I have missed the point. For years, I have written about gracious living, and thought I knew what it meant. Not that gracious living is an art I have mastered. Donkeys will fly first. But it is the nirvana toward which I clumsily travel, in halting steps, like the last-place contestant in a three-legged race.
In my wrong-headed pursuit of gracious living I have for yeeeeaaaarrrrs doggedly chased the vision of a pristine, tranquil home, well-appointed and orderly, always ready to host guests with spotless stemware and pressed linens, a home that would entertain and feed effortlessly, and where the niceties of daily living — fresh flowers, towel sets tied in blue satin ribbons — were ever present and universally shared by all who lived there, even the dogs, who would never think of licking themselves in public.
I am wrong. Gracious living is not about trying to get the perfect the luster; it’s about living with grace.
Now don’t worry. I’m not going to go all biblical here. But earlier this month this connection hit me like a champagne cork in the forehead.
Since both my children went off to college, my youngest just last fall, I’ve been living alone and much more neatly, a way of life that rather suits the Miss Picky Pants in me. But last week my older daughter came home to visit for a week — with her boyfriend. This was kind of like having one of those Chinese lantern fireworks — the kind that spin unpredictably and whistle and throw colored sparks and raise general chaos — go off in the house.
However, and now you’re going to think I’ve started taking calm-down medication, which I haven’t, I actually liked it.
Finding the peanut butter smears on the counter, the shoes strewn under the table, the counter stools willy-nilly not straightened up in military fashion, the disheveled towels, the beds made cattywampus, the dishes in the sink, and the empty milk carton in the fridge gave me a smarmy, warm feeling.
I liked these signs of life because it meant not only that the kids were home, but also that they were at home.
And it made me rethink the definition of a gracious home, which I now realize is a place where people want to be. The aim isn’t beautiful, though that’s nice; the aim is welcoming.
See, I didn’t lower my bar. I got a different bar. While I used to focus on the surface qualities of a gracious home, now, I care more about the inner qualities. (I hope this doesn’t just mean I’m getting old.)
At the heart of the word gracious is the word grace. Both words come from the same Latin root, “gratia,” unexpected or unmerited favor. Grace is kindness when the opposite could be warranted. To experience grace is to receive kindness we don't deserve.
We’ve all seen grace’s more common opposite: The gonzo mom who screams at her kids in the store, the customer who is rude to the waiter or sales clerk, the motorist impatient with the slow person in the crosswalk, the red-faced soccer dad chewing out the referee. The world needs less of that.
Grace starts at home. You can’t have a gracious home without grace.
I grew up in a home that, while not fancy, was full of grace. This past week made me think back on all the times I received unmerited kindness. Here is a small sampling, and a start:
Once, as a teen, I left a cone of incense burning on the Formica counter in my bathroom. It left a permanent brown scar. Though harsh words were called for, they didn’t come. My mother smoothed it all over with a flower sticker.
When attempting to sew a bathing suit, I cut out the pattern on my cotton eyelet bedspread. I didn’t notice that the scissor tip had gotten caught in an eyelet hole, causing me to cut out a second pair of bikini bottoms – from the bedspread. Mom spread a comforter strategically over the mishap.
As a younger girl, I went with my family to have dinner at my dad’s boss’ house, where I played billiards for the first time. I made a quick turn while holding the pool cue and snapped it in two. Without missing a beat, my dad’s boss said, “That cue always made the worst shots. I’m glad to be done with it!” And he squired it ceremoniously to the trash.
That is grace, my friends. You can have the most beautiful home in the world, but if you bristle when someone spills a drink, the dog soils the rug, the kids make bike tracks on the lawn or get popcorn grease on the sofa, you, too, have missed the point.
So the next time the neighbor kid’s baseball goes through your window, the dog waters the Christmas tree, you find cat barf in your shoe, your kids trail beach sand across the floor or do a chin-ups on the towel bar, please, remember grace.
Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Ad Capo Press). Contact her through www.marnijames.com.