Friday, September 14, 2012

The Quality Without A Name

Shea asks, "Diana, the window placement of Innermost House and it's resulting lights/shadows is one of the first things that drew my attention. At first I thought it was a happy accident, but after joining the Facebook list I started to understand that there probablyweren't any accidents in creating your home.

"One conversation lead me to Christopher Alexander and his Pattern Language. Once I understood the practical, step-by-step method of the Language, it helped clarify and validate my own convoluted house planning up to that point. "Did his work influence you and Michael in creating the physical aspects of Innermost House? Simply put, did you think, "I want to experience the play of the sun's rays on that wall", and then plan a window placement to capture that - and other such aspects?"

This is a wonderful question, Shea, and I am so glad you asked it.  Feeling my way toward an answer draws me very close to the mystery of Innermost House.

My husband and I met thirty years ago in the seaside village of Carmel, California.  To me even then the sight and sound and scent of the place had all the magic about it of a beautiful memory.

The city of Carmel is about a mile square, with between three and four thousand residents.  It was founded a century ago as an artists colony after a long Spanish and longer American Indian history.

The town gives way on all sides to surrounding ocean and bay and forests and hills and farms.  A fully elaborated town center lies at its heart, with all the essential village services, along with a world of restaurants and galleries.  Its narrow, forested streets form themselves into compact neighborhoods of small cottages of adobe or stone or redwood board, set in half-wild gardens.  Its many churches are presided over by the 240 year-old Spanish Mission.  People walk everywhere, and take their dogs with them to work, or out to early morning coffee, or along the beach.  There are no highrises or electric signs or traffic lights or even streetlamps.  There are no house addresses and no mail delivery.  All seasons of the year the air is scented with woodsmoke and wild flowers and the sea.

Carmel is where Michael and I first shared our love of long daily walks together.  As we walked we would talk about everything.  We would talk about the places we walked passed.  We wanted to know what made some things so alive where they were right—and in Carmel they were often right—and what made other things so unliving when they went wrong.  The aliveness of a house or a shop—or of a door or a window, or the pitch of a roof or the turn of a garden path—seemed to belong to some organic quality, a sense of being whole with itself, its neighbors, its town, its history, its place in nature.  Carmel is a kind of garden of plants and trees, and to me the best among its modest houses and buildings share in that living quality of natural wholeness.  It would be a few years and a few moves before we discovered Christopher Alexander and his "quality without a name."

The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language were published about five years before Michael and I met.  When we first discovered them those books were a revelation to us.  Here was the first person we knew who felt what we felt, who suffered from the same sense of an undefinable something missing.  It is hard to estimate the value of such a companion in our inwardly isolated lives.  Five hundred and a thousand pages may look like a lot from the outside, but we were already in the darkness inside, and those pages shone for us like stained glass windows.

We would go on to make our own language of patterns built from observations wide of the world of architecture, from food and clothes to books and pictures to customs and manners.  Christopher Alexander's idea of a language was liberating because it helped us find a way around the one thing most in our way everywhere we looked—the problem of "styles."  It was simple enough to recognize the ways that industrial materials and methods were denaturing Place, but it was a much subtler matter to see through the attraction of expressing one's own "style."

We were not interested in styles, no more our own than anyone else's.  Most others seemed to be interested in "their" place or "their" thing.  Christopher Alexander was interested in the thing, the language.  And in that subtle difference the mystery of Place began to open for us.  The Place we were looking for had little to do with us personally, but everything to do with Place itself, the living language of wholeness and healing.

We kept those two books with us until we parted with all our books on architecture and towns.  But we had absorbed them by then.  They had become a part of the fabric of our life, an inseparable element in our search for the meaning of Place that finally ended in Innermost House.

It is strange to say now I know, but we never sought Innermost House.  We sought a town for Place and a room for Conversation.   We moved from town to town, and we made room after room.  And each one satisfied a little more nearly our hunger for healing.

It would be difficult to exaggerate how surprised we were by Innermost House.  I see what you see—the light, the shadows.  In a very real sense it was entirely an accident, and we certainly did not consult our old books or plan the windows or anything else for effect.  When that light first streamed in across the back wall against the darkness, it was like the light of grace.  In no immediate sense can I say we earned it.

But in another sense Innermost House was designed and built by a lifetime of seeking and trying.  It is the city that we sought.  It is the rooms that we made.  We only did not know to anticipate, through those long years, the trajectory of our intention.

