Thursday, August 26, 2010

Spirit and Soul

Have you ever noticed how quickly a house recently emptied loses its “life force?” Each time I have left a home that I loved—an apartment I rented or a house I owned and sold—I’ve noticed that almost immediately after the last box is packed and carted away the place feels like a shell and no longer feels like “home.” This is a good thing since it helps ease the pain of leaving. You can’t mourn what no longer exists.

And I suppose this should also be a lesson in how it is people and experiences and memories that make a home, and not physical space or objects. But—material girl that I am—I don’t think this means the physical space and objects are irrelevant. There are houses that are inhabited fulltime and still never feel like home, and others occupied only infrequently that practically pulse with life. What is it then that gives a house its life force?

People of course. Those present and those unseen, and the physical things they leave behind—evidence of lives well-lived, of projects and celebrations, hobbies and passions. Maybe I love old houses so much because they carry the life force of both previous and present inhabitants.

Three layers of wallpaper in a coat closet telling the story of someone who loved pattern and color. (A version of pentimento? But does changing your mind mean you regret the earlier choice, or just have enthusiasm for something new?)

A series of marks on a doorjamb documenting someone’s (a little someone’s) growth year by year. Maybe even a whiff of lilac coming from inside the drawer of a bathroom vanity.

Sometimes the life force hints at something darker. I remember touring a house once that was for sale and having the distinct feeling that something was not right about it; that it had not been a happy home. My gut reaction was that this was a place that had seen sadness or worse. Walking into one of the bedrooms I saw children’s clothing and toys strewn all about on the floor. Some still dirty, some torn, and many of the toys broken. Utter chaos. I shuddered to think what circumstances might have prompted such a hasty and disordered departure.

Some houses have such a strong presence that their “spirit” transcends the imprint of the people who have lived there. This seems most true in old houses that have sheltered generations. In this case it is the very structure that exudes life. The plaster walls, wood door and window trims, the volumes of space, and the quality of light all combine to evoke feelings of comfort—or not. The bones of a good house shelter all who come inside and gradually change them over time.

As Winston Churchhill said, “We shape our buildings. Thereafter they shape us.” The first house I ever bought was like this. Although nothing special from the outside, once I stepped across the threshold and saw a wide shaft of sunlight streaming through south-facing windows onto a clear fir floor, I knew this was a house I could be happy in. It had good karma. I could feel safe there. Small enough to be intimate, but large enough to stretch out in, its life force reached out and grabbed me. I spent just five years there, but the details of that house will remain in my mind forever. First house love!

I’m thinking about all this as we plan our new house. Being brand spanking new, it won’t literally have any history, but I’m hoping the center hall floor plan will recall traditional American architecture and all the emotional associations that style carries of sturdiness, independence, simplicity, and authenticity. Possessing history by reference, you could say. A new, old house. Hopefully it will be a house that will give us comfort for years to come, and happiness for families who live within its walls long after we’re gone.

Image: One of several wallpapers from the farmhouse previously on our site.

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