Thursday, March 31, 2016

House Series #8: The Sewing Room

            I love fabrics – their colors, textures, and patterns, the way they cling or wrap, the way they fold, sway, or layer. It’s hard to resist buying a beautiful fabric, even if I don’t know what to do with it. Consequently, I have always had shelves and drawers of fabrics available for the day I wake up with a hankering to sew. Then I drag them all out and spread them on the floor or the couch, laying a pattern for a skirt with one, a different pattern over another, matching fabrics and patterns, and, usually, choosing both for the next project. 

Sometimes, I put everything away without having decided a thing. I could spend hours pulling out my fabrics, fluffing them out, matching fabrics and relishing their colors and textures and happily enveloping myself in my beautiful fabrics.
            In my old house it was tedious having to put my sewing away at the end of the day because I had to make dinner in the same room or because guests were coming or because I was out of time that day for that project. So, in designing my new house, I asked for a sewing room, a room where, when it was time for dinner, I could leave everything piled on the floor, where if visitors came, I could just close the door on the mess. The sewing machine could stay out. I could set up the ironing board in that room and leave it up. I wanted a room where I could sew and stop sewing and then start again. 
            And that’s what I got. The sewing room is across the main room from the writing nook. In addition to the two chests of drawers and two trunks that hold fabrics, it contains baskets and bags of yarns for knitting projects. My tapestry loom is on one wall, cards for card weaving in a bag under it, crafts books and sewing patterns in the book case with the sewing box my father made on the top shelf.

 The sewing machine sits on a favorite oak desk under the south-facing window. On the wall are paintings by friends and family members and an embroidery I did for my mother years ago. Dresses yet to be mended hang on a rack; the not-quite-finished quilt stays next to the sewing machine.

            One of the rules I discovered for one-room-cabin living in my old house was that everything had to serve a dual purpose or more. That principle holds for my sewing room now, as it doubles as a guest room. Imagine! The luxury of giving my guests a room of their own. The futon couch folds down for a bed, and guests can close the door for their privacy.
            The best thing about the sewing room, though, is not that it keeps my sewing projects contained or that it can sleep two guests but that it has a secret tunnel. A short door on one wall opens into a cabinet where I store blankets and cushions. The same cabinet is accessible from the other side, through a door under the stairs. When my granddaughter comes to visit, I take out all the blankets and cushions, leaving the tunnel empty. As soon as she gets here, she goes straight to the tunnel door. She crawls in and closes the door behind her. “Where am I, Amma-Dee? Try to find me!” The tunnel in the sewing room is my granddaughter’s favorite room in the house.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

House Series #7: Writing Nook

            Virginia Woolf said that a woman who aspired to be a writer needed a room of her own. Of course, my whole house is a room of my own, but what Virginia Woolf meant was a room in which a woman could write from her deepest center. In my old house the living room was the kitchen was the writing space. When Ela asked what I wanted in the design of my new house, I specified a room dedicated to writing, the sort of cozy, intimate space I like best.
            Ela complied, giving me an eight-foot-square writing nook, symmetrical to the entranceway on the other side of the storage closet along the east wall. A set of narrow, tall shelves cuts off the square corner of that wall, angling into the nook, both inviting one inside and demarcating the space. Across from the angled tall shelves is a two-drawer wooden file cabinet with, on top, a photo album of my friend who died last year and a photo board of pictures of my granddaughter.

 A large window on the east side looks into the woods, and a double window on the south side looks onto the garden, the apple tree, the pond, and Humpy Mountain. On the opposite wall to the south window, i.e., on the back side of the storage closet, is a set of bookshelves that hold: two shelves of the medieval books I was most fond of while I was writing my dissertation; two shelves of poetry books; my Tarot cards from the hippy years; hiking books and maps; reference books; and a shelf of folders of current projects. 

