Twitching the curtains…

I stood at the window, doing the dishes and watching the sun set behind the houses. The old lady who lives at the end of the street walked by and smiled at me through the glass; there is no sense of privacy when the footpath runs right outside your kitchen window. Another window looks through the kitchen of my little flat to the bathroom and I panicked a few times, just after I moved in, realising that I was in the bath with a clear view to the street… The bedroom and living room look out onto fields, but they are also visible to the cows, the birds and anyone who happens to be in the gardens either side. When I notice, I still find this odd.

I was raised in Yorkshire, at a time and in a place where everyone had lace curtains. They were important. You could hide a good deal behind net curtains, from the poverty that neither asked nor expected to be helped, to the tragedies and comedies that are played out in every family home. As long as the ‘nets’ were white and the doorstep scrubbed, all was right with the world…at least as far as your public image was concerned. The curtains, often discoloured by coal fires, would be washed with ‘dolly blue’ to counteract the natural fading of the white fabric, or with lemon juice, borax or soda… it didn’t matter, as long as they ended up white.

My own generation grew up and the nets became more of a style feature than a social necessity. Heavy cotton lace gave way to light, synthetic fabrics that allowed more light in, but still preserved privacy…and still needed laundering once a month on principle. I never grew out of that.

As modern housing incorporated more efficient heating and glazing, the windows, and therefore the nets, got bigger and so did the washing of them. Status… according to some unwritten, underlying hangover from an older era, came with having matching nets throughout the house…and although you could suddenly buy coloured nets, if they were white, they had to be properly white.

But for all our new-fangled fabrics and fancy designs, the net curtains still hid the tragedies from public view and kept the sordid secrets of many a family and gave but a hazy view of the outside world.  There was a time when the heavy lace curtains served a very real purpose, giving dignity by protecting the poverty they so often hid. When they became a fashion accessory for the home, I wonder if we missed the point somewhere and, instead of preserving dignity, they served only to help us isolate ourselves.

These days, modern decor trends state that, unless you are going for a romantic, country or shabby chic look, net curtains are passé. When I moved in to the new flat, my own net curtains were never going to fit…and they were already passed their best. I didn’t fancy clambering over the sink once a month to launder them and the ‘look’ I was going for was sparse and practical, largely due to the new limitations on space. From what had been a fair-sized family home, I was downsizing to a place just for me, the dog and an aquarium full of inherited fish. Lace curtains were the least of my problems.

Even so, for a good while I felt exposed… vulnerable. That veil between me and the world, I thought, had served me well over the years. Without the nets, not only did I have an unobstructed view of the world, but people could see in. I found this strange and disconcerting, until I got so used to it that I no longer notice until something reminds me.

It has changed a few things though, this living in full view. I now make conscious choices about where I stand in the bathroom, if I should close a door, where I dress or whether to pull the big curtains closed. I choose what I allow the world to see, rather than automatically being hidden behind the nets. It is a subtle but important distinction.

It has made me conscious too of how much, over a lifetime, I have hidden behind my own ‘lace curtains’, presenting a socially acceptable picture to the world regardless of inner turmoil, tragedy or personal distress. That may sometimes be a matter of dignity, but it can also hide a deeper significance.

It is easy to retreat behind a polite facade and hide from the world, as long as the ‘nets’ look  white. It is even easier to use them to hide from ourselves, pretending that the ‘unwashed dishes’ and ‘unmade beds’ that cannot be seen through the veil, are not really there. It is not until the curtains come down and the light floods in, illuminating the dark and dingy corners of either a room or a life that we see what is really there…and it is only when we do so that we can begin to act to put it right.

Fewer windows, these days, seem to be veiled by lace curtains. I wonder how many others have noticed the difference it makes to their personal outlook on life as much as to their homes. Are we beginning to hide less, in this climate where so many things that were once swept under the proverbial carpet can be spoken of with an ever-lessening stigma? Spousal and childhood abuse, once so well concealed by those net curtains and never spoken of except, all too often, with blame for the victim, are no longer quite so easy to hide and are  little better understood by the general public. Are we ditching the nets because we are moving towards a more open society or the other way round?

When I first moved in here, I could not help noticing just how much is blocked by those net curtains, looking from both the outside in and, more importantly, from the inside out. I no longer need to leave my home to be intimate with a dawn or a sunset. I can see the stars from my bed… or step outside; it is no longer a necessity, it is simply a choice. By allowing the light to stream in unfiltered, I look out at an undiminished world… knowing all the while that it could gaze back at me, yet most of the time, it has better things to do. That seems to bring an unexpected freedom, a new honesty to the relationship with land and sky as well as a new level of choice and responsibility. Unadulterated light shows me the dust ball under the bed as clearly as the ones in my own being… and once seen, both can be addressed. Living in the laight also makes the colours sing and the crystal sparkle and shed rainbows… and perhaps it could do that for me too.

