How we do home is how we do life

Cane and I have a problem we wrestle with. (Maybe you have it, too?)

We want to live meaningful lives. We want to spend our limited time doing things that matter. Like so many others, I’ve taken deeply to heart the question Mary Oliver asks in one of my favorite poems:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

And so, we wrestle sometimes with the fact that we spend so much of our precious lives focused on the kind of questions we write about here–

What should we put on our walls?

Should we paint the house ourselves or hire it out?

What kind of couch should we have?

This (sorta) Old Life: Retro green couch

We wonder how such questions matter in a world with the kinds of deep problems most of us would probably agree are much more important issues to ponder.

Although our recently-formed ideas about UnDesign have helped us reconcile the tension we feel, we do still feel it. When I’ve read too many blog posts about decor trends or spent too much time thinking about shades of paint color, I start to doubt the value of the work we’re doing on our home and the work we do here in writing about it.

This (sorta) Old Life: brown with green undertone

It all starts to feel frivolous and shallow, and that’s the last thing we want to be.

And then something happens to remind me that, yes–how we do home really does matter. Our homes are shelter from the elements, but they are also, always, more than just that.

This week I read something that sent me back to a blog I wrote before this one. It’s one I started at the beginning of what ended up being my last year of living on my own as a single mom.

In that blog, I found a post written the day after I signed the papers to sell the house the kids and I had lived in since their dad and I divorced–a house that I’d owned for 19 years. And in that post, I found words that reminded me of how this journey began for me, that helped me see why this topic of home has become one of my passions. I’ve added some pictures and deleted some words, but it went mostly like this:

The house I sold this week is one that I helped build.  See this wall?

I made that wall.   I gathered the slate, and mixed the mortar, and placed the stones.  I knew this house before it was a house, when it was just posts and beams and exposed wire.  I am its original owner.  It has always been mine.  And now it’s not.

For more than ten years, it was occupied by renters.  When I moved back to it three years ago, after my marriage ended, the house was in sad shape.  Just like me. 

This (sorta) Old Life: Old house

That’s about as clean as I could get those old vinyl floors to look.

This (sorta) Old Life: Old house

Faded, stained green carpet. Everywhere. Chalky white walls, ugly blinds, ragtag furniture.

This (sorta) Old Life: Old house

Worn oak cabinets, semi-functional appliances, cluttered counters, harried woman.

Over the past three years, we’ve slowly come back to life.  The house looks pretty much the same on the outside as it did 19 years ago, but the inside is transformed.  Just like me.

This (sorta) Old Life: Old house revised

This (sorta) Old Life: Old house
This (sorta) Old Life: Old house

While I have sometimes cursed (loudly) the hardships that came with living in this house on this mountain, doing so for the past three years was just what I needed to finally grow up.  To learn who I really am, what I’m really made of.

Living here, I learned how to be alone.  I learned what it is that I really like and don’t like, apart from anyone else.  I learned that I can take care of myself.  It was only this past spring, on a day when I was home sick with a raging migraine, and the kids were home with me because the weather had closed their school, and the power went out, which meant I had to haul out the generator and hook it up to the pump and get it started, that I knew I’d gotten what I needed to from my time here.  It wasn’t easy, but I managed.  I’ve managed a lot of things in the last three years.  I know now that if I have to, I can manage without someone else taking care of things for me.

I read those words, and all I could think was this:

How we do home is how we do life.

I asked Cane if he thought that was true. We’ve batted that idea around for the past week, and we’ve decided that we know it is for us, and that it might be true for everyone.

Before moving back to that house I refurbished, I lived for years in a home I hardly paid attention to. It seemed as if I didn’t need to; it was a lovely house that worked well in many ways. I gave only cursory input to any of the choices that needed to be made about it; I let someone else make all of the important decisions and do most of the work in maintaining it.

This (sorta) Old Life: Old house

French doors, big windows, vaulted ceilings, tongue-and-groove pine paneling, adorable babies.

And that’s how I lived my life:  I was very very busy on the surface, doing very important things (mothering and teaching), but underneath all that activity I was, in many ways, checked out of my own life. I’d turned it over to someone else. I offered cursory input, but in the end I gave away the power and responsibility to make my own decisions about all kinds of things big and small.

And that–that–is why the things we write about here matter.

