“And all at once, summer collapsed into fall,” Oscar Wilde wrote, and, indeed, rain and cooler weather has suddenly descended on the Puget Sound region.
And so, after staring at our walls (and bad carpet and dated cabinets) for the past six months, we’re about to spend even more time indoors. We need to figure out how to love again — love our own homes, that is.
So we reached out to Erica Bauermeister, the Port Townsend-based author of “House Lessons: Renovating a Life,” which came out in March, for her thoughts on rekindling the romance with our spaces. The former Seattleite painstakingly (and sometimes painfully) renovated her house from a dilapidated structure into her family’s dream home, chronicling the lessons she learned about both construction and family in her new book.
Here are some of those lessons, as well as smaller tips for making your dwelling a space of refuge as the weather turns, an election looms and the pandemic drags on.
Q: What does your house mean to you right now?
A: My husband and I were talking the other day about how many things had to happen for us to end up in this house at this time. We had to find a house we weren’t looking for and commit to a huge project we had no time to do. We had to get rid of 7.5 tons of trash, take down chimneys and sledgehammer walls, pull out truckloads of ivy from the garden.
Later, we hung on to the house, even when it made no sense to do so. But we did all that because we loved this place from the first moment we saw it; decrepit as it was. We feel so very lucky to be here now, in a house whose very layout encourages us to feel healthy and creative and generous.
Q: You moved from Seattle to Port Townsend. What are the pros and cons of being in a smaller place versus a big city?
A: Prior to this, I’d always lived in a big city, and I wasn’t sure how a small town would feel, but I love it. I love being in a place where one person’s efforts can really make a difference. I love being able to walk to everything, and the connected relationship people here have with nature.
And sure, the saying holds: “If nobody knows the trouble you’ve seen, you’ve never lived in a small town.” But I love knowing my neighbors, and the farmers who grow the produce at our farmer’s market, and the wonderful bookstore and movie theater and restaurant owners. There’s an autonomy to a smaller town that is both exciting and comforting.
Q: We are six months and counting from the start of lockdown. Though some things have shifted, we’re still largely homebound. How are you creating connection to home and your family during this time?
A: It hasn’t been easy. We’re adapting, renovating as it were. We talk to our new granddaughter on FaceTime. We Zoom a lot. As an author, I’ve been talking with a lot of book clubs on Zoom, and I love how many of them have been formed since the pandemic started as a way for friends and family to connect.
As for our house — well, we turned our eyes outside. My husband and I spent the month of August building a pergola/arbor off our guest room. We figured we’d need an outdoor space that might extend our ability to gather-with-distance into the fall. It’s been impressive seeing all the creativity with outdoor spaces that’s been going on around us too.
Q: DIY projects are a great option for this moment. What do you recommend? And what about for people in smaller spaces and apartments?
A: With winter approaching, this is a great time to think about making spaces that make you feel happy and creative. If you don’t have room for a separate office or studio, try dedicating a corner of a room or part of a closet. Make sure your chair is comfortable and paint the wall a color that makes you feel good.
If you don’t have a corner, you can just take a shelf and turn it into a dream space. Put up photos of people you can’t be with right now, places you want to travel to in the future. We have a book-nook halfway up our stairs. That’s where I put all my research books for future novels, and every time I go up the stairs, I see them waiting for me. It’s a subliminal nudge, but it works.
And then there’s kitchens. We’re all spending a lot more time cooking, and this is a great time to make it more enjoyable. Creating workstations is an easy DIY project. I have all the things I need to bake in one pull-out drawer in a lower cabinet. In five seconds, I can take out everything I need for cookies; it’s a real incentive to bake.
Q: It can be important to have things to look forward to. When we reach a post-pandemic world, what do you look forward to transforming next in your home?
A: Our son just got engaged and he wants to get married out here in Port Townsend. So I’m looking forward to transforming our backyard into a magical place to celebrate. It’s kind of funny — we built the pergola for the pandemic, but now we’ll use it for a wedding, which is exactly what has happened over and over with this house. We thought we were doing something for one reason, and then it turned out there was a surprising, even better, reason later — which I suppose is a good lesson in learning to trust your gut.
Q: You mention superstitions in your book when it comes to building a house. During this time, I’m wondering what are little good luck rituals or objects one should keep around their house or garden?
A: I love the tradition of painting a porch ceiling blue. Not just because it’s supposed to ward off evil spirits, but because it makes you look up and feel happy as you walk into a house.
But I’m also a firm believer in making your own traditions and rituals (and maybe even luck). The thing about good luck rituals is that they give us a feeling of power and control over our world — so how about making a photo wall of strong people you know? Or putting a particular object on a shelf, and telling yourself that every time you see it, you’ll go hug your partner or child? Or having a nightly ritual of writing a letter to someone you love, or writing to a complete stranger and encouraging them to vote? It’s the belief that matters.
Q: You talk about the relationship between design and societal roles in the home in your book. How has being homebound shifted chores and roles for the house? Do you have any hacks for those unpleasant chores?
A: It’s actually been fascinating. My husband and I have been working on more house projects together than ever before, and I see our roles continuing to blur. The things we are working on are those small things that you might never have done if you weren’t stuck in your house, like putting shelves in a closet and turning it into a pantry. Or reorganizing the laundry room or painting the front steps. But it’s those little things that make a house feel truly loved.
As for the unpleasant house chores — well, I just suggest looking at it from your house’s point of view. Your house is being your friend right now, sheltering you in the midst of craziness. The least you can do to thank it is clean the toilet!
Q: Your book includes many great quotes. What is your favorite quote about home that resonates with you right now?
A: Right now, we’re having to be all about patience (and chores), so here’s one by Steward Brand from “How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They Are Built” that changed my thinking: “The romance of maintenance is that it has none … its joys are quiet ones. There is a certain higher calling in the steady tending to a ship, to a garden, to a building. One is participating in a deep, long life.”