Lessons learnt from time spent living in a 90 square foot, bare-boned bedsit in Southeast London.
When I was a student in London, I spent three years in a 90 square foot bedsit that was part of a multi-room flat, which my Turkish landlord rented to seven tenants including myself. My bedsit was the tiniest of all the units, and consisted of a single bed with metal frames, a plywood desk, a bookshelf made of wooden slats, a small wardrobe, an old, cramped shower and toilet with lichen clogged faucets, and a “kitchenette” with a mini fridge, a microwave fitted with a single hot plate on top, and a wall mounted cabinet with just enough space to store my instant coffee and cereal. There were no windows and the ventilation was appalling.
When I invited my friends into my bedsit, their eyebrows lifted and furrowed in an expression best described as a mixture of pity and horror. Even today, when they recall their visits to my London abode, they shudder at their memories of its prison cell like smallness.
I had ended up here because I was late paying the deposit on my university’s room and board, and realised, two weeks before I left my family and their five-bedroom, four-level bungalow in Singapore for London, that I did not have a place to stay. I had no money and was relying on the charity of my good father for tuition, housing and living allowances as a student. I told him about my predicament and we went online to look for rental properties in the vicinity of Elephant and Castle, where my school was located. My father as usual, picked the cheapest option, an approach which in retrospect I realised probably played a part in how he managed to accrue enough money to build our very comfortable and lovely family house in Singapore. I had no choice but to comply.
In my second year at school, I had the option of finding a larger place if I wanted, but I decided to stay in my little hovel, which had by now become my sanctuary and, yes, my home.
If I was in front of the computer at my desk and I needed to get a book from the shelf, all I had to do was stay seated in my Ikea office swivel chair equipped with rollers, rock myself a few times to gain momentum, then take two big glides across the bookshelf near the entrance of the bedsit, which was less than two feet away from the foot of my bed. I had a laptop, which doubled up as my home entertainment system; my bed, which was placed against a wall, was also my sofa. When it was time for supper, I would move my laptop aside and eat at my desk – quite often a prepackaged ham and cheese sandwich, a bag of salt and vinegar crisps, and a Galaxy chocolate muffin which I would have purchased from the Asda gas station on the way home from school.
When I needed to exercise in the morning, I would do a few yoga poses and calisthenics in a rectangle of floor space – it was about the size of two phone booths, between the foot of my bed and the door. So my 90 square foot bedsit functioned as bedroom, office, kitchen, bathroom, dining room, living room and gym.
What I want to tell you, is what this humble bedsit, and its spatial limitations did for me, and how it inculcated in me positive habits of thought and action that were previously non-existent in my slothful, troublesome, younger self. I want to tell you how living in this small, enclosed space helped me to grow a spine and develop character.
Frugality by Default
Because there was not enough space in my fridge or wardrobe, buying unnecessary snacks or clothes were not an option. Knowing I had no extra space to keep my loot, I had to think hard before purchasing food, fashion or any other items that would take up physical space in my small bedsit. This led to conscientiousness with regards to the acquisition of things, and I became more prudent about my material consumptions. I believe this ability to hold back and carefully assess what one needs versus what one wants (and may later not want after all), is a most beneficial life skill for a young person to acquire.
Appetite for Things that Matter
There wasn’t too much housekeeping to be done, so I only spent about an hour every two weeks keeping my living space tidy – this included bleaching the bathroom tiles, vacuuming the floor, dusting my desk, and taking out the garbage. My life was streamline and fuss free. Time was not being flittered away on the upkeep of a big, cluttered house or apartment with too many ornaments and contraptions. I didn’t need to go out and weed a garden, polish pewter, wash pots and pans, shop for wall posters or other decoratives, or give a housekeeper instructions for cleaning. There were no plants to be watered, no curtains for laundering and no pets to be fed.
I had no “legitimate” excuses for neglecting the more essential tasks of my days, which for me at this time consisted primarily of learning. The elimination of “Town & Country” niceties meant I could no longer avoid doing the things that (in my opinion at least) really mattered – studying, reading, praying, meditating and writing.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, these activities, which are best carried out in solitude and in distraction-free environs, were fortifying my mind, helping me to connect with my feelings, and teaching me how to tap into the wellspring of joy deep within me. I began to see the world with new eyes. I learnt to distinguish people, places, things and information that were important and valuable from those that were inane and trifling. I lost interest in frivolous pursuits and grew to love all things that helped me to grow in understanding and wisdom. Vanity and self-satisfaction slowly gave way to an awareness of my own ignorance, and an earnest curiosity about the working of other minds.
