Monday, August 10, 2020

Use It Or Lose It: The Marriage Tester

Gleaned from my year-long decluttering experiment, my new mantra demands that I dig my most beloved possessions out of their hiding places and put them to daily use, even if that means getting rid of slightly less beloved alternatives currently in use. 

This process is rough. I get emotionally bonded to my possessions and it's hard to play favorites. But one look around my overcrowded furniture warehouse of a garage - not to mention our jam-packed storage unit a few miles down the road - has convinced me that the time to make some truly desperate choices is nigh.

I wrote all about my busy dining room during the 2018 Christmas holidays, and I'm glad I captured the old pine cupboard in all his former glory. 

Our story begins with this lovely old pine cupboard that dates back to the 1800s and entered my life in 1984 when my husband and I bought it at an antique sale in Chelsea, Michigan. A great beast of a thing, we lugged it up a steep set of stairs to our second-floor apartment around midnight on a Sunday evening, cursing ever so quietly so as not to disturb the neighbors, thereby earning this lovely piece of furniture the nickname, "the Marriage Tester."

For many, many years, it lived here in our dining room, serving as a lovely backdrop to family meals with four little girls who eventually grew up and became full size humans. 

At which point I realized that the Marriage Tester was also a bit of a space hog, and put a serious cramp on the elbow room for diners on that side of the table.

The fatal blow for the loyal beast came in early 2019, when we prepared for some work on our floors, and moved him temporarily to the garage. Or so we thought. 

But what happened is that we enjoyed having the extra space in our dining room so much that we decided not to put the cupboard back. 

And so, thus ostracized, the Marriage Tester began its lonely life in the garage. 

* * * * *

A year passed. And then almost six months more. 

Which takes us up to last weekend, as I dug and shoveled around my garage, muttering "use it or lose it" under my breath and throwing 90% of what I found into the discard pile.

But not this cupboard. 

I wouldn't dream of getting rid of it. 

Then began an earnest conversation, first with my family and then in my own head, about where to put the little darling. 

In the house, all the good spots for a hulking piece of furniture were already spoken for. So, I sadly determined, someone was going to have to give up his space. 

^ This white laminate bookcase in the family room quickly emerged as the most likely candidate. It has its own sweet history. From a furniture line called Techline, we bought it in 1989 at a local family-owned Scandinavian design store, and that's a legacy worth preserving. And I love the way the white brightens up this shadowy corner of our family room. 

But even so, a basic bookcase cannot measure up to the Marriage Tester's mojo. 

And so the swap was made.

^ As my husband and I once again gritted our teeth and set to relocating the cupboard - we've since learned to take the doors off for transit which makes the job considerably easier - I had some serious doubts about how this big dark beast would look in the corner. 

First, I tried it with the doors closed.

^ Hey, not too bad.

^ Feeling bolder, I threw open the doors and styled him up real quick-like.

^ There's no denying that he is bigger, bulkier, darker, and decidedly different from my streamlined little Techline. 

But he is also my dearly beloved. and I could never part with him. 

Welcome back, my darling cupboard. I'm happy that you're here. 

* * * * *

Postscript: There's also happy news for the Techline bookcase: my eldest daughter, who's already taken custody of the matching unit, has agreed to take in this piece as well. So glad that there's a place for all my beloved furniture within the family. 

* * * * *

More stories about my Use It Or Lose It adventures:

Use It Or Lose It: Thrifted Cubbies

Remember back in May of 2019  when I committed to a year-long decluttering experiment? Well, those twelve months have long since come and gone but what I learned will live with me forever. 

 Before I began this challenge, I considered myself already a devoted and skilled declutterer, so I'll admit I was a little bit cocky, thinking I had nothing new to gain in this endeavor. 

Well. I was wrong.

What I learned, my friends, is that simply getting rid of stuff I didn't like or want is just the tip of the proverbial decluttering iceberg. And the easy part, to boot. What was hard was coming to the realization that even if my stashes are all good stuff, there is no point in storing things that I'm not actively using.  

