Tuesday, June 12, 2012

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie Syndrome

I’ve been afflicted with If You Give a Mouse a Cookie syndrome. My most recent bout began with the I can’t stand this carpet any longer tear-out I blogged about last week. 

After I progressed from the outer corners of the room, I found not one, or two, but three different floor coverings under the carpet: raw plywood in a section that on the original blueprints was an observation deck, brittle green linoleum covering a portion of what was once the breakfast nook, and paint-flecked hardwood where the living room used to end.


I was prepared to live indefinitely with the plywood floor I uncovered the first day of my endeavor. I’d sand it, slather on a coat of Varathane, and move onto another project. But some of the tiles were loose (and probably made with asbestos) and the paint and spackle smearing the hardwood were unsightly.  Covering this hodgepodge became a priority, so Kevin began research. How much per square foot to use the underlayment we put on the walls in the writers suite? How much for the vinyl we’d selected for the floor?  Were there any other alternatives between those two numbers?

 My husband liked a particular brand of vinyl tiles.  He installed them in the apartment he built for his mother, easily clicking the squares in place.  So easy, I could do it, which I would probably need to do, since he’d procured a two-week consulting job. 

We went to Home Depot so I could see our options in person. Walking toward the flooring I came across a display of bamboo in our price range.  One of the cases was open.  I stroked a plank.  We bought ten cases on the spot.  Not only was it silky, it was one hundred percent wood and a renewable resource. After consulting a flooring associate, my husband determined that I’d be able to install the tongue and groove flooring, assisted by a nail gun.  

I skipped out of the store next to the cart he pushed, petting my sample square of bamboo, as if I were ten and had just been given my very own kitten. 

Poised to load the car, my husband said, “It doesn’t make any sense to install new flooring unless you paint first.” 

Paint.  First.  

That meant the ceiling, the walls, and the room divider I’d attempted to strip months earlier.  I slunk back toward the store, clutching my bamboo sample, as if to buy a litter box and claw clippers.  

I can paint.  I have been painting.  A lot. I enjoy paint’s results and forty dollars can transform an entire room. The trouble with painting is that it’s time consuming and I am lazy. 

This is how I am lazy: I learned to sew in earnest when I was twelve.  One of the first garments I made was a pair of shorts. It was 1974, and my shorts had a high fitted waistband and cuffed legs. The fabric was red and white striped with blue anchors.  

I cut the pattern, placed pieces along the straight of grain, matching seams.  I pinned the tissue to the fabric and carefully cut around notches. I used tailor’s chalk to mark rear darts and front pleats, wound my bobbin, threaded the machine, placed my fabric right sides together, sewed 5/8 inch seams, pressed multiple folds into the waistband and cuffs and steamed the front of the shorts, creating a flap to hide the zipper. 

I spent hours, days, my entire life, making those shorts, and when I cut the last threads and slipped them on, I discovered I’d sewn the zipper wrong side out.  I sucked in my stomach and pulled the zipper closed and wore those shorts for two summers, zipper head digging into my stomach, poking, itching and leaving red marks.  

I could’ve ripped it out and fixed it.  It wouldn’t have taken me more than thirty minutes.  But I was finished. 

Painting is like sewing.  So much prep work.  Stripping, sanding, caulking where surfaces meet. Washing, deglossing, spackling, priming, masking, tarping. Then there’s the actual painting: mixing, pouring without spilling, using the right brush or roller or both, cutting in, using uniform strokes, rolling evenly, dragging ladders around, climbing up and down, refilling. 

I am alternately critical and lazy when I paint. I spread color at close range, careful to saturate but not splash, and a few minutes later, a few feet away, I look back, noticing every imperfection. There are fresh drips too late to smooth, and old drips from earlier coats I hadn’t noticed before.  

I tell myself I will sand them once they dry, but rarely do. I want one coat to be enough.  It never is. I want to be done, to say I’m done, but unless I’m willing to grimace every day, like I did in my shorts, I have to pick up the brush the next day, and even the next.

During dinner a few days ago I remembered when we first looked at the house and how we envisioned opening up the wall between the kitchen and dining room, inviting conversation and expanding the view from the narrow galley out toward the garden and water. 

“Do I have to paint all the walls?” I asked, reminding Kevin of our plan. 

He considered and then knocked out the wall the next day.


Now like the mouse with a cookie, we have a whole new set of considerations: where to run wiring, where to install the cabinets he took down, what to do about the ceiling, what type of counter to install over the exposed wallboard and how to accommodate our refrigerator, which is still too large for the space we created. 