Only human…

 From the archives…

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“Yo, missus!” I turned… a tattooed yob in shredded denim with more piercings in his face than you would have thought possible held out my phone. “Your bag’s open… you dropped this.” My handbag falls open with alarming regularity. I smiled and thanked him and winced as he smiled back, fearing the damage the piercings could do under the strain. I was genuinely grateful. It wasn’t the best of areas and I would probably have given him and his friends a wide birth after dusk.

When I first landed in the south and was asked in what part of the town I lived… a town I had known nothing about and moved to by the simple expedient of sticking a pin in a map blindfolded… folk would do that thing with their lips, sucking in air as if I had mentioned the unmentionable. It was, they said, a bad area. Granted, it was not the prettiest part of town, but the house was nice…spacious… with a cosy, private garden and the neighbours some of the nicest people I have ever met. The place was convenient. I could walk the boys to school every day and walk to work in the town and back; to be fair, I had to… I couldn’t drive back then. There was never any trouble, it wasn’t noisy or covered in graffiti and the gardens were all nicely kept. As a bonus there were both supermarket and countryside within a few minutes’ walk.ORC broch 043

Not that it would have mattered much, for in many ways it doesn’t matter where you live… once you have closed the door you are home and the world stays outside. I have lived in some beautiful places, and lived in some of the worst. I have lived, too, for a brief period, without a home and I don’t recommend it; at that point anything with a roof looks good. Admittedly, it is far more pleasant and less nerve-wracking to live in an area where you are not constantly looking over your shoulder as you walk home, but once that door is shut the world outside almost ceases to exist.

The outside of the house barely matters; the road, the area… they are not the place upon which you put the stamp of your personality. It is not there that you play with colour and texture and make a room that says ‘this is me’. Or perhaps, ‘this is what I think I would like you to think is me’. We do have a tendency to conform to what we assume others will be impressed by, find pleasing or to something that meets the current trend.ORC broch 038

You can tell an ‘honest’ room the moment you walk in… it may be untidy or kept in pristine condition. It may be full of costly antiques and artworks or done to the tightest and most creative of budgets… but the things that are there are real expressions of a personality, traces of a life lived and the interests of its occupant. There is a specific feel to the place that has that indefinable quality of a real home.

I had occasion to call at a little shop today near that first house in the town and it was there I almost lost my phone. The economic downturn over the past few years, the death of local industries and rising unemployment have all taken their toll on the area. I watched the local businesses that sustained the community close down one by one over the years, shattering lives and families that depended upon them. Council spending cuts and minimal maintenance of the streets have dragged the area visibly into poverty. No doubt behind many of the doors there are lovely homes; many of the gardens themselves are still neatly kept, but there is a feel of grey despair on the streets.

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It reminds me of deep depression… that state of mind when you are emotionally exhausted and can no longer be bothered how you look or what you wear, or even if you have combed your hair before going out.

The people too, clustered outside the little shop that now sports bars on its windows, all have that grey, despairing air. Their clothes are scruffy, hair unkempt, skin lacking the lustre of health. It is as if the poverty is a spreading infection leaching the energy from them, setting up a cross contamination between the area and the people.ORC broch 039

I was reminded of a recent report I had read on the impact of poverty, both physiological and psychological; how the scars of childhood poverty can remain in the adult brain, how adults living under the constant stress of reduced income…the ‘relative poverty’ that affects so many in an unequal society… see reductions in executive function and even functional IQ that helps perpetuate the very circumstances that cause them. It is a vicious cycle.

I found it infinitely sad. And pulled myself up. Who am I to judge? I, in my scruffy, grubby clothes from walking the dog, with no make-up and hair blown to unkempt extremes? Isn’t my exterior the same as theirs? Are my circumstances any different, balanced on that knife edge that robs Peter to pay Paul? Would I look any different to an observer? No. They are me, and I am them.

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Does it change who I am… who they are? Deep down? No. It may change the surface, it may alter the way in which you face the day, but a decent person remains a decent person regardless of circumstance, bank balance or social standing.

Chastened, ashamed of the judgemental thoughts, I went home, opening the door on a tidy house that I keep as best I can. It smelled of polish and disinfectant, the product of the six a.m. cleaning… overlaid with the vague inevitability of dog. She was waiting for me, tail thumping the ground, eyes bright and eager, ball at the ready. Does she care how scruffy I look or if I have showered yet today and done the make-up? Not a bit. She doesn’t judge by appearances, couldn’t care less what I look like. She works on ‘feel’, just as we do when we walk into a room. She doesn’t care about exteriors, she loves those she loves for who they are, not how they dress. If it feels right it is right, regardless of the surface. She has a lot to teach me; after all… I’m only human.

Ani winks