On the walls of the nook are a small wooden cabinet my father made for my mother for their first wedding anniversary: 

an embroidery I did years ago (Led Zeppelin: “Sing hard for the sunshine/Pray hard for the rain/Show your love for the lady in Nature/And she will come back again”); 

a calligraphy by my sister of a poem, titled “Advice,” that Ela gave me for Christmas years ago (“Live on a mountain. Build your own house. Have a proliferation of creative ideas …”); an art piece by a friend of Ela’s from college; a cut-out wall sculpture Ela made;

and a poster of Lelavision, my son and daughter-in-law’s performance troupe. On the windowsill are a stained glass piece from a student, a pencil holder I had on my desk as a child (an Indian’s face, with pencils sticking out of the head like feathers in a headdress), a pair of binoculars, some rocks, and a nameplate –­ Dr. Diana Coogle – that my former college roommate sent me after I earned my Ph.D.
            The placement of the desk caused a bit of a tussle between Ela and me. I wanted the desk under the south windows so I could look at Humpy as I wrote. Ela said that would destroy the concept of a nook and make the space just an extension of the living room’s south-facing wall. Architecturally, the desk should go under the east window. The view into the woods, he assured me, was also a good one.
            I didn’t dispute that, but it’s Humpy that is my inspiration. It’s Humpy I wanted to look at during those long pondering moments when I waited for the words to come. I did see Ela’s point about the orientation of the nook, but the inspiration wasn’t the same if I had to turn my head and lean slightly back in order to see Humpy. I shouldn’t have to make an effort. The view should just be there when I looked up.
            My solution was to put the desk under the east window, then have my builder, Richard, build a fold-down shelf just big enough for my computer under the south window. In my swivel chair, I can face the mountain to do my writing, then swivel to the desk where I’ve set books and papers. I can move the computer from shelf to desk as the light demands. My printer and my phone are on the desk. The orientation of the nook is to the east, but to see Humpy when I write, all I have to do is lift my head. Inspiration is abundant. I spend a lot of time in my writing nook, surrounded by things that remind me of people I love, looking onto a landscape I love. In my writing nook writing is a joyful occupation.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

House series #6 – The Awesome Railing

    Christopher was right when he said the stairs would dominate the house. The first thing you see when you walk into the house is the stairs or, more accurately, their railing. 
 You probably gasp. You walk into the room as under a spell, your eyes on the railing. The railing is the artistic center, the eye-catching wonder, the totally awesome focal point of my house.
    It was my son who made the railing. He is a welder and a designer and has built railings for high-end houses owned by wealthy people with an eye for art. I am not wealthy, but I have an Ela Lamblin railing in my house. I am so lucky.
    One handicap, it would seem, was that Ela lives in Washington. He would have to build the nine panels of the railing there and bring them here to install them. I would have to take very careful measurements to make sure they would fit. I did the best I could and hoped I had measured accurately. We talked on the phone about designs. We emailed ideas back and forth. Ela suggested a nature theme. He sent me sketches.
I didn’t know how he was going to transfer those lines into steel, but I was captivated by the abstract depictions of elements I love: water, mountains, rain. I trusted he would know how to turn idea into fact.
    In mid-August Ela drove to the Applegate with a van full of steel panels and his welding equipment. He arrived at my house one morning, unloaded his welder, set it up in my yard, pulled the panels from the van, and went to work.
    He gave me the job of scrubbing the welds of each panel with a wire brush. Richard, my builder, came to help with the installation. He and Ela measured, hauled panels into place, drilled, and screwed. Incredibly, everything fit, almost to a T. (I love the small, indistinct discrepancy, of less than an inch on only one panel, to prove the difficulty of the task.)     
    One by one, the panels went up. By the end of the day, everything was finished. Ela gave me a hug, loaded his welder into the van, and drove back to Washington.
    Now I have the most beautiful railing imaginable. Circles and spirals and whirly lines – a dozen ways to depict rain and clouds, trees and water, snow on mountains. Each panel evokes a different image: mountains and atmospheric swirls with a few colored glass balls suspended among them (later additions); drops of water making concentric circles in a pond; parallel lines of wind-blown rain from semi-circular clouds; swirls of clouds with bubbles of rain; a gorgeous tree with colored glass-bottle-bottom fruits; two sunbursts (or clouds or snow or atmospheric movements) above a little house with the exact silhouette of the house I live in; horizontal wavelets like fish or creek-bed currents or leaves flowing downstream (or –?); two mountain peaks, streaked with snow, beamed on by a sun (or is it the moon?) with rays of more glass bottle bottoms; a sun’s long rays streaming onto mountain peaks far below; and – is this my favorite? – long lines of steel, each ending in a rounded raindrop, raining between sharp mountain peaks below and fluffy curves of clouds above. No, the tree is my favorite. No, it’s the house. No, pond. No, I can’t tell. One day it’s one, one day another.
    I am so lucky to have this beautiful piece of art as the centerpiece of my house. I am so lucky to have a son both so generous and so talented. Every day I wake up full of gratitude.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

