Sunday, September 28, 2008

Making Room for Writers

The Guardian has been doing a series on writers' rooms since 2007. The most recent essay features Jonthan Bate, but there are others of note: Roald Dahl, Martin Amis, Penelope Lively. For a country known for naming their houses, these "portraits where authors create" reaffirms our need for a hospitable home, whether we work in or out of them. For those who aren't lucky enough (the grass is always greener) to work from home consider Estée Lauder's philosophy on the work place: "You spend so much time in the office, you might as well make it like a home."

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Deep Clean

I've been accused of being overly organized. That's why I loose things sometimes. However what I have never been accused of -- not at least since I was a teenager -- is having a dirty house. Messy is one thing (a state of being that one friend says is evidence of a productive person), but filth is another.

As I've mentioned before, I grew up in a family of six kids. While I would have to hunt for the homework mom moved off the kitchen table in a mess of book bags, papers, and other ephemera of youth, our home was always clean. Last week, I spent a few days before my friend's visit doing what my friend Clarissa, who is doing the same thing at her place in anticipation of her dad's arrival, dubbed the "deep clean." It is usually is a day-long, though sometimes longer, affair in which afterwards the house resembles something out of a catalog.

I am thinking about this a lot lately with the arrival of presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain. In addition to the town rolling out the red carpet, they've brought out the vacuum. While Oxford is one of the more cleaner places I lived, it's especially tidy this week. A clean house, like a clean town makes everyone feel good.

Just one more reason to wash that dish...

Monday, September 22, 2008

In the Pink

A house of this size can be remade in a short period of time. I moved in the middle of August and set to work on reinventing my space with a September 20 deadline in mind. Of course, the interior of a house is alive as much as its structure, so I anticipate some changes over the next year. For now, here she is.

Open House

When, if after moving into a new place you need a little fire to quickly get things in order, throw a housewarming party. It worked for me anyway. Not only did I host a party last Friday, but I welcomed my first out-of-town guest, a friend from Alabama. (So there was even more added pressure to find a place for my 50th pair of shoes.)

According to an etymological website, the origin of the word housewarming comes from the word huswermynge, first mentioned in an English monastic record from about 1150. Back then, it literally meant "heating a house." In 1577 it was believed to be first used metaphorically: "The Shomakers [shoe makers] of London, having builded a newe Hall, made a royall feast for theire frends, which they call their howse warming"

There was no royal feast at Pierce Avenue, just some kitsch food and a handful of friends. A recovering-addict of the dinner party (for which I have little time these days), it took a minute for me to get used to people in my house. Then I remembered how nice it was to hear the person across from me talking. Apparently, the gathering of people in homes is more historical than we realize. Before there were bars, people congregated at the homes of their friends to socialize, not just to party. Homes were the not the private places they represent today. The significance of an invitation into someone's home is a relatively new phenomenon; in the past, it was the only way to conduct business or simply find out about the weather.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Homework with Jack Pendarvis

Jack Pendarvis lives a block over from me. While I probably wouldn't knock on his door to borrow some sugar, I still consider him a neighbor because we live near each other and we socially interact.*

Jack is a writer, in fact, a very good one. He spent a lot of time at home writing his recent novel Awesome, as well as his previous collections of short stories, Your Body Is Changing and The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure. I'm not doing anything new by interviewing Jack about home. In the last two decades at least three books have been written about writers and their homes. Last year, there was even a fictional book by Brock Clarke (The Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England) that juxtaposed the words writer and home in its title. Writers worked from home long before there was such a thing as telecommuting.

So why interview another writer? It's possible that our idea of home changes over time. What meant one thing to Faulkner, may mean another to Jack.

MW: Where is "home" for you?
JP: Wherever Theresa is. And some cats.

MW: People seem to exist via their computers. Do you think the idea of
home is over-rated these days?
JP: Homes are nice. I doubt anyone who doesn't have one would say they're overrated!

MW: While you were a John Grisham Visiting Writer last year you lived in the Seymour Lawrence house, which is just down the street from Faulkner's house at Rowan Oak. What was it like living there? You mentioned to me once before that you were relieved to get everything out of storage.
JP: It's strange living in someone else's house. But it's fun going through someone else's stuff!

MW: What do you think makes a home "southern"? Or, is there even such a thing?
JP: I have never been big on this whole "Southern" thing - you know, the thing you have to put in quotation marks. I am Southern. I've always lived here. There are many Southern things I love - particularly some music and some books - but I don't love them BECAUSE they're Southern. I guess what makes our home Southern is all the chicken-on-a-stick bags that drunken college students toss into our yard every night on their way home from somewhere.

MW: Is there something unusual in your household that will never see the light of day at a yard sale?
JP: I like going to yard sales but I'm disappointed if there are no books. Enraged, even! Where are the books??? I don't think I'd ever like to participate in a yard sale on the other end of it, though. I guess I'm a big old hypocrite! It's hard for me to throw things out. When Theresa and I first lived in the same place, she cleaned out a drawer and found candy bar wrappers for candy bars that didn't even exist anymore, that's how old these candy bar wrappers were. And this was after I had told her that I wasn't going to clean out the drawer because I "only save important things."

