Monday, 4 February 2019

Objects and things

Decluttering seems to be a new religion. I am in support because I am a passionate anti-consumerist and find it painful to watch or read about people spending thousands of pounds, dollars or whatever on items they don't really need or want, and giving gifts for the sake of giving a gift.

It may be strange coming from someone with a background in a culture where everything was in short supply or simply non-existent, from toilet paper to ball-point pens to tights to baking powder to T-shirts to books, and where every item, obtained through unimaginable effort was cherished and passed on and mended over and over again. To own something generally desirable, whether a pack of chewing gum or a tape recorder, was a matter of status. If you were privileged to travel abroad you were expected to bring presents to family, friends and colleagues; and even from domestic holidays you would bring souvenirs. A chocolate wrap or a bottle label would make a welcome gift.

When I moved to Sweden and gained access to unlimited supply of anything, my lust for purposeful or purposeless objects could not be fully satisfied for a very simple reason: money. In Russia, if you were lucky to know someone who knew someone who sold book shelves or wall sconces or wall-to-wall carpets on the black market at ridiculous prices, all your friends would contribute, and you would pay them back some time when you could. Capitalism doesn't work like that.

We had Russian friends visiting in neverending lines, and all of them brought presents, because that's what you did. Some were nice, some were ugly, but all were given with love. It is hard to get rid of objects given to you with love, but every now and then your home begins to feel like a dump. We decluttered before we moved to California in 1999, then decluttered again when we came back. After my mother-in-law died, I inherited a lot of nice stuff, which interestingly enough made me declutter more, because the nice stuff made my old less-nice stuff too conspicuous.

Obviously, we decluttered massively when we moved to Cambridge. The children were given a chance to choose what they wanted, and they didn't want much because by then they all had their own households and had perhaps even started decluttering themselves. I remember selling dozens of rather valuable objects to an antique dealer for almost nothing, just to get rid of it. Everything else went to charity shops that probably sent half to recycling. Every now and then I remember an object with some regret, but immediately change my mind: why would I need that gigantic cut-glass drinking horn?

Now that I am forced to mass-declutter again, I wonder how all this stuff has accumulated again. It was only last year that – I thought – I gave away everything I didn't use. And I regularly take bags of stuff to charity shops.

There is one major flaw in this article. It does not distinguish between mess and clutter. If you come home and there are clothes all over the floor and dirty dishes in the sink, it's not clutter, it's mess. The anxiety reasons stated in the article are relevant for mess. There are two simple ways to deal with mess: you ignore it or you tidy up (or better still, don't allow it to pile up). I am not a supertidy person, but I wouldn't be able to live with a mess.This is why I have Gatehouse rules

Clutter is something different, and only point 3 in the list of advice deals with it. The rest is dealing with mess on a day to day basis. 

In dealing with clutter, it is important to differentiate between objects and things. Thing theory – yes, it's a thing! - claims that objects only become things when they are filled with significance, with immaterial value. Sometimes we say “of sentimental value” meaning that an object is more than an object: it is a memory, a souvenir in the original meaning of the word; also something that makes you glad. Few of us are privileged to be exclusively surrounded with objects that make us glad, but in decluttering it should be the guiding principle: only keep objects that make you glad, objects that have become things. They will not necessarily be the prettiest of your possessions, or the most expensive, or the most desirable. They will not necessarily be gifts from your closest friends. For some reason, I will never part with a wooden bench from my mother-in-law's home, or a banal dream-catcher I got from a children's author, or a miniature Japanese garden I impulse-bought at a spa.

Decluttering is good for your mind, declutter prophets say. What they don't say (because they are, unlike me, good citizens and know that the capitalist wheels must turn) is: stop buying. Don't be tempted by trinkets. Don't be tempted by objects that you will never use and that will never become things.

That said: who knows what object might suddenly become a thing? 

Some of my favourite things 

Saturday, 2 February 2019


It took me a very long time to finish this post, because of all the recent changes in my life this one hurts most.

Mortality is a deep issue to contemplate, and when a pet dies, grief is no less than with a loved human, and guilt probably stronger. I wrote about it when Miso died, and every time Facebook shows me a picture of happy and healthy Miso, I want to cry. Miranda died a year ago, quite unexpectedly and quickly, so hopefully she only suffered a short time. 

