There’s a line from the great old John Ford movie The Quiet Man that has always stuck with me. It comes from Mary Kate Danaher, the female lead, who is trying to explain to her new husband, Sean, why it matters so much that her brother refuses to give her her dowry.
Mary Kate: Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve dreamed of having my own things about me. My spinnet over there, and the table here, and my own chairs to rest upon. And the dresser over there in that corner, and my own china and pewter shinin’ about me. And now ...
Sean: I didn’t know you felt that way about it.... Seems like a lot of fuss and grief over a little furniture and stuff....
Mary Kate: Haven’t I been trying to tell you? ... until you have my dowry, you haven’t got any bit of me. Me, myself! I’d still be dreaming amongst the things that aren’t my own as if I had never met you. There’s years of happy dreamin’ in those things of mine, and I want them. I want my dream. I’ll have it and I know it! I’ll say no other word to you.
Later on in the movie, after Mary Kate has reclaimed her things, we see the beauty of the life that they now live: She sits at the spinnet, the evening light falling on the music in front of her; she plays and sings sweetly; the china and pewter on the dresser do shine about her; and Sean stands in the doorway gazing in on the loveliness of what she has created. She has turned the tiny, windblown cottage into a home and, in doing so, has created an environment in which she and Sean can be the best versions of themselves. She is now living her dream.
This plotline exposes the importance of having and using pretty things. Having things about you that you delight in will make you want to slow down and commit to the here and now in front of you. While it’s easy to think that only the big things matter—the job moves, the crises, the nights out, the vacations, the milestone relationships—anticipating these things can obscure the fact that life is happening here and now. I think that by using things you love, that you find attractive and compelling, you create for yourself a life you enjoy living. Useful pretty things are an external reminder that living is itself a noble endeavor.
To be clear, I don’t mean “pretty” here in a necessarily mainstream, conventional sense; by “pretty” I mean simply whatever is attractive to you. With that in mind, here are some of the pretty things that help me be present to myself and my real life—perhaps they’ll brighten your everyday too.
01. Coffee Mugs
For most of us, coffee is both a necessity and an absolute delight. So give the moment its due: Make yourself good coffee, sit somewhere pleasant, and use your favorite mug, teacup, or espresso cup. Drinking from a cup you love will make you want to slow down and sit down to enjoy that coffee more deliberately.
This practice sets the tone for a positive day, and in my experience it helps establish a sense of control of your life. If I dash around the house, chugging coffee as I put on my makeup and toss on my clothes and trundle out the door, my day runs me. If I sit down and give myself time to wake up—to meditate, to pray, to reflect on the day ahead of me—I run my day. And it runs much more smoothly. (I fail at this at least as often as I succeed, but those failures only reaffirm the value of the practice.)
Tablecloths effortlessly elevate the humdrum of daily life. Growing up, I had a friend whose mother seemed to always have a pretty tablecloth on the kitchen table. “Impractical!” you may say. “What if you spill?” What if? Then wash it. And if it stains, so be it. Using a tablecloth makes that day, those meals, and the work done at that table feel like something more special, more worthy of your deliberate time and attention.
03. Houseplants and Flowers
This is one of the simplest ways to make a house into a home, because plants and flowers are a sign of life. Think about it: If you went away and never returned, everything else in your house would keep existing, unchanged. But plants wilt; leaves curl; flowers droop—because they require a human person to keep them alive.
So the bouquet of flowers on your kitchen table and the plant on the windowsill are signs to you and to whoever enters your home that you are the agent of your life: You live here, you have chosen to live here, and you intend to keep living here. (Pro tip: Trader Joe’s has the best deals on flowers of any grocery store I’ve come across. Ever.)
04. Cocktail Glasses
These seem like luxuries, but in fact they are eminently practical. There’s an actual science behind the tradition of particular shapes and styles of cocktail glasses: Different thicknesses and shapes of glassware affect the way your tongue receives the flavor of that particular potent potable. And, as an added perk, glassware is just so pretty! My roommate changed my life forever when she taught me by example to keep glassware on open shelves. That way you can enjoy their sparkle—easy and eminently practical decor. Plus, if they’re already “out,” you’re more likely to reach for them on that Tuesday when you’ve had a rough day and need to give yourself a little TLC. Treat yo’self like the high quality woman you are: Use a fancy glass. You deserve it.
I like vintage and thrift stores for glassware; do a little research on what kinds of glasses are for what kinds of drinks, and then buy yourself a few little sets of two or four of whatever glasses suit your fancy.
This is an incredibly practical item for the modern woman. My days are long and spent out and about, so I tote my lunch (and sometimes my breakfast and dinner) along with me. I’ve always used your standard plastic grocery store containers except for a brief foray into the T.J. Maxx world of cute painted porcelain container. However, I soon discovered that porcelain and glass containers are very heavy; I regretted this investment almost immediately.
But I did just buy a couple of really cute melamine containers from Anthropologie and they have made my day-to-day life a thousand times better. They’re a necessity, they weigh nothing, and they jazz up the otherwise prosaic lunch hour.
I am a recent convert to candles. I used to think candle-burning was an impractical way to spend my already-too-small paycheck. But I’ve since realized how they elevate the moment, how they set a mood, how they can even signify a season and a frame of mind. They signal a commitment to the moment and an attempt to elevate that moment to something enjoyable and lovely.
(A quick tip: Price is not always a certain indicator of quality, but it generally is with candles. More, in this case, is in fact more.)
There are plenty of other little things you can do or buy to help yourself be compelled by the life in front of you rather than by the future you’re imagining for yourself. Mother Teresa so famously said, “Do small things with great love.” I think a corollary to this is to do small things with great love-liness: To help ourselves love the now we are in and to strive for excellence in it—with the aid of a few pretty things.