Autumn Phillips: A place to call home


What is the sound of one clock ticking?

A large, round clock was left in my kitchen by the previous owner. The tick of each second echoes into the living room, where I sit on the couch with my hands folded. It sounds like an empty room. It sounds like a self-conscious quiet.

I adjust my skirt and recross my legs.

This is my new house. I moved in Oct. 1: Rental, sweet rental.

This painful quiet is a punishment for my bad habits as a recovering nomad. Every time I move -- or, in this case, put my stuff into storage so I can go sailing for the summer -- I purge.

I purge until I have an empty material stomach. I throw out things compulsively. I give things away, I sell things until it's just me left with the things I can carry or easily store in a closet.

Then I watch with satisfaction as I rebuild myself -- one object at a time -- with each new chapter.

This time around, I long for the record player that I tossed into the LIFT-UP pile last May. I look through the records that I saved but cannot play.

Instead of the ticking of a clock, I could be listening to Marvin Gaye, Lydia Lunch, my new Sonic Youth box set or Earth, Wind and Fire.

Instead, the records sit like a picture album that I can flip through.

No stereo. No television. A pile of paints and brushes, but no canvas.

I fluff the pillow on the couch. The previous tenant left both pillow and couch.

My friend, Tara, says the secret to making a house a home is reading material. One must have books in the bathroom and picture books and magazines in the living room.

Note to self: Fill the void with reading material. Maybe a copy of "500 best album covers of all time" for the bathroom. Maybe a coffee table book for the coffee table I could buy.

"How do you like your new place?"

"I like it. But there's something missing."

I opened a copy of the New York Times' decorating supplement. It told me that for my house to feel like a home, my objects must have a dialogue with each other. I must place round objects by square ones and blobular ones by themselves.

Cut to: We were 20 years old, standing in a wealthy friend's living room in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. You could hear a clock ticking. My friend whispered to me, "Is this what it all comes down to? A big house and lots of little things to put on the shelves?"

Perhaps it does, I thought this weekend.

If left to my own devices, my personal aesthetic is minimalism. I was never happier as a child than in the empty rooms of a new house before we moved in all our furniture. But for guests to feel comfortable, you must provide more than a chair, white walls and a buzzing, bare light bulb.

I walked over to the sink and washed the one glass I own -- left by the previous tenant. I tucked the cover in on the couch.

I looked around. What really makes a house a home (besides a stereo) is the memories you collect in it, and that's why this living room felt so empty. No big dinner parties have been thrown here. No hearts have been broken. No late night plays performed.

I have a year lease and a year's worth of moments to fill this place.

Never does a place feel more like a home than that last moment when you are holding the knob of the front door, looking back into an empty living room for the last time. You remember everything that happened there and how much you changed since you moved in.

The door clicks closed behind you. The keys are on the kitchen counter for the next tenant and the clock keeps ticking in the kitchen, with or without you.


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