My mother used to say that keeping a beautiful home could be seen as her spiritual gift. She has a cornucopia of spiritual gifts, but I agree that hospitality and housekeeping are chief among them. And I use the word “housekeeping” not in the dim, 1950s housewife way; I think of it in the Marilynne Robinson way: housekeeping as a holistic lifestyle, the way that one dwells in a physical space, the way that you create and keep a home. (Accordingly, men engage in housekeeping as much as women do, even if they’re not participating in its most obvious elements, such as decorating and doing such “female” chores as cooking, laundry, sweeping, etc.)
But back to Mom: She has a great eye, which she passed along to Grace. I wouldn’t say that Kelsey and I are devoid of this eye, but we certainly don’t have its abundant powers, which are so clearly manifested in our mother and youngest sister. I aspire to this spiritual gift of the beautiful home, and so I study people like my mom and my sister, and people like Catherine, Stephanie, Ross, Matt and Liz, and Cate, who also have this gift. I want to know how they know what they know. How they can walk into stores that look crammed with junk and find this perfectly patina’d treasure. How they know what works and what doesn’t. How they show such control and restraint.
Can I have a beautiful home if I don’t have the great eye or the gift?
I don’t know, but I do see this ability — to make a beautiful home — as a spiritual gift. A peaceful, welcoming, lovely house shows fruit of the spirit. It’s not everyone’s gift and nor should it be; but I maintain that it is a gift and that it can work on souls with as much power as prophecy.
I read a few books on feng shui during my interior design-reading craze. Although I had trouble believing in many of its essential principles or suggestions (e.g., “Sprinkle sea salt on the floor where you sense negative energy”), the majority of the feng shui wisdom applied to interiors made so much sense to me, even as a western person. It makes sense that high ceilings make the spirit feel freer and lighter and that low ceilings make one feel trapped. It makes sense that mirrors open spaces and that the direction of windows can significantly affect one’s chi. I am fascinated by these tenets, because I have felt the truth of them in many spaces.
Alain de Botton writes in The Architecture of Happiness:
If buildings can act as a repository of our ideals, it is because they can be purged of all the infelicities that corrode ordinary lives. A great work of architecture will speak to us of a degree of serenity, strength, poise and grace to which we, both as creators and audiences, typically cannot do justice–and it will for this very reason beguile and move us. Architecture excites our respect to the extent that it surpasses us.
Buildings work and act on our hearts, whether we want them to or not. And this is why I believe in the spiritual gift of beautiful housekeeping and homemaking. We are beguiled and moved by the physical spaces we inhabit.
Now I just have to figure out how to attain this gift myself. Starting with finding a house with higher ceilings.
As of Tuesday, I have read 100 books this year, a sizable portion of which were how-to books about keeping houseplants alive. My fiction numbers are down considerably from last year, a fact which I still blame on David Foster Wallace.
Headed off this weekend to see my brother Win get hitched to my soon-to-be sister Tracy! Can’t wait.
At the beginning of this week, I took a mini-vacation to D.C. to stay with Kelsey and Alex, visit with Mom, and see Grace off for her summer in India and Nepal.
Alex and Kelsey’s apartment is this peaceful, minimalistic oasis in the middle of the city. I was delighted to finally be able to see it!
I had most of Monday to myself, so I walked to the National Mall,
and spent the majority of my afternoon in the National Gallery (west building). Delighted to see so many paintings I had only seen before in books.
I particularly enjoyed: the exhibit on Rodin’s sculptures, the pre-Raphaelite exhibit, Van Gogh, and noting how very famous paintings are often nonchalantly placed in a strange corner of the room.
On Tuesday, Mom and I got to spend the morning at the U.S. Botanic Gardens, which was delightful, as I now share her great love of plants.
We killed time here while Grace fearlessly navigated the Metro to Georgetown to apply for her visa, and then we met up again and had the famously delicious lunch at the Native American museum.
The quiet car on the train! The best invention. Also, the ride from here to D.C. is really beautiful. I caught up on my New Yorkers and finished The Gospel According to Woman (Karen Armstrong).
Dinner with Eric, Cristina, Emily, and Brian on the night I got in. So fun and lively!
Dinner with Patrick, shortly after Mom and Grace arrived. Just adding to the list of family time, and surreptitiously celebrating his birthday.
I don’t think I could make it in D.C., but I’m glad that Kelsey and Alex aren’t very far away, and I love their sweet, streamlined lifestyle there. Visiting their apartment felt a bit like visiting an upscale resort (the rooftop pool! You cannot even imagine this pool/deck area). Love those two so very much; they are perfect hosts.
And now I am looking forward to seeing (almost) everyone again in June, for the family excursion to Hatteras! It cannot come too quickly.
One of the strangest things I know about my mother is that she lists “The Untouchables” as one of her all-time favorite films.
