Friday, December 14, 2012

Preparing for I Don’t Know What

Last year my advent was not one of quiet contemplation making room for the infant Jesus to be born in my heart. It was an Advent spent noisily culling my family’s possessions, loading a moving van, and, like Mary and Joseph, venturing to a new home.

This advent has not been quiet either, tearing out walls and chiseling out tile as my husband and I continue to remodel our home. But then I had surgery on Monday and I am finally still. Sore and prohibited from lifting five pounds for another week, ten pounds for a month after that, I sit in my recliner, atop a feather pillow and contemplate our future.

I received a packet of pre-surgery instructions and handouts to bring home along with prescriptions. At the surgery center, while one nurse tried unsuccessfully to start an IV, another explained what would happen once I was rolled into the OR. I was told precisely what to expect, exactly how to prepare.

If the rest of my life came complete with letter-sized folders and four-color printed sheets, I would know what I’d be doing a month from now, a year from now, when to fast and when to feast. But it doesn’t, and I don’t.

There was a job, one my husband was “promised” last spring, one that’s been our if-all-else-fails backup, a position that was supposed to be created specifically for him, to begin in February or March. But the hiring manager told us two weeks ago that he didn’t get funding.

“I’m a little bummed,” said my husband, the master of understatement.

I felt more than bummed, depressed and powerless, so later that day I swung a crow bar into some sheet rock, tore out a wall, and then slammed a hammer into the tiles of our downstairs shower. The crash of breaking tiles and the pile that built up on the floor below my stepladder were infinitely satisfying. I felt invigorated and powerful. In fact, I was so impressed with my own competence, amazed by my own transformation this past year, that I asked my husband to videotape me.

Demolition speaks to me, and allows me to see in a physical way that we are not bound by our circumstances, whether they be grungy tile and wallboard with rotting mice trapped behind them or unemployment. We can change our situation, our reactions, and our wall coverings.

And confirmation from the universe was infinite: The day after we tore out the shower, I was hired to edit a book. The day after that, I booked a fellow student from my MFA program to stay in our retreat in exchange for writing some online reviews, and the day of my surgery I received my first online booking in the retreat by someone I don’t know.

This week my husband had an exploratory interview, and next week he will be interviewing for two different jobs with major corporations he’s interviewed with before. One job, which isn’t posted to the public, he was recruited for. That’s a very encouraging sign. The job is also in California…the place we lived all of our lives, and left last year.

Kevin might not be offered the job, but the question, “are you willing to relocate?” is bound to come up.

He is for the right job, and the California job is a challenging, exciting professional opportunity. On the other hand, leaving this house we’ve worked so hard on with our Puget Sound view, is, as Mr. Understatement says, “kind of depressing.”

The idea of returning “home” to a place that’s no longer home has given us pause. But I am paused here in my recliner, unable to lift a laundry basket or a hammer, thinking about our future, preparing for I don’t know what, by using the skills I have developed in the past year or so as we have let go of the known and created something new:

I asked myself, “How could we make this opportunity exciting?”

I opened my laptop and relied on my go-to self-soothing habit—real estate websites—to both inspire and console me, and my search revealed these answers:

Keep this house. Live in two places. Figure out how to commute on weekends, or work remotely after a period of time. Buy a smaller house in California (we will need the mortgage deduction once Kevin has a salary again) than we would if it were our only house. Think out of our usual box: Live in a condo in San Francisco or a houseboat in Sausalito or a cabin in the Berkeley/Oakland Hills, or a small fixer-upper in San Leandro or Castro Valley with a Bay view, something urban we’ve never done before, knowing we can retreat and/or retire to our home on this island. 

I would love to find an instructional booklet in my stocking Christmas morning, telling me how to prepare for what’s ahead. But I’ll settle for an Amazon gift-card and the realization that the next right thing for us has already been birthed and is thriving: our ability to embrace each other and the unknown without fear. For this gift I am so incredibly thankful.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Dryer Fire

I thought my crust-less pumpkin pies were burning. I opened the oven, but they looked fine. Then I thought it was the shop-vac causing the odor. So did my husband, who was vacuuming, trying to clear out cobwebs in an open wall to determine the source of a water leak.

