“Things get bad for all of us, almost continually, and what we do under the constant stress reveals who/what we are.” In his posthumous collection, What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire, poet Charles Bukowski encapsulated an all too familiar manifesto for growing old.
What nearly kills us strengthens us. What we lose brings into clear focus what we have. Clichés for living through the middle distance that, like all clichés, have become worn and ubiquitous because they are true.
I reunited with a friend and former student recently who literally walked out of the smoke and ash in June of 2012 when her home in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood of Colorado Springs burned to the ground during the Waldo Canyon Fire. Susan, a single mother who had raised her two kids in that home with its access to open spaces and close-up vistas of the Front Range, was left with just what she could grab and stuff into her car in the rushed evacuation. She joined the club of more than 300 households that nobody wanted to be a member of, those whose homes were destroyed by that wildfire, at the time the most destructive in the state’s history.
Aerial before and after photos on the Denver Post web site showed orderly cul de sacs surrounded by patches of green, reduced to scorched earth with pits of crumbled building materials where houses once stood.
Susan moved to the center of town with her beloved dog and began the work of making a new life. In an email, she told me that, in the midst of this violent material loss, combined with empty nesting, the loss of a sibling, and the absence of meaningful work, she lost herself for a time.
“But with some much needed time off,” she said, “some soul searching, some research, some study and some testing and practicing, I’m back.”
Her new work and life venture is something she calls Soul Style Home, an approach to creating and appreciating spaces of beauty in our homes that are engendered from the inside out. In other words, rather than approaching interior decorating as a synthesis of color, textures and artifacts imposed on a room according to formal design principles and costly remodeling, Susan’s method involves understanding home as an expression of ourselves and the things we love.
Her own unique sense of home is evident on her web site: bright colors, eclectic collections, and vibrant affection for interior spaces. A recent blog post titled “Blaming the House” captures her philosophy of soul style. Reflecting on the deficiencies of the 1948 rental house she’s settled into, compared to the home she made and lost in Mountain Shadows, she laments her inability to make major changes but celebrates the possibilities of turning one corner, one wall, into a soul space:
“Our house complaints may be well deserved, but on those days when they seem especially glaring, consider this: home is a mirror of self.
… At some point, you have to stop arguing with everything that’s wrong — the lack of storage space, the room’s insanely awkward configuration …— and just grow love for some of the imperfection.
… Creating a home isn’t a one-and-done venture — it’s a long and winding adventure. Sometimes you have no idea where you’re going. Sometimes you get to a place of surprising delight. Along the way, the scenery shifts. Don’t let imperfections get in your way of the view.”
When Susan lost her house and everything in it, she lost her life story: in the folds of her mother’s wedding dress, in her books, in the furniture she’d carried from a grandmother’s basement to a college apartment to her family home, in the rooms where her children grew up. Now she’s rewriting it in an imperfect rented space with furniture and art and textiles and humor and sorrow and wit and work and a well-tempered eye for beauty.
In the poem, “How Is Your Heart,” Bukowski reflects on waking up in darkness:
… to walk across the floor
to an old dresser with a
- see myself, ugly,
grinning at it all.
What matters most is
how well you walk through the fire.”
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.