Charlie and I were invited to our friend Ralph’s house the other day for dinner. Honestly, I’d had a rough day and a long week and wasn’t really in the mood for socializing, so I acted like a child for the short drive there. I’d never been to Ralph’s house before. I’d been told – by Ralph, himself – that it’s an unassuming, modified garage apartment in a fairly commercial area.
Now, that’s not the bill of goods we’re constantly sold by society, which pushes the limits on size, comfort, adornments, and possessions, not to mention location. But I know that for what it is – an excuse. It’s so easy to blame society for our attitudes and hard to hold ourselves accountable for our thoughts, isn’t it?
I suppose I’ve always sniffed at houses that didn’t fit society’s “Keeping Up With the Joneses” standards. I guess I’ve felt they weren’t spacious, not enviable, and probably not the kind of house I would strive for.
So we arrive; it’s after dark and we’re a good 20 minutes late when we walk through the tall, wooden gate into the postage stamp yard. I stop in my tracks. Were it summer, this would be an oasis. No lawn, but none is needed here. This is a courtyard with infinite breadth within its boundaries. There are planters along the high fence walls, silently awaiting spring and the riot of color they will sport. Just inside the gate is a pond that will, in the warmth of summer, bring a breath of fresh air on a hot day and reflect the stars at night. Further in are seats crying out for takers and sitting areas where conversations are just hanging in the air, awaiting warmer weather, lazy days, and sensuous nights. At the back edge is a gazebo, where a hot tub might find a home. This is no yard, I think. It’s more of a private Eden. Sitting here you couldn’t help but be mindful of the moment.
Now, I’m intrigued. I’m also starting to get that sick feeling in my gut that tells me I’m about to discover that I’ve been guilty of making assumptions. We open the door to what had once been a garage stall only to see a smartly tiled floor and a wall full of those glass blocks I have always coveted. Neatly parked inside is an office – not large but certainly efficient and cheerful, with lean lines and modern tastes. On the walls, we see photos. On shelves and in nooks and crannies are such a diverse collection of “things” – all of which hold real history and meaning.
Escorted by Gracie, the Jack Russell terrier, we climb the stairs, passing a window sill housing a brilliant blooming fuschia orchid. We emerge into a small, careful room split by a Corian-topped island/bar. One side hosts an incredibly efficient kitchen with just enough well-crafted cabinetry and gleaming stainless appliances to lend an Architectural Digest ambiance to a smartly spacious workspace. The other is understated, comfortable, soothing. Its vaulted ceiling lifts the room into spaciousness, and the sliding doors open to a triangular deck overlooking the alley and a parking lot and beyond that the busy four-lane road. I listen but hear nothing – there is no road noise entering this house. Even the lights of traffic and a few glowing business signs I see from my perch on the leather couch provide a big city feel.
Here, colors that catch the eye lead me to an amazing beveled glass window hanging on the wall. Had it not been clear glass, it would have dwarfed the room. As it is, it simply opens it up. On one of two window sills sits a grouping of family photographs, including several of serious-eyed Gracie.
Next to the doorway of the bedroom and loft is an old, faded metal fireplace cover – salvaged from his grandfather’s farmhouse, Ralph says proudly, and next to it a large circular mirror and an old dresser mirror, oddly shaped. Both are heavy. Both have histories. I look at Ralph as he talks about this group of treasures, and I smile, because his face is animated, alive, and filled with the joy he obviously finds in these treasures. And he hefts the most unique of all – a wonderfully large and fanciful iron doorknocker. I am instantly transported to Dickensian England and Scrooge’s home, or perhaps to the doors of some ancient French edifice adorned with matching gargoyles. His plan, he says, is to artistically place those four items on the wall, and he trots out a fistful of drawings and schematics, seeking input on his efforts. These things matter to him.
I can’t help but compare his excitement at finding new life for old objects with those who get excited about the next new “thing” while casually tossing out the not-yet-exhausted earlier version. There’s no comparison, of course. The latter attitude is left sadly wanting.
The soft, deep colors of the room speak more of New York lofts than of small Parkersburg houses. And the other rooms? The bedroom with its chocolate brown walls sighs with comfort, the bathroom turns upscale with its glass vessel sink (and more coveted glass blocks). Everywhere I turn I see photographs taken by Ralph’s daughter, exquisitely sophisticated in their black and white perfection. Clambering up the wall is a fire-escapish ladder in a screaming lime green that disappears in a younger space. The scribblings of high school students with sharpies turn the access and loft into an edgier space that overlooks the vaulted living room through its rehomed balustrade and assorted sculptures.
I am thoroughly humbled, if not chastened. I am visiting his house with the thought that it’s small, knowing he doesn’t have all the “things” we have and often take for granted.
I’ve enjoyed this evening immensely – the evening that started with my childlike behavior and is ending with me near tears at the lesson the universe chose to drive home. I leave with the blazing understanding that Ralph has far more than I have. He has created a space filled with history and character and welcome and all that’s truly important in the world. He has what he needs – simply, elegantly, and with no waste.
He is far richer than he knows. As I shut the gate behind me, this thought bubbles up: So many of us – myself included – are poor in many ways. Our society suggests that we need more, newer, better, bigger, stronger, faster doodads. We don’t, really. And we don’t have to buy into that, although it’s hard not to. What we need to do is be more mindful of the present and attentive to the past, and not let the world sweep us up in its whirlwind.
Ralph, I bow to you. Perhaps this year I can fully grasp what you seem to instinctively know. Less can be so much more. Looking for the perfect house – and by extension, the perfect job, the perfect relationship, the perfect vacation, the perfect anything – is an excuse. In this case, we can live in a house or a we can choose to create a home. Bigger and better only have meanings if we choose to give them meaning. If a house – or our judgment of a house – reflects our deepest values, many of us have some soul-searching to do.