I know it sounds horrible, but even before I was told that Miranda would not make it, I started looking on cat shelter sites. And when I saw the twins, my heart melted. Sobbing, I called the shelter, and after a thorough inspection, we were approved as suitable staff (you know: dog have owners, cats have staff). And even before we got them home, we decided that their names were Castor and Pollux, Dioscuri, the celestial twins.

We had never had two cats, and we had never had kittens. Dioscuri had been captured from a pack of stray cats and had been in a foster home for a few months. They had only been adoptable for a couple of days when I saw them – it was just meant to be.

They were very shy. The first week we were told to keep them in just one room with access to food and sand. I hung blankets over chairs, and they hid under them, only coming out for short moments to play. I made toys for them. They liked my toys better than the toys I bought. By the end of the week they would allow me to touch them. Castor was bolder than Pollux. 

By and by we opened more space for them, and they were fascinated by the large glass door leading to the garden, and also by ventilation form which, I suppose, plenty of interesting information arrived. When we allowed them in the bedroom, they immediately started sleeping by my feet. How did stray cats know that they should sleep in their human's bed? 

And then came the disaster. One morning I opened the glass door before giving them breakfast, expecting them to go out cautiously and return to their bowls. No way! Within seconds they vanished, and they didn't come back. I must have been off balance for something else because my reaction was inadequate. I went hysterical. I don't remember when I cried that hard. I hated the whole world, starting with myself. I felt worthless and defeated.

When I pulled myself together a bit, I posted in local facebook groups, and someone told me that they had possibly seen one of the cats. I printed posters and put them on telephone poles and by the entrance to the country park. I went around calling. I came back home and cried a bit more. The glass door was open, the bowls just by it. It was February and very cold outside. It was getting dark. I sat in an armchair by the open glass door. I could not read or do anything. I could not eat.

Of course they came back eventually, first Castor, then an hour later Pollux. I didn't let them out for another week, but sooner or later they had to go out and then go and come as they pleased. Young, inquisitive cats with plenty of exciting things to discover and explore. They turned out to be skillful hunters. They would stay away for hours, but always came to sleep in my bed. In the dusk, they got particularly playful, staging mock fights. They were the source of much joy. Just telling someone about them made me smile. 

When I moved to Gatehouse, I had to leave them behind. First, pets are not allowed on campus. But even if they were, it is impossible to keep cats who are used to freedom in a tiny flat. I wouldn't be able to let them go out because of the traffic.

I started asking around, but nobody seemed to want or knew someone who might want two lovely cats. Every time I thought about them I started crying. I could not bring myself to call the cat shelter, so a friend did it for me, while I wasn't just sobbing, I was weeping. The shelter said they didn't have space and would get back.

Each time I had to go back to Milton, the cats would come and want a cuddle. My heart was permanently broken.

Then – a miracle I had been hoping for. A new home! A good home. Someone who would give them all care and love they needed. My heart was still broken, but at least I knew that my wonderful twins would have a good life.  

The first time their new staff came to collect them, I didn't manage to catch them both, because of a misunderstanding. Two weeks later, I sat there with two unhappy cats in a basket, crying floods again. The new staff spoke to them gently. I felt better.

Do you want to hear the rest of the story? No, you don't. It is not a story with a happy ending. 

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Farewell, my cherry orchard

How do I feel about having sold the first and only home that I genuinely loved?

I was not involved when my childhood home was sold, but I remember my resentment about the alterations made while I was still able to visit.

I have re-read my blog from summer 2008, and I sense my anxieties then sky-high above what I feel now. Maybe I have made myself numb subconsciously, because the pain is unbearable.

I never really loved our house in Stockholm. When we bought it, I was still new in Sweden and I was just about to have a baby. In hindsight, I realise that we should have accepted the municipal flat we had been offered and waited with house purchase until things had settled. At the same time it was important to have stability. We had only viewed two houses. I didn't know you were supposed to view dozens before making up your mind. I was awed by the idea of getting a mortgage, and generally I didn't know what we were doing. It wasn't my dream house, and it never became one. We repainted the horrible dark green and brown walls. All our furniture was second-hand or even retrieved from garbage containers. I had no job. We had five children. When we had extra money, we prioritised travel (or so we said). Every purchase of curtains or rugs was a matter of compromise. I was envious of friends who had nice homes, and I was ashamed when my Russian family and friends visited.