But soon he was rushing up the stairs to the kitchen where I was washing dishes.

“Where’s the fire extinguisher?” he asked.

Before I could answer, he spotted it, grabbed it. “There’s a fire in the laundry room,” he called bounding back downstairs.

“Do I need to call 911?” I asked.

“No,” he answered.

I rarely call it, but I’m the person 911 was designed for.

When I was a child, fire in an alley trashcan began to burn our back fence. It wasn’t anywhere near the house, but that didn’t stop me from leashing our dogs, scooping up the cage of white rats my sister and I kept as pets, and running across the street to take shelter at the Kiley’s until the fire was out, and the engine cruised quietly away.

Afterward I memorized the phone numbers for both the fire and police departments, but was plagued by nightmares in which I could never dial properly. I transposed numbers, or forgot them, or my finger slipped from the rotary dial. The advent of both the push-button phone and the universal emergency number did much to relieve my anxiety.

Part of me longed to dig out my cell phone (we don’t have a landline) and summon trained professionals to save us. But my husband said we didn’t need help and I trust him, so I went into I’m-cool-in-a-crisis mode, opening doors and windows upstairs, reassuring our cats crying in the cloud of foul smoke billowing into the living rom.

I turned off the oven, shoved my baked goods into the fridge, hoping they were still edible, pressed the damp dishtowel I’d been using over my nose, and headed to our basement and the smoke.

If the fire was indeed small and controllable, I understood Kevin’s reluctance to dial 911. Several years ago his mother had small kitchen fire, dialed help, and ended up living with us for months while our contractor haggled with the insurance company to replace not only the kitchen cabinets, but the flooring and wallboard throughout the house that was damaged from smoke, the fire-hose, and built-in sprinklers.

My husband, no doubt remembered that headache, and knew we had no friends or relatives to bunk with.

I found him in the laundry room, respirator strapped to his face, sliding a melted laundry basket filled with smoking towels away from the dryer.

In August, when he opened the wall in our laundry room, Kevin temporarily rerouted the dryer exhaust pipe. It ran across the ceiling from interior to exterior wall and had a small dip mid-run. It was here, he guessed, that lint built up and ignited. The flexible pipe burnt in two, one piece falling into the clean towels in the basket in front of the dryer. (As we’ve been tearing out walls and ceilings, we’ve taken down all our smoke detectors.)

The towels burned and the basket melted, as did the front of the dryer, licked by flames. The damage was minor: the toxic smell and smoke cleared once I plugged in fans and pulled in fresh air. Extinguisher-powder coated everything, and I lost some towels, a t-shirt, plus two laundry baskets. But my husband extinguished the blaze, even managing to fix the dryer’s fried control panel.

Once the cats settled down and it was clear we were safe, the shock and my competence wore off. I felt a bit shaky as I imagined other likely scenarios.

I usually forget about the laundry until I’m brushing my teeth before bed and realize there’s a load in the washer that needs to be dried. If this had been one of those nights, we’d have been sleeping, and without detectors to warn us, our bedroom would’ve filled with smoke before we woke up coughing. 

Once awake, it’s unlikely we would’ve travelled into the smoke to get down the hall, and if we had, the open stairwell would’ve been blazing, blocking our way to the front door. That would’ve meant breaking a bedroom window (the small sections that open are too small to crawl through), climbing out through broken glass onto a two-foot wide catwalk and then, since there are no stairs or ladder, jumping from the second floor onto the dirt below.
Nice view. No egress. 

Would I have thrown my cats off the balcony? Would I have seen our Bengal kitty again?

If my cell phone was in the bedroom and I remembered to grab it, I would’ve dialed 911. If not, we would’ve pounded on a neighbor’s door, asked to use the phone. Either way, we’d wait helplessly for the fire department to arrive (it’s eight minutes to the station) while our home burned.

But our home did not burn. Unusually, my husband was standing in the basement hallway when the fire started and put it out quickly.

