Alteration is what we keep

Ischia
Castello d’Aragonese, Ischia, this May.

Summer slipped through our fingers.

Here we are at the end of August, a bit dazed by how quickly the season left us. We are going to New York soon, to see old friends and eat a good deal of food and ogle modern art, and it feels like a fitting conclusion to what was otherwise a quiet and domestic summer. This summer has been marked by much thinking about our house and a possible addition; exquisite meals made by Guion; the basilica cocktail; daily walks with Pyrrha; near-daily thunderstorms; roaring symphonies of cicadas; a return to evening reading; and breathtakingly oppressive humidity.

. . .

A sweet thing: A husband who reads a poem by Danez Smith to me in the morning, while he is finishing his breakfast, and when he finishes the poem, he looks up and me and his eyes are rimmed with tears and he laughs and says, “It’s too beautiful,” and looks up at the ceiling.

. . .

Gratitude works quickly on the mind. I am always pleased to discover and then rediscover this.

Lately, I have been astonished by the power of the mere reminder to be grateful. Guion also deserves credit for this. As I have been absorbed in planning our home addition and finalizing plans with our architect, I have taken to griping about things in the house that have bothered me. I hate the rattling storm windows, which are impossible to clean. I loathe the sloppy molding and the cheap hollow-core doors. I detest that multicolored berber carpet upstairs. And sometimes (more often, lately) I say so.

Guion has taken to reminding me that nothing is wrong with our house (echoing the sentiments of a new favorite writer, Kate Wagner). It is good. Each room has something to be grateful for, to give thanks for.

And it’s working on me. I am pleased with the small things: the way my bare feet feel on our hardwood floors in the summer. The actual tininess of our bedroom, because we do not need it to be bigger. The fact that we have two bathrooms, even if they are not in the right place. The good choices that the previous owners made when they renovated the kitchen. The long flat yard, which has allowed our gardening imaginations and experiments plenty of room to flourish. I even like the pale green color of our ugly asbestos siding. Sure, there are things I still want to change, and I still hope we get to do this addition, but even if we don’t, I am thankful.

. . .

“Alteration”

By Hayden Carruth

You thought growing older
would be more of the same,
going a little slower,
walking a little lame.

But you knew, or you were a fool,
that alteration is what we keep;
tonight will not be the equal
of last night, even in sleep.

At home, in Charlottesville

Home sweet home #charlottesville
Sunset in Charlottesville (2014).

On the first anniversary of the alt-right rally that rocked our town of Charlottesville, we are quiet at home, just a mile away from the crowds and cops that have gathered on the downtown pedestrian mall near the parks and still-standing statues. I have a cup of black tea and a stack of books (Runaway Horses, Yukio Mishima; My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh; Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow). Guion is playing the guitar, accompanying our gentle neighbor on the cello. They speak to each other very sparingly; they sip Negronis and the wooden coasters clatter to the floor when they pick up their drinks. Pyrrha sleeps on the knotted wool rug in the hall. She sometimes watches them with one eye.

We have deliberately had a still weekend, but we also ventured downtown to eat. Not as a declaration of anything, but just because it’s what we’d do on any other weekend. We passed through the police checkpoints. We stiffened a little when a man yelled from the street; when, later, a cop car blasted its sirens down the street, but nothing happened. Nothing was visibly awry. We are still happy to call this place home. We do not know what the future holds. We know we are still far from equity in many respects. We maintain a shape-shifting hope for tomorrow.

. . .

If I grieve for anything, it is for the cruelty of aging, for the ways that it brings my beloved family to struggle and suffer in their final days. I still expect dying to be fair.

. . .

“Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?”

— Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star

How our houses speak of us

You know that cherished 21st-century feeling when you find a blog so wonderful you stop everything you’re doing (researching the price points of respectable American-made shoes) and read every single post since the blog began?

