Every so often we would look at our walls and say “We really need to repaint.” Sometimes the words were triggered by corners where the paint had completely chipped away, other times it was contemplating the way that dirt collected on the sections of walls in front of the studs, thus creating a grid pattern in dirt. The declaration of the need to paint was always a launching point for the conversation, because if we were going to improve why stop with paint. “These cupboard need to go. The drawer fronts are breaking off. While we’re at it we should move the pantry and knock out this wall to connect the kitchen and the front room. Then we can expand off the back to add a dining room.” Soon we’ve imagined spending enough money to double our mortgage and the whole project gets filed in the “when we can afford it” pile to get dusty.
The problem is that the state of the walls triggered this sort of conversation increasingly often. We began to feel like the house is falling apart and we were powerless to fix it. We weren’t. It just required me to think about it differently. I had to think of fixing the house in small pieces rather than in massive projects. I had to apply the “do a little every day” philosophy which does not come naturally to me, but which I’ve learned is amazingly effective at getting things done. I needed to see the need for paint and treat that as a project in itself rather than as a small piece of a larger project. I’ve been staring at ugly paint in the front room for the last ten years. Putting new paint on the walls took $80 and 15 hours of work. I spread out that work over a week and a half, moving furniture and washing walls, masking, and only on the final two days breaking out the drop cloths and paint. Now the walls of my front room make me feel accomplished instead of helpless. It leaves me excited to proceed with putting on baseboards and finally replacing that stupid plastic windowsill which we’ve hated since the day we moved into the house fifteen years ago. Each of these projects takes some time, but if I spread out the work it becomes and enjoyable project rather than a massive and disruptive effort.
How we arrange our physical spaces can have a major effect on our mental spaces. I noticed this when we remodeled my office last year. The moment when I realized it was possible to remove a wall and join a closet into the room let me imagine the room I wanted instead of the room I was stuck with. I don’t think it is coincidence that I’ve been finding mental energy for my writing and projects since I created a physical space for them. So now that the walls in my front room are a pleasure to look at, I’m also looking around the room and thinking “What do I need this space to be?” Our front room should be a home for our antique piano, a place where people can enter our house and sit down to visit, and a staging area for things entering and exiting the house. It’s done fairly well at two out of three, but I don’t know that it has every succeeded at being a pleasant place to sit and visit. We’re going to fix that. Fixing it will require me to once again knock down a closet wall. It’s not that I have a thing against closets. I like them a lot, but not when they’re plunked in the middle of floor space which could best be used for actual living.
Little by little this house is going to be customized for the way we live. It will be full of small thoughtful details because such things delight me, and making my home full of small happy details seems like a worthwhile pursuit. The process will be slow, because both money and time have to be carefully apportioned, but $80 and 15 hours is well worth being able to sit in my front room without hating the walls.