Book group last week was once again, most excellent. We read chapter three of Making Home by Sharon Astyk and finished early enough that we were also able to discuss it. The chapter was about creating a working home as opposed to a showcase home. You know what a showcase home looks like. We see them featured in Better Homes and Gardens and House Beautiful. We watch HGTV and Martha Stewart for tips and ideas. The houses are immaculate, the color and arrangement of everything so perfectly right, nothing is out of place, there is no clutter, no pet hair, no dirty dishes in the sink or stains on the carpet, everything looks brand new or fashionably antique and expensive. So very expensive. Most of us don’t have homes that look like this nor can we afford them. But that doesn’t keep us from imagining ourselves into one or trying to emulate the look and effects on a more affordable scale.

For Astyk, there is something inherently wrong about a showcase home from the perspective of sustainability and a post-fossil fuel economy. Because a showcase home is a home that does nothing but consume resources, not just in time and money but also in material and energy costs. A showcase home is not an earth friendly sustainable home. We need to try and change our mindset of what constitutes beautiful.

And so Astyk proposes the idea of the working a home. A working home is a home that is lived in. There are muddy boots on the mat and scratches in the wood floor. There are buckets of tomatoes sitting on the kitchen counter waiting to be canned — no expensive arty ceramic bowls with perfect fruit no one is actually going to eat. There are things happening in a working home because people spend time there, cooking, gardening, working on projects of all kinds, living.

It is not that one can’t pay attention to beautiful things in a working home, but that more often than not, the beautiful things are useful and functional things too. A working home is one that serves our needs rather than a home that we serve.

The group discussion was very much a confession of “I feel guilty because…” as we all talked about our homes and their very un-showcase qualities from the garden tools scattered everywhere to the dandelions and prairie plants in the front yard, from the patchwork quilt in progress on the dining room table to the kid’s toys spread around the living room. We all admitted to apologizing to people “for the mess” or having a cleaning frenzy before inviting people over, hiding as much evidence as possible that we actually live in our homes and do things there.

We also talked about how we’ve gotten better at not feeling guilty, how we’ve learned to see beauty in unexpected places and wished we could get our neighbors to see it too. And we talked about how we’ve stopped inviting into our homes the people who are offended by how far away they are from the centerfold of House Beautiful. Nonetheless, we still have lingering doubts and worries about not being “normal.” It’s ok and only natural. But it is worthwhile to keep swimming upstream against the cultural current that tries to convince us we should be striving for a house that is merely inhabited rather than lived in.