Healing the tired, scarred house that I’d neglected as much as my life was the path to healing that life.

Faced with a house that needed work, being the ultimate answerer to questions about flooring choices and paint colors and appliance options, I felt like the Julia Roberts character in The Runaway Bride who doesn’t know what kind of eggs she likes. I’d always just gone along with what someone else liked. I had no idea what I liked.

This (sorta) Old Life: Old house

Not knowing what I really like is the root cause of a house filled with cluttery junk.

I had no idea what choices I really needed to make, much less the questions I should be asking, but the more I dug into “fixing up” my broken-down house, the more I saw that every choice reflected and shaped the lives we were living in it.

Replacing the horrible carpet with new flooring, for example, wasn’t just about what might look good.

This (sorta) Old Life: Old house

It was about what might hold up well under my family–which meant looking at how we lived, and how we might live.

It was about what would be required to maintain it, which meant looking at how we lived, and how we might live.

It was about what I could afford (in both time and money), which meant looking at how we lived, and how we might live.

It was about which flooring material was most in-line with my values, which meant looking at how we lived, and how we might live.

How we do home is how we do life.

This (sorta) Old Life: Old house

Wood floors, amazing marble run, creative girl, aware and appreciative mom.

Of course I didn’t know any of this when I started. I just wanted to house to look good and smell good. (It did neither when I moved back to it.) I wanted a comfortable, pleasing haven for my children forced to live through the aftermath of their parents’ Cold War (which still, in those first years, sometimes flared into a very hot one).

I just wanted to make a nice home.

This (sorta) Old Life: Old house

I think of this room as the one that home blogs built.

This (sorta) Old Life: Old house

This room definitely reflects the prevailing aesthetic of the home blogs I was reading at the time I remade it. It’s so much better than the room I started with, but this generic space could belong to just about anyone.

There is nothing wrong with those desires. But they could be satisfied with much less time and energy than Cane and I now spend on our house and this blog. That’s the rub for us, but my journey to the past last week reminded me that we do what we do because just having a nice house isn’t enough for us.

As I embarked on my quest to make my house “nice,” I soon realized that good looks (and smells) were not enough to make our house home. I realized that how I made it mattered just as much–and could not be separated from–what I made it. Because all of that shaped the lives we were living in it.

This (sorta) Old Life: Old house

One day Grace and I built a firepit in our backyard with rocks we hauled up from the nearby Sandy River.

And that–that–is why Cane and I spend so much time talking, thinking, and writing about how we are making home.

We didn’t have all these ideas worked out when we began creating a home together. We just knew that questions about home were something we needed to work out. We also knew that the only way to work them out was to start doing stuff and see what it could teach us.

This (sorta) Old Life: Rita painting house exterior trim

This project taught me a few things about perfectionism.

What we know now (so far, today) is that UnDesign is what makes sense of all of this for us–because UnDesign is not just about making aesthetically cool spaces; it’s about using design in meaningful ways to make the world a better place.

Because we are UnDesigning our home, we’re doing home in ways that I sure wasn’t doing when I first moved into the house with green carpet everywhere:

We do home spontaneous.

We do home comfortably.

We do home intentionally.

We do home slowly.

We do home imperfectly.

And that’s the way we want to do life.

This (sorta) Old Life: Christmas eve game

So, are we making good use of our wild and precious lives?

We think so. We’re both living happier, healthier, and better than we ever have, which means we’re much better able to impact our little parts of the world in positive ways. And really, isn’t that all any of us can do?

We hope you think so, too. And if you ever feel the tension we named at the beginning of this (sorry it’s so long) post, if figuring out how to make a thoughtful, comfortable, pleasing, intentional home is part of what you are doing with your one wild and precious life, we hope we’re giving you something you might need to know that what you’re doing is not shallow or frivolous–even if you’re spending a lot of energy trying to figure out something as seemingly trivial as a shower curtain.

It doesn’t matter where you are on your journey. I know that I needed to be in all the places I’ve been to get to where I am now (even the place where all I could do is copy other people). I know that we still have more to learn, and that two years from now I might look back on today and wonder at all that I can’t see and don’t know right now. And that’s OK, too.

Because how we do home is how we do life, and we never want to stop learning and growing and doing.

This (sorta) Old Life: Rita chopping wood

How about you?

How do you do home? And is that the way you do life?