It took weeks to figure out the cause of the leak he’d been investigating, so difficult to recreate—shower water travelling behind the faucet­—that we can only believe, as Kevin said the night of the fire, “It was God’s way of saving us.”

After we turned off the fans, shut the windows, and Swiffered the floor, we climbed into bed, and I huddled close to my husband, listening to his heartbeat in my ear. It was three days before Thanksgiving and thanksgiving swelled in my chest.  We had been rescued from the fire, spared homelessness and worse, saved by Kevin and by grace, given everything we needed and more.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Gift of Proximity

 A little more than one year ago my husband and I traveled to Washington for a job interview with Microsoft. While at the airport waiting for our flight, we received a call from our realtor with an offer on our house. So, we looked at houses in King County and Bainbridge Island and found one we loved on the island: Remodelers paradise.

We bought it and moved up here on faith that a job for Kevin would come. The months have passed and a job has not yet materialized, but we have finally completed the writers’ retreat I envisioned:

A studio apartment with a great desk and a full kitchen where writers and would-be writers can get away from the distractions of everyday life and enjoy the space and place for creativity to flourish. (If you want to know more about staying here, visit my website.)

writers' retreat Ikea kitchen

writers' retreat suite
garden outside the writers' retreat

Now I have the privilege of seeing my long-commuting husband in our house all day every day, wearing pajamas until noon while he applies for employment online. I prepare our meals and afternoon nibbles on special plates, announcing, “Happy hour snacks are ready.”

And we are happy at five or six p.m. to six together in the dining room (or in the lovely summer and September weather on our rooftop deck) breaking from the tasks we’ve been pursuing around the house and yard, separately and together.

snacking on the rooftop deck

We are happy to eat cheese and gluten-free crackers, apples, and raspberries from our garden, pistachios, and maybe a glass of Washington wine, unoaked.  We talk about the weather and how rain and temperatures will affect our projects, whether we’ll work indoors or out, whether we can paint or not.

Part of me delights in Kevin’s unemployment and is reluctant to return him to the workforce, although he is certainly working hard on retrofitting our home. I am thankful for each project he can complete that’s not tacked on to a fifty or sixty-hour workweek.

At some point we will feel the financial pressure of unemployment as if a Rottweiler were standing on our chests. Right now it feels like (because it literally is) our seven-pound Bengal cat.

The only thing missing from our lives are good friends in close proximity.

We’re acquainted with a few neighbors, I know some women from the local writing community, and Kevin is in touch with his former coworkers and family, but there’s no one here who knows us well.

I remember that the other times I moved it took me two or three years to feel as though I’d developed roots in my new community. I am an introvert, mindful to extend myself, but I spend most of my time at home, remodeling the house and writing.

I’m thankful that Facebook and cell phones have made my transition easier than before. I also have appreciated praying with my prayer partner of nearly twenty years on the phone almost every week since I moved, sharing my life via crackly headsets.

I have learned to be content with my own company, and I haven’t been lonely, but sometimes I miss being with someone who truly knows me, a soul friend, if not an old friend.

So it comes as an incredible blessing and unmerited gift to find that my prayer partner and her husband will be moving to this region in less than two weeks, relocating in December, as I did last year, to Puget Sound.

Her husband has recently retired and they planned to leave California for a state without personal income tax. They thought it would be Nevada, but instead it will be Washington.

Soon, I will be able to drive thirty-five minutes through forests and fields, catching glimpses of seagulls and the sound, and arrive at her door.

How sweet and sacred it will be to pray side-by-side holding hands after months of uncomfortable earpieces and cellular static. What a treasure it will be to be physically present to this dear one who has sat and walked and listened and talked and prayed through every major event and decision in my life (and I in hers) for nearly two decades.
My prayer partner and I at Point White Dock on Bainbridge Island in February 

I never anticipated that we might be reunited, that instead of filling each other in on what is happening in our lives, we will be creating and exploring this region we will now both call home together, discovering where we fit in and how we can contribute to the physical, social, and spiritual environments we will inhabit.

