The Poetry of Space

Your home has to be a refuge, the place you come back to after the world has done all the things it has done to you, where you can be truly yourself, power out, refuel. It should feel good every time you walk in the door.Amanda Dameron

One year into the Covid-19 pandemic, where spending more time at home has been the norm, the importance of home space, how we create it, how we live in it, what it means, seems a timely topic.

Quarantine has redesigned the rhythms of life at home. It has provided different ways to think about and use space. It’s not only about structure, but also light and air, comfort, privacy and intimacy in a place where we can safely talk, think, do, or just be. 

drawing by elizabeth zareh, 2020

…as a child, I always wanted to be in other people’s houses. Now, though still fascinated by those other houses, I am only really comfortable and relaxed in my own. My house is like a garment, made to my exact measurements, draped around me in the way I like… Margaret Forster

My interest in houses and interior spaces began in childhood. In a small town suburb of a mid-western city, my mother would pile my younger sister and me into the backseat of the station wagon whenever she visited a friend outside our neighborhood. I never refused to go. I knew we would drive past a certain house, on curvy Big Bend Road, where my imaginary friend Cindy lived. And every time we drove by, I said aloud, “Look, there’s Cindy’s house!”

Imaginary friends weren’t an option–they were essential.Emory Ann, 23 Things Only Children Know to be True

I made up this friend, gave her a name, and pretended to call her on the phone from the car because there was something I loved about that particular house, shaded by tall trees on a curved lot. I wanted to run to the door and be invited to play with a friend who didn’t exist. In my eight-year-old mind, I even imagined living in this cottage-like home with people I didn’t know.

Like the body itself, a home is something both looked at and lived in.…it is an image, an idea, a goal; perhaps as it was for my mother…it has filtered down to me. –Rachel Cusk

It is common to find a family link in people who care about how they live, what their space looks like, how it feels to others. Often it begins in an environment during childhood, emulating a grandmother or mother or aunt’s sense of design and comfort in the home. Sometimes it comes from another early life experience.

I spoke with a sampling of family and friends about how their interest developed in creating a home that both nurtured them and resonated with others. I asked for a recollection or anecdote when they knew that space, of a certain style, just so, would be important for the rest of their lives. 

Responses varied from a childhood obsession for re-arranging furniture in a tiny bedroom until it felt right, to sewing curtains, bedspreads and pillows to create a signature space. Others spoke of a fascination with miniature rooms in doll houses, or a teenage bedroom on the top floor of a Victorian house with a sink built into the closet, or annually setting up a primitive cabin in a summer boys camp.

My friend Marilyn Larson wrote a beautiful memory about playing with her younger sister on the family farm in southern Minnesota. In a small grove of trees, they carefully raked the ground and removed debris in preparation for setting up rooms for a home. Each room was given a name designated by purpose, furnished with orange crates, lumber, or broken implements scavenged outside the barn. Sometimes they played “restaurant” by setting up a counter on a long plank of wood dragged from the junk pile, accessorized with broken dishes. They served homemade “mud cakes” and tried to entice their brother to buy one.

My brother-in-law Erik, a professional designer, has two memorable stories. The first was when he carved the skyline of New York City into the pine headboard of the bed his father had just built. Only six-years old, using pointy scissors and ballpoint pens as primitive tools, he was proud of the creation of what he thought New York might look like. His parents were not impressed. He also secreted clear plastic food containers from the kitchen to an empty neighborhood field where he spent hours constructing houses, buildings and towns in the open, weedy landscape. His mother had no appreciation for this either. But he was onto something that evolved into a life of designing and building sets and spaces for theater, television, and corporations.

Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work organically synced with nature, was influenced by space as a toddler. His schoolteacher mother bought a set of educational blocks created by the German educator, Friedrich Froebel. These geometrically shaped blocks were designed to teach children about form and relationship to nature. Wright remembers being fascinated by them, assembling shapes and compositions for hours at a time. He credited them for kindling his creative mind toward architectural design.

…there is no true understanding of any art without some knowledge of its philosophy. Only then does its’ meaning come clear. –Frank Lloyd Wright

Considering houses as art forms, Wright suggests that to really understand them they should be viewed philosophically. But it was a book by Gaston Bachelard that first started me thinking about houses metaphorically.

Gaston Bachelard [1884-1962] was a French philosopher from the last century. But his idea of the house as poetic space that holds memories and opens portals to dreams and imagination feels timeless.

Bachelard uses the image of houses “as a tool for analysis of the human soul”. Simplified, the house is the container that shelters our body, which is the container for our inner life. To access inner life requires daydreaming. In order to daydream we need solitary time. With solitary time, we learn to love “the space inside us”, the creative dreaming place. Learning to happily “abide” within ourselves while in the shelter of the house is poetry, because the house is in us as much as we are in it. What does this mean?

The house, a physical space, provides shelter for us to dream and make memories. These are held in our unconscious, a metaphysical place. Remembering dreams is easier with connection to an actual space. When the house offers places to curl up, in solitude, such as nooks and crannies, window seats, attics and garrets, one’s own bedroom, there are built-in places to think and dream and create. The circle of house around us housing the soul within us is poetry.

Bachelard says children must be allowed time to daydream. They need to learn to love being alone and, at times, even bored. Solitary time opens and invites new thinking in unexpected ways–just as poetry does. Time alone teaches children to live within themselves, too. Inside their daydreams is where they experience the immensity of imagining–worlds within worlds.

