by A. M. McKain

'San(k)-che-wer-e n, 1) a consecrated place, 2) a place of refuge and protection. On the north door of Durham Cathedral in England, a lion-headed doorknocker once offered a priceless gift for fugitives: sanctuary. In the Middle Ages, grasping that ring was the admission ticket to refuge. No pursuit, no trouble or threat could claim those who appealed for sanctuary. We are all fugitives of one kind, from headaches, traffic, bills, and the various stresses and complications of the modern world. We all need a place of sanctuary, a center of calm.

Ideally, our home should be that refuge. The key turning in that front door lock should open a haven for us. Does it? Can you take your shoes off, settle into a comfortable chair, and feel truly relaxed and peaceful? Or are you perhaps greeted by your roommate’s laundry strewn on that chair, a heap of unwashed dishes in the sink, or the remnants of the dog’s self-designated chew-toy du jour scattered on the rug?

You don’t have to book a flight to a deserted island to find your escape; you simply need to carve out your own personal sanctuary within your living space. Some might have the luxury of a spare room, but most of us will need to make do with a smaller area. The corner of a bedroom can be appropriated, or a nook in the kitchen, or even the closet in a home office. All you really need is a place with room for seating and a small table (to hold candles, incense, books or flowers), and an ability to shut the door on the rest of the household for half an hour.

Creating Your Sanctuary
“ Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul,” Oscar Wilde declared. Creating a sanctuary to soothe all your senses will allow you to find that elusive repose of the soul.

Sight is the sense we most heavily rely upon, and color is the aspect of sight we notice first. Think of a favorite color, one that makes you smile when you see it. Look through your wardrobe for clues, focusing on accessories (scarves, neckties) rather than staples that may run to “safe” basics, like black or khaki. If khaki thrills you, fine, but consider hues of apricot, honeydew, periwinkle, or crimson. To apply that color to your sanctuary, you may wish to buy a quart of paint and cover a wall. Don’t like painting? Take a bolt of cloth and a staple-gun and tent the walls of a small room. If that seems too ambitious, hang a mosquito net in a corner for an exotic pavilion, and load the floor with cushions. You can also use your chosen color in small quantities. Look for a vase, candles, or artwork in that hue, and layer those pieces in your private retreat. Find a half-price remnant of silk at a fabric store and use it to cover a flea-market footstool. If you cannot find a single spot for a sanctuary in your tiny apartment, take over the bathtub, and hang a translucent shower curtain in a beautiful shade of blue to cocoon around you.

Another important aspect of sight is the view from your sanctuary. Shield yourself from the sight of anything that might cause you stress. If your sanctuary is in your office, put up a folding screen or a row of potted palms to shut out the view of unpaid bills and the to-do list on your whiteboard. If there is a window, a sheer curtain can allow light in while keeping out an unsightly view.

Sound is a delightful aspect to bring to your sanctuary; one of the most soothing sounds is flowing water, and wall-mounted or table-top fountains are readily available. You might also consider pebble chimes or recorded music. Again, personalizing your retreat is paramount. You know that CD you own that makes all the knots in your shoulders start to melt as soon as you put it on? No? Then stop by your local music store, plug into a listening station, and find something utterly relaxing. It might be Celtic harp, vintage jazz, or piano sonatas. Nature recordings can be an especially welcome sound for the city-bound. Once back in your own haven, if you find construction noise or shrieking neighbors intruding upon your auditory bliss, try headphones.

The benefits of aromatherapy have been widely touted in recent years. Smell is the sense most closely linked to memory. A whiff of sweet alyssum, of hot pavement, of damp earth, or of your grandpa’s brand of aftershave can instantly transport you back to childhood. Choose your sanctuary scents to suit your mood. In general, citrus scents are vitalizing, while lavender and other florals are relaxing. However, you should explore to find what scents are pleasing and soothing to you. A caveat: with scented items, you get what you pay for. A 50-cent jasmine-scented votive candle will almost certainly not have the beauty and delicacy of the two-dollar jasmine-rose-patchouli blend. Cheap potpourris or incense can smell cloying and give you a headache. With fragrance, be willing to splurge a little.

Some people are more tactile than others. Take a walk through a home furnishings store. Do you feel the urge to run your fingers through the sheepskin rugs, to toy with tassels and poke at pillows? If so, then you should pay particular attention to this aspect of your sanctuary. You can do this with an elaborate gesture, such as a velvet loveseat with a mohair throw. You can also collect small items that are pleasant to hold and touch: a smooth, tumbled river rock, a swan’s-down powder puff, a slinky.

And taste? This is a little extra, not essential, but delightful. Create a little treat box for yourself and include your favorite delicacies: dark Swiss chocolate, tangerine napoleons, Cracker Jack, Atomic Fireballs, whatever delights the kid or the connoisseur in you. If health concerns make sweets out the question, indulge in a flavored mineral water, or a cup of tea in a beautiful cup reserved for your sanctuary alone. One warning: if you find yourself reaching for cigarettes and alcohol to relax, keep them out of your sanctuary. Lacking those comfort crutches, you may feel a nervous void. That void is simply a cup awaiting something more nourishing to fill your soul.

Whether your sanctuary is a sparse Zen-zone or an eccentric gallery of odds and ends, it will be uniquely yours. Giving yourself the gift of a little time, space, peace and privacy is perhaps one of the best gifts you can give those around you. When you feel tension mounting, you can immerse yourself in sensory bliss, allowing your soul a chance to mend, returning to the crush and clatter of the world with inner poise and grace. With a place of retreat in the heart of your home, you can reap the benefits of serenity, sanity, and good will to all.

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© Melt Magazine 2004