This time of year I’m hungry for color. Flowers, new art, anything to wake up the gray drearies. And this January in particular, it’s been too cold, too snowy, too icy. Even though the month is nearly over, it seems winter will go on forever. All we can do is dash from the car to the store . . . yes, one antidote for the January Blahs is—shopping!
I can’t wait for Valentine’s Day. I need a jolt of red right now. So when I saw this $5 shelf, I snatched it up. The little painted tray was 75 cents. The shelf fits in well with the Fiestaware cupboard and my other fifties kitchen stuff. I love red in a kitchen!
I couldn’t pass up this thrift shop forties bird print for $2. The problem with buying pictures in a house filled with bookcases is lack of wall space.
So I hung it in the Thoreau Powder Room beneath the sunflowers watercolor painted by my husband’s grandmother. I think they go just fine together.
The “toilet closet” in our master bathroom was recently painted vintage coral to match the bedroom. Donna gave me this old medicine cabinet some time ago and its decals inspired the bathroom’s theme. My Florida friend, the Goodwill Goddess, sent me the old swan photograph. That bar of Swan soap? Ten dollars! Not all my treasures are dirt cheap. But where else will I find soap from the forties?
Donna also gave me a child’s table with a red Formica top. She’d rearranged her studio and knew how much I loved it. The purpose and final resting place for The Little Red Table hasn’t been determined yet. Every so often The Little Red Table and I have a discussion but so far the table is holding firm to reside in my office.
Sometimes the smallest object is perfect . . . until you nearly ruin it. This ceramic spice holder cost a sweet 25 cents, just right for my photography business cards. But I went overboard cleaning it and nearly rubbed off the strawberry’s red paint. I still love it.
The other antidote to January Blahs? Make something! I’ve had this little Janome sewing machine in my closet for years but couldn’t get started sewing. I toted the sewing machine to Donna’s house. In her wonderful studio, she taught me how to thread and operate it. (It’s been 45 years since I flunked home ec.) For three happy hours I learned to stitch on my photo cards. Set up a play date with a crafting friend!
Confession: I’m addicted to magazines and there are so many gorgeous lifestyle mags on the stands, packed with ideas. One outing included stops at Barnes and Noble, Michael’s, and my local scrapbook store. Look at these goodies!
Margaret Wise Brown often cut up pieces of construction paper and moved the shapes around to make patterns and fuel her creativity. I do the same thing. Spread paper and embellishments and postcards on the floor and think what I’ll do with them. The orange H notebook will actually factor in a book project.
In my office, I have an inspire board. Using postcards, photographs and bits and bobs, I change the board to suit my mood. Note lots of red! And that strand of pop-beads!
Sometimes you get unasked-for help in changing the inspire board.
I’m not going anywhere exciting this winter. But these old Holiday magazines (I scored three near-mint issues from 1948) let me travel in style. Ads for Greyhound (your “other car”), Southern Pacific, American Airlines (no baggage fees!), the S.S. President Wilson, Jeepster, Packard (with push-button “fresh, crisp circulating air, at the rate of once every minute!”) . . . I’m ready to pack my Kaufman luggage and take a train, plane, or automobile to Utah or Florida!
But when it’s really cold outside, then this device will help while away the long evenings quite nicely. After all, it can’t go out of date.
It was bigger than mine, and had two windows. My bedroom was smallest, with only one window. Hers had a real closet you could step in and shut the door. My closet had sliding doors that were hard to maneuver. Her room had a “Hollywood” bed with a white padded headboard. My room had an old cherry twin bed, dresser, and nightstand.
Before we moved to the house in Fairfax, we hadn’t had separate rooms since I was a baby. For five years we lived with an aunt and uncle, staying in one small bedroom—my mother, my sister, and me. I slept in a crib until I was five. At night in that new house, surrounded by woods and curtained in darkness, I was afraid. I missed my sister’s presence. She whispered through our connecting heat vent and I was comforted.
Everything in my sister’s room was fascinating and way better than anything in mine. Her vanity table was covered with such wonders as gold compacts and eyelash curlers and tiny bottles of Ben Hur that smelled like vanilla.
A charcoal drawing of our father was thumbtacked to the inside of her closet door. Crinolines billowed from a hook. She’d put the latest 45s on her hi-fi, dancing with her doorknob partner to “Oh, Donna.” Sometimes she played “Chinatown, My Chinatown” and twirled me like a ballerina on a jewelry box.
The best times happened in my sister’s room. The walls held a kind of magic. I longed to live in that room, get to be the older sister.
And then, suddenly, it was mine.
My sister left home when I was nine. The crinolines, the drawing, the compacts, and records went with her. I moved into her bedroom several months later, hoping the magic would seep from the walls. But it was just me, alone, in my sister’s room.
