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The Swedish Star of Death

May 18, 2011

God, I’m in a rotten mood. So rotten that I provoked one I hold dear into hissing “Fuck you” and hanging up on me (deserved, deserved.) So rotten that the badness is coming out, in the form of various (you know what? Since I started reading all those British blogs, I’ve become incredibly mindful of my American words with their American spellings. I want to borrow all sorts of charmingly British expressions, like “can’t be arsed”–which Americans can’t even PRONOUNCE, so I’m doubly intent on writing it–and, for this particular occasion, because it’s ever so much more lovely than “pimples”) SPOTS. One is right atop my nose, or at least it was yesterday. Today it’s not so much a nose with a delicate spot as it is a spot with a wee cowering nose hovering somewhere beneath it. Be very grateful that the burden of my internet anonymity spares you all from a photobooth shot taken in full sunlight.

I was in a fine mood yesterday, when it was warm and the air smelled like flowers. I think it may be time to move to Havana, whose daily temperature is ideal for human beings all year round. High 84, low 70, the paper insists, day after day (though I suppose my capitalist swine American newspaper can’t actually get down to Havana to check, so perhaps the whole thing is a dirty plot.) Ah, Havana. The sun, the sea. Why do we all seem so intent on living where the weather is horrid most of the time?

So I was a bitch to everyone all day, and now I’ve got the sour feeling that comes both from being horrid and from eating too much pickled herring from the place my long-distance friend Emma calls the Swedish death star, where I recently spent a small fortune. God damn it all to hell, that was never my intention. I’m trying to avoid buying more crap and spending more money and digging myself further into this mound of possessions, and yet I needed to patch a few holes still left by my ex-husband’s departure with various items, so off my younger son and I went. He loves Ikea.

I always start out thinking that Ikea is the greatest store on earth, and leave the place slumped in despair. Today it was the children’s section that made me choke up as if (as if!) I were preparing to weep–there were old friends, like my baby’s actual high chair, not to mention his actual crib. Strung from the walls were the newest riffs on his curtains and his comforter cover, with those weirdly jaunty Ikea creatures dancing round the hems. (The Swedish iguana? The vaguely maniacal pony that, on closer inspection, is probably a goat? The crocodile, a hungry gleam in his eye, edging closer to the pony/goat?) Ikea is where dreams go to die, I told consoling-windows friend later in the day, when we were both trying to figure out why, more than any other store in the entire Western world, Ikea makes brave people weak.

It’s where I went when I was idealistic and happy, I told her. And she knew what I meant. Once, we were both young with children and babies and no money, and a desperate urge to make our seedy little apartments more habitable. We find it rather endearing at such a remove–our vanished craving for a lovely, well-organized domain. We were good housewives once upon a time. We remember agonizing over the dogeared catalog, finally deciding to splurge and buy the damned toybox or shelf or whatever, then carrying it home triumphantly. We remember being sure that this very toybox, this particular shelf, was the answer to all our problems. Ikea was all we could afford, but it was more than we could imagine. Ikea was the key to happiness.

So where, you ask, is the toybox today? Upstairs, broken, incorrectly put together in the first place, shoved aside too quickly, hardly used. Poor toybox. I’d say it had a day of glory, but it probably didn’t even have that. Cheap furniture is not the answer to anything, it turns out.

Still, there they were in Ikea, all the young couples, carefully measuring sofas, writing things down on the handy Swedish notepad provided courtesy of the deathstar, taking a long time choosing. Their small children were flinging themselves joyously over footstools, sneaking into duvet-covered beds. I prowled the aisles restlessly, causing shudders and pointlessly taking up space, like Banquo’s ghost. I did not get out without spending hundreds of dollars, of course. But my son and I had an extremely civilized lunch–several courses, with marzipan and dill and salmon and special Swedeberry juice–and I snagged way too many little jars of pickled fish, as I mentioned.

Sum total: a blanket. A comforter. Pillows. Batteries. Auxiliary curtains. Glasses. Herring in various sauces. Daim chocolate. Fish eggs. Fish egg paste in tubes. Sheets. Shower curtains. A new saucepan, because I burned the old one last week.

Nothing, in other words, to change a life. Stuff to patch a life, but nothing optimistic, nothing hopeful. I haven’t moved beyond Ikea, but I’ve somehow moved beyond the state of mind that lets you fling yourself wholeheartedly into Ikea, that lets you invest in things that are bigger than a breadbox. I want that old feeling back again. I want the blank walls, the catalog with all the answers, the monumental trip with the carefully saved money, the getting home with the Allen wrenches and the burning desire to see how it LOOKS, now that you’ve finally made it your own.