I'll say that again. There's no sense in keeping things that I'm not going to use. 

I abbreviated that wisdom further to my new decluttering credo:

Use it or lose it. 

Now to be fair, I'll clarify that sometimes in life, it's fine to hang on to stuff that you'll be able to use in the not-too-distant future. Saving up furniture for the day you move into a full-size house, or keeping childhood treasures for your future kids - those are fair and logical reasons to keep things that you aren't currently using. 

But besides my giant LEGO hoard and a cupboard full of board games and puzzles saved for my adorable grandchildren waiting to be born, I am in the full bloom of my life. There's simply no reason for me to squirrel away treasures for the days to come - now, NOW is the time for me to enjoy the belongings I've got, or else pass them along to someone else who will enjoy them for me. 

This summer, I've been challenging myself to put my new philosophy into practice. I'm cleaning out every nook and cranny of my garage - seriously, how many times will I clean my garage before it's actually empty enough to make me happy? - and pushing my creative self to find new ways to put my old things to use. 

* * * * *

Fun fact about me: I'm obsessed with any sort of cubby device. I love the visual geometry of anything with small-ish uniform compartments, and I have a deep passion for the sorting and display purposes that cubbies present. 

So when innocently browsing through a thrift store last fall and stumbling upon a pair of wooden cubbies for less than ten bucks, I snatched 'em right up. 

My husband was puttering around the garage when I got home, and I asked him if he could extract the wooden boxes from the weird assortment of hardware attached to them, which he promptly did. 

And then I set my adorable little wooden cubbies aside.

Oh sure, I thought about the little darlings. I considered a dozen different places they might go around the house, and a hundred different ways I could use them. But thinking was all I did. 

So the boxes sat in the garage all winter long. 
And all spring too. 

Last week, during yet another of my post-midnight garage cleaning sessions, my eyes fell upon the poor castoffs and my mantra rang through my head.

Use them or lose them.

So without another instant of design agony, I grabbed a paintbrush, dashed on three coats of weatherproof polyurethane, and convinced my husband to hang the little darlings on the house. 

With sweet satisfaction, I gathered up a couple handfuls of the shells, driftwood, and pretty rocks that accumulate in the corners of my yard, and tucked them into my newly repurposed cubbies as the true treasures that they are.

And then I moved on to my next decluttering challenge. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

We Are One
No, I am not traveling on a vibrantly decorated train through the heart of India, but I've got my own version of dreamy pastels gilded in golden sunlight here in my backyard. 

This summer has set me adrift on a sea of deep and difficult emotions. 

No, I'm not necessarily talking about Covid, though the random life-or-death hand that this viral card has dealt us is probably ramping up the intensity of emotion I feel.

I am walking with several friends who are going through desperate times. 

Truly desperate. 

And despite my endless energies 

for doing, 
for fixing, 
for hoping, 
for always finding a way, 

I experience myself truly at the end of my abilities to make a difference in their lives. 

I'm at a complete and total loss. 

I've always assumed that if I ever found myself in this out-of-options place, I would then find myself also feeling broken, defeated, and utterly lost. 

But what I am learning is that this is not true.

What happens next, I discover, is a letting go.

I'm letting go of my need 

to do, 
to be, 
to think. 
to say,

anything at all for my friends.

I am simply, silently walking alongside of them. 

* * * * *

It's such an easy thing to talk about this soul-deep letting go, but I find it very difficult to sustain this head space. 

Falling, falling, falling. This can't be happening. I need to find a way to stop this madness. Don't I?

When I find myself diving headfirst into panic, I remember what I need 

to slow myself down, 
to stop myself, 
to regain my perspective:


Intense colors, pastels punctuated with deep yellow, vibrant red.
Sunlight, angled and golden.
Layers of pattern and detail, texture and depth.

