Stuck at Home, and Seeing Home With New Clarity

In a time of extreme stress, sanctuary is found in cozy rooms, reworked workspaces and DIY projects.
Alison Alleva and husband Steve McGovern. (Illustrations by Anja Slibar)
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Home is where the heart is. Just ask Odysseus or any Hallmark Channel movie producer. But what happens when home is where everything, and everyone, is? For three months, we’ve been working out, Zooming in, sprucing up and getting down (shout-out to the online dance crowd) in spaces that have never seen so much human activity. We’re distance learning and learning to deal with the distance from our usual distractions and escapes. And we’re doing it all within four walls, give or take a balcony or yard for the lucky ones. Just how are we and our homes holding up in this new, suddenly intense relationship? According to these five Washington-area residents, we’re doing better than expected — turning sunrooms into workout studios, finishing lingering home projects and learning to lean in to the support our homes provide — even when we’re climbing their walls.

(These interviews have been edited and condensed.)

Alison Alleva

Falls Church

A self-described homebody, Alison Alleva, 46, says she and husband Steve McGovern, 45, “love and use every room” of their 1,700-square-foot Cape Cod. He has a home office to run his health-care executive search firm. She has an easy commute to Georgetown Massage and Bodywork, the studio she owns across the river. But they were starting to feel squeezed, especially when their band, Diplomatic Immunity, rehearsed. Right before self-quarantining, they had been in the market for a bigger home. Now forced to stay put, they’ve decided to do just that.

We just needed a little more space and decided to look around. Nothing felt right. Nothing had the right energy. That’s what I really love about our home. It just has a really nice energy. It just feels good to be in. I didn’t hire a feng shui expert or anything. I own a wellness space, so I’m attuned to how a space makes you feel. I adapted the same color we used at the studio for our home. It’s a super chill, calming blue called Sea Salt. The house has a lot of dark wood, so that contrast provides a sense of serenity. It’s calming.

The thought of leaving the house during a time of so much stress ties in to how sentimental we became about it. I’ve had stress with my business being closed for so long, so this house has been a sanctuary. It’s been a humbling shift of perspectives. We don’t need more. There’s enough room in here for us — and our three cats, and our band. We can work with what we have.

We’ve been spending a ton of time in front of our fireplace. I’d always wanted one, and it was a huge selling point for the house. We make funny singing videos there, play Monopoly or listen to music. We rearranged the den and have been practicing our instruments there. In the yard, we set up our badminton net and planted herbs that we’ve been using for drinks and cooking. I’ve been sketching our three cats as they lie around us.

What I’m trying to do is tap in to my inner creative and get back to doing something just because I love it. As adults we lose that, because we have to be in productive mode. As a small-business owner, I was always stressed. But there’s only so much I can do right now. I am mourning the loss of connection to clients. But I’m grateful and proud that my business is in good shape, and we’re lucky that our families are healthy. This is a unique time, and I’m not going to feel guilty about how I spent it.

Christine Platt

Southeast Washington

For the past two years, author Christine Platt, 43, has been in minimalist mode, making sure what fills her 630-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment is what she needs and what she loves. She has chronicled her efforts on her Afrominimalist Instagram account, and they have helped prepare her for self-isolation with her 16-year-old daughter, Nalah.

I write children’s literature. Some days, I am at home writing. Other days, I am out in the community, doing readings, interacting with students and educators. I’m a member of Eaton Workshop, a co-working space for creatives in the area. I felt like I had the perfect rhythm going. This has changed my workflow drastically. Before, the living room had been my office, but I can’t tell my daughter she can’t play the violin or distract me because I’m working. My bedroom has become my office, and I love it. I never noticed how perfect the light is in there, throughout the entire day.

