Every afternoon, as long as the sun is shining, my upstairs hallway fills up with tiny rainbows. For an hour or so, they bounce around, illuminating various objects and corners, making the space feel alive.
The rainbows are a result of two suncatchers — an $8 buy that’s proven far more rewarding than other online purchases I’ve made on a whim in the past. I bought the prisms in an attempt to reintroduce a bit of happiness into my home. So far, it’s worked. The joy I’ve gotten from these afternoon rainbows feels something like renewal.
Home has always been a place that’s brought me joy. For years, I had a blog (RIP, Oakdale Onward) where I’d document various home improvements and house-related updates. I loved thinking about things like paint colors and clever uses for small spaces. I devoured other home blogs and scoured decor magazines for inspiration. I’d even mentally “walk” through room after room of my house, thinking about what I’d like to work on next, as a way to relax on nights when I was having trouble sleeping. I loved each of the houses I lived in, and always relished the challenge of moving to a new place and making it feel like home.
After Jamie died, my relationship with home became more complicated. A place that once brought me comfort and happiness was now a painful and difficult reminder of what once was and would never be. Because I spent a lot of time alone in grief, I was grateful for my house as a retreat, but resentful of how quiet and lifeless it felt. I struggled — and still do, sometimes — with whether home was a place that held fond memories or represented a broken future.
The house I live in now, which Jamie and I bought together, is a 1920s two-story bungalow. I’ve gone back and forth on whether I want to sell it and move, or stay put. My house gets lots of light, has a big porch, and is located in a beautiful neighborhood. It has problems like any other old home, but it also has the charm and character you don’t find in newer constructions. I get along with my neighbors, walk most everywhere, and have an affordable mortgage. Most signs point towards staying put, save for one big question: Can this house ever feel joyful again?
In her book “Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness,” Ingrid Fetell Lee explains that we often think of joy as something we find, but that it’s also something we can make. “Every human being is born with the capacity for joy,” Lee writes. “Like the pilot light in your stove, it still burns within you even if you haven’t turned on the burners in a while.”
For at least a year after Jamie’s death, it felt like my pilot light was extinguished for good. That seemed especially true whenever I thought about my house. Something that was once a source of happiness, creativity, and comfort for me now felt like a giant burden. Whereas in the past, I’d map out DIY projects for fun, I instead focused my efforts on two areas decidedly devoid of joy: purging items, and keeping the house as clean as possible.
Normally, I would revel in those activities; I’m one of those bizarre people who actually finds cleaning and decluttering to be enjoyable and stress-reducing. But in my grief, I approached those tasks in a single-minded, depressing way: The only certainty in life is that we are going to die. That means, when I die, someone will have to deal with my house. Therefore, I should keep it incredibly clean and organized.
Instead of considering what home-related choices would make me feel better, I focused on how I could make someone else’s life less miserable.
As it turns out, there’s a name for what I was doing: Swedish death cleaning. It’s a smart concept, but I was approaching it in a masochistic way. My decluttering also looked similar to what cleaning guru Marie Kondo preaches, except I skipped the important step of asking whether objects “sparked joy” for me. Because I was in so much pain, the answer would have been a bleak and hollow “nope.”
I’ve now lived longer in this house without Jamie than with him. Whereas Jamie and I would zoom through house projects together, I’m moving much more carefully and deliberately these days. Some of that is due to the fact that I no longer have my handyman husband to work alongside. It’s also due to the fact that house updates are more complicated than they used to be. What was once exciting — let’s paint over this ugly wall color! — is now bittersweet — am I ready to paint over a wall color that reminds me of Jamie?
Now my partner lives with me, and we’re slowly but surely figuring out how to make this house a place that feels more like ours. It’s a delicate process that requires a lot of patience, empathy, and mindfulness. I’m doing less obsessive cleaning and purging lately, and I’m starting to feel my decorating interests return. Instead of following trends or chasing deals, like I may have done in the past, I’m now trying to base my decor decisions on a central question: Would this bring me joy?
Lee’s book, which I recently finished, focuses on the aesthetics of joy — specifically, how to create environments that make us feel happy. From the most joyful shapes (circles) and colors (yellow, when used sparingly), to elements of surprise (sparkle and glitter) and harmony (patterns and balance), Lee uses science and design expertise to illustrate how to incorporate joy into your everyday surroundings. As I read the book, I felt increasingly confident that, yes, my home can feel joyful again.
My joyful choices lately include framing photos of recent happy memories, buying plants that require attention and care, and collecting sweet-smelling candles and incense. It’s planning to paint a barstool I rescued from the side of the road a cheerful, bright color, instead of a “safe,” muted gray. And, of course, it’s hanging suncatchers that scatter tiny rainbows across the room.
I bought the suncatchers before I read “Joyful,” so I was thrilled to discover Lee’s description of prisms and suncatchers as objects of magic — an aesthetic of joy she devotes an entire chapter to. “In the cult of productivity and efficiency that rules our waking hours, magic seems like a luxury, much like daydreaming or play. But far from being a diversion, it’s often a catalyst for discovery,” she writes.
It seems especially fitting, then, that the hallway rainbows, appear around 5:30 p.m. these days. They’ve become an unofficial signal that my workday is winding to a close, and it’s time to turn my attention to something else.
“The joy we find in magic stems from a deeper impulse toward the expansion of the mind and the improvement of the human condition,” Lee explains. “At the root of our love of rainbows, comets, and fireflies is a small reservoir of belief that the world is bigger and more amazing than we ever dreamed it could be.”
At this point, the hallway rainbows have become fairly predictable. Still, I delight in seeing them, gasping as if they weren’t bouncing around the same spot just 24 hours earlier. For me, those tiny rainbows represent a tiny moment of magic, a reminder that my pilot light is still burning.
Good job, brain
I'm reading: “How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” by Jenny Odell. I started this book on a flight to Phoenix, headed for a journalism leadership workshop that includes a jam-packed schedule with minimal free time. The irony is not lost on me.
I’m inspired by: The excellent Creative Mornings talk I attended last week on social justice. (The video isn’t up yet, but should be available by the end of this week!)
I'm aiming to: Battle the extreme imposter syndrome I’m feeling while coaching at this workshop.
It’s hard to talk about joy at home without mentioning Marie Kondo. This article does a nice job of explaining what’s special about her approach to decluttering.
If you, like me, find cleaning to be enjoyable, you might enjoy Jolie Kerr’s podcast, Ask a Clean Person. And if you, like me, suffer from anxiety and/or depression, you might appreciate this episode on cleaning and mental health.
My original house blog obsession was Young House Love (and one of my earliest career wins was convincing them to send in an iReport to CNN). They’ve since leveled up with a podcast, beach rentals, and an incredible amount of Instagram Story updates.
For your sweet dumb brain
Before incorporating things that bring joy into your home, you first need to figure out what makes you happy. In the next week or so (maybe on the plane ride back home!), I’m planning to find some time to fill out Sarah Von Bargen’s happiness workbook. Why don’t you join me?
This newsletter is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, whose joy-filled decorating skills I’ve long admired.