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A blanket of snow, a coat of paint

January 23, 2011

I love snow days.

Around here they tend to come around only once a year, so we treat them like surprise holidays, with glee, cookies, snapshots and top stories on the local news. (Sometimes we head into town, where some of the power lines are buried and we’re less likely to lose heat.)

It’s best when it snows all night, and we wake up to see through the window a different world, all bright and white and sparkling. The way it happens in The Little Island, a lovely little book Margaret Wise Brown wrote as Golden MacDonald (does anyone know why?):

Winter came
and the snow fell softly
like a great quiet secret in the night
cold and still.

Even our pieces of scaffolding look better in the snow, am I right?


We rarely have to shovel the snow or watch as it gets all gray and dingy along the roadside; we all stay home on the first day, and after that it quickly melts.

My dad grew up with deeper winters in New Jersey. When he moved to Arkansas, an ancient runner sled came with him – I think my siblings and I were the fourth generation it carried down snowy hills. I don’t know what happened to the sleds, but this time next year I plan to have something more than plastic storage bin lids. I need to channel a more childlike attitude, too; when Jack asked about snow angels yesterday, I was all, “You know you have to lie down in the snow for that, right?” (Note to self: Better add snowsuits to the list, too.)

So we celebrated with a couple of short snowy walks. Jack discovered his coat pockets and the powdery footprints of deer, dogs, squirrels and birds.

And we spent the rest of our snow day inside, admiring winter through the windows, getting inspired to open another few cans of white paint, and feeling thankful that Jack still thinks that a coat of white paint is just as fun as the snow outside – no bribes or Tom Sawyering necessary.

We’ve been painting this place white since we bought it (five years ago this month). First old paneling, trim and cabinetry, and eventually a house full of bare drywall and new kitchen cabinets. Everything white. (Well, except for in the living areas, where I went wild with a blue-white and a green-white.)

I love color. Someday I might have a navy wall or a yellow door. I dream of wallpaper, an orange sofette, one of my flea market chairs recovered in a loud botanical print. But we aren’t there yet; we’re starting from scratch, and I like having a blank white canvas of a house.

I’ll always love the house I grew up in, with its concrete walls and floors, and wood beams under a tin roof. I love my mother’s house, native stone inside and out. And I love this house – my first one, and what I hope may be my only one – with its plain, bright white walls that seem proud to be standing and eager for something to happen.

When I’m overwhelmed by the sawdust in the corners, the tubs and boxes piled high, plastic-covered windows and doors and the unfinished bathrooms, seeing those walls is satisfying. Satisfying like waking up on a weekday morning to see a yard full of snow that hasn’t yet been walked through.


On the best-laid plans – and moving on without them

January 15, 2011

So Christmas passed 20 days ago, and we still have a decorated pine in the hallway.

The tree isn’t dropping needles yet, and Jack is partial to playing guitar next to it in his underwear.

We say things about fire hazards, the new year, bird sanctuaries and bonfires. He says “It has to stay!”

Today I’ll introduce a sure-to-work bargaining chip – the promise of marshmallows on a stick.

This is the longest we’ve ever left the holiday trimmings out. But it’s also the first time I’ve ever started the new year without that I wish I could have Christmas back slump. And so another point goes to team Do Whatever Works for You.

*               *               *

When I wrote about the heavenly peace we found on Christmas Eve, I was forgetting about how Jack punctuated Silent Night with piercing screams over having to put the decorative gold horn, which he played like a trombone through the service, back into storage for next year’s pageant.

He didn’t forget for a second, and has asked every day for a horn.

And his dad surprised Jack and me by producing an actual trombone, off of some dusty shelf in the nether regions of our house.

So we’ve been five years in this house, and I haven’t begun to unshroud the mysteries that live in the basement.

After a stop at our county’s hazardous waste dropoff center yesterday, though, I’m a little closer – I unloaded five printers, a VCR, a modem the size of a VCR, my Honda’s original cassette player (*tear*) and a laptop battery the size of said cassette player.

But – moving on, one day at a time. Some days it’s more like one room, one new obsession, ten old cardboard boxes, or  an ancient computer accessory at a time. Either way – moving on.

*               *               *

I swear, every single woman I know has a new Baby No. Two or Three or is about to. In October, Jack started asking for one, too, and over a recent family dinner, he announced that we are “waiting for a baby.”

Well, sure – that’s one way to put it. As long as “waiting for a baby” means waiting to decide when to consider even addressing the second baby timeline. Because that’s where I am.

As a would-have-been-a journalist and a grammar and writing teacher, I love to see clear, precise, determined verbs driving an active voice. But family planning is one place where I prefer to stay passive: I don’t want to decide; I want it to be decided. You know, by fate or God or nature or something.

