Ode To A Home
Kh. Krista West · May 30, 2008
Kh. Krista gives a farewell to her house and muses on what homes and beauty mean.
Well, this week finds me amidst towers of cardboard boxes, rolls of packing tape and more tissue paper than I care to think about. Am I shipping out an unusually large order of vestments? No, I am not, I am simply, or rather complicatedly, moving.
Like many a clergy wife and modern American, I’ve had my share of moves. We moved six times in the first six years of our marriage, including the cross-country move to seminary. But eight years ago, we purchased what I have always thought of as my dream home. It was a little beauty of a house, built in 1941 with wonderful charm and character. Of course, that charm and character was more than a bit hidden when we first moved in: there was debris in the backyard, the living room walls were pink and there was awful shag carpeting throughout the house. But if you looked closely enough, you could see the bones of the house and they were good bones. Sure, there was unpainted Sheetrock in the basement, but there was glorious Phillipine mahogany trim in the living room, and sweet little built-in cabinets in the dining room. And, while it leaked terribly the first year, there was a lovely art glass window in the living room that looked out on a dogwood tree. This house had grace and beauty in its lines and it felt like home from the first day. The July we moved in found our parish in the midst of a building program. We sold our old church before our new building was complete and consequently, we were church-less for weekday services. So we held the Paraklisis services that Dormition in our living room. We hadn’t been able to afford furniture yet, so there was plenty of room. With the warm weather, we opened the front door and our singing filled the block, causing appreciative comments from our neighbors for years to come.
Before we bought the little dream house, we had been house-hunting for months and since we both grew up here in Portland, Oregon, we knew the neighborhoods and the various eras of houses in them like the backs of our hands. We had a lengthy list of all the things that meant “home” to us, like a fireplace and a cozy kitchen, and we had discussed endlessly which things we could be flexible about and which things must stay on the list at all costs. A fireplace topped the list and it was our rubicon, so if a house didn’t have one, we looked at the next one. One of the important things was workspace for me, since sewing work inevitably takes up a lot of space. It needed to be large enough for sewing machines and sergers and a cutting table as well as a desk and some storage space, but, conversely, it couldn’t break our budget. In our little dream house, there was the original knotty pine “party room” in the basement, a hold over from the cocktail and pool table days of the 1950s and 60s and it suited me perfectly. It needed work, but so did everything else in the house, so I picked up my paintbrush and got going.
I have great memories of the first few years of living in our house and they are a whimsical combination of changing diapers, rinsing out paintbrushes, and keeping two small children occupied while we planted a garden bed or laid sod or ripped out carpet. Every one of my To Do lists for five years had some task for the house—paint trim, or put in a new bathtub or make curtains. Every week seemed to find us discussing some new project or idea and I thrived in this environment of making a house into a home.
But over the last couple of years we have found that we are starting to outgrow our little home. My workshop feels cramped and I have frequent bouts of frustration over where to put yet another new piece of brocade or roll of galloon. My girls are growing older and when their friends come over, it sounds as if we are foster parents to a small group of elephants. During catechism classes I scramble to fit yet another folding chair in the living room for the ever-expanding group. Plus, a couple of years ago, we began to think that NOT having a 20-minute commute to church might be a very desirable thing! The last few Lents have found us arriving at services harried and stressed after we fought rush-hour traffic to get to church on time. So, we began looking at houses near our church, debating between building, which had the plus of having everything “our way” but the drawback of being prohibitively expensive, or purchasing an existing house which seemed an even greater challenge due to my workshop needs. Suburban homes rarely have basements and working in a garage without daylight isn’t feasible. However, just before Holy Week we found exactly the right house with enough space for many years to come. And while it meant getting our old house on the market during Holy Week (I’ll never complain about Holy Week ever again!), we’ve seen God’s blessings and mercy throughout this entire period of transition.
But now, the home inspections are done, the papers are signed and I’ve been getting ready to leave my little home. As I’ve been mentally reviewing our life in this house, I’ve realized that my hands have literally touched almost every square inch of it and it was this realization that brought me to tears a few days ago. I was startled to find myself grieving over this house because despite the fact that I’m somewhat of an old house fanatic and definitely a fan of beauty, I felt that on a spiritual level, it was “just” a space and it was the life lived within that counted. However, I find myself grieving for the very walls, the light fixtures, the color of gold in the living room, and it’s caused me to give much thought to what buildings and beauty can really mean. Every day I’ve lived here has found me living and moving and breathing in a beautiful environment and I know that on some unknown level, that beauty has blessed me greatly. As I prepare to leave my house, I feel that it is giving me one parting lesson—that beauty is important.