I want to be my younger self again, is what it feels like. Not some other younger self, just mine.

35 Comments leave one →
  1. lucy permalink
    May 18, 2011 3:59 am

    I desperately want to leave a comment, but you got it so right that it’s left me speechless and ironically craving for a trip to the unspeakable place to buy stuff that just might patch up/remedy all that is not quite right, and yet we all know it’s not going to work. So, it’s not really going to be a proper comment at all… Funny, how for me pimples is what teenagers get and spots is what I get now… Maybe because I lived in America in my younger days and in Britain later in life?

  2. May 18, 2011 4:01 am

    Be consoled that Ikea does all this even to Swedish people. Spot on. Kaviar (your cumbersome “fish egg paste in tubes”;-) is one of the things I bring when visiting my baby sister in Paris. She can’t be bothered to go to Ikea.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      May 18, 2011 8:47 am

      I am completely addicted to Kaviar, only mildly disgruntled by the over-bright little boy on the tube, and am already sad that I don’t seem to have bought enough. I put it on everything, even scrambled eggs, and walk around with my blood humming saltily in my veins…

  3. SarahB permalink
    May 18, 2011 7:59 am

    Oh, honey. That’s just so true, so spot on, the emotions of IKEA.

    We’ve been there in good times and bad and finally developed a whole plan so my husband and I do not fight there, which seemed to always happen in our early visits. It turns out DH and I approach IKEA very differently. Rule 1: Never hurry at IKEA (for DH). Rule 2: Always eat lunch about an hour after arrival (for me). Rule 3: Always make a good list. Rule 4: Research major items ahead of time, but be flexible when you get there to see what really works. Rule 5: We will always spend more money than we intend.

    Our last visit to plan our nursery was just what you described: dreamy and hopeful and heartfelt. May it always be so.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      May 18, 2011 8:50 am

      Oh, do get nursery stuff there! I had an Ikea changing table thing atop an Ikea dresser, an Ikea crib, Ikea bedding, curtains, little hooded towels, and the best high chair in the world–not a behemoth, but perfect, insanely inexpensive, and easy to move from kitchen to dining room to porch. What fun. Lucky you. Congratulations!

      • SarahB permalink
        May 18, 2011 10:59 am

        Thanks so much! We have the crib and a bedside table set up and are waiting to see if the dresser we want comes back in stock. And I had to restrain myself from buying dozens of little toys and stuffed animals. It’s also cheap and cute!

  4. Leslie permalink
    May 18, 2011 10:59 am

    Another pitch-perfect post. Thank you. You write so very well, grumpiness notwithstanding.

  5. May 18, 2011 11:27 am

    I’ve never been to Ikea but I get those same welling feelings at the grocery store when I see new moms trying to decide between brands of organic baby food while their tiny one gazes at them toothlessly and adoringly. Or at least without the glaze of disdain that my own huge children usually sport. I wish I didn’t know that it doesn’t matter which brand you choose.

  6. May 18, 2011 11:39 am

    Ahhh, I love this so intensely. IKEA is not just a store, IKEA is a rabbit-hole of wistfulness, regret and symbolism. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but a BJORNDAHL end table is NEVER just furniture.

    Andi: your comment made me feel like, 1. Having another baby, 2. Curling up into a ball and sobbing, and 3. Leaving work early to go get my six year-old and cuddle with him all afternoon… all at the same time! That’s some effective commentin’. šŸ˜‰

  7. May 18, 2011 11:40 am

    I want to be my younger self, too. You’re making me cry.

    • hydrogeek permalink
      May 18, 2011 2:28 pm

      Yes. This. Not someone else’s younger self. Just mine.

  8. Anne permalink
    May 18, 2011 1:24 pm

    The Swedish Death Star has only assimilated/colonized my major metropolitan area in the past year, and the store is still far enough away from my house (roughly 20 miles, maybe?) that I still haven’t gotten there, though I have vaguely made plans for a future trip sometime in the, you know, future. After reading your post, however, I’m wondering now if my continued ignorance isn’t all for the best? Admittedly, I have suffered from related syndromes, such as the Bed Bath and Beyond Syndrome; the Target Syndrome; the Babies ‘R’ Us syndrome, and the Crate and Barrel syndrome. But with Ikea, it sounds like you can contract these all in ONE STORE. That is truly something.

