Posted by Christine On August 6, 2016
those who don’t believe in magic will never find it- Roald Dahl
We’ve all seen movies with the scene of a bereaved family in an attorney’s office. The widow wears black while the extended family eye each other over who gets the bigger piece of financial pie. For dramatic effect, an attorney reads a letter penned by the deceased just before their death and the family discovers that the deceased has left everything to a distant cousin or a baby or the trophy wife.
That’s not the way it happened for me because my grandfather died when I was six and instead of a financial windfall there was an army pension. My grandmother went from being the wife of a baker, helping to run a business, to being a clerk at Kmart. As far as any letters written by my grandfather, my mother has some only because she swiped them from a blanket chest when she was a kid. The everything that was left when my grandfather died wasn’t a lot.
This is where the story could dissolve into rampant nostalgia and coat your teeth like saccharine because me grandfather left me his bakery mixer.
Well, not exactly. He didn’t plan on dying of a heart attack so he didn’t say what he would say in my grandfather fairy tale: “Christine should have my favorite mixer, the one I made frosting with, the one I made her parents’ wedding cake with, my best and most special mixer of all. And when she uses it all her cakes will come out spongy and light.”
Instead my mother gave it to me when I was 37. She surprised me with it and since I wrote an essay about that already, for PAGE magazine, I’ll pick up where that story left off- with me hoping to move to my forever house one day and hoping to have a designated place for the mixer, my magical behemoth of non-residential kitchen equipment. And surprisingly, I did and I do.
After a decade of storing the mixer in my basement, I’ve finally done it. I took my inheritance, my unusable 1950s commercial baking mixer, to get repaired. Mice have chewed the cord and the paint is crazed and peeling. It weighs seventy-five pounds and is unwieldy as hell. But I picked it up like I was hugging it and got it off its wood and metal stand. I got it outside to the car by dragging it on a moving blanket. I drove it forty miles, took it out of my trunk and gave it to a man named David, AKA Mr. Fix-It. He gave me a receipt that fit in my change purse.
I bake. Not like my grandfather baked, first as a teenage apprentice in someone else’s bakery, then his own, and then someone else’s again- but in my own kitchen. And I don’t NEED a commercial mixer that weighs 75 pounds with its own stand that takes up as much floor space as a statue to bake chocolate chip cookies and banana bread. I already have a countertop KitchenAid mixer. It’s 23 years old and works great.
I don’t need a commercial mixer at all. What I need is magic.
This is the thing about things: they have a life. My grandfather’s mixer had a long relationship with him, much longer than the relationship I had with him. So this mixer owes me. It owes me frosting lessons, because I suck at applying frosting. It owes me more stories about my grandfather’s childhood in Baltimore because he only had time to tell me a few. The one I remember best is about him jumping over blood in the street from the pig slaughter houses. Now, how can we just leave it there? My grandfather could tell great stories, and I want more.
Of course, I won’t be getting everything I want. My grandfather won’t be here when the mixer is re-installed to teach me how to frost like a pro or tell me more stories. If I want magic, I’ll have to bake it and write the rest of the story myself.
This morning I came downstairs and was almost surprised to see the mixer stand without its partner. Mr. Fix-It will have my magical inheritance for a few weeks. I looked at the stand while I drank my tea.
I’ve begun making a list of desserts I will bake when the mixer returns. Complicated things, with ingredients like super-fine sugar, real whipped cream, and chocolate glazes. I imagine my counter covered in lightly whipped desserts.
The longing for a lost grandparent is like a nostalgia craving, both are delicate and sweet and coat my teeth.
And I let them.
Posted by Christine On July 10, 2016
Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life. – Sophia Loren
The flaws, the mistakes I make- that’s the real me. -Nas
When things go wrong, eat chocolate. – Me
Sometimes, (most of the time) the image I have in my head isn’t what plays out in reality. This goes for my career, my house, parenting skills, my body, OK- everything. I am fortunate to have been blessed with an optimistic attitude but it gets me in trouble. I make strange leaps of courage only to have them dashed- often. Cases-in-point: dining room color choice and career choice. The paint choice is obviously low-risk. Selling a book upon which rests your career: high risk. Not, perhaps as high a risk as extreme skiing, and yet it feels like it.
So you’re only a paragraph in, and you’re on to me: I’m not just writing about a design choice gone astray, something easily fixed, but the fear of having made a risky career choice. Something much harder to correct.
The dining room the day after I moved in last October. Before I took the grungy drapes down I had to remove the chandelier: Early American Apple.
So- the career thing. Before I embarked on my relatively new career as a writer and writing teacher I had a pretty great career as a soft-furnishings seamstress. I worked hard at my craft, got to work with the finest fabrics and materials, installed work in some gorgeous homes, and had loyal clients. But something was missing. The simplest way to put it is that I said all I could with fabric and I wanted to say something else.
