Monday, January 22, 2007

What Makes a House a Home?

My "decorating style," using the term as loosely as it can possibly be applied, is a combination of basic and functional furniture tossed in with a few bits of my grandmother's Victorian china; some handmade crafts created by my mother; a lot of books, some that belonged to my father; and a big, old, weighty, very rustic Mexican ranchero dining table. To describe it as "eclectic" might be a polite understatement. Our townhouse living room does double-duty as my workplace, so along with a couch and chair, there's a computer, an easel and (still too many) art supplies in it. Upstairs, my partner, The Writer, splits the large den in half, with one end devoted to his office and the other end providing a comfy spot for us to watch TV. Architectural Digest will not be coming anytime soon to photograph our interiors, but they work well for us. And I've had sit-down dinner parties for as many as eight where everyone hung out in the kitchen and around the dining table anyway, as people often do at social gatherings, so we find our home an enjoyable place to entertain.

If you've read my book, you know that in our on-going downsizing process I've already parted with a house-load of treasured, inherited antique furniture; crystal and dinnerware; and my dearly loved childhood piano. I finally had to realize that even though the pieces were beautiful and I certainly had sentimental attachment to them, they didn't serve us well in our day-to-day living. Also, they didn't feel like "me" anymore. I was moving on to another stage of my life in which function and a feeling of freedom, rather than style or sentiment, became my primary concerns. But there were some items that I kept because they still did feel like "me." When I see them, they make me happy and they make me feel at home. So I was intrigued when I received an e-mail from a reader telling me about her dilemma:

"I would feel uncomfortable in an austere, minimalist setting, and would quickly add some blankets, pillows, candles, books and other things to make it feel more homey. My problem is that when I've culled my stuff down to what I consider 'the essentials,' my husband complains that we can't have people in because the house is too messy. If I put more things away, I feel like I'm 'losing' parts of me - how will anyone know that this is my home if there are no signs of 'me' anywhere?"

What does it take to make your house your home? Unless you're happy living in a place that looks like the average hotel room, you will want things around that have meaning to you, perhaps because they remind you of your family history, a special event, your passion for your hobby, or maybe you just like the way they look. But how many things? Do you really need all of your golfing trophies displayed on the mantel? I don't know; maybe you do. Do you really need to be able to admire your collection of three hundred miniature porcelain poodles every day? That's certainly possible, though I would hope you'd have a lovely display case for them and not have them scattered on every surface. But how do you handle your partner/spouse/roommate's feeling that what you need is more than he or she can tolerate?

It's hard enough making these decisions on your own, but it's a very tricky task when sharing your living space with another person. If it's your space together, it should reflect that, but that doesn't mean that you each must give up your individual identities. I have several small shelves in the dining room displaying personal items I enjoy seeing; The Writer has matching shelves displaying his collection of things he enjoys. In his office area there are all kinds of items and photos that mark that territory as his; on my desk I have similar small objects that are easily identified as mine, and my paintings hang on many of our walls. There are also some items in our home that we think of as "ours." We're still in the process of paring down to the "essentials" and we both work at home, so, yes, things do get messy. But if other people are coming by, it doesn't take too long to whip the place into presentable shape. Whatever flaws remain are not important enough to prevent us from enjoying the company of friends and family and, fortunately, our visitors seem to enjoy being here, too.

So I wonder how a home that has been pared down to the essentials, as this reader states, could possibly be too "messy" to entertain other people. Either my dear reader is underestimating how many things are essential or her husband is only comfortable in the very simplest surroundings. And what about her husband? Does he have possessions that he displays in their home? Has he pared down to what's essential to him? Clearly there are too many unknown factors to be able to understand how this couple relates to each other or to their possessions, but based only on this limited information, either too much stuff, or the husband's perception of too much stuff, is causing a problem that they have not been able to resolve.

Unless your home is quite obviously overtaken by clutter (you know who you are!), if you are unable to navigate through it and are embarrassed to have other people see it in its current catastrophic state, the decision about what's essential is a very personal one. Unfortunately, this husband and wife appear to have dramatically opposing viewpoints on the subject, and it's resulted in them not being able to enjoy visits from family and friends. This is a situation where an objective third party can be very helpful. A trusted spiritual advisor, a counselor or perhaps a qualified professional organizer could facilitate a dialogue and work out a compromise that would allow each of them to feel that their needs are being mutually respected and that their individual identities are reflected in their home. Then they could get on with truly living in it.

If you share your home with someone else, or with your entire family, I sincerely hope that you don't allow stuff to get in the way of your relationships. Stuff is just stuff; these other people are an important part of your life. If you value them, please get help to find a way to handle any significant conflicts you have over the things that you own.

The most important thing that makes a house a home is the contentment of the people who live there.

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob


Raindancer1 said...

I love my STUFF! I am going through and trashing the real clutter and junk, but I have no intention of living in a "furniture display window".

My books, my bears, my SW Indian pottery, my plants and handmade quilts [not made by Moi'], my tons of genealogy files and cut glass bowls of sea glass from my Cape Ann vacations are all part of me..and thank you for making it OK.
So there, Don Aslett and Flylady, eat your heart out!

Cynthia Friedlob said...

The secret to loving your stuff, which it sounds like you've discovered, is to identify what's truly important to you, then have it out and available to enjoy, not buried under mounds of clutter or stashed away in the permanent limbo of the garage or attic. Cheers to you for "trashing the real clutter and junk" because that's what allows you to live your unique life with your unique stuff. I don't think you'd get any argument from Don Aslett or Flylady about that!