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Category: construction

dear jim, a thank you story

six years ago tomorrow, we packed the little one and the not-so-little one in the wagon and motored by this house we’d signed up for, but hadn’t yet sealed the deal for–at least not in that way where, wobbily, you slide the check across the table and sign your first, middle and last monikers on the million thousand sheaves they shove before you.

as we sat, motor idling that cold thanksgiving day, the architecture critic in the front seat, the driver’s seat, said nothing. just stared as the silence thickened.

so happens, when you live, day after day, with an architecture critic, you come to know that silence is a very big sound.

even the then-9-year-old knew that sound was not so good.

“so, mr. architecture critic,” the young one began, “what is it you don’t like?”

now mind you, the object of the critic’s silence was the house i’d fallen hard for.

it was a house he hadn’t seen, oh, since the one time we’d first walked through, some five weeks back, before the poor dear critic’s back went kerpluey, and he was hauled swiftly into surgery and then could not be taken for a drive, not even to see the house we had bumpily and not easily decided we’d move to.

mind you one other thing: there is, in the world of architecture, a maxim mouthed by one of the greats–just who it was i can’t recall nor does it matter now–and it goes like this, something about the ivy hiding all the sins of the fool architect.

of course i need to tell you that this house, when we first saw it, was covered thick in ivy. by the time we motored by that silent november day, the autumn’s dropping of the leaves fully finished, the house, like all the trees, was bare, exposed for all its faults.

even i had noticed a few odd spots there on the face of that poor house, but naive one that i am, ever hopeful, i assumed the spring would come and with it, the ivy leaves, and thus, the camouflage that perhaps our new old house required.

that whole long day, a day of wringing hands and walking out the kinks, was spent debating should we forfeit our down payment and ditch the deal, or forge ahead and double-plant the ivy.

in the short term, ivy won.

and, pretty much, it was a package deal: we took the house, as long as you, dear jim–builder, yes, but even more, big brother of a friend–were coming with.

we saw, even through the missing ivy, this old house’s possibility.

and you, strapped with tool belt, were the one tried-and-trusted ticket. long as you were at our side, a lopsided house wasn’t such a scary proposition.

thus began a six-year project that, truth be told, swallowed every extra penny, and all our get-aways besides. summer after summer, winter break after winter break, while all the other folks around jetted off to here or there, we stayed home and listened to the sound of hammers. and circle saws. and hand planes shaving boards.

i tell you, not once did i mind–okay, maybe in the fourth month of washing dishes in the basement, after stumbling, nearly every sudsing, on unavoidable evidence that a little flock of mice had assembled to gobble all the scrapings from the plates.

except for the mouse droppings that i decided–in one panicky spell–that i’d inhaled in noxious amounts, i was purring like a cat. watching room after room be tucked with all the nooks and crannies of my dreams.

granted, the architecture critic, perhaps, was not so much a purring cat. not always anyway. he can’t help it, really, that he believes in the art of the beautiful. and to his fine-trained eye, there’s no shrugging off a line or angle that isn’t where he thinks it ought to be.

trust me, he’s just as hard on calatrava or gehry or that german fellow, mr. jahn. and the ones who penned the sketches for this odd old house did not escape his scrutiny.

so, yes, once in a while–okay, twice in a while–he might have scratched his head, stood silent, and we all knew whatever was the object of his silence, it was coming down, only to be replaced by a something that made his eyes light up. twinkle, if you will.

ah, but here we are, dear jim, and you’ve just pounded in the stakes for the one last thing i’d dreamed of: a picket fence of white, complete with posts that just might be the perch for a birdhouse or two. or three.

it is, in many ways, the row of exclamation points to a job well done. a job drawing finally to the end.

as i walk from room to room, dear jim, you to whom we turned and trusted with this utter transformation, i feel that swelling in my chest that comes, yes, just before the tears spill.

it’s been long, and sometimes hard. but this house, which from the very instant i traipsed its bluestone path, up two steps and through the glass-paned door, has wrapped me in its arms, well, it now does the same to nearly anyone who comes here.

i hear it all the time now: this house soothes. it’s like climbing into someone’s ample lap. it does not, ever, hit you on the head. but, more, it eases out a sigh. shoulders soften, backbones lose their overarch. shoes come off. it’s a barefoot sort of place, a place where legs are curled and bottoms cozied on the couch and fine old chairs.

it’s the one thing, i suppose, that’s essential in a place worthy of the title, home.

i’ve only just realized quite what it was that drew me as we tucked and nipped and painted all those colors. as we pounded into walls, swapped out windows.

