Pergola Makeover, A Family’s Creative Project

 

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This ivy and rose covered pergola stands in our yard, a mature vision of the former owner’s dream.  When we bought our home thirteen years ago, the structure stood bare, with a single stalk of a thorny climbing rose, and a pot of English Ivy at the base.  A decade later, it became a mass of leaves and blooms, so lush and full as to inspire a daily retreat into the arched garden.  I loved it then.  I loved it when it was a bare thing waiting for leaf children to climb on.  I always thought it was a romantic sort of thing for someone to build.  A bit of poetry inside a chain link fenced yard.

Last year when mom came to visit, we discussed the idea of removing the ivy because it was a struggle to keep clipping back.  At one point the ivy from the top would reach down and touch the ground on the back side.  Mom thought it was beautiful and said try to keep it.  And I agreed.  Then this year, I noticed the entire structure start to sway in a strong breeze.

It turns out, English Ivy, so romantic of vines, is also a destructive force of weight and a hide-out for chewing, munching, wood hungry ants.  And the thought of losing our beautiful little pergola, which for some reason I’ve always called “the arbor” sent me on a mission to the garage for a shovel, some clippers, a hatchet and gloves.  And this is what I found:

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And underneath that,

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Aye!

With the help of my husband, who said a few cuss words and threatened to get out the saw and bring it all down, we worked for days removing and burning the old ivy.  Getting to this point was a huge relief.  Almost like a psychological cleansing.  A clarity of mind after a meditation.  A sigh of relief.  Whew!

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But that is not all.

I have become more aware about the magical power of intention when it comes to projects big and small.  That my focus has a tendency to draw me nearer to manifesting my imagination.  And the way Spirit provides things that I might want to make use of.  First to arrive was a gorgeous, heavyweight, textured cotton duvet from an overstuffed rack on the back wall of the Goodwill.  A couple of small stains meant it was perfectly acceptable to use it outdoors and was meant for my project.  A few days later, I was on the hunt for some hooks to hang curtain rods.  Elliot, patient, tolerant son, who was nonetheless pulling on my sleeve, bumping my side, gently prodding me like a herding dog to leave the second hand shop when we didn’t find hooks, got a lesson in treasure hunting.  “See, Elliot!  See how this works? I had an intuition that there was something in here we can use.”  Our treasure?  An old brass chandelier!

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A few days after this, four white flat sheets arrived like magic for 2.25 a piece!  The basic elements were in place.  I worked for a few days at the sewing machine and came out with four white panels for the back of the pergola, and two heavy duty drapes for the front, with fabric leftover for new chair cushions.  I even had some leftover fabric paint to make my own designs, and that turned out to be a fun day making art in the back yard, the sweetest therapy there is. Elliot enjoyed using the spray paint on the chandelier, which was his reward for being so patient while I treasure hunted.

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Richard even contributed by bringing home some galvanized pipe and hooks for hanging the curtains and drapes.

I wonder if this ever happens to other folks when they are working on a project.  Everything starts to come together, piece by piece.  The anticipation for completion builds.  Excitement is high.  Then, there happens to arrive something to thwart the completion, just in the last push to the finish line.  For me this is usually a knotted thread on the sewing machine, a crazy grinding and humming and slow to respond computer issue, a big distraction that requires immediate attention, or a mistake caused by the increased momentum and speed of the work as it comes to a close.  This time, that Canadian cold front brought us big gusty breezes, which on a sunny spring day can be so absolutely wonderful, especially in a subtropical, dense humid climate. But yesterday it was really giving us fits!  Trying to hang curtains in the gusts was testing all of our nerves.  I ended up sewing a wide hem on the bottom and Elliot helped by hunting for rocks, washing and drying them, and placing them inside the hem to weight the light cotton back panels.

And then it suddenly came all together at once.  Richard brought out the handpainted pillows and our plastic wicker chairs, followed by our old iron table that he resurfaced with tile.  Elliot brought a washcloth to wipe the dust and pollen from the table, then said, “We need flowers!” And so after wiping the dust, he brought a sad little pot of yellow marigolds for our centerpiece.  Richard, being the tallest, hung the chandelier.  I snapped a few photos, and we went inside to fix our Sunday chicken dinner.