I wasn't particularly into gardening either. From my home country, I brought a pragmatic view of gardens: that's where you grow vegetables. But no one needed home-grown vegetables in a land of plenty. I only got interested in purposeless gardening when I was on long-term sick leave. Hortotherapy = true.

It was not until my mother-in-law died and we inherited some lovely stuff from her elegant house, that I felt motivated to do something about mine. By that time I had a job and a salary, the children had moved out, I renovated the kitchen and the bathroom. Very soon after that we moved to Cambridge. I remember that at first we thought we would rent out and return after eleven years. How naive one can be! What would we be returning to now?

Although I still didn't love my home, it broke my heart to part with it, and the first months in Cambridge until we found Woodside didn't make it easier.

I fell in love with Woodside at first sight. First the garden, then the house itself. I felt at home. When we brought our furniture and other stuff, when everything found its place, when we put up the pictures, when we lit the first fire. The house had everything I had ever dreamed of, and many things I hadn't known I had dreamed of. And I got a garden of just the right size, where things grew and thrived. And ten years went by, mostly very happy years, and many dear people came and stayed, and many more came to parties and teas. With all the doubts and uncertainties, I hoped it would be my home for the rest of my life.

So how do I feel now, with the sign “sold” outside our driveway? Maybe it is different because the home had already been lost for a while and I had grown accustomed to the idea that it was happening. Maybe it's because it wasn't my choice. Maybe because during my reluctant, but inevitable visits these past months the only way to endure them was to tell myself: This does not concern me at all. Ten mostly happy years, but it's over, and no point in looking back.

Of course I still have the whole process of packing, selling, giving away, cleaning and surrendering the keys.

I hope the people who have bought Woodside are passionate gardeners and will have a lot of joy watching my daffodils and poppies emerge, rather than cutting down the trees, filling the pond and digging up my roses. But it does not concern me. They can do whatever they want. The agent advert suggested endless potentials in knocking down walls.

The displaced hedgehog wanders on. 

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Book decluttering

This article caused some discussion on my Facebook feed, but even before the flood of responses I had decided to write a blog post.

First, neither the declutter guru nor the author of the article seem to be the kind of book owner that I and most of the people I know are. Books are neither single-use items nor ornaments of sentimental value. Instead, they are our working tools, supplies and frequently results. Books we purchase – or occasionally get for free from authors and publishers – may or may not be read; we can keep them for later, or we may read the introduction and realise that the book didn't meet our expectations. In many cases, we will re-read a book many times, for various reasons. Sometimes we teach a book, and personally I re-read books I teach every other year. Sometimes we write about a book, and we may write about the same book repeatedly, from different perspectives and for different audiences. Some of us are collectors: of a particular type of books, specific genres, specific authors, first editions, various illustrated or translated versions, and so on. Most of us, I would guess, have two separate book collections: one at home and one in the office, and they are likely to be very different.

Almost nothing argued in the article is relevant for people like me.

But even people like me are very different. Even younger me is very, very different from current me. The younger me grew up in a country where attractive books were in short supply. Where it was not unusual to pay a month's salary for one single highly desirable book – yes, I have done so on several occasions, and they were not incunabula.

In my first professional life, I collected fairy tales, translations of Scandinavian fiction and children's books in English. The latter were particularly hard to get hold of: random books brought from abroad and sold in the only second-hand bookshop in Moscow that kept them. They cost 5% of my monthly salary. No wonder they were dear to me. (A pair of tights cost 10% of my monthly salary, so abstaining from a pair of tights would buy two books).

When I moved to Sweden, I had to pay a 100% export tax on every book I wanted to take with me. This forced me to make some hard choices. I sold my huge fairy-tale collection and my substantial Scandinavian fiction collection, but I paid taxes on Puffin books, which in hindsight made no sense at all since they were easily accessible in Sweden, even before amazon.

I still have some of those Puffins with stamps from the second-hand bookshop in Moscow.

In Sweden my book collection started to grow again, this time only limited by money. I could no longer save by giving up tights.