In the morning, I have a space dedicated for meditation. In front of a window, I’ve set up a cool gate-leg table I found at Crate and Barrel Outlet a few years ago. We’ve let friends borrow it over the years, and it had been in my ex-husband’s basement. When it started to look like this wasn’t just going to be a couple of weeks inside, I called him and said, “Wipe that table down with bleach. I’m coming to pick it up.” It transformed the entire space. I’m looking out at trees and skyline. I spend 99 percent of the day in my bedroom now. I’m even more convinced and excited that I can live in a smaller space. When my daughter graduates next year, maybe I will just go ahead and get that Airstream.

I’ve been making conscious steps and decisions to live with intention. When this shift happened, I knew I was ready. The old me would have been searching online to buy something to make this work. The new me was like, “How I am going to work with what I have?”

Navigating this space with children is challenging. But with my teen, the challenges are few. She was going to be gone for spring break, performing, and then to musical camp in the summer. I was having some serious challenges about her going off to college. This time with her is a gift. We’re chatting. We’re cooking. Going for walks. We’re learning to respect each other’s boundaries and to be gracious in each other’s space.

Kelly Harman

Winchester, Va.

Kelly Harman, 57, knew from working from home. She’d been doing it since the 1990s. Before the coronavirus pandemic, she had a routine of getting to the gym by 6 a.m., walking the dog by 7:30 and starting her job as a marketing executive for a tech company by 8:30. She lives by herself but had been out often, meeting friends at least twice weekly at local wineries or in downtown Winchester for dinner. She hung out with her parents, who live nearby, at least once a week. She loved her home but used it mostly for working and sleeping.

People ask me if I am lonely because I am alone. It is just me and my dog, Daisy. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and I am not lonely. In part because I’ve been in nonstop video calls. I’m drained at the end of the day. The option to sit by myself on the couch is a welcome one.

I knew I needed a routine. I still have to get those 10,000 steps. I’m walking my poor dog to death. It’s easy to start to feel sorry for yourself, especially if you’re alone, to overdrink or overeat, both of which I did the first week. I started looking around the house for projects. I wanted a spark of color where this boring dresser sits at the end of my hall. I got two cans of cherry red enamel spray paint and spray-painted the dresser in my backyard. I ordered some new brushed-brass handles. Now when I walk up the stairs and see it, I get happy.

I had started learning how to build your own lap desk with copper tubing. Now I needed it and had the time to build it. I drew it out, got the tubing and glued it together for a frame. I got a piece of wood from Lowe’s. It was too big, but I had a saw. Then, I spray-painted it! Once you start spray-painting, it changes your world.

I have a quilting space in my finished attic, but I don’t get to use it much. My sewing machine can embroider, so I made a mask for my neighbor, a hospital pharmacist. On the side facing her, I embroidered, “You got this.” I’ve been making personalized ones for other people at the hospital, too.

But I’m also learning I don’t always have to be doing something. The longer I stay at home, the more I’m enjoying it and the more reluctance I have in leaving it. What we fear is, in many ways, invisible. It’s difficult to know what or where is safe, so my home has been a refuge from that not knowing. Sure, I’m going a bit stir-crazy, but I am safe.

Tremaine Chinapoo

Northwest Washington

Tremaine Chinapoo, 32, keeps kids moving for a living. As the co-owner of Just for Kids, the former college soccer player is usually out coaching on fields across the region. His fiancee, Katherine Labuza, 27, usually spends her days on her feet at Intermix, a clothing store in Georgetown. The athletic couple would regularly wear out their two dogs on 15- to 20-mile weekend hikes. Now neither is working, and the parks are too crowded for hikes. All their energy has had to find new outlets in their 650-square-foot apartment.

We are at home 23 hours and 30 minutes a day. We go out for dog walks and sometimes to pick up groceries in those 30 minutes. We did an Easter walk to pick up food from our favorite places in Georgetown and the Palisades. We walked about 10 miles, maybe more. We wore our masks.