That we will be able to praise, party, and pray together in person is nothing short of astounding. God’s grace is abundant everywhere and endless. As we ease toward Advent, I anticipate the new life that will be birthed. I celebrate this manifestation.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Sweaty Gift

My husband ordered us a Christmas gift, something to soothe our tired muscles after long days of remodeling: an infrared sauna.

I’m completely on board with the concept: romantic evenings with the two of us in our cedar box, the light therapy wheel causing our skin to glow red, yellow, blue, while we listen to a Jim Brickman playlist on the built-in MP3 speakers, chatting while we sweat out impurities.

No running outside in the rain to climb into a hot tub to find the heater broken and mold circulating through the jets. Unlike a traditional sauna, no worries about steam burns or shorting coils.

This is paradise in a cube measuring just 53 by 53 inches and requiring just one dedicated 20-amp circuit. It could easily fit in our house. Where? The basement.
All I had to do was move everything we’d stored and then seal the masonry walls. My husband would run the wiring.

Sure, we could do that—after we finished trimming the den walls and tiling a hearth, and rewiring, putting up sheetrock and painting the downstairs office that we have stripped down to the studs—all in order to have carpet installed. Carpet we ordered back in July, carpet sitting in a warehouse with helpful employees who call us every few weeks to find out when they can schedule our install.

The underground wall of the office sealed with masonry paint

If we worked hard we’d be ready for both carpet and sauna in January.

The trouble is we were so excited by our vision of relaxing and the sale price at Home Depot that my husband clicked the order button and the sauna is on a truck right now. For the interim my husband suggested we set it up in the spare bedroom upstairs, a room we use as his closet, the station for cat food and litter box, a room already full with a twin bed and assorted extra furniture.

I didn’t want to rearrange everything in that bedroom, and I suspected the chance of relocating the sauna to the basement once it was in use was slim. So I began clearing out the basement, hauling the shelves and the boxes they held into our laundry room. 

Once the basement was cleared I thought I ought to paint the cement wall with masonry paint, like I did in the office last week: A moisture barrier is always a good idea.

I sat in the basement, waiting for Kevin to finish drilling holes for wiring in the office. I watched him through the support posts on the wall stripped of its sheetrock. Watching him through the slatted openings, I thought about how lovely it would be to take out the posts and make one big room.

He finished and looked at me.

“I’m thinking,” I said.

“About what?” he asked.

“Tearing out the wall.” Something in me delights in demolition.

The cleared basement and chair where I had my brilliant idea!

Kevin jokes that I will do anything to get out of painting. But of course, I still sealed the masonry. And I will paint: After he firs out the basement. After he moves the bathroom wall into the basement a few feet to install a bathtub. (We’re abandoning the hideous shower. It will become a coat closet).

But I won’t need to paint the wall that’s coming down in our new master bedroom.

Yes, a real master bedroom with an attached master bathroom! A master bedroom that won’t feel claustrophobic with our king-sized bed. A master bedroom with enough closet space to keep his and hers clothes in the same room.

It was not part of our original vision for the house, and that I think is one of the reasons I’m so enamored with the idea.

We were going to leave the bedrooms as is because we couldn’t think of a good way to make a master bedroom on the main floor. But here we are, thinking outside the floor-plan and wall-box, taking a non-room and incorporating it into the house to make room for our sauna (essentially a box).

One thing leads to another: re-rewiring, figuring out plugs, lights, closets (there aren’t any downstairs right now), paint, and wondering what to do about the carpet, since we didn’t order enough for this extra room and the dye lots might not match, and so on.

This wall is coming down and new master bedroom will rise here.

I write this while the second coat of masonry paint dries and my husband is unloading his truck after a Home Depot trip returning items we don’t need and buying others for this new project. He says he thought of the idea first, and even mentioned it to me, and that I dismissed it. Which is probably true.

I know this about myself: I’m much more excited about and compliant with ideas that are my own. So, if it wasn’t mine, my mind made it so. That way my heart and energy can follow. 

The sauna is in transit an inspirational and sweaty gift that has already changed my life.