Notes on English interior design

As I’ve mentioned previously, my study of interior design has been narrowed to the Brits.

There is much I admire about their homes, which I hope to enumerate here (especially in contrast to some of the more popular American ways of setting up interiors).

I feel justified in this focus for four reasons:

  1. I discovered, to my mild disappointment, that I am ethnically 75% English (and 25% Dutch). My admiration for English design perhaps has some genetic roots. (Disappointing because I was hoping for something more exciting. Even being mostly Irish is more exciting.)
  2. We live in Charlottesville, Virginia, which boasts some of the most English-looking countryside in the U.S. The landed gentry who settled here clearly agreed and fashioned for themselves estates much in the English manner of estate-making.
  3. My admiration bloomed after visiting rambling English homes during the time that we lived in London and I was able to see the homes in the wild, in their natural contexts.
  4. I am devoted to several very English pursuits—namely, gardens, tea, long walks, and dogs—and so it seems fitting that my home should also be very English.

When we first bought our home, eight years ago, I thought I would make a modern Scandinavian home, as I mentioned before, which is much in vogue among my generation. This was entirely wrong for many reasons, foremost of which was that our house was neither modern nor Scandinavian. But we also didn’t live like austere Scandinavians. I can’t have white floors or white furniture. They are utterly incompatible with dogs or small children, and they make me nervous. I also don’t really like the look of very modern rooms. My favorite pieces in our home are antiques, mostly from Guion’s maternal grandparents, who had splendid Southern taste.

Beata Heuman's 5 Stylish Tips For Updating Your Living Room Now | British  Vogue
A room by Beata Heuman. (c) British Vogue.

This realization, among others, has led me to study English rooms, through books, magazines, and websites, and I feel ready to make a few generalizations.

English design:

  • Prioritizes coziness and hospitality over minimalism and cleanliness
  • Celebrates a riot of colors and patterns
  • Emphasizes upholstery and a variety of textiles in every room
  • Insists on vintage furniture and rugs in every room; rejects the shiny and mass-produced
  • Veers toward gold, bronze, and unlacquered brass, with select uses of polished chrome
  • Invests in window treatments
  • Features art, framed prints, and mirrors on nearly every wall
  • Always picks the frilly lampshade over the plain white one

There is a boldness and playfulness to English design that seems difficult to get right. This is why I find myself studying it so closely. And it’s perhaps why I thought I was a Swedish minimalist at first; that looked easier to accomplish. English rooms, however, demand an eye for composition that I’m not sure I have.

Inside a Design Guru's Enviable London Home | Eclectic living room, Home,  Living room with fireplace
Living room by Rita Konig. (c) NY Magazine.

I also sense that English design stands in contrast to a good deal of modern American interior design, as I understand it, which is heavily influenced by Joanna Gaines: “farmhouse” style for homes that are definitely not farmhouses; cutesy signage; a faux vintage/excessively curated atmosphere; gray or white walls everywhere. I was amused to read an interview with a British designer who said that American designers were “perfectionists” — a characterization that makes sense to me. In most of the rooms by celebrated HGTV designers, there is a fussy attention to detail within a pristine environment that strikes me as unrealistic and fake.

An Interior Design Masterclass with Nicola Harding - Mad About The House
A bedroom by Nicola Harding. (c) Mad About the House

In any event, it is comforting for me to articulate English design principles here, in the hopes that I can replicate them, in some way, in our refreshed midcentury American cottage.

Ben's London house - Ben Pentreath Ltd
Ben Pentreath’s kitchen. (c) Ben Pentreath

U.K. designers I’m taking notes on

Wish me luck.

Can I acquire good taste if I study hard enough?

This is the question that has been haunting me as I continue my year-long study of English interior design.

