My own personal space

The term ‘Proxemics’ was first introduced by Edward T. Hall in his book The Hidden Dimension. It is ‘the science of the subjective dimensions that surround each person and the physical distances they try to keep from other people, according to subtle cultural rules’ (Wikipedia). Hall believed not only was it important how we interact with each other daily but also how we organize personal spaces, as well as buildings, houses, cities and towns. ‘Personal space is the region surrounding a person which they regard as psychologically theirs. Most people value their personal space and feel discomfort, anger, or anxiety when their personal space is encroached’ (Wikipedia).
The population of the central area of Tokyo where I live is about nine million people. Personal space is at a premium. We have been trying to buy a house on a postage stamp sized lot for several years. We don’t have wealthy relatives to give us the down payment and the banks aren’t really lending so it isn’t going to happen, but we still like to window shop. Tolstoy’s ‘How Much Land Does a Man Require’ should probably be required reading for anyone purchasing a home or thinking about it, and maybe Throeau’s Walden as well.

I have set my sites on much smaller aspirations, my own personal space.

How much personal space does a man need? A friend stated in a recent email ‘a man needs a creative space’. I find it rare that women fully understand this, the need part I mean, how important this space is to a man’s soul. Does that sound sexist? It is what it is. Maybe all men don’t have this need and maybe some women do but I am going to give you the perspective of a man. Some may call it a ‘man cave’ or ‘mantuary’ (urban dictionary), a study, an atelier, or studio. Just knowing there is a place to go to be away and think clearly can bring great comfort. I like to build my own. It’s cathartic. When I was a kid it was forts, whether they were built in the living room, in a tree or underground in the woods. Now it’s on the porch of a tiny apartment or a corner of my living room. You have to make do with what you have. I don’t need much. A place for my futon, a small table and that’s it.

John Milton in Paradise Lost says, ‘The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.’ Probably the mind is the ultimate in small spaces. Maybe that’s all we can afford sometimes but I’m talking about expanding the space a bit, a little beyond intimate space and traditional personal space, a place where the mind can breathe a bit.

I prefer very small spaces. They can be shaped and sculpted. There is only room for a few items, no clutter. They are easy to clean and they need to be kept that way. This helps with clear thinking.

After my grandfather died I moved in with my grandmother. Not for her sake. I had to work off some debt and it was a cheap place to live. She lived in a trailer home. People often look down on this choice of abode. They are small-minded. I had my own travel trailer I used to spend weekends in while at University. Thirty five feet long, eight feet wide, shower, toilet, kitchen, sofa, queen sized bed, small yard and a shed. I used to like the sound of the rain on the tin roof. I don’t like the poverty associated with trailer parks and the sometimes sketchy nature of the neighbors but it is affordable and very comfortable housing. My grandmother’s was spacious on the inside. Just enough room, but I needed my own corner and so did my grandfather.

My grandfather had a small shed-like attachment at the back of the trailer. It was primitive, in a good way, and private. The ceiling was very low, not much taller than the metal screen door, so you had to crouch slightly. The shed was about four feet wide by seven feet long. There was an old metal shelf, some old golf clubs (he used to make all sorts of things, like canes out of them), various junk, materials, and other sundries. There were jars of screws, nuts, bolts, and miscellaneous fasteners attached by their tin caps to the rafters. An oversized florescent light hung in the middle of the room. You had to be careful not to hit your head. There was a stone grinder for sharpening tools attached to a small work bench made from scrap wood, various hand tools attached to the walls, and an old handmade wooden tool carrier.

I was working nights at the postal sorting facility, ‘going postal’, which I didn’t need at the time. I was also dating my fiancé long distance from Japan, mostly by phone. There wasn’t much to do since I moved back to the area after having been gone for ten years. At that time in my life I needed something to keep my hands busy. I decided to make the old workshop my space. Family members thought I was nuts. They were right, but who cares. Their version of sanity I could do without.

I bought some old French doors from a drunken neighbor for $30 and replaced the old metal screen door. Then I got to work on the inside. I kept the framing to save money, raised the roof a bit and put a new skin on the roof. Then I lined the floors and walls with scraps of cherry or mahogany veneer I found in the dumpster of an interior design business. Sometimes they had full sheets of veneer plywood. I even put a small fountain in the floor for effect. I built a compartment that went under the trailer for storage. It was only about two feet tall by three feet wide and had a sliding door. It looked about the size of a fireplace. It even had a narrow mantle to put chochkeys on. I hung an old winter kimono that I bought at a yard sale in front of the French doors for privacy and to keep some heat in during winter. I transformed that shed into a workable private space where I could think and just be. I imagined Thoreau would have been proud.

The act of building the space was probably just as cathartic as spending time enjoying the finished product. I remember thinking about the importance of process while building it. It was nice to finish it but even if I never finished it I would have enjoyed the experience. It wasn’t about production for me anymore, artwork I mean, but life as well. I still forget this almost daily. The constant need to accomplish something, to produce a finished product or work, to reach some destination, I believe is a sickness resulting from our place in history as it relates to the Industrial Revolution. It has been driven into our souls by living in this era. What will I do? What am I accomplishing? Sometimes we try to find some cosmic importance in what we create, or something that will contribute to who we are, like we are trying to forge our identity through our work instead of express as much as we already know about ourselves, or just enjoy the moment.

Why do I need a five year plan? Why do I need to be so goal oriented at all? Can’t I have some other orientation that reflects what I really value?

I often feel like I am being molded, branded, and produced like a product. I feel like I have to constantly resist. Peer pressure sucks even when you’re an adult. We have been pressured into accepting certain viewpoints concerning the nature of work and productivity. So much so that we cannot even enjoy the process anymore because we constantly have to measure how far we have come and how much use we are to society based on some sliding scale, or form of measurement.

‘Is the marketplace the measure of our culture? That would mean the death of all thought,’ says Adrian Jacobs, a neurotic composer in the movie Untitled. Maybe that is what I am resisting, the pressure of the marketplace. We are too busy, bored, or distracted to ask ourselves if we even agree with these viewpoints. Someone told us we must be productive members of society and what that exactly means. We believed them and continue to shape our lives around these paradigms. These paradigms have ruined ‘regular work’ and I find my creative works affected as well. They threaten to suck all the joy out of creating. If work and creating is simply about the end product then it’s all meaningless to me.

Building things has taught me to draw meaning through process. Trying to enjoy that moment and be present. Getting caught up in the feel and smell of wood, the sound of power and hand tools, going to the dumpster to pick out the wood, interacting with the neighbors and storekeepers, communing with God and thinking about life – which is easier when my hands are busy (riding on a train or playing or singing music has a similar affect). These are all parts of the process. They are important because they are opportunities for enjoyment if we are not preoccupied with the finished product.

The details, the work, aspirations, fame, achievements in the end are really pointless in a cosmic sense. We imagine ourselves more important than we are. It’s vanity that interferes with enjoyment. I think old people understand this better than young people. Ask them what is important. Listen to them tell stories. What do they leave out?

It’s weird to talk about my grandfather’s shed. There is vulnerability in inviting people into this personal space. It’s funny because when two people are in the space, whether physically or through writing about it, it becomes very personal. I guess because building these spaces is not only about the process but privacy too. They are an extension of my natural personal space. Often I need that extra space. They are certainly not about production for me. They are places I can go to escape the guilt of thinking I am lazy based on postindustrial norms about ‘being productive’, and maybe to escape people as well. Didn’t Sartre say ‘hell is other people’? Maybe not always but certainly enough to warrant a little personal space.

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