A sign I pass several days per week really irritates me. It’s an advertisement by Alterna Savings on the main level of the building I work in – for loans, I guess? I don’t even know, because I don’t want to dignify it with a detailed look. It says “your living room shouldn’t look lived-in.” For one thing, the ad is playing on a weakness common to many people – the desire for shiny, new, different, perfect. For another, the ad is implying that your living room (and, by extension, everything else in your home) is an exhibit. A thing to look at and admire rather than use and enjoy.
Our living room is a lovely place to be. It’s got two big, comfy couches and a blue armchair. None of them match. The armchair is a little rickety. We don’t know how old it is; it was salvaged from the area surrounding the dumpster in the basement of the building I lived in 13 years ago. I have always hoped that nobody died in it …. In spite of its dubious origins, it’s a favourite of Ryan, and his father, too, when he visits. People who like to sit in corners like this armchair – it is placed just-so. You can see everything that’s going on but you can’t necessarily be spotted right away yourself. We bought the checkered couch shortly after we were married. The arms of the couch are somewhat smudged from fingers covered in oil, chocolate and newsprint, and the cushions can no longer be turned over to hide stains – the stains are on both sides. The cushions are a little woolly. But that couch gives me amazing naps. Sleep has never come easy to me, but – for some reason – that couch embraces my body and eases my mind. The red couch is enormous. We bought it when we moved to our current house. It’s a bit too big for the living room, and almost got sent back to the furniture store, but then we warmed to it. It’s got plenty of room to lounge, to stretch out – and plenty of room for several people to squeeze in. There are lots of plants for the daytime and candles for the evening. A big window lets in generous pools of sunshine during the day and features a glowing street at night. There is a scuffed set of coffee and end tables. There’s a fireplace with a cracked grate and at least one loose tile. There’s a battered piano and an overflowing bookshelf. Several drawers stuffed with craft supplies, and a well-scribbled set of table and two chairs, for when inspiration strikes one of our budding artists. It’s definitely lived-in – in the best way. When we are there, we feel a richness Alterna Savings wouldn’t understand.
The terribly frightening, sad stories coming out of northern Alberta over the past few days does nothing to lesson my ire with that sign. Nearly 90,000 people made a harrowing escape from the burning city of Fort McMurray, with flames leaping behind and alongside them, taking with them only what they could fit in their vehicles. None of the survivors interviewed appear to have mentioned what’s new and expensive. They’re talking about the parks where their children played, gardens, photos, wedding dresses and baptism gowns and baby booties, World’s Best Dad mugs, homemade birthday cards with crooked lettering, beloved views and trails, church picnics, school plays. Memories, lived-in and loved ragged. Watching their painful ordeal, feeling the heavy loss of what these people will never get back, has given my own life a sudden preciousness. It has given that sign a heightened vulgarity.
Today, I attended a choral celebration. Several elementary school choirs came together to sing for their teachers and families at Notre Dame High School’s auditorium. Bridget and her choir have been practising for weeks for this. As with any children’s performance, there were lows. Two choirs appeared to be composed entirely of tone-deaf kids, in fact. But there was so much heart in each school’s offering – and there was a wonderful feeling in the air. At the end, all the choirs joined in singing “Dona Nobis Pacem” and “It’s a Small World”. Every surface in the auditorium is scuffed and scratched, and the chairs don’t match. Like every high school I’ve ever been in, it smells like sneakers, hormones and dust. But the music, and the sight of all those earnest, happy faces, filled me with joy. I was lifted to a higher place. My eyes welled with tears and I let them fall unchecked. As I drove home along the lumpy spring pavement, past sidewalks with weeds pushing through the cracks and construction and graffiti, and pulled in next to my scruffy lawn, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of my lived-in life. I wouldn’t want it any other way.