Shavin: Renovation is the art of making rooms in order to make room

Facebook just fed me a memory from five years ago. It was a picture of my kitchen undergoing renovations. The cabinet doors were off. The tile splashguard had been removed, exposing a swath of bare, unpainted wall. The counter was littered with random tools and hills of sawdust.

I showed the picture to my husband, who almost passed out. In the time since launching that renovation project and now, we have sold that house, built another house from the ground up, sold that house, bought another house, and are in the midst of a kitchen renovation that is, at its current stage, eerily identical to the one on Facebook.

Thanks Facebook, for reminding us who we really are: two people who can’t live somewhere over the span of a gnat’s life without ripping out what’s perfectly functional or otherwise abandoning the place completely.

The thing is, I don’t even feel all that dissatisfied with my digs prior to embarking on the renovations — or moves — that yank precious hunks of time out from under my days. It’s just a thing my husband and I do, much like an art project. Because once we see possibilities, we can’t unsee them. We have to make them a reality.

Or maybe that’s not it at all. Repeated home renovation might be, like overindulgence in plastic surgery, a way for my husband and me to deny a certain finality. After all, once you have bought the house, moved into the house, unpacked the boxes, put the wooden goat on the dining room table and hung the painting of the snarling dog, what’s left to do except sit on the new gold velvet sofa you bought for the new parlor and stare at the person to whom you have been married since before you yourselves needed renovations?

Maybe this is why we keep looking around, wondering what could be improved upon, what big or little restoration might divert attention away from the fact that all that’s left to do in a home in which nothing is left to do is just live until you die.

I have a good friend who loved nothing more than to slice into her existing house and modify and add rooms. Some had egress to other rooms; some were only accessible by way of a hidden staircase. Maybe in finding new ways to cut open our house, we think we can reach in to the gap we’ve created and pull out possibilities previously overlooked. Maybe this will expand our world, or our thinking, or we’ll discover new aspects of ourselves. Maybe one day we’ll open a door to the attic and find ourselves on the cinematic threshold of John Malkovich’s brain. It’s been said that with the right contractor, anything is possible.

In “House as a Mirror of Self,” Clare Cooper Marcus writes that, in the process of building his home on Lake Zurich, psychologist Carl Jung said he wished to “put the knowledge of the contents of his unconscious into solid form” — i.e. to build a house that would be a representation of his own consciousness. Over 12 years’ time, the house grew from a primitive one-story dwelling, almost like a hut, to a four-part, multistory home with a courtyard and terrace. Twenty years after “finishing” the house, he finished it again, adding a central tower, which, he would explain, was “an extension of self-consciousness achieved in old age.” This part of the house Jung could not have built earlier, because it represented a facet of his consciousness he had to grow into.

Which brings me back to my kitchens. How I seem to be ever chiseling away at their façade, repurposing cabinet doors, shuffling appliances, replacing countertops. This is the place where so much life with my husband happens, where meals spring to life, where we entertained prior to COVID, where a beloved assembly of dogs circle and pine for their meals. It was in a similar room 40 years ago where my struggles with anorexia sprung to life and would play out over many decades. In short, my kitchen is an ever-changing room that has brought joy and heartache, seen upheaval and friendship, and sowed sorrow and comfort.

Maybe we do renovate to fend off inertia, or boredom, or the inevitable. But maybe we also do it in anticipation of who we are becoming. Maybe, just maybe, we make rooms to make room.

Dana Shavin is a national award-winning humor columnist and the author of a memoir, “The Body Tourist.” Email her at [email protected] and follow her on Facebook at Dana Shavin Writes.

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Dana Shavin

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