I spend far more time thinking about my house–what’s in it, where things should go, how it’s organized, what color things are, etc.–than I ever in my life intended. I thought I had a novel in me. OK, maybe a short story. Fine, an essay. But I thought I had some literary ambition.
Apparently I don’t. I’d rather re-decorate.
This has brought me a fair bit of shame–literary ambitions being far more lofty than the repainting of bedrooms and the rearrangement of furniture. I’d think, “This is what God is preserving my life for–to feel great satisfaction when I clean out the attic?” “Shouldn’t I be writing a memoir to God’s faithfulness rather than perseverating on de-junking the garage?”
Shame until I read this passage from a book of Jonathan Franzen’s essays that my sister passed along to me. Franzen, author of the best-selling novel The Corrections, writes about his mother’s house which he is responsible for selling after she dies.
In the days after the memorial service, as my brothers and I went from room to room and handled things, I came to feel that the house had been my mother’s novel, the concrete story she told about herself. She’d started with the cheap, homely department-store boilerplate she’d bought in 1944. She’d added and replaced various passages as funds permitted, re-upholstering sofas and armchairs, accumulating artwork ever less awful than the prints she’d picked up as a twenty-three-year-old, abandoning her original arbitrary color scheme as she discovered and refined the true interior colors that she carried within her like a destiny. She pondered the arrangements of paintings on a wall like a writer pondering commas. She sat in the rooms year after year and asked herself what might suit her even better. What she wanted was for you to come inside and feel embraced and delighted by what she’d made; she was showing you herself, by way of hospitality; she wanted you to stay.
Each time I read this passage (and I’ve read it plenty) I feel a little less ashamed of my preoccupation–of the decorating magazines I am loathe to part with. Of the trips to thrift stores that make me slightly giddy. “I’m writing,” I tell myself now as I snap up yet another owl figurine–this one a brass set of three–yay! “And, since writing is really re-writing (or so says Scott Henkel), then decorating is really re-decorating.”
And I’ve got tubs of unused thrift store treasure to prove it. Commas, I mean. Tubs of edited commas and semi-colons in my attic. Whole paragraphs of throw pillows. First and second drafts of photos sent to my sister for comments. Cut and pasted chapters of furniture in our bedrooms. Former editions of paint colors rusting in their cans in the basement.
Perhaps our home is my novel and I might be a writer after all. My daughter an essayist, in her freshly painted bright red room, the furniture just where she wants it and the mineral poster perfectly positioned above the dresser.
Thank you, Jonathan Franzen. I think I would have liked to have your mom come over. And for her to stay for a latte.