Find Comfort in the Dark

What’s the use of darkness? We’ve had the most sombre December for half a century. And with 17 hours of sunlight so far, this January is heading for a sad pool position in the last thirty years.  One wonders how to get through these dark days.

The Celtic tradition may be useful: it sees the night as the starting point of everything, as the silent, dark run-up to the breaking-through of the light. When we generally talk about Spring, we actually mean its materialization, the moment when it becomes visible to us. But perhaps we could start acknowledging that Spring is already in action now: the seed is resting underground in order to gather strength to grow and blossom later. Flemish food writer and journalist Dorien Knockaert knows all this from her garden practices. And her reflection on the present darkness enables her to apply the principle to herself: to include herself in the cyclic pattern of a larger whole.

Maybe it’s indeed this simple. We humans also need rest. And that’s a hard ‘commodity’ to obtain in our 24/7 society. It may help if we see ourselves more as part of a larger whole. The obvious contender is nature. But perhaps our homes too can offer comfort in these days of darkness?

Summarizing the history of private life in one sentence, the American-English writer Bill Bryson states that it’s a history of getting comfortable slowly. We’re so used to having a lot of comfort, to being clean, well fed and warm, that we forget how recent most of that is. Until the late 18th century the idea of having comfort at home was so unfamiliar that there wasn’t even a word for the condition. ‘Comfortable’ meant merely ‘capable of being consoled’, what you offered the wounded or distressed.

Bryson’s account is fascinating, including his many references to the historical origins of certain expressions. For instance, we ‘make a bed’ today because in the Middle Ages that’s what you did: you rolled out a cloth sleeping pallet or heaped a pile of straw, found a cloak or blanket and fashioned whatever comfort you could. In fact, beds were hard work for centuries. Mattresses had to been turned and plumped regularly. And even then occupants quickly found themselves sinking into a hard, airless fissure between billowy hills. The mattresses lay on a lattice of ropes, which could be tightened with a key when the sagging got too uncomfortable. From which resulted the now affectionate expression ‘sleep tight’ (and the ‘biting bugs’ too were very much part of the age-old bedding discomfort).

Comfort doesn’t come to mind either when reading Bryson’s description of laundry duty. For apparently a good-sized country house produced six or seven hundred separate items of clothing, towels and bedlinen every week. And with detergents only appearing in the 1850s, a straightforward load – one involving sheets and other household linens, say – was likely to incorporate at least eight separate processes. To make matters worse, many loads were not straightforward. Difficult or delicate fabrics had to be treated with the greatest care. And items of clothing made of different types of fabric – of velvet and lace for instance – often had to be carefully taken apart, washed separately, and then sewn back together again.

When, first in America, all sorts of new conveniences found their entry in the home, they mostly eliminated work previously done by men, such as wood chopping. In fact, changing lifestyles and improved technologies just brought more work to women, through bigger houses, more complicated meals, ever higher expectations of cleanliness and thus even more voluminous and frequent laundry.

In the end it was improvements in textile and printing technologies that definitively transformed the home towards comfort. Carpets, wallpapers, upholstered furniture, soft and bright fabrics, all available in a range of rich colours, extended the decorative possibilities to the point that the modern house, such as we would recognize today, had finally begun to emerge. The first person to use ‘comfortable’ in its modern sense was the English writer Horace Walpole in 1770.

This begs the fascinating question of the importance of fabrics to the good life. I presume it’s stretching the point too far to claim that only textile can make a home comfortable – yet wouldn’t it be an interesting study that examines just what percentage of a house is covered in textile, and how that relates to its inhabitants’ sense of wellbeing?

Textile isn’t the particular focus of Flemish applied art specialist Hilde Bouchez. But in The Wild Thing she does explore how certain ordinary utility objects are extraordinary – comfortable indeed, both in the old meaning of being consoling and in its modern connotation of harmonious domesticity. Bouchez clearly doesn’t like the contemporary consumer culture that promises status but actually offers only products empty of meaning. They ensure that the purchasing cycle continues, despite the dissatisfaction we feel with it. In a disrupted world, where many people find their quest for meaningfulness frustrating, Bouchez draws from a myriad of theoretical explorations, insights and cultural practices from all over the world, with the aim to contribute to a better understanding of what the good life entails.

The traditional Kyrgyz home, yurt or ger.

Take the shyrdaks and ala-kizizs of Kyrgyzstan for instance. These felt carpets were traditionally very much part of Kyrgyz life, bedecking the yurts and accompanying important moments of life such as at births, weddings and funerals. But, as with so many traditions, interest in the craft dwindled, lifestyles changed, young people emigrated to the city. In 2012, the ‘art of Kyrgyz traditional felt carpets’, was included in UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safekeeping.

