- katherine halligan
More Really Is More
My first word — after “mama” of course — was “more”. Continuing in the fine family tradition, it was also one of the first five words each of my daughters said. This is highly unlikely to be unique to us, as hundreds of generations of genes have programmed us to seek satiety as a means of survival: humans are hungry, always, for more.
I taught my baby daughters the sign language for “more”; we used the American sign, where they tapped the tips of their tiny pursed fingers together, as it seemed simpler than the British sign of tapping one flat hand on top of an open fist. (And I wonder if Americans are just naturally better at doing more? Bigger houses, more clothes, louder noises, larger servings. Just... more. This is not, by the way, complimentary to my own country.) The memory of them signing for more is one of my happiest of their late babyhoods and early toddlerhoods, another version of their little rosebud mouths opening into perfect Os for the next spoon-fed bite, so tiny, trusting and earnest. My older daughter, living in England, said “muh”, and my younger one, in North Carolina, pronounced it like her mother did before her, with a little Southern twang, as “mo”. Of course they always got more, at least of what was good for them, because babies are designed to be cute in order to get all the more that they need and want.
Moreishness applies to all areas of my life, though the fluctuating dimensions of my waistline attest to the fact that much of it has had to do with food. Indeed, I am a lifelong maximalist. When we moved from the UK to the US, our moving men (or removals men, as they were called in England) commented that they had never done a removal with so little furniture and so much stuff. But with all my years of moving around the globe, my stuff became my peripatetic home.
Just like a snail carrying its house on its back, I grew attached — perhaps overly so — to things: clothes, books (oh so many books), framed photographs, tchotchkes I picked up in places we’d traveled and, in latter years, furniture because upon returning to the US I was able to receive into my house many beautiful pieces of it, family antiques my mother had set aside in hopes I might one day come home to stay. I have what my grandmother called her “pride and joy”, a beautiful cherrywood Chippendale-style chest of drawers that she bought as a young bride; it was repro then but now that it’s nearly eighty years old it’s approaching quasi-antique status in its own right, and it’s my pride and joy too. I have my great great Granny Griffith’s dining table, burnished and beautiful through years — almost two hundred of them — of happy use. I have many more antique tables and rugs and lamps and chairs and all sorts of other pieces that I am trying to blend with modern things, aiming for a home that feels light and airy and calm, but that is also anchored by history.
This means my home is, despite so much effort to the contrary, bursting at the seams. We moved in 2013 from an oh-so-cosy 1,100-square-foot early Edwardian terraced house in London, to a sprawling 4,000-square-foot faux farmhouse (1980s, parts of which were as cringeworthy as you might imagine but others of which were surprisingly lovely) in North Carolina. For weeks after we moved in, we got lost in it, making wrong turns and forgetting how to get back where we’d started. Even with all the stuff that had so flabbergasted our movers (and that, I hasten to add, was a fraction of what I’d previously packed into our tiny house, literally to the rafters, before making countless trips to our local Oxfam shop in London to say farewell to a good third of our possessions before that move), we rattled around in that vast space. With built-in bookcases and closets galore, the house was so huge to our European sensibilities that we would simply walk from room to room and marvel at the space. Our belongings filled just a few small corners. Our tiny children had three different playrooms: on the main level, a sunroom off the kitchen which rose above the basement garage, looking out into our vast, lush garden so that it felt like we were up in a treehouse; in the finished basement a family room at one end, twice the size of our UK living room, plus a large tiled area at the far end where the girls rode their tricycles and made forts when it was either too hot or too snowy to play outside; and on the second floor an unusually wide back hallway, which had been papered by a previous owner with a frieze of flowers and bunnies, so it felt like they were playing in a fairy garden.
