Essay – Womankind 3-Day Home Decorating Challenge

First published in Womankind Magazine:

Day One:

My mission is simple but ongoing: I want to be tidier. I take a deep breath and stride over to my roller desk, an unassuming piece of furniture tucked in the corner of our living room. Its drawers are open like the mouths of dragons, tongues of notebooks, posters, and documents spilling out onto the floor, the couch, the coffee table. What is all this stuff actually doing here? Little stickers claiming “I love Taipei”, sticky notes decorated with cartoons of the Formosan Black Bear. I bought these on our 2019 visit to Taiwan when I was still kidding myself that I would return to my job as a preschool teacher after a three-month break.  Now, I run creative workshops for youth, and posters I made for our recent holiday programmes are still on the table; arranging urban art and zine days justifies my collection of art books that is growing across the floor.

Last night, my 17-year-old son Kyle openly expressed his shock at his realisation that I have a degree. He had thought that I had gone to university “for a month or so”. Admittedly, it is difficult to imagine someone with so many piles of unfinished projects completing long-term study. Some of these projects have been traveling back and forth between Taiwan and New Zealand with me the whole time I have been married, and all that travel has taken its toll on them. My mother sometimes sighs about my father’s stacks of paper that form around him where he spends time. I could understand if my husband sighed about my stacks of paper, too.

Choosing a pile to reorder, I rediscover snippets of half-finished poetry. This month, I have had my poetry published for the first time – the New Zealand Poetry Society has accepted two of my haiku. As I read through my work, I am kinder to myself about it, and more gentle with it. I find a pretty box and place each sheet of verse inside.

Day Two:

After my morning shower, I have to enter my walk-in-closet to find some clothing. In January 2020, I reluctantly agreed that my 13-year-old daughter and I would spend three months in Taiwan caring for my mother-in-law, who had Stage 4 Stomach Cancer. Hannah and I were due to come home last April, but Covid hit and flights back to New Zealand were stopped for 10 months. Separated from half of our family unit and being sole carers of Ama, we went through a reinvention. Having traveled with only a small bag of winter clothing each, we had to purchase whole new wardrobes. It’s taken nearly a year to settle back into New Zealand life, and the clothes don’t quite fit the environment, but I’m determined to reorganise and make them feel at home, so I find some hangers and get on with it.

Once my Taiwan and New Zealand clothes are nestled together on the rack, I can see under my dresser. There is a thick pile of family photos, still a random mess nearly a year since coming back with me on the plane and through managed isolation. Looking through them kept me connected at times it seemed we would never return.

Kyle comes in and sits beside me, arranging all the photos into a timeline that has meaning for him. Photo after photo is of Kyle and Hannah playing together. They are a close team; their classmates asked me if they ever fight and I had to truthfully say no. We talk about all our life adventures, about Taiwan, about Ama. Kyle stands up. “Do you want to play my new boardgame?” Usually, I find an excuse. Today, I say, “Sure.”

Day Three:

Determined to organise, I’m back at my desk. This time, I undertake a serious study of its surrounds. I notice I have built a fort around my patio tomato seedlings that I am growing in six-cell pods on my floor-level “windowsill”. To get to them, I have to climb over a box my uncle made me way back in the 1980’s, when I was a teenager trying to collect my writing together. The roller desk was his, too. When I stayed with Uncle Jack and Nana over summer, I would spend hours sifting through the drawers of floral notepaper, coloured pens, and envelope stickers, creating the perfect combination to use for my letters home. I was in my 20’s when Uncle Jack passed away. Now, I am thankful for this desk that he sat at, this box that he made. I climb over it and turn the tomatoes so they can get more sun.

My mother-in-law passed away this August. We don’t know when we will be able to return and reconnect with our Taiwan family, our friends, our home.  It took Hannah and I three attempts to get on a plane back to New Zealand. That meant we packed and unpacked our Taiwan lives twice before it was real. I didn’t see Hannah take a photo of my chaotic room that last day. It placed second in a recent photo competition. She had called it “Leaving”.

Yes, it is still okay for me to be messy and eclectic, to surround myself with stickers of Taipei 101 and yellow eyed penguins, paintings of Jade Mountain and Mount Cook, tomato plants and bok choi.  If I’m going to reorganise all of this, I’m going to need something less sensible than shelves or shoe boxes. I’m thinking small, readily-accessible cubbyholes, to each hold a memory, and some rose-coloured cushioning, just like my heart.

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