As you would expect, the house was immaculate. Fresh coats of paint, bookshelves tastefully decorated with a handful of books and a few well-chosen knick-knacks. A large mirror placed here, a small, attractive rug placed there. A child-sized table and two chairs by the window, suggesting a creative space for the kids.
The house looked beautiful - bright and spacious, with no clutter, no toys or shoes underfoot, no sign of the family dog. I know it’s a trick of the business. You don’t notice the lack of storage when the shelves are only partly filled. The kitchen doesn’t seem quite as small when you aren’t tripping over the dog’s water and food bowls. And as potential buyers, we want to imagine we will live in something out of a magazine.
On our way out, we stepped out onto the side porch, which looks directly out onto our driveway and barn - our 19th century barn which really just wants to lie down and rest after all these years. I couldn’t help but notice the rotting split rail fence that’s only half standing and the pile of rocks waiting to be incorporated into our half-built stone wall. My eyes also took in the peeling paint and the broken window panes that adorn the barn.
Heading across the driveway and back inside my own house, I nearly tripped over the multiple pairs of shoes next to the door. I looked into the family room where kid-number-two was lying on the couch with his pillow, down for the count with a fever. I took in the laundry basket of unfolded clothes, the chess board and its knocked-over pieces, random socks that someone had taken off and left balled up on the floor. In addition to the sluggish body of an eleven year old, the couch was home to a pile of books, a discarded baseball cap, a few unidentifiable wrappers and a heap of blankets that had been cozy to snuggle under early in the morning. I noticed more books scattered on the floor, a pair of pajamas that someone had taken off in front of the fireplace, earbuds, a charging cord and some cardboard packaging that the cats had been playing in the day before.
Home, sweet home.
I would love to suggest that our house happens to be a bit of a mess today - that tends to happen when everyone’s been home all weekend and when someone’s camped out sick on the couch. But the reality is that unless it’s the day I’ve decided to vacuum, this is how things normally look. Counters are cluttered with stuff coming in and stuff going out. Pairs of shoes and boots intermingle on the floor, waiting for their next trip outside. Sweatshirts and backpacks hang from doorknobs - I’m not sure why they can’t seem to quite make it all the way into the closet.
There’s part of me that would love to get rid of the clutter, put each thing back in it’s place and create a home environment equal to a full page spread in This Old House magazine.
But I would be creating an illusion. And I don’t think I can actually live in that illusion.
What is the point of an art table if the kids aren’t allowed to use paint or markers that might mark up the tabletop or get on the floor? If I have to put three quarters of my books into storage in the attic so that the bookshelves look uncluttered and spacious, what’s the point of having those books?
We are barraged by messages of illusion every day. “Here is what perfect looks like,” magazines, social media feeds, and television images seem to shout at us. And not just about the perfect living space: how to be the perfect spouse, how to have the perfect body, how to find the perfect career...the list goes on and on.
It’s no wonder we find ourselves striving and striving. But to what end? The goalposts keep moving because the goals are illusionary.
Perhaps instead of striving, we should choose thriving. We can have a thriving house that feels welcoming and very much lived in. We can have thriving relationships that are grounded in love and communication rather than pleasing others or playing a part.
“Hi, Mom!” kid-number-three shouts as he barrels in the door, just home from baseball practice. He expertly kicks off his cleats by the door, zig-zags past me and jumps into the pile of blankets on the couch.
“We worked hard, Mom. I’m beat,” he tells me. “Is it too early to put my feeties back on?” I see him eyeing the pajamas on the floor.
“Well, a bath might be a good idea. I bet you did a lot of diving and sliding on the baseball field,” I reply.
“Nah. Who needs to be perfectly clean?”
It’s a rhetorical question he poses, though I’m not sure he knows what that is.
Before I know it, he is curled up on the couch in his pajamas, reaching for one of the books on the floor. “This is the life,” he says with sigh.
Yes, I think, it is.
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