Design for Life: Give Me Shelter

Renew your body and refresh your mind with a little R&R.


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“And every warrior Must have some rest, A little peace So she can do her best.”

—Meg Christian, “I Wish You Well”

I don’t need to tell you we’re living in tough times. It’s hard to avoid distressing news, whether it’s war, changing weather patterns, or mutant frogs in a nearby lake. While we actively respond to the crises at hand, we also must remember to renew and restore ourselves. When the situation is urgent, it’s easy to burn out in the interest of better days to come. Yet we are only truly effective when we keep ourselves strong, flexible and hopeful. Sometimes that requires focusing on our own needs right now.

The best way to renew ourselves is not by escaping the world, but by reuniting with the realms that sustain us. For most of us, that means nature and spirit.

After September 11, I was a classic case of walking Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: I was in shock, depressed, and spacey; I had trouble sleeping and couldn’t focus on work or other tasks. I lived in a state of psychic grunge for at least two weeks before deciding that I needed to restore my nerves. My boy-friend and I decided to get away for the weekend to a funky little resort on a lake—with clean, clear water and no powerboats. Our first afternoon there, I floated on my back on an inflatable raft, looking up at the sky, rocking gently on the water, feeling the sun on my skin, and delighting in the songs of the birds. I began to breathe deeply again. My skin tingled with subtle vitality. As I came back to life, I cried at my reunion with Mother Earth.

That night we sat on the dock, surrounded by gently lapping water and tree-covered hills, gazing up at the stars. Suddenly I knew in my whole being that there was something much bigger and more loving than whatever insanity was going on in our human world. I knew that I could go on, and I knew that my allegiance was to the spirit of life that unites us all.

Develop self-nurturing

Sometimes we need to leave home and go to less-tamed places to have these experiences. But we can also create healing havens at home. While I was at the lake, my neighbor Linda Ross found healing in her garden. “In the awful weeks after September 11,” she said, “I spent lots of time in my garden. I drew tremendous solace from the song of the sparrow. Despite all the horror, there is so much comfort in the creatures and the plants—in Creation. And I firmly believe that whoever tends the green things says a prayer. It’s a way to the sacred, the transcendent.”

September 11 was an acute shock, but ongoing world events create a more insidious stress as we become accustomed to a chronic state of horror. Our ability to respond sanely depends on developing self-nurturing habits.

Is there a place in your home or yard where you can let go, relax, and renew your awareness of transcendent, loving oneness? It doesn’t take much to create such a place.

Another friend created an oasis in her Victorian home, in a linen closet off the upstairs hallway, about four feet deep and seven feet wide with a window looking onto the garden. She put a mattress covered in dark-blue silk on the floor and arrayed lavender and blue pillows all around. On the walls and sloping ceiling she painted a veritable Milky Way of stars on a lavender-blue sky. Cream-colored sheer curtains frame the window. This cozy space is a meditation room, a healing retreat, and a coveted spot for overnight guests, who awake there feeling renewed.

Creating sacred space

Your can create your healing retreat —a garden, a teahouse, a room—or you can claim one that already exists—a window seat, a rock by a stream. Your haven can be a balcony with potted plants and a wind chime, a hot tub surrounded by lavender, a bedroom where you have banished all distractions, or a comforter you roll up in like a cocoon. It needn’t even be a particular place; it can be an experience you recreate each time you need it, like a candlelight bubble bath with fresh flowers and Mozart.

There are no rules about how to create a personal haven, but consider incorporating some of these features (let your heart and your gut guide you):

• A gateway or marked entry to set it aside as sacred

• Privacy (freedom from interruptions and demands)

• A place to rest (a bed, hammock, comfortable stool)

• Calming colors

• Curved shapes

• Soft textures

• Plants

• Objects of beauty

• Simplicity, absence of clutter

• Soothing sounds (birdsong, moving water, music, wind chimes)

• Sunlight or soft, warm electric light

• Pleasing scents

• The four elements: air, earth (the ground, stones), water (in a bowl, fountain, or body of water), fire (sun, candles, a fire)

• A long vista, if there’s a pleasant one available

• Symbols of calm, transcendence, love, nourishment (hearts, stars, sun, moon, angels, personal treasures)

You deserve it

If you are like most people, the hardest part isn’t finding or creating a sanctuary; it’s believing that you deserve to spend time there. We tend to be so overwhelmed with demands that time taken away from meeting them feels like time wasted. We somehow learned that doing something just because it feels good is detrimental to others. Question these assumptions.

In fact, great inspiration, beautiful works of art, and profound love arise from the experience of unstructured time. In quiet, we can hear our muses and feel our passions. Here we can dream freely and drink from the deep well of our source. The peace we find carries into all our actions and relationships. What better gift can we give the world?

Carol Venolia is an architect, author of Healing Environments: Your Guide to Indoor Well-Being (Celestial Arts, 1988), and former publisher of Building with Nature Newsletter. She invites you to share your experiences with her at