Good with Imperfection

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Shims. These are little pieces of wood that you purchase when the floors in your old house slant in three different rooms. I know this because we now have them under most of our furniture in an effort to combat the “funhouse” effect. In the photo above, ignore everything except the thin leg on that piece of furniture and notice where it meets the floor. See the little squares of wood? Now you know what shims look like.

People ask how the house is coming along and I’m never sure what to say. “It’s coming,” is usually my answer. The boxes are unpacked, which is an accomplishment, but the furniture has been moved and rearranged and ultimately judged as too big to fit into most of our downstairs rooms. Our pieces have puffy arms and they are ridiculously deep and wide, so we’re in the process of downsizing most of our furniture, which wasn’t in the plan. It feels like we’re in house survival mode – troubleshooting weird problems we couldn’t have predicted and discovering strange quirks that the house has been hiding since October. These are small problems in a big world, but this is the world we happen to be living in right now on Rosedale Avenue.

This is my first go round with an old house so I’ve been looking at photos of other homes that have been renovated and resurrected. At first it was fascinating and inspiring, and then it wasn’t. After so many images of sterile, stylish, bright and white rooms, I wanted to see a little reality. I wanted to see the shims. Or at least some evidence that somewhere in the midst of the perfection, there was a little pitch in the floor. We have varying degrees of slanting floors in three rooms in our house and there is nothing we can do about it. We gutted the kitchen and the master bathroom to redo ugliness and former botched remodeling projects, but the floors are not a fix-it project.

In an earlier decade of my life, this would have been unacceptable. I don’t know if I’m a perfectionist, but in every house I’ve moved to as an adult (it’s been eight), the first month was a mad push to unpack, clean, hang pictures, and do every repair and cosmetic fix that could have been spread out over twelve months. The people who lived in the house with me were patient and gracious, biting their tongues and allowing me to be needlessly picky and worried. It was imperative that the house look like the picture I had been painting in my mind for the previous 45 days. Mostly, I wanted perfection, and I wanted it fast. This house isn’t participating in the perfection game and here are a few reasons why:

The eight-foot opening into the dining room has an obvious sag in the middle.

The garage is not fit for cars or humans, but the feral cats love it. We store our junk in it and pray that the Oklahoma wind won’t level it.

There is no grass in the backyard, but there is dirt, scattered clumps of weeds, and an overgrown Koi pond that perpetually and mysteriously holds water, even during weeks without rain.

The windows are original and drafty, and there there are no two the same size. Also, I now know the train comes through with a blaring whistle between 4 and 5 a.m.

While this may all sound like petulant whining, it’s not. This is enlightenment.

Everything that will never be fixed in this old house is part of what makes it good. This is a new concept for me, because I like perfection. But perfection is stressful. It’s also impossible to attain, and it makes us competitive and sorrowful with our sad self when we look at photos and posts of lives and houses that seem void of flaws. Perfection makes us lament what we don’t have and feel a tiny (or looming) resentment toward those who appear to have acheived it on some level. We want everything in our line of vision to be tidied up and nailed down, clean lines and sharp edges. White and bright. That’s my problem. If it’s yours, I have some news.

No one, including you, wants to hear the perfect story. It isn’t interesting. It doesn’t move us in the deep places or draw us toward one another. What we want to hear instead is a good story – the one where your husband, while digging out the Koi pond in the backyard, finds a trash can with rocks in it buried four feet deep in the ground and almost gives himself a hernia pulling it up from the depths. This is the project that doesn’t get finished in an hour, or a day. Probably not in a week. A month? It’s messy and sloppy and ugly. It’s good. It’s life being lived and humans making the best of it. In the Hebrew language, the word for this is tov. It’s the kind of good that isn’t perfect, but instead embraces the darkness and hard moments, knowing there is also joy and light as well. And then the Greeks gave us a view of perfectionism with their statues and Olympics. Perfection was striving to be the ultimate human, which actually takes us far away from our humanity, and from what feels like home. Anne Lamott says that perfectionism is when we try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up – and yet it is the clutter and mess show that us life is being lived. This is the good story. Because we are all a bit of a mess, you and I, and we should have the freedom to live out our good story without the burden of making it a perfect story.

If you visit my house, I’m going to show you the sloping floors and the sagging doorway and the disastrous backyard. Oh, and the window seat in the dining room, which I’ll leave to your imagination. And I’ll show you the shims, beautifully stained so that they will blend in with the wood floor – our feeble attempt to clean up the mess. Come over and I’ll tell you the good story, because that’s the one that carries us home.