    Hoping the weather turns and your mood with it, soon!

  9. Betsy permalink
    May 18, 2011 2:46 pm

    Yes and yes, I don’t know how you write so poignantly. IKEA was a huge trigger for me shortly after my husband was diagnosed with a serious illness. You see, at the time we thought it nixed our plans for a second baby and I desperately wanted another child. After the diagnosis, it was all I could do to wander the store without bursting into tears because the last time at IKEA I had been hugely, no gloriously, pregnant with our son and our life seemed to be stretched before us. I think I hid in the bathroom for a quite a while…

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      May 18, 2011 3:20 pm

      Oh, what happened, if you don’t mind my asking? Is everything all right?

      • Betsy permalink
        May 18, 2011 9:53 pm

        He had a seizure which led to the discovery of a brain tumor when he was 30. Luckily it is slow-growing, but unluckily there is no cure for this type. Essentially it is a terminal illness with an unknown timeline. We live in a surreal state now 3 years later where things are essentially normal but eventually the other shoe will drop. On a happier note, we worked through a lot of “stuff” and decided to have another child after all. She was born 7 weeks ago. I am trying really hard to stay in every moment, enjoy her snuggly head, and not worry about the future so much. But I hear you, I miss my younger self. I want that naivete back.

        • irretrievablybroken permalink*
          May 19, 2011 12:15 pm

          I hate how this particular blog stacks comments so they get narrower and narrower as you respond. Congratulations on your new baby daughter and I hope that the overwhelmingness of a new baby (good overwhelmingness) FORCES you to stay in the moment, as long as that moment does not include colic or more bad health news for your husband, if that makes sense. It does sound positively surreal. Please keep me posted on how things are going–email me if you don’t want to comment, and I’m thinking of your family now. Best, best, best of luck to you. And again, congratulations.

  10. nancy permalink
    May 18, 2011 4:32 pm

    When I was in my late 20s and in grad school and quite poor and living in the boondocks and my sister an attorney living in NYC who had plenty of money furnished her first apartment at IKEA and how I lusted for that furniture! For years I wanted a certain $300 dresser and $400 make-up mirror/dresser although I was more likely to go to the moon than to purchase it. A few years later the exact pieces were being sold by graduating medical students (rich kids) for about $80 total. IT MADE ME SO HAPPY!

  11. Libby permalink
    May 18, 2011 8:43 pm

    Oh how you nailed this.

    For an amusing take on a somewhat similar theme, please watch this:

    My favorite lyrics are the chorus:
    Just some oak and some pine and a handful of Norsemen
    Selling furniture for college kids and divorced men
    Everyone has a home
    And if you don’t have a home
    You can buy one there

  12. Celeste permalink
    May 18, 2011 8:49 pm

    My uber-gay cousin Pedro has a friend who calls it Swedish Wal-Mart. heh

    Very sorry for the anger hangover. I’m sorry that your trip gave you a dose of Swedish saudade.

  13. Libby permalink
    May 18, 2011 8:51 pm

    Oh dear, I just wanted to put the link in, not embed the video! Terribly sorry. Please delete if you want to, by all means.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      May 18, 2011 9:05 pm

      No, how great that you embedded the video! I’m delighted, because more people will watch (and collapse in giggles, as I did). I used to always be way too lazy to click on links. I think I probably missed out on a lot.

      I’m actually quite amazed at the responses to this post. I honestly didn’t expect so many people to feel similarly.

      • Libby permalink
        May 19, 2011 2:55 pm

        Collapsing in giggles is the best – glad to have contributed to that. Jonathan Coulton is one of my favorites. He also did this extremely silly song called “Flickr” where he just took a bunch of random people’s photographs on Flickr and composed captions for them and then strung them together to make a song. It is truly hilarious. Lines include “this party’s better than it seems” and “someone’s grandma owns a gun.” Check it out when you have a moment.

