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Get Your House in Order

Working on my home (house), often puts my work “house” in order as well. The bunkbed recently arrived to fill what will be my nephews’ room in their grandfather’s house. While the goal was born a desire for equal treatment, since my niece already has a room, it is, upon reflection, more than that.

Almost five years ago, I wrote the blog post entitled, “How Grocery Shopping for Guests is like Development Work”. In it I explored the difficulties when preparation for ‘others’ is just extra stuff you want. This post was inspired by the second visit my sister-in-law made to our family farmhouse in Wisconsin. That comparison had been an easy one to make from ten years of development work in Guatemala that had left me less than enchanted with the process of program implementation. While the two themes are related, the reflections hours of organizing, discarding and sneezing provided recently was more related to the preparation aspect, in other words programming development. This is a task I live daily in my work “house” since I am still relatively new to that position.

I had worked on home improvements since returning from Guatemala five years ago, but I had been more determined since I was hired at the aforementioned job because it provided more funding. It had been my niece’s fresh wallpaper and ornate daybed had started the conversation.

“She needs to know she belongs here,” I had told my dad when I asked for a space as a birthday gift.

My dad adored the floral wallpaper and daybed that appeared though doubted the relevance of the act of shoving a desk and unused encyclopedia set into his bedroom after the five year old’s next visit. She rarely slept in the bed, choosing instead to sleep with her parents in the room next door. Still, for months afterward and to this day, she would ask to see ‘her room’ during video chats. She would request my read alouds to take place perched atop the shabby chic bedspread. The room had not met her where she was at in terms of use, but she had identified with the space as her own and wanted to explore the options further, even if they were not what ‘we’ had envisioned.

Fast forward two years into this past summer just after a recent visit to Israel. I met the second of my two nephews. After returning from the trip, I was battling the feeling of post work from home and sought a meaningful project. My dad had prepared a hallway I had my eye on previously, but instead I dove into the most forgotten closet in the house, not realizing the scope of what I was doing.

The space had remained out of our attention spans for as long as I could remember. It was a catch all, overflow space attached to my own room. Its walls held much of my past, even the chapters that belonged to family members who I barely knew. Yet, the history had not been paid much thought. The work required an examination of many layers of past choices.

My mother’s college notebooks.

VHS tapes, mostly romances, from adolescent and college years I wanted to forget.

My brother’s audiocassettes and stuffed animals.

Dusty books, Bobbsey Twins to Bibles, with relatives’ names inscribed inside.

Bedding. Toys. Broken frames.

Old shoes and lamps.

The space held history, but which pieces preserved enough for those with lived memory no longer alive and those alive with no memory?

In those first weeks, I was still not planning a room for my nephews. I was simply putting my own house in order. It wasn’t until I recognized I could understand and order the past in a way that held meaning and yet was small enough to make room for new voices that the idea of the new bedroom took shape. I looked back and forth at this closet and the room that had served as a playroom. I could combine the toys, leaving my grandfather’s childhood bedroom for my nephews’ room. So, how does this relate to the ordering of my work “house”? A key focus at work is entitled expanding access. If the program implementation I experienced in Guatemala asked participants to make room for us, expanding access in my hometown was the opposite. It required our programming examine itself and make room for those who had previously not been made to feel as though they fit.

Below are the reasons bunkbeds were the answer to expanding access:

1) For my niece and nephews, the spaces needed to be completely opened up and provide an acceptable foundation prior to initiating the engagement within it. Some basic items were allowed to remain with a few adaptations. For example, we repainted a child’s chair. The toy chest remained, but the toys inside were changed so that they were specific to my nephews versus general overflow.

2) Some items must be shifted from original audiences to actual intended audiences. For example, I moved curtains around three rooms until I found the appropriate colors and styles. While I had them all along, they were not in most appropriate places. The pillows atop the toy chest were shifted to my niece’s room, where they accent the color in an unexpected and fun way. She also received the flowing, whimsical curtain that had been in the once playroom. This means that the act of seeing the space through new eyes provided a benefit to the other rooms as well. The boys received a beloved curtain that had no other pair but matched their floor perfectly. The boys retained the cushion atop the toy chest so that they had extra seating

3) The need for the bedroom to be to be completely cleared required me to take a hard look at the history before me, what was still relevant, what needed to go, and most importantly, understand why I was at peace with certain items that went. For example, we had held onto many novels my mom once bought. It was difficult to recycle even the moldy ones, but the reality was if she was still alive, she herself would likely have donated them years ago. The remaining items needed to tell my family’s story and illustrate the house’s story, but in a synthesized, coherent narrative. These items and their history were still relevant, just not all the time. These items and their history still had value but with an intentional frame. Program components and curriculum are no different.

4) Finally, the rebuilding of the empty space asked for analysis of what would make the most sense for my nephews specifically. A bunkbed was practical, no doubt, but I had the final option of twin over twin or twin over full, something I would have never known simply googling online with my limited knowledge. I wasn’t an expert. I sought ‘experts’ both with my family and mothers I knew who had multiple sons. I made my selection based on feedback. While it included the boys specifically in a new way, it made room and sense for all. It would be fun, for all three children who love to climb. The full mattress on the bottom bunk would provide extra sleep space, even for adults and valued the children’s habit of sleeping together. Moreover, for my benefit, the expanse of the larger bedframe underneath provided storage.

5) And then, I did the hardest part. I prepared to wait. Wait for the bed to arrive and be assembled. Wait for the health danger to lessen. Wait to buy pillows and bedspreads that I wanted desperately but that would take on dog hair and scent the moment I purchased them. Wait for my family to attempt an international trip with three small children. The waiting would be as difficult as what I had already done.

So, when I sit on gray, seemingly empty program days staring at a blinking computer screen, I believe in the value of the time it takes to understand the stories behind the current clutter in the office basement and the waiting gaps on my office shelf. I close my eyes and see the glossy brown reflection off the wood posts, the breeze of a barely cracked window rippling the curtain into a world expanded. And, it’s only the beginning of rolling up our sleeves to get our houses in order.


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