Now we come to that time of year (and what a year it has been) where, traditionally we — you and I — reflect on where we’ve gone together on our journey toward better living. For my last two columns of the year, I revisit my favorite lessons, one a month, from the year’s columns. Here are my top takeaways from the first six months of 2020.
◼️ January — Sick of the mud our three dogs kept tracking in from the yard, where the lawn wouldn’t grow, because the trees were overgrown, my husband and I got professional help. As we sat on the patio overlooking our mud pit with landscape designer Tony Evans, he asked what we wanted. DC and I sputtered possibilities: a fountain, a firepit, a pool, no more mud. Two weeks later Evans came back with a plan, far better than we could have imagined, which was, after all, why we hired him. It would be seven months before the vision became real, and the yard got muddier before it got better. However, as covid-19 closed off the world, our new outdoor space, which became far more usable, delivered greater returns than we could have imagined.
Lesson: Don’t ignore your yard. In the past, I have always prioritized interior design over my outdoor design. I now believe that is a mistake.
◼️ February — We opened our door to a stranger. A family friend asked if we had a spare room to house a student. Jessica needed a place to stay for 12 weeks while she completed her last internship on the way to getting her doctorate in physical therapy. My mind raced through a parade of horribles: What if she’s a drug dealer? Plays loud music at all hours? Has strange men over? Cooks stinky food? Leaves the gate open, the lights on, the stove burning, the milk out, takes stuff, breaks stuff? “Of course we will help,” I wrote back.
None of the above happened. In fact, home life got better. When she came home, we were happy to see her. She joined us for dinner, pitched in around the house, and made our nest feel a little less empty.
Lesson: Believe in humanity. If you can be a port in a storm, or a temporary haven, for someone in transition, open your door. Your heart might open up, too.
◼️ March — I reconnected with the late architect and designer Michael Graves on the fifth anniversary of his death by previewing a line of 100 new kitchen items, from cookware to canisters, he inspired. His namesake design firm Michael Graves Design rolled them out. Each item embodied his three-part formula: Form, function and whimsy. (What is that bird doing inside the wine decanter?) I had interviewed Graves for my first syndicated home design column nearly 20 years ago, and twice since. He made an impression on me, and on the world.
Lesson: I rediscovered how applicable the Graves method is when confronting any creative act. Whether approaching a recipe, a room, or a relationship, or in Graves’ case, a city library or a toaster, ask how can I make it a better experience? That is the question.
◼️ April — We hunkered in place, beginning a chapter of unknown length and unfathomable darkness. As life — including school and work — went on, I marveled at the flexibility and adaptability of humanity, and at the versatility of our homes, which suddenly had to become all the places we used to go: school, office, gym, church, restaurant, theater and beauty salon.
Lesson: I found a new appreciation for my home. When the world is a troubled place, our homes are where we turn for support, comfort, safety, and now just about everything else.
◼️ May — DC and I engaged in the great pool debate. The landscape design for our yard came in two versions, with pool and without. We had to choose. I looked at the pool rendering longingly. That cool aqua rectangle sure was seductive. I welcomed the idea of dipping into a cool patch of blue on a hot summer night. DC did not.
“I’ve had a pool. I don’t want a pool,” he said.
“I’ve had a pool, too. I would love a pool,” I said.
“They’re sunk money.”
“They’re liquid joy.”
Arms crossed. Backs turned. Heels ground in. I surveyed my readers. The votes were split. I did the math, which was sobering. The cost of putting in a pool, plus maintenance, heating, insurance and repairs, over 10 years, divided by 20 swims a year came down to $400 a dip. No number of poolside margaritas would help me wash that down.
Lesson: The most cost-effective way to get a pool is to buy a house that already has one.
◼️ June — I met a young couple who put a new spin on the tiny house trend. Motivated by the desire to own their home outright and travel with ease, Hannah and Ian Hernandez bought a school bus and converted it into a tiny house, or “skoolie” as they’re called by a growing group of bus converters. To turn the bus into a home for their young family, they gutted the inside, insulated the walls, added electrical wiring, paneled the ceiling, installed sinks, a shower, a composting toilet, a stove, a refrigerator, and cabinets, to create a 35-foot-long home on wheels.
Lesson: “Living small doesn’t mean doing without,” Hannah said. “It means forcing yourself to look at everything you own and asking whether it can serve more than one purpose.” Regardless of the size of your space, that’s a good mantra for all of us.
Join me next week for a roundup of lessons from the year’s second half.
Marni Jameson is the author of five home and lifestyle books, including “Downsizing the Family Home — What to Save, What to Let Go” and “Downsizing the Blended Home — When Two Households Become One”.