Settling In

Before Badger, the Guy’s Vizsla, lies down on his heated mat on the couch to snooze away the time between walks and other outings, he always turns around two or three times, ruffles up his blanket, and then settles in with a big sigh. He’s customizing his spot to suit him.

(And that canine remodeling is why my beautiful blue leather couch wears a sturdy gray dog cover when Badger is in residence. As for the heated mat, Badger is almost thirteen–he’s earned his perks.)

The couch without the cover and Badger. Lovely, but pretty empty.

I’m not so different than Badger. With every move in the past nine years since Richard died, I’ve engaged in my equivalent of circling several times and rearranging the blankets in each living space: remodeling.

The first move was to Creek House, the little house I helped design and build for myself in Salida, so that was a bigger deal than remodeling. I made that space my own in spades–I guess you could say I circled quite a few times!

Creek House on the right, Treehouse (the garage/workshop and guest apartment) on the left

Then came Cody, and the seriously dilapidated mid-Century modern house that I rescued, renovating from basement to roof, bringing house and yard back to beautiful life. That circling and rearranging the blanket took nearly two years, but it was oh-so-satisfying. (The neighbors were thrilled that the neighborhood eyesore turned beautiful too.)

Who could resist restoring this vintage kitchen? Not me….

Followed by my move to Santa Fe, and into a small condo that really didn’t need work, but was pretty tired. I replaced worn carpet with vinyl plank floors, renovated the galley kitchen, replaced the aging metal windows with new and more efficient wood ones, and updated the furnace and water heater. And added color to the walls.

Compact, but elegant and welcoming.

When I bought Casa Alegría, my current house, my intention was only to fix what was actually wrong, including a faulty pellet stove with a pipe not up to code, leaky windows, and a mouse-infested attic over the garage and laundry room. And of course paint a few of the boring white walls more interesting colors.

I guess it should be no surprise that I haven’t limited myself to just those projects.

Casa Alegría now boasts a new, efficient and safe woodstove, new windows and screen doors, plus an exterior door replacing a small window, an attic that is properly sealed and insulated (and bio-cleaned so it doesn’t stink), photovoltaic panels on the roof that generate clean power for the house and excess for the power grid, new mini-splits delivering incredibly efficient heating and cooling, a new garage door that actually seals out cold and rodents, and of course, colorful walls.

The great room on a fall afternoon. The pink panels in the sunroom ceiling are a thermal efficiency experiment; they’ll be covered up by beadboard soon.

My latest project as I settle in? Replacing the small flagstone patio in the backyard that was so buried under dirt and debris that I didn’t discover it until I used a shovel to dig out some weeds and hit rock.

The old flagstone patio partly unburied (also before new windows and doors replaced the old, leaky ones).
Patio renovation in progress: The guys dug up and saved the old flagstones at my request, and then leveled the bed.
The renewed patio, with old, paler pink flagstones artistically mixed with the new. Now I need some patio furniture!

As I circle and settle, I am contemplating what else I need to do to make this place fit me, the way Badger makes his couch space comfy. But first, I think I’ll just drag a chair out onto the patio and admire my new outdoor room. Before fall changes to winter with tonight’s snowstorm….

HomeWork: Patio Progress

On weekends, I put the creative energy I use for writing into homework: projects around my little house and yard.

This weekend, I was determined to make more progress on the flagstone dining patio I’m laying on the east side of the garage/studio. I had laid the first four flagstones early this summer, when the ground was still moist and workable. 

Now after weeks without rain, the rocky, compacted ground is dry and hard. Which means digging a bed for flagstones requires some serious muscle. 

My favorite digging tool, a well