When I feel like control over what I have generally perceived of as my life has been hijacked from my own capable hands, I try to occupy myself with tasks that offer the illusion that I am once again in control. In these trying times, I often clean. A lot. Vacuuming is my favorite activity because it shows immediate, clear results. I like putting dirty clothing in the laundry, but I don’t enjoy putting the clean laundry away.
If you don’t put it away, you don’t get credit, my husband used to tell me. It became a running joke between us because he could not understand my methods of cleaning.
Why wouldn’t you want to put clean dishes away? He would ask me, horrified that I would add more wet dishes to a rack full of dry dishes.
It’s just water, I would respond to his horror. That can’t make it dirty again.
On the occasions when I actually put dishes away, I call out across the house to my husband, I put the dishes away. I get credit!
I really enjoy praise for my good deeds. I joke regularly that I have earned a gold star or an A+ for my efforts. One time I found a laminated gold star on the sidewalk while walking between museum sites when I worked in Lowell, Massachusetts, and it made my month. It had been an offering from the external validation gods, and it was with immense pride that I posted the star on the grey fabric wall of my cubicle office space.
The many therapists I have seen over the years would likely have theories about this response to external validation, but I will save this line of musing for another day.
Thus far, 2017 has unfolded as the year of unforeseen, stressful financial events, some of which I cannot write about openly for legal reasons. Suffice it to say, that I have been on the prowl for activities that will provide instant gratification and the illusion of control in the wake of feeling powerless and being forced to practice unending patience, which has never been my strong suit.
These activities that I plan are not always well thought out, feasible, or remotely good ideas. For example, Brussels has been experiencing a bit of a heat wave. The generally pleasant spring into summer temperatures have been replaced with high humidity and daytime highs of 90 degrees (Fahrenheit, mind you. I will never again forget to specify after telling someone when I first arrived that I had moved from a place in Arizona where the highs could reach well beyond 100 degrees; they nearly had a stroke before I realized my mistake and insert the words Fahrenheit, not Celsius).
The activities I chose yesterday were to vacuum and do laundry and dishes (I even put the dishes away!).
This morning, I decided that after I finished editing a dissertation chapter I would head to the Ikea in Anderlecht to search for fabric to cover our two skylights and a divider to put up to hide our luggage in the absence of a basement or other storage space in our new home.
Clearly, 2017 has influenced my already questionable common sense. It really isn’t ever a good idea for someone like to me to go to Ikea. For one, it is financially risky because they have designed items their textiles, rugs, furniture, lamps, and linens in all sorts of beautiful colors and patterns with someone like me in mind. There are birds and plants and trees on everything! It is both my personal abstinence nightmare and an excellent place for practicing the middle, more moderate Buddhist path that my husband has described to me many times.
It takes a long time to get to by public transit, so regardless of whether I ate a meal just before leaving I inevitably wind up super hungry and cranky by the end of the journey. Today’s visit was no exception. I was practically falling over from low blood sugar levels by the time I staggered through my front door. I love how accessible and vast the public transit here in Brussels, but it is not fun plugging in an address in Google Maps for directions and to seeing the initial 31 minutes by car change to 1 hour 10 minutes by public transit, which also often takes even longer if you miss a connection from bus to metro or tram.
Ikea is also huge, and the experience can get overwhelming fast, particularly for people like my husband and me, who do not have a high tolerance for big store shopping to begin with.
So, with all of this information from past experience working against me, I pursued my plan to go to Ikea in order to obtain some kind of fabric or mat to cover the two skylights at our house that let in glorious sunshine but also lots of heat during the day and also a room divider to stash our luggage and boxes behind in the absence of storage space.
I set out for Ikea after eating a good-sized lunch of leftover pasta with fish and veggies. Check.
I arrived an hour later, sweaty but resolute. 90 degrees Fahrenheit would not deter my determination!
I decided to avoid the large showroom with all of its winding paths that lead through an overwhelming abundance of furniture displays and opted instead to go downstairs and just walk through the marketplace.
I stopped at bathmats and runners, texting my husband for his opinion because I am terrible at making small decisions that have not great meaning in the grand scheme of things. According to Buddhists, Existentialists, Nihilists, and anyone who with a grasp on life and mortality, none of these decisions really matter in the end. Still, I wanted to make the right decision so I wouldn’t get home and realize I had made the wrong one and feel that I had lost hold of the small sphere of control I had carved out in my life.
