonder if there is as much information out there about what happens to artists, writers, musicians, etc., when they finally become domesticated. Off of the top of my head, I know of few artists, writers and musicians whose works have not become less interesting, potent and innovated after becoming domesticated. I wonder if this becoming comfortable at home business somehow reduces a persons suffering and as a result reduces the quality, ambition and quantity of their artistic output. Why make art once a person finds comfort? I wonder if many artists, writers and musicians who at some point in their life become domesticated are making a kind of Faustian bargain where in exchange for the comforts of home they agree that their art will become their hobby and they will become a bit more ordinary. After all the years of struggle and uncomfortably, for most artists. I would assume that this is probably a fair deal.

Today I also need to clean up my dogs poop, mop the hardwood floors, water some of the potted plants, pick up water for the fish tank, empty various trash cans and sweep the dirt away from the front patio. I may also need to take a trip to IKEA to buy some pillows for an older mid century couch that my wife and I purchased yesterday. I can’t help but think: Am I wasting valuable time? Shouldn’t I be more disciplined and working on a painting and/or writing? If I put as much time into my artistic interests as I do into maintaining my home maybe I would feel better about myself (not that I feel bad about myself)? Maybe I would feel more purposeful? Maybe. The truth is that when I spent almost two decades committed to my art (well committed to the idea of being an artist but not committed to the idea of doing the actual work) I was miserable. I struggled and got little in return for my efforts other than a vague notion that one day all of my toil and poverty would one day pay off. And it has, just not in a way I ever saw coming.

Instead of visiting a bookstore or spending my evenings sitting in a cafe reading, I now prefer to go to Home Depot or Lowes in order to find various things for my home. It is almost as if Home Depot has become my night club. Last night was Saturday evening and I was at Home Depot looking for a new water faucet for my kitchen sink (I like the ones that are steel and are in the shape of a candy cane). On Friday I was at IKEA looking at various linoleum floors to replace the current linoleum floors in my kitchen. Rather than spending hours and hours reading literature at my desk, I now enjoy sitting on my couch or my back deck looking on Craigslist or EBay for deals on Danish modern furniture for my home collection (I have developed a passions for chairs and want to collect as many strangely shaped modern chairs as possible so that one day I can open a chair museum). In my twenties and thirties I wanted to be one of the greatest living American painters and writers. Now in my forties, I am driven to one day open a chair museum. How things change.

I also need to shave today. I also need to go to the market and prepare a lunch for myself to take with me to work tomorrow. If I have time I would like to hook my stereo speakers to the television. I would also like to watch another episode of Breaking Bad. Has being domesticated made me more ordinary?  Has it made me what my twenty something self would of called a sell out or a mediocrity? From a particular perspective, probably so. In many ways there is probably not that much difference between myself and those thousands of other American who love their homes. We are all engaged in similar daily home maintenance routines. But in becoming domesticated I have found an extraordinary well-being and satisfaction that I never imagined I would experience. I have chosen to now spend my days designing, cleaning and maintaining a beloved home rather than pursuing what I now realize for me was a unobtainable dream. I have learned to find satisfaction in everyday, ordinary acts rather than the annoying and constant desire to become something that I am not. My marriage, my dogs and my home have become the canvas upon which I now work.

I will never be comfortable with this idea of being ordinary. However that might not even be true. Our views and belief systems are always changing as we age. Ten years ago I would of never, ever imagined that I would be forty two years of age and happily domesticated. I do know this- if becoming ordinary means feeling comfortable in one’s home, I welcome the ordinary (I think). Now when I go for walks around my neighborhood and I pass by someone gardening or watering in their front yard, I wave, smile and say hello.