I am not an artist or a designer. I identify as a scholar. I approach aesthetic pursuits with this detached dichotomy firmly planted in my brain. I love artists and yet their instincts mystify me entirely. I am instead comfortable in the realm of cold, hard facts and logical decision-making patterns. I cannot SEE that this chintz will contrast marvelously with that stripe, even though I appreciate the final result. Aesthetes, to me, are as mysterious as prophets.

So I turn to books instead. Or study fashionable friends’ homes with a voyeur’s eye. Or listen to my mother, who is a native-born interior designer, even though she never pursued the profession officially. The hope is that if I study enough naturally gifted designers, my analysis of their good choices will translate into good choices of my own.

The problem is that I’m not convinced that this is the case. Can design instincts be taught? Will assessing the 500th home tour from House & Garden actually result in better choices for our home renovation? Will my feverish pinning of all relevant English design inspiration result in a refreshed and beautiful home?

I think the answer is maybe. Will I ever have an EYE for interior design like many of my gifted friends and colleagues? Probably not. But can I be taught to make better selections? To fight against some of my initial (bad) instincts? I suspect so.

Pinpointing and naming my design aesthetic has at least been helpful. I am solidly enamored with English homes, despite some of my initial desires, and I plan to say more about this, in a notebook-y sort of way, soon.

Every Room Should Sing' Signed Book – Beata Heuman

In the meantime, you can find me nervously taking notes on all the interior design advice I can get my hands on. I’ve been particularly guided by Beata Heuman’s beautiful, thoughtful book, Every Room Should Sing. While I don’t think I’ll ever be gutsy enough to mimic her wild rooms, I am inspired by her counsel. More in this vein soon.

Moving on out (a chance to reset)

In January, we move into a two-bedroom apartment for the forseeable future.

We’ve been told our renovation project may take 6 to 8 months. I’ve been told by every home owner to add several months to that estimate, so I am telling myself we may be out for a year, so that I don’t freak out when it actually takes that long. Or longer.

The stress of the season is getting to me, leaving aside the fact that we’re both working full time, have two tiny children, are putting our dog down soon, and need to pack up our entire house and move out immediately after the winter holidays. I have a hard time falling asleep at night because my mind won’t stop racing (and because the 4-month sleep regression is really taking sweet Felix for a spin).

Deep breath. Leaving all that aside, I am looking for pockets of gratitude.

As I take down the artwork on our walls and pack up toys and kitchen gadgets, I feel like we have been given this amazing gift to reset. We’re reviving our house, for sure, in some significant ways, but we also have the chance to rethink old ways of doing things. In Marie-Kondo parlance, I feel like I get to assess the whole house, as a holistic unit, and ask what really sparks joy.

I get to have a do-over!

There are many design choices I made eight years ago that I still like, but there are also many that I want to reconsider. For example, I thought I could have a cool Scandinavian-modern house if I painted all the walls white. I did not consider the fact that these rooms look so cool because the architecture is so cool. I do not live in a cool Scandinavian-modern house. I live in a very plain midcentury cottage, churned out by the thousands to suit the needs of ordinary working Americans. Painting all the walls white just makes my plain house look even plainer. This is something to reconsider in a big way.

Most recently, I have become enamored with eclectic English cottage design, which I may reflect on in a separate post. This style seems to be in vogue lately among my set and is often called the “grand-millennial” look, which I vaguely object to. But I am increasingly very interested in antiques, patterned textiles, upholstery, wallpaper, and frilly lampshades. Who knew? It’s a far cry from what I admired a decade ago, which was all stark white floors and gray textures. Turns out that’s not how we live or decorate, given our penchant for owning too many books, heavy curtains, and acquiring silly art. I suspect our family tastes are much more in line with the ramshackle English aesthetic.

Meanwhile, please enjoy this photo, in which I take Guion and Felix by surprise while Felix was getting a baby manicure.

Deciding to stay

At home, we are well, if slightly insane.

The boys are growing up fast! We potty-trained Moses about a month ago, and Felix is showing off by holding his head up and smiling nonstop. I feel a little frayed at the edges, and I want a gold medal every morning that I get us all out the door without forgetting anything. But we are happy. We genuinely are.

