on footbathing and living alone

footbath bubbles

Most evenings year-round I light at least one tealight candle (from IKEA for about four cents a pop, so one cent an hour), a ritual that says, I'm home, I'm safe, I'm winding down the day. Another ritual I perform only in summer when socks peel off and toes peek out. After wearing sandals or heels all day and collecting the dust and grime of streets and sidewalks, it only makes sense to come home, kick off the shoes (in my no-shoes home), and wash my feet—and often again before bed. Everyone washes hands all day long, after all. Bare feet in summer just feel good. But feet, like hands, get dirty. A quick turn of the tap (warm or cool, depending on how hot I am), a squirt of soap, a rub, a step-and-dry on the bathmat, and it's done. Clean feet are a simple luxury.

I've been thinking a lot about luxuries lately. It feels a luxury to be living alone again after many years of living with other people, partner and roommates—to do what I want at home, where I want, how I want, whenever I want—without compromise, justification, or explanation. Until now, I've lived by myself for only two years, once upon a time in Berkeley.

A while back, I read Eric Klinenberg's Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, a sociological discussion about the increasing numbers of people worldwide choosing to live alone and yet remaining productive members of communities, confounding stereotypes of the lonely old cat-hoarder lady or cranky old misfit bachelor. But one needs a certain income level to afford to live alone, especially in cities. Very few people my age could swing it in the Bay Area, from my experience. It was simply too expensive to live alone (and have any extra money) for most people, even those with decent full-time jobs. Couples often moved in together rather early in large part to save on rent. And even couples often had extra roommates. So to live alone in thriving, popular cities, living space must contract.

Space is a luxury, a fact reinforced when touring studio apartments this month and trying to imagine how I would fit everything I own into one small room. How could I do yoga? I considered selling the temporary, hand-me-down futon and switching to companionable chairs. Other pieces would need to go, too, but which? Every studio I walked into felt like someone had begun winding me up in binding cloth, some kind of walled girdle, and I could barely breathe. I ended up deciding to pay more for a small one-bedroom in an old building downtown with a great location and a view of a brick wall (but I love brick and it's south- and west-facing light, the best kind). Purely on cost, though, I wonder if I made the right decision to choose the one-bedroom over the studio, but I went with my gut on how I felt in each apartment—constricted versus open—even though they were in the same building on the same side. 

Here in Portland, I need two jobs right now to afford this luxury, but it's a price I'm willing to pay. As an introvert, it's hard for me to live with strangers—or rather, people at first strangers who become situational, passing-ship-in-the-night companions but who, at least for me, have never turned into lasting friends. It's hard to live with clashing expectations when there is no long-term interpersonal incentive to repair the cracks that inevitably appear between any two people. Everyone knows the perfect roommate is the one who's never home: the workaholic who, even when off work, spends half the time out or over at the boy/girlfriend's place. It's not that I wouldn't live with a partner again, but at the moment it's not an option. (And then sometimes I wonder, based on my own experiences, whether living together, married or not, is even beneficial for a romantic relationship. People are fickle.)

And yet as I begin the packing process, I am faced with the mountain of everything I own and how much work and time is involved in perpetually sorting through and moving it from one place to another, and so am having fleeting but recurring fantasies about how it would be to live in a tiny studio with a futon mattress as couch and bed on the bare floor, with a pile of library books on one side, a lamp on the floor, my laptop, a mug, a bowl, a spoon, clothes hanging in the closet—but nothing else: no furniture, no decorative objects, nothing to pack and move, nothing to dust, no objects to worry about taking care of, getting rid of, or upgrading. I've lived with people who have almost no furniture. They entertain on the floor, on their mattresses. They seem as happy as anyone else, maybe happier. Do I want to live without things?

I'm reading Oliver Burkeman's The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking. One of the things the formal Stoics suggest, he says, when contemplating a decision or facing a fear is to imagine the most probable realistic worst thing that could happen—turns out, the most likely worst-case scenario usually isn't nearly as intolerable as the horrific one first feared. Living without things? I could. Living without clean feet? I'd rather not.

bathed feet

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