Other People’s Houses

I enjoy looking at other people’s houses. I imagine what my life would be like if I lived inside. I look at all kinds of homes- but I especially like the nice ones. Every evening I will go for a walk and observe houses. I entertain thoughts about what these people must do to afford such nice homes? I love seeing the various ways that people decorate their homes and I enjoy looking at the landscaping in the front yard. Sometimes I will look inside a front window to see how the residents have decorated the inside of their homes. When I feel like seeing homes I have never observed before I will drive to distant neighborhoods and walk around for hours. There are few pleasures that I enjoy more in life than seeing a well decorated home for the first time.

I love modern and Victorian homes. I love welcoming homes that have a lot of plants, cats and benches out front. I enjoy seeing homes that are painted in unusual colors and have obscure art outside. I enjoy looking at bohemian homes that have been given an individualized flare by their artistic owners. Homes that are loved and built with an attention to detail often take my breath away. I love staring at every inch of these homes in the same way that I would observe a beautiful lady. I find myself filled with a certain “homey” sensation when I stare at other people’s houses; a sensation that fills my body with feelings of comfort and ease.

I often will get as close to a home as I can so I can peak inside. I am interested in the interior design of other people’s houses and I am curious about what kind of furniture and art rests inside. I want to see if the home owner has a book collection and if so I want to know what kinds of books are sitting on their shelf. I try to make an effort to make sure that no one is home when I am looking through windows but I can not always be sure. There have been several occasions where I have been innocently peering through a window, enjoying the interior design, when suddenly I was noticed by a resident inside. On these occasions my plan is to yell out “sorry” and run as quickly as I can.

I have always enjoyed architecture. In college I wanted to be an architect but I could not handle all the math. My parents also shared my love for architecture and home design. As a young boy and teenager every Sunday my family and I would go for long drives around various neighborhoods. We loved looking at other people’s houses. We would  stare at the various homes as we drove very slowly by each one (after years of driving around and looking at other people’s houses on Sundays my family was given the nick name “The Stare Family”). My parents were gathering ideas from other people’s houses and imagining ways that they could redecorate their home. I on the other hand was dreaming about the beautiful and stylish home that I would one day own.

I currently rent a two bedroom house. It is rather cheap and ugly house with not much thought or imagination that went into its design. The front yard is filled with plants that are dying, paint chips that have fallen from the side of the house and a decaying fountain that no longer works. The inside of my house is not as bad as the outside. There are hardwood floors, nice white walls and a relatively peaceful back yard. I don’t really have the money to furnish my house nicely so my wife and I have had to use our imaginations to make our house into a kind of impoverished bohemian oasis. We have birds that help drown out the outside car sounds and a leather couch that helps give our box like living room some modern charm- but for the most part the inside of my house is rather simplistic. Since I currently have a lot of free time to wonder, I spend a lot of time meandering around inside of my house. I think about ways that I can make my rental house a bit more charming (like the homes I enjoy looking at). I buy plants, re-arrange a lot of furniture and hang various art on the walls. I clean the kitchen and bathroom at least once a week but I never feel that “homey” sensation that I get when I look at other peoples homes. This is the downside of being a renter- you never really feel like your house is your home.

When I walk around neighborhoods, staring at other peoples homes, I still dream about owning a home of my own one day. Like my parents twenty-five years ago, I too am getting ideas for the house that I hope to one day own. Just yesterday I walked around San Fransisco looking at all the various urban and Victorian homes. Some people who are home owners in the city have a sense of design and aesthetics that I rarely find out here in the country. I take everything that I like about other people’s houses and add it to the construction site in my mind where I am building an imaginary home of my own. This home is a modern house and has small hints of all the houses I have ever loved. There are wooden benches in the front yard, a pebbled driveway with a working rock fountain in it and tall glass windows that let in the sun light. There is a hammock in the backyard, redwoods growing on all sides and solar panels on the roof. I have beautiful art on the walls, comfortable couches, fish tanks and dozens of book shelves filled with classics.  There is my writing desk that is up against a large window that looks out over the sea. One day I hope to build this home in the material world but first I realize that I need to find that darn tree that I have heard so much about where money grows from branches instead of leaves. For now, I suppose I am content enough walking around for hours and looking at other peoples houses.