By Suzanne Pollak
Mary Poppins, a bewitching being, believes anything is possible and nothing is impossible. She can turn any situation on its head. Then, when the chaos calms—and before the recipient of her help can become dependent on her to fix every problem in sight—she’s off to imbue the next project with her magical order. M. P. finds the marvel underneath any situation, which always exists but often eludes us, much like a starry night we can’t see because of light pollution. When we lose the ability to believe in mystery and magic, we need this kind of person to float into our lives.
Meet Dennise Church—part modern-day Mary Poppins, part house whisperer, part intuitive soul seer who knows when someone needs their hand held spiritually. She flies around the country organizing, advising, and even putting clients to work as she sees fit, transforming and working her magic in ways that a life or business coach does not. Her specialty is making people feel differently about their living spaces, helping them to find stability in the midst of the turmoil in the world.
Church has many tricks up her sleeves: the first is knowing how to get her clients working right alongside her, which must be the quickest, surest way to rebuild a life. Paint stroke by paint stroke, a transformation begins. The painting is not only a way of making a house beautiful but also a tool for rearranging the brain to accept the newly altered space and life that comes with it. Unexpected pleasures and a new sense of responsibility stem from the labor. Participating in the work, physically and mentally, becomes creative and more constructive than paying someone else to do it. Joy lies in changing chaos into calm, ugliness into elegance, a neglected, unloved space into a gem, and even the old you into the new you.
Some of us cannot feel settled unless our interior spaces are organized in a way that connects to our inner being. We need someone to show us the way. I understand why The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo was a best seller and the concept of Swedish death cleaning ended up on Good Morning America. Today’s zeitgeist has created an urgent desire for order in many of us, and that order can start at home.
There are different ways to view a house. For some people, it is all about the shelter. Economists see it as a commodity for building wealth, and sociologists understand the differentiation of social status and how trends, income, or age might determine dwellings. But none of this matters in Mary Poppins’s world. For her, the house is a metaphor for life.
The twenty-first-century Mary Poppins harks back to the fourteenth century like Virgil leading Dante through the Inferno: “in the middle of the journey . . . in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost.”
Church uses a house to rebuild a person’s identity. Anyone with extra money can make a great design better or pay an expert to do so, but to create more than an ode to design or dollars—to make a launching pad for a new life that suits the occupant—requires a unique skill. Church intuits what the person living in turmoil needs to thrive and be launched firmly onto a new path. The twenty-first-century Mary Poppins harks back to the fourteenth century like Virgil leading Dante through the Inferno: “in the middle of the journey . . . in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost.”
I recently moved into a new house and found it has been bruised, and so have I. Naturally, I enlisted Church’s help. It’s a process to redo a house, to remove decades of grime caused by neglect. A home has a relationship with its owners very much as people have with each other—it is often either treasured and loved or neglected and unloved. A house takes on perceptions, problems, and ugliness over time, accumulating them in layers. To scrub off all the unwanted layers of past lives is a mighty job. We want to leave the patina and character underneath but ensure that the essence and beauty shine through. It takes dedicated work and digging deep to let go and uncover the confidence and joy hiding inside, allowing it to emerge front and center.
At first, the interior of my home was a muddy, dark, grayish-brown, the color producing a depressing vibe in each room. I wanted light, calming colors to embrace me. With Church’s guidance, I chose pale teal and the lightest of blues for walls and trim. Painting the trim the same color as the walls made the rooms feel bigger, brighter, and cleaner.
I began to honor the little gem my home is becoming, a happy place to support me through my transition as I learn to carve a new path and write my own story.
To make the house work for my life, I decided to swap the room functions. The first room became an office instead of a living room. The square dining room is now my tiny living room—definitely the smallest living room I have seen but also one of my favorite ones. It has such personality, and it’s mine! An upstairs room that was useless is now a library with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.
Through painting and cleaning every wall, molding, stair riser, and door trim with my own two hands—plus those of Church and her sidekick—I moved from feeling the house was not right for me to appreciating the space slowly, brushstroke by brushstroke. I began to honor the little gem my home is becoming, a happy place to support me through my transition as I learn to carve a new path and write my own story.
Shedding the grime of the past and finding luster underneath it adds yet another layer of history, character, dignity, and depth to both the house and me. As I find my way forward, I expect I’ll accept no boundaries or rules imposed on me by anyone—a resolution made thanks to transforming a tiny little house with a powerful Mary Poppins named Dennise Church by my side.
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Suzanne Pollak, a mentor and lecturer in the fields of home, hearth, and hospitality, is the founder and dean of the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits. She is the coauthor of Entertaining for Dummies, The Pat Conroy Cookbook, and The Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits: A Handbook of Etiquette with Recipes. Born into a diplomatic family, Pollak was raised in Africa, where her parents hosted multiple parties every week. Her South Carolina homes have been featured in the Wall Street Journal “Mansion” section and Town & Country magazine.