Stress-nesting During a Season of Turmoil

by Rachael Maddux

It was a bad week on the heels of a bad month. If you are reading this in real time I hardly have to tell you about it, but in case you aren’t: Gaza, Ukraine, Ebola, Michael Brown, Robin Williams, Ferguson, Ferguson, Ferguson — what am I missing? Probably a lot. Anyway, there was all of this, and then suddenly the lamp situation in my dining room became untenable.

The lamps were as they had been for years — one chunky thrifted table lamp, one spindly Ikea floor lamp; one with a white floral Ikea shade, one with a mustardy-gold Ikea shade — but a couple weeks ago I rearranged some art on the adjacent wall and re-centered a bookcase/credenza thing under that art, and the lamps had never quite been the same since. I had never noticed until then how wrong they were together, how unbalanced they appeared, how even the light they cast clashes — how they just didn’t go. I was able to deal with this for a while, but one morning last week I woke up, looked at my phone, looked at the news, walked into the dining room, saw the lamps, saw everything that was wrong with the lamps, and could no longer tolerate any of it.

So I went to Ikea. Twice. I bought two new matching shades, brought them home, realized they were also totally wrong, but in different ways, then returned them for a second spindly lamp base and a second white floral shade. I thought symmetry must be the answer. I was going to set up two identical lamps, one at either end of the bookcase/credenza thing, and my problems and possibly even all the problems of the world would be solved. And maybe this would have happened, but when I finally got home and set everything up the way my brain told me it should be, I turned on the lights and my heart sank. The new shade cast a crisp clean white light, but the old shade cast a muddled yellow light — just like a cheap shade would be expected to after three years of baking in its own heat. It had degraded so gradually — so like a human body — that I never noticed, at least not until I noticed, and then it was all I could see. Even with the lamps off I knew one wasn’t like the other and it made my brain burn. I couldn’t bear it.

This is how it goes, how it has always gone: When I cannot control the bigger world around me, I turn to the smaller one. When I was a kid — 10, 11, 12 — I would rearrange my bedroom in fits of pique, semi-quarterly maybe, nights when I was especially baffled by my parents or my sister or friends or the universe at large. (Around this time I also had a lot of dreams in which I would steal cars — once, the wood-paneled Dodge minivan of my elementary school principal — and go high-speed joyriding, crashing myself into buildings and refusing remorse when caught.) I was a spindly-armed kid but between the brute force of my preteen angst and the low resistance of our thick wall-to-wall carpeting I could get the job done in an hour or two, slowly scooting my bed to one side of the room, then my desk, then my dresser, then my bed again, peeling my Sticky Tack’ed posters off the wall and reapplying them in relation to the new arrangements.

Of course, it did not always come to this: Most of the time, I could soothe myself just by tidying up a little — making my bed, arranging my stuffed animals, reorganizing my bookshelf. And this is pretty much how it remains today. (I say “tidying” rather than “cleaning” because, well, come take a look at my baseboards, if you really want to know.) I am a lucky person — a privileged person, as the internet would like me to say: white, straight, female, employed and insured and healthy and married to an employed, insured and healthy white straight man. And so the typical annoyances of my everyday existence usually amount to just enough distress to fuel the superficial care-and-keeping of one 650-square-foot house (yardwork excepted). I can go from “lightly disgruntled” to “mostly peaceable” just by scurrying around for a half hour, picking up things and putting them back down in the places I have decided they belong. There is so much I cannot control, but I can sort that laundry, I can vacuum that bedroom, I can lint-roller all the dog hair off that couch, I can load that dishwasher with all the glasses on one side of the top rack and the Pyrex on the other side and the plates all in a line by size and type and when it’s time to unload I will take out all the forks out at once, then all the spoons, then the knives, then the mugs, then the glasses… I can put those couch pillows back where they are supposed to go every time my dog or my husband knocks them out of place, even if I have to do it 70 times a day, and I will.

If my house is in total disarray I am either depressed (likely), or somehow too sublimely content to care (less likely). But usually it’s just fine, and therefore I am just fine. But when we get weeks and months like the last week and the last month, where all of the already-horrible things about the world suddenly seem to become more horrible, the way the ambient chattering of a crowd sometimes seems to swell by its own fractal logic, one person talking louder and everyone else around adjusting accordingly until the din becomes overwhelming and everyone settles back down into themselves again — well, I’ve never thought to track this, so I can’t say for sure, but I do feel like there must be some correlation between my feelings of helplessness re: the general state of things and my domestic nesting impulses. The worse out there, the more stupidly urgent in here.

Lamps, of course, do not matter. In the fading twilight of my life I will not look back and think, “Yes, yes, I am so happy and do not at all regret how much of my finite human existence I spent on getting those lamps to look right.” Lamps do nothing to combat systemic racism and abusive power structures and failing infrastructures and religious extremism and infectious diseases and poverty and pain and the crushing march of time. I know all this. But I also really needed somewhere to place my burden this week, and lamps didn’t have too much else going on, so here we are.

After my first and second plans of action failed, my next idea was to try and tea-dye the newer white floral shade to hopefully get its color close to the older white floral shade. And then if that didn’t work I was going to haul my weary soul back to Ikea for the third time in a week and buy a second new white floral shade and possibly also tea dye that one, too, depending on how much damage I’d done to the first one. (I was watching a YouTube video called “TEA DYE YOUR OWN LAMPSHADES!!!” when Obama gave his anemic address the other morning; I switched from the lampshade video to the press conference, then back to the lampshade video, just as the chipper DIY-er brought out the lampshade she’d dyed for a friend, on which she’d also written, in fancy Sharpie scrawl, the full text Declaration of Independence. “This is great for the patriot in your family!” she giggled.)

But then on Friday afternoon at work there was a random Ikea desk lamp in the breakroom at work with an “UP 4 GRABS” note stuck to the shade, and it was quite a nice little lamp actually, fully functioning and not obviously haunted or cursed, so I brought it home with me because why not. I set it up in the dining room thinking it would either go with the too-white shade or the too-yellow shade, and then it went with neither, but then I realized I could switch out its shade with the too-yellow white floral shade, and swap the newer, too-white white floral shade with another lightly jute-colored Ikea shade on another old thrifted lamp in my bedroom, and then move to another room the new white spindly floor lamp, now outfitted with the old mustardy gold shade, and do who knows what with the old chunky thrifted lamp (lamp lamp lamp) — anyway, the point is, I worked it out. The shades still do not match and the stands are not symmetrical but it all goes together much than it did before, better than I even imagined when I was trying to imagine my ideal arrangement, and I can turn on the lamps now and be in the room with its nice cozy gentle yellow light and be in my house and be in my life without wanting to press one or both of the hot bulbs into my eye sockets. The world is still awful and I am still helpless before it, mired in guilt and inertia, but — for now, at least — this one corner of this one room in this one house is OK.

Rachael Maddux is a writer and editor living in Decatur, Ga. She writes the “Can’t Take It With You” column for The Billfold, a series about death and money.

Photo: ipernity

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