Amidst construction at home and frequent job changes at work, the haphazard and fortuitous have become so familiar that they’re comfortable. And from T minus nine months, everything about Jack has been a delightful surprise. So much that now I’m not sure I know how to go about it all any other way. Of course I have huge, unanswerable questions about the size of my heart and where to divide my attention (and answerable but equally difficult ones about work and money and childcare), but really, I feel comfortable with the unknowns of how we’ll manage and what it will be like. Having a baby is such a big deal that I almost can’t believe it all starts with such simple decisions. Taking it in stride is more my style. But can you even do that if you get the ball rolling on purpose?

So I’m eager to plan our weekend, our next painting project, a spring break trip and dinner next week – but I wish the big decisions could reveal themselves as casually as a surprise trombone in the basement or the Christmas tree that stays up until February.


Those home fires

January 12, 2011

It’s cold. Really cold. Ice-blue skies and hazy peach clouds cold. Frozen fog cold. Thank goodness for wood stoves cold.

This morning the thermometer on the porch hovered near zero. My New Jersey family, Canadian and Chicagoan friends can scoff, but single-digit temps = Arkansas frozen over. (Though it could be worse.)

I drove home at half-speed yesterday, happy that Don and Jack, who’d had a snow day, were there building a fire – the first one our fireplace had seen since early 2009, when we started taking our house apart.

Then, the fireplace was the center of the house, in the biggest of its four rooms. We used the living room as a living room at first, then a bedroom, before it became part of the construction, too. We hung heavy wool blankets over the doorways and camped out in it for two days during an ice storm that left us with only the fireplace for heat.

Well, it isn’t that cold – at least not inside, thanks in part to the same fireplace. It kept our central heat off last night, and made my husband more happy and proud than I’ve seen him in a long time. Or at least since he opened his happy birthday miter saw.

It feels good to keep the home fires burning.

Because even if we still have sawdust in the corners, tubs and boxes piled high, plastic-covered windows and doors and not one complete bathroom,

and even if my husband spends most of his time at home wearing a head lamp,

things are coming along.

Outside it’s beyond freezing, but inside we’re getting warmer.

What’s saving you from hibernation this winter?

Ready, aim…

January 6, 2011

For two years and counting, Jack has demonstrated several consistent and pretty pronounced interests in lots of things that interest his parents. He loves to play music, and between us, his grandparents, aunts and uncles he knows bandleaders, pianists, guitarists, drummers and more. He loves to hammer and saw and pretend to use the Sawzall and drill, having watched them all work at his house since birth.  He likes maps, which we still use all the time to get directions and make plans, and loves the atlas and United States puzzle he found under the tree a couple of weeks ago. He loves to help me cook almost as much as he likes to help Don build, loves reading as much as both of us.

These top a long, long list of logical and ‘what toddler doesn’t?’ kinds of loves – rescue vehicles, football helmets, tractors, dancing, animals of all kinds – play that’s cute and imaginative, fun to watch and to nurture.

And then there are the guns. For a long time I thought there weren’t any at our house, toy or otherwise. But there are plenty, in drill bits and drumsticks, pieces of plastic hose and big kitchen spatulas. And now one water pistol, which he discovered couple of months ago he found among old toys at his grandparents’ house. I called it a water pistol, too, avoiding saying “gun” to a silly extent. The worst came around Halloween, when we took Jack to his favorite restaurant and the waitstaff served in costume. One dressed in camo fatigues and carried a rifle over her shoulder, and when Jack asked what she was carrying, I called it a “hunting tool.” That drew stares and eye rolls from nearby tables, and I finally decided to think beyond synonyms to what I was worried about and whether I could do anything about it.

My family generally considers itself Quaker, but I grew up around guns and hunters – my dad, for one, and a big group of friends who came to deer camp at our barn every fall. As kids we played with cap guns and eventually had target practice with real ones. My little brother had a BB gun.

There were no real guns around my husband’s childhood home. His parents are afraid of guns, but they were cool with classic cowboy play; Don and his brother were allowed to play with toy pistols and encouraged to watch John Wayne movies, but they weren’t allowed to have Super Soakers, the popular pressurized water guns, which looked to their parents like  modern automatic weapons.

My toy gun control came early and automatically, along with Jack’s exposure to plastic weapons at birthday parties and visits with older cousins. But what do you do, boycott? Whisk him away? Or, like me, stand wide-eyed and helpless as your toddler gets an introduction to toy guns and later try to hide their existence by spelling G-U-N and using ridiculous euphemisms?

I’m not crazy about Jack going crazy for guns because I associate them with violence. But he doesn’t – not yet – and I think that’s a good thing. He knows that real guns are dangerous and that “Grandpa Keith uses them to shoot animals to get meat.” And I think that’s plenty of reality for a not-quite-three-year-old, who has sensed enough in our hesitation to create his own version of gun safety. He tells us he’s playing with pretend guns. He doesn’t aim at people, and if anyone asks he’ll usually say he’s shooting water.

