El Rincón Taos New Mexico

Walking down a street off the square in Taos, New Mexico, I noticed an adobe building with a colorful door set back off the sidewalk. The name, El Rincón, caught my eye because a friend in Colorado had mentioned buying interesting turquoise jewelry there. Opening the bright blue painted door, I didn’t immediately realize I was entering the domain of a family saga that began more than 100 years ago. But I would soon learn that the maverick who started it all was named Ralph Waldo Emerson Meyers.

On that afternoon, Estevan Castillo, grandson of Ralph Meyers, greeted me from behind an antique display cabinet. Estevan has dark, curly, gray-flecked-hair and a gentle, soft spoken demeanor. He is a musician, a talented silversmith jeweler, and the owner of El Rincón, known as the oldest trading post in Taos. More importantly, he is “Contador de historias”, the teller and keeper of family stories. 

Old wooden display cases with deeply scratched glass countertops drew me in right away. Some were filled with vintage “pawn” turquoise and silver. My appreciation for one-of-a-kind jewelry art has roots in a small cottage business I started when we lived overseas. For several years, I designed and sold ethnic necklaces and earrings made from beads, stones, and silver collected around the world.

1920s Santa Domingo cerillos turquoise necklace and lapis beads

Questions to Estevan were answered with stories. About bead strands collected and worn by his grandmother Rowena Meyers, artifacts made by Indians in his grandfather’s time, a photo of Estevan in the shop as a boy cutting holes in silver beads, one of his grandmother’s buckskin dresses hanging on the wall. I wanted to know more.

El Rincón first opened as the Mission Shop, an Indian curio store started by Ralph Meyers in the early part of the last century. Now it spans three generations. The evolution and survival of the oldest trading post in Taos is as remarkable as the museum quality Native American art and artifacts Meyers traded and sold. Some of his collections are now in the Smithsonian and Guggenheim Museums.

The history begins with a curious young man’s all-consuming passion to live his life in the “old west” of more than 100 years ago. And his desire to paint pictures of Indians. The saga is best divided in two parts–during and after the life of Ralph Meyers.

PART ONE–The Ralph Meyers Years

Born in 1885, Ralph Waldo Emerson Meyers grew up in Denver, Colorado. He was a disinterested student and dropped out of school after third grade. But he was an avid learner with keen listening skills. He hung onto stories told by “old timers” of his era. Stories of Indians and rugged geographic beauty and remote life in the west. Even without formal art training, he wanted to make paintings of Indians in their environment. He talked easily, to anyone, which made him adept at turning relationships into friendships. And so, with a head full of stories, good communication skills, and an innate ability to teach himself anything, Meyers took off for rural New Mexico.

He worked as a fire guard for one year with the U.S. Forestry Service, stationed near Blue Lake, north of Taos. Blue Lake is sacred ceremonial ground for the Taos Pueblo Indians, worshiped as the source of life for the irrigation of their land. [See *End Notes] 

Meyers lived a hermit’s life that year, but he connected personally with the Pueblo people and began trading with them. After several years of collecting Indian artifacts throughout the west and southwest he settled permanently in Taos, and the Mission Shop trading post opened for business. 

Ralph Meyers was an outlier. He was the first white man to make social and professional relationships with the secluded Pueblo-dwelling Indians around Taos. Initially, the trading post highlighted Native American pottery, rugs, jewelry, baskets, buckskin, moccasins, and ceremonial beadwork. Then, as a self-taught oil painter, Meyers began displaying his own work. He was part of the emerging artist colony of Taos in the 1920s and ‘30s. Other creative people arrived–painters, photographers, and writers. Many were captivated by the beauty of the landscape, the simple unhurried pace of life, and they stayed.

He was drawn into the close circle of friends that wealthy New York art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan brought to the area–painter Georgia O’Keefe, writer D.H. Lawrence, photographer Ansel Adams, heiress and jewelry designer Millicent Rogers, Russian emigré and portrait painter Nicolai Fechin. Hollywood actors, musicians, and other artists cycled through Taos. Ralph Meyers knew them all. His ability to sustain trusted friendships across Indian and Spanish-American cultures, socio-economic status, gender, and notoriety contributed to his stature as a leading citizen.

Ralph Meyers was a mountain guide, business entrepreneur, and a Renaissance man of his generation. By observing other artists, he taught himself to oil paint. He learned to be a skilled silversmith, made his own tools, and created beautiful jewelry. He took up furniture making and wood carving in the Spanish colonial style. He taught himself leather working and beading. He learned to spin, dye, and weave wool blankets in the traditional ways. He trained and hired Indians to make jewelry, hand-bead moccasins, buckskin garments, and ceremonial ornaments in his shop. They were paid fair market prices which further engendered loyalty. 