  14. May 18, 2011 11:44 pm

    you’ve nailed it in this post! i bought stuff from ikea to set up my place for my children and me. i walked away from “the other house” with almost nothing… so now my kids sleep in their ikea beds, made up with ikea sheets, duvet covers, with stuffed toys from there as well … i have a couple of ikea bookshelves.
    i still find myself buying stuff from there … so easy to put bins together for various books, art supplies, toys …
    oh and my daughter refers to the daim choc as “hard chocolate”, and loves it …

    • May 18, 2011 11:45 pm

      eek, meant children and myself…

  15. May 19, 2011 9:21 am

    I’m impressed that you can be in a bad mood and still write something like “Swedeberry juice” which made me laugh out loud. (I always think I’ll like the lingonberry juice until I taste it again and decide Eh, not so much.)

    The only time I didn’t love Ikea was when we lost Aden and Mona there. That is a BIG store to try to cover quickly and locate two little girls. Worse than when we lost Mona in central park. (Wait, this is starting to look like I can’t be trusted with my kids in public so I will stop now….)

    Excellent post as usual. Hope your mood improves soon.

    • cruella permalink
      May 22, 2011 2:58 pm

      I remember getting lost in Ikea as a kid over 40 years ago:-) I’d followed a newfound friend and his family to the great big self service warehouse where we ran round and round weaving through the shelves quite happily. I had no sense of being lost but it was a terrible half hour for my parents.

      Swedeberry juice is a perfect drink with food. Serve chilled with vodka on the rocks and a few berries – a Wolf’s Paw:-)

      • irretrievablybroken permalink*
        May 24, 2011 1:47 pm

        My younger son got lost in Ikea! His brother was with him–the baby was not quite two, ran off, the big one followed, couldn’t corral the little one, so stuck with him as he rampaged through different areas, and meanwhile I panicked. “What are they wearing?” the security guard asked me. “Um,” I said. “Pants?” Had no idea. “The little one is bald….” I said, rather desperately.

        They were found very quickly. But yes, quite a heartstopping fifteen minutes or whatever it was. Felt like fifteen days.

  16. Leigh permalink
    May 19, 2011 1:53 pm

    This post? Is exactly how I feel (not even about IKEA, but about every other store/place I go). I wish I could write like this.

  17. May 20, 2011 9:06 am

    Chiming in to be redundant in saying this post was spot on.

  18. Heidi permalink
    May 20, 2011 3:28 pm

    I love this post, and I love the comments. Thank you all.

    I have never been to IKEA and perhaps never will, having recently expressed wistfully to my husband the ambition to be “grown up” enough that we can buy furniture that’s ALREADY PUT TOGETHER. But your post brings back to me such vivid memories … of the hopefulness as we hunted and gathered to fill our baby’s room six years ago, and the complicated soup of emotions with which I shopped to “patch a life”–to borrow your lovely words–after my divorce eleven years ago.

  19. May 20, 2011 10:25 pm

    This made me sad. Such a silly little word – sad. It’s too short for the intensity of emotion that fills it up. Its sound is all wrong. Even British spelling wouldn’t work and I think I prefer the word in French which is triste, which sounds sad.

    It may not be Ikea but we all have places where there were shared and hopeful moments that we freeze-framed in some sensory way, and we’re startled when they pop up again and remind us that we were younger and unaware of the holes that would never be patched. And they aren’t just about divorce for ourselves, or dreams of a certain type of family for our children. There are so many holes that cannot be patched and they’re about all sorts of things but then there are words and strangers with good hearts and children who grow up strong despite very hard times and dreams when we are asleep and we become our younger selves again when hearts don’t ache and life doesn’t weigh and limbs are lightened and when we wake – if we’re lucky – we take a flicker of strength from that sleeping star rather than a swedish star, and we keep going.

    Holes and all. Kids at our side.

  20. joyeh permalink
    May 24, 2011 10:50 am

    I can’t even express how lovely this post was. As well as so many of the comments. I’m prone to wistfulness and even end up inventing homesickness and nostalgia for myself at times (e.g., longing to live in the city where my wife grew up, as if I also grew up there instead of having merely visited a few handfuls of times), so these thoughts are familiar. Especially as I try to accept that there will be no third baby, that I may have to leave my new home if I don’t get tenure, as I try to live in the moments my 2 and 4 year old create for and with me.

  21. anon permalink
    May 25, 2011 6:26 pm

    Have you seen Fight Club? “The Ikea nesting instinct.”
    I love Ikea, though.

  22. Sarah permalink
    March 14, 2013 6:53 pm

    Beautifully written, perfectly conveyed, as usual. I am even more miserable now remembering the hopes and the joy in making up the house we played in. But… I also remember these trips to Ikea with small babies in order to avoid going mad from the loneliness and isolation.

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