Creating Living Rooms Worth Living In

An dark, empty living room of white furniture with drawn blinds.

Spring: Growing Pains

It began innocuously enough.

We were in the living room, happily not talking about the things that we do not talk about.
My stepmother sat cross-legged on the purple carpet, folding laundry. My grandfather reclined in the chair in the corner. My uncle leaned against the wall, his knees pulled up to his chest. My sister and I perched on the edge of the couch that had been worn by years of pent-up emotion and infant spit-up. My grandmother (whom we call Savta) stood in the entryway.

There was a lull in the conversation about the insignificant things that are not the things that we do not talk about. The silence needed to cease. After all, silence can easily morph into that which is not to be discussed.

Savta spoke up. “You know Noa, you are the only person I’ve ever known to come home from college at winter break and not have gained the freshman fifteen!”

My heartbeat quickened. I felt everyone’s eyes on my body; I felt their thoughts turn from that which we do not talk about to me. “Savta, you shouldn’t say that. That’s not okay,” was what I mustered in the heat of the moment.

I surprised myself by actually saying something. (So often, I have remained silent in the living room.) I reveled in the excitement of speaking out. My sister quickly backed me up, uttering something like, “Yeah, Savta, that’s really bad.” At this point, Savta swiftly jumped in and explained that she had intended only to be kind.

A more painful silence than that which I am accustomed to commenced. Clearly, I had ushered in this bout by saying the wrong thing.

In “Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects),” Sara Ahmed writes, “That you have described what was said by another as a problem means you have created a problem. You become the problem you create.”

I had killed the joy that was the sufficient, not-silent silence of the living room. My stepmother could not take it. She spoke to me. Said something like, “You should say ‘thank you’ to Savta, who was trying to give you a compliment.” She was attempting to correct the group affect and pave the way for pervasive happiness once more.

That pervasive happiness was not all-encompassing. Ahmed’s wisdom rings true here: “You become alienated—out of line with an affective community—when you do not experience happiness from the right things.”

I tried to move on. I do not remember exactly what happened. It is possible that I caved and thanked my grandmother. It is possible that I softly said “okay” and left the room. I do remember that for the rest of that night, when I asked various family members if I had misspoken, I heard versions of the same answer: “Savta was just trying to be nice, and you shut her down.”

I wasn’t sure what to say when I was met with this response. I worried that I had said something truly problematic. Fearing that I had seriously offended those I loved was deeply unsettling.

Although being the problem was momentarily euphoric, a myriad of unsettling feelings swiftly displaced every joyful particle in my being. I felt alone because my younger sister was the only one who understood what I was feeling. Angry, too, for I was being held responsible for the emotional baggage of a much older adult. And I felt defeated, as I knew that my family would eventually dismiss my remark as that of a temporarily loud teenager finding their way in a tumultuous world.

To them, I am the perpetual pot-stirrer. The local agitator. The resident problem.

Perhaps I am the resident problem, but I am a problem on my own terms: I refuse to become an innocuous killjoy. I maintain that my family can find happiness beyond the silent bliss of our living room. What would happen if each of us committed to being radically, joyfully, thoughtfully loud? What if we discussed the painful stories, the devastating stories, the taboo stories? What if we were gentle and empathetic and held each other accountable for repairing the harm that each of us will inevitably cause?

Abundance that I cannot fathom lies in this living room. This is a multifaceted abundance: it is one of gladness, it is one of disagreement. It is one rooted in love. We create this living room by killing joy (and explaining why). As Ahmed writes, “There can be joy in killing joy.”

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