Monday, March 26, 2012

Further Than I Can See

I was playing tour guide, driving my first non-family visitor––my prayer partner of 15 plus years––on a scenic tour of my new environs, skirting the edges of the island, headed from one Sound view to the next when we passed a wooden sign on a lonely road, “Hall’s Hill Overlook, In Memory of Noel Burk.”  I pulled over and parked. We followed a path from the road into a garden, over a footbridge and a small pond, and happened upon a spectacular cast bronze Tibetan prayer wheel depicting the plants, animals, birds, and marine life here on Bainbridge Island. 

Providence––a prayer park presenting itself on this small sojourn, another fitting and precious gift on the spiritual journey my friend and I have walked together since our children were young.  Our hands touched the wheel, taking in intricacies as we slowly turned it, read the inscriptions, and were amazed when a chime, deep and resonant filled the crisp air.  Then we saw the instructions for this “Community Prayer Wheel” and followed them, lifting up our intentions as we spun the wheel in silence nine times until the bell’s toll released the mantras of the community. 

For three years my prayer partner and her family lived in England, back before Skype and Facebook, and our emails were infrequent.  I missed her, but I knew she’d come home and we reconnected easily, filling each other in on the details of life we’d missed.  We may never live near each other again, so we are learning how to stay in community from afar.  Instead of long walks, tea by the fire, and holding hands as we sit side-by-side on a couch, we are praying on the phone, scheduling two or three hour calls, talking with headsets while we sort laundry, wash dishes, pull weeds, then settling down, usually with a cat on our laps, eyes closed, breathing deeply, hearing static in the airwaves as we keep silence, trusting that we haven’t been disconnected, speaking the Lord’s Prayer not quite in unison, so that we can each hear the other. 
That beautiful afternoon I twirled the prayer wheel and read its inscriptions while my friend videotaped.  “Faith is the daring of the soul to go further than it can see.” 
I relish the truth of those words.  We are always living out of faith even when we don’t recognize it.  As L Frank Baum wrote, “No one knows what’s going to happen next.”  I had grown familiar with so much of my life in California that I thought I could see my future clearly.  Then, like a snow globe, life shook up and the view was obscured.  And in the limited visibility, possibility opened in a way that previous clarity had stifled. 
As I become accustomed to life on this island, it’s tempting to think I can see what’s ahead and plan for it––like the bell on the prayer wheel.  I’ve taken two other visiting friends to Hall’s Hill Overlook, and each time I was startled by the lovely peal.  My spirit leapt as the unleashed prayers vibrated in the chill light reminding me that every day is a daring adventure of faith.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Model Homes

 When I was a young my sister and I complained of boredom and heat as my grandmother drove my mother and us around the San Fernando and Simi Valleys into dusty new subdivisions to tour model homes.  We stepped into airconditioned foyers and the chemical smells of fresh paint, carpet, and linoleum.  Everything inside the model homes was clean, neat, and perfect.  My sister and I raced upstairs to pick out our bedrooms. At home we shared a small room and a bunk bed set.  In the models, we chose our own room by reaching it first.  My sister seemed to claim the girl’s room with pastel colors, frilly canopy bed and lots of pillows most often, leaving me with the office and its imposing desk and wall-to-wall bookcases, or the boy’s room decorated in navy with wallpapered borders of sailboats or trains.

When my mother and grandmother would finally mount the stairs after their exhaustive inspection of window coverings and upholstery in the rooms below,
I’d whine about “my bedroom” and my mother would remind me that our family lacked both the intention and finances to move.  She reassured me we were there simply for ideas.  If I was going to pick a pretend bedroom, why not imagine décor I liked?

I was still literal and visual, unable to exercise my architectural and decorative imagination until high school when I pictured myself as a newlywed graduate living in a Victorian house while I attended college.

our first home after the remodel
I didn’t marry my high school boyfriend or buy a Victorian.  Five years after I did marry and pregnant with our first child, my husband and I cobbled together a down payment.  Our cabin was originally built in the 1940’s as a summer home and added on to twice before we took possession.  Our house expanded along with our family.  We built a basement with a master suite and remodeled the upstairs, turning the hodge-podge floor plan and eras into a unified, modest home.
my stepfather built our lovely maple cabinets

dream home ready for occupancy
Thirteen years later, we bought land and built our dream home with the latest in energy efficient vinyl windows, Pergo floors, Berber carpet, and Corian countertops.
kitchen island and latest conveniences

Today we live in a house midway between modest and dream, marketed by the selling agent as Mid-Century Modern, a fact that meant little until we met our neighbors and learned that the same architect designed and built two other houses on our street in the 1950’s.  They complement each other with simple lines and angles, large windows, wood siding, and nearly flat roofs.  No bay windows, gables, Craftsman trim, or sharp peaks like the newer homes nearby.  Inside, our mid-century homes have open living spaces, wood paneling, fireplaces, and small bedrooms. 
our mid-century home, exterior view of the Writers' Retreat

Now that my husband and I have done the immediate work of replacing the appliances and toilets with energy efficient models in our price range, the array of aesthetic choices for cabinets, flooring, countertops, wall coverings, lighting, and plumbing fixtures is––if not endless––daunting.  Other than price tag, how do I narrow my choices?  Do I try to match the dresser inherited from my grandmother, which doesn’t match bed frame?  Do I coordinate with our farmhouse table and chairs, even though they’re out of scale and style with the dining room?