Then, after a brief stint back in the UK — where we had to furnish a second small home and reacquaint ourselves with compact and cosy — we moved to California. Because my husband’s relocation package covered only the cost of our internal US move, as we sold our house in North Carolina, we had to bring everything back from England in suitcases, because they did pay for excess baggage. And oh, what an excess it was! While we were there, my husband was working back in the US, rattling around more than ever on his own in our big house. Every time he came to see us, he brought a large suitcase filled with the girls’ toys and hand-me-down clothes for our little one. They were always overjoyed when he arrived: best of all there was their Daddy, whom they missed terribly, but also it was like Christmas, as they were reunited with beloved toys they’d had to leave behind. So although we arrived back in England in January 2016 with a hefty-but-reasonable six suitcases (which nonetheless weighed our car down to the axels and necessitated a complex negotiation to leave a few things at Heathrow and make a return trip to collect them later), that Beverly Hillbillies arrival was nothing compared to our Kardashian-like departure eighteen months later. Six suitcases had grown to sixteen, and the spectacle was such that our cab (well, large van) driver asked if he could take a picture of them all, because otherwise no one would believe him.
This presaged things to come: when the moving men unloaded the contents of our North Carolina house into our California house (less than half the space, more than twice the price), they had to pack our garage to the rafters, because there was no room for it all inside. Nearly three years and over thirty trips to various local charities later, we can now park both a car and a motorcycle in our garage. It’s fairly tidy and mostly organized, which is occasionally also true of most of the interior of the house, but only on a rolling basis: I can get one room tidy and sorted at once, and by the time I’ve gone through the whole house, chaos reigns once more in the rooms where I began.
This is partly because of our younger daughter who, like her mother, embraces maximalism, but who also, unlike her mother, believes it’s better to have everything on display at all times, preferably on the floor, for constant and easy access. The only thing which currently motivates her to clean up her belongings is the promise of a puppy who cannot materialize until she gets a grip on her exceedingly casual relationship with tidying. Otherwise, I tell her, we would either lose the puppy in the mess or accidentally step on it because it would be camouflaged in the trail of disaster she continually leaves in her wake.
In an attempt to manage my own trail of mess, I have tried to do the Marie Kondo thing, but with rather limited success. Apparently almost everything I own sparks joy. Lucky me! I am clearly a very joyful person. Anyone who has ever sat on one of my sofas can attest to the fact that throw pillows make me especially joyful. As do books and lamps and art... oh and shoes. Shoes most of all. But I did manage to clear out masses of things and felt lighter and cleaner and, briefly, better. You wouldn’t know this if you suddenly dropped in for a visit (not that you could these days, which for those of us who keep a messy house is frankly a massive relief) because every surface is covered with detritus, including much of the floor. My closet is downright dangerous, despite much clearing and admirably little restocking; my daughter — bless her mismatched socks — comes by her propensity for mass chaos completely naturally.
Slowly, lately, as I spend so much time truly inhabiting my home while we shelter in place, I see that although I am undoubtedly less burdened by belongings I also feel slightly less like ME after I say goodbye to excess things. I do envy my friends — and it seems like most of them have achieved this — their clean, elegant, minimalist homes. And I do feel inordinately happy when I manage to clear a surface or organize a closet or simply just tidy a room. But despite all my truly excellent intentions, it never, ever lasts. So I have finally begun to make peace with this, and stop striving towards a neatly kept house, because our mess is a joyful one, and our home a very happy one.
I realize, too, that more is a bit of a creed for me: more stuff, more books, more food, more drink, more travel, more fun, more laughter, more life, more love… just MORE, please! My husband, who is always my first reader and best editor, pointed out that these long, wordy posts are really a collection of essays rather than the short, snappy, soundbite of your average blog. But I called it “More Is More” for good reason: it’s just who I am.
It’s ironic for someone who spent her career honing texts that averaged around 500 words (the minimum was 3, the maximum nearly 40,000, but most were mere dozens), but it’s ever so much easier to whittle down other people’s work. I wrote many of the very shortest books I edited and that was easy, too: rhyme has its own self-limiting virtues, and there was only so much space on the page. In those cases, less really was more. This is different, though, and in these strange times when so many of the moreish pleasures are off the menu — no meals out, no shopping, no travel — words are one of the few things I have. More of them, these days, is keeping me going. I hope that, in some small way, reading my moreishness helps keeps you going too.