Every evening, I feel immensely grateful for Guion and what an incredible teammate he is. We both have to be operating at full capacity to make it through the week, and even though we’re wiped out when 7 p.m. rolls around, we are able to find a great deal of joy in the domestic furor.

Moses is understandably obsessed with Guion and follows him around like a little disciple, as they complete “mushroom chores” (Guion has taken up the serious science of growing mushrooms indoors) or scooter to the park or play “dead fish” at bath time. They are very cute together.

Halloween costume

Meanwhile, I get to hang out with Felix, who is a happy little lovebug, even though he has had a snotty nose for about two months solid (what’s up, daycare life). He is a real charmer, even though he barely gets any attention. Second kids! What neglected little sweeties.

I put him in a hoodie and now he’s ready to go off to college.

Part of the aforementioned insanity is that we’re undergoing a big renovation on our little old house, and we are moving out in January for the work to begin.

This is a project that we’ve dreamed about for years, and it’s still hard to believe that it’s actually happening.

We bought this little house in a historic neighborhood near downtown and have developed a lasting, affectionate bond with it—even though it has asbestos siding, shabby concrete (see above) and its layout makes no sense whatsoever (e.g., nicest bathroom is in the basement, where there is no bedroom).

There was a time when it seemed simplest to buy a bigger, more sensible house out in the country. We toured a handful of homes for sale with our real estate agent and spent every spare minute scouring listings. But nothing felt quite right. We kept comparing every home we saw to our shabby 1959 house. I’m sure our agent thought we were nuts. Our exact house crops up all over Charlottesville. Whoever built it cranked out hundreds of these basic, square 1950s minimalist homes and put them up everywhere across town. They’re small and straightforward and sturdy. They’re a dime a dozen. (In an amusing twist of fate, the architect we chose for this design actually lives in our same house, too.) Our house is everywhere. It’s decidedly not special, architecturally. But it was ours, and so it has continued to feel special to us.

We kept coming back to our home, flawed and cramped though it may be, and realized that we wanted to keep investing in it—even though we could have bought a perfectly laid-out, respectable home 20 minutes out of town for a good deal less. We love our neighborhood and the community we’ve developed here over the past eight years. We love being able to both walk to work and church and the library and the post office. We practically live at the city park that backs up behind our block. We turned a bare-bones lawn into a flourishing (if rambling) garden. We welcomed both of our sons into the world in our tiny living room. We want to stay and continue to make it ours.

After five years of thinking about what we wanted to do and paying for two different sets of architectural plans with two different architects, we’ve at last landed the design and are forging ahead. We are so thrilled to be partnering with a really excellent builder who has been holding our hands every step of the way. I feel fluttery and anxious and overwhelmed and overjoyed, and I’ve been studying interior design like it’s my part-time job. (Watch out: I’ve developed opinions about things.)

All this to say, after months of silence, I may endeavor to write in here a bit more often, to keep track of the project, if only for my own sake. It seems like a crazy year in the life of our family that may be worth remembering.

A little jolt of hope

Most of the folks we know (including ourselves) seem buoyed by a sense of optimism this week, which has been a welcome emotion after one hell of a year. No, we’re not out of the woods, but it is exciting to be near the end of the accursed 2020 with a little jolt of hope.

Croquet conclusion this week.

We continue to play croquet every Sunday and count it as a blessing. This Sunday was absurdly warm (not mad about it), and we also witnessed two hot air balloons lifting off from the nearby field.

. . .

I go through cyclical obsessions, during which I throw myself into a topic and try to learn everything I can about it in a given period of time. The latest? Housekeeping.

This obsession was sparked by visiting the house of friends and feeling personally affronted by how clean and organized it was. I consider myself a decently tidy person, but these kitchen cabinets put me to shame. (I felt even more shame when recalling that this super-clean person in this household also built the handsome cabinetry by hand. I can’t even put together an Ikea side table without help!)