When I surround myself with beauty, I find myself able to breathe. 

* * * * *

Night before last, as I struggle to sleep and feel the familiar frustrations welling up inside me once again, a new thought bursts into my mind.

It's been well over a decade since I saw this Wes Anderson 2007 release, and I saw it only once, but in a heartbeat, I know that I need 

to watch this movie, 
to take in these images, 
to let them soothe me back to a right place of mind.

Thank goodness for streaming. 

Moments later, I'm taking in the opening sequence, and already I feel myself drifting back into peace. The visuals of this film have an amazing capacity to still my mind and calm my soul. 

The story suits my mood as well. It goes like this:

Three brothers have become estranged from each other as well as their surviving mother since their father's death a year past. They meet on a train in India, resume their old bickering ways, and travel toward spiritual enlightenment and an unsatisfying reunion with Mom. Along the way, they try but fail to save the life of a drowning boy, and find themselves invited to the funeral.

What unfolds is a minute-and-a-half-long uncut scene of the three men walking among villagers on their way to the ceremony, and what we later learn is that this experience helps them begin to heal from their father's death.

Visually breathtaking, emotionally transforming, technically exquisite, the scene knocks my socks off. Here, I invite you to watch for yourself. 

As I see 

the golden light suffusing the scene,
the flowers tossed into the air, 
the sheet pulled over the young boy, 

I feel my tensions ease and my pain subside. 

Life is full of love and loss, this scene whispers to me. Beauty is found in the joys, for sure, but it also comes, intensely and vividly, in life's sorrows. We must find the courage to accept the pain.

* * * * *

On my third or fourth viewing of the funeral scene, my ears awake and I notice the song playing under the images. 

It's Strangers by the Kinks, and this is the refrain:

Strangers on this road we are on
We are not two, we are one. 

Now the dots connect and the idea comes full circle. 

I cannot save my friends' lives. I cannot fix what it wrong, I cannot heal what is broken.

But I can walk with them, reminding them now and again that I'm with them, telling them that they are not alone.  

We are not two, we are one.

Monday, August 3, 2020

All Gussied Up

I called my dog and she came running.

Jumping down from her spot among the spent raspberry canes where she'd been napping while I worked, Gracie trotted briskly around to the back patio to see exactly what t was that I might want. 

"Come here, girl. Sit. Good dog."

Grabbing her rarely-worn collar and guiding her into place, I convinced an incredibly cooperative Gracie to pose exactly as I'd envisioned. 

Right in front of my newly freshened director's chairs.

They've been my chairs for several years now, but in my mind, they will always belong to my mom. She kept four other director's chairs with solid green covers around the table on her deck at the lake house, but this striped pair was her special pride and joy. And Mom looked after them with meticulous care, pulling them inside at the first sign of inclement weather and protecting them from grandchildren with ketchup-laden hot dogs. 

I must confess, I've not been quite as diligent. 

My cats love to curl up on them, which is adorable but leaves behind a goodly trace of dark fur. 
Dark grit has accumulated in the cracks and crevices.
And despite all my good intentions and any number of midnight runs outdoors as the pitter patter begins, my chairs have been left out in the rain more times than I can count. 

The bottom line is that my mom's director's chairs have not been looking their finest.

This weekend, I quite spontaneously decided to put some effort into bringing them back up to speed.

I pulled off the covers, soaked them in Simple Green, then scrubbed them down with a bar of Fels-Naptha and my bare hands. That's a pair of pages taken straight out of my mom's book for serious cleaning.

Once the freshly laundered covers were hanging in the sun to dry, I turned my attention to the wooden frames. 

To be completely honest, they were a fright. 

Not only had much of the color bleached from the wood finish, the arms in particular were distressed from standing water. The right thing to do, I heard my mother's voice in my ears, would be to sand them all down to bare wood and start over. 

