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Lessons Learned from 2019 — Part 1



In keeping with tradition, at the end of every year, I look back on columns I’ve written, the roads we’ve traveled on the way to better living, and pull out my favorite lessons, one from every month. Here’s the cream, the findings that, by my lights, rose to the top from the first six months of 2019.


In JANUARY, a little bird reminded me that great design starts with a spark. I was decorating a kid’s guestroom for the youngest members of the family, an upstairs room with an A-frame ceiling, and wanted the room to feel enchanted. I didn’t want to just furnish it. So when I came across an arched wooden headboard with a hand-carved bird perched on the edge, the room’s design took flight. The bird looked as if it had just flown in the window to add a touch of whimsy. I ordered two headboards, one for each twin bed. And the room became the stuff of dreams.


Lesson: If you don’t have a spark, wait. Don’t decorate. Anyone can furnish a room that functions, but you can always tell the inspired rooms from the ones where someone just got furniture that did the job.


In FEBRUARY, during Valentine’s week, I wrote about love, and one secret that keeps love alive at home. Love is, after all, what brings us home, keeps us home, and usually why we have a home. Love is why we cook, clean, and decorate. Sure, your home should look good, but, more important, it should make you feel better than anywhere else. And that has to do with what happens inside.


Lesson: Practice the 52 Rule every day. It works like this. Many couples see their roles as 50/50 partnerships. When Partner A gets annoyed, he or she pulls back to 48 percent, and waits for Partner B to lean in. This bugs Partner B, who also starts giving only 48. The 4 percent gap is where the love-eaters (tension and resentment) live.


However, if both partners give 52, not 50 or 48 , when they both step up, when she empties the dishwasher though it’s his turn, when he makes the bed though she usually does, when he brings her car home washed and full of gas, when she knows he has a jammed day and packs his favorite lunch — they create not a gap but a grace zone where grudges can’t live. And that puts the sweet in home.


In MARCH, I discovered what our need to cling to stuff and archeology have in common. I came across a book by Ian Hodder, archaeologist and professor of anthropology at Stanford University, titled “Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships Between Humans and Things.” I rang him right up. “A dependency on objects, which has been going on for some 2.5 million years, lies at the at the heart of humanity,” he said. This made me feel better about my purse addiction. “The first items we attached to were tools that helped us build houses or get food,” he said.


“Then items became important socially, as they became markers of identity and status.” Not much has changed there. Just as I was concluding that we’re all pretty pathetic, Hodder pointed out the upside: Our entanglement with stuff is the basis of our survival and success.


Lesson: Hmmm. While not a license to hoard, knowing this we can feel less guilty about our attachment to material things: After all, it’s only human.


In APRIL, I found that that my blended, colorful, crazy-quilt family is not only common, it’s the norm. In America, the intact, biologically bonded, mother-father-and-child family is not the rule. The recoupled family is, said Dr. Jeannette Lofas, founder of The Stepfamily Foundation. “Today, 60 percent of families live in some form of divorced or stepfamily relationship,” she said, a family in which one or both partners have children from a prior marriage.


But what I wanted to learn – and did – was the role that home design plays in the new normal.


Lesson: Whether they say so or not, the question kids in blended families need answered is where do I fit in? How you decorate shows kids — regardless, of whether they live with you full time, part time or just visit — their place in the new normal. If you are at the helm of one of these households, show the kids through home design how, where and that they fit in.


In MAY, I was happy to discover that the best flower shop might just be in your own backyard. I read Clare Nolan’s book, In Bloom: Growing, Harvesting, and Arranging Homegrown Flowers All Year Round, and called her. “When you buy flowers at the store, the flowers are all at the same stage,” Nolan said. “With garden flowers, you can mix buds with open blossoms and replicate what is happening in nature. Flowers from the yard often have a little crazy wiggle, or a bug-nibbled leaf, which adds a bit of magic.”


Lesson: Using your backyard as your flower shop is cheaper, more convenient, more personal, and less perfect — in a good way. To achieve a naturalistic style, mix a bud with a full bloom. Snip not only flowers, but also fronds, grasses, and branches. And be disruptive. Don’t make a symmetrical arrangement. “Add a little quirk,” by pulling a few smaller flowers so they stick out.


In JUNE, a drawing my brother made of the Happier Yellow House led me to discover what every home should have, and mine didn’t. My neighbor Ellen Prague, a stationery consultant, told me every house needs a stationery wardrobe, a set of personalized letterhead and note cards, with printed envelopes. Then, using the house drawing as a starting point, she helped me build my wardrobe.


Lesson: “Your home’s stationery is your connection to society,” Prague said, “your home’s handshake to the world.” More than that, the art of writing and sending handwritten correspondence is part of gracious living.


We’ve gone from love and archaeology to blended families and household stationery, and we’ve only gone through the first six months. Join me next week for a round-up of lessons from 2019’s second half.


CAPTION: Grow your own — If you’re looking to cultivate a more naturalistic look and to move past the too-perfect, stiff florist flowers, the best flower shop may be your own yard. Photo courtesy of Clare Nolan.

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