Making a home, despite institutional directives

Part of the challenge of college, in my experience, is how to conceptualize school as home and not as a giant machine that is out to get you, as a machine that forces you into its patterns and crams you into its molds. The machine tries to convince you that Swatties at Swarthmore oil only certain of its cogs. Its secret is that it is, in fact, a many-faceted machine with secret cogs!

This idea of Swarthmore The Machine incites a very real, desperate sense of panic in me. It’s something I’ve been working on, first of all by remembering that one of the secret cogs of life here — one of the most essential but also one that we don’t always remember is in our control — is the way we live in our bedchambers. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am living off campus this semester, so using my bedchamber to make a home distinct from Swarthmore’s institutional directions feels a lot easier than when I lived in a dorm. But I maintain that the following discussion is applicable to life in a dorm room, and is especially important as a conscious effort there. In an apartment, the simple factor of distance and the unfortunate presence of dirty dishes in the sink serve as a solid reminder that the Institution isn’t in control of the space; in a dorm, the fire evacuation notice on the back of your bedroom door can force its presence down your throat.

So let’s talk about the bedchamber. I use this term specifically because I like it, but also because chamber (instead of room, etc) connotes for me something enclosed, private, and personal. It also notes the importance of that singular, all-important figure: the bed. Everybody likes a different type of bed. It’s a question of comfort and also a question of style. Many questions come into play, of which the mattress is the first. For me, that’s a firm mattress. I didn’t get a mattress pad when I lived on campus, and now I sleep on a futon. This may be a taste drawn from the rock-hard futon I grew up on, slowly compressed into an increasingly dense mass by my growing body. But I will brag here that my bed is generally considered extremely comfortable, something owing to my favorite part of bed-composition: the bedding. I like a million pillows piled up at the head of my bed, to be molded into mountains of varying shapes, and a giant fluffy comforter thrown with reckless abandon across the mattress, a few sizes too big for the bed. I’ve found it’s good practice to also have a quilt and a wool blanket waiting somewhere in the mix for colder or cozier nights.

You can already see that an aesthetic forms here, a combination of an almost vulgar decadence and an ascetic restraint. To pull these disparate images, or feelings, together, I use warm-toned, mismatched sheets that say comfort, that acknowledge they are a little silly and a little impractical, that are faded from half-remembered reading lamps on a million dark nights.

This bed is mine. It’s a combination of different things that make me feel good and safe for different reasons. It’s something I created. I’m certainly not advocating that every bed look like this. In fact, I mean to suggest the opposite, to point out that the variety of choices you make about your bed build up together and create a space that looks and feels a particular way to a particular person —  namely, most importantly, you.

But the space isn’t complete yet, is it? You don’t see YOU yet. And of course there are other ways to make your bedchamber a space you feel you own, a space you saunter out of rejuvenated with the things that you love, that you value, that make you feel like yourself. This is where clothes come into play, as what you take with you out of the room. I’m not talking about daily clothes here, not yet, because they build a larger bridge between the space of the bedchamber and the space of the Bright Clean Friendly Institution outside it’s doors. I’m talking about pajamas, and loungewear, and warm fluffy robes, the items of clothing that let you preserve your at-home emotions when you walk around your room and down the long hall to the bathroom.

I have always loved negligees. When I envision myself at home, what I see is a delicate silk negligee trimmed with lace swishing around my thighs beneath a long wool robe that pools at my ankles. So you see how personal this fantasy of private comfort is. I imagine that most people have different images of what is truly comfortable in a private, intimate portrait of rising from bed to bedchamber. But that is why the style of the bedroom is so precious, and such an important space of resistance to the sometimes soul-crushing world of School, which does not belong to any one person’s style, which moves at a pace and a rule that was made in some place and time that feels very distant to you and the people you may love here. But your style can infuse even an institutional bedroom and make that space a bedchamber, with a bed, with loungewear (I’m sorry, I really like this term, it makes me laugh) —  but also with the other choices. These choices are aesthetic certainly, personal certainly —  they are responses to all the physical and mental desires and needs and fleeting fancies that make things your own. I know for some people, that doesn’t entail this enclosed concept of the chamber — that a wide open door, and a constant flow of friendly faces in and out of a room is what makes it a personal space, a loved space, a home; for others, a bare wall and a plain t-shirt speak home more poignantly than a mess of colors and posters and fluffy garments.

It doesn’t matter what the aesthetic is, what feeling it creates, but I will say that I would recommend that that aesthetic and that feeling evoke comfort and even home, because as we try to make Swarthmore a larger home for ourselves, a little base can give us the bit of ground we need from which to leap.


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