I like to own books that I work with, so I justified my book purchases by needing them for current research projects or future research projects or maybe-some-time research projects, and expensive encyclopedias that were easily available in libraries. I used to review books a lot; I made friends with authors who would send me their new books. We added bookshelves at home; when I eventually got first a shared and then my own office, I moved work-related books there.

Still we were running out of space. I donated my large collection of Russian children's books to a University library in Finland where I hoped it would be used. Then I donated, to the same library, a very large collection of children's books in English, including all those first signed editions and many books from Australia, Canada and South Africa that I had bought during professional travel and that are not available anywhere else. In both cases, I received nice letters from the Head Librarian.

When we moved to Cambridge and realised the spatial limitations of British housing, we reluctantly admitted that it was time to get rid of books we had bought and never read, books we had read and would never read again, books we had bought for specific projects that were finished, and so on. I donated another huge collection of fairy tales because by that time I knew I would never write about them. I gave most Swedish children's books to my grandchildren. I gave heaps of critical books to my department. At the end, we just told friends: come and take whatever you want. They did. Bags after bags after bags.

Still we brought seventy boxes of books with us. And then we started buying more books. This was the beginning of amazon, and buying books had never been easier. I also had generous book allowance.

Then, five years ago, there was an accident with a happy ending. It made me think about the value and purpose of books sitting on my shelves. I donated my collection of Alice in Wonderland, 250 volumes of various illustrated and translated editions, to the Homerton library. This noble act left a couple of empty shelves in my office, but I continued to declutter and donate to libraries and give away to students and simply put books on “Please take whatever you want” table at work. Interestingly, someone would always take them.

I persuaded my significant other, who is a worse book hoarder than I, to part with some books he definitely would not read or use for work again. Believe me, it is not easy to find places that will take a special collection, even for free. But we managed to find a home for all Swedish fiction and non-fiction, for a huge collection of Judaica, and a substantial collection on Russian history. Still, this did not leave much space in our bookshelves.

I gave all my first editions of Harry Potter (British, American and “adult”) to a colleague obsessed by first editions.

Most recently I donated four shelves of literary criticism to Homerton. I realised I will never need those books again, and if I do in the near future I can just go downstairs to the library. Last term I taught my very last class on fairy tales, after which I donated all my remaining fairy tales. In a couple of weeks, I will teach my very last class ever on picturebooks, after which I will offer all my remaining picturebooks to the library.

I still cling to some favourite children's books and a few shelves of criticism, but not for long. I have seen enough retiring collagues sit frustrated in the middle of their offices that they need to vacate, surrounded by piles of books. I don't want to be in this situation.

I know that I will be moving again soon, and I will only take a small number of books with me. Kindle has made life easier because lots of books do not take any physical space. I will take the books I re-read regularly; I will take a few remaining signed books I value. I will take a copy of each of my own books, but probably not the books I have contributed a chapter to. I will keep all books on dollhouses and miniature-making because they will be useful in my future life as I plan it. Literary criticism or even children's books do not feature in my plans.

This process is a part of my bigger decluttering project. I don't want books – or anything – to be merely ballast. (Admittedly, the purpose of ballast is stability…)

I respect people who happily declare that they own twenty thousand books. I guess if I put together all books I have ever owned I would easily come close to this order of magnitude. But to everything there is a time and a season. A time to keep and a time to throw away. 

Friday, 28 December 2018

Books of 2018

Goodreads tells me that I have read 36 books this year out of 30 I had as a a goal. I set my readings goals low nowadays because I choose long, slow reads, and I almost don't read any quick-paced YA novels or picturebooks, and I read very little criticism for work.

Once upon a time I read several hundreds of books every year, particularly when I was on the national book award jury (120-150 books in just a couple of months) and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award jury (too many to account for), and of course I skim-read a lot of professional literature. I am glad I don't have to do it any more. I still have to read books that my students write about, but that's different than reading for pleasure. As we all know.

Here are some books from 2018.