When I wrote almost a year ago about my fears about toddlers gun play, my friend Stacia recommended an interesting piece from The Washington Post: “My Boys Like Shootouts. What’s wrong with that?.” My worries came a little too soon then, but I’ve revisited that article many times in the past several weeks. I still think a third birthday party overflowing with toy guns is cringeworthy, and though I can clearly remember the innocent fun of cap and water and Nerf guns, gunplay will probably never be high my list of fun ways to be imaginative with Jack. But the idea that toy gun-friendly families have been shunned – shunned! – at parks and parades (read the article!) is harder for me to stomach.

So I’m relaxing. Playing it by ear and remembering the innocence of my son’s play. I can keep him from watching action movies – heck, he only gets to see PBS –  but I can’t take inventory of all of our friends’ and relatives’ toy boxes, and I’m okay with it. I find relief in that flexibility, in the reminder of our limits of control.

Where do you stand on toy gun control? If we parents introduce the gravity of violence to child’s play, do we make it all less innocent? If you show up at the park or a party to see gunplay, do you turn right around or chalk it up to life, happening?

This post is part of Amber’s Non-Judgmental Parenting project, which encourages us to share proud moments of parenting and to choose encouragement and thoughtfulness over judgment.

Reeling in the year

January 1, 2011

When it comes to celebrating the New Year, fireworks from the front porch is as glittery as we get. I can think of at least a hundred thousand reasons not to put on a dress in January, and being expected to stay up past midnight practically guarantees that I won’t feel like it. When one year I attended what might have been my only-ever New Year’s Eve party, thrown by some dear friends in their signature lavish style (that night, the kitchen was hidden by a curtain and they’d hired people to move drinks around the room), we still left early.  On my most rockin’ New Years Eve to date, I rang in 2009 with a small group of relatives and friends, Casablanca and plenty of libations – enough that my aunt ended the night with an impassioned and hilarious tirade against 1940s France that I only wish had become an annual performance.

This year, I even forgot to pick up the champagne – last night found me sipping Riesling from a Bota Box and watching Curb Your Enthusiasm (I made my husband stop looking for Dick Clark when Larry David flashed across the screen.). And only until 11 p.m., when I did my own countdown and then retired. This morning, when I tried for some reflection, 2010 was a messy blur – cheerful enough, but nebulous. I asked my husband for his proudest moment of the last year, and he couldn’t think past yesterday, when he managed to clean the waffle iron.

It’s far from lost on me, though, that today began a new year. That it really was all of 12 months ago that I was celebrating the end of a big decade and looking forward to 2010. That really, whether you’re having fun or not so much, time flies and all that.

In 2010, we built great new friendships and at least some of our house, which is only recently livable again. (This year, we hope to make it hospitable, too!) I moved through three different jobs, settling on my best yet. Don stayed committed to all of his – the one that pays, and the ones (plumber, electrician, carpenter, painter, father) that pay off. Together, we laid well over a thousand square feet of new old floors. Even though we aren’t supposed to have any, we rediscovered free time, going plum-picking and zoo-hopping.

I love the newness of the new year, the promise of the happy unknowns. Having a child has made that annual horizon all the more exciting. Jack turned two in 2010, but it was a year full of firsts –

first sentence, dance move, tricycle and solo slide;
first swim, hamburger, haircut, boat ride and milkshake;
first favorite color (purple), first guitar, first favorite music (“real rock-n-roll”);
first time to get a toy out of an in-store tantrum, first trick-or-treat and lollipop;
first football game and trip to the zoo, first “I love you,” and “Are we there yet?”
first 3,000 trips to Home Depot, first hard hat and safety goggles, first time staying up past 11 to hammer and saw.

As much as I love the idea of making resolutions for keeping, I’ve tried and failed enough times to know that I already have plenty of commitments – and momentum. My first act of 2011 wasn’t a motivational to-do list – just a deep breath for the first day of another year, and a little bit of hoping that humor, love and curiosity will continue to be motivation enough.

Happy New Year! How did you kick it off? Was it a party hat and a kiss at the stroke of midnight, or sweats and an early bedtime? Are resolutions alive and well for you?

merry and bright

December 26, 2010

Two days, two families: four Santas, three trees, two turkeys, one pageant. Rush pie-making, shipping and grocery shopping (four stores all out of fresh green beans. Thank goodness for the pinch hitters, brussels sprouts and asparagus. Bad and Ugly made appearances – one overturned pie, two missed naps, a pushy meat peddler selling steaks out of the back of an unmarked van – but really, it was nearly all Good. UPS, the real Rudolph, came. My niece unwrapped an origami book and paper and was soon frustrated and asking for help; for the first time in my life, I read the instructions and followed the arrows and dotted lines to produce recognizable shapes. My son was happily bewildered by all of the presents – he’d asked for one – and not envious of anyone else’s.