I felt this when I found McMansion Hell. Kate Wagner loves architecture and roasting bad American homes. She’s funny and a great teacher and a fellow North Carolinian, so I feel a particular kinship with her.

As Kate charmingly eviscerates McMansions, you realize that so much of the horror of these incredibly American homes is self-evident—even if you know nothing about proportion and architecture, like me. So if a total amateur like myself can see the grossness after a few minutes of Kate’s tutelage, why are so many of these monsters built? Why do so many people elect to live in these architectural trash heaps? Is everyone blind to the ugliness?

Here’s my short (probably incorrect) theory: Our desire to appear wealthy vastly overpowers our appreciation of aesthetics.

Having eleven roof lines and a four-car garage satisfies our human craving for approval and respect far more than an architecturally balanced home. This is Trump’s country, after all: The appearance of wealth is practically an American virtue.

Lately, because of Kate Wagner and a stack of architecture books I got for a few bucks at the library book sale, I’ve been thinking about proportion and design in mass-produced little homes like ours.

We live in a basic 1950s “Cape Cod,” the original floorplan of which is a straightforward box. The rooms are small and the ceilings are nothing to write home about. The main bathroom and the closets are very small. The exterior is shingled with pale green asbestos siding, which has not been touched for decades.

Here’s what it looked like the day we bought it, in October 2013:

Day we bought the house
Oh God help we just spent all our money.
Listing photos of our house
The listing photo for our plain Jane.

How bare, how sunny!

We’ve made small exterior improvements, namely to the yard (to which I am foolishly devoted), and added a pair of shutters, a new front door, and tiny amendments to the stoop.

Here’s what it looks like now:

Spring 2018
(Avert your gaze from my grievously dead rosemary shrubs and the unkempt lawn.)
Spring 2018
Cherry tree and dogwoods in bloom.

It’s still a little off-kilter and shingled with asbestos, but I am happy about the progress we’ve made. That grass is high on my kill list. Can’t wait to get rid of it and fill it with native plants. One day I want new windows. And I am so eager to jack up our ugly concrete walk and replace it with pea gravel. But all in due time. Our quirky little house is fine as it is; we are content.

My opening salvo on McMansions has little to do with our home, except to say that I am learning the virtues of contentment and patience. I am thinking more about the beauty in all humble homes, even in mass-produced little ones like ours, and how we can appreciate what we’ve been given.

House update

The front door is like the eye of the house, and we finally made some small updates to ours—and to our little front stoop—this week.

Before

Front stoop before and after Front stoop before and after

After

Front stoop before and after Front stoop before and after

The columns are still thinner than I would have liked, but apparently with the whole structure, our carpenter couldn’t make them much wider than he did. The diagonal beams help with visual interest, though, I think.

Small adaptations need to be made to clean everything up (trim is a little janky in some places), but I’m pleased.

Up next: Figuring out what to do with our ugly concrete stoop. I’m open to suggestions! (Stamped concrete is what I’d prefer, but that would apparently require jacking up the whole thing. So I think I may try to refinish and stain it.)

For now, I’m just excited to get the first Christmas wreath we’ve ever had for our new cottage-y door.

How to move forward

Lee Park

If you were following the news in the US this weekend, you know that Charlottesville, our little town, became an epicenter for a terrifying rally of white supremacists, Nazis, alt-right instigators, and domestic terrorists from across the country. One woman was killed in an act of terrorism straight out of the ISIS playbook, and 19 more were seriously injured.

We live less than a mile from Emancipation Park, shown above, which was the center of the violence and rage. Our church is right across the street from this park. Since Saturday, we’ve been decompressing for hours on end, like many of our neighbors and friends.

In the aftermath, the most unsettling quote I have read came from University of Virginia alum and Nazi agitator Richard Spencer, who said: “Your head’s gonna spin, how many times we’re going to be back here . . . We’re going to make Charlottesville the center of the universe.”

