On Making our House a Home

chair

There is so much more life and depth to a home than the way it is decorated.

I had this epiphany today, believe it or not. I’ve been married for six months and moved in for the same in our basement apartment and have been bent on fixing it up ever since. Even before I moved in I was imagining and planning the changes. Move the bed, get rid of that futon, cover the open cabinets, declutter everything. Upgrade the untouched: the shower curtain hooks and the undecorated walls. I devised grand plans in my head to paint, to purchase, and to put away. And I’ve been doing it all these six months, slowly but surely, as the budget allows.

I want to say right here that I’ve never been one to obsess over aesthetics. But that just isn’t true. Ever since my mom and I moved to our first apartment after my parents’  divorce when I was about nine, I felt inclined to make the best of what we had. I was already a little ISTP in the making. Moving to this apartment and getting a new room came with a new awareness of my surroundings. My room was about twice the size of the one I’d had in our previous home, and the landlord decided to grant my deep wish of having it painted periwinkle, the color of my current best friend’s room. I decided she was a nice lady even though her name was Phyllis. I put up glow-in-the-dark stars and boy band posters – actually just a poster of the Beatles, who weren’t exactly boys anymore. I took after my mom and dusted every Saturday and vacuumed my carpet. I made my bed when I wasn’t cuddling with my fluffy cat Felix or listening to Dido on the weekends. I would sit up in bed at night and write in my journals and look around the room. Everything had its place, everything was clean and in order.

Some people would say this may have been an effort to control one aspect of my life when most other pieces felt out of control. My parents’ disgruntled attitudes towards one another were not ideal, girls at school were rich and bitchy, and my body was growing into a gangly bean sprout topped with bleached blonde frizz and the roots starting to show. An uncomfortable bunch of puzzle pieces made up my life at that time. It certainly appeared to me that some two-year-old in the sky had tried to squash and glue those mismatched pieces together, maybe using some Scotch tape on top of all the glue, just to be sure it stuck, and I was somehow there in the puzzle pieces, unable to rearrange the chaos into a more tidy picture.

But every room I’ve had since the periwinkle escape, I have paid attention to each of the pieces that make it a whole: the furniture, the art on the walls, the textiles (fancy word I learned for fabrics), all of it – even down to the hardware. I lived into the interior design rules I learned from magazines and websites. Everything should fit into the order of the room. Elements should be repeated somewhere within the room, and there should be some symmetry, as well as some asymmetry, for balance. I subscribed to the decorating magazine Domino and pulled out pages I absolutely adored and immaculately pasted them into a hardback journal I was “saving for marriage,” the day I’d finally move into my permanent home, I hoped. Leslie’s Domestic Diary, I called it, and I have been treasuring my handmade lookbook to this day. In my adventures of decorating my married apartment, it’s been useful and inspiring. I get joy out of designing a space and seeing it through to the day of its fruition. I love to make the pieces fit. Hm, there is an odd piece there, let’s chuck it out. Voila! This space has been restored! Or, I see there is some open space there, it feels empty, it needs something simple, it needs better lighting, some artwork.

And so I have gone about improving the spaces around me for about as long as I can remember. In the language of strengths and weaknesses, dark and light, good and bad, this interest of mine for decorating is lovely but it has its downside as well. The idea of paradox comes to mind. Strange how many good things come hand in hand with something, well, not so good. At the worst of times my penchant for organized, stylish spaces comes with the side effect of feeling discontent or jealous of other peoples’ homes. On a bad day, I look at a magazine or go shopping and think, “But why can’t I have it all?” and hang my head in solemnity, attempting to quiet the anger bubbling in my soul.

As I mentioned above, today I’ve had an epiphany. On the verge of taking a trip to Hobby Lobby (I like to call it The Spiraling Vortex of Interior Indecision), I decided to eat lunch. That’s right, eat lunch, not meditate on the piano nook I’m fixing up or pray to God about it – I was hungry, so I sat down and thought about nothing but how good the leftovers of the dinner I’d made the night before were. All I was thinking was “Yum.” It was probably mostly the mashed potatoes making me think “yum.” They’re my favorite. So my epiphany was that every home needs mashed potatoes. Just kidding. Except that could be a good start. What I realized while I was mushing the mashed potatoes around in my mouth and looking around the room was that this meal was sacred, and that meals are sacred. And I realized how good I felt about my little apartment when I was eating these mashed potatoes I’d shared with my husband the night before. I realized I was already happy with my place when I could sit and think on the meals we’ve made each other and the memories we’ve shared together. I was completely content in my own space when I could sit and feel the atmosphere that we’ve created here together in these first six months, and it had so little to do with the decorations.