An Interruption to the Series about My House To Tell about Skiing Last Weekend.

            The wind was blowing hard from a dark sky when Mike and I drove into the back parking lot of Mt. Ashland. An inch or two of new snow gentled an ice-hard base. We started skiing down the lower road, where there was less wind, and though the way was bumpy with underneath chunks of ice, the skiing was good. Occasionally we stepped aside to climb an uphill slope thick with new snow so we could come down it, practicing turns. We wound fluidly down the road until blue diamonds turned us through the woods. We didn’t know where the trail would take us, but the day had a momentum of its own.

            The trail took us past a gurgling waterfall splashing holes in the snow, then uphill through the woods. When I made a wrong turn and looked up to see blue diamonds marking the trail above us, I suggested we climb the hill instead of retracing our steps, so we side-hopped up several icy, narrow humps, then chevron-stepped the rest of the way to the trail, where we took a minute to catch our breaths before continuing.
            It was beautiful skiing through the forest, with its dark trunks and snowy branches, but maneuvering between close-set trees, where the skimpy snowfall hadn’t reached the ground, was tricky. Time and again we side-stepped between trees on ice before skiing smoothly for a few yards, then crossing between trees on ice again.
            Then the forest opened up, and the trail took us more steeply uphill, before depositing us on a snowy road, where the skiing was superb, on silky smooth snow through a pristinely white landscape with trees lacy with snow on every needle. Three skiers coming down as we went up had wide smiles on their faces.
            Before crossing an open field and turning towards the wind, which we could hear above us, we stopped for lunch. Afterward we were skiing into the wind, but the snow was still good and the skiing excellent. Ahead of us we could see a long traverse across an open slope.
            There a ferocious wind was blowing directly towards us. It had blown all the snow off the mountainside, exposing a long steep slope of ice which we would have to cross step by step, jamming the metal edge of the uphill ski into the ice, hoping it would hold while we picked up the other ski to do the same. The effort was intense. The wind was biting. The ice was hard as metal. A ski would slip; recovery took strength; the going was slow. Occasionally I stopped to straighten my legs and rest a minute. Then I started again, cramming one ski into the icy hillside, then the other. At one rest I turned to Mike, behind me, and asked if he were having as much difficulty as I. He assured me he was. The slope was interminable.
            Finally I suggested we take off our skis and walk. In spite of Mike’s warning that it would be easy to lose a ski that way, I somehow, between taking off my skis and picking them up, got tangled in the mangle of skis and poles, and one ski escaped and fled down the hill. “Stop!” I cried after it. “Please stop!” As I watched, it hit a snow-filled gully and stopped. Mike carried my other ski with him as he walked up the trail towards the road while I walked carefully down the hill to retrieve my ski. Then I joined Mike on the trail, where we thought there was enough surface snow to try skiing again. We still had long stretches of ice, but we were closer now to the road and its flat surface.
            When we got to the road, we rested again, as much for our nerves as for our breath and strength. Mike mentioned how dangerous that crossing had been. In my concern for the difficulty, I hadn’t thought about the danger.
            As if in reward for the difficult crossing, the rest of the way was good skiing. By the time we reached the car, exhilaration trumped exhaustion. We had wide smiles on our faces.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Speaking of Risers

