Temperatures are spending more of their time north of the freezing point. Sprigs of color in flower beds raise our hopes that winter is releasing its grip. People leave their down jackets in the closet and venture out in some odd combination of sweatshirt, shorts, and flip flops. It is a terrific time of the year!
Some mark the change of seasons by the calendar. Others look for the appearance of orange traffic barrels on the side of the road to mark Spring’s arrival. Around eastern Indiana, another trustworthy sign is the open garage door. Not an eight-inch gap that allows pets and skinny criminals to enter and exit at will, but a wide open, take a peek inside our house kind of opening.
The open garage door in Indiana marks an evolutionary development in Hoosier house design. I wasn’t exactly sure of the purpose when I first noticed the practice. Was it important to air out that room, or give one’s car a bit of ventilation? I think I’ve finally figured it out, and it is something else entirely.
In days past homes were constructed with front porches large enough for a family to enjoy. Covered so as to offer protection from the sun and rain and outfitted with outdoor furniture, their function wasn’t merely decorative. They were a place for gathering. Perhaps for morning coffee or an after dinner rest, the front porch was prime real estate. Where people spend time together, stuff happens. For instance, some credit coffeehouses with the birth of the Enlightenment because as people took the time to sit around slowly drinking a piping hot beverage, all sorts of conversation occurred. What kind of stuff happens depends on the character and relationship of those who gather, but make no mistake – a gathering creates a powerful moment full of possibility.
The demise of the front porch on so many homes has not been without cost. I can’t deny that porches hold a personal appeal. One of my mother’s favorite memories is of swinging on her grandmother’s front porch. She loved to sit in a pedal swing, where working the foot rest created a back-and-forth motion. My paternal grandfather had a favorite rocking chair on his front porch. It wasn’t unusual for him to wind up there at the end of a long day, or mid-afternoon during a break. Almost always, a handful of grandchildren would join him there as he rested from his labors. He especially loved it if any of us could be convinced to brush his hair while he rocked. It was there on that front porch that laughter arose, rest settled in, and conversations were had that probably wouldn’t have occurred otherwise.
Mostly good things happen on front porches. Some still exist in our area, but generous-sized ones just aren’t in vogue the way they once were. Tiny areas under roof with barely room for a single chair, or even less user-friendly front “stoops” have taken their place. The loss of an adequate porch hasn’t eliminated the desire to spend time on one. Humans are innovative when we need to be, which brings us to the open garage door. It is the absence of a decent outdoor gathering place that has driven some folks to move the party to their garage and thus contributed to this new sign of Spring’s arrival. I suppose this repurposing was only a matter of time in coming since so many garage owners use them as oversized storage closets, leaving their vehicles to endure the weather in the drive or parked along the street.
I can still picture the day I was driving down the road and caught my first glimpse of two people with their garage door raised, lounging in lawn chairs parked just inside away from the sun. Their large glasses of lemonade indicated they intended to stay for a while. From that vantage point they sat and watched whatever part of the world passed by on their street. They waved as we drove past, suggesting they were there to see and to be seen. Over time, it became obvious that this couple represented a much wider spread phenomenon, so much so that a few years back a Texas company developed a niche business of giving garage makeovers, typically at a cost of $4,000 – $5,000. People spend time with friends in these converted spaces, playing poker or idling the time away. Someone even coined a term for it – “garage hanging.” I confess I once used my garage for an outdoor party room, but only because rain threatened to interfere with a scheduled cook-out and I didn’t have a better option. Here in Indiana, I’ve noticed one garage that includes a pool table and another that sports a fitted, zippered netting. I suppose that is to help keep out the mosquitoes or maybe the neighbor’s cat. For many, the garage has been promoted from personal parking spaces to that of a porch substitute. It is like some bizarre porch/gazebo crossbreed experiment—not quite open and breezy, but sheltered with a touch of humidity and the occasional trickle of sweat that keeps you appreciating that an air-conditioned room is just on the other side of the wall. These spaces don’t spark heartwarming memories from the past – yet. But it won’t be long before you’ll hear people reminisce saying, “Remember that time in the garage when . . .”
Our home lacks a substantial front porch. It is one of the few things I dislike about it. My grandpa’s rocker occupies a place in the corner, but I can’t offer a seat on this porch to friends or passing strangers. I love to sit outside but the garage just doesn’t have the right feel. Instead, I spend a lot of time on an uncovered patio surrounded by woods, partially shaded throughout the day. It has proven to be a worthy substitute, hosting many rich moments with and without friends. It lacks only a roof. That has now been remedied. We decided to fork over a few dollars and added this retractable awning.
Last year I learned that the Japanese have a word for what happens in these outdoor spaces: shinrin-yoku, translated as nature bathing or forest bathing. Basically, it is relaxing in a wooded area, taking in the energy and clean air of the surroundings. Not everyone with a porch or an open garage door has a wooded surrounding, but I think there is a shared principle here.
The garage-turned-sitting area is part of an insatiable urge to move toward our source of energy. Whether on a front porch or inside the open doored garage or on an uncovered patio, there is something rejuvenating about stepping beyond the four walls of the house into the outdoors. That is especially true after a few months of winter chill discouraging us from spending too much time outside the comfort of our homes. Maybe it is the warmth of the sunshine or the feel of a breeze or even outdoor sounds, whether it be birds, crickets, or traffic. The combination is an experience of freshness. It’s an opportunity to “blow the germs off” as my wife’s mom used to say. It comes with a sense of wonder and a sensation of being rightly placed and immersed in an ocean of tranquility. For me, it calls to mind words from Ecclesiastes 3:11, “Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.” Eternity in the human heart speaks of the Mystery in which we live, enthused by it yet always still in search of a fuller understanding and forever feeling its tug on the deeper places of our heart to pay attention. In my experience, the porch, the garage, the patio – or my favorite fallen log or rock or seat along the beach – they all position me so that I am immersed in moments of connection with the Divine and drawn in by the Mystery. If I am alone, I need only to be, without concern for doing. I can embrace what might look to be a bored wasting of time but which is in fact the space where new insights from seemingly nowhere catch my attention. A quiet energy renews me. If I am with others, I need only be present to the moment – available to the conversation that arises, finding opportunities to celebrate and mourn, to minister or be ministered to.
Experiencing that kind of connection can be exhilarating. The opened garage door is a testimony that many continue to desire those occasions, even if they’re unaware of it. What we are recalling is the profound work of the Spirit that happens in moments like these. Perhaps it is really about making space rather than a particular space—opening the door and stepping toward that which calls you. Personally, I’m still partial to a good patio or covered porch, but open garages have their place as well.
As warmer weather arrives, I’m looking forward to sitting in my place, and hope you find one just as enjoyable.