Voices: What living out of a friend’s spare room taught me about myself

Voices: What living out of a friend’s spare room taught me about myself

It’s fair to say, my husband and I didn’t expect to be living in our friends’ spare room nearly 30 years into our marriage. But that’s where we found ourselves when an unexpected period of unemployment and uncertainty uprooted us from our community, our home, and our plans for our future, leaving us reeling from the shock of everything that had been stripped away.

I have often observed how, at any point, a redundancy, diagnosis, bereavement, or really any major curveball can intercept anyone’s existence, leaving them with a sense of loss, confusion, disappointment, or anger. But this time it was us dealing with the curveball. It was us trawling through so many unwelcome emotions, suddenly finding ourselves in circumstances beyond our control.

Without a family home for our kids to return to when they visited from university, without our familiar possessions or the roles we loved and the relationships we had invested in for so many years, I found myself asking: “Who even am I now?” I may not have consciously defined myself by these things, but without them, I felt confused and disorientated.

As we closed the front door of the house in which we had spent so many years cultivating memories, one moment sticks with me. Despite the rawness of our loss and the uncertainty of what lay ahead, we realised with genuine clarity that what mattered most to us was portable. While we didn’t have much security, and everything we owned had gone into storage for the foreseeable future, we still had each other, and our closest relationships. Holding tightly to that comforting thought, we got in the car and drove away.

It was there, in the liminal space of our friends’ house (where we lived for many months), that I began to process our loss more fully. In an ironic twist, just before our lives were shaken up, I had started writing a book called Why Less Means More about tackling hurry sickness in a culture that equates success with the acquisition of more: more work hours, busier schedules, more social media followers, more possessions. Now, living with far less than I had in decades, I was forced to reckon dramatically with my own theory – could less of some things really mean more?

Looking back, I realised I had unwittingly bought into the assumption that I needed to constantly live at warp speed. I was always striving to fulfil the expectations of others, not only living with an overstuffed wardrobe, but an overstuffed schedule, and overwhelming working hours.

I was always breaching the limits of my life and time to add in one more appointment, or one more obligation. I needed to let go of far more than my physical stuff; I needed to let go of a way of thinking and being that was simply not working for me anymore.

So, while this past couple of years have not been easy (and to be clear, I do appreciate there are many others who have experienced far worse), I have learned that living with intention and cultivating priorities that align with our sense of purpose and the people we love most can give us more freedom than our chaotic, maximalist culture could ever offer.

I have discovered significantly more about what matters most to me. Just as TV decluttering programmes like Sort Out Your Life with Stacy Solomon and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo simplify people’s wardrobes and cupboards, as we downscaled our entire life (including my wardrobe!) we found vital space to think more slowly and strategically about what we wanted to keep and how we wanted to live.

It might not be comfortable letting go of things we care about, but if this season has taught us anything it is that as we learn to relinquish those things, we will clearly see and appreciate what and who we cherish above all else.

I have often longed for more space or capacity – more reserves in my life, my brain, and my time so that I don’t end up running on fumes, late for one thing, overdue on another and worrying about how to pay for the next one.

Just to be clear, I’m not necessarily advocating for full-scale minimalist living, going off the grid and crocheting your own underwear. But deliberately leaving space (where we can) in our time, commitments, spending, and schedules is a radical act in a culture that seems to expect a superhuman level of performance and perfection from us. Intentionally accepting our limits allows us to recalibrate our one, precious life around what matters most.

Cathy Madavan is a speaker, writer and broadcaster. Her book Why Less Means More: Making Space For What Matters Most will be published on 10 April