If you know my mom, you know how bizarre this is. This movie is about gangsters in the Prohibition Era; it was not written by Nora Ephron and it does not star Meg Ryan. There are no flowers in it (to my knowledge).
I’ve been thinking lately about the secrets parents keep. And how well do we actually know our parents?
I’ve also been thinking about the act of getting to know one’s parents as people, not as these infallible authorities or these emotion-free caregivers. Because we often think of our parents this way, as childrearing machines. At least, I do. I don’t think I’m alone.
Do you remember the first time you caused an emotional reaction in a parent? Most of the time, we were probably too young. But I remember vividly and painfully the first time I hurt my dad’s feelings. It was so startling to me. I felt wretched, but mostly I was just astonished. It was as if I really didn’t know he even had feelings to be hurt.
Obviously, I haven’t had any kids myself, which is why this slow realization of my parents as individuals is still occurring. But I have always been very interested in parents, in general. (I wrote my undergraduate thesis on mothers, after all.) With parents, I am fascinated by what happens to their personhood, to their personalities and desires, when they have children. For mothers, in particular, this personhood is often obliterated. You become a physical and emotional slave to your children. And this is often done willingly and joyfully, but you are no longer responsible for just yourself.
I remember when I was 10 and I was tasked with writing the family Christmas letter. I went around and polled everyone on their hobbies. Grace was obsessed with playing dress-up; baby Sam hoarded sports equipment (which he still does now, come to think of it); Kelsey loved gymnastics and jumping off of furniture; Dad played tennis and built model airplanes. And then I asked Mom what her hobbies were. “Raising you kids,” she said, standing at the stove, making dinner for the six of us. “That’s not a hobby!” I protested. “What do you do for FUN?” She got this far-off look in her eyes. She didn’t answer me for a moment. “I don’t know,” she said. I sighed, irritated with her for ruining my perfect holiday epistle. “Fine. I’ll make up a hobby for you.” And I did. I wrote that she liked scrapbooking.
But this is one of the joys of growing up: getting to know your parents as people. They start to tell you things they would have never told you before. They confide in you. They might even cuss in front of you now. I like this stage. I like knowing that I actually like my parents as people. I like hanging out with them. I’d invite them over to dinner at our house even if they weren’t related to me. This is great. And this is why, sometimes, I am afraid of becoming a parent. It’s because I am really enjoying being a child.
We went to Davidson this weekend, for Chris and Lauren’s wedding. It was one of those rare weekends back home in which most of the time was spent with BOYS. (With Kelsey and Grace gone, there is little incentive to fill up the harem.)
Boys, boys, boys:
Gotta love boys. Patrick also showed up, but he is not featured here, as I was in the throes of post-wedding food poisoning when he arrived. So happy to get to see him, too.
Food poisoning aside, we had a lovely, calm weekend. Pyrrha acted like she owned the place. She’s become very comfortable with Davidson living and I daresay she was rather disappointed to come back to our shack after three days at the family estate. Dublin has become her constant companion and has been showing her the Ways of the Normal Dog.
You may have noticed an improvement in photo quality (although not necessarily photo skill). This is because I picked up my new camera, Louis, which I bought from Grace. I feel very honored to have him in my care. I am sure I won’t use him half as well as his first owner, but I am going to do my best to learn everything I can. There is so much to learn! It is a formidable piece of equipment.
The happier and busier I am, the less I want to blog. Hence the lack of steady posts.
We celebrated Stephanie and her soon-to-come baby boy at a blissful lunch in Keswick.
My beautiful parents came to see our new house and meet Pyrrha, who was instantly charmed by them both.
On a sunny day soon, I’ll take some more photos of the house and post them, mainly because I know the grandparents are curious. In the meantime, I’ll be trying to figure out how to keep reading at a steady pace and how to keep the dog from trampling my baby basil plants. No complaints from me here! All is calm and happy and verdant at the mini-homestead. (We’ll see how long the calmness lasts next week, when we will be house-sitting a 7-pound pomeranian.)
We spent the Memorial Day weekend trekking to the great Midwest for my grandfather’s memorial service. While the circumstances were sad, we had a wonderful time with Dad’s side of the family, remembering Papa John.
On our last day in Indianapolis, we stood around his new headstone and talked about what we remembered. Remember that time he landed a helicopter in a tiny patch of grass in front of a Hilton, or in Aunt Shelly and Uncle Sean’s backyard, to the amazement of all the neighbors? Remember how he used to evaluate a car, running his hands along the sides, as if it were a racehorse? Remember how calm he was, how he never yelled at us?
The weekend was blazing hot, but we managed to distract ourselves with multiple games of deck tennis and lots of unhealthy food.
We don’t get to see this side of the family very much, so this was a cherished weekend. How nice it was to be reminded of where you came from, the qualities and predispositions that you bear, silently and mysteriously inherited.