An Update from Rosedale and 64th Place

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This photo makes it clear (or it should) that we have not moved to the Rosedale house yet. It’s way past time for an update, so here goes: We sold our Shadow Mountain house in one day to the most lovely couple who taught their little daughters to swim in our pool many years ago. In case I was in danger of forgetting that life is full of surprises, last month kindly reminded me. Selling to this sweet family was a huge affirmation and they will take our place here on February 2nd. We continue to pack and purge – and I continue to cry at dumb stuff. The word bittersweet fits most of my moments, but these days every time I walk into the Rosedale house I’m more amazed at the transformation. Someone saw the potential of this place through all the chaos, and that person wasn’t me. I kept wringing my hands, but Kyle never did. So I’m grateful for a husband and a contractor who had faith that when we scrape away all the neglect, this place will shine.

I can finally see through the remaining chaos, which means this photo is beautiful to me. The moving van is scheduled for January 27th. We’re surrounded by boxes and empty bookshelves and rooms with nothing on the walls. Some days I feel ready and other days I picture my arms wrapped around the tree in the front yard on moving day while they try to drag me away. Okay, being dramatic here, but I’m honestly not sure which emotion will prevail on that day. Also, I’m getting a little touchy about purging, since over the years my sentimentality has caused our closets to bloat with boxes of special things that I can’t (and won’t) release. These boxes are coming with us because I’m purged out. I can’t become any more minimalistic or I’m afraid I’ll disappear. I’m done. No more purging. No more sorting through stuff. No more decisions about what stays and what goes. That little foursquare house is going to have to hold what’s left of my stuff.

I love before and after photos, so I’ll be posting some as soon as we have a room that qualifies as an “after” photo. I’m told that will happen before January 27th, so I’m taking that on faith.

This new chapter is ours, and we have the opportunity to make something wonderful out of it, chaos and all. I really do believe that. I just might need a reminder if I start walking toward the big tree on moving day.

Owen Park’s Little Free Library

 

img_3015Things we haven’t done before: 1) haul a toilet around in the back of our truck for three days, 2) set off flea bombs (multiple times) in an empty house, 3) maintain a little library in our front yard.

This blog post is about the third thing.

During our first and only showing of the house before we made an offer, our wonderful realtor, Joy, ended it with an explanation about the structure on the corner of our front yard. It was a small box with a frosted glass front, a gabled roof with a tattered flag at the peak, and a floating fairy painted on the back.

“It’s a library – the neighbors can take a book and leave a book. It has shelves of books inside the box. Isn’t that cool?” she said as we stood on the front porch.

It’s possible this piece of information is what tossed us happily over the edge. We knew the house had charm peeking out from behind the long list of remodel projects, but the little front yard library made me swoon. When Joy said it had shelves filled with books, a little memory flashed across my mind of the days when I used to read books that required fingers for turning pages instead of swiping a screen. We have a fairly substantial home library with an entire wall of bookshelves in the living room and a front office with two walls of built-in bookshelves. But we started this purge thing and now we’re working to reduce our consumption, get rid of what we no longer use, and cease making purchases that take up precious space we won’t have in the new house. So our home library is being phased out. I have four small shelves of books that I will keep, but everything else is gone or is going. Hit me up for free books if you are starting your own home library.

This is hard for me because I’ve always been able to justify books. If we were cutting back on our spending, I budgeted in a monthly allowance for books. Being surrounded by them brings comfort and security, but I can’t justify keeping them in mass quantities. Rarely do I read a book more than once, except for Catcher in the Rye and anything by Anna Quindlen (look her up, please). Those are on my stay shelf, but most of my books are there because I need them near me and they look really good, which sounds like the basis for a bad relationship. I like to think of it as an unnecessary relationship. But still, I do love books.

So we have this quaint little library that we’ll maintain and freshen up, replace the flag, paint over the floating fairy, and continually weed out the religious tracts and booklets that keep showing up on the shelves. I’m considering taking it a step further and registering our library with Little Free Library, a non-profit started by creative artisan Todd Bol and youth and community development educator Rick Brooks. Their social enterprise was inspired by Andrew Carnegie (again, please look him up), social empowerment movements in developing countries, Lutie Stearn’s “traveling little libraries”, and community gift-sharing networks. These are all things that make my heart happy. It started small, with Bol building a replica of a one-room schoolhouse that he filled with books. He put the box in his front yard with a sign that read, “Free Books”.  It was a tribute to his mother, a teacher who loved to read. He made several more and gave them to friends so the little library concept could continue. The goal was to build 2,510 little libraries through a network of people who would build their own library or order one through the non-profit and place it in a public space. As of November 2016, there are 50,000 registered Free Little Libraries worldwide and additional libraries that are unregistered and unaccounted for, including ours. Bol’s small project has turned into a worldwide enterprise.

Fernando, our amazing contractor who is bringing the Rosedale house back to life, told us that he sees neighbors stopping to take and leave books, so the little library continues to give back, even though the house is empty for now.