I jokingly said to a friend that I wanted my new old house to be like a “sexy farmhouse.” I suppose this meant A sparkly chandelier and a farm table.
I’d like to tell you that I have it all figured out. That I knew when I closed my sewing business and embarked on an MFA (hello student debt), wrote a memoir that I still must query to an agent (and may never be published), and throwing myself into impassioned readings of my work, that I knew I’d be a success. Of course I can’t say that, because it hasn’t happened. I really want to say that I put all my money on a long shot and it paid off. I want to show my children how they should go after their dreams but in my peripheral vision is a mini me saying “What the F have you done? Are you INSANE?
Home remodeling is like life: expensive, often irritating, and unbelievably messy.
There is the high possibility (when does a possibility tip toward probability?) that I am nuts. That I have drunk the NewAgeOptimismOprah Kool-Aid and now believe I can do anything.
When the ceiling has water damage because one of my sons left the bathroom faucet running or the chandelier came in a thousand no-extra pieces (and I broke three), and when I picked a gray for the walls and it dried purple, and I went on painting anyway… yeah, I went on painting anyway, as if more of a bad choice would somehow turn it around- it isn’t a big leap for me to start looking for parallels.
sometimes it’s just better to quit when you’re so far ahead you’re behind
I know what you’re thinking: it’s just paint. Except it isn’t just paint. It’s time and while I’m not elderly, I’m not a spring chicken either. I’m kind of set in my ways. There’s only one thing to do, really, for a woman like me. I have to keep drinking the Kool-Aid. I’ve developed a taste for it. And when I make a mistake, obvious or not, I need to repeat the optimistic mantra that it will all work out.
I fell in love with writing like i fell in love with this wallpaper.
So it’s all or nothing. I re-painted the damn dining room in the color I really wanted. I even changed the hinges on the door and re-hung it by myself. I ordered replacement parts for the chandelier. And the book-in-progress, the thing that I have hinged my new career on? I’m going to send it out into the world and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll do what I’ve always done: try again.
Posted by Christine On May 8, 2016
In the Spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt. – Margaret Atwood
It’s May but you wouldn’t know it. If we measure a month by the weather- then ladies and gentlemen- we have March. The sun, shielded from the impatient lilacs, azaleas, and my temperamental crocuses has, over the last week and a half, been ignoring us all.
I moved in at the end of October so this is the first spring in my new old house. I can’t wait to see spring, when it finally shows up. The impatient part of me, which is also one of the largest parts of me, wants to plant things. I want to go to the nursery, walk among the jungle of cultivated plants, load up my car, bring them home and plant myself crazy.
But it’s been cold and rainy. I’ve been looking out the window instead.
The azalea is blooming without the sun.
I zip on my boots and head out.
Before I bought this Cape with its attached wood shed-turned-kitchen, dirt basement, and no garage, I’d always lived in suburbia and when I was outside I heard people. I heard my neighbor starting her car, heard fire trucks returning from a mission and backing into the station. On Monday mornings I watched the swarm of lawn workers cover the neighborhood in 360 degree mowers, leaf blowers, and gas-powered hedge trimmers.
I really like people but I wanted to hear birds.
Moving to the country felt like the behavior of a rebellious child. But instead of taking my toys in a fit of temper and going home, I told suburbia to keep its toys- I was leaving.
Hence, there are wild things growing in my yard.
What are those lanky, lime green things in the underbrush of the azalea?
I have no idea. But I’m leaving them there.
My grandmother, like so many grandmothers, would always say “Bloom where you’re planted.”
Interpreting her advice upon moving to a new place, I always changed things. I ripped out plants that didn’t suit me or in my opinion- the landscape. I ripped out English ivy (wasn’t it invasive?) and sprayed against dandelions (weeds!) and once, in a fit of gardening anger, I attempted to remove an enormous, thick and furry tangle of ancient- and it turned out- active climbing poison ivy wound around a pine tree.
And so there are violets growing between my front steps.
And in the grass, among the occasional protruding stone, there are dandelions.
And I don’t mind- I kind of like them.
Because at a certain point, I realized that if I began the taming it would never end and the wildness would win anyway.
I think it prudent to acquiesce.
Because, really- where would I stop?
I try to still my impatience and wait for the real May to show up. Try to appreciate that the moss loves the rain and I love the moss- love that it creeps between the stones- even if there is nothing in the planters (I imagine lavender) and nothing in the table pot (oh, a diminutive boxwood!) to keep the moss company.
I’m waiting out the teasing season.
From my desk window I’ve been watching the lilacs. All winter nothing but brown stems until a couple weeks ago I looked up from writing and saw leaves and the beginnings of buds as if I had written them there.
The bush is huge and I can see from the buds that they’ll be white.
If I stare at them maybe they’ll bloom faster.