Best book: Touch, by Claire North
Next best book: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
Best book with many sequels: Cazalet chronicles, by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Best nonfiction: Enlightenment Now, by Steven Pinker
Quickest (and highly enjoyable) read: In Paris with You, by Clémentine Beauvais 
Old favourite re-read: Mary Poppins, by Pamela Travers 
Book on which a movie I had seen was based: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer
Book I had been planning to read for a long time: The Tin Drum, by Günter Grass
Book I should have read long ago: The Colour of Magic, by Terry Pratchett
Weirdest book: Killing Commendatore, by Haruki Murakami
Author I have read most: Claire North (seven books!)
Biggest disappointment: Bookworm, by Lucy Mangan

To see all my 2018 books visit my Goodreads.


Sunday, 9 December 2018


I have been away a few days for work, and while away I realised that it would be the first time ever I return to an empty home. (So many things are “first time ever” these days). I travel a lot, even though considerably less than I once used to. When I recently told someone that I didn't travel as much as before, I then remembered that this year I have been in Italy twice, in Belgium, in Austria skiing, in Sweden, not to mention a week at Hadrian's Wall. Each time I returned home to moderate human and enthusiastic feline welcome. There was light outside the garage and light in the windows. Sometimes there was dinner. There was food for breakfast next morning.

This time, nobody was waiting. The windows were dark. There was food in the fridge, and I had made sure that I had eggs and oranges for breakfast next morning.

It was warm, because I have a smart thermostat that switches on heating toward evening.

The dishes were washed up, the kitchen was tidy, the bed was neatly made. “Leave it as you want to find it”.

I usually start feeling homesick on the third day of travel, whether I travel alone or in company. Lying on my king-size bed in the luxury hotel that my conference hosts had provided, I was violently homesick and suddenly felt confused. Did I long for the quiet of my little flat? Or did I, deeply subconsciously, long for the home I no longer have? The home I had previously returned to? I dismissed the thought as irrelevant.

Lonely night in a hotel far away from home

Monday, 3 December 2018

Advent in Gatehouse

It seems that expats become more passionate about their traditions. In San Diego we were invited to a Swedish friend (married to an American) for her annual Swedish Lucia party, and she even had some young girls, maybe nieces or neighbours, who wore Lucia dresses and candle crowns in their hair.

Here in Cambridge, American students celebrate Thanksgiving and share secrets of getting the right sort of pumpkin.

When we moved to Cambridge, I decided to maintain my Swedishness by inviting my new colleagues to glögg on the first Sunday in December – too early for Lucia (which is December 13), but since the term ends in the beginning of December, everyone would have been away. The first glögg was still in Water Street, rather crowded, but I believe everybody enjoyed it because it is so exotic. After that we had the benefit of our spacious living room and dining room in Milton, and at times we would entertain up to forty people. I have a sense that my glögg parties became sort of a legend because first-year doctoral students would hear about it from others, eager to attend, and once and only once when I couldn't do it at all I got cautious emails from people who wondered whether they had slipped off the books.

Glögg is different from mulled wine, even if the general idea of hot, spicy wine is similar, and I use my family recipe that is also slightly different from the Swedish glögg. The two musts to go with glögg are gingerbread and saffron buns, or Lucia buns. I would bake both, although recently I would sometimes cheat and order gingerbread from a Swedish shop in London. They also sell glögg spices.

I usually encourage my guests to bring something they associate with the season, which mostly works well. Occasionally people bring something that needs cooking or oven-heating, which isn't convenient when you simultaniously pour out glögg for a couple dozen guests, making sure that those who prefer non-alcoholic version take the right cups.

This year I had no intention of having a glögg party. It just felt impossible in this tiny space. Then I remembered both Water Street and my glögg party in Finland, where my flat was even smaller, but around thirty people squeezed into it.

I also thought that it was now more or less clear that it was my last year in Cambridge, my very last chance to give a glögg party for my Cambridge friends. To h-ll with it; as the Swedish saying goes: Where there is room for hearts, there is room for bums.

I explained to friends that it would be crowded, and nobody seemed to mind. I explained that I had no oven to bake saffron buns, and a student invited me to do it at her place. I found Swedish gingerbread in an Italian delicatessen. I learned from experience that some people don't drink alcohol, so I make a non-alcoholic alternative with black-currant juice. I brought frozen black currants with me for this purpose.

I was a bit anxious, but you know what? Twenty-five people seemed quite happy to share the limited space.