My husband is a preacher’s son. The current congregation is a sweet country church, where by mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve Jack was begging to go. His cousins appeared as Mary, an angel and a shepherd. Jack didn’t have a part in the pageant, which was for the best as he attended the service in a shiny new bike helmet he hadn’t taken off all afternoon. He gave it up only after commandeering an unclaimed prop to herald good news throughout the service.

Halfway through, one of the Wise Men forgot a line and burst into tears. I was corralling our guest trumpeter, imagining the length of the to-wrap list, dreading the long ride home and the midnight baking.

Then we turned the lights out, picked up our candles and passed the flame around the room. It was at first a scramble, and behind me my brother-in-law whispered loudly about the dry hay in the manger and WJack set aside his wild trumpeting and held a candle carefully; my late and last-minute list of things to get done flickered and came back into focus as things we’re able to give and do. We sang Silent Night, and the place really did fill with a heavenly peace.

I always love Christmas lights. Glowing from windows or twinkling around doorways after dark, they make the world look more welcoming. At home this time of year, I unplug the tree lights last, and my many messes fall into shadow (the way all the inflatable Nascar and biker Santas do pleasantly after dark). Two nights ago, the candles were the best of the Christmas lights, in that room crowded with a little community celebrating an ancient story of surprise, doubt, hope and new life. All things we experience or observe – and should probably celebrate more – every day.

Of course, if you prefer the less subtle and sacred lights, or Santa as a reindeer hunter in a tree stand is more your thing, or you just want to laugh, there are always alternatives:

(I really didn’t know how they would top last year’s display.)

Hope your holidays, however you celebrate them, have been illuminating.

The waiting is the hardest part

December 17, 2010

Ours was a holiday kind of weekend, in between our usual Saturday-Sunday fare – some cement pouring, a little insulation.

We drove downtown to see the trucks, hot rods, horses, four-wheelers and dirt bikes roll by in the Christmas parade.

The next morning, we visited our favorite tree farm. It was 20-something degrees, and the wind burned our eyes, but hey -we’re trying to build a tradition here.

Jack gets an annual ornament to represent his year. His first was a drum, and last year he got a hammer – both things he’s still into. This was his first year to choose the ornament himself, and he had to have two – a giraffe and a “real rock-n-roll” guitar.

Which he frequently takes off the tree to pretend to tune and play.

*               *               *

Since at least Thanksgiving, Jack has been hearing about Christmas. Everyone – family, friends, the cashier – wants to know what’s on his wish list, and whether he’s going to meet Santa. This is the first year he’s understood presents and surprises, and it’s becoming his toughest exercise yet in patience. He has a two-year-old sense of time – if we did something very early this morning, he might say we did it yesterday, which is how he might also describe something that happened two months ago. He understands “tomorrow,” mostly, though if he’s eager for it to come he’ll almost always double-check: “You mean now?”

So it’s been three weeks, and Santa is still not coming tomorrow.

But we’ve trimmed the tree, and I feel like I spent the last two months scouring Etsy and Amazon (WHY didn’t I start in October, when I always vow to?), so at least it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Sort of. See, the tree is in the hallway, just down from the sawhorse table that holds the jigsaw, right next to our two portable closets, and across from a stack of lumber. This is Jack’s first year to look forward to Christmas, and his wait is long, hard, and a little confused. I’m struggling with patience, too, as I look at the boxes labeled “Christmas” that will stay packed and return to the basement for another year. Silly though it may be, I look forward for months to bringing out the garlands (red berries for the mantel; mittens for the wall), jingle bells and bottlebrush trees, and to covering with glitter the pinecones and acorns I collected in the yard all season. But our fireplace is dusty and piled high with boxes of its own. Our living room is a storage closet; the den is full of wood and buckets of nails. In the kitchen, we have a tool pantry and doorless cabinets that we’re still painting.

I know Christmas isn’t really about decking the halls. But I love that part, and not observing it brings into sharp focus all that is still under construction in our life at home. The date of completion that I’m waiting for seems as distant and nebulous to me as “next week” is to Jack.

Don has always been better at waiting and making do. Last weekend, he brought all the boxes up because beyond the wood and wires and all manner of things undone, he can see places to add some holiday cheer. Last year we weren’t even living in our house, but we got a tree and unpacked ornaments and stockings. Two years ago, he hung our half-done porch with lights.

I’m proud of how much of the work we’ve done – are still doing – ourselves. But sometimes I just want it to look pretty. And as my husband pointed out to me, my version of pretty is kind of all or nothing.

I need to let progress look good and feel satisfying.
And let our tree look less like a tiny island of pretty – more like Christmas.

I know, I know. “It’s the climb,” and all that. When has your desperation for an end goal ever left you struggling for contentment? Pop hits aside, what helped?