Then came family life. Rowena Matteson, born in Pennsylvania in 1909, moved to the Taos area as a child. She was engaged to an employee in The Mission Shop while she was a teenager. That relationship faded and another bloomed. Rowena married Ralph Meyers in 1933. He was 48. She was 24. Two children were born. Daughter Nina and son Ouray became artist/painters.

A rattlesnake bite through his thumbnail was the beginning of Meyers’ demise. He saw what he thought was a dead snake hanging in a tree and began swinging it around to entertain friends. It doubled back and bit him. There was no anti-venom treatment. After a debilitating infection and illness he died in 1948 at the age of 63.

For more than 36 years Ralph Meyers was a trusted icon in Taos and Pueblo communities. He was introspective with an extrovert’s personality. He had demons too. Mainly alcohol, which fueled angry and sometimes destructive behavior. One night, under the influence of whiskey, he took 30 of his paintings and set them on fire.

He loved his children but was self-absorbed by an extreme need to create or build or paint something every day. He was not remembered as a nurturing father. Rowena filled the gap.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Meyers was an unconventional man who loved Native American culture as an outsider but found his way inside the New Mexican Pueblo community. An original western icon who listened, learned, and bridged cultures with a legacy lasting long after a snake bite.  

PART TWO–The Mission Shop becomes El Rincón

After Meyers’ death, Rowena closed the trading post, moved away, and leased the space to The Taos Bookshop for the next twenty years. 

She returned in 1970, in a second marriage with another son, and moved into a house behind The Taos Bookshop. There she opened El Rincón [“the hidden corner”, in Spanish] to showcase jewelry, costumes, and artifacts acquired from continued trading. When the bookstore owners vacated the trading post building, Rowena moved back into the larger space and added a museum. The name El Rincón remained. 

Eventually Rowena’s home became La Doña Luz Inn, a bed and breakfast started with daughter Nina in 1985. The building has been extensively renovated with new additions designed and built by Paco Castillo, Nina’s middle son. When Nina died in 2007, La Doña Luz became Paco’s inheritance. Nina’s vivid paintings can be seen throughout the inn in the form of colorful folk art kitchen cabinets, bathroom murals, and kiva fireplace surrounds. It’s a lovely historic building, rich in family art and creativity.

La Doña Luz Inn entrance Taos NM

Oldest son of Nina, Miguel Castillo, owns part of Ralph and Rowena’s original homestead attached to the trading post. The front rooms were once a restaurant, also called La Doña Luz. With Ralph serving as chef, their dinner parties with other artists and guests were legendary and raucous, lasting long into the night. Now renovated, these rooms and former living quarters house boutique shops.

When I first walked into El Rincón, it felt like living history in every direction. There were relics and heirlooms and stories everywhere, hanging from the ceiling, tacked to the walls, or loaded into display cases. Shelves with dusty pottery and baskets. Concho belts, bolo ties, strings of beads, necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and rings, vintage and new silver and turquoise. A back room piled with artifacts, too many to absorb.

vintage turquoise & amber, silver pendants, concho belts & bead strands along wall

Over my several visits to Taos, Estevan has been a generous “Contador” of his family’s stories. Often, we talked in his workshop where strong natural light pours in the big windows with a view toward his brother’s Inn. Jewelry making tools, silver, stones, and unfinished projects cover the workbench. There are cans and containers of beads and silver lining a high shelf along one wall. 

Estevan Castillo is a nostalgic man. He remembers Rowena sitting on her chair in the late afternoon talking to Indian traders and customers while sipping a beer. He knew that his mother Nina was driven by a consuming need to paint every day. Just like her father. He is proud of the history and contributions of the ancestors who preceded him. He understands artistry, creation, and relationships founded on trust. Estevan knows devastation from tragic accidental deaths of his uncle and cousins. He has lived the bittersweet blessings of caretaking his grandmother and mother as they faded and died. 

Today, Estevan preserves the legacy that began in the Mission Shop and continues in El Rincón. His stories are vivid. And like the grandfather he never knew, he can talk to anyone. In the worn adobe walls, darkly stained wooden beams, and eclectic collection of artifacts there are layers on layers of stories. Ask a question or wonder about Taos history and the oldest trading post from 100+ years ago, then be ready for where Estevan’s stories take you.