I have also sensed that I need to up my game because Guion is constantly leveling up in his abilities as a chef. (Our division of labor in the household is that he makes all food and I clean all things.) I feel that I must also ascend in my abilities as a housekeeper, but I am also not entirely sure what that looks like. Hence this quest.

I am finding fresh inspiration for the never-ending task of keeping our home. Specifically, I am giving myself daily and weekly cleaning tasks and then larger monthly aspirations. Today, I spent a stupid amount of time trying to clean the gross microwave above the stove (a poor excuse for a range hood), and I booked a window/gutter cleaner, which just feels like Christmas morning to me. I am going to do it! I am going to be less gross!

A thought that has brought me peace is the consideration that it is never over. You are never finished housekeeping. Until you die, your house must be tended. I once had this false expectation that if I really tidied the coat closet well, I’d never have to do it again. This is a lie. I will always have to do things over and over again, because we are living here. It’s a comfort.

How do you motivate yourself to keep cleaning?

. . .

“We have taught ourselves to describe our moral convictions as ‘personal desires,’ implying thereby that they need not significantly affect others. In fact, however, there is no morality that does not require others to suffer for our commitments. But there is nothing wrong with asking others to share and sacrifice for what we believe to be worthy. A more appropriate concern is whether what we commit ourselves to is worthy or not.”

The Peaceable Kingdom, Stanley Hauerwas

. . .

Our little dude is 18 months old today and continues to be very weird and amuse us greatly.

Favorite activities include talking about the moon; making sure we observe and admire all passing planes, helicopters, trucks, and cars; requesting story time; asking to be held when Mom is currently trying to do three different things; and eating figs from the fig tree every morning with Dad. He’s having a great time! (And his hair is slowly but surely growing back, praise be.)

You don’t need to go to the gym

Italy
Walking around Praiano on our last night there.

I love our doula for a number of reasons, but one of the first moments in which she stole my heart was when she looked and me and said, “You don’t need to go to the gym.”

She didn’t say this because I’m exceptionally fit; she said it because she believes that no one has to go to the gym. I have always believed this, but now, thanks to her, I finally have a more comprehensive philosophy to back up this long-held personal conviction.

Before sharing a short primer on what I’ve learned, here are the cards I brought to the table.

Gyms are a waste of time, money, and emotional energy

The American relationship to “exercise” has always struck me as counterproductive. It clearly has roots in our Puritan heritage, in which “no pain, no gain” breeds a vicious cycle of guilt and self-flagellation, then more guilt and more self-flagellation.

“I’ve been bad,” my friends say. “I haven’t been to the gym in a week.” We create a direct relationship between our personal worth and our time exercising. If we’ve been “good” at working out, we can call ourselves righteous and actually feel superior; we love ourselves (and our bodies) a little bit more. If we’ve been “bad,” we feel guilt—but a guilt that only has a superficial effect on changing our behavior (i.e., we don’t actually end up going to the gym more or feeling joy in our hearts when we do). And then we get trapped in this hellish, Spandex-y cycle. The problem with this legalistic approach to our bodies is that it doesn’t work.

Gyms haven’t made us any healthier. The United States has far more health clubs and gyms than any other country (although Brazil is gaining on us), and yet our nationwide obesity rate continues to rise with no sign of slowing down. (Six states last year saw their obesity rates increase, and no states saw their obesity rates decrease. Another interesting side note: Brazil’s obesity rate has also skyrocketed. The gyms aren’t working for them either.) Furthermore, gyms are generally a big waste of money: 67% of gym members don’t even go to the gym that they pay so much for.

(Diet, of course, is an enormous part of a holistic portrait of health, which I won’t address here. There are a million polemics and books about it from far more qualified sources, and you already know the Pollan dicta: Eat real food. Mostly plants. Not too much.)