MW: And finally, can you describe a favorite room in your house?
JP: We bought what we thought of as a dining room table but at some point we realized that it was the tiniest table ever made. It sort of precludes the possibility of a dinner party. But we have grown to love the little table! It sits in the middle of a room and the room echoes because the tiny table does not absorb sound, I guess. I'm no physicist! Well, it looks nice sitting there all tiny. And there are bookshelves looming and some nice paintings in that room, including a slightly ominous but finally comforting "Ghost Dog" by Jimmy Lee Sudduth. Cats like to sit in that room and look out of windows. All in all, a pleasant room.



I wonder what my neighbor, Jack Pendarvis, thinks about home?

There's No Place Like Home

According to Bill McKibben's book Deep Economy, sociologists have found that people have ten times as many interactions with others at a farmer's market compared to interactions at the supermarket. Oxford is a little different. It's a small town, so I can count on running into at least two people I know at the grocery store. Last weekend, while out at the Taylor Farmer's Market I spoke with more than ten people, and I not just to ask the price of canned okra or fried peach pies.

Just a short walk west things were quieter. There, beside an idyllic community event, was an empty housing development. At a distance, the houses provided an almost Hollywood backdrop for the farmer's market. It called to mind The Truman Show, but it also reminded me of Celebration, Florida, the Disney "imagineered" town near Mickey Mouse HQ. When I started walking around the neighborhood, the eeriness lingered. No one seemed to be living there. Many people were against the development from the start. Finally realized, it's an unusual sight in the center of a quaint, quiet town that's in the middle of nowhere.

How is it that this has happened in the community of Taylor? At breakfast the next day, I heard some theories from a local resident, but since this isn't a blog proffering ill will, I'll leave them out. What I can say -- and what appears to be the heart of the matter -- is that a community's identity has been threatened. Seeing these homes recalled the part in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy's house lands in Oz. Like that house, they don't fit the scene.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Real Blueprint?

This morning I am off to Taylor, Mississippi, to check out the town's much-buzzed about farmer's market. What's also luring me to the community is Southern Living Magazine's recent selection of a home design in a development there as an "Idea House." What exactly does that mean? What do they look like? I'll post some pictures so those of us in the South can get a clue on how we are supposed to be living.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Dabbling with Drew

I just got off the phone with printmaker, Andrew Blanchard. He was telling me about his new work, which features homes in his nearby Spartanburg, SC. I've been a fan of Blanchard's work since I met him when I was an undergraduate studying printmaking at the University of Mississippi. He was finishing his MFA in Printmaking. Since then, I've amassed a nice collection of his prints, which fill the walls of my living room/office and kitchen. Each print documents transition in his life: from new love to marriage, then a move to Chicago, and finally, setting up home.

Next week, I'll interview Blanchard about one of the prints he recently finished...

What are you clinging to?

A poet friend gave me a copy of The Poetics of Space by French philosopher Gaston Bachelard. It's subtitle "The Classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Spaces" made me add it to my reading list. Far from Martha Stewart's Living, it can be a dense read at times, but worth it all the same. Although Bachelard does not address homes in a regional setting, through exploration of space, he creates a model for understanding the role of homes in our lives. You need this foundation to de-construct Southern spaces.

Bachelard asserts that "...[T]he house we were born in has engraved within us the hierarchy of various functions of inhabiting. We are the diagram of the functions of inhabiting that particular house, and all the other houses are but variations on a fundamental theme."

Exhibit A: Pierce Avenue, Home #10

My childhood room was mauve. I chose it mostly because I liked the way the word pressed through my lips. G.I. Joes formed my coterie of playmates, not Barbies.

Later, in my teen years, I went to the dark side and painted my room mid-night blue. The house at Pierce Avenue is the first place since then where I applied paint (in a color other than white) to the walls. Is painting the interior of my house pink a return to my youth -- a time I especially would have considered my Innocence?

Bachelard would say yes. He would also say that if we look at the artifacts in our homes, we will find vestiges of the past. In my own home there are several startling examples evoking the past. A chandelier above my dining table (a modern, and inexpensive, Ikea version) recalls the one that hung defunct in the dusty corner of my parents bedroom, vintage cameras speak of my father who dabbled as an amateur photographer, Japanese tschochkies and a tea service mimic the ones I played with that my father brought home from Asia; and there are other more subtle things, such as the way I prefer the lighting in my home: from corner lamps, not overhead.

In the same way Southern homes, oftentimes considered "traditional" with their contents that allude to another period of time, are reclaiming -- or perhaps clinging -- to the past. What are you clinging to?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Redefining the Home

What is a “home”?

Home and house are not interchangeable words. The words “origin,” “center,” “cared for,” “comfortable,” and “relaxed” are among the terms used to define the term home. All of these words convey a mental state of being, rather than one that is physical. The definition of house corresponds to a particular kind of structure. To demonstrate the best use of both words: One can make a home in a house. (One could also make their home in their car, office, or perhaps even the street, but as I will argue later, a home must be a place where one is capable of feeling comfort, and it is unlikely that the aforementioned dwellings can offer such a thing.)

With the paint dried on my walls and my boxes unpacked, I am beginning to feel like I have a home. Before I moved in, 1402 Pierce was my friend Alysson’s house, and though she has a keen sense of style, few vestiges of her remain. She left me her mattress (as a favor), a pair of red carved wood wall shelves, and a 1960s high-seated red chair. I kept the bedroom blue, but added pink to the walls in bathroom, and a shade of celadon to the kitchen. Sometimes I think Allyson is going to appear with a tray of macaroons, like the ones she made last spring, and offer me some. I wonder when her presence will go away, or if it ever will.