My stomach fills up with dread when I read those words. I pray that it won’t be true, that days like Saturday don’t become commonplace in our town.

And yet it jars us all out of our complacency. We realize we’re not inoculated from hatred; it breathes and grows right under our feet, right next door. Charlottesville has a dark history of racism that it covers in a veneer of prestigious history and genteel Southern charm. In my bubble, on my street in a hippie neighborhood, it is easy to believe that we don’t have a problem with racism. Clearly, we do.

“If we are to be blindsided by history, it will probably be the consequence not of unresolved disputes but of unexamined consensus.” — Marilynne Robinson, “Value,” in The Givenness of Things

So, what’s to be done?

If ending white supremacy is the goal, tweeting about it shouldn’t be my primary action. The older I get, the more I am convinced that tweeting about racism and white supremacy doesn’t do much, if any, good. Hearts and minds aren’t changed by social media posts. The internet just serves up our own opinions, whatever they are, and calcifies them. Facebook doesn’t soften our hearts—or change the minds shrouded with hate that need to be changed.

If the echo chamber of the internet doesn’t have concrete solutions, where else should we look? Here are a few actions that I’ve been thinking about lately.

What we can do

Support the good work of local nonprofits and humanitarian organizations. We love The Haven, Computers4Kids, New City Arts, the Women’s Initiative, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and the International Rescue Committee, among others. Sara Benincasa also has compiled a list of Charlottesville nonprofits that could use help.

Stay in your church or whatever community you belong to. Stay and do the hard work there of talking about white supremacy. Don’t leave because discussions aren’t happening at the pace you want; start the discussions yourself. Don’t wait for someone else to.

Talk to people. Talk to your relatives who voted for Trump. Withholding judgment, listen to them. (I find this particularly hard to do, but I’m learning that it’s vitally important if we are ever going to be able to get through to someone.) Ask them questions. Lots and lots of questions.

Form relationships with people whose opinions you find repulsive. This, especially, is the primary way to create significant change in our communities. It has to start at the very small, very local, very intimate level. One person at a time.

Starting with myself. I hope I can become less horrible, in the wake of all of this, and be more gentle and gracious. It is difficult and seemingly endless work, but I hope and pray Charlottesville is in it for the long haul.

Keeping house in America

Home, August 2016
Our simple dining room.

What does it mean to keep a home?

(Is it more complicated and more meaningful than we tend to think?)

Housekeeping is an easy thing to denigrate. It has always been “women’s work.” A man went out and killed dinner or worked in a coal mine, and the woman raised the urchins and swept the dirt floor. Women have done this for centuries upon centuries. Although it was a woman’s full occupation, taking care of the domestic realm has never been considered very important.

Now, men and women share more of the housekeeping and child-rearing and money-making responsibilities with one another. (Men help more than they have in previous generations. Women still do a lot more housekeeping.) It’s the 21st century: Women are not the only ones who can cook any more. Men are not the only ones who get the corner office. Housekeeping, as a virtue, as a thoughtful pursuit, has become rather passé. Being a self-made gourmet is really trendy right now. So is making your own clothes or growing tomatoes on your front porch. Or being a take-no-prisoners lady executive. But being great at keeping a tidy, well-run home? That’s not cool. No one wants to do that.

This is not a hectoring post about how we should all be better at picking our underwear off the floor or how those who fail to disinfect their kitchen sponges every week are bound for domestic purgatory. This is not that.

I just want to think about it a little, about what it might mean to reclaim housekeeping as a thoughtful, hospitable pursuit, and to rescue the word itself from its lowly connotations.

Posture

As with most things, we women learn about housekeeping from our mothers. My mother is a superb housekeeper* (*see how that sounds negative? Like she’s just good at mopping?), and I mean it in the fullest sense of the word. She has an eye for beauty and a perspective of welcome. And I like the way she taught me to think about keeping a house. I still ask her for housekeeping advice all the time.

