I have not been outside in four days. Thursday I started renovating my entry hall, and the detail mania took over: no sooner did I take out the curtains, they needed to be washed; the curtain rods needed cleaning, the casement needed to be painted, the windows needed to be windexed, the screens scrubbed of spider webs and bug cocoons. So much need! The space between window and screen had become a hotbed of dust and insect activity over the past few years – perhaps because the window is warmer in the winter and its cavity protects from rain and wind. I have no idea how all these bugs got behind the screen…. The window, the screen, the sill, the curtains: all wanted attention, all needed to be wiped and washed and touched. And this was just the little window corner of my entry hall. There was so much more to go. Thursday morning I opened Pandora’s Box, and I slaved for four 12 hour days to put everything back into it, just cleaner and more orderly.
We usually think of things as the backdrop of our lives, the silent participants who are at hand and make no demands. But that is not what things are. They are demanding presences, encroaching entities. “Things people our soul”, as the child psychologist Langeveld has said. Things demand care and attention. They want to be touched and placed. They have friends among other things, like the clique of picture frames on the side table or the dyad of chair and reading lamp in the corner. Yet despite their affinities, each thing also wants to have a space around it where it can remain separate and unique and demand our sole attention. It wants to step out of the background of other things just once a while, even though mostly it is content to be part of the larger, receding volumes around the specific outline of figural objects. Japanese aesthetics knows this: too many things, too many lines, and we cannot appreciate each one. Our attention can only hold a few appearances at once. Too many, and it skips around like a flea on the floor in search of a warm body.
My German grandmother used to say: “Jedes Ding hat seinen Ort, tu es hin und zwar sofort”, “Everything has its own place, put it there right away”. When I was young I disparaged this proverb since it seemed to express the excessive demand for orderliness of a Hausfrau. But having lived with things for a long time, I have to agree with my grandmother. Every thing has its place in the spatial web, and if it gets misplaced from there it will be in the way somewhere else: it will jar our perception, it will trip under our feet, it will be lost when we need it and sometimes forever. The central idea of Feng Shui is that things and their relationships with each other have a psychological reality which stresses or relaxes, clarifies or confuses, comforts or stresses us. The ancient Chinese knew that paying attention to the psychological, “energetic” order of things makes for a much better home life.
My entry hall is clean and painted antique red, white, and tricorn black. It looks as if it had wanted these Napoleonic colors all along (my house in Pittsburgh has the crazy idea that it wants to be French. No, not me. I am German…). I have found that after a really good design job I am not surprised and vowed about the effect a room has. Rather, I have a quiet sense of déjà vu: the house has dreamed to be this and I became its tool. We both knew this all along. I was only too self-important, too human, to recognize that things themselves have intentionality.
Looking at the walls, contemplating the space, planning color, repairing the stairs, cleaning all surfaces, painting the ceiling, giving my hands and my body to the obsessive call of things until I forget to eat and for three nights fall exhausted into my bed – all this went into the work. The best we can do as creative, artistic people is to return things to their proper relationship with each other and make their order visible. Beauty is not in the surface of paint, color, and texture, but in the relation that all things in a space have with each other. And once we have lent our bodies and minds to the order of things, it allows us to dwell in a living place that surrounds and embraces us, or, as the Lakota greeting says: “walk in balance and beauty.”