In a stressful, noisy world, we want our homes to be places of peace that enclose and protect us—we want them to be private. Yet the balance between solitude and sociability is different for each of us. Can we build that balance into our homes, especially if we live with others? Of course we can. We just have to translate the elusive concept of privacy into the concrete dimensions of space and time.
Begin with an inventory of your days. A week’s cycle should reveal the rhythms of your life, the ebb and flow of time alone and with others. Where are the rhythms smooth and natural to your temperament? Where are they out of sync? This inventory should hold up a true mirror. It’s your best tool for redressing imbalances in the energy flow between yourself and the ripples of life around you.
Morning is a critical time for many of us when our bodies, minds, and spirits require solitude and quiet. Review your morning routine:
• Does the room you sleep in welcome you to the new day? Have you chosen the best room for awakening—sunny and east- or south-facing if you like lots of light, west- or north-facing if you’re a “burrower?”
• How well have you arranged your morning space? Is your wardrobe organized for ease of dressing? Is your bathroom convenient to your bedroom or dressing room?
• If your early morning includes meditation or an indoor exercise session, have you created a suitable place for it?
• Have you organized a pleasant, efficient place for breakfast?
It’s an irony of modern life that while many of us long for privacy, we rush away from the peace of our homes for large parts of the weekday.
• Could a part of your workday include time spent at home? With the advent of computers, the home office is a clear option for many. If you can’t spare an entire room, clearly delineate a well-organized space that’s off limits to everyone but you.
• If you’re home for all or part of the day, are you taking the best advantage of your freedom? Create the space and time for
gardening, reading, keeping your journal, exercising, meditating, needlework, or playing an instrument.
• How well do you respect your own privacy? If you schedule time during the day for yourself, do you guard that time? Is your answering machine turned on and your cell phone turned off? Many spiritual practices teach how to quiet and center ourselves to find and maintain the private realm. Those teachings are meant to be practiced every day.
Our evening hours are, for better or worse, less structured than they were a few decades ago. Times of family gathering have been encroached upon by a number of social changes. And because set times for sociability no longer exist, times for privacy are similarly blurred. Too many people equate their need for privacy with hiding, because their philosophies of privacy have never been thought through or implemented as a system of spaces and boundaries. A few questions to ask yourself about your evenings:
• If you work at home in the evening, is your time uninterrupted and is there an adequate work space?
• Have you done all you can to strengthen the social fabric of your home, so that times spent together with family and friends are planned and defined?
• Are the teenagers in your home the only people who have a clearly defined “room of their own” where a closed door really means do not enter?
• Do household members have sufficient audio and video equipment for listening and watching without intruding on others?
Of all the fine arts of privacy, the art of leisure is the most subtle. Unstructured time can easily be lost or encroached upon by activities that drain rather than nourish us. If you’ve been truthfully examining your weekdays, by now you’ll be more mindful of the conscious practice of privacy.
Bring that mindfulness to the most deeply personal part of your inventory of days. Ask yourself: Who are the most important people in my life? What is most important to me? In your answers you’ll find the best uses of your leisure time and you’ll target the most precious and private times of all:
• If you’re in a partnership, do you take time for the two of you alone?
• Do you plan time for your family? Children and young people are proud to have something they share with you alone. Let it be something they choose.
• What time do you make for friendship? A scheduled Saturday walk or a shared community garden space can nurture those relationships.
• Are you making time for the spirit? The tradition of sabbath, a day of rest for spiritual reflection and practice, has great power. Find time during the weekend for your spiritual needs.
The Bedroom Sanctum
The most neglected usable spaces in our homes are our bedrooms. Teenagers, with their mania for privacy, know this. Their rooms are often self-contained, multi-use wonderlands, whether or not their elders approve of the décor. The smallest changes in a bedroom can create wonderful depths of usable space. Consider any of these:
• A comfortable lounge chair or a chaise lounge. What is it about a chaise longue that spells luxury, peace, and quiet? There are so many beautiful styles—all of them like little islands of elegance.
• A little painted bookshelf (a perfect home project) or CD shelf and player.
• A loveseat at the foot of the bed with a coffee or tea table in front of it, for morning or evening drinks and conversation. Add a few luxurious pillows for comfort and color.
• A round table with a chair or two. Set these near a window, the perfect spot for morning coffee.
• A cotton mat in an empty space near a window makes an instant yoga studio. Add a tall plant in a beautiful pot or basket for aesthetic interest.
• A desk. Even if you don’t have a boudoir, you can still have an escritoire, a small writing desk with a comfortable, upholstered French chair. A desk is truly private—an inviolate space for correspondence, clippings, seed catalogues, a book of poems.
Some psychologists insist that bedrooms be used only for sleep. If you feel the need to reserve a space just for sleeping, you can create the sense of separateness very effectively with a room divider:
• An étagère, with its open shelves, can house your favorite books and any objects that please and soothe your eye while preserving
an airy feel.
• A painted, fabric-covered, or découpage screen (another fun project to do yourself) adds drama.
• A gauzy curtain, to be tied or drawn back during the day, adds softness and mystery.
Maintaining a serene look and feel in a multi-use bedroom is easily accomplished with color and pattern. Consider a lovely traditional bedroom afloat in soft green or blue toile de Jouy cotton on bed, windows, and chairs. If your taste runs to more modern schemes, choose a quiet, unified color palette of solids: gray-blues shading into gray and blue-violet; moss, sage, and leaf greens; sand and shell tints of taupe, white, and pale pinks.
Perches and Burrows
There is a kind of exaltation in perching a little above our world. We are entirely alone, unseen, yet connected to the people and activities below. Which of us doesn’t go “ah!” when we visit a house that includes a gallery, a library loft, an open lounge area under the eaves? A few feet of vertical space wraps us in the privacy of a cloud. Even with ceilings of ordinary height, you can create these magical spaces by very simple construction. Once again, young people point the way: Think of glorified bunk beds when you plan your building project.
Then there are the subterraneans among us, who prefer the basement lounge, workshop, or “den.” That probably goes back to prehistory and is still traceable in our genes. These underground rooms are usually claimed by men and adolescent boys. Woodstoves and fireplaces often complete the atmosphere of the cozy, and certainly private, cave.
The other most underused private spaces in our homes are actually just outside—gardens and backyards. An outdoor room can be created with a tree, a little shrubbery, and a bench; or with a physical structure such as a gazebo or teahouse. Intimate conversations are somehow easier under the rustle of leaves, amid the scent of flowers. With a little more ambition, you can add water—a pond, a fountain—and stir for a perfect brew of serenity!
Even simpler: Canvas awnings like the ones artists use for outdoor shows make attractive and inexpensive sun shields. Set a bistro table and chairs under it.
Only slightly more ambitious is the fully enclosed, one-room structure—workshop, studio, call it what you like. Its detached status proclaims it as a sanctum, provided you keep it as one.
La Dolce Vita
Perhaps the most truly luxurious private spaces are ones that combine the bedroom and the garden. Create a space, however tiny, that opens to the outdoors directly off your bedroom or master suite. The most minor construction can make magic happen: a French door, possibly a small deck, or a few flagstones and a fence or hedge. If your bathroom adjoins your bedroom—and especially if you live in a mild climate—consider the natural glory of an outdoor enclosed-but-roofless shower.
Martha Ruschman contributed to this article.