“Come in,” Julie invited.
I hadn’t planned to stay, or even step past the welcome mat. This was purely a stop, drop, and run kind of errand. Well, okay, more like a stop, wrestle the big, bulky infant ExerSaucer I no longer needed and couldn’t remember how to collapse out of our Nissan Quest, and drag it to the door kind of mission. But otherwise, I’d intended to make it quick.
You see, we were in the process of uprooting our lives from the purple mountains majesty of the Colorado Rockies to the windblown suburbs of Chicago. In less than two weeks, we’d bid farewell to a season that hadn’t lasted as long as we’d hoped.
Yet, as I weighed Julie’s invitation against my to-do list, suddenly packing the linen closet didn’t seem so pressing. There was something about her – a woman I’d met only once before – that made me want to come in.
As I set my coat and keys down in the entryway, I surveyed my new surroundings. Rich wall colors complemented by neutral, shabby chic furniture greeted me. It was clear that careful planning had gone into the framing and hanging of pictures and wall ornaments. The house exuded warmth – just like Julie.
But that wasn’t all I noticed. While it was beautifully decorated, it was also “lived in.”
Sleeping bags and pillows lay strewn across the living room floor, indicators of a previous night’s sleep over; I could almost hear the little girl giggles and secret-telling that took place. Breakfast dishes lingered in the sink. Piles of children’s books sat in a corner. Here and there a doll or a truck lay where playtime took a pause.
And you know what I felt? At ease.
Keeping It Real
Julie taught me a valuable lesson that day when she asked me in. A house doesn’t have to be “perfect” – whether that’s perfectly clean or perfectly organized or perfectly decorated -- to be inviting. In fact, I’ve come to realize that the less perfect my house is, the more at ease new friends feel. As they see me being relaxed and able to admit I don’t have it all together, they can do the same. Sure, I want to show them respect by keeping the bathroom sanitary and the kitchen free of crumbs. But it doesn’t have to be as perfect or sterile as a builder’s model home.
It’s been a journey for me, though – and honestly, one I still struggle with at times.
For years, my perfectionist-leaning self didn’t have the nerve to invite guests into a messy house. No, that went against every grain of my typical Type-A, first-born daughter personality. You know, over-achieving, can’t sit still, and a bit high-strung.
While my fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants husband loved unexpected drop-ins, my stress-level immediately sky-rocketed. I liked planned visits. I needed at least 24 hours to clean; 48 to 72 were even better. It had to look perfect. Sometimes I’d even mop all the wood floors in the house before a big party, even though cleaning them after 25 pairs of shoes invaded would be more productive in the long run.
I’ve had to discover that I can focus so much on how I “look” to others, that I fail to see what really matters. Instead of presenting myself in an approachable way, I often put all my energy into proving myself. It’s like I have a checklist of their unasked questions that I hope to answer with my spotless house:
Is she a good mother? Well, the toy cabinet is organized, she must be.
Is she a good wife? The pillows on her couch are perfectly arranged, I’d say “yes.”
Is she a good homemaker? Look at that wood floor, it shines! How can she not be?
In the end though, this mentality breeds competition and masks, not vulnerability. Think about it: Where would you expect to find the more casual and authentic conversation – in The Middle’s Mike and Frankie Heck’s living room or in a Downton Abbey parlor?
Life Is Messy
When my house looks lived-in, it allows me to be more “me” when I have guests over. That doesn’t mean I just let it all fall apart. Because, the truth is, there’s a difference between a “lived in” house and a cluttered house. I’ve been in both. A cluttered house leaves me feeling claustrophobic, eager to leave. A lived in house makes me feel welcome; like I’m an old friend who needs no pretenses.
It’s been those times that I’ve opened up my home when the floor is covered in Legos, and the dishes are caked in leftover spaghetti, that I’ve had some of the best conversations. After all, real life is messy. And maybe a house that’s a bit messy helps others feel it’s okay to be vulnerable with their own mess too.
I’m realizing that just like I didn’t care that my friend Julie’s house still had sleeping bags on the floor, most of the people I welcome into mine don’t care if crayons have taken over the dining room table. They can glance around and say, “She’s not perfect either.”
And as I learned with Julie, often that’s the beginning of, to quote Bogart, “a beautiful friendship.”
Ashleigh Slater (www.ashleighslater.com) is the founder and editor of Ungrind, an online magazine churning out encouragement for Christian Women. As a freelance writer, her articles have appeared in print and online in publications including Marriage Partnership, Thriving Family, MOMSense, Crosswalk, Guideposts' Angels on Earth, Clubhouse, Jr., and David C. Cook's Family Currents Newsletter. She currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband Ted and four daughters. You can follow her on Twitter @ashslater.