A clear sign that a building is alive and lived in, I believe, is when the spaces keep changing. All the time the boys were growing up, our flat was always changing to accommodate their needs and ours – even though I often felt (and complained loudly) that my needs were taken too little into consideration. The more drastic changes started after the boys both finished school, although they kindly left me a little time to catch up. First Christopher moved to Vienna in October 2010, and Paddy turned what had been “the boys’ room” into his own space, where he lived while doing his “service to society” (alternative to military service in Austria). Then in September 2011, just two months before Peter died, Paddy moved to Vienna too, leaving me with a not-quite-empty room full of memories.
And the spaces keep changing …
After Peter died, my attempts to turn the former boys’ room – or now simply “the front room” – into a writing/sewing room for myself had to be put on hold again, because it was more urgent and necessary to change the bedroom. Little by little, though, I have been taking over the whole flat for myself, and I am very happy living here, where I feel safe, comfortable and content, even though I don’t really spend much time at home. Since the mortgage was paid off the summer before Peter died, my widow’s pension now covers my housing costs. This is what makes it possible for me to afford to run the Workshop in the Main Square as my own private project, thus avoiding all bureaucratic regulations and restrictions, but it also means I couldn’t afford to move, even if I wanted to.
But does it actually make sense for an old widow living alone with two cats to occupy a four-room flat that used to be sufficient living space for a family of four + friends, when there are so many people urgently in need of affordable living space?
That question bothers me, and it keeps coming into my mind, especially every time I hear of people, particularly young families or single mothers, desperately searching for a place to live. Recently, though, it came up again in a completely different context and tied into other worrying questions as well.
On one of the blogs I follow („The Polished Widow„), I was startled to read recently that another widow who blogs about her experience married again earlier this year. She is a very young widow with a young child, and it was beautiful and touching to read about how she balances remembering her late husband and going on with her life now with her new husband, but what startled me was the way I suddenly felt old as I read that. Marrying again or rearranging my life with a new relationship is not an option I can imagine for myself, but do I really want to continue on for the rest of my life in this comfortable arrangement of living alone with two cats, keeping everyone else at a safe distance? Isn’t this exactly what makes me old?
As I have always been interested in different forms of community, in different ways of people living together or sharing resources and responsibilities, one obvious change that suggests itself is that I could share my living space. The possibilities for finding “flat-mates”, perhaps of different ages, from different situations, are virtually endless, and there is much that I find appealing about the idea. At the same time, however, I also find the idea quite daunting for a number of reasons as well.
First of all, where would I put all my books to make room for another person? Books have always occupied a significant amount of space everywhere I’ve lived, even more so since Peter first moved in with me after we met through our shared love of books and reading. It’s not just the books, though. Every room in this flat is filled with memories – along with the many objects that go with them. To what extent would I have to limit myself, constrain myself to the here and now to make room for someone else? Could I even do that, and would I want to if I could? Which memories, objects, spaces do I need to cling to, in order to be able to hold on to a sense of “this is me, this is my life”? Or which of them just hold me down, tie me to the past so that I am not free to live in the here and now?
Maybe it is still too soon to start trying out experiments in communal living now, but when will it be too late? If I feel too timid or insecure to embark on any significant changes in the way I live now, I’m afraid it won’t be long before I really am just an old woman too set in my ways to be able to open up my mind to anything new.
In the meantime, however, I really do enjoy being able to share space at least temporarily, both in the Workshop and at home. Being able to welcome guests, provide beds for “visiting firemen” (the phrase the Shanahans always used for visitors from out of town), hand over a key to friends and young people looking after my cats so that they can make themselves comfortable while I’m away: all of that gives me great pleasure – I just have to keep thinking now about whether it is enough.