There is a stained glass window in this house I live in, on the wall above the staircase connecting the first floor front of the house to the second floor. In this window, amber and red hexagons, and mint green and cobalt marbles, are surrounded by prisms. One of my great pleasures is to walk up and down the staircase on a sunny morning, going about the household errands, as the splash of rainbows made by the prisms gradually moves from one wall to another, then cascades down the stairs to land on the mirrored wall at the bottom.
After we chose this place, there were two books I read that explained why we had to live in a house, and this house in particular. The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard was one, and the other was A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander. I love the concept of the pattern language, which is Alexander's way of structuring his anatomy of architectural comfort. He expands the idea to neighborhood and community. Each pattern or architectural feature comes with a poetic name, such as "Wings of Light," "Children's Realm," "Sleeping to the East," and my favorite, "Common Areas at the Heart." Sometimes Alexander is a bit vague about why a particular architectural detail produces the effect it does, but the fact that he looks at the house as a succession of powerful details alone—and gives them these beautiful names—is worth the price (rather hefty) of his books. The name of the pattern that fits our front stairs is "Staircase as a Stage." In designing this part of the house, Alexander instructs us to:
"Place the stair in a key position, central and visible. Treat the whole staircase as a room (or if it is outside, as a courtyard). Arrange it so that the stair and the room are one, with the stair coming down around one or two walls of the room. Flare out the bottom of the stair with open windows or balustrades and with wide steps so that the people coming down the stair become part of the action in the room while they are on the stair, and so that people below will naturally use the stair for seats."
Our stair flares at the bottom. It's where we put on our boots, sit if we're talking to someone in the entryway who won't be staying long, or leave piles of things that need to be transported upstairs, and it's where the Easter Rabbit leaves her pagan baskets full of pagan goodies just after Passover. The rainbows make the staircase feel like a room, and so does the balustrade where my son rigs pulleys and string so he can send his beany cat, Harmony, down to the landing or hoist him up again in a little basket, and so does the wood of the floor, which isn't too glossy and feels solid under bare feet in summer. And the window itself makes the space a room, a cathedral, with the saturated colors of glass that glistens and buckles in its lead fittings, reminding us always that we live in an old house. Going up and down these stairs I sense that people were mostly very happy here; it's not that they're still here, but some element is, some comfort was left behind by the others, and it supports us.
Bachelard writes that we always dream or remember ourselves at the bottom of attic stairs, looking up or ascending, and positioned at the top of stairs to the cellar, headed down into the subterranean realm. But the central stair that leads from the first floor to the bedrooms, we imagine going up and going down. These are Alexander's hanging-out stairs, my rainbow watching stairs. The stairway where we pause on the landing, remembering a forgotten item either up or down. The stair that leads to the presents, the fireplace, the doorbell, the meal. The stairs we carry children up, to their beds, after they've fallen asleep on the car ride home. The stairs I swept with a broom yesterday because no plug is near enough to allow use of the vacuum. Swept them and then mopped them with Murphy's and lemon oil, and stood curiously straighter afterward, as if I'd just given myself a chiropractic adjustment.
"A staircase is not just a way of getting from one floor to another. The stair is itself a space, a volume, a part of the building; and unless this space is made to live, it will be a dead spot, and work to disconnect the building and to tear its processes apart," writes Alexander. For some reason, today, I am the staircase. And that brings me back to the choice to live in this house, which, in our third year, I still revisit a lot, as part of the process of settling here. We are the places where we live to a great extent, which is why it's so painful to live in the wrong place, and one important reason why homelessness is so criminal and so dangerous to any society where it exists, and why we so often dream ourselves as houses with series of rooms, flowing one to the other, mine into yours and yours into mine and all of them into the common areas at the heart.