    One day while the house was under construction, Ela called with an idea. Why didn’t I woodburn quotations onto the risers for the stairs? It was a brilliant idea (so “me”). I started thinking at once what to use.
    My favorite Shakespeare quote is Hamlet’s dying words to Horatio: “Absent thee from felicity a while,/And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain/To tell my story.” It’s so beautiful, with its first line of lofty Latinate words falling into the monosyllabic, concrete-reality Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. But I didn’t want to be reminded, every time I walked up the stairs, that the world is too harsh for felicity, so I let Puck speak instead: “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
    Another favorite author, Vladimir Nabokov, fared no better. I love Pnin’s words: “Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam,” but they sounded as gloomy as Hamlet’s. I love the beautiful paragraph on the last page of Lolita, when Humbert hears the children on the playground far below, but its searing beauty comes from the agony of the novel. It wouldn’t do.
    I looked for something from T. S. Eliot, a poet once meaningful to me, but Prufrock (“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”) was too dismal and The Four Quartets (“Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past”) too abstract. Other quotes were by now clichés (Muir: “Going to the mountains is going home”) or fine thoughts but lacking in music (William Morris: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”). I agree with Aristotle that “There is something of the marvelous in all things of nature,” but who is Aristotle to me? I don’t love him the way I love Thoreau (“There are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout”), Gerard Manley Hopkins (“There lives the dearest freshness deep down things”), and Edmund Spenser (“For sure a foole I do him firmely hold/That loves his fetters though they were of gold”).
    Because I was writing a dissertation on Old English poetry, I wanted a quote from Beowulf. “Gaeth aye wyrd swa hio shal,” was recognizable enough, I thought, if you knew that “wyrd” meant “fate,” but I would translate it on the step anyway (“Goeth always Fate as it must”). I chose something my father used to say – “I feel a lot more like I do now than I did when I got here” – as a Coogleism from my childhood, and a quote from Carl Larsson, a nineteenth-century Swedish painter whose house I had visited in Sweden, as descriptive of my own house: “That unspeakably sweet feeling of seclusion from the clamor and noise of the world.”
    When I had finally winnowed my list to fourteen quotes, I unfolded a card table in the unfinished upstairs bedroom and practiced my wood-burning calligraphy, making mistakes, starting over, until gradually I accumulated a stack of bamboo flooring with quotes. Later, when the floor was being laid, I nailed those boards into place as risers. 

    Now, day after day, night after night, I read my way up my steps, stooping to read the bottom quote, from Rumi: “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground,” reminding me of the low doorway in a Japanese house that surprises a guest, when he stoops to enter, with a view of the mountain. After Rumi, I step up with Beowulf, the Coogleism, Thoreau, and Shakespeare, then, after rounding to the left on a landing, go up three steps, with Hopkins and Larsson and, between them, fourteenth-century William Langland with two lines from a longer passage from Piers Plowman I had memorized for a graduate seminar: “‘Conseille me, Kynde,’ quod I. ‘What craft is best to lerne?’/Lerne to love,’ quod Kynde, ‘and leve alle othre.’” It’s a good reminder, every time I read it.
    After another landing, curving to the left, I read on the next step a Zen saying I have repeated for years: “Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water./After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water,” which never had more fitting application than when I came home three and a half years ago with a Ph.D. Past the Zen saying is Spenser, then Robert Frost, reminding me that my life in the woods is also good, for “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” Next I relish Chaucer’s exuberance (“Lord, this is a huge rayn!/This were a weder for to slepen inne”); then I soar skyward with the quotes on the top two steps: W. B. Yeats’s lyrical poetry – “When have I last looked on/The round green eyes and the long wavering bodies/Of the dark leopards of the moon?” leading to Robinson Jeffers’s beautiful sentiment: “Things are the hawk’s food, and noble is the mountain.”
    From there I turn either into the bedroom or into the library, repeating to myself, “Things are the hawk’s food, and noble is the mountain.”