Hmm. Right. No doubt that would be the gold standard approach. But here's the thing: one of the chair's legs has long ago begun to split, and while my mom did a straightforward fix with a pair of metal clips, it's a flaw that will not go away. So I decided that I was justified in taking a less than Herculean strategy of my own.

And I had just the one-two punch to bring some life back to my mom's chairs.

Boom, boom.

I've used these two products for many years to keep my well-worn wood cabinetry and trim looking lustrous and rich, and I'm still amazed every time I see the results.

The wooden frames of my mom's director's chairs look better than ever, the rain damage is not an eyesore but a source of character and charm, and the wax promises to block out any raindrops that might fall upon them, if I am ever to neglect these beauties again.

I was beyond thrilled when I put the chairs back together this afternoon. They're all gussied up for a new season of life, and I think my mom would approve.

As for Gracie - who is my mother's namesake, by the way - once she finished posing with the chairs, she ran back to her spot among the raspberries, and continued her nap. 

* * * * *

Here's another story about my mom's director's chairs that captures their arrival here at my house.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Make Yourself At Home

"My guiding principles in life are to be honest, genuine, thoughtful and caring." -Prince William

A powder room is an odd little place.

Even the name is a little goofy. Powder room.  I sincerely doubt that much actual powdering goes on in there. 

What I mean, of course, is our first-floor bathroom. Rather distant from our bedrooms upstairs and sporting a sink and toilet but no bath or shower, it belongs to none of us, per se, but presents itself for the convenience of our guests. 

Certainly we use this bathroom when we are not in the frame of mind to run upstairs, but for a long time, I never thought much about storing necessities down here.

Until I started teaching math at the Braggs' house. 

Stopping by their powder room from time to time, I was greeted with what I've come to think of as a full-service power room.

All the necessities were at my finger tips: soap, towel, air freshener, and a box of Kleenex.

I also discovered some lovely extras:

Hand cream.
Body lotion.
Extra towels.
Extra soaps.

Whenever I stepped into that powder room, I felt as if my friend had anticipated my visit, and laid out just what I might be needing. I felt cared for, cozy, and very much at home. 

This hospitality and thoughtfulness made a powerful impression on me.

Since then, I've been hard at work on my own powder room.

Though the space is tiny, I found room to squeeze in a set of small shelves and that has made all the difference. By setting the smaller necessities out in plain sight, I hope that serves as ain invitation for guests to help themselves. 

Top shelf: two tins of hand salve; a tiny painting, brass owl, and flowers.
Middle shelf: marble jar with Carmex, Tiger Balm, and a pair of nail trimmers; extra towels.
Bottom shelf: air freshener, hand creams galore, and a vase of eucalyptus.

Inside the vanity (not shown): extra toilet paper and Kleenex, hand gel, travel size Kleenex and hand gel, cough drops, Band Aids, first aid gauze, Bayer, Advil, Tylenol, Tums, Benadryl, and a few extra bars of soap. My go-to is Sexy Peel from LUSH

It is my heart's desire that any guest in my house who finds themselves in need will root around in my powder room until they come across just what they're looking for.

And when they find whatever it is they may need, I hope that my guests too will feel cared for, cozy, and very much at home. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Girl Gone Wild
We'd just come home from a properly leashed and well-behaved walk. 
Can't really say I blame the girl for wanting to run a bit wild. 

"Gracie! C'mon, girl!" My voice rang out across the lawns as my eyes scanned the street for a glimpse of red motion.

My dog was on the loose, running wild through the neighborhood.

Unlike my previous setters, Gracie does not often give me the slip. And 95% of the times she does get out, she doesn't go far. Over to the next door neighbors' house and into their garage, most likely. The previous family had a dog and she figured out that they kept an entirely accessible bag of dog food handy so she'd stop in to help herself to a little snack. Poor dog hasn't quite figured out that a new family has moved in, and they have no dog and thus no dog food. Still, she makes a beeline to their open garage and then quickly heads home when she realizes the treats are much better at our house. 