We came home the morning before our second anniversary. To celebrate, we went to Ten for dinner. I’ve been waiting for two years now to go to Ten, and it did not disappoint (even though it made me miss Japan and my host mom’s cooking more than ever). We sat across from each other and smiled, marveling at how quickly time has passed. Wasn’t it just yesterday that we were dragging luggage into a hotel, still decked out in our wedding garb?
And now we are happy to be back to our new home, reunited with Pyrrha and our sprawling garden and out-of-control lawn. I am looking forward to doing nothing in particular all summer.
Ah, Thanksgiving. It was so ideal. The weather was divine; the food, miraculous; the company, perfect. As always, it is difficult to get back into the weekly routine, but I feel sufficiently rested and hopeful. I left ineffably thankful for our families. And I got to spend plenty of time with dogs, which was naturally another thing to be grateful for. Photos from the holiday weekend on my Flickr.
Women Who Write Like Men and Men Who Write Like Women. A somewhat interesting corollary to my thoughts on this matter? So, it turns out that men and women do actually use pronouns differently, and so we can overgeneralize and say that there are some “men who write like women” and some “women who write like men.” Haven’t processed the implications of this, but it’s still interesting. (Full Stop)
Joan Didion on Stage. More Didion (because I’m reading The Year of Magical Thinking right now, probably). And because she is snarky and cool. (The New Yorker’s Book Bench)
Bicycle Portraits, Part III. This looks like a beautiful book. Would make a gorgeous gift for the avid cyclist in one’s life. (Miss Moss)
30 Tech Gifts Under $100. It seems all people want these days are gadgets, so this is a small but helpful gift guide for design-friendly digital-age presents. [Side note: Can I talk about how much I hate the asterisk in the Design*Sponge title? I always want to leave it out, even though copy editor rules tell me you’re supposed to punctuate a title the way a firm punctuates it. Still. I think it is stupid, Bonney. Even though your gift guides and your general website are great.] (Design*Sponge)
Constellation Calendar. Ooh, love. Even though I can’t identify a constellation to save my life (except probably Orion’s belt). (Unruly Things)
The Class Comforter. The sweetest. I would like to have that job/get someone else in my office to have that job. (Sweet Fine Day)
TIME magazine’s cover story from this past week was a selection from Jeffrey Kluger’s new book, The Sibling Effect. The article, titled “Playing Favorites,” documents the phenomenon that is well-known to everyone with siblings: Mom and Dad have favorites. The basic premise of this article is that if your parents tell you they don’t have favorites, they’re lying. We’ve always protested this was true in our family, but now we have psychology and science on our side.
The general consensus of psychologists quoted in this research is that moms tend to favor the first-born son and dads tend to favor the last-born daughter.
In our family, this theory works out. Sam is a flawless demigod in my mother’s eyes; he is incapable of wrongdoing. Grace, on the other hand, has been the beloved of my father since she arrived as the beautiful, sassy blond angel. It’s not that Kelsey and I were unloved or ignored. Far from it. Kelsey became my father’s prize thoroughbred, the champion athlete, and I was my mother’s ongoing project. Since I was little, I always felt that she disciplined me the most because she saw herself the most in me. (And besides, even if I’m not my mother’s favorite child, I’m definitely my grandmother’s favorite grandchild.)
We are lucky in that our parents’ favoritism tends to shift around from season to season, though. We commonly joke about our standing on the parental totem pole. Dad even once made a list of his favorite children and he likes to remind us where we rank (Dublin is almost always #1, followed closely by whomever is spending the most time at home). This shifting around in ranking does make it difficult to pinpoint who is the favorite, and in that way, I think we avoided the insecurity complexes that might have come from having parents who were obvious about their favorites.
I never believed Mom when she told us that she didn’t have a favorite, because I felt like it was impossible. You have four kids, four very distinct humans. How could you not like one just a little bit more than the others? I remember finally getting her to yield slightly on this issue. “I don’t have a favorite,” she once told me, “but I love all of you in different ways.” “Aha!” I said, triumphant. “But then you do have to love some of us a little more than others! If you love us all in different ways, then it is impossible to love us all equally.” She rolled her eyes and went out to putter around in her garden. We constantly bug our parents about this, because all we want is for them to admit it, so we can each justify all of the perceived, minute injustices we suffered for the sake of parental favoritism.
The only thing I’m worried about when/if I have children is this: What if I’m not very skillful at hiding my favoritism? What if it’s evident that I love one kid more than the other? At the end of the article, Kluger gives some practical advice: Just lie about it. Tell the kids that you love them all the same. And then maybe they’ll believe you.
What about you? Are you the golden child? Do your parents still deny that they have a favorite?
(P.S. I think these photos I’ve shared are deeply revealing and provide strong proof for my long-suspected hypothesis.)