These days, my own life and the happenings in the world leave me feeling a little overwhelmed. I’m not one to start small, but instead usually like to jump in with big ideas and ambitious projects. I don’t have the patience for slow and small. I want to change the world and do it as fast as possible. But what they say is true – change often starts with people like you and me doing their part to make the space around them kinder, brighter, more grace-filled and joyful. So while I still have my eyes focused on what is across the ocean, I’m also learning to look carefully at what is close to home. Nothing is insignificant. Even a little box filled with books for my neighbors and their children.

The Most Important Room: Before

 

 

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The kitchen demolition at Rosedale started two weeks ago but I wasn’t there to watch since the kitchen really isn’t my territory anymore. Last October Kyle took over the cooking and the result has been more creative meals, experimental dishes, general healthier eating, and happy humming that goes on while the meal is being prepared. I still saunter in to do a little baking when I have time, but we all know who we really want in the kitchen.

My mother taught me to cook when I was in elementary school, so I do have skills and did most of the cooking during our 27 years of marriage. There are two kinds of cooks – those who fearlessly mess around with the recipes, and those who use recipe card holders and never deviate from what is printed on those cards. My mother and I are the latter. Her recipe cards are stained and creased because she never winged it. Like her, in this area of my life I play it safe. My collection of cookbooks and recipes clipped from magazines – and later pulled from the Internet – got me through those 27 years of cooking. No one complained, except Colin, 15 years ago when I tried a new recipe for spinach burritos. He can’t let go of it and reminds us frequently how scarring it was for him. No one else can recall this meal, so I’m not counting it as a fail. But there’s a new chef now and I couldn’t be happier, which means I’m mostly staying out of the kitchen remodel decisions. He knows what kind of cook top and stove he wants, the configuration of countertop space, cabinets that will roll out and hold pots and pans. And on it goes. This is our first kitchen remodel and although we aren’t knocking out walls, it feels like we’re building something from scratch. We are replacing original upper cabinets, and when they were removed we discovered that the wall behind them needed both sheetrock and insulation. An earlier remodel had not properly prepared the walls, and so what we thought would be a simple cabinet installation became major wall prep. And a corner that was angled and held the refrigerator was taking up precious space, so the angle is no more and the refrigerator will move to the opposite wall.

Most of this was discussed and decided after we bought the house. I was content to leave it all strangely angled because it felt safer. But I was overruled and the angle has been replaced with a straight-line corner, which they tell me will open up the space. This kitchen is smaller than our current kitchen and has no room for a breakfast table, but we’re not willing to go big with this remodel. I’ve had moments of wishing for a little more space between the sink and the stove, but then I watched a few HGTV remodel shows and now I feel better about myself. I thought asking for a lazy Susan and a pantry wall was demanding. Not so. Our contractor has shared with us several stories of outrageously expensive kitchen remodels for people who rarely cooked. They mostly ate out and carried in, but paid big money to upgrade their kitchen to chef’s standards. I have no judgement on this (okay, maybe just a little), but it seems the thing that makes the kitchen is the people in it – preparing, anticipating, gathering around, saying grace over, and then, finally, eating the food. This can happen in beautiful ways with or without an island, eat-in bar, granite countertops or a sub-zero refrigerator.

The kitchen has always been the hub of our house for many reasons, but mostly because this is where the real conversations happen. It may not be this way for everyone, but in our family the kitchen is where big announcements have been made, arguments have been started and resolved, major decisions have been discussed (beyond what we’re having for dinner that night), and guests have lingered at the beginning and ending of an evening together – choosing to stand even though we have comfortable chairs in other rooms. When there were five of us living in our house, there were evenings when we stood around in the kitchen during dinner preparation to talk about the day, before we even got to the table.

In many cultures, it seems that the place where life-sustaining food is being prepared is where families gather. In Ghana, outdoor kitchens are common, and older children are often a part of the preparations while younger children play nearby. In many countries, the kitchen is in the center of a compound, and extended family members naturally gravitate to the place where food is being chopped, pounded (as in Ghanaian fufu) or slowly simmering. These kitchens are often nothing more than a wood fire, and yet this is where the action is. Food gives life, and so it makes sense that the space in a home where it is being prepared is where we want to be, even if it is only a subconscious desire.

So I’m looking at the blank walls in our unfinished kitchen and reminding myself that it isn’t islands, big spaces, fancy appliances and granite countertops that matter (we’re sticking with mid-range appliances and butcher block), but the warmth that radiates from a place where the cook hums, guests are welcomed and honest conversation happens. Whether recipes are followed or creativity is flourishing with the food preparation, our little kitchen will still be the most important room in the house. But I’m holding out for that pantry wall.

 

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