There are two things Mom taught me about homes and living in them.

First, her posture toward the home and home-making has always been one that centered on hospitality. A beautiful and welcoming home was something to desire and to strive for because of how it made visitors feel — not because of how it made you look fancy or rich or smart or artistic. A home is a place of invitation and generosity, not of arrogance or selfishness.

Thanksgiving in Davidson
My mother’s dining room.

Second, Mom taught me that good housekeeping is also concerned with order. She was not focused on perfect cleanliness (is that sink spotless?) but rather on arrangement and organization (is the room free of clutter?). An orderly home leads to a peaceful life.

And we think about all of this because we know that homes create moods. They both shape and contain our emotions. A home that is uninviting makes people feel uneasy. A home that is chaotic makes people feel restless and anxious. A well-reasoned approach to housekeeping starts with our posture first and foremost.

Space

We can’t (and don’t) all have bright, flawless Scandinavian lofts or Provençal cottages with stone floors. We have the homes we have. And so we learn to love them.

We live in a 1959 nondescript Cape Cod; they seemed to have churned them all out of factories because there are three identical houses (including ours) right in a row on our street. Our siding is made of asbestos. I cannot keep the paint on the front banisters from peeling, no matter how hard I try. The carpet in the top floor is a weird, lilac-gray berber mess.

But I love our house. I am so happy I get to live there with Guion and our two outrageous German shepherds.

Home in March

I can’t change a lot about our space, but I am happy to approach it with my mother’s posture of hospitality + order. Even if my décor isn’t spot on, even if the kitchen sink has started to look scummy, so long as people feel welcome and peaceful, I feel like I have succeeded.

Objects

“More begets more. It stands in the face of reason, but when we have too much stuff we’re likely to amass still more of it. We forget what we have. We start looking for solutions to contain what is already there, and in the process we bury what we started with and add to our ever-growing pile. We end up overwhelmed.” — Erin Boyle, Simple Matters

An important component of my stance toward housekeeping is reducing clutter.

Clutter doesn’t bother some people. To many, a kitchen drawer full of utensils, sticky soy sauce packets, and expired coupons is not distressing. Life goes on. No one in the household worries about that drawer; on the contrary, they keep adding stuff to it, and soon you can’t even open it anymore. No one is upset. I am not, however, this person or this household; I am upset. I worry about that drawer. I fixate on it. I can’t sit down and have a cup of tea unless that drawer is cleaned out. (This is my weakness. You have yours.)

Still. Even if you are the soy sauce packet hoarder, I would like to posit this: Clutter is emotionally burdensome. It is taxing on our physical space, of course, but I also think it is taxing on our psychological space. Too much stuff is overwhelming and depressing.

As Erin Boyle implies with that quote, until we can break the cycle of clutter, we will remain trapped in its vicious loop. Stuff begets stuff. I used to think that stuff was the answer to my stuff problem, back in the early days of marriage and housekeeping life. I thought if I could just get more closet space or just buy more plastic bins from Target, THEN I’d have my organization problem solved. The organization wasn’t the problem. It was the stuff itself.

Closet visit

My sister Kelsey and brother-in-law Alex are masters of the clutter-free life. They live in a 500-square-foot studio apartment, and they run a tight ship. Kelsey has boundaries: We can only have five magazines at a time. We cannot accept any gifts of kitchen tools or mugs. We have everything we need.

The older I get, the closer I get to living out of this mentality of sufficiency and simplicity.

Here’s the surprising secret: Getting rid of stuff makes me want less and less. This still amazes me. We tend to think that throwing things out will make us regretful, and then we’ll have to go buy it again. Nothing could be further from the truth, in my experience. Once I let it go, I realize how little I needed it in the first place. And now that my shelves are so clear and orderly, I cringe at the thought of packing more stuff in there.

Habit

We go through life, floating on the highs and lows of fragmentary emotion, and our homes hold us in. They shelter us in our best and worst moments.

