“I read somewhere that your house is a reflection of your soul,” my sister Kate once told me when her sons were little. She looked around at the chaos, rolled her eyes, then laughed. “God, I hope that’s not true.” I could see what she meant; it’s natural to believe our inner lives should be orderly and tranquil, with less clutter and fewer scars. But I thought there was a lot to be said for a spiritual path crowded with books and toys and casually scattered jackets, ringing with the laughter of young boys chasing each other up the stairs. There seemed to me to be plenty of zen in the midst of all that zing.
Whether we view them as our souls made visible or simply an expression of our tastes and times, our homes have plenty to say about us. Right now I’m trying to make sure mine isn’t shouting, “A couple of crazies spent too much time here in isolation!” My second inoculation takes complete effect this week, changing the number of people I can safely socialize with from one (Rich) to 52 million fully vaccinated Americans and hundreds of millions worldwide. My head is spinning at the thought that soon family and friends will be arriving to celebrate this first step towards a post-pandemic life. Is my house ready? Am I?
Some changes are already in the works, like removing the jigsaw puzzle from the dining room table. But what about our decontamination zone? Should all our masks and hand sanitizers be discreetly whisked out of sight — or offered to guests? Do I leave the “Don’t Panic!” towel draped over the railing at the top of the stairs? Rich and I find it amusing, and frankly, a bracing reminder on darker days, but will it strike our pals as peculiar? And what about the TV area, where we’ve dragged our chairs into positions that are no longer symmetrical but offer better angles for viewing the screen? Should we shove everything back into apple pie order? Or do we let people see how we really live?
And then there are the DIY projects. Do we bore our visitors with a tour? I’m aware that A) gutters are just gutters, even if Rich did put them up himself, and B) after the first glass of wine, we probably don’t want guests climbing a ladder to inspect the solar panels he installed on the shed roof to power our Bad Boy generator. Will guests feel the Apocalypse Chow Food Locker signals runaway paranoia? Do we even show them our succulent garden, which to be honest, looks like a collection of alien life forms just waiting until we fall asleep to take over our bodies and finish conquering the planet?
Clearly the road from solitude to socializing is going to have its bumps and potholes. Whether you're facing this transition now or later in the year, and no matter how long you wished and waited for it, somehow it's still shocking. It makes you realize just how much the pandemic changed our relationship to the place we call "home" and our comfort level with fellow humans.
“We’re all like feral weirdos now,” comments Kate Wagner, the New Republic’s architecture critic, who says of the past year, “It reminds me of when I was in high school. I didn’t have anything in common with my peers. I would go to school, not talk to anyone and come home and read or write terrible science fiction. I lived a totally interior life. Now I’ve reverted. It’s been so productive. What if this is just better for me, to live a life of isolation?”
“In our home, we have a ritual of expressing gratitude every day, in prayer or other ways, to little things,” says sociologist Matthew Desmond, who before the pandemic lived in a mobile home park to chronicle the violence of eviction — a subject that became acutely relevant when the pandemic put 40 million people at risk of losing their homes. “We have windows that keep the cold out. Everyone has their own bed. Our kids have separate rooms. Light. When the plumbing stops working, we can get it fixed. Our mail comes; there is hot water. When I lived in the mobile home park, I met families that didn’t have heat. They would crouch around a space heater and cover themselves with a blanket to get warm. Families are really at risk. So many of us are so tired of looking at the same walls, but there is a chunk of Americans that’s just praying they get to hang onto those walls.”
Which brings up an interesting question of how much of our contentment is dependent upon the comparisons we make — between ourselves and others, and between current reality and our romanticized images of the past and future.
Economist Nat Ware proposed a thought experiment about this in his TED Talk Why We’re Unhappy — the Expectation Gap. “Imagine that you’re competing in the Olympic Games.… Would you prefer to come second [or] third?” Naturally most of the audience chose second place. He then showed photos of disgruntled silver medalists and radiant winners brandishing the bronze. “It’s expectations that explain why a bronze medalist can be happier than a silver medalist. Because the silver medalist imagines coming first, the bronze medalist imagines coming fourth… At a very basic simple level, we’re unhappy when our expectations of reality exceed our experiences of reality.”
The inevitable comparisons we make between the way we live now and what we once expected of 2020/2021 are as frustrating as measuring ourselves against the gold medalists. Whenever I’m tempted to go down that road, I remember visiting this basement hideout where some hardy souls rode out long stretches of the siege of Sarajevo (April 1992 to February 1996) with only that little stove for heat and no Internet or TV.
I'll bet your home is looking a little better right now, isn't it? I know mine is.
Like every other aspect of the pandemic, being isolated in our homes has tested our stamina and ingenuity. One upside of restricted socializing has been the freedom to reconfigure our spaces without worrying what others might think. It seems lots of us are pulling stuff out of our storage cupboards, digging out paint cans, and finding ways to make our spaces more colorful, more cozy — more us.
I certainly can’t claim to have done anything close to those spectacular DIY projects. (Did I mention Rich installed new gutters?) But their creativity is heartening, and possibly a reflection of our times. As Orson Wells’ character said in The Third Man, “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace — and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
We don’t get to choose the era we live in, but we do decide what to make of it. Living in chaotic times has upended everything, including our dwellings and who we invite into them. But if Kate’s quote is true, it may have also brought depth and breadth and vigor to our souls. And isn’t nurturing our souls what life is all about?
How's your home weathering the pandemic? Have you done any DIY projects or made any other changes to it? Let me know in the comments below.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and currently visiting my home state of California.
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