Bright reflection of some very joyful children indeed.

Ironically, it’s globalization that has revitalized the interest in the felt carpets, with the curiosity towards other cultures happily accommodated by international market mechanisms.

The accompanying story sounds authentic. It talks about the dignity of women, their traditions and their identity. And that identity is very much bound up with a holistic world view in which everyone and everything is connected.

At the start of the making process a particular sheep is chosen to contribute its wool for the felt carpet. The women work together and transfer their positive thoughts onto the wool: intentions of success and abundance, happiness and love. And the joy of the children who jump upon the carpet to further the felting process, causes the colours to be bright and lively.

The women forcefully rub the felt with their elbows, the children will jump later.

Every part of the making process thus has its meaning and harmoniously connects the makers, what is made and the recipient with one another. In sum, the essence of Kyrgyz carpets is the transfer of intention and attention from the maker to the material, so that the material object ‘vibrates’ with creative energy – which it then passes onto the beholder.

I like this. I like the importance of intention and attention. I like the fact that craft values enable these women to live authentically and dignified. I like the valuation of material things, though I wouldn’t call a Kyrgyz carpet ordinary. And perhaps there’s the hitch: isn’t all this a marketing ploy to incorporate Kyrgyz culture in a globalized market that increasingly kicks on extraordinary imports from hitherto hidden areas in the world? Bouchez emphasizes how to the felting women themselves, the story feels genuine, legitimate, natural

Yet I wonder. What if it was us? What if in the constant search for improving export figures and tourist attractiveness the Flemish government would set up a programme to get women back to, say, lace-making? And accompany it with an involved story about Flemish identity and its traditions which Chinese or Saudi’s might consider ‘authentic’? Would this contribute to our comfort, to alleviating the disconnectedness so many of us experience in the dark, bad world?

Of course, this isn’t at all what Hilde Bouchez has in mind. She’s in search of beauty. She believes that deep down that’s what we all long for. And that it’s important to take that desire and its creative energy as the basis for material transformation. This, to her, is the path of craftsmanship. For crafts(wo)men pay attention. They transfer their attitude of care and connection to the material. And so offer that same care and connection to the receiver. Obviously this term carries very different connotations compared to the more usual ‘consumer’. This is why one can feel so moved by a seemingly ordinary object. This is also why it’s important to pay attention to such objects – and to select them carefully so that they can indeed make our homes comfortable.

For domesticity is delicate. Bouchez cites the philosopher Denis Diderot who reflects in Regrets on My Old Dressing Gown (1772) on the effect of a new luxurious dressing gown. Diderot discovers to his dismay that the gift fundamentally disturbs the harmony of his until then humble material surroundings. Where before there was coordination, unity and beauty, ‘all is now discordant’.

Diderot’s regrets were clearly hard felt. Here his portrait with the old dressing gown (c.1780).

The Diderot effect as it has become known, emphasizes the connection between a consumer’s identity and the goods (s)he possesses and purchases. If all goes well, that means that the objects complement each other and create coordinated beauty. But when an ‘alien’ object is introduced, a gift or an impulse buy, say, this can set off a chain of further consumption, in an often vain attempt to recreate harmony. One by one, Diderot replaced his old possessions – and utterly regretted the process.

Again, there’s the suggestion that textile plays an important part when it comes to domestic comfort. I’m not sure this is the case for everyone but its role is certainly underrated – or not even noticed. I’ve already mentioned that my home is full of fabrics. More generally, I feel I’ve created an harmonious home, which contains little that’s new: most of the objects are old and worn, inherited or found in brocante shops and jumble sales. Careful combinations create a whole that feels as if it’s grown organically. Furthermore, when I look beyond the whole to the individual objects, I see stories and memories. They offer both Bryson’s comfort and Bouchez’s connectedness.

So perhaps this is what the Winter’s darkness is about: it entices us to retreat indoors and ‘expose’ ourselves to our domestic objects’ vibrations of creative energy so as to be ready when Spring materializes. 

This brings me to one final observation. For some time now I’ve not made anything new. But I’ve been modifying and mending existing textile objects. Mending in particular feels strangely consoling to me. It’s as if by paying attention to material things, I’m looking after myself as well. In Knockaert’s and Bouchez’ terms, this is about positioning myself in a larger whole. In this sense, I’m perhaps allowing myself intuitively to prepare the Spring ground for later abundance – or so it may be hoped.

The motto is on the book’s spine, to make sure we pay attention.

The motto of Bouchez’ book stresses the importance of mending. Ultimately, its intention is to spread attention and care. The darkness is patient. Delight in its comfort. For it defines the quality of light when Spring eventually comes.

Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you. (L.R. Knost)

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