A Willing Mind & Rich Inner Life
Before being ensconced in my London bedsit, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. I never did well in school because I could never sit still with a textbook long enough to be properly educated in a subject. I’d want to walk to the kitchen and find things to nibble on, hang out with friends, go to a party or out dancing, shop, watch TV, go to the cinema, chat with my parents, or buy a hamster. Books and new information bored me. While my primary school friends were reading Judy Blume, I opted for Archie comics (I could always predict what Archie would do next because every book had basically the same plot), because my mind was unwilling to commit to any material that required exertion or sustained effort; it simply would not focus, be still or behave.
But something changed while living in the bedsit. The amount of time I could engage in prolonged periods of work, contemplation or deliberation increased. It seemed that limited physical space had the effect of constraining my attention. I developed a newfound hunger for knowledge that was insistent and persistent. I wanted to read, to research, to find out about new things. I started to see a correlation between ideas, like how a theme from a painting at an art gallery mirrored a theory I was reading about in a book.
The meager conditions of my bedsit were perfect for the development of a rich inner life. The absence of superfluous luxuries meant that I needed to be more resourceful with regards to entertainment, so I learnt to amuse myself with scholastic pursuits. Through reading and writing, my brain became a cinema of sorts. Its faculties of memory and imagination a projector that spun intricate worlds where anything was possible. Words and ideas came together to create scenes that were much more compelling for me than anything I might have watched on television.
I became aware of useful information all around me, and I suddenly had a desire to read every book in the school library if I could. Words, images and events that before seemed flat, came to life. As if cataracts had been removed from a third eye, I started seeing meaning in long tracts of text, paintings, buildings, and events of the past. I started thinking deeply about the subjects I read about. I started to ask myself questions like “What’s underneath it all? What makes a life count?” I became somewhat of a neophyte philosopher!
Being in this shoebox of a home meant that I was kept in close quarters with my true self (soul, whatever you choose to call it) and my higher power (God, spirit guide, whatever you choose to call it), and so I learnt to listen to promptings, previously silenced through busy-ness, chatter or sybaritic activities. Free from white noise, nugatory engagements – television, gossip, idle banter, glossy magazines, and all those things which provide instant gratification, my mind cleared up sufficiently, so I could stop taking my ADHD medication and calmly work through one mentally challenging project after another.
When before my mind had only gums, now it had teeth, and it took pleasure in chewing on substantial, useful data. During my three years in this bedsit, my world expanded, and I became a sponge for knowledge and an ever-eager student of life.
Equanimity & Creativity
When animals are confined, they suffer. Monkeys and dogs caged for prolonged periods bite themselves, masturbate compulsively and display behavioural symptoms that are indicative or anxiety or depression. Likewise, being incarcerated has a negative psychological effect on most human beings.
But prisons also have a way of bringing order to those whose way of life is grossly disordered. Most individuals who commit crimes tend to be emotionally unsettled. I certainly was when I was caught thieving in a bar and destroying other people’s property. I didn’t need the money, I did it for the thrill. I had always felt unhappy, lonely, angry and under-enthralled by life and the people who populated mine, and all of my discontent translated to destructive behavior.
When unruly types like myself are moved from the massive playground of the world into a small cell, that restless, destructive energy, which I once heard referred to as “Thanatos” – the “death instinct” that compels humans to engage in risky, destructive, aggressive or thrill-seeking behaviors, has no outlet of release. Without a place to exercise, Thanatos is weakened, and its role as decision maker in the unruly’s life is subsumed by the more rational and emotionally neutral ego. Removed from a world with too much stimuli, the uncomfortable feelings that drive the destructive instinct balance themselves out, till the disturbed individual attains emotional homeostasis.
We humans are different from animals because we are endowed with that higher faculty of moral reasoning, which allows us to soothe ourselves when in unnatural and stressful situations such as solitary confinement. A prisoner whose moral reasoning does not kick in, might end up banging his head against the wall till he dies, but a prisoner whose moral reasoning does kick in, digs deep and finds rationales (usually religious or metaphysical concepts) such as “god”, “fate”, “karma” or “reincarnation” to facilitate his reform and make sense of his loss of freedom. In a sense, he finds inner freedom through the sacrifice of his physical freedom, and in doing so transmutes his anguish and moves to a place of equanimity through acceptance of who and where he is.