These are exciting but purely temporary distractions from painting. 

I start on my second coat tomorrow.


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Hitting the Wall

I hit a wall Friday, psychic not sheetrock. My husband and I were hard at work trying to finish the kitchen so we could install bathroom plumbing, readying the writers’ suite for a visit in mid-June from a fellow sojourner who first encouraged me to share my passion for writing. I wanted her to experience my current vision by being my first guest in the space Kevin and I are creating.

My husband knows, or can figure out, every aspect of remodeling—calculating board cuts and window openings, using a level and terms like “on center.” He also works harder than any person I’ve ever met, and with our long days of light, puts in twelve construction hours a day, while I’ve been working about eight.

Our only excursion last week was a drive Thursday onto the Kitsap Peninsula for dinner at a brewery before we shopped Costco, Trader Joe’s, and Home Depot. I was dragging Friday. Even with ibuprofen, arnica pellets, and Traumeel cream, I couldn’t muscle my way through. My neck and shoulders have been overworked and cranky for weeks, but how could I quit? I wandered through the room feeling an inner grumbling while I vacuumed sawdust.

My mother and stepfather have been building a house for years, living first in an RV, and then in the unfinished house, while making metal sculptures to sell at craft fairs, pouring patios, and planting gardens. They work until dark, eat dinner, watch the nightly business report, then drop exhausted into bed. When I call, my mother always groans about her many chores and projects.

I don’t always have sympathy for her overwhelming self-imposed to-do-list. You’re choosing this, don’t complain is my unspoken response. So Friday when I wanted to grouse about how much work loomed in front of us, I reminded myself that I chose this house and this dream of offering a writers’ retreat, and if I was overwhelmed, it was up to me to reframe my days, the way my husband reframes windows and doors, choosing a structure and configuration that is proper and durable, not simply expedient.

I asked myself, what’s the worst that can happen if the suite isn’t finished when my good friend arrives?  She can sleep in the basement family room, on the queen bed that’s waiting to move into the writers’ room. And if the room still isn’t ready when my mother and stepfather visit in July?  Basement, again.

There was a time when I would’ve been disappointed stepping back from a deadline, even one I set myself, judging that I’d somehow failed. I’m glad my mind let go more easily now, but my body still needs to learn to lighten up and relax.

Muscle tension is lifelong for me, and even though I know I don’t need to clench my shoulder muscles to my ears when I lean from a ladder with a paintbrush, my body isn’t so sure.  Being engaged and alert kept me physically safe for years.  So how do I let go?

“Practice gratitude,” my new acupuncturist told me this morning. “This is a work in progress.  We need to find a way to help your body sustain this endeavor. When your shoulders feel tight and the work seems never ending, take a deep breath and remember that you live in a house you love and you’re creating beauty.”

“And take an Epsom salt bath, every day if you can.”

I thought about her words as I lay on the table, needles in my shoulders and legs. I pictured my run-down yet fabulous house and garden that I am bringing back to life, devoting myself to its healing, and wondered what humane work schedule might bring healing to me as well.

My husband needed our car in Seattle today, and dropped me at the clinic on his way to the ferry. On my bicycle ride home—my first on the island—I struggled up steep hills in the wind, took a wrong turn that added a mile, and peddled the edge of The Grand Forest in the rain.  Fifty-five minutes to ride what was supposed to be four and a half miles. My legs felt mushy, my heart beat loud, but I also felt energized.

I ate lunch in our dining area with carpet that smells worse the longer we live here, pet and other odors rising from thirty-year old fibers that were last steam cleaned in December.  Then, I did what I’ve wanted to do for months— not because it was a chore on a list or something to show off to friends and family—I began to rip out the carpet. 

I pried up tack bars, yanked and cut carpet, vapor barrier, and disintegrating burlap pad from the floor, one small area at a time, revealing not hardwood, as I’d hoped, but rough plywood.  I listened to Krista Tippet’s On Being podcasts while I worked.

Last week, I would’ve stopped for a quick snack and pushed on until I finished or was too exhausted to continue.  Today I worked for three or four hours.  I quit when my husband came home and left the room unusable. 

We sat in the living room and ate salami and chevre and drank Washington red wine.  Later I soaked for thirty minutes in Epsom salts, relaxing with my head underwater, pulse thudding in my ears like a marine engine, the first bath I’ve had since we’ve moved in. 

I toweled off and decided to write, for the first time in weeks. This. A day like today just might contain the components for a sustainable rhythm that honors both my body and the creative spirit.