That first August in our old house, as we were chanting the Paraklisis in our living room devoid of furniture save a few folding chairs, I thought of Bishop Joseph’s exhortation that we make our homes little churches and I took it to heart. This was my first real home and I wanted it to serve as both home and church. And it has: as I look over the walls I’ve painted or the kitchen cupboards I’ve sanded, I think of the myriad people who have eaten here, cried here, laughed here. It’s here that I have learned how to show mercy and love to my children, it’s here that I have learned how to give and be given hospitality and it’s here that I have worked and prayed for almost eight years. I’ve come to realize that my grief for this house is borne from the knowledge that I have worked out my salvation in its walls.
Once in awhile, I find myself in church on a Sunday afternoon after Liturgy, usually waiting for my husband. The chanters and servers and people have all gone and there’s a feeling of completion and lingering grace in the air. Of all the wonderful times to be in church, this is one of my favorites, because it seems that I can feel the very grace in the icons and the walls and the floor. This place is steeped in holiness and I am deeply compelled by the sensation of standing on holy ground. I think of all the people who worship here, of their prayers, their baptisms, their weddings, their funerals and I am awed and refreshed by the great faith within its walls. This, for me, is the ultimate “perk” of being a khouria: I get lots of opportunity to stand in an empty church. Walking through my house over the last few days has given me a similar, yet less intense, feeling. We know in Orthodox Christianity that our salvation is a day-to-day thing, not a one-time action, and that day-to-day living is done not just in our churches, but in our homes.
At the new house, we are planning on building a little workshop for me, something I’ve dreamed of for many years, probably something that every seamstress or craftsman dreams of—a place to go and work. As I’ve been preparing the floor plan and choosing how many electrical outlets I really need, I’ve also been reading a wonderful book, Michael Pollan’s “A Place of One’s Own”. In it, he details his own experience building a small writing hut in the woods behind his house, made all the more poignant and humorous because he is a consummate wordsmith, someone more comfortable with words than a hammer, and because he feels that he needs to be more in touch with the world, he choses to build the hut himself. It’s a fascinating read, since he covers a wide range of topics, from famous architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and LeCorbusier, from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” to Progressive Architecture magazine, from the philosophical meanings of foundations to the ideologies involved in a roofline and deftly peppers it all with amusing stories of his jack-of-all-trades assistant, Joe. But, at core, his is a journey of making a place truly inhabited and it’s given me much food for thought. I’ve always loved architecture, and particularly old buildings. When I’m in Pennsylvania for the Antiochian Clergy Symposium every other summer, I always make sure my flight going home is late enough so that I can visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house on my way to the airport. It’s one of his most famous buildings, due to the astonishing fact that after the owners asked him to build a house near a waterfall, he decided to exercise his artistic license and build it over the waterfall. It’s a truly inspiring experience to be in Fallingwater and I always refer to my visits there as worshipping at the church of Fallingwater, because there is such harmony of form and such beauty there, that it always brings to mind the beauty and holiness of church.
When I come away from Fallingwater, as I do every other year, it makes me want to make my home even better, even more inspiring. I think of how I once heard American homes described as airports, with families constantly arriving and taking off, but never really living in them, and I feel more compelled than ever to make my home a place to stop and be. Granted, I’m pretty lousy at just being, but somehow, I feel that my home urges me on towards this ultimate vocation as an Orthodox Christian: that being is somehow enough, despite what our frenetic modern world might tell us—and that if I just sit in the garden and look at the loveliness of God’s creation or pause in the living room and read with my child, warmly embraced by the beauty of the space, that I will be brought just a little closer to being in God’s presence.
I’ve always been a bit of a house snob, wanting my walls to be just the right shade of gold or my bathroom tile to look as if it was original. If I told you the lengths to which I have gone for authentic heating registers, you would probably think me slightly unbalanced. But, there’s always been an elusive “big picture” for me about why homes are important and I don’t think it was until I prepared for leaving this little home that it gave me its parting lesson: Homes are important in the way that churches are important. They give us the ability to be. They embrace us and encourage us and provide us a place to work out our salvation. Be they large or small, new or old, fancy or simple, they are the foundation of hospitality and the solid form of community. They are our outposts of salvation, bringing calm and peace to an uncivilized world. They are places of our own and since our own is truly the Kingdom of Heaven and communion with the Trinity, they are truly little churches.