Every morning, we get up and plan what we want to eat for the day and when we’re going to work out. We transformed our sunroom into a gym-garden-pantry for all the canned goods we stocked up on. We moved our weights up from the storage room in the basement, dusted them off, put out a mat. I just got a cooler, so we’re using that as a bench. It gets a lot of sunlight, so it’s starting to warm up in there, almost like a hot-yoga studio. I tried doing an herb garden a year ago, and everything died within a week. Now we have the time to tend to it. We’re growing mint, cilantro, parsley, lavender and thyme. The cilantro is dead, but everything else is doing great.

We like that the sunroom looks out over a shared backyard, and if we see dogs outside playing, we can let our dogs go play with them. You feel outdoors without technically being out there. It is a small space, so we make sure we give each other room. That’s why we don’t do our workouts together. Katherine will watch the Kardashians while I cook with my headphones on. She’ll bake, and I’ll play videos or read.

I’m noticing what needs improvement — I’ve got my eye on the kitchen floor next — but I’m taking time to do it myself. This apartment has been good for us through this. I just need to make the older things look new. We’ve cleaned everything — twice. We’re going to paint the kitchen cabinets white. Both of us are not good painters, but that’s okay. Who’s gonna see it? We have time to fix it if we mess up.

We’ve made our own ginger beer and some simple syrups. We have the time to get creative. It’s amazing what you can make on your own without going out to the grocery stores. I made pelau from Trinidad and Tobago, where I’m from. It’s rice and chicken, but I got creative with the spices. It was so good, I was dancing.

Amir Tahami

Arlington

Amir Tahami, 56, has wanted to transform every home he’s lived in as an adult. He just hasn’t had the time to finish the projects he starts. A senior technical adviser for the federal government, he also teaches at the two yoga studios he owns and plays in three hockey leagues. Tahami is now working from his Clarendon house, which he shares with his girlfriend, Annie Moyer, her daughter (home from college) and two Persian cats.

In 2011, I found a 100-year-old house on a small lot that was falling apart. I got a builder and decided to use the same footprint of the house and build up. When I moved in, in 2015, it wasn’t fully complete. I had no landscaping, just a nice house in the dirt. I was not at home as much as I wanted to be. I believe that your home should be a place that expresses your creativity. You have to have a clear mind-set to think creatively, and between commuting, working and being at the studio, I didn’t have the time.

Now I’ve got time. I’m using it to focus. The big thing that we finished is the solarium in the back. The design started at least a year ago, but it just wasn’t getting done. I put in a walkway in the front with porcelain tiles I ordered from Home Depot, and I ordered a shed from Costco. I found this artist who works in metal, and we finished the pergola and put in a fire table. It’s a work of art. I put up string lights in the solarium, and it feels like a fancy restaurant. I’m working with a builder on a deck in the back. A college kid from down the street is helping me build another patio. He stays outside, and we keep a safe distance, just like with the other people who’ve helped with projects.

I had a list of projects on my desk that I wrote six months ago. I looked at it the other day, and every single thing is checked off. For the first time, I’m seeing all these projects come to fruition. You finish one, and it’s like: What’s next?

We’ve taken social distancing very seriously, so if this were six years ago and I was in an apartment, I’d have been miserable. Here, in this house, we have all these nooks and crannies. There’s really no reason to want to leave. I do miss my studio, but we’ve been teaching online, so we can still connect in two dimensions.

Before this, the No. 1 thing that gave me stress and affected my health was my commute. I would be in my car for one hour and 15 minutes. I’d come home and need to lie down on the floor for an hour. That’s gone. I’m productive, but it’s a different kind of productivity. It’s not exhausting. I put on shoes twice in a 10-week period and am living in shorts and a T-shirt. For me and I hope for everyone else, I’ve noticed that you start seeing those things that you missed before. I’ve found things that really bring joy. Right now, I’ve got two cats on my lap. Did I do this before? Not enough.

Amanda Long is a writer in Falls Church.

Design by Michael Johnson.

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