When I wake in the morning, often having ignored the alarm clock having read late into the night, the first thing I do is to open the curtains all over the house. I don’t really have time to do this – I should be in the shower and hectoring the children to dress for school. But for me the day only starts when there is light coming through the windows. It’s the same when breakfast is over. After flushing the children out the front door, I always stop to wipe the kitchen table and rinse the chopping board. I do this mindfully, knowing that I don’t want to come home to a messy kitchen later in the day. There are certain formal demands, rituals if you like, that I make on my home, in order to make it a place that I want to return to, rather than a place that I happen to live.
Wanting your home to be attractive and meaningful, rather than just functional and clean, is a desire that many of us share. Paintings of Dutch interiors with women churning butter, or scrubbing the front step, are alluring images. The task may be menial, but there is no sense that the woman churning butter is made menial by it. Quite the opposite. A quiet dignity, even serenity, is reflected in the painting. Even in the eighteenth century God’s grip over daily life was slipping. However in these intimate scenes of ordinary life there is a sense of calm and order, of things being as they should be, despite a world in flux just beyond the canvas.
This is still the case. The world as I know it is changing by the day. Yet I still derive satisfaction from a well-made bed and a plant grown from a seedling. Perhaps I’ve grown less sophisticated with age. Perhaps I’ve been derailed by family life. But I prefer to think that entering middle age, with deeper responsibilities and more constraints on my time, has had the effect of making me own up to what I find satisfying. And having owned up to these things (good food, clear surfaces, genuine hospitality, and loose time), I know that it’s up to me to make them happen.
A friend who recently returned to full-time work said to me ruefully that she doesn’t have time to look after her garden. As she spoke she waved her hand over her back garden, where rabbits and guinea pigs had nibbled down once flourishing plants. I understood what she was saying. I too find it hard finding time to care for my home. It’s hard to find time to make my own chicken stock, say, or to have that wobbly standing lamp fixed – or even to peel and chop carrots as opposed to lunging for a bag of frozen peas, when my energy is finite and my day has been full.
Making my house into a home, something which happens every day, day after day, is something that comes naturally to me. But it still involves effort, both physical and imaginative. The older I get the more I realise that it’s the things I do over and above daily necessities that make the biggest difference to my experience of home life. It’s the occasional trip to the farmer’s market, the odd vase of flowers, and aired bedding. And yet it’s rare that I talk about this side of myself. When, I wonder, did you last ask a friend how their domestic life is going?