But today, my dog was apparently overcome by a greater sense of adventure. She shot past the neighbors' garage and headed off down the hill to explore the great beyond. 

As soon as I realized she was off on a run, I turned on my heel, marched into the house, and totally ignored her misdeed. 

* * * * *

Those previous dogs of mine, Casey and Ranger, were classic bolters, as are many Irish setters, and they schooled me well in the fine art of coaxing a wild dog to come home. 

Step Number One: DO NOT GIVE CHASE! 
Though we humans know that we pursue our wild beasts only with the intent to rein them in and haul their naughty selves back home, the dogs see it something like this. "Oh, look! My favorite human has decided to join me on my Grand Adventure. How wonderful! Let's keep running!" This works out quite well for the dogs but ends poorly for the humans who an hour later find themselves a mile and half from home, chasing their dog over hill and vale.  

Step Number Two: Don't Say "Come" 
Over the years, I've come to agree with a Golden Rule of obedience training: I only give a command to my dog if I'm sure I can enforce it. Otherwise, I create the risk of teaching my dog that obeying my commands is an option, rather than an imperative. So even though my dogs have been quite obedient to a crisply delivered "Come" command on leash or around the house, I avoid using that word when they're enmjoying an uncontrolled rampage, and go instead with the distinctively different and generally joyful "C'mon!"

Step Number Three: Play A Little Hard To Get. 
I've learned the hard way, a zillion times over, that the only way to get a runaway dog to come home is to trick them into wanting to come home. Let's face it, there's a lot to be said for running at breakneck speeds through a neighborhood full of delicious sights and scents, so this is no easy task. But here's the secret - I do what I can to make them think of me. And the way I do that is to disappear. Back into the house I go, where my absence will eventually register on the freedom-drunk brain of my escapee, and they will certainly think to look for me. I leave the front door wide open.

So even in the 4% of cases when Gracie romps off beyond the neighbors' yard, she's usually back within two minutes, chuffed with her escapade but also very curious to see where I've gotten off to. It's a marvelous solution and it almost always works. 

* * * * *

Today, however, was a rare case indeed. A one percenter in which I ignored my naughty girl and busied myself inside the house, but after oh, 7 to 10 minutes, I realized that my dog still had not come back.

Dang it.

Now I must break the sad news that there is no reliable Step Number Four. At this point, I just wing it. And today, that looked like me standing in the middle of my front yard, calling my dog's name with forced gaiety, listening for sounds of other dogs barking (a highly reliable way to locate a dog on the loose - the others rat her out), and thinking what to do. 

And then I heard it.

The subtle but unmistakable sound of a big dog galloping up the hill.

I smiled. 

I listened to that happy commotion, growing louder all the while, for several long seconds before I actually saw her. 

Finally, from the far edge of the next-door neighbors' rhododendrons, my big red dog came sprinting up the sidewalk at top speed, burned a hard right across their driveway and tore across their lawn, all wagging tail and thrilled to see me. 

* * * * *

And though this last step always kills me, it is crucially important. 

Final Step. Reward Your Fugitive For Coming Home.

Gracie knows the ropes. Her trajectory continued into the house as she skidded across the entry rug, slammed on her brakes as she veered into the kitchen, and slid into a perfect sit right in front of the pantry door. Ceremoniously, I opened the door, reached into her treat bowl and removed one delicious morsel. 

As I handed it to her, I told her just what she wanted to hear.

"Good dog."

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

A Lake Lady Makes Do

I am a Lake Lady.

My daughters coined that term to describe my passion for craving water in the summer sun.

Undoubtedly, these are the marks left on my soul from a childhood lived on a lake: I find any form of water-related activity to be irresistible, and I'm drawn to running hoses, wading pools, bubbling streams, lazy rivers, and of course, any sort of lake, like a pig to mud.

For that matter, I don't mind a nice mud puddle either. 

