Pulling sheets off furniture, pushing curtains open, dispelling the chill of a long-closed room with a new-laid fire – these are commonplaces in period dramas on television. Getting a guest room ready on a BBC production makes for good theatre. In a few well-choreographed seconds, the clear message is given of the arrival of something or someone after a long absence.
When Mr. Rochester returns to Thornfield Hall, for example, the new governess Jane Eyre witnesses the energy of the household staff preparing the venerable mansion for his arrival. Something is happening – or happening again – after a length of time during which the hope of something happening had languished.
If I am honest with myself, a guest room was not common in the homes I visited as a child. When I saw one and knew it for what it was, I was usually in the home of married relatives without children. The order and the neatness of the room were not inviting. I could tell that something was missing that was natural in my own home, simple and few though the rooms were. Space in the home where I grew up was never without its practical use and its appointed caretaker.
So there is no easy explaining the comfort I derived once I left home and entered seminary and over the years had the frequent occasion of being assigned still another room where I could hang my clothes and make my bed for a night, for a week of retreat, for a semester in graduate studies.
There was something satisfyingly adult about being entrusted with the mismatched hangers in a strange closet, the scratchy facecloth and bed linens, the walls beyond which I might hear someone else making a space his own for a night, for a week of retreat, for a semester in graduate studies.
For the first five years I lived in my present apartment, I allowed one room with all the makings of a fine guest room to languish. It began and remained a place where random accumulation happened – happened with such regularity that it took a week each summer to restore order and to find enough manila folders to file away bank statements and insurance policies, gas bills and lab results.
Last summer I met a friend whose recent cancer surgery made travel difficult for a while. If he could not count on finding a place where he could rest during visits to friends, he wisely kept his ventures closer to home. I discovered in those circumstances a motivation I had needed for five years -- I would finally do what I had vowed to do from the first April I watched springtime sun flooding my apartment.
I emptied. I cleaned. I purchased a guest bed. I introduced my cat to still another place where she could feign ownership and autonomy.
I learned another way to mark the turnings of the years by making space for others.