37 comments:

  1. Diana, at Shea's recommendation I am making my way through those two very large tomes. They are rather an adventure, aren't they? It isn't so much a matter of "memorizing" the patterns as it is letting them wash over me and through me as I go along. It makes so much sense that each pattern incorporates itself into me, and the next one finds its own place with the others. When I saw the size of these books, I feared the material would be too "hard" for me, but it is so organic that it's like eating a big bowl of apples one at a time. YUM!

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    1. An adventure is right Julie! At first I wanted to absorb every word because the Pattern Language was an articulation of disconnected ideas that had been floating in my sub-conscious for years. Then I became impatient with the countless repetitions of examples and had to find a way to get beyond that. I needed to stay focused on the principles. I'm so glad I did!

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    2. A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned how the deep window openings of Innermost House appeal to me. If I recall correctly, that's one of the design features mentioned in A Pattern Language.

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    3. Yes it is Al. You encouraged me about the SIPs that day. Thanks. Another "pattern" I see in Innermost House is the thick walls. They have accomplished that in the interior by utilizing the big bookcase. It makes it seem like you're passing through a thick doorway into the study and the kitchen.

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  2. What a beautiful answer to what appeared at first to be a simple question. I can almost imagine walking with you through Carmel. I hope I will see with new eyes from now on.

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  3. Carmel sounds wonderful. Almost like place lost in time. It would be so easy to fall in love in such a place! The patterns of light and darkness seem to always make an organic artwork to me, if I am looking and actually seeing. I have always been fascinated with stained glass, too. The quality of light, the patterns have always been soothing to me.

    I must have missed the books that Shea recommended. I need to go back and find that. Sounds very interesting!

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    1. Sherry, I find the Pattern Language fascinating and it provided one of the biggest "Ah-Ha" moments of my home-planning life. But I did find both books a little hard to get through since Mr. Alexander was very repetitive. But then I just started skimming and all was right again. I hope they can provide you with some meaningful Conversation.

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  4. Diana, I feel you were reading my mind. I had wanted to ask you about the discoveries that led you Innermost House. I would love to hear more specifics of elements you tried but did not work for you or perhaps what specific things you realized along the way were missing and were able to incorporate into IH. (I am having difficulty articulating this request.. but hopefully you are understanding.)

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  5. Diana, it has been exciting to see and recognize how Alexander's principles manifested in IH. It's a nice confirmation for me of the Patterns usefulness, even though you didn't plan the light and shadow play!

    You said, "When that light first streamed in across the back wall against the darkness, it was like the light of grace. In no immediate sense can I say we earned it."

    Ah, I can't but think that you did earn it Diana - not planned it, but definitely earned it. By keeping on the path that lead you to that Place and Innermost House.

    I'm so glad you said, "Christopher Alexander's idea of a language was liberating because it helped us find a way around the one thing most in our way everywhere we looked—the problem of "styles."

    This is it exactly, for me also! Though my focus hasn't been so clearly on Place as yours. But that understanding is becoming more refined as we move through this Conversation. "Style" has kept me dithering for years while I plan a retirement home. I like many architectural styles, but when examined closely for my own needs and well-being, something was always missing. Now I see, through the excellent example of IH, how applying the Language might look for me. Thank you for the lovely answer!

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  6. Forgive me if I'm repeating myself, but a commentator (James Howard Kunstler - but he certainly doesn't speak with the delicacy of Diana!) I read regularly says that today we are building cartoon houses. Everything about them is fake. Fake facades, fake columns, fake trim, fake rocks, fake siding. Even their location - in cars-only suburbs with no organic reason for existing - is fake.

    For me, the beauty of Innermost House is in its honesty. The materials are real and have a connection with the location. It was built with sensitivity to the environment around it. It has all the features needed for a simple life lived well, and nothing more.

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    1. This quotation is not attributed but you've inspired me to share it, Al: "To embrace the significant requires us to abandon the empty, spurn the superficial, and flee the frivolous." ...and eliminate the FAKE! Thanks Al.

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  7. The style question is very interesting, because it is both semantic and very subtle. How to define "personal style"? Diana said they had no personal style, but does that mean "no preconceived idea of the perfect house?" Because I think the Lorences have a very strong personal style, out of which it was inevitable that Innermost House would organically grow.

    For me, the perfect house is an interface between the place and the person. I don't have an "ideal house" per se as something that I would plonk down anywhere, regardless of location. However, I think I do have a very strong personal style whose elements would always appear, albeit in different arrangements. I think of this as "northing"; the things/ideas onto which my innermost compass needle always locks: field stone, lavender hedge, shutters, strong simple cloth; good strong tea; Ikea rag rugs! Art experts can identify a painter even of an unsigned artwork by personal style, regardless of the subject, even when it's out of genre, and maybe this is what I'm trying to get into words.