There are a few lucky ones who not only attain emotional equanimity, but whose consciousness extends to invention and exceptional creativity while in captivity. When the body is tethered, the mind, if it is an energetic one to begin with, must turn inward and roam more wildly than ever before within the cavernous palaces of the imagination. In this instance, captivity can in fact serve as a gymnasium where the mind receives training in creative athleticism.
An 18th century Englishman named William Addis invented the toothbrush in his prison cell. An uneducated New York flour merchant named Jesse Hawley was responsible for the idea of the Erie Canal – the first transportation system between the eastern seaboard and the western interior of the United States; he came up with the idea while serving a 20-month stint at a debtor’s prison in 1807. Spaniard Miguel de Cervantes wrote one of the greatest works of fiction – the two volumes of Don Quixote while in jail.
It would seem that for those with overactive minds, prison-like conditions can in fact serve as a conductor for creativity. In austere and restrictive physical settings, the excessive vital essence, no longer able to easily attend to the whims of its owner’s voluptuary drives, is rechanneled to vigorous mental activity.
While I do not claim that my bedsit was a prison, I believe its confining effects subjugated my brain and will sufficiently to break my most obdurate and self-defeating patterns of thought. The result was newfound mentally agility, and an ability to manifest ideas in a way that I never could before.
A Deeper Connection with Others
Living in tight quarters compelled me to make more of an effort to spend time outdoors with people whom I enjoyed being with, or were curious about. Before moving to London, most of my social interactions took place in large groups at raucous parties, in the midst of revelry in a pub, or feasting at family celebrations, where the dish in front of me, or the pitcher of wine being passed around the table held my attention better than the person I was engaged with.
Living in my small bedsit, made me crave metaphysical space when I did go out and keep company with others. I realised how little I liked the constraints and boundaries of occasions, social etiquette and mores, ascribed statuses and small talk, all those falsities, so often required of people when they parade themselves in a group setting.
I preferred to meet one friend at a time in an outdoor café, for a walk in a park, or to sit by the river. I seldom agreed to meeting people in groups, unless there was good reason for it. I realised that I preferred the roominess and depth of conversations that take place in privacy between two, rather than situations where many are gathered, and each competes to be heard or has to strain to attend to the various topics of conversation that are all taking place at once. I felt that it was easier to do away with the hypocrisies of socialisation with one-on-one interactions. With just me and one other person, each meeting became meaningful and transformative, because I was not communicating in the old shallow, superficial manner, the way we cannot help but do when at cocktail parties, networking events or baby showers.
Instead I could give the other person 100 percent of my attention and listen and absorb everything they said, as well as everything they didn’t. Mid way through most of these interactions, I would feel as if both our “this is my face for the world” masks had come off, and often I experienced feelings of genuine friendship and intimacy with my companion. Before, I simply had people around me, but through this new way of being with others, bonds were created that give meaning and context to both our lives.
The Way of the Anchorites
I did some research on people who voluntarily live in small enclosed spaces, and discovered that with my bedsit, perhaps I was just getting a wee taste of what a select group of Christian men and women had experienced centuries ago. In Europe of the Middle Ages, devout persons used to literally wall themselves up in tiny cells and rooms attached to churches, or in remote caves in the wilderness, where they spent their days alone devoted to the study of scripture, prayer and meditation.
The cell or cave that the anchorite lived in was called the anchorhold. Besides being a physical location and portal of sorts where the anchorite could embark on a journey towards union with God, and begin the work of perfecting his or her own spiritual condition, the anchorhold also served as a womb from which a reformed or improved version of the individual could emerge.
Sometimes, I think it is amazing how wondrous the world can be when you see it through a smaller frame. It’s so much easier to see the details – like the veins on a leaf, or the spot of white on a squirrel’s tail when looking through the small aperture of a viewfinder than it is when looking at leaf or squirrel through a massive floor-to-ceiling window.
I probably would not want to live in that tiny bedsit forever, and I have nothing against more ample, and well-ventilated residences, but I am glad that I was fortunate enough to have gleaned such blessings from my time spent in that little home of mine near Elephant and Castle.
In closing, I would like to thank my father for not succumbing to that most pervasive of parenting faults – providing one’s offspring with more than what is necessary. Now, at the ripe old age of 38, I look back at my days in that bedsit and am grateful that my father (perhaps unbeknownst to him), presented me with the opportunity to discover the better part of life.