The house protects the dreamer. The houses that are important to us are the ones that allow us to dream in peace.Gaston Bachelard

The house you were “born in” is your first space of material warmth, protection and rest. It is imprinted in a place in the subconscious that you may or may not return to in dreams. If we dream about houses they are often not easily described by words. There’s where the poetry comes in.

In the house I was born into, my older sister had the best room. Her bedroom was underneath the roof. To the right, at the top of the stairs, was an aromatic cedar closet where seasonal clothes were stored. To the left, down a narrow hallway was the door to her room. The walls and ceiling were honey colored pine and the ceiling angled like a triangle from the peak. Low walls ran along both sides with cubbyhole doors that hid spaces further under the eaves. There was a tiny closet with low hanger bars and a narrow shelf for folded clothes. The only window opened to a flat roof over the front porch. It was forbidden to go out there because you might “fall through” the unsupported porch ceiling. But I learned that my sister crawled out the window to climb onto the higher roof and [secretly] smoke with her friends. 

birth house, st. louis, missouri

When she was away, I lay on her bed, stared into the peak, re-arranged the furniture in my head, and imagined how I would live if this were my space. Eventually I had a claim to the coveted room when it was time for her to go to university. But then my father took a job in a different state. And that perfect bedroom nest, which I never fully inhabited, still recurs in my nighttime dreams. [Disclosure: with the addition of a bathroom through the back wall of the closet by my subconscious.]

Our house is our corner of the world…it is our first universe. If looked at intimately–even the humblest dwelling is beautiful. –Gaston Bachelard

All inhabited space is essentially the notion of home. But it doesn’t have to be a house as the shelter that opens the doorway to creativity and dreaming. A hermit’s hut, a childhood bedroom, a tent in the woods, the car on a road trip, a favorite hike, a deep soaking bathtub, a tree next to a river–places where we can be alone are also conduits to accessing “inside” spaces where we think and dream and create. Even the humblest, most primitive space can be this place.

You have to filter out stale ideas that your mother gave you about how you should live, or what you should have in your space. Does it have to do with you, or not? –Interior designer, New York Times

flying goddess gift from a friend

My mother had a knack for making houses into homes. She intuitively knew how things should be arranged and was true to her own tastes for creating comfort in the places I grew up. Later, she was on the sidelines with advice as I began experimenting with my own living spaces. 

The time came when we both realized that choices going forward needed to be mine and not hers. One birthday she gave me a clear glass ginger jar lamp stuffed with white seashells. The shade had accordion pleats the color of beige sand. I didn’t say I hated it, but it had nothing to do with me. It was her idea of a cool accessory. So I diplomatically said I didn’t want a lamp as much as I wanted a professional bread knife with serrated edges. She kept the lamp. I got the knife. Future gifts were checks.

My first apartment living alone was in Madison, Wisconsin on the top floor of a house across the street from Lake Monona. It had a glassed-in porch that looked into trees on the lake shore. The bed was a saggy mattress on top of bouncy coil springs hauled down from the attic one floor above. I arranged green trees and plants for window treatments, hammered Indian cotton tapestries to the wall to hide plaster cracks, and covered splintery floors with funky patchwork rugs. There was no bedroom door so I tacked up a curtain of wooden beads that clinked and swayed in long strands. It was perfect.

Marriage followed with several changes in geography in the U.S. Eventually we made the decision to move overseas. Different stories accumulated while living in five countries over the next 30 years. Apartments or houses in Singapore, Cyprus, Taiwan, Germany and France were woven together by the layout of affordable space that fit our family and by treasures we collected from each place we lived. There were always challenges while adapting to a new job, unfamiliar languages and cultures. But whatever the outside world threw at us, when we crossed the threshold of each dwelling and breathed in familiar sights and scents, it was our space, our comfort, our sanctuary of home.

paris apartment, 16th arrondissement

My artist friend, Catherine Ventura, whom I met in Taiwan said it best, “I make familiar spaces in unfamiliar places.” We all did.

The ideal of happiness has always taken material form in the house, whether cottage or castle. It stands for permanence and separation from the world. –Simone de Beauvoir

Frances Schultz recovered from a failed relationship and missteps in mid-life by buying and renovating a tiny dilapidated cottage with good bones. She wrote a therapeutic memoir about healing herself with the power and creativity of making a beautiful home. 

the bee cottage, hamptons, long island by frances schultz

There are no rules about how a house becomes a home. It requires thought, time and attention, and putting your stamp on it by living in the space. As far as decorating, Schultz advises intuition; “If it feels right, it probably is. If it doesn’t, it isn’t. Instincts are not wrong. Ignoring them is…when a space is right for you; there is an instinctive response to it–an intuitive sense of how you would live there, where your things would go, what you would keep, and what you would change. It’s a project, not a struggle.”

Ruth Bender, a long time friend, wrote these thoughts; “Making a home is a mentally engaging and creative gift to oneself. It is an expression of love to those we are lucky enough to actually be with and to those dear ones who are gone or far away.”

Houses that become homes are like a poem. They have structure that represents how we want to live in the world. They shelter our feelings for people and beautiful surroundings we love. And if the home is nourishing to the soul and allows expression of the “inner self”, then we are fortunate to have created our own poetry of space.




18 thoughts on “The Poetry of Space

  1. Bravo! A complicated assignment woven together with heart and finesse!
    It reminds me that when I had small children I would rearrange furniture to gain control over my life (3 children less than two years apart)! My husband would come home to the new configuration and say, “H e l l o??? Everything OK today?” The physical landscape reflected the inner landscape!
    Thank you!!!

    Like

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