So, here’s the rub: Americans love to strip pleasure out of everything. Eating? It’s a chore; let’s do it as fast as possible, preferably in our cars or in front of a TV. Let’s obsess over calories and carbohydrates and develop deeply unhealthy relationships to our bodies! Physical movement? It’s a moral obligation; let’s pay an absurd monthly fee to do it indoors, on machines, and judge each other and ourselves while we do it!

The whole concept of “doing exercise,” as if it were this one-hour cardio burst you have to check off your list and then you can laze around on the sofa for the next eight hours, is ludicrous. I lived with a young woman in college who lived on a diet of chicken breasts, literal platefuls of ketchup, and egg whites. She’d then go to the gym for an “intense workout,” in the hopes of earning herself a “free pass” for the rest of the week, but then she’d collapse at home on the sofa or on her bed, exhausted and malnourished.

This is nonsense, and, I think, a terrible way to live. (And I have thought this for years; see a post from 2014, meditating on my time in Japan and how Japanese women don’t get fat and don’t go to gyms.)

If you enjoy the gym, that’s fine; knock yourself out. I also like spending money on unnecessary things, like Korean skincare and handmade beeswax candles! We all have our thing; we’re American, after all. But we’re all so overworked and undernourished. And gyms aren’t helping us with these problems. Our American approach toward “exercise” creates a deeply messed-up attitude toward our bodies and the way we move them. It’s no wonder we’re so fat and so sad.

Learning from people who never go to the gym

Thanks to my doula, I now have a more unifying worldview in which to place these long-held convictions. She introduced me to Katy Bowman and Nutritious Movement. Bowman is a biomechanist who advocates, in a nutshell, for moving a lot more, in highly variable, natural ways, to break us out of our deeply sedentary modern lifestyles. (Watch this 5-minute video for a quick introduction to her philosophy.)

“Modern living does not require that we move, and to add insult to injury, it actually limits full use of our body. For example, a couch, although super comfortable, limits the full use of your ankles, knees, and hips. It sets the distance over which your legs and hip muscles can work. If you’re leaning against something right now, that something is doing the work your core muscles would be doing were that thing not there. We’ve effectively outsourced the use of our bodies to our stuff. And then when we ask our bodies to hold us up, and hold stuff in, they fail. Make no mistake, it’s not only the tissue that’s broken; it’s the habitat.” — Katy Bowman, Diastasis Recti

Before I had even heard about Bowman, I thought a lot about the locals we saw and lived next to in the Amalfi Coast this past May. We were worn out by the extremely terraced layout of the towns of Positano and Praiano, which are carved into cliffs. Furthermore, we were gobsmacked by the very old people who were climbing hundreds of stone steps a day with no assistance, no walkers, no human aides. (Praiano is perhaps the least wheelchair-accessible town I’ve ever seen.) They passed us easily on the steps, while we (many of the family in knee braces) had to pause often to catch our breaths.

Italy
A typical road in Praiano.

This discrepancy made sense, though, once we started watching the locals a little more closely. Almost everyone had a garden, and all throughout the day, senior citizens could be seen tending their little plots of land: their tomatoes and olive trees and rows of tidy vegetables. We also watched them walking back and forth from the little markets, carrying their bundles and baskets with aplomb. Old men and women spent time eating and drinking with friends on balconies, hanging their laundry up to dry, and fastidiously sweeping and cleaning their homes. They had lived their entire lives moving up and down these impossible and endless flights of stairs. Living there is hard work, and that’s the point. They’re all probably going to live to be 115.

“The Mediterranean lifestyle is walking with friends and family. Instead of thinking of exercise as something that you have to do, just walk or dance or move in joyful ways.” — Kelly Toups, nutrition director for Oldways, quoted here

Likewise, my time in Japan influenced me profoundly when thinking about lifestyle and movement. There are hardly any gyms in Japan. People eat well and walk everywhere. They take good care of their homes; they garden; they participate in neighborhood clean-up day with their children (photo below). And they also live forever.

