The term “living room” came into common use after the First World War. Before the living room, there was the front parlour. This room was a formal showpiece, and before the proliferation of funeral homes, they were used to lay out the dead. After the many deaths of the First World War and the Spanish Flu, the front parlour became a haunted space. As early as 1910, the Dutch-born editor of Ladies’ Home Journal published an article titled “A Living Room is Born,” suggesting it was time to revive the staid front parlour; that is, it was time for the room to come back to life. The living room was a rebranding of a space where the dead were once venerated, at a time when they were so many that the house could no longer hold them.
As we have retreated into our homes, with the goal of minimizing the numbers of the dead, I have seen more living rooms in this period than in my entire life. I have seen the living rooms of friends and of strangers, of my students and my colleagues, of celebrities and politicians. They are not all living rooms, as such—they are kitchens and bedrooms and gardens, private spaces now casually on display.
Some of the revelations are surprising. Arnold Schwarzenegger has a country-cozy kitchen. The walls are painted sage green and cream, and the shelves behind the table are crowded with photos and bric-a-brac. His quarantine videos star his mini donkey Lulu, his pony Whiskey, and his dog Cherry. He feeds them carrots by hand inside the house. Lady Gaga lets her three slobbery bulldogs lie on her grey velvet couch. I guess the wall behind her is marble but it looks like lavatory tile. She could probably clean her windows, and she is wearing sunglasses indoors and at night. Taylor Swift’s cat bed looks like a modern sculpture, a copper globe inside the skeleton of a steel cube. Jimmy Fallon has a tubular slide that takes him from floor to floor. One of the Alvin Ailey dancers has dyed her white puppy’s ears and tail hot pink. So many people have fairy lights and, like me, too much paper pinned to their fridge.
Magazines and social media have long showcased the interiors of celebrity homes as a way of providing the illusion of access and intimacy. Still, there is something more vulnerable in this new display, without the stagers, without the camera crew or even the cleaners. There is lint on Cardi B’s rug. During an Indigo Girls living room livestream someone asks about the water damage on the ceiling. We now know the real colours of everybody’s hair.
At times, the performance of social responsibility grates against the reminder of social inequality. When Arnold lectures spring breakers while smoking a cigar in his hot tub, it is hard not to think that if everyone had a mansion, a hot tub, and a California garden, it would be no great hardship to stay home.
I am sitting in my living room right now, on the first couch I ever bought. I can see the park across the street from my window. It is empty. My husband is working in the basement, and my children are in their bedrooms listening to online classes. I can picture them in the different levels of the house, like in a Richard Scarry illustration where the wall is lifted out so you can see the people inside. My husband has started seeds in the basement, and while I question the wisdom of using chicken manure as indoor fertilizer when we are stuck at home, I am excited to see the plants begin to sprout. I know we are lucky to have this living space and to have a garden for when the sidewalks become forbidden, but I am restless by nature.
“Can we talk about what we do afterwards?” I ask my son, thinking of restaurants and the companionate orgy of a Montreal summer. He says, Nope, not yet. But when? “Teach me to care and not to care,” T.S. Eliot writes in “Ash Wednesday.” “Teach me to sit still.”
Just sit on your couch, they say. Never has so little been asked of so many by so many. Nonetheless, it is hard to sit still. It is hard to let go when you don’t know what’s really gone. It is hard to live in a state of anticipatory grief. It is hard to imagine what we will see when this is finally over, when we leave our living rooms, and close the door, and walk the streets, and meet what’s left.
Ariela Freedman is the award-winning author of Arabic for Beginners (LLP, 2017) and A Joy To Be Hidden (LLP, 2019). She teaches at the Liberal Arts College, Concordia University. She is currently in isolation in Montreal with her partner, two teenagers, and three thousand books.
Photo credits: Ariela Freedman (header banner); Lev Wexler (headshot)
Note: This essay was written in early April 2020.