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  8. Diana, are you intending for your next house to be without electricity as well? You mentioned that your next house would allow more people to participate in the Conversation but that you would be keeping the innermost part of IH that same. Would you elaborate on some of the specific design changes you foresee?

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  9. Diana, I wonder if it is too much to ask you about the costs involved in building your sweet house, and possibly a breakdown as to which were the most expensive components to the building. Also, any snags you encountered and how you and Michael creatively worked them out. I am looking into the possibility of building a structure along these lines for myself. A simple, simple house. I'd be so grateful.

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  10. hello all, I have a question for Diana. All my life i have felt like a strange creature never really getting the society I live in with it obsession with work and status. I have moved around a bit and always gravitated towards towns with an alternative community in the hope that I would find a place to be free. What I am learning that no matter how creative and free thinking the community is the pressures of our society just keep pushing in. The question is I guess how to live with honouring my true nature without the support of the society I live in or even that of a partner?. I know this is very broad but we are not islands and to feel loved and accepted is part of human nature. I can play along to a degree and do what I have to do to pay the bills etc but I long to live according to my own calling too. Thanks Elizabeth

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    1. Hello Elizabeth. So many good questions that I am looking for the answers to also. We must, at last, get to live according to our own callings. I hope we get to talk about this. I'd like to welcome you too. You're in the right place. Innermost House points me own direction every day and shows me all the things I thought I didn't know.

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    2. Me too! Love and acceptance are high priorities for humans, and for most of it love and acceptance by ourselves just don't cut the mustard. This is an area I'd really like to explore - honouring my true nature without the support of my society or partner.

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    3. I guess I see this as coming from a culture of the individual being at the centre of all we do. This is almost a necessity for people who are different from the norm in order to break free but it is also very isolating in the long run.

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    4. I love your questions Elizabeth Silvolli. I thing one important thing for freeing ourselves to do what we must is some kind of spiritual practice - so the Lorences have The Conversation; which Diana also carries on via her journalling. Something, anything, that makes some "breathing room" between the pressures of the world and our own soul movements.

      I also think that as we take our steps along this road of truth we will find ourselves resonating with other humans who recognize what is in us, if we need to. There is that in us which calls to others who also put the truth first. Here we all are, for example.

      Diana is particular is so sensitive to the 'right balance' in her life, and where the Conversation leads - and her work to attend to that has made a space where we all can meet.

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    5. A spiritual practice is key, as you say, Alice. Anything that brings us in touch with ourselves and helps us to move from living in, and making decisions from a place of desperation or survival mode, will help us be in a place where we can recognize what is really important in our lives.

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  11. Yes. "Styles" are a problem. You start following the fashion and the next thing you know, you're a boob--even to yourself. "What was I thinking?" "Now I have the same things as everyone else, and I'm still not happy even though I am up-to-the-minute." I suppose, in a way, I do have a "style". You may think that,because I live in a log cabin, that I have butter churns all over the place and ducks on sticks and bears wearing pants and such. (Not that there's anything wrong with that...) But there isn't a butter churn in sight. I suppose my style is more the kind of thing where someone might say "That's the sort of thing Julie would like." (I always imagine the unspoken end of that sentence: "You know, because she is odd.") Fiddle dee dee. Really, I've merely kept some things that I liked. All told, I probably don't have much more than $300 wrapped up in my furniture.

    PATERNS now, I'm seeing are a completely different story. I tried out applying another one to my teensie weensie house plan on the computer--FARMHOUSE KITCHEN. I merely removed any barriers to the minimal kitchen corner I had there (a sink and my buffet), and clicked for a panoramic view. Oh My Goodness! It changed everything. I could live here. I could have guests here. The 16x16 square foot building now looks like a home. I'm no end pleased. I have this same pattern in the house I have now, since it's really just two "rooms" in the whole house. It is appealing. A keeping room. Essentially a kitchen with a lovely seating area. And though in my plans, the kitchen is still just a sink and a buffet, it's now rather like the whole thing is a large comfy kitchen. I'm sold. Next pattern please.

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    1. Julie Graff I love this! So exciting that you are taking us along on this journey. I love that you describe taking away the barrier - and finding something wonderful.

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    2. Thank you for coming with me! I won't have to go all by myself. I really hope all of this culminates into something sweet.