Or maybe not.
Posted by Christine On April 17, 2016
The house shelters daydreaming,
the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.
-Gaston Bachelard, from The Poetics of Space
I find that I am home more than I am away. Even though I travel to both teach and perform my work, and although I engage in no small number of social events, for me, like so many of you, everything begins and ends at home.
Besides creating a nurturing environment to live in, for myself as well as my family, I try to create a nurturing environment to write in.
As a writer, daydreaming is not an indulgence but a necessity. Just as necessary as cooking dinner, dusting the bookshelves, organizing the pantry, and paying the electric bill.
I freely admit to sometimes feeling that daydreaming is indulgent. How unproductive it can seem to be reading something poignant and put the book down for what I believed to be a few seconds only to discover I have been staring at a wall for ten minutes. But I know this: I am a better writer when I daydream, when I slip out of measurable time and into something else. I don’t know what that someplace is called, only that I need it. Like dinner, like dust-free books, like a stocked pantry, and especially like electricity.
Despite my determination it can be all too easy to abandon the practice of daydreaming and make lists in my head. Cut back the dead wood on the lilacs and forsythia, buy olive oil, breakdown that cardboard to fit in the recycling bin. It’s no surprise I am distracted now, in spring- the season of action.
So with my propensity for action but with the necessity of a good daydreaming practice in mind, I set out to quiet down the sitting room in my house. I quieted it by making roman shades.
This is not the place to look for a tutorial on roman shades and I am not going to tell you how to make the best sitting room for daydreaming. Hardly. Your house is distinctly yours- and I believe that your house has a personality and will tell you what is necessary. You just have to listen.
Instead, this is the place where I show my daydream place. Even if it just looks like a designer’s visual work, it’s also a writer’s interior work to somehow explain the transference of energy in a lived-in space- one that had full light in the daytime and windows of black holes at night to one that encourages the filtering of light for interior reflection- of all kinds.
Posted by Christine On February 21, 2016
Mood is a weird word.
In interior design, mood is talked about constantly. Exalted, really. Design mags write about setting the mood, creating mood, and capturing a mood. But mood seems completely elusive. How could a person set, create or capture such a thing?
Why would a homeowner try? Seriously, the definition has a largely negative connotation and even rhymes with mostly negative words. I for one don’t want a feud, lewd or prude room. And yet, there is no better word for change. Especially in February.
In Connecticut, February is not only the cruelest month (my apologies, T.S. Eliot) but also the moodiest. It is as writer Joseph Wood Krutch suggested:
The most serious charge that can be brought against New England is not Puritanism but February.
As a New Englander and ancestral Puritan, I agree with him. Also, Krutch had a PhD and was a naturalist so he must be right. In the last seven days my corner of Connecticut has seen temperatures from -10 to 55+. My mood fluctuated with the temperature. I barely left the house all week. In defense of my sanity I went out and bought a new shower curtain. Then, in a mood-induced funk, I nearly painted our
Sitting Room, TV Room, Den, Morning Room, Book Room an unfortunate shade of red.
I averted mood disaster on Pinterest. I love how a monochromatic room removes mood from the equation. Instead, I notice the art and the textures of the fabrics. I notice the light.
If attentive is a mood, then that’s the one I’m after.
Here’s my take on mood: it’s completely subjective. Magenta bedroom walls may have you jumping out of bed in the morning and have someone else jumping out a window. Really, mood shouldn’t be in magazines. Maybe I’m just contrary, it is February after all but I’m one of those people who finds moody “romantic” restaurants on Valentine’s Day a complete turn-off. Please. Chocolate Bombe cake for two amidst frilly curtains and pink silk lined lampshades? My complexion might look amazing but I still don’t want to share my cake.
This is my…whatever room. I would love to call it my Book Room, but those cabinets are hiding an enormous TV that I only get to watch when the teenagers that live with me (alright- they’re MINE) stop playing video games to eat and sometimes go to school. There are also a lot of family discussions, homework, texting and laundry folding type things that go on here. It occurred to me that red walls (I was thinking a raspberry tone) might set things on edge.
Also, I love my books and the family mementos on the shelves and I really don’t want the walls to compete for attention.
Color confession: I haven’t painted anything in this room. It came this way. But I will. Soft grays I think. And I have roman shades to make for the three windows. Something simple, probably white.
But, where is the color you say? How uninspired, you say? Where is the mood?
It’s in the light.
Posted by Christine On February 14, 2016
When I was a little girl, I imagined what it might be like to live in a castle or a tower or a magical forest.
I imagined being a princess. I tried really hard, but it never worked. Somehow in my fantasies I was always the assistant to the princess. I attribute this to my peasant ancestry.
Since I was relegated to be the right hand of the princess, I figured the position included suitable lodgings. I would be able to visit the castle or tower or magical forest as often as I pleased, yet I would live in a cottage. I thought it would be grand.
