My favorite part of all of Saturday—after a morning of farmer’s market, library, and lake—was curling up on the sofa in the long stretch of quiet afternoon, sipping coffee and perusing a giant stack of library books with my husband.
Something that David and I find distractingly restful is learning more about a topic which interests us—even if it has seemingly little relevance to our current life.
For instance, I’m reading Sheetrock and Shellac: A Thinking Persons Guide to the Art and Science of Home Improvement, by David Owen. Do we own a home or a yard? No. Do we actually have any idea what we’ll do and where we’ll live next? Nope. Do I even enjoy home improvement or getting dirty or working with my hands? No, I certainly do not.
I look at my creative, DIY-savvy, green-thumbed friends and family members with envy (as I believe some of them may look on my ability to read books quickly with envy), and think, wistfully, I’ll never be like that.
And yet, David and I are both currently devouring books on gardening and “urban homesteading” and DIY projects. It keeps us from fixating on the uncertainties we’re facing and gives us something else to talk about.
(I actually recommend this practice for most seasons of life and especially stressful ones; even just keeping a light, topical book [Cooking? Thoughtful eating? Art? Exercise? An international memoir?] in my purse or on the back of the toilet to skim through has kept me more-or-less sane through mothering screaming infants and cross-Atlantic moves).
David Owen is a New Yorker staff writer, and this book is a memoir of his home remodeling experiences over the course of twenty years or so. He’s one of those writers whose way with words makes me want to open my laptop and write . . . in other words, he’s inspiring. Witty, informative, and still profound in his descriptions of our relationship with our home and our possessions, in a way that’s reminiscent of Wendell Berry.
David was reading The Wall Street Journal: Complete Home Owner’s Guidebook yesterday, and, though these books contain two entirely different approaches, we discovered many truths that resonate. Like the fact that buying a home is almost never an investment—more money is poured into it through the years than will ever be made out of it.
Sobering for us, as potential first-time home buyers at some point in the future, and we are thankful for the cautionary word to be frugal and not to rush things.
At the same time, buying a home is hugely valuable, in a non-monetary way, because it’s the stage on which (in which?) we live our lives. Our homes are inextricably woven into our memory bank and filled with meaning, with nearly the same vividness as a family member or a beloved pet. And, as we shape our home(s) throughout a lifetime, they in turn shape us.
Here’s an example: Owen and his wife, Ann Hodgman, spent the first seven years of their marriage in a rented, one-bedroom Manhattan apartment. When they found out they were expecting their first child, they hired a company to come and close in their postage-stamp dining room for a nursery. However, when the project was completed, they looked at the tiny new room and looked at the ever-growing pile of baby items they were accumulating and realized there was just not enough space there for a nursery.
So, Owen had the idea of moving the master bed into the new space, and giving the baby the spacious bedroom. Despite criticism from friends that they were spoiling the baby, and misgivings about essentially having a combined living room/dining room/master bedroom, Owen and his wife discovered, only through actually making the switch, that the situation worked perfectly. They didn’t have baby furniture overtaking their apartment, and they could still host friends late into the evening without fear of waking the newborn across the space of a thin dividing wall.
Owen concludes, commenting both about that story and home renovation projects in general, “Ann and I set out to turn our apartment into the kind of place that we thought we wanted to live in, and we ended up meeting it halfway, by becoming the kind of people, who, it turned out, would live in a place like ours.”
And that is an idea I love.
Although we have never owned a house, we’ve been shaped by all the spaces we’ve settled into; our family rhythms and our memories are intertwined with this specific parade of apartments and condo and infamous periwinkle blue 1980’s trailer.
The other thing I love about this book—which is something I loved about The Urban Homestead—is its emphasis that most of the events in life are about process, not result. An unexpected plumbing problem in the bathroom is not an interruption to an otherwise tranquil Saturday (or insert: pulling weeds, washing dishes, baking a casserole), but it becomes that particular Saturday, becomes the plot in which our family memories—and even our character—are fleshed out.
Do we look on the necessary project as a hindrance or an adventure? Do we hem and haw and bark our frustration at one another, or do we pull ourselves out of task mode long enough to grab our kids, explain this new project, laugh at the sheer inconvenience of it, and celebrate later with a bowl of ice cream over a job well done?
Our goal is not a finished (whatever that means), design-blog-perfect home, but the twists and turns of living together in our space, the adventure of making it ours, and the challenge of projects-yet-unfinished.
These are values that are being woven into our hearts of late. Because they aren’t, by nature, who David and I are. Believe it or not, both of us are task-oriented rather than people-oriented, we love our plans and do not want them interrupted, and—I hate to admit this—would rather just plow ahead and take care of about any chore around the house in ten minutes on our own, rather than subject ourselves to the lengthened, chaotic, imperfect process of doing it with our children.
But these mundane events are life—they are the memories our children will carry with them into the future even more than our carefully thought out once-a-year family vacation. These are the settings in which Judah and Amelie learn cheerfulness, repentance, and kindness—or, conversely, grouchiness, defensiveness, and sharp words.
Because David and I are ever-in-transition apartment-dwellers, we generally can’t be bothered with yard work or recycling beyond tossing plastics into a provided tub, and we generally don’t stick around anywhere long enough to see seeds take root and nurtured into food-bearing plants.
There’s a time and a place for everything. Sometimes, a certain time requires flexibility; it was easier for our family to pack up and move across the globe precisely because of our lifestyle. And I am forever grateful for that life-changing experience.
I hope this next season will bring time for settling down a little more, for owning our own home, and practicing these everyday family rhythms David Owen writes about so cleverly and meaningfully.
But I’m fooling myself if I think buying a house will solve the problems of my impatient heart and magically transform me into a relaxed, engaged mother-and-homemaker. If I’m not learning these habits today, in our borrowed Irmo house, I’ll never practice them in my own place.