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    3. Julie, sounds great! Have you checked out local building ordinances for codes regarding larger structure requirements for plumbing and electricity? I just finished reading 12x12 by William Powers, the book that Pen mentioned, and in the book there was an ordinance problem for one of his neighbors who lived without electricity or plumbing in a house that was larger than shed size allowances which did not require such amenities according to the local building code. 16x16 sounds like a great size to me for a cabin. I stayed in a State Park log cabin once that had a large room with one wall designated as the kitchen that opened to the rest of the room, a potbellied stove in one corner, two small bedrooms that could each hold two cots and a dresser,a small bathroom that had a sink and a toilet, and an attached screened porch off the side of the cabin with a picnic table. It was the perfect size and I sometimes daydream about going back to it for a week alone to see what it would be like to live in a space like that all by myself.

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    5. Sorry; the links didn't display properly the first time. If there are any spaces in the links, delete them when you cut and pase.
      Here's a link to a photo of what the cabin I stayed in looked like from the outside: http://www.nysparks.com/PhotoGallery/Default.aspx?gal=Cabins%20and%20Cottages&img=34

      And here's a photo of how the kitchen area opened to the main room:
      http://www.nysparks.com/PhotoGallery/Default.aspx?gal=Cabins and Cottages&img=34
      Directly across from the kitchen stove was the woodstove for heating and next to the refrigerator was the tiny bathroom, and opposite the kitchen table was the wall with the two bedrooms. It was just the right size and with a woman's touch would make a lovely place to hunker down.

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    6. William Powers made 12x12 seem large, didn't he?

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    7. Pam, to date there are no building codes or ordinances of any kind in Grainger County, Tennessee! Hard to fathom, right? This is why I hope to stay around here. I have a few neighbors who still live without electricity and utilize outhouses. A big tunnel was opened to this area in 1996. "civilization" has crept in slowly...but I can tell you that my neighbors were already civilized and decent people from the time their families came to this country--and they still are today.

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    8. Sherry, Yes, Bill Powers made the small cabin seem spacious because he spent a lot of time describing the environs in which it sat and made one feel that the house was an integral part of the woods and the fields and the creek, etc., much like a huge boulder would be a descriptive part of the land in which it rests.

      Julie, It's great news to hear that you won't have a lot of building red tape to wade through when you construct your home. how close is your current home to a town or village? How long does/did it take you and your husband get to work each day if you are off the beaten path?

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    9. Julie, your life changes and growth are likely causing a mix of emotions.. but to me and your friends here, it is exciting and inspirational to witness. Thank you for sharing these details.

      An interesting personal experience: For the past year, I have been putting my attention on leaving our family business where I was putting in an average of 10 hours a day and living with my mother-in-law (who was wonderfully gracious but still not ideal) - to moving to a small home costing under $500 per month for myself and my daughter, near a school offering the program she needs (which is only available in about 16 locations in North America), with my 17 year old son getting a home and the help he needs with school, and with space from my husband (step-father to my children) - space for us to start over and create a new, perhaps unorthodox relationship with more space and independence...

      Amazingly enough, my daughter and I am now in a small(er) upstairs space in the home of a relative I only just met a month ago who happened to live in one of the very few towns that offered the school program my daughter needs; and I have a small bedroom with only a simple alter and my bed and meditating chair -- exactly like I had wanted. The whole building may not be my home like I imagined it.. but here I am, living in a space very similar to what I visualized and for very little money. We are 500 miles from my husband (close enough for visits but far enough for longer spans to get used to being on my own; and my son is with my sister who to offered mentor him through his final year of on-line high school. We also received a recommendation for a great employee who could replace me just two days before I moved -- We had been looking for 5 years! None of this is how I planned it, but circumstances just happened! It is amazing how the universe works

      I now have the opportunity to see how living with minimal 'stuff' works for me (most of my things are still in my old home/business.) My next challenge is reducing the things I buy. I often think, "Oh, I will just pick up... (something new).. and then ask myself, "Do I really need or want that?"

      I am now setting my focus on having our shop sell and purchasing my own space with an adjoining guest space. I am not ready for an outhouse in this Canadian climate.. but who knows what the universe will provide?!

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    10. Leah, that is so neat. It seems that things just keep happening around here! Maybe we are helping each other focus on what is really important. I am really glad that your kids are gettin what they need and that you are in a space you love and are in peace with.

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    11. Thanks so much for your encouragement--I really am flying by the seat of my pants here. Yes, Leah, mixed emotions are part of the package. The scary ones are slowly beginning to subside as a loose plan is developed. I'm surprised to discover that most of this plan has been slowly simmering on the back burner of my mind for thirty years or more. It's turned itself into a delicious stew of real information that I really just need to digest. Voila' ,as they say!