I consider it perfectly normal to wake up on a warm summer morning and put on a swim suit. Even if I have no other plans than meandering around my backyard, this has been deeply ingrained in me: hot days are for swim suits. And I wear it all day long. 

This is Lake Culture life, and even though I'm decades deep into this non-lake suburban lifestyle, I can't stop, won't stop.

Because it's true. I am indeed a Lake Lady.

* * * * *

Now it bears mentioning that my husband holds a different opinion. He is what I would call a Terra Firma Gent because he has zero interest in water-related activities. 


No one's perfect. At least he does our taxes.

So the idea of settling down in a lakeside cottage somewhere, or navigating a sailboat through local waters, is not really in the cards for me. But there's one dream that still burns within me.

A backyard pool.

Now there are reasons good and bad to invest, oh, upwards of fifteen grand into a big blue hole in my backyard, and while I've pondered every angle of this dilemma for years, I'm currently stuck on one key issue:

Here in the Pacific Northwest, swimming weather lasts maybe two months. For the cost of constructing and maintaining a pool year round, that's not a lot of bang for the buck. Yes, I could heat it and extend the swimming season, but there will still be many months of the year in which I'd be staring at my money pit, unable to put it to good use. 

On the other hand, two months of swimming in my own back yard sounds like pure heaven.

* * * * *

As spring has crawled toward summer in this season of quarantine, I've been particularly itchy to get to some water. I know a lot of people are carefully venturing out to the mountains, the beaches, even the local lakes, to partake of summer fun but that is just not for me. Until Covid is wrestled into submission, I'm planning to recreate entirely on my own property.

Which would have made this an ideal time to pull the trigger on that pool.

But alas, the timing slipped away from me and I've found myself smack dab in the middle of a glorious summer with nowhere to swim.

Until a few weeks ago, when a glorious plan began to take shape in my head:

Kiddie wading pools just don't cut it for me, but this year, more than ever, there seem to be a bevy of generously proportioned inflatable pools floating around on the internet. 

And while even an massive blow-up pool does not allow for proper swimming, it could allow me to float. 

Ah, what could be more lifegiving that drifting around a pool on an air mattress, 

cool water below as the sun warms from above, 
safe and secure on a bubble of bobbing comfort, 
adrift on a sea of sensory satisfaction.

And so, with a few flicks of my finger, I ordered myself my own personal sized backyard pool complete with floating mattress. And today, I got it all set up and climbed in.

^ The air mattress fits perfectly into the pool. With great ceremony, I laid first the inflated mattress on the floor of the empty pool, then climbed in to lie down on top of it, and pulled the running hose in after me. I was hoping that if I was patient enough, the water would eventually fill the pool to to the point where I would suddenly begin to float. My experiment worked like a charm, and my first half hour of soak time was  pure delight

^ Serendipitously, the pattern on my new air mattress matches exactly to a floatie ring I bought three years ago in Mexico. 

Here's a quick glimpse of it that year, popping up in the background of a photo of fish tacos. 
And here's an even tinier peek of those same bright flowers, in a story about my second trip to Cabo, in which I wax poetic about my passion for swimming. Ha. Lake Lady strikes again. 

The fact that this same tropical print of flamboyant flowers and lush green leaves has popped back into my life tells me that I'm on the right track.

^ So in a spirit of fellowship and good fun, I brought my ring out for some sunshine too.

^ After much deliberation, I decided to put the pool on the patio rather than in the yard so I could leave it set up for days at a time without any fear of destroying the grass underneath.And while that location means that I'll have to put up with a bit of midday shade, I'll still have long hours for lounging in full sun.

 ^ Gracie took the new blue beast in stride. Standing at the side of the pool, gently licking off the stray drops of water, she looked a bit wistfully at me bobbing about. But Gracie has her own pool and I suggested to her that she might want to climb in and swim with me.

I even offered to lend her my matching float ring which I think she would enjoy. Because I'm pretty sure that Gracie is a Lake Lady too.