Homes deserve a little gratitude. I rely on habit to help me care for my home. We’re all creatures of habit, some of us more than others, and I, for one, love creating domestic rituals around “home care.”

Reading daze

Houseplants get watered every Sunday morning. The main floor gets vacuumed and mopped once or twice a week. Clothes are always folded and put away at the end of the day, even if you don’t feel like it (you usually won’t). If you’re not traveling for a while, you can buy yourself some fresh flowers for the table. Air dry most of your clothes and take pleasure in how the fabric reshapes itself.

I don’t always follow all of my own rules. Sometimes the house gets gross. Sometimes the dogs undo an hour of cleaning in two minutes. Life happens. But I am at peace. In consistency, I have order.

Inside/outside

I am still piecing together my domestic philosophy, as I’m sure you can tell, but I like the challenge of putting it into words. More, perhaps, to come.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear about how you approach housekeeping. What inspires you about your house? What are your aspirations, tangible or intangible, for your home?

Home again

Front yard, Aug. 2016
The front yard has grown very green in our absence.

It is good to be home. We are settling back in to old routines and creating new ones.

I am so happy to have the dogs again, but I think they regret being back with us (there is no Jak to play with them every day, take them for rollerblade runs or swims in the river, etc.). I’ve been trying to walk them more than usual and play Frisbee with Edie at least once a day to make them love me again. Hard to tell if it’s working.

Things I had forgotten to miss while abroad but am so pleased to have again

  • Our public library. I put 10 books on hold the first week we were back, and now I’m swamped, but I am so happy to be back in the swing of reading and to have every conceivable book at my fingertips again. (Our London library, while quaint, left a lot to be desired.)
  • Vast American grocery stores
  • My calligraphy studio
  • Our house, dingy as it now appears in certain lights
  • The local art scene and the people who curate it
  • The subsidized cafeteria in my office
  • Watermelon
  • Our basement
  • The little Wednesday farmers’ market around the corner from our house
  • The loony neighborhood email group
  • My sprawling, mismanaged house plants

Latest reading obsessions:

History of domestic American architecture. Once you see (and learn how to see) a properly and stylistically restored home, you can’t unsee it. I see spindly porch columns and bad banisters everywhere in and outside our house, and now my eyes burn. I suddenly loathe the asbestos siding, the structural incongruities. Would that I had a cool $100K to re-do the entire exterior of our circa-1959 house. I am chock-full of renovation ideas that I utterly cannot fund.

Maggie Nelson. Maggie Nelson! Reading The Argonauts very slowly and drinking it all in. The past year has been filled with these utterly breathtaking women writers who are simultaneously under-read and deeply revered by those who have found them (see: Anne Carson, Lydia Davis). Up next in this vein: Clarice Lispector. Just bought myself a copy of The Passion According to G.H.

Things to be happy about: Donald Trump seems to be trying to tank his own candidacy. We might get to save America from itself after all! Also: So many new babies in town. And dear friends getting puppies and kitties. And today was only 90 degrees, so it felt almost cool.

Easter and family

A good portion of my family came to see us on Easter weekend — to celebrate birthdays, to labor in our yard, and to provide general merriment. I can’t get over how much fun these people are sometimes. I felt like my Gran when they returned to their respective homes. She, normally of the stoic and sarcastic temperament, would always turn her face and cry a little when family left. This is what I did for a moment on Sunday afternoon, but I know we’ll see each other again soon. (And, ideally, in Europe.)

Spring is finally here, and I am grateful.

Easter 2016The big project: Adding pea gravel to our little fenced garden area. We will eventually add two more raised beds, but we wanted to go ahead and finish the gravel before we depart for the summer.

Before:

Easter 2016

And after:

Easter 2016Easter 2016Didn’t the boys do a marvelous job? I’m so happy with how it turned out. To finish it up, I want to find some low-growing, flowering perennials to put around the edges.