We have made a home together, with our borrowed easy chair and Salvation Army love seat, with our Target lamps and bits of luxury contained in the books on our shelves and the records in our cabinet. But more than our belongings, we have been living life here together in the thick and thin of it now for over half a year, and our hearts have felt things here. We’ve invited friends and family in and cooked and baked meals and desserts with smells so delicious we revel in the way they fill our home and our noses. We light candles and rest and we play music and dance, we cry sometimes and sometimes we laugh. We put the Kleenexes by the love seat because that’s where crying usually happens, or the need to pick one’s nose. We laugh everywhere in the place, though, at ourselves and at each other, thinking we’re so funny we ought to be comedians, imagining ourselves on stage at an improv show. Sometimes the guitar and some sheet music gets left out on the floor and it’s messy but it’s because we’ve learned a new song and wanted to play it for each other. But usually it’s the dishes that pile up because we don’t have a dishwasher and they’re gross and neither one of us wants to touch them, until we finally do because it’s one or the other’s turn to wash them. Sometimes there are these spiders that hang out inside our windows, spindly and wispy, and Eric will kill them if he’s home but when he’s not, they remind me that Eric is my spider-killer and I will be fine until he gets home to smoosh them.

These are the ordinary sacred things we do in our home that make me feel just right when I sit down to take it all in. Though the house itself is never quite photo shoot ready, the life that lives and breathes within it give our home an atmosphere of love, acceptance, joy, and unending companionship – an atmosphere I happily, contentedly inhabit. Unbelievably, it’s not the light fixtures I replaced or the carpet that’s freshly vacuumed that does the trick, nor the fact that I dusted everything that morning.

I have this idea that houses, like people, are not immortal, nor are they indestructible. They are prone to cracks, leaks, stains, and ultimately ruin, just as all people meet their end. And when a person gets cracked or has a couple loose screws or some flyaway hairs maybe in their ears, we try to help them heal and get the trimmer out for the ear fuzz, but our love for them stays the same. We don’t try to ignore the broken parts or cover them up with a tapestry, we put love into them and hope they feel better soon. If all the puzzle pieces are mixed up and taped together, well by all means we try to right it, make things a little more livable. We do the dishes. We fix the toilet. But in the end, a house is no more able to reach a state of perfection than us humans are, mostly because we’re the ones living in them, flinging life all over the place, and so our houses have this lifelike quality that bends and stretches – it adapts – to meet our needs. There’s no question that a home is an earthly structure, not a heaven or garden of Eden like the glossy immortalized photos in magazines make them seem. They may not be built out of sod anymore but they are impermanent nonetheless. And because we impermanent creatures spend our lives in them, they are to be loved as well, just as they are and as we take care of them. Are we not to let all that we do be done in love? (1 Cor. 16:14)

There is a saying my friend told me, Houses are for people, people are not for houses. As I live more and more of life in my newlywed apartment, I realize this is true. Our home is for us and it is here to meet some of our needs – for shelter and warmth. The way it is decorated says something of ourselves and our personalities, and that is fun to embrace, so I hold this with open hands. I’m starting to sort out how to deal with this particular internal paradox. Is making my home beautiful a worthwhile endeavor or should I let it go because my home is already full of great beauty? The answer is yes. And so after this timely epiphany about atmosphere and love and people and memories, inspired today by my mashed potatoes, I will obsess over design perfection just a little less. I will maybe not allow myself to fall into the spiraling vortex of indecision when I make it to Hobby Lobby later. I will pick out something I like and that makes sense in our space and try to put the pieces together the way they fit, but I will keep in mind that my house is for me, and there’s so much more life and depth to my home than the way it is decorated.

What do your mashed potatoes tell you about life?

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