*END NOTES:

Facts About the Taos Pueblo

  • Taos means “Place of Red Willows” and the Indians of the Taos Pueblo are the Red Willow People, from the pre-Hispanic period in north America. There are 19 Pueblo communities in New Mexico. The Taos Pueblo is the only Native American community designated both as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and as a National Historic Landmark. 
Taos Pueblo
  • Taos Pueblo is north of the town of Taos, located under Pueblo Peak [12,300 ft. elevation] in the Taos Mountain Range, which is part of the North American Rocky Mountains, specifically the Southern Rockies in the Sangre de Cristo Range. A tributary of the Rio Grande River runs through the property and provides running water and irrigation.
Rio Grande tributary as the Pueblo water source
  • The multi-storied adobe dwellings [made of mud, clay, water, and straw] of the Taos Pueblo are unique to this geography and have been inhabited for more than 1000 years, due to a determined Native American community. It is the only World Heritage site cited for its significance as a living Native American culture. 
  • There is no inside running water or electricity in the Pueblo. In the beginning, the dwellings had no windows or doors and were entered by climbing a long ladder through a hole in the roof. That has changed. Most residents live outside of the walls for much of the year. They return for sacred ceremonies and for tourism before Covid 19 arrived. The Pueblo has been closed for two years and there is no current plan to re-open.
  • Preservation of the buildings is a priority for trained community members. The sun-dried mud brick is annually restored with a new coat of adobe plaster using both traditional and modern construction techniques. This occurs as part of a tribal ceremony. 
  • In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed a law returning 48,000 acres to the Pueblo Indians. This included Blue Lake, where Ralph Meyers was once a fire ranger. It was worshipped as a water source, is sacred land, and off limits to outsiders. The law provided a new safeguard to the water supply, natural resources, and the welfare of the Pueblo. The land is now secure for all social and cultural events.
Oil painting by Ralph Meyers

  • El Rincón Trading Post
  • 114 Kit Carson Rd.
  • Taos, NM. 87571
  • Tel: 575-758-9188

Hosting and Guesting 101

A guest is good or bad because of the host who makes being a guest an easy or a difficult task.Eleanor Roosevelt

When I was a child, there was a book called Miss Jellytot’s Visit that formed my first impression of what it means to be both a host and a guest. Nine-year-old Katie O’Dea watched her mother host college friend, Irene, in the guest room of their home. The bed was made up with the best pink linens and quilts in the house. There were big, soft feathery pillows in pink pillowcases that you could sink back into, and a rose on the bedside table. The towels were fluffy and white in the spotless bathroom. Their guest was served breakfast in bed on a tray with another rose alongside. There was an assortment of magazines and books to peruse in lounging leisure. 

Katie dreamed of being a guest in her own house, staying in that comfortable room with nothing to do but dress up in fancy clothing, wear French perfume, and be waited on like “Aunt Rene”. With her parents’ indulgence, she arrives as a “visitor” from out of town, calling herself Miss Jellytot because that was the name of her favorite cookies. Everyone stayed in their assigned roles. Katie was treated like an adult the entire visit.

Of course, there were problems with all of this. The first was that Aunt Rene stayed for two weeks and never lifted a finger as she had come “to rest and relax.” Mrs. O’Dea was not sorry to see her friend leave on the train. The second was that Katie learned being a grown-up meant missing pleasurable childhood activities like playing outside with friends, going to swim parties, or getting a new puppy. She couldn’t wait to end her “visit” after six days and be a kid again. Lessons: Don’t jump into adulthood when you haven’t finished the fun of being a child. And don’t overstay.

The story left me with “how-tos” carried into my own adult life. As a guest in someone else’s home, I stay no more than three days, with exceptions for family birthings or need-to-help home stays. I also like to set up a room for overnight guests that is cozy and welcoming and well-outfitted. A room that I would enjoy spending time in, too.

In early December, a cousin’s memorial service created the need to travel to St. Louis while I was already out of town for another event. My niece, Rebecca, has a large home with a guest bedroom and bath separate from the family’s living space. It was mine for the weekend. I flew in from across the country on a blustery wet night, rented a car and drove to her house knowing that everyone was out for the evening. 

It couldn’t have been a better welcoming. I was warmed to my soul. Shrugging off coat in the back door entry, I smelled something delicious. Christmas lights and decorations were twinkling in every room. There was soft music coming from a speaker in the kitchen. Simmering on the stove was a pot of homemade chicken soup. There was a place setting on the counter next to a fresh baguette, butter, and a note inviting me to help myself.

I sighed gratefully and headed for the bedroom. Lights were on, a little gift in a colorful bag was on the bedside table next to a carafe of water. White towels were folded on the chair by the window. The bed was layered with white quilts, comforters, and billowy pillows.