Easter 2016Easter 2016Easter 2016Easter 2016Easter 2016Easter 2016Easter 2016Easter 2016

Unbroken reel

Home (August 2015)
Living room in August. Fiddle-leaf fig is clearly hungry for more light.

One sign of people growing on each other: Once we get in the car and start driving home after a dinner or a party or some social function, we say some pat, predictable things about the event (“That was nice,” “the food was good,” etc.) and then we suddenly, almost simultaneously, say the exact same, small, specific observation to each other. “Wasn’t it strange the way that cat was nibbling on the ends of the rug?” “Absolutely!” “Didn’t you think his opinion about Mumford & Sons was surprisingly nuanced?” “Why, yes, I did; I thought the exact same thing.” This is perhaps, I think, one of the tiny reasons that people stay married, to have that comforting confirmation of one’s own observational debris.

Thanks to the recommendations of our friends Zaynah and Forrest, we have been watching “The Story of Film: An Odyssey” and taking notes on all of the important, beautiful films we haven’t seen and then lining them up on our queues. The melodramatic narrator drives me a bit crazy at times, but it’s been an excellent overview of the history and development of cinema as an art form. Along with Jonathan, I am feeling especially wild about Yasujiro Ozu. The fact that his complete oeuvre is on Hulu makes the subscription totally worth it. I want to steep myself in All Things Ozu.

I am interested in and appreciative of selfies. I think it’s only a matter of time before a book-length thesis on the Millennial mindset regarding self-preservation and self-documentation is published (if it hasn’t been already). But I won’t be writing it, because I am not especially adept at explaining why I like selfies, especially other people’s. I, for one, have never taken a good photograph of myself.

Face diary
Notes on your face. 14 August 2015.

But I sincerely like other people’s selfies, especially people I love. I don’t even mind the ones with poorly disguised motives. Here is a photo of myself looking my most luminous, my most attractive, etc. Those are most common. But I am especially interested in self-deprecating selfies. Here I am with my natural blue–black bags under my eyes. Here I am with baby vomit in my hair. 

I don’t know. I know I am making limited sense, but there is something cheerful to me about people posting selfies. Because the people who do are saying Here is my face. This is my body. I am happy with it. I suspend judgment. I applaud them quietly.

Late summer

#woolenmills #homesweethome #rivanna
Rivanna River, a few blocks from our house.

August! So blissful. This month, we have no travel and no house guests and thus time just to BE at home. We’re finishing little projects around the house and yard, planning some perfunctory hikes, and spending our free time reading, dining with friends, preventing the hens from brooding, and walking the dogs.

Primary emotions lately:

  • Compulsion for domestic order is high. I’ve realized that sweeping the entire main floor after I get home from work every day really helps me calm down and feel like my world is safe and good. Today, for instance, I am sincerely looking forward to cleaning and reorganizing my calligraphy studio. I have a supplies situation that looks and feels like it is spiraling out of control.
  • Related to that sensation, the desire to keep paring down my possessions, namely clothes and beauty products.
  • Heaviness of heart when I think about the obdurate brand of American racism; have been thinking a lot about Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I think should be mandatory reading for all white Americans. I’ve also been thinking a lot about my very racially segregated community.
  • Desire to read more books. Desire to read all of the books that I own but haven’t read yet (rough estimate of 30 unread titles languishing on shelves).  Desire to read all the books in the public library, more or less.
  • Tenderness for my husband. Tenderness for the psychologically damaged Pyrrha. Marginal tenderness for the crazy Eden.
  • I am not ready to be cold all the time. Can’t summer stay a little bit longer?
  • Eager fear and excitement when I realize that our European summer is less than a year away now. (We will be living in London for three months next year. I’ll be working out of my company’s branch there, and Guion will get to come with me, because he can work from anywhere. Whee!)
Home (August 2015)
Dining room at midday.