When I saw a display in the marketplace with one of the three dividers I had added to my wish list (or in French, liste d’achats), I realized with dismay that the only way I could view the other dividers was to go upstairs to the show room. This felt like a prison sentence. I had no desire to go to the showroom nor could I find any way to even get there without having to retrace my steps through all of the winding maze and start over. Nope. Not gonna happen.
I texted my husband that the divider looked kind of crappy, and he said not to worry.
I felt defeated, especially when I entered the warehouse area where aisles full of boxed Ikea items were stacked onto floor to ceiling shelves. How would I ever even find the different dividers in this overly abundant madhouse?
I wandered around glumly, hoping one of the dividers might have been the chosen item put on display at the ends of the aisles but to no avail.
Then, a yellow computer like a beacon of hope appeared in my peripheral vision. I made a beeling for it and clicked on the magnifying glass search icon (or recherche). I took a photograph of each divider’s home in the stacks and went to first one the other of the two that seemed of higher quality.
I lifted the Rïso divider, or rather, I attempted to lift the Rïso divider.
Holy hell, this thing is heavy, I thought. Maybe the other one will be lighter since it has canvas mesh textile between the wooden posts.
The other divider was even heavier.
There is no way in hell I can carry either of these, I texted my husband. Should I try to have one delivered?
It’s too expensive, he responded.
I knew he was right, but damnit! I came to idea for a divider (or paravent), and by hell or high water I was leaving with one.
Besides, why were these dividers not in Ikea’s usual tidy, little, fairly manageable boxes with a million parts for me to attempt to put together with their minimalist instructions upon returning home?
Where had everything gone so very wrong?
I went back to the yellow computer of hope and typed in Jassa, the name of the divider formerly-described as crappy.
When I found it, I attempted to pick it up and succeeded.
Huh, I thought. I had not been expecting success, but as the narrator of the Elizabeth Gilbert book I had been listening to on the metro informed me, Sometimes, salvation comes in the most unlikely of places.
Well, perhaps the Jassa was my salvation?
I sent several more indecisive texts to my husband, replete with tearful emoticon faces and all; then, I decided to go for it.
Why not? I had come this far, and I could carry it, which would help me succeed in my premeditated mission, which would then help me to maintain my grasp on my ever-so-tenuous illusion of stability.
As my husband reminds me on a regular basis, it was good enough.
I maneuvered my cart (was I the only one who seemed to always get the cart that refused move in a straight line?) and went to the self-check out register. I dutifully scanned my skylight mats and set of 4 hangers (we always get 4 more hangers on a trip to Ikea…just because). When I went to scan the divider, I couldn’t find the sticker with the bar code on the side that was standing up.
Figures, I thought, trying to lift the bottom and pull the scanner cord far enough to achieve my scanning goal. Still nothing. Now, the cashier assistant had taken notice. She explained to me in French that I could find the sticker on the bottom.
I told her it didn’t exist and showed her. Perplexed, she got on the phone.
Hmmm….I started thinking. Was this a sign that I was not supposed to buy the divider after all? I could leave now and never look back.
After two different phone calls, the cash register assistant gave me directions for plugging in the item number by hand, and I was able to finish checking out.
I bought my husband a box of the oat and chocolate cookies he likes, used the restroom (always a good idea for what one person called my thimble bladder), and began the long, hot haul home. I made it to the metro and then onto the bus.
When I stood the divider up at the back of the bus, a tiny tag fell down from the cardboard cover on top. Had I just turned the divider with the other side facing up at the checkout line, it would have revealed itself to me.
Oh well. Chauk it up to 2017.
I finally staggered into my house an hour and a half later, trembling from hunger, dehydration, and exhaustion. I had done it! Victory was mine!
I brought the mats upstairs and put them onto the skylights, imagining the rubber bottom would hold them securely in place. Back downstairs, I looked up and saw that they had already blown away. I had to crawl onto my neighbor’s roof to procure one of them.
Oh well. The sun would be setting soon, a nice breeze was picking up, and I had made it home. Good enough!