Back in the kitchen, I poured a glass of wine, served myself a bowl of soup with bread and butter on the side, and said aloud, “This woman gets it.”

Hosting overnight guests involves providing for them in surprising and generous ways, going out of your way to roll out the welcome mat, even if you aren’t there to open the door. My niece checked all those boxes. 

Rebecca is an interior decorator and organizer extraordinaire in her home and for her clients.

dining room decorated for holidays
Christmas table setting
the whole room

On a previous visit I noticed an opportunity where I could be of help. There is a small, temperature-controlled wine room in the basement. I had seen bottles of red and white and bubbly of differing vintages and values pushed randomly in slots, shelves a-jumble with gifted booze never opened and never intending to be drunk, gift bags strewn on the floor. If trying to find something special to serve and drink, well, there was no order.

My offer–to sit with her [and a charcuterie plate and two glasses of wine], pull everything off the shelves, put like vintages together, separate great bottles from the good and the cooking variety, use the label maker, toss out or give away questionable items like Ever Clear [!], horrible flavors of vodka, and other unidentifiable poisons. We set aside whisky that I might drink on another visit. She was thrilled. I was happy to spend time in a companionable activity in return for her hospitality. Win-win, like a thank you note in action.  

Guest: Be genuine. Be remarkable. Be worth connecting with. –Seth Godin

Hosting at home can also be a celebratory party, a dinner, an outside barbecue. The host sets the stage while guests bring their exuberant mood, conversational banter, and best engaging self to round out the table. The most memorable get-togethers with family or friends have free-flowing discussions, storytelling, perhaps some soul searching, and laughter. 

To me it has always been clear that a dinner party is about what is said, not what is eaten. There would always be wine and salad and bread and stew: chocolate and fruit and nuts and sparkling cold duck. But those were just the props — the conduits for funny and real and meaningful conversation; the set pieces of a lively, engaged, lingering old-school dinner party. The one that I have been chasing ever since

–Gabrielle Hamilton, chef and author

at home in Paris with petit-déjeuner for guests, 2018

We have a friend who masterfully slips in what he calls “the provocation” during dinner parties and casual social gatherings. It’s not confrontational and participation is optional. It’s a conversational attention grabber along the lines of “Who was an important influence in your life?” or “What is something that changed the direction of your life?” or “Have you experienced anything scientifically unexplainable, something paranormal?” Everyone chimes in because it adds another dimension to what we know about people we care about, and isn’t that why we get together in the first place? Adding detail, bridging thoughts and ideas with content, creating connection.

One more thing about being a good host and an even better guest. After years of inviting people to our home in Colorado, and for many years overseas, I have learned to enjoy late hours clean-up after the candles are snuffed and guests have cheerily said, “Good Night”. I like putting the kitchen back in order by myself or with my husband and thinking about the best parts of the evening. Again, from Gabrielle Hamilton:

I’ve always been against the insistent, well-meaning cleanup brigade that convenes in the kitchen before anybody has even digested…When I invite you over, I mean it. I mean: Sit down. I will take care of you. I will buy the food and get the drinks and set the table and do the cooking, and I will clean up after. And when I come to your house, you will do the same. I will get to have the honor of being a guest. To perfectly show up, 10 minutes after the appointed time, with a bottle in hand for you, to bring my outgoing, conversational self, my good mood, my appetite, and to then enjoy all that is offered to me, and to then get my coat at the very end and leave without having lifted a finger. It is just the greatest thing of all time…

Yes, it is.


Rebecca in Paris, 2018

Notes: 

  1. Rebecca uses bamboo sheet sets from Cozy Earth. They live up to the advertising “sleeping on a cloud”.   www.cozyearth.com
  2. Gabrielle Hamilton wrote the memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter. Her writing voice is very engaging. She also owned and cooked at Prune Restaurant in East Village, NYC until the first Covid shutdowns in 2020. She contributes occasional articles to the NY Times.
  3. For additional stories, international anecdotes, and photos about hosts and guests there is this: The Grown-Up Table.

rebecca, daughter emily and aunt wendy in paris, march 2018

Both Sides of the Bountiful Table

Thanksgiving Day 2021 is the 400th anniversary of the first harvest feast when the English Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts celebrated survival after a harsh introductory year in the New World. It wasn’t until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln decreed an annual Thanksgiving holiday on the fourth Thursday of November.