All this grandness fit into my childhood bedroom.
I remember commandeering my mother’s broom and sweeping away imaginary cobwebs. There was a cardboard kitchenette where I would cook faux dinners and drink plastic glasses full of disappearing toy milk. My dolls had bunk beds with knitted blankets that they straightened every morning before eating their breakfast. And of course, my imaginary cottage had two stories. Since I lived with my parents in a ranch house, I mentally placed a staircase in my bedroom closet. I staged regular entrances and exits from “upstairs.” Importantly, unlike our real house, my imaginary cottage would have a fireplace. The bureau served this purpose.
I am embarrassed to say how long I kept this up. So I won’t. (I was nine.)
I have never outgrown my cottage fantasy. I have always wanted a not-too-big home. Nothing excessively showy (although a little sparkle is appreciated) and conversely, nothing too rough like a cabin. Someplace snug, but not cramped. Someplace with charm.
After living in eleven other places, my fairy tale dream came true. But in the true story, no princess bestowed it. Instead, it fell magically in my lap. The tale goes like this:
Once upon a time a couple in their forties with three teenage sons were approached by the mother of a neighbor. “Please, I want to buy your house so I can live near my daughter,” she said.
The couple felt sympathy for the grandmother and although they had no place else to go, they quickly agreed. The next day, the couple met their fairy god-mother (see: Mary the real estate agent) at a house for sale in the next town. It was white (the woman’s favorite) and had a porch, a barn, two stories and woods that abutted a forest. When the woman entered the master bedroom she was drawn to a large window that overlooked the backyard. Nearly touching the window was a large lilac bush with a blue jay in it. Two of her favorite things. She imagined her writing desk in that very spot.
“This is home,” she said. Her husband had the same idea when he saw how much fun he would have with his leaf blower on three acres. “This is home,” he said. The couple looked at no other house. The fairy godmother said, “It’s meant to be yours.”
Due to the fairy godmother, the sale went through easily despite hurdles that resembled walls and the family moved in. Then the woman held Thanksgiving and Christmas while writing a book and kept writing all the way through New Year’s while existing on cereal and red wine.
What’s a modern fairy tale without a little cold reality?
The original living quarters was a Cape with one and a half stories and three bedrooms under the eaves. The front door has been replaced but the floors are the original chestnut. The children kept tearing holes in their socks requiring the regular swinging of a hammer and nail-setter. This is one of two staircases in the house.
I especially love the post-medieval English pediment details on the underside of the upstairs landing. I’ve painted nothing so far in this space. I haven’t finished listening to what the house wants.
Just upstairs are the twins’ bedrooms. Unlike my childhood dolls, this pair of fifteen year-olds don’t often make their beds. More cold reality.
Yet, it’s home no matter the temperature.
This is a true-life fairy tale, after all.
Posted by Christine On February 7, 2016
It’s time for another beginning.
A new house, a new career, a new life. Again.
The cliches run through my head: blaze a trail, back to square one, been there done that, or the obvious: begin at the beginning.
Not this time.
It begins, I think- with breakfast. It begins with a pen and paper and a prayer for a quiet house. To write, this is what I need. I’m not the type of writer who gets the job done in a coffee shop. No. I need silence while I contort my legs beneath me on the chair in my bedroom and settle to the task of untwisting my mind so the words can appear on paper.
I also need my husband and three sons out of the house.
If I can achieve all of these things at once it will be a sort of miracle.
The job? The untwisting? Imagine me saying this offhandedly: Oh, I’m just writing a book.
I never imagined I would. Because I had a career, not writing but sewing. I designed drapery, duvets, bed-skirts and pillows, presented the drawings to clients, sewed the designs up and installed them. I loved it. Then, I left. What happened? What happened exactly in that space between I loved it and I left? What was the then?
Then, I wanted more. It took me a little while, but I discovered that I needed a narrative that had more weight than silk.
The transition to full-time writing and teaching wasn’t immediate. First I revisited my previous enchantments: I took classes in jewelry making, watercolor and figure drawing. Then I took a creative writing class. Then. Whoa.
I’ve spent my life in houses: mine and other people’s. All twelve that have been home and the couple hundred that my clients owned and I visited- inspire me still. The inspiration doesn’t just come from the buildings, but the people who lived or still live- inside. I like to write about them.
When I think about the houses and the people I can feel the untwisting- my shoulders relax, I have another sip of tea and dive in, right here, on this page. Because although I am also writing a book about a house I lived in over ten years ago, a house that I brought my babies home to, a house where some bizarre and some beautiful things happened- I am simultaneously pulled to my present house. I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s new to me. It’s old and expansive. It has stories.
It’s my new beginning.
I am going to share those stories with you, here.
But first, breakfast.