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My neighborhood in Japan participating in clean-up day as a community (June 2008).

I remember feeling like I needed to “exercise” and go for runs in Japan (this, even though I was bicycling and walking miles to school and eating the best seafood of my life). My host mother Keiko was utterly baffled by this. “But, Abby-san,” she said, “why? I don’t understand. What are you running for?” She was worried about me. She looked at me like I was crazy. Indeed. What was I running for? Because that’s what college girls did; that’s what they were supposed to do so they wouldn’t hate themselves later. Thankfully, I grew up and out of this toxic attitude.

The healthiest people in the world—people like the elderly men and women in Praiano and my Japanese host family—don’t go to gyms.

Because who has time for the gym, really? No one does. Instead, movement should just be a part of our everyday lives, worked into every part of our day.

How I’m moving now

I share all of this with you with great joy, not at all with judgment! I am simply so happy to have discovered an approach to movement in life that is free of gym memberships and guilt and polyester tank tops with built-in bras. I just want to share the good news with you. So, here are some the happy ways that I am moving.

  • I’m walking as much as possible. We’re lucky that we can walk to work and to church, and so I have been walking every day for the past few weeks—even though it’s winter, even though I hate the cold, even though it gets dark so soon. I now walk at least 2 miles a day, and I’d like to work up to more than 5 miles a day (which I accomplish only on the weekends, when I take Pyrrha for longer jaunts around town). We use the car so much less now, and when I do, I park as far away as possible from my destination.
  • I’m sitting as little as possible. This is difficult, because I have a desk job, but I’m moving around a lot at work. I downloaded a Chrome extension that reminds me to get up and walk every hour, and I change my position a lot. I will sit in seiza on my chair; fold my legs in different positions; refuse to use the back of the chair and sit in straight alignment instead. When my boss or clients aren’t around, I will also sit on the floor in various positions with my laptop. I also realized that I don’t need to sit when I’m offered chairs. When I’m in a waiting room, I now stand awkwardly near a wall. It’s fun.
  • I’m resisting the inclination to sit when I get home. Now, I try not to sit down when I get home at the end of the day until dinner. While Guion cooks, I sweep; I tidy; I walk the dog; I read a book or write a letter standing up. If we watch TV, I sit now on the coffee table or floor or on an exercise ball.
  • I’m rejecting supportive shoes and heels. This one threw me for a loop. Birkenstocks and Dansko shoes are not helpful, and heels are absolute murder on your body’s alignment. Heels turn us into misaligned monkeys, and supportive shoes are big casts for our atrophied feet, which have been ruined by decades of walking on flat, manmade surfaces with cushy soles. The most minimal footwear possible (zero rise) is preferable to re-train and strengthen our feet. I’m also trying to walk on varied terrain as much as I can, which means walking in the grass or in the woods or on pebbles instead of on concrete or asphalt. Pyrrha also prefers this.

There’s a lot more that I can do, and I’m far from breaking myself out of a sedentary mold, but I feel energized by the progress I’ve made thus far. I’m excited about the weather warming up and returning to gardening, which is one of my favorite activities.

In sum, I feel very joyful about moving through life this way. It has been a pleasure to adopt these new practices, because it doesn’t feel like a chore. It’s honestly been easy and pleasant. Treadmills and yoga classes have always felt like absolute drudgery to me. I’ve always hated being in a room with other sweaty people, performing exercise. Now, I can just live and move and breathe, with a little more philosophical support behind this lifestyle I had already bought into without knowing it.

Further reading

 

Tending a plot

garden-in-june_34963862081_o
Backyard herbs in the summer.

By all accounts, I am a lazy gardener, but I relish the time for scheming that winter provides.

