During the past year my partner and I were engaged in an intense deliberation. We live in Preston, a northern suburb of Melbourne and have lived here for almost a dozen years. When we bought our little red brick 1940s house, our lives looked quite different to how they look today. For starters, since the purchase, we have become parents, and our careers have taken some wonderful, but intensive directions. Put simply, the house no longer accommodated our needs; it was freezing and drafty in winter, and suffocatingly hot in summer. There was no space for a home office or a workshop for using tools and making things. My books infiltrate every room, forming towers in corners. And the Lego …
Clearly, one answer is to have less stuff, and I have been gradually getting rid of things and will continue to do so. I have found that, for the most part, I have everything I need, and the shoes and clothes I currently have will probably do for the next couple of years at the very least. So, apart from updating basics and using birthday vouchers people give me, I should be able to get by with a minimum of purchases from here on.
I am also, slowly, accepting that I exhibit one of the English teacher’s cardinal sins — hoarding classroom resources. I have folders and folders of old unit outlines, activities, and notes on texts I have taught. As is the case for some Gen-X-ers, it has required a shift from me to see that we have gone from an era of information scarcity to information abundance. Once upon a time, I would have been paper based in my teaching practice. That time has passed. As long as I have digital copies of my teaching stuff, they are accessible. So I don’t really need all that gear anymore — and I can always invent more, as that is how I came up with them in the first place.
For better or worse, I do not apply this logic to books, which give me joy. Nonetheless, I have been culling even here. At the end of 2015 I got rid of about 300 books, and I am now looking at another round of weeding in my personal library. The issue for me is that a shelf of books works like a photo album — each one conjures memories of the time I read it and my life back then, as much as recollections the contents of the book itself. Let’s just say I am working on that one.
Which brings me back to the house. Even if we learn to live with less, the structure itself has limitations. Should we sell, and move? My new-ish job is a long commute and this often feels like an enormous waste of time, not to mention the emissions of what is often a 3 hour round trip. On the other hand, our son is settled well into a fantastic school and we are reluctant to move him. And if I could keep my on-site work to three days a week, with the remainder working from home …
Back and forth we went with the different scenarios — sell and move to a shorter commute (for one of us). Stay and radically renovate or rebuild, and put up with the driving for now.
And then there is where we live. The thing is, in the 12 years we have lived in our neighbourhood, we have become very attached to it. I love to walk, and it is through walking that I have gotten to know neighbours and the idiosyncratic aspects of where we live. We have friends who live in the postcode — many of whom have moved here in the intervening years since we first bought, and whom we love having just round the corner or a very short drive away. It is part of the generational refresh that is shaping the neighbourhood.
The area is slowly being transformed. When we bought, we had no real knowledge of the suburb. All that we knew was that the more familiar suburbs nearby were out of our price range. So we got out a map and traced our search up the train and tram lines further north; we kept going in our search until we found the affordable but liveable house we live in now.
In recent years, the street has hosted a community group that holds pot luck dinners at people’s houses. More students have moved in as rents closer to the city have risen, adding to the local foot traffic as groups of young people stroll home from parties or take their commute to university. More young children now play in the street. More people are out walking their dogs. The local council sponsors a vibrant local arts scene and the district libraries are very well resourced. In short, the neighbourhood has gotten better, with the local streets feeling like public shared space, rather than just thoroughfares for cars to rush through.
It was not a clear decision to move.
So, we have decided to stay and do a radical renovation with a sustainability focus. This blog is partly about that — redoing our house so that it has better function, better energy efficiency and a more appealing aesthetic. Every time I think about it I feel daunted and excited at the same time. But is worth doing.
And in the meantime, this blog can also be a place where I write about other related topics that interest me and may interest other people: urban walking; New Urbanism; psychogeography; landscape and environment memoir; practices of inhabiting; the poetics of space and place.