But excitement was still high.  After dinner, guess where we went?  Not to the living room to watch a movie.  Not to our tablets or phones.  Not to the road for our evening walk.  We went on a mini vacation on a Greek Island formerly known as our back yard.  And we read about Shakespeare’s language in the sunset.

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And just in case you were worried, the rose bush was saved.

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As the moon shone above us and the candles flickered, Elliot asked, “Did your mom ever do magical things for you when you were a kid?”  And I said, “Yes. Yes, she did.  She was the one who taught me how to make the perfect blanket fort.”

 

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Put the Inner Critic Out

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Here’s a fun little experiment for those who struggle with the inner critic.  Try kicking her out and letting her sit on your desk.  Then you can talk back to her when the writing is happening.

My little hag is named Finnola, inspired by a character in Catherine Cooper’s The Golden Acorn.  I made her for a children’s book club gathering in the woods.  Once all the children found her hiding place, I took her home.  In between moon time, where she might sit on my nightstand…she works in my writing space.  I wonder how chatty she will be when I sit back down to work?

Biodegradable Anger, Compostable Pain

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I once wrote a short poem:

“my heart is a trampoline.

you can jump up and down on it

and I will bounce right back.”

Perhaps that’s not always true.

In fact, it’s just a thing I say to carry on.  The real truth is that my heart also contains a little landfill,

where the buried anger has not quite broken down all the way.  The polymer residue of events and conversations that challenge my tolerance and patience, that cover up the kindness, are like the plastic in the real landfil;

here to stay, it seems.

And somehow I think it’s my job to clean things up. You know, to be healthy and happy.  Just for the sake of relief and enjoyment.  Maybe this is the job of every person, not just mothers tending home and babies. We’re used to cleaning up messes.  Especially the kinds of messes that return every day, like dirty socks to wash and crusty pots to scour, and cat pee— (give that one up!  Only fire works.  And maybe rainwater, but I’m still testing that experiment.  Perhaps acid rain is the main ingredient in Nature’s Miracle.)

Like plastic and animal urine, or war and violence, pain and anger are going to be with me, likely until near the time of my death, when the only thing I can do is give up the exercise of living.  Wouldn’t it have been better for me to give those things up long before that moment?  Maybe it could happen.  That I could achieve a state of enlightenment so brilliant that all of my suffering was disintegrated by luminescent love and gratitude.

I secretly wish for that, but let’s be real for a second: has anyone like that ever existed?  Even Jesus was throwing around tables in the synagogue.  If only I had a table to throw.  That  would be such a relief.

I used to be a ruminating smoker. Here are two of the most unhealthy means of processing anger:  to ruminate brings severe depression, as thoughts circle until there is no way out of the labyrinth, bringing an acute sense of hopelessness, desperation and dependency. To smoke brings loss of life.

Somewhere along the way I was able to put down the cigarettes.   I remember how I did it.  First I started taking a pill that masked the nicotine receptors in my brain, and second, I took up sewing.  Hopeless, empty hands needed a new set of motions.

Over time, I began to feel significant relief from the hopelessness.  What I learned and what I can say with confidence is that anger is biodegradable, even when it regenerates afresh.  But first, it needs to go through processing.  It belongs in the compost bin, not the landfil.  Once processed in this way, the packaging is much more convenient to life.  The processing and composting of my pain involves five specific themes:

The first is a focus on something totally unrelated to the current pain.  Distraction works on toddlers, and apparently also on me.

The second involves a physical activity that accompanies the focus.

The third is a challenging and tedious mental activity that is enmeshed in the focused task.  It’s going to need to be something that takes time—stress chemicals will remain and operate under the surface of everything I do, and leak into conversations and relationships.  An activity that allows for some healthy solitude can be incredibly healing.