i was leaning toward that most sacred of sanctums, the inner chamber of all our hopes and heartaches.

i was leaning, wholly, toward a home that fed and wrapped and stoked and quaffed not only my soul, but that of each and every someone who walks beyond its transom.

home, if you’re really blessed, is the one place on the map where, like the mama or the papa we all yearn for, we can come to be swathed. we slough off our cares, drop down our worries with a thud. we slam the door on all cold winds. and light the logs waiting in the grate. we crank the kettle. open wide the fridge, and forage for that one queer thing we love to spoon straight from the carton.

it’s home, where we set the table, join hands and pray our deepest prayer. it’s where we pull on our socks, knot the tie, and breathe expansively before forging out again.

it’s where some of us could stay all day, and never feel the urge to leave. it’s where some of us stop by only for rest and sustenance–dipping deep if briefly into the well–before tilting at our windmills.

room by room, two-by-four by two-by-four, you, dear jim, you hauled your tools and your lumber piles and your capacity for leaving not a turn or knob ajar or askew or not quite the way you dreamed it ought to be.

you’ve left your handiwork here where i type, in the bookshelves that span the walls, upstairs where a window seat looks out on rising sun and snowfall, and in the kitchen where i glance out at windowbox of herbs or up into the underside of raindrops falling on the skylights’ panes of glass.

there is not a room, not a nook, where you’ve not built and wedged and hammered some grace-filled dream of ours.
and in this season when we gather thanks, when our hearts spill and our souls feel wholly stuffed for all the riches that surround us, that are ours to reach and wrap our arms around, i just want you to know, dear jim, that till my dying day this house to me will always be the finest gift one friend could have built for another.


your friend who never stopped believing that a funny-looking house could someday be a holy blessed home…bless you, builder of our dearest dream

friends, as is always the case here, i write in the particular with the hopes that you can latch your dreams onto my story. so that it becomes our story. down below is where we start to sketch that out, as you tell me what it is–and who it is–who has built for you your deepest wildest dream. maybe yours is not a house. maybe it’s a love. or a family. or a parachute. or a windmill. this is storytelling season, so draw in, if you will, and tell your tale of thanks. and bless you for reading mine….
if all goes as planned i’ll be back tomorrow for a meander of great thanksgiving……


it’s what happens when you buy an old house, a house that hadn’t been loved in a while. a house that, like me some days, is a bit worn-out in obvious spots. a bit saggy and scuffed, and not so polished if you peek, say, under my sandals–i mean, er, under the rug, or rub your thumb down the cracks in the walls, cracks that run courses so long and so wobbly they rival the ol’ mississippi.

fact is, you move in with a list so long you think you might never really get to the end.

but trouble is, you–old stubborn goat that you are–you have every intention of getting there, to that place where all the walls are finally tucked and the roof isn’t oozing with each sloppy rain and the floors aren’t spotted with whatever it was someone’s lazy ol’ cat left behind.

it’s what happens when you aren’t like some who are deeply endowed and who do all these jobs–the ones that have you hanging out windows gasping for air, the ones that have you washing your dishes in a paint-splattered sink in the basement for so many months the mice come in, and feast every night on your scrapings–yup, i’ve seen it myself, the deeply endowed do all these jobs before hauling so much as one single rug into said ramshackle house.

nope, you never did grasp the math–or the magic–that allows for such dual domiciles, the one you do work in and the one that keeps you this side of sane.

so you, like me, you move in and you know that, pretty much, for the next century or so, you will be shuffling your this and your that into and out of one room, and right onto another. making like your house is a chessboard and your box after box is the front line of pawns, the rooks and the knights, all clanging and banging their way toward some other end of the chockablock maze.

you will be shoving the piano from one end of the house to the other. the rugs you’ll roll and you’ll lug, like a dead cobra, perhaps. one that swallowed an elephant just before gasping its last.

oh, you’ll be taking advil by the fistful for all the aches and pains that come with the heaving of trunks and, heck, the occasional two-ton stove. and you’ll stock up on those little white migraine pills that undoubtedly you’ll hungrily gulp to knock back the throbbers that come from the fumes you breathe in so deeply on the unending days when the satin-matte toxin wafts past your nose, wreaking who-knows-what havoc to the singular cell in your brain that’s not yet shriveled and forgotten its way.

but what really i need, in these days of deconstruction, is something far stronger than sedatives (though one or two of those might be swell, mixed in with my yogurt and berries, perhaps).

