Today, it’s exactly seven years since I became Vicar of my present Parish. It’s not exactly an occasion which engenders a lot of hoop-la, although somebody did very kindly buy me cake (which, of course, I have already eaten). Anniversaries, however, do provoke a certain amount of reflection and resolution; so today I’ve been trying not to beat myself up about all the things I haven’t achieved over the past seven years, and concentrate instead on some of the things I might do in the year(s) to come.
Amongst all the things I haven’t quite managed during the last seven years, the one that looms largest is my failure to move into my own Vicarage. On one level, that’s a daft thing to day – I mean, I do live here; I have a bed and a telly and stuff. But conceptually, this house has just never really become my home. It feels more like a student digs than somewhere where I feel relaxed, or comfortable, or however people are supposed to feel in their own homes. I still feel as if I’m squatting in somebody else’s house.
In fairness, I haven’t made a great effort to make this space my own. Most of the rooms are still undecorated, a lot of my stuff is still in boxes, and the only things that have places are there simply by virtue of the fact that I haven’t bothered to move them. Like, why wouldn’t you keep books in the garage and a lawnmower in your living room?
I’ve always presumed that my failure to move in is just because I’m a bit lazy and crap, but recently I’ve come to realise that this is a big old autistic issue. The flip side of having a good eye for detail is a general inability to see the metaphorical wood for the trees; and I can’t think of the Vicarage as a home – it’s just a huge, unwieldy collection of rooms and spaces and windows and stuff. I can’t even begin to think about how my whole bedroom should look, because I’m too busy trying to rearrange my sock drawer or obsessing about the fact that the light switch is a bit skew-whiff.
My other problem is that I’m actually a bit rubbish at working out what I like or how I feel. Other people seem able to sense intuitively whether a room makes them feel comfortable, or stressed, or relaxed, or whatever. I often don’t notice how I feel (until it’s too late, and I’m hitting meltdown); and even if I do notice how I feel, I’m unlikely to figure out *what* is making me feel that way.
Thankfully, help is at hand, in the form of this excellent blog post from kmarie about creating an autistic-friendly home. I am at least sufficiently self-aware to realise that I would be totally overloaded living in her home, but I have found the basic principles at the start of her post really helpful. Rather than trying (and failing) to imagine how the house should look, I’ve started the process from a completely different place, asking myself what I value, what I need and how I want to feel when I’m at home.
I started by writing out kmarie’s questions on separate pieces of paper and sticking them on the kitchen wall. Over the next couple of days, I added things to the categories as they occurred to me, with a little help from someone who knows me well. (“What things spin me into a meltdown?” “Bloody everything.”)
Once I started thinking in this way, and could see my thoughts written down, I found that other home-related things started to occur to me. I taped another piece of paper onto the wall so I could record them too. Some of them were abstract principles, like the fact that animals and natural things make me feel good, and some were entirely practical, like the realisation that I need two bins in every room to prevent me just chucking rubbish on the floor. One of the best revelations was that I really can’t cope with multi-purpose space – I need separate areas for sleeping, eating, watching TV, etc. And yes, I know that this is totally obvious to everyone else in the known world, but I’ve never really understood it before.
Along with a new understanding of why most homes have separate bathrooms, kitchens and bedrooms, I started to realise that the different rooms in my house should perform different emotional or sensory functions too. If I’m overloaded, I want to burrow and hide in order to feel safe, so I would benefit from a ‘decompression room’ which is dark and warm and filled with sleeping bags, blankets and cushions. Conversely, when I’m not overloaded and am just getting on with life, what I yearn for is nature and sunlight, so my working and relaxing spaces should be light, airy and relatively uncluttered. At that point, I drew a very shoddy and completely topographically inaccurate floorplan for each storey of the house, and started to ‘brainstorm’ in each of the rooms with functions, feelings and sensory needs:
(In the interests of checking my privilege, I should acknowledge that I am incredibly blessed to have a relatively large house to play with, and am unfettered by a partner, kids or housemates who might selfishly want their own needs taken into account. I did, of course, carry out this whole exercise around the non-negotiables of where each of my cats likes to sleep.)
Eventually, I was able to come up with one or two words to sum up each room. My brain seems to like this much better than simply trying to work out what ‘bedroom’ or ‘study’ means. So now I have a house plan with rooms called things like ‘cosy/private’ and ‘restful/tranquil.’ For reasons I can’t explain, this has allowed me to start imagining the house as potentially a home, in a way which the question ‘what things go in a living room?’ never has.
Having done all this (probably quite autistic-specific) preparatory work, I finally reached the point at which most people start: actually thinking about designing the rooms. Here, I borrowed another idea from the Internet and created mood boards. Obviously, I didn’t have any actual boards, or free table space or floor space, so I improvised and used the kitchen cupboards.
I cut out pictures from magazines I had lying around, and from some lifestyle magazines which a Parishioner gave me for this purpose. The result is a slightly odd mixture of interior decor and horses, but I just went with images, colours or typefaces that evoked the different concepts I want from my rooms. So, the cosy/private room is currently made up of Christmas, sticky toffee pudding and spaniels, whereas my restful/tranquil bedroom is apparently going to have to feature a swimming water vole.
To be honest, I think I’ve probably done this bit wrong, because when you look at other people’s mood boards on Pinterest or whatnot, they’ve included sensible things like carpets and bedlinen. I haven’t quite worked out yet how I’m supposed to get from a puffin to a living room, but I’m sure I’ll get there eventually. The important thing is that for the first time, I feel as if I’m in with a chance of taking control of the Vicarage and creating some space which works for me, rather than trying to live in somebody else’s house.
My long-suffering Churchwarden largely agrees. He doesn’t really seem to get the conceptual way I’ve arranged the pictures (“You want a horse, some snow and a coffee jar?”) but he agrees that it’s about time I moved into the Vicarage and made it an autistic-friendly and me-friendly space. There’s only one problem, he says: “If you ever move, we’ll have to make damn sure the next Vicar is autistic too.”