      Pam, we can go about twenty miles in one direction to a small town and about thirty five miles in the other direction to a larger one. My husband drove 80 miles round trip to his job before he was disabled. I drove anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half each way for work and then had a twelve hour shift to deal with on top of that. In formulating a budget during that time, we found that MY JOB was our single greatest household EXPENSE--costing us more than even our housing. To heck with that.

      I am not at all a person for town, in any case. I would be happy if I could never go again, so proximity to a town is not a priority. If at all possible in these stony mountains, I hope to have a little cellar under my house for keeping things cool so that my trips to town can be reduced to every 4 to 6 weeks. My present diet requires no refrigeration anyway. To quote Shay Solomon, a refrigerator is no more than an "expensive air conditioned parking lot for compost and condiments." Haha. I grow a small amount of food to consume fresh and ferment some things. You'd be surprised how little effort this takes for just one person. It's nothing, really. Organic eggs and raw cow's milk are quite nearby and the raw milk does not spoil--it just goes through the many "stages" of milk. I make kefir also. Eggs do not require refrigeration. Other than that, my cookery proceeds much along the same line as Diana's. As for condiments, I rarely use anything like that, but these days they are all PASTEURIZED to death--even what passes for mayonnaise. They are literally un-spoilable. This is what tells me not to eat them...My health problems are due to an injury I sustained and are in no way attributable to my diet. I do not purchase personal care products from town. I am already accustomed to wood heat and prefer it. I already hang the laundry, and once I really am completely on my own, this job will be decreased to the point of taking but a few minutes of my time in the future. SO: you see, unbeknownst to myself, my lifestyle has been heading in this direction for a very ling time. These are all matters of my own personal preference, and I can see that my lifestyle will be as elegant as Diana and Michael enjoy. As for my grandchildren, it will be "Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother's House we go!" "YAY!"

      No, I am not much for town.

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    12. Julie, I just now saw your post. Wow! You really are a modern pioneer of the very best kind! My lifestyle is very different than yours--I have a gas furnace and air conditioning, I am a wanton user of electricity, I have a washer and dryer and I need a refrigerator for my food. It would be lovely to live as you do, but that just doesn't seem to be the way it's done here in the suburbs where I live and I have no idea how my husband would take to living more simply than we do now. It must make you feel so much more secure knowing that in a national emergency you could be so much more self-reliant than most people could.

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  12. Maybe when it comes to "style" we should first think about how we live, the things we love, the direction we want our lives to go. Decide if you want wood all over, or more paint. Which direction do you want the house to face? How much room do you need to do the things you love most and the storage involved. Where would you like to have your favorite chair to sit. What is your eating style? What is your clothing situation. Most of these things have been mentioned time and again, but go deeper and actually visualize yourself going about your day in your space. Does the light filter over your sitting place? Do you want the sun to wake you? Do you have a serious collection of something great that gives you much pleasure? Make sure you can see it well. Place window so that the light will fall over the most important areas you need. Decide if you want wood siding, tin?, stone. Do you visualize arched windows and a arched front door? How much privacy? Do you want a wonderful place to sit outdoors? In other words give it a lot of thought. Don't leave anything out. Let the style just happen. It will all work out.

    In decorating (not a seminar here) function always comes first, then suitability (for YOUR life) and then beauty. Don't leave beauty out. The things that are beautiful to YOU. Do not let anyone else tell you what you want.

    In my mind I always go back to a small stone cottage with stone floors, small arched windows and door. Maybe one really nice stained glass window. I would have a non-kitchen, as in no cabinets, but suitable pieces of furniture and open shelves. No clutter, only things I love and use often. Round it all up in your mind and you will see a picture that you will really like, I promise!!!!!

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    1. !!! It strikes me, Sherry, that you may be in a position now to showcase your decorating knowledge in an honest-to-goodness business. This is an incredible post! You are speaking of the pattern language right here. I daresay that Martha Stewart has nothing on you. I'm more and more impressed with you every day, friend.

      P.S. You have described my ideal home--especially the non-kitchen. I want one free standing piece of furniture, my buffet, and a sink.

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    2. Oh and AWESOME SEMINAR, by the way.

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    3. Sherry, you are so right about taking stock of how we live. Visiting websites and showrooms of kitchens and and decorating finishes can lead to decisions for things that are so 'over the top'. Taking time to stand in each room of your existing home and make a list of what you really use and how frequently and of what is missing, is more helpful than the viewing what the stores are trying to tell us we need.

      Great message! Thanks.

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