what i need, maybe, is a sense that life demands a breakdown once in a while. oh, i don’t mean one in the nervous department. i mean–be it a blood cell or an old dried leaf in the compost bin, or the parts of a house even–it must be written into the code of the universe that breaking apart, disordering what’s settled, is the first step in building back up. there’s no moving forward without a shake-up, a rattling, a walloping dose of disequilibrium.

if we lose hold of the long view, if we cling too mightily, too white-knuckley to the neat clean ledge of our life, well, then, won’t we just dangle, and eventually drop?

egad, i hear my own echo free-falling down through the canyon. was that a splat i just heard?

i’d best take a few deep cleansing breaths, and repeat after myself: it’ll all be over someday (now, there’s solace for ya).

maybe it’s all just a drill, a practice perhaps, to build-up my disequilibrium muscles, see if i’ve got what it takes to weather something so inconsequential as the fact that my couch and my keyboard are butt-up against what once was the one chair i cared to curl up in at the end of a long, long tiring day.

so it was that this week, once again, i rolled up my sleeves, yanked the hair from my eyes, and ripped all semblance of order from these rooms i call mine.

the floor man was coming. he with his army of buffers and sanders. his fumes and his colors.

his was the one last fix-it-up job–okay, the almost last job–the one i’d been loathing forever and ever.

had i had my druthers i would not have minded, not one little bit, the spots duly ensconced under the rug. i couldn’t be bothered, not hardly, by the odd gaps edging some of the walls. where the floor boards just stopped. a whole inch short of the wall in some of the spots–right where you stepped in the door, for instance. way i saw it, the absence of floor in those spots made for a fine well, a ditch if you will, where crumbs and odd hairballs could be brushed and disposed of at a mere moment’s notice.

ah, but the one whose ring i slipped on those many years ago, the one whose address is now always the same one as mine, well, he thought it high time–nearly six years, if you’re counting–to make like a grownup and spiff up the floors.

one ring-a-ding to the floor man, and, hmmm, seems the calendar’s sparse in the floor-buffing department of late, so without delay, he’d pencilled us in.

and i knew, without coaching, what had to be done.

with all the constructing that’s gone on around here, i’ve learned, oh i’ve learned, that with it–preceding it, accompanying it, joining in on each blessed chorus of hammers or buffers–there comes deconstruction.

i’ve come to loathe the stage in the game where what sits calm and serene–a lamp on a table, a rug minding its business under a chair–it’s up and upended.

rugs are rolled. lamps are stuffed in a shower that’s never turned on. saucers are tucked in a drawer that, hmm, i might not track down for days, weeks or months.

once one half of the house is slid into the other, i succumb to the challenge of coexisting with chaos. at breakfast, i shove boxes off the counter, to make way for cheerios and milk. after school, i make the little one suffer–or so he cries–because the box he so loves, for the baseball it brings him, it can’t be plugged in.

i tried, really i did, to give in to the madness. to not mind that we could barely squeeze through the kitchen. to not worry if i swallowed some dust with my coffee. heck, i just plugged my ears to block out the banging.

ah, but now as i type, tired and ragged from hours of fumes, from the long stretch without food, drink or bathroom when the floor by my office was sticky and wet and i couldn’t get out, the decon is ended.

the floors are mahogany now. the varnish is satin and smooth. the rug hides not a spot. and it rests, once again, under the couch and the slumbering chairs.

the house is restored. and soon i will be too.

a long night’s sleep, in a house that’s seeping its sorry old fumes straight out the windows, that’s all i need.

and when i awake, rub the dust from my eyes, i’m sure i will marvel at the uncanny fact that the boards under our feet are no longer pocked and pitted and rudely cut short of the walls.

and, as a matter of fact, i just might pat my old self on the back, proud, yes indeed, that i got in a round of disequilibrium practice.

but, wait, what’s that i see as i stumble to bed?

it’s floor stain splattered on walls. oh, Lord, could it mean what i think? the painter must pay me a housecall? and decon, again, is headed my way?

excuse me while i try a pencil eraser. anything, please, but no deconstruction.

it’s the disorder, people, that makes me nuts. anyone else go bonkers when your house is on end? how oh how do you cope? do you crave order in your life, and do you find it in the way you keep your house, or is that moot, (or pointless?) and do you opt instead for order of the interior psychic sort?

nook by nook

cranny by cranny, we are tucking bits of our soul into this old house. first time i pointed my shoes down the winding walk that leads to the blue-slate stoop that leads to the glass-paned door and into this humble house, i felt a chill run down my spine.