Is what we know about Thanksgiving a day of celebration based on actual history or popular mythology? It depends where you get the story–from the perspective of the victors or the vanquished. In actual history, the Wampanoag Indians, who indeed helped the Pilgrims survive, were not officially invited to the celebratory harvest dinner. But they showed up anyway. And stayed for three days.

In land covering present day southeastern Massachusetts and part of Rhode Island, the Wampanoag Nation once numbered 30,000-100,000 strong. Their lineage can be traced back more than 10,000 years. They lived on the coastline in summer and moved inland during winter. Their geography provided herring and trout from the water, deer, elk, and bear from the forest, and crops planted and harvested on cleared land.

Wampanoag long house

For the previous 100 years, the Wampanoag and other tribes had been trading and fighting with European explorers who passed through the area. Shortly before the Pilgrims came to settle at Plymouth Rock in 1620, the Wampanoag population had been decimated by a three-year pandemic of smallpox and yellow fever which they called “The Great Dying”. They lost approximately two thirds of their people. 

Seeing women and children disembark from the Mayflower, the Wampanoag chief decided these people had not come to fight, but to stay. That winter, the Indians watched as half of the English died of cold, starvation, and disease. 

families disembark from the Mayflower

Because of their own reduced numbers after the pandemic, the chief wanted to make allies, not war, with the new settlers. He had another ulterior motive–to get better weapons [guns] to use against their own neighboring tribal enemies. So, the Wampanoag people approached the starving settlers in the spring of 1621 and showed them the best way to plant, fertilize with fish entrails, and harvest crops that would survive–corn, beans and squash.

lessons of survival

That fall, after a successful first harvest and the know-how to see them through succeeding winters, the Pilgrims decided to celebrate with a feast of thanks. The Wampanoags were not invited but showed up after hearing gunfire which they presumed to be the start of a war. They were dressed to fight but ended up joining the Pilgrim party as guests. Indian hunters brought in five deer to share. The feasting and revelry went on for three days and nights.

Was it a mistake for the Indians to befriend the Pilgrims? No one can answer for the actions of their ancestors, but today’s surviving members of the Wampanoag nation believe the wrong decision was made. After that first feast of celebration for a plentiful harvest and survival, colonization began in earnest. It was followed by the slow genocide of native people. More waves of Europeans landing on the shores led to more disease and more death of the indigenous cultures. The Wampanoag lands were stripped away, and their traditions shunned with enforced Christianity and boarding school attendance for children.

In 1970, a Wampanoag activist designated a “National Day of Mourning” to counter the national celebration of Thanksgiving Day.

Today, immersion schools have begun for Wampanoag children to learn subjects in their [almost lost] native language. For adults there are language classes. A museum near Plymouth is dedicated to the Wampanoag Indians and their contributions. There is an emphasis on the education and explanation of culture, traditions, and history, including the original Thanksgiving story.

From the conquerors’ gain, there is always loss and disarray left behind. On Thanksgiving Day, as in other years, the Wampanoag gather for a meal and give thanks, not for the Pilgrims arrival in the New World, but to their ancestors and for their survival as a tribe.

For the past 158 years, since Thanksgiving became a holiday, we pause on this day to say “Thank You” for blessings great and small among family and friends. As we gather to share with others in celebration and gratitude, let’s also remember the diverse contributions on both sides of the table, beginning more than 400 years ago. 

______________________________________________________________________________

The inspiration for this Thanksgiving story came from an article in the Washington Post by Dana Hedgpeth, “This Tribe helped the Pilgrims survive their first Thanksgiving. They still regret it 400 years later.”


For a different view of Thanksgivings spent in countries overseas where it is not a holiday and the Best Dressing Recipe in the World, see the story French-splaining American Thanksgiving


Thanksgiving Blessing

Today we give thanks:

For food in a world where many walk in hunger,

For friends in a world where many walk alone,

For faith and hope in a world where many walk in fear or sorrow.

Let us give thanks for this food, this home, and all things good,

For the wind and sun above

And most of all for those we love–

Family and friends here and around the world.

–Author unknown


Gratitude

I offer my gratitude for the safety and well-being I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the blessings of this earth I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the measure of health I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the family and friends I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the community I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the teachings and lessons I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for all this, including the life I have been given.

–Jack Kornfield

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. 

our colorado cabin, 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 relative’s sense of design and comfort in the home. Sometimes it comes from other early life experiences.

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 dreams and memories 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.

courtyard and house in oberursel germany, paris apartment in 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, The Bee Cottage Story, 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.

believe that place is fate. Where you are is who you are. The further inside you the place moves, the more your identity is entwined with it. Never casual, the choice of place is the choice of something you crave.Frances Mayes