My parents, despite the model home browsing, decorated our home with antiques found at garage sales, paired with modern colors—bright pink and green—wall paper, shag carpet, creating their own style in our small suburban home.  Like them, I’m drawn to antique for my new home—no longer Victorian, but from the 1950’s and 60’s ranch homes of childhood. 

We’re not replacing everything we own with period pieces, but with one room at least, our Writers’ Retreat, history is my guide.  I purchased Mid-Century Modern a guide to interiors, furniture and design, and subscribed to Atomic Home to familiarize myself with both original and renovated homes.  It helps as we navigate Home Depot to ask if this cabinet style or that light fixture would’ve belonged in my home when it was built.

“Is this in character?”  The question appeals to me as both renovator and a writer. 

I can imagine dozens of scenarios, scads of details for the worlds I create in fiction or pull from memory.  Of those ideas which ones are in keeping with character?  What will bring my writing to fullest expression and authentically reflect my intentions? 

As in writing, I am learning that much of remodeling is revision.  My husband and I stand in the gutted room that will become our writers’ retreat and brainstorm. Metal or Melamine, plywood or underlayment?   Which ideas will bring out the best features of our home’s mid-century bones­­ and enhance our guests’ comfort and inspiration?
my husband and our "blank canvas"

My mother and grandmother toured model homes for fun.  I understand now how they looked beyond floor plans and décor.  The houses were muses, frames for their own imaginative leaps.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Two and a Half Horsepower Zen

A month ago I ran an extension cord across the backyard, plugged in my mini-wood-chipper, dragged downed limbs and small dead trees into a pile, stood in a sunny spot, and fed branches one at a time into the hopper, where a whirling blade chipped, shaved, bit, and spit the cedar, rhododendron, and maple into a heap of garden muesli. 
Often when gardening or cleaning house, I’ll listen to a book on my IPod, trying to squeeze literature into my chores.  The chipper was loud and I didn’t want to scavenge for my noise-cancelling headphones.  My husband was in California, so it was, “me and my machine for the rest of the morning, the rest of the afternoon,” and for the next few days, but not for the rest of my life.  Like James Taylor’s Millworker, I found that running the chipper wasn’t easy or hard.  It also wasn’t boring.  I was getting familiar with it—straight branches, well dried, an inch thick buzzed through easily.  Berry canes and green leaves on the ends of branches caught in the blade, the motor conked out, and I’d disassemble the feeder, clean it out, start over.  Rhododendrons were tricky, too, their branches multiplied and spread wide, and I’d squeeze the sticks together, feeding with pressure, just enough to hear the blade whine, otherwise the ends would tumble around the hopper like last kernels of un-popped corn. 
It was rewarding, making a dent in the nursery graveyard where dead trees were pitched with, I believe, good intentions.  I didn’t begrudge Mr. Nunamaker not getting around to garden cleanup. He was over ninety when he moved out and half an acre is work, even with ski poles strategically placed around the yard to help balance on the hillside.
Warmed by the sun, surrounded by living cedars and pine, grinding deceased trees, I developed a rhythm as I lifted a branch, fed it the machine, listened for the cadence of the shredding wheel, repeated and repeated the motions until there was nothing else in the world.  Just me and my machine–––a loop of action and energy.  I lost track of time and place.  I wasn’t thinking about how many branches were left in my pile, and when I’d have to drag more over.  I wasn’t thinking about lunch or composing a mental grocery list.  I was simply and fully in the present moment.
I don’t know how long I was in that frame of non-mind.  I only recognized I’d been it when my ego drifted back into consciousness, and I thought, “Wow, I was really in the zone.”  As soon as I thought it, I was no longer there.  Thoughts came crashing back like breakers on a beach.  Awareness wouldn’t stop.  I thought how cool my Zen moment was, how it felt like prayer or writing or making love when everything aligns to transport.  I thought this was how my husband must feel when wrapped up in construction projects and creative visioning, forgetting meals or quitting time.  I thought I should blog about the spiritual side of home improvement. 
I was distracted, thinking how great my moment of Zen woodchipping had been, that I wrenched my back while yanking at tangled branches.  My inattention sidelined me for weeks, curtailing my intentions as I hobbled around the house, leaving chipping, home improvement, and blogging for later, and with new resolve to pay more attention to my labors and less to my mental chatter.