i felt like i’d been here before. i felt like this was home, this place i’d never been. i felt like i knew not only the essence behind the walls, but all its secrets, too.

most of my life i’ve found the places i’ve lived quite by accident, often with a shiver down my neck. i just know, as i knew here, that these are rooms to spread my soul.

it is often the oddest things. things that don’t add up, not by ordinary math. a laundry chute. a magic place, a place for elves or little children, tucked beneath the boughs of spruce out back. the way the light slants through the front bay window. the narrow planks of oak. the wider planks of pine.

never mind square feet. or mstr suites. couldn’t care less for granite counters. or 3-car garage. like i said, i’m no mathematician. the numbers never add. it’s just a sense, a knowing. it’s a place that calls my name.

besides the oddest things, the don’t-add-up things, there are two essentials i cannot do without: light and flow. i need rooms with light that pours and light that dances, casts its shadows, hour by hour. louis kahn, the great architect and thinker, calls light “the divine animator.” this house has light.

what it didn’t have was lots of nooks and crannies. it was a house built in 1941, a time when efficiency and getting to the point was high on the agenda. it was built by a doctor, a doctor who delivered babies. and i’m guessing he meant business. not one to dilly-dally around the delivery room, he wanted his deliveries, his day, his path from bed to bath unencumbered.

he, unlike me, might have prided himself on a direct route from a to b. not me. i like meandering. i like the route least direct. i’m a dreamer, not a driver. i like stops along the way. i like the possibility of pulling over, unfurling blanket under tree, counting clouds.

nooks and crannies in a house are for those who savor pulling over. nooks beckon. they call your name. they are little places that invite you in. come here, they say, curl up. be harbored. tuck your secrets here.

a nook and cranny in a house is like a jacket full of pockets. like a sentence that rolls with clauses. it makes for texture, layer upon layer of possibility.

and so, one nook or cranny at a time, we’ve filled this house with place to pause, with room enough for wisps of dreams.

up in the room where we lay our heads there is now a window seat, looking out into limbs that any week now might be sprouting tiny shoots of green. i’ll get to watch from just inches away. and if a mama bird settles on a branch, i’ll keep a careful eye on the hatchery.

one whole wall in the room where i type is row upon row of bookshelves. four tall sentries, filled with pages, keeping watch over my shoulder as i channel words to screen.

in the kitchen, there’s a narrow nook for hanging coats. and across the way, a built-in bench beneath a window garden. it’s all a bit of heaven, if your idea of heaven is one with nooks at every turn.

each nook, each cranny, has come to our house courtesy of jim, the grilled-cheese builder. not a one is anything fancy. not a one the stuff that steals the cover of some shelter slick or glossy.

each one is rather quiet. but each one makes me sigh. long as i’ve been dreaming, i’ve dreamed of nooks and crannies tucked in little corners. maybe i read too many fairy tales. maybe i stared too long into drawings of magic cottages in the woods where all was old and quaint.

jim was here day before last, tucking two last nooks in two more corners. they are nooks for plates and cups. very old plates and cups. the ones i had in boxes for the last four years, and before that, stacked so high on a shelf, i needed a step ladder to reach them. i don’t know about you, but i’m less inclined to use for dinner when a ladder is required.

since this is, i swear, the house where i’ll grow old, the last house i’ll call my own, i thought it might be rather nice to actually start to use those dishes. a cupboard is an old idea, not a radical idea, a place to hold your cups. a cupboard tucked in corner, even better. a fine old idea; one the doctor, bless him, didn’t think of. he was thinking straight lines, i am thinking not.

alas, on the long list of things this old house needed, i assure you, nooks for plates and cups, especially old ones, was hardly up there. even if it meant years of dinners, christmas, seders, passed without the fine old plates.

as jim & co. banged the nooks into their place, i heard the old room sigh. it’s been waiting 66 years for that little bit of angle-changing. i sighed too. knowing that we were ticking off nearly the last nook on the list.

this old house has been hammered plenty since we moved in. the rafters might well be shaking. it’s time at last to settle in, to settle deep into these floorboards.

a wise friend and architect once told me, “a house bends toward its inhabitants.”

our house has bent, all right. our house, once hard angles everywhere, is now a house of nooks and crannies. it’s a place where i can dream. curl up and wonder. stretch out and ponder.
we are blessed to call this home. more blessed still to have tucked in nooks and crannies.

do you have a nook? one inside your house? one somewhere out in the woods? a nook of the world? a nook beside your bed? where in your house do you feel your dreams best stoked?