The fourth is a clearly defined purpose (example: I’m starting with this pile of scraps to make x.)  Working on creative, artistic activities provides a way to temporarily transform the stain, the black spot in my heart.  It also helps to fill the hollow emptiness of loss.  The results of my efforts are kind of like compost: useful for growth.  Fertile elements from darkness.  Incubators for seeds of future projects.

The fifth involves attention to spirit.  Prayer.  Meditation.  Surrender.  If this attention is also accompanied by time in nature, the result is more lasting and uplifting.  I love to be refreshed in nature.

If you want to skip all five steps and get immediate relief in a short amount of time, hard running also has a similar affect.

If only I were at the point in my skill of composting pain to be able to let all things pass straight through.  To let the anger and the pain burn with their toxic chemicals, to be set free of the negative downward pull on my psyche without the physical, material component.

Perhaps that state of being involves the recognition of something I fail to see in the blurry smear of being upset.  Have I, like a stubborn mule, been led to some refreshing peaceful clean water to drink, but refuse to touch my lips to the surface? How have I missed the message? To simply accept a gift of peace; a thing perhaps undeserved but given, the renewable resource like water for the fire.  The message floats up to me now: release.  Do not attempt escape.

The Personal Day

100_7450Yesterday I woke up and decided to take a personal day off.  I claimed the day as “my day” to do whatever I wanted to do, within my means.  Having spent the last two weeks preparing for big day of entertaining, I awoke to an awareness of self in the silent void that fills our home after a party.  Still full of the previous day’s cake and the warmth of old and new friendships, there was suddenly an emptiness; a pause where nothing urgent was anticipated.   It had been a busy two weeks, where simple things like cleaning the house and mowing the lawn were complicated by a sprained ankle, a massive three day sinus headache incurred at the pool, and an irritable monthly cycle.

So I wasn’t feeling physically strong.  But instead of cancelling our party plans and staying in bed with ice packs on my ankle and head and a heating pad on my middle, I worked every day with this thought:  each task is my opportunity for creativity.  Instead of rushing through decorating and seating arrangements, I savored the process.  Then, I repeatedly challenged my inner critic who told me that my work was amateur, imperfect and cheap.  I told the critic that I’m not perfect and that no one expects me to be perfect.  Perfection makes guests uncomfortable.

Real is comforting.

The party was a great success.  We were all enriched and loved and entertained.  A new life is on the way for a very loving young couple and being a part of that hopeful expectation was a privilege and a gift.

And just like it happens with visits from family who eventually leave to go back home, the space that our friends filled was once again, space.

How often have I said the words “today is mine to do as I wish?”  So rarely that I am unable to recall the last personal day.  Even my husband who works at a large company is allowed several PTO’s.  I suppose it’s a very tricky thing for me to take a day off when I live in the same place I work.  Taking time off is something that only seems to happen if I leave the house for a day or a weekend trip.  But what happened yesterday was a shift and a challenge to that perception.  There is a way to detach and reframe.  Isn’t it true that since I’ve been given a life to live, every day is my personal day?

Because it’s the only life I have to live?

Today is mine to live as I wish, as is tomorrow, and the next, and the next after that.  And if what I’m doing no longer serves my basic needs for survival or my spiritual longings, I can make changes.

This leads to the question of how much I “own” my life.  How much of each day  is mine to choose, and how much is dictated by my responsibilities? What portion of my time is spent in the service of others, and what slice is left for solitude or creativity?

Perhaps this is a first world problem.  People in slavery and bondage don’t have these choices.  Prisoners and people in debt don’t have these considerations. Parents with young children might not be thinking that this is a realistic goal.  My husband looked directly into my eyes and said “this is impossible for me.”

But is it?

I wonder.

A Summer Sleeping Porch

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I had romantic notions that one day I would write a book out on our covered porch.  Ten years have passed, and no book yet.  But now I have one memoir in progress, which gets done every morning before breakfast, a few handwritten pages at a time.

