Tuesday, August 14, 2007
The Heart of a Home
We are painting several rooms in our new house at the moment. My bath mat post has me reflecting on what makes a house into a home, and what is worthy of spending our money on. My primary goal remains to live as simply as possible, but does that extend to keeping walls stark and barren, or refraining from all decorating?
I think not, for several reasons. The first is that a home is a very personal expression of the family who resides in it. It's not enough to have shelter from the weather, as the sometimes remarkable efforts of college students to personalize their living spaces will attest. Within each of us is the fundamental desire to have a place that represents us, that evokes within us a sense of comfort and happiness.
A home is also the place we spend most of our time. (Especially those of us who are SAHMs!) It is where our family gathers together, where we instruct our children in the values we hope they will hold as adults. It's important for the home to be a place that's welcoming, pleasant and orderly, as these things encourage the family to spend time there. Restaurants make great efforts to decorate so that people feel engaged and interested when they come to eat there -- shouldn't we do the same for our homes? Studies have shown that patients respond better to treatment and ask for less pain medication when their hospital rooms are warmly and colorfully decorated, as opposed to the traditional sterile environment we've come to associate with medical facilities. Shouldn't our homes also be places that soothe our souls?
Finally, our home is a gift we give others through hospitality. Before guests come over, we make an extra attempt to clean. We pick up the kids' toys that have lain out in various stages of assembly the whole week. We sweep and mop the floors, even if we just did them the day before. We vacuum, we straighten pictures, we put flowers on the table. Why? To honor the person who is entering. By creating a welcoming and pleasant atmosphere, we are saying to our guest: you are important to us, so important that we will go out of our way to bring a little bit of joy into your heart. Shouldn't our homes be worthy gifts to give those who visit us?
Order and beauty are good for us mentally, spiritually, physically and emotionally. So the question is not "Should we decorate our homes?" but "How can we take the poor with us while we decorate our homes?"
The first way is to follow the "Rs" as much as possible. Reduce the clutter in our houses. We really don't need that much stuff. Reuse by shopping for decorations at yard sales and antique shops. When we do redecorate, recycle the old materials (hold a yard sale, donate old doors to Habitat for Humanity, dispose of paint properly and safely.) Research where we buy our decorations (Many Christmas lights are made in China by slave labor.) Be responsible, buy only what we need; if there's an attractive painting hanging in the foyer, don't buy a new one just "for a change." Here's where the difference between painting a wall and buying a bath mat comes into play. The only person affected by our lack of a bath mat is myself. My husband does not care. My guests never see our upstairs bathroom. My refusal to buy a bath mat helps me exercise restraint and develop humility. Refraining from decorating our more public areas, however, affects our whole family and those we invite into our homes. In this instance, I feel it's something that's worth doing.
When we do decorate, whenever possible, we should try to do the work ourselves. Most of us are not electricians, so I would always call in an expert if we changed our light fixtures or installed a new appliance. Painting, however, is something we can do ourselves, and something we should do. It's hard work. It's time consuming. It's messy. All these things might make the idea of calling in a painter seem very appealing, but there's merit in working with our own hands, not least because it helps us understand, in stark, physical detail, what it's like for the millions of people who labor for their daily bread. Like so many Americans, the closest I come to working with my hands involves chopping up an onion for dinner or typing on the computer. Physical labor can be a form of mortification as well -- it strengthens our souls as well as our bodies.
For us, painting is something we no longer want to wait on. We've lived in this house for 4 months with its bare white walls and darkwood trim and beige carpet, and it's honestly depressing to come home. So last weekend we bought some paint on the advice of a very reasonable color consultant who came out and planned a color scheme with us, and so far my husband has painted two walls and the powder room in bright, warm color.
The difference it makes is astounding and wonderful. It makes me think about those who have lost their homes, who are living now in conditions that are humiliating, depressing, or uncomfortable. I have beauty now in my home, and I want to give a little back, to help someone who isn't so fortunate as to have an accent wall in "Love Affair" in their foyer. I'm thinking particularly of refugees like those in Chad, displaced from their homes in Darfur where the Janjaweed have burned and destroyed every village inhabited by the non-Arabic population.
60 Minutes had an profound and disturbing segment on the conflict which aired this weekend. My husband and I watched it together. In it, they visited a camp run by The International Rescue Committee populated by thousands and thousands of people. I'd like to give some money to them, equal to the amount we just spent on paint. It's a small gesture, but a little can go a long way. And it's a good way to take the poor with me, even while I'm doing something extremely personal and insular, such as decorating my home.
Because I feel that's the true heart of a home. It's not the immaculate kitchen floor or the perfectly placed vase of cattails, it's the meaning behind the objects that decorate and the people who inhabit the place we call our own. When I look at my walls, I want them to mean something. And I want that something to be more than "Mustard Seed."