Though the four walls have not shifted, my bedroom is not the same place it was in January. The most obvious changes result from my bedroom’s no-longer-new second purpose: home office. My desk dominates one wall, holding two screens, assorted to-do lists, and an ever-growing stack of mail. 

But I made other changes this year more out of desire than necessity. I hung images of mountains and shooting stars on the walls. I rolled a long, patterned rug over the chipped floorboards. And by the window I set a reading chair, the same chair I curled into this evening to write. Little by little, I’ve tried to make my space a place I want to be—filled with my books, my memories, my beloved colors of blue and orange. 

The Big Orange Splot begins with a seagull, a row of identical houses, and a can of bright orange paint. When the seagull drops the can (no one knows why), the paint splashes all over Mr. Plumbean’s roof. The neighborhood is no longer a matching set. But Mr. Plumbean quite likes the look of the orange splot, and he decides to keep it. My house is me, and I am it, he declares. My house is where I like to be, and it looks like all my dreams.

Two of my housemates have moved out this year, one in June and one last month. A brand-new housemate moved in last weekend. With every change, the house gained or lost the evidence of their habits—the coffee pot on the countertop, the yoga mat in the hallway, the book on the side table. When you live with others, you live with tangible reminders of their stories, the things they have accumulated over their lifetimes. Together, our likes, dislikes, routines, and schedules cobble together an identity for a shared space. 

When Mr. Plumbean’s neighbors discover his remodeling project, they can’t believe his insanity. Mr. Plumbean has added even more colors beyond orange to the house: red, green, blue, yellow, all the shades of the rainbow. He has planted palm trees and baobabs, and he has bought hammocks and (gasp!) alligators. At last the neighbors convince the man next door to talk some sense into Mr. Plumbean. Instead the man spends the night sipping lemonade and talking about his dreams with Mr. Plumbean. The next morning, a red-and-yellow ship has appeared next to Mr. Plumbean’s jungle. 

When I asked my housemate whether we could go crazy with Christmas decorations this year, she quickly told me that she had been daydreaming about the same plan. Last year we put up a small Christmas tree. This year we decorated the tree, then made garlands, bunting, and a front-door wreath. We’ve drunk wassail and hot cocoa from festive mugs, we’ve watched silly Hallmark romances and heartwarming family adventures, and we’ve streamed virtual concerts in gaudy sweaters. If we’re going to be in this space every day, if this December will be a quieter month than ever before, we might as well make it feel special.

As time passes, the rest of Mr. Plumbean’s street begins to realize that conformity isn’t much fun. One by one, new houses emerge as the neighbors talk about their dreams. A castle. A Grecian temple. A hot-air balloon. 

As I write about the joy of colors and coziness, I can’t ignore the cost of these projects. Buying new rugs, new bedspreads, new art for my home has helped my sanity, but not my budget. I know that—many times, for many people—function has to come before form. I know that most DIY shows aim for audiences with disposable time and money to spend on updating a home. But I also believe that the impulse to enrich spaces doesn’t just switch on at a certain income bracket. Century after century, humans have painted their bodies with colors, coaxed music out of plants, and cooked meals with wonderful aromas. Even if we can only afford to grasp onto a tiny, tiny piece of goodness, we will find ways to cling to that shard. 

By the end of The Big Orange Splot, outsiders can’t help but gawk at Mr. Plumbean’s neighborhood. This is not a neat street, they say. The residents smile in response: Our street is us, and we are it. Our street is where we like to be, and it looks like all our dreams.

I hardly ever see the wreath on my own door. I usually enter the house through the back door, and I rarely linger on the front porch during the winter months. I dart in and out for walks, and I dash in and out to grab the mail. When I hung the wreath on the door, when I strung cranberry-orange garlands from the windows, I joked that I was decorating the house for the delivery workers and the dog walkers. Watching the street from my bedroom window, I find that the joke is more true than I thought. 

But when I look in another direction, I can see the lights of the tree in the window across the street. Unless that household spends their evenings in the entryway, I doubt that they see that tree much at all. Maybe they placed it there for us—for their neighbors.

5 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I LOVED The Big Orange Splot as a kid, and I love how you tie it to your life today. I’ve taken so much joy out of enjoying the neighbors’ decorations, and also making my new house feel like home. Thanks for sharing about how you’re making this time joyful.

    Reply
  2. Cotter Koopman

    Thanks for this—I’m glad at not alone, fixated on roommate microcosms and neighborliness so much lately

    Reply
  3. Avatar

    I forgot all about The Big Orange Splot until you mentioned it, but I remember reading it as an elementary schooler and thinking YES. What a delightful rumination of the value of creativity and comfort, and letting our spaces look like US as a way to invite others in -literally and figuratively. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  4. Alex Johnson

    This piece does what great writing does: magnify the ordinary, bring the beautiful bits of life into sharper clarity. As someone who doesn’t love decorating (my family isn’t putting up their tree until I come home), it’s definitely been lovely to see how other people celebrate the season. I love even more how you honor the life that gets “cobbled” together when young adults live together. Housemates rule!

    Reply
  5. Kyric Koning

    Whew. What a lovely title and concept. Its thorough appearance within the piece really ties it all together nicely. Delightfully written.

    Reply

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