I decided not to return to the critique group.  The aftermath of so much red pen kept me silent on the page for weeks.  And so I’m back to just me and the ink on the lines.  I’m discovering the absolutely essential, critical, most important thing about writing:  that I must actually put something down, even a few sentences, every single day.

For me this is also true about running.  I have to do it daily, or lag for months. So this week, I’m feeling so much better for taking the first three hours of the day to do both.  On my run up a half mile hill this morning, a thought arrived– that writing in my notebook every morning is having a similar effect as the writing.

With each line written, some kind of psychic fat is being melted.  Going forward, I feel the sense that I’m getting closer to the white bones of what was really going on during that year of single life.  I’m getting better at asking myself questions that I didn’t think to ask thirteen years ago.

And the benefit of this? Feeling lighter psychologically is a trigger for creative ideas and happiness.  More spontaneous ideas can flow in when you don’t have to carry so much that is in the past.  It brings me once again to the awakened and gratitude filled present moment of my life; where love is working in each of us.

Feeling happy for no apparent reason, swinging in my hammock chair after a long bike ride, I thought about a new project that my family might enjoy.

We decided to transform our covered porch into a summer sleeping room using rustic items and old quilts. Even though Richard worked a full ten hour day, he loved the idea and offered to help set everything up.  Working together, soon we felt like honeymooners playing house.  We stayed up late to enjoy the finished project by candelight. While we lay on the bed soaking up some classical music and the atmosphere of the outdoor room, our three pets gathered to be closer to their humans…. who finally stepped away from screens and books to do what they love best: laying around outdoors.

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Hello, summer.

The Slow Food Kind of Success

I am slow.

And this is healthy.

At least, that’s my excuse.  But I enjoy slow food, and slow, aimless wandering.  I like a project that takes a very long time to complete, one that involves patience and a sinking into the imagination.  Once in that state of calm, a bubbling well begins to flow.

Comparing myself to the fast track leaders gets me down.  I feel less worthy when I learn that people who started a business during the same year I did are now speaking to 800 plus people in Brazil while their book is taking flight.  I struggle when in the presence of my son’s new Tae Kwon Do instructor as he tells the story of his childhood spent practicing his sport over four hours a day and that he began teaching at age 12.  The intensity of his focus and drive unsettles me.  I just wanted Elliot to have some fun and learn a few kicks.  But now, the activity feels driven.  My son remarked after his first lesson that “Daddy will be happy to know my new teacher is STERN.”

I know the world needs success driven over-achievers.  But they make me want to hide.

My education took over a decade to complete, in bits and pieces while I mothered my children.  It was the slowest road, full of potholes and rocks and struggle.  But by the end, I had tasted the flavors of so many different institutions, met some incredibly kind professors (and some who baffled me with arrogance.)  I read some very depressing books through the lens of identity politics. They felt so far removed from my understanding of life and real relationships.  

Upon graduation, I still didn’t feel ready to take on a profession.  Business professionals intimidated me. I took a low paying job in an inner city library where gangs operated business in the computer lab.  After being assaulted by a homeless man and feeling threatened by the idea that a man was aiming his semi-automatic weapon at the library, I took a leave of absence that turned into unemployment.  Just when I should have been polishing a resume and selecting attire for interviews, the US economy fell into shambles and I lost the confidence to try.

I returned to college to work as a housekeeper, and was assigned to dust and polish the campus library.  A cowardly retreat!

During the fall convocation, new hires were introduced to faculty.  Since I had been working for several months, all of the library staff knew me.  To my utter amazement, they showered me with applause and gave me a standing ovation for my work keeping the library spotless.  After this, the college president shook my hand and asked me in a pleading voice, “please don’t leave.”

That was a fast track success moment.  I had only been on staff for six months!  

But this moment was tainted by disappointment.  I didn’t want to be the best housekeeper.  I wanted to be using my mind and my other creative abilities for something that satisfied and challenged me.  A working life that was a little messier and more social.

So even though I had experienced outstanding success in my job in less than a year, I was eager to move on to new experiences where I was immersed in learning curves and the continued experience of crossing that line between ignorance and understanding.

This means I am slow.