Years later, I moved out, too, and into houses of my own. No matter where I lived, I always carved out a little space where I could write. I remember a basement nook with a wall desk-bookcase my stepfather made me. Enough room for my portable typewriter, a shelf of books, and red ladybug desk accessories (it was the 70s).
Eventually I had a dedicated office, but I also had a little sitting room where I could watch TV and read and write letters. It’s the smallest bedroom, with only a single window. When I discovered scrapbooking, I turned my private room into a studio. I’d always wanted to be a writer and an artist.
But the studio quickly got out of control, stuff-wise, and every time I walked by the door, I’d stop and mess with the current project on my drawing table. Soon the studio represented work, just as my office did.
After a year-long illness, I needed a place to rediscover myself. So I cleared out the studio and turned it back into a retreat. The room is filled with the particular particulars from my favorite time period, the twenties. The “1923 Sitting Room,” named after the round glass shade bronze lamp, a wedding present to my husband’s parents in 1923, and a 1923 issue of St. Nicholas I found buried in the closet, is decorated in colors that make me happy—peacock, Nile green, coral pink, burgundy, and deep gold.
When her husband died in November, my sister decided to stay in her house. And even though every room in the house is hers now, she turned the smallest bedroom, the one with only one window, into a room just for her. A room where she could take care of paperwork, catch up on e-mails, watch “Downton Abbey.”
She cleaned and cleared out, arranged and rearranged, went shopping in her house, bought new things, swapped and borrowed (we’re all vintage bingers in our family—stuff gets passed from house to house). As Clare Cooper Marcus says in her book House as a Mirror of Self, the view in E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View acts as a metaphor for the expansion of self. I would say the same of the objects we surround ourself with.
In no time the little room was filled with particular particulars from my sister’s favorite time period, the forties. When I saw that fresh, inviting room for the first time last week, I felt a familiar longing. A glimpse of magic. I know now walls don’t hold magic. No, the magic comes from my sister’s presence. From her holding on to what is important while creating a new self.
Clare Marcus maintains that “periods of loss are often paralleled by an ‘inner construction’–clearing out old structures, putting up new ones.” Our little nests give us space to regroup, a place to rest and wait for the next stage.
In the evenings, when I’m scribbling in my journal in my sitting room, I think about my sister in her room, seventy miles away. Any second I expect to hear her voice whispering through the heat vent. And I’m comforted by the thought.
Last week I went to my photographer (and regular) friend Donna’s house. It’s always a treat to go to her place because she usually has new photographs displayed. In a grouping of family portraits one photo stood out: a black and white shot of her son’s kicked-off sneakers under the coffee table. I was immediately drawn to that image.
It showed everyday life, the little moments we tend to forget. That photo reminded me that my camera had been sitting in its case far too long.
It’s January and it’s been cold and raining since forever. Not good picture-taking weather or weather for much of anything except eating, reading, and sleeping. We schlep to the car, go to the store, maybe eat lunch out, come home, do chores, go to bed.
Worse than ignoring my camera is thinking my ordinary life is boring and un-picture-taking-worthy. And worse than that is waiting for everything to be “lined up,” as my mother used to say, before my life could actually begin.
Since I became an adult (not too long ago), I’ve put off living until my house was clean, I’d given up sugar, developed a regular exercise routine, planned healthy meals, spent less money, listened to NPR (all my smart friends listen to NPR but I don’t even know how to find it), become a better democrat, pushed my cuticles back, and promised not to sigh and roll my eyes when I’m behind a poky cart-shuffler in Wegman’s.
When all those things were accomplished, then I could let myself live.
Part of this problem stems from what I call Magazine Envy. Lifestyle magazines portray interesting, hip, beautiful, organized, folksy, cat-hair-free houses that I’ve tried to emulate since we got our first apartment. Over the years, I’ve followed all the decorating trends: all-our-furniture-bought-at-Sears-in-twenty-minutes (okay, that was my own trend and one I had to live with for eighteen years), mauve-and-Wedgwood-blue-goose country, primitive (like country only beat-up and uglier), English cottage, Victorian, farmhouse, Early Children’s Book, shabby chic, and now vintage/mid-century modern.
Along the way, my closet suffered fashion trends too numerous to mention, except for that dramatic early-nineties leap from Gunne Sax to grunge. Between costume changes, I fretted over my dress size and looks. If only I was 109 pounds. Or a size 4 again. Or even a 6. I wish I had more hair.
Of course that perfect moment never struck—that fleeting instant when my house was spotless and hip and trendy and I was a size 4 with hair I could toss and our cat was too well-behaved to beg at the table. If that moment ever happened, I missed it.
I don’t want to be trapped in the illusion that a better life is around the corner.
This is our life. This one. Once this day is gone, we can’t get it back. We have one shot at it. No do-overs.
So Saturday, I pulled out my camera. I took single shots of everyday moments. I didn’t frame the composition, check the lighting, find the best angle, stage the setting, or pose my subjects. I just took pictures of a day in our life.
A lot of that day revolved around eating, reading, and sleeping.
But that’s okay. It’s January. There’ll be other days. Must remember not to miss them.
I first had the dream early in 2013. It was set in the house we currently live in, unusual since most of my dreams take place in houses from my past. By summer, I’d revisited some version of the dream weekly. Whenever I experience a new recurring dream, I take notice. My subconscious is trying to tell me something.
My first recurring dream was The Shopping Center Dream. It began shortly after my mother passed. In the dream, Mama, my sister and I go to the Perfect Mall. We’d see it across a field, a towering, shimmering city of stores, like Oz.
Once there, we’d meander around twisty corridors, up and down ramps. I searched for the Perfect Hallmark where I could buy Peanuts cards from the early 70s. And the Perfect Newsstand. This was always long narrow store, hidden, like an alleyway in “Casablanca.”
Down a few steps, along a wall, I’d find my heart’s desire: Little Lulu comics and Writer’s Digest magazines that were actually digest-sized like they were when I was a teenager. The Shopping Center Dream reeled through my nights more than twenty years.
That dream isn’t hard to analyze: longing to go back to the days when the three of us went shopping or antiquing, longing to go back to my childhood when the latest Little Lulu was an occasion, longing to go back to my young writer self with my entire career in front of me.
But the new recurring dream is a puzzle. I call it The Second, Secret Office Dream.
In the dream, I’m showing someone my house. I give them a tour of my nice home office. Then I remember I have a second office. This office is always one floor up from my regular office. It’s reached by crazy stairs and rickety bridges and slat-y catwalks.
It’s always dusty and dark. The walls are dark, the flooring is old and dark like barn board. There’s an old dark wood desk. Dark wooden bookcases with a few old books leaning against each other on the shelves, small books with worn leather bindings in dark Turkey red, dark teal, dark green, titles I can’t read.
No art hangs on the walls. No computer sits on the desk. Usually there is a pad of paper and a pen. Once in the dream, an old typewriter, the kind with glass-topped keys, squatted in place of the paper pad.
I’m always amazed when I show the guest this office. I’ve forgotten about it! Why don’t I clean it up and use it? It’s like a tree house office, high up and quiet and uncluttered.
At first I believed the dream stemmed from feeling my work has been a failure ever since I remodeled my office. We fixed up my room around the time I sold Rebel, spring of 2010, and I haven’t had a major book deal since. Before then, my office was hideous: stained carpet, shredded scratching post, litter box and food bowls, exercise equipment no one used, overwhelming stacks of books and papers, and a sick cat.
When we remodeled we put down hardwood floors, painted, refurbished. Now that I have a pretty, vintage-y office, the dream seems to be saying I don’t deserve it and that’s why I can’t write in it. Of course, I’m not that superstitious. But as the months went on, the dream persisted, making me give it more thought.
In 2011 and 2012 I wrote a novel I loved. I finished it, revised it, sweated, bled, fought for my characters—did everything but take out a full-page ad in The New York Times like Don Draper did in Mad Men. In the end that book did not ring any editor’s bell.
The failed novel haunted me all last year. I glimpsed its ghost when I sat down to work, like driving past snow dirty from exhaust fumes. When I turned on my computer, it skittered just out of my peripheral vision. It drifted into my office like stale smoke. It hung in the air the way an argument lingers long after the last word has been hurled.
Surely the dream wasn’t telling me to revise the novel again, to scamper along that hamster wheel yet another year. Or find a place to get away from the book.
The second, secret office is dark. The colors are dark. Is this supposed to represent my darker side? I don’t like dark things—I like lots of light and color. On the desk in that second, secret office is a blank pad of paper and a pencil. Basic writing tools. Go back to basics? I like lots of stuff around me, vintage things to look at and touch.
In the book he co-authored with Richard Todd, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, Tracy Kidder says, “Every story has to be discovered twice, first in the world and then in the author’s study. One discovers a story the second time by constructing it.”
I’ve decided the dream reflected my circumstances last year and not my ability to write in my office or the laundry room or anywhere else. The second, secret room is always difficult to reach, even dangerous. I don’t believe that room is a good place for me.
Today I cleared half-hearted projects that have taken up space on my desk for months, and emptied the red vintage tea cart of related research and books. New year, time for new projects. The sight of all that bareness is a little unnerving. But I love my bright, cheerful office and believe I will construct good work this year.
About a month ago, I stopped having the dream. In processing it, I arrived at my word of the year. It ties in with the second, secret office and also the old houses I’ve explored since I was nine years old. It ties in with unaswered questions, but the new stories I discover will not be ruled by the darker side of my past.
Pull back the curtain. Let the year begin.