Gardening offers such rich mental pleasures. It opens a private world for planning and discovery. The plot itself becomes a little space for experimentation and redemption, yielding up the freedom to fail and fail grandly. I am already eager for spring, and my mind is filling up with inchoate plans for the front yard. My campaign to kill the lawn continues, if tediously, and I have grand designs for the plants to move and add to continue to colonize the grass.

Gardening has made me more comfortable with failure. We have failed, in many respects, this season. We didn’t clean up the monstrous overreach of our blackberries. We didn’t plant garlic in time, long a staple crop of our backyard. We didn’t support the enormous elderberry bushes very well, and we have no idea what to do with our three sickly apple trees. The yard is also a mess right now. After a busy summer and fall, the backyard looks more shabby than usual. But I feel uncharacteristically calm. Spring brings new life, unfilled time, the chance to start again.

Because this is the comfort of gardening: Gardening is never done. You’re never finished tending. There is no end in sight. And that is a deep, renewing joy.

. . .

Every fall, I forget about the tremendous joy I experience when I switch our bed from a quilt to our down comforter. The warmth and weight of the thing makes me feel a little less rage at the frigidity of the season.

. . .

two petals fall
and the shape of the peony
is wholly changed

– Shikibu

. . .

Thankful for

  • A week full of dinners with friends
  • An aging dog who still greets me with veritable leaps in the air
  • Yorkshire Gold tea
  • Cashmere sweater dresses
  • The linen tea towel of the Proust questionnaire that Guion bought me in Paris, which I’m finally using (life is too short to not use precious things)
  • Sugar maples
  • These Chelsea boots, to replace much-loved synthetic ones
  • Anne Lamott
  • Hair being finally long enough for a bun
  • The public library, always and forever

Alteration is what we keep

Ischia
Castello d’Aragonese, Ischia, this May.

Summer slipped through our fingers.

Here we are at the end of August, a bit dazed by how quickly the season left us. We are going to New York soon, to see old friends and eat a good deal of food and ogle modern art, and it feels like a fitting conclusion to what was otherwise a quiet and domestic summer. This summer has been marked by much thinking about our house and a possible addition; exquisite meals made by Guion; the basilica cocktail; daily walks with Pyrrha; near-daily thunderstorms; roaring symphonies of cicadas; a return to evening reading; and breathtakingly oppressive humidity.

. . .

A sweet thing: A husband who reads a poem by Danez Smith to me in the morning, while he is finishing his breakfast, and when he finishes the poem, he looks up and me and his eyes are rimmed with tears and he laughs and says, “It’s too beautiful,” and looks up at the ceiling.

. . .

Gratitude works quickly on the mind. I am always pleased to discover and then rediscover this.

Lately, I have been astonished by the power of the mere reminder to be grateful. Guion also deserves credit for this. As I have been absorbed in planning our home addition and finalizing plans with our architect, I have taken to griping about things in the house that have bothered me. I hate the rattling storm windows, which are impossible to clean. I loathe the sloppy molding and the cheap hollow-core doors. I detest that multicolored berber carpet upstairs. And sometimes (more often, lately) I say so.

Guion has taken to reminding me that nothing is wrong with our house (echoing the sentiments of a new favorite writer, Kate Wagner). It is good. Each room has something to be grateful for, to give thanks for.

And it’s working on me. I am pleased with the small things: the way my bare feet feel on our hardwood floors in the summer. The actual tininess of our bedroom, because we do not need it to be bigger. The fact that we have two bathrooms, even if they are not in the right place. The good choices that the previous owners made when they renovated the kitchen. The long flat yard, which has allowed our gardening imaginations and experiments plenty of room to flourish. I even like the pale green color of our ugly asbestos siding. Sure, there are things I still want to change, and I still hope we get to do this addition, but even if we don’t, I am thankful.

. . .

“Alteration”

By Hayden Carruth

You thought growing older
would be more of the same,
going a little slower,
walking a little lame.

But you knew, or you were a fool,
that alteration is what we keep;
tonight will not be the equal
of last night, even in sleep.

At home, in Charlottesville

Home sweet home #charlottesville
Sunset in Charlottesville (2014).

On the first anniversary of the alt-right rally that rocked our town of Charlottesville, we are quiet at home, just a mile away from the crowds and cops that have gathered on the downtown pedestrian mall near the parks and still-standing statues. I have a cup of black tea and a stack of books (Runaway Horses, Yukio Mishima; My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh; Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow). Guion is playing the guitar, accompanying our gentle neighbor on the cello. They speak to each other very sparingly; they sip Negronis and the wooden coasters clatter to the floor when they pick up their drinks. Pyrrha sleeps on the knotted wool rug in the hall. She sometimes watches them with one eye.

We have deliberately had a still weekend, but we also ventured downtown to eat. Not as a declaration of anything, but just because it’s what we’d do on any other weekend. We passed through the police checkpoints. We stiffened a little when a man yelled from the street; when, later, a cop car blasted its sirens down the street, but nothing happened. Nothing was visibly awry. We are still happy to call this place home. We do not know what the future holds. We know we are still far from equity in many respects. We maintain a shape-shifting hope for tomorrow.

. . .

If I grieve for anything, it is for the cruelty of aging, for the ways that it brings my beloved family to struggle and suffer in their final days. I still expect dying to be fair.

. . .

“Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?”

— Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star

How our houses speak of us

You know that cherished 21st-century feeling when you find a blog so wonderful you stop everything you’re doing (researching the price points of respectable American-made shoes) and read every single post since the blog began?

I felt this when I found McMansion Hell. Kate Wagner loves architecture and roasting bad American homes. She’s funny and a great teacher and a fellow North Carolinian, so I feel a particular kinship with her.

As Kate charmingly eviscerates McMansions, you realize that so much of the horror of these incredibly American homes is self-evident—even if you know nothing about proportion and architecture, like me. So if a total amateur like myself can see the grossness after a few minutes of Kate’s tutelage, why are so many of these monsters built? Why do so many people elect to live in these architectural trash heaps? Is everyone blind to the ugliness?

Here’s my short (probably incorrect) theory: Our desire to appear wealthy vastly overpowers our appreciation of aesthetics.

Having eleven roof lines and a four-car garage satisfies our human craving for approval and respect far more than an architecturally balanced home. This is Trump’s country, after all: The appearance of wealth is practically an American virtue.

Lately, because of Kate Wagner and a stack of architecture books I got for a few bucks at the library book sale, I’ve been thinking about proportion and design in mass-produced little homes like ours.

We live in a basic 1950s “Cape Cod,” the original floorplan of which is a straightforward box. The rooms are small and the ceilings are nothing to write home about. The main bathroom and the closets are very small. The exterior is shingled with pale green asbestos siding, which has not been touched for decades.

Here’s what it looked like the day we bought it, in October 2013:

Day we bought the house
Oh God help we just spent all our money.

Listing photos of our house
The listing photo for our plain Jane.

How bare, how sunny!

We’ve made small exterior improvements, namely to the yard (to which I am foolishly devoted), and added a pair of shutters, a new front door, and tiny amendments to the stoop.

Here’s what it looks like now:

Spring 2018
(Avert your gaze from my grievously dead rosemary shrubs and the unkempt lawn.)

Spring 2018
Cherry tree and dogwoods in bloom.

It’s still a little off-kilter and shingled with asbestos, but I am happy about the progress we’ve made. That grass is high on my kill list. Can’t wait to get rid of it and fill it with native plants. One day I want new windows. And I am so eager to jack up our ugly concrete walk and replace it with pea gravel. But all in due time. Our quirky little house is fine as it is; we are content.

My opening salvo on McMansions has little to do with our home, except to say that I am learning the virtues of contentment and patience. I am thinking more about the beauty in all humble homes, even in mass-produced little ones like ours, and how we can appreciate what we’ve been given.