Walking Just So

 

photoOn a cool dark Sunday at dusk, there is time to perambulate the park with a scarf pulled loosely up to cup her ears. The streetlights fizzing on with their dismal orange hum remind her of insects that’ve lived past the end of their season solely by having forgotten to die. The grass turns black as the light falls; its damp makes her stockings wet and makes her aware, as well, of the earthy smell of the grass, the leaves, the soil and even the smoke of someone’s fireplace quite nearby. The walk, though short and brisk and only comprising a modest loop around the park to curl back home, is best because it took her out, away and into something else, so that the return is all the sweeter, landing her at last on the entry rug of familiarity, spun in the soft cocoon of fumes that reach her from the soup kettle waiting, steaming on the stove across the hall.photo montage

Toward Home and Hearth

photoAt Close of Day

After the labor that fills the day and long before full darkness falls,

We long to gather and go away, to leave the dimness of labor’s halls

And go back home to the fireside, where supper and books and armchairs wait,

To spend the remains of eventide over soup and a novel beside the grate.

This is the way the day should end, and peace and renewal repair the spent,

Frayed souls whose work was less than friend, for whom the fire is heaven-sent–

This nest of comfort from which we roam always draws us back to hearth and home.photo montage

Peaceful Shadowland

Fall and Winter have a stealthy benefit that’s often overlooked. They lend themselves, more than the ebullience and exuberance of Spring and Summer, to a sort of calming melancholia, to meditation and contemplative times. In Autumn and wintertime, the chaos of the world can be lessened and untangled without the palisade thrown up by the warmer seasons interfering with the endeavor.photo

In part, it’s simply that we are increasingly encouraged by colder and often less amenable weather to stay indoors. Indoors, where the hearth beckons, where our books lie in wait, where our writing tools stay safe from the tempests outside. Indoors, where it’s easy to keep a cup of tea or coffee or cocoa hot and handy while we spend the hours tending to those tasks of repair and renovation that have lain unnoticed when the longer days of sunlight kept pulling us away. The birds flit south and abandon their choir-lofts around the house and the other creatures begin to line their dens and curl up under porches with greater urgency, leaving the airwaves to the less inviting, darker sounds of passing traffic on wet pavement and wind whistling down the fence lines, sounds that urge us to follow our instincts and the local wildlife to seek shelter and keep quiet while the forbidding cold and darkness of the ‘off seasons’ roar through town.

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But there’s another great appeal to Fall and Winter, another aspect that captures the gentler and more introspective angles of the imagination, and that is the way that these seasons strip away their frills and wash out any fripperies that might distract us from the most basic parts of our existence. It’s the way this time of year seems to contract not just the length of its daylight hours so that we see things dimly, palely and in lengthening shade and shadows, but even the spectrum of visible color, which becomes thin and subdued in the leanness of winter light. The water recedes from the fruits and flowers and stems of summer’s abundance and leaves them slightly parched and leads them to bend and fall. The slightest breeze, now colder, finds us clutching at our lapels and jamming our raw hands as far into pockets as they can go.photo

In this beautiful world, with the color rapidly draining out of memory, the stillness of hiding and hibernation weighing us into lassitudinous introversion, and the brisk chill of frost settling around our ears and shoulders like lead, we can at last let go of the impetus to run and shout and do, if only for the joy of rediscovering what waits in the seasons of shadow. We can see the world in a sort of refined simplicity if we let ourselves. We can take these moments of clean-slate clarity to listen to our innermost selves for a bit and sort out what does and doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of our lives. And we can go to sleep knowing that when the glad excesses of Spring and Summer return we will see them through new and more appreciative eyes and perhaps, yes just maybe, even find that in the midst of all that bloom and warmth and celebration we may long for the stringent joys of Fall and Winter once again.

All in the Details (Small and Large), Part 1

photoI’m an avid, and truly amateur (in both the worst and best senses of the word), changer-upper of things. My father warned my fiance, as if the poor guy hadn’t already seen it in action, that when we lived together he would likely come home from any trip–overseas or two doors down the street–and find the furniture rearranged or a room fully repainted, or possibly, that we’d moved to another house in his absence. I promised I would always leave a forwarding address and directions with his new house key if I went so far as the latter. He married me anyway. And I have indeed continued in my blissfully mercurial attitudes toward what feels comfortable and desirable, or looks beautiful, to me in my places of work, play and general living. Aside from the occasional piteous whimpers of ‘Who Moved My Cheeeeeeeese?‘ my husband has also continued to be an exemplary, even sometimes equally avid if not outright participatory, supporter of this habit of mine.

I assure you, this hobby of mine might have run even more wildly rampant had I had the time, tools, skills and bottomless budget required for such extravagances. But though I might chafe at having to think so hard or wait so long, I’m also addicted nearly as deeply to the problem-solving puzzles presented by having to prioritize and/or simplify my fantastical plots and plans. As we’ve lived our sixteen-plus years together thus far in five homes of our own plus a couple of stints living briefly in other places where we had a bit of free rein if not ownership, there have been plenty of opportunities for these kinds of happy dreaming and scheming. Since I’m unlikely to live even overnight in a motel room without itching to Improve upon something or other about it, you can well imagine that Things Happen whenever I’m plugged in for any length of time at all.

You’ve heard hints here recently that I have had a few such projects in mind and/or in hand at home once again, so I think it’s about time to unveil some of the things I’ve managed to do or have done. And some that are still early in their incubation, perhaps. When we came to Texas to house-hunt for one whole week in 2009, it was the first time I’d set foot in the state outside of the airport. My spouse had been to the town we were moving to live in as much as twice during the interview process, so between us our experience and ken of the town didn’t add up to much, so we knew it was best to hold off on buying a home until (a) we saw if the move was a ‘good match’ (or the university or denizens of our town would run us out at pitchfork-points, or we would pack up our carpet-bags in the dark of night and slink off to places yet unknown) and (b) we had some clue what part of town spoke to us and could house-hunt at leisure.

Thus, a rental for our first Texas home. We spent a comfortable year living in a very decent place in a quiet neighborhood and with marvelous landlords, but hoping to find something with better space for inviting students and colleagues and friends to visit, not to mention where we could put visiting relatives for overnight stays without having to stand them up in a coat-closet or bed them down in the bathtub. The real bonus of our rental locale was that the neighborhood was virtually across the fence from a second neighborhood that was both inviting for cooler-weather walks on the weekend and somewhat hidden–we know lots of longtime townspeople who still didn’t know this neighborhood existed until we invited them to our current place.

When we found the house we would buy, we had been ‘scouting’ the neighborhood, with its mature oaks galore and hidden charms, for a bit and we were first to see the For Sale sign sprout and the first to come and look through. A second couple had asked for a tour before we turned around and opted to make an offer, and that was about it. Both of us had an instant liking for both the house and the nice 88-year-old lady who sold it to us, but it took both of us wearing our creative goggles to see through her 30-year-old decor to see what we would make of it as our own home. So the negotiations began with our plan to remain living for an overlapping month in the rental house a short walk away while I joined the construction crew that we hired to do the many small repairs and updates and the one larger task that would lend it such personalization for us rather quickly.photos x 2The big idea was to open the wall between the kitchen and dining rooms, which made this three-decade-old house leap forward into the Open Concept era and our plans for group entertainment with great alacrity. The removal of lots of wallpaper and beautifully crafted but dated window treatments and a few old-looking light fixtures, and adding many fresh coats of paint throughout, went a long way toward modernizing the place, so that’s what I did to keep busy while The Guys were generally wreaking havoc in the adjoining living areas. I ripped out the wall to wall carpeting in all the bathrooms–the en suite master bath being effectively three whole rooms even without counting the walk-in closets in them, plus a Jack and Jill bathroom between two bedrooms that we’ve made into an office and a TV room, plus the guest bathroom on the other side of the house. I ripped out the carpeting in the kitchen. It was partly glued down and mostly just welded with age to the slab all around, and the baseboard was a bit brittle with age, so it was slow going, but despite that and the gritty heat of the work it was worth the effort, and a huge delight to see the unwelcome, inconveniently dirt-gathering flooring in the ‘wet rooms’ give way to concrete over which we could get something more appropriate set.

Once I had the rugs ripped up and most of the wallpaper stripped from the kitchen and entry, the contractor’s crew came in and began the kitchen renovation, knocking open the inside wall, repairing wall and ceiling cracks, replacing the refrigerator and dishwasher and cooker fan hood (with a microwave/vent), and extending the lower cabinets to fill the new half-wall with wonderful storage. New and gorgeous granite counters went in, fresh paint went on and with masterful matching, new Saltillo tiles from Mexico were laid in the kitchen and adjoining hall and guest bath and stained to match the existing entry/dining room floor. While the men were busy with the kitchen and some painting of the higher-ceilinged entry, living and dining rooms and kitchen, I kept busy repairing small holes and scratches on walls and woodwork to prep for my paint work, removing all of the broken, torn or dated window treatments, and replacing light fixtures and hardware (grouping light switch and outlet face plates and towel bars and door handles to better match each other in various rooms). My favorite improvement in that category came from removing the Oh-So-Eighties white ceramic knobs on every cabinet door in the entire built-in-filled house and replacing them room by room with new hardware better suited to each space.

Now, I must add to all of this that this is a house I would never have designed in the first place. It’s not precisely my style. But I love it. I’m an old enough hand with this stuff to know it would have been a huge mistake to take an essentially solid and well-made house and try–at least without gutting and rebuilding it with ridiculous infusions of money–and make it into something it isn’t. This is how a person who adores Craftsman style, cottage style, mid-century modern, minimalist contemporary, Gothic and Art Nouveau styles, among many others, ends up living in and paying homage to, an updated ’70s colonial. Ha! Needless to say, it requires submitting my own instincts to an appropriateness-test each time I make a tweak, and looking for whatever I do find attractive and lovable that is suited to the situation. First and foremost, of course, that category includes the people I want to spend time with in this place. (!)

One of the distinctions of this house’s style is the aforementioned large amount of built-in cabinets everywhere. It makes for an atypical ’70s house to have such abundant storage. I don’t even use all of the space in any one of the rooms. I can credit a bit of that to being a pretty good organizer and fondness for occasional purging rampages on both our parts, but much of it’s simply having more space than we really require. We quickly found in house-hunting that nothing in our expected choice of home sizes (two bedrooms, two baths so we could accommodate our overnight guests) ever had enough contiguous living space for a dozen dinner guests, let alone twice that or more as we’ve sometimes had on hand. We have, therefore, much more space than absolutely necessary for a whole lot of other things besides mere hospitality purposes. I do find it’s nice, over time, to figure out what use serves us best in which part of the house.

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Need more storage despite the cupboards? A wire rack cut to fit over the door jambs keeps the laundry basket out of the way, close by and dust-free. Doors cross each other when they’re both open and pinch your poor hands in between? Replace one of the two with a bi-fold door.

That’s how what at first seemed like a uselessly illogical cabinet in the front hall became the ideal mid-house location for my most-used small hand tools and hardware stash so that no matter where the need occurs, everything is in fairly quick and easy reach. An innate urge to find the easiest route to every necessary task drives me to make many of those changes that can drive change-haters and husbands batty at first but often lead to eventual simplification in daily life. Having two supposedly unwanted extra bedrooms led to our having a place to keep and watch a giant television without it living in our guest space and distracting from lovely conversations with visitors in the living room. Coincidentally, it makes a very cozy ‘away’ space for reading or napping that means neither of us ever has to be underfoot if the other wants to do something different (or more asleep) than the other is occupied with at the moment. It also gives us an expansive home office space so that my spouse can continue his university tasks after hours as needed, without stealing my favorite desk space as I work. No dueling over desks here. No dueling at all, really, in such a big house that I now have my own comfy recliner in front of the TV too. No, I’m not even going to try for custody of the remote; I don’t know what is on when or where anyhow.

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From the kitchen, an open view: dinette at lower left, door to laundry at upper left, guest bedroom with its frosted window shining just beyond it; a big built-in hutch for kitchen storage; living room at upper right, with its opening into the dining room at the very far right, and on the lower right, the kitchen counter over which *that* room opens into the dining room.

The latest round of fix-ups and mix-ups around the house waited a couple of years after our buying the place so that we would not only have saved up a little to do them but also, one hopes, have a far better idea of how the house works and how we can best operate in it. The guest room furniture got reoriented so that there was enough more room to add in our exercise cycle and more importantly, also a small desk for guests’ use. One of the happy quirks of room re-arrangement is that sometimes even when there’s more stuff in a space, if it’s better arranged it can feel bigger. Physics aren’t always obviously logical. Go figure. The living room furniture underwent a similarly needed reorientation and now allows room for a small tertiary dinette–besides the eight person dining table and the kitchen one that can stretch for six, we can now put a few diners in the living room too without even moving the conversational seating group. My small seating group out on the back patio is very rarely used. It’s almost always too hot, of course, for sitting out there, even if there weren’t also the Texas-sized insects lying in wait to chew us right out of our skins, not least of all those recently arrived terrorists, the West Nile carrying mosquitoes. Still, there’s something both comforting and welcoming in the mere sight of a pretty outdoor ‘room’, so that’s on my list: how shall I make the space outside our kitchen windows extend our sense of place out into the greenery? How can I bridge the gap between my dream garden out there and the small changes I can bring that will improve the yard much more affordably in the short term? The plot thickens, indeed. The outdoor chandelier has moved closer to the seating area now, and more will come soon. I hope.photoHaving begun the recent round of improvements with a new TV room recliner (a supposed outdoor piece, and bought at the grocery store, of all things) and that blessed new cooktop I was bragging of recently (where eggs do not perpetually run downhill and cook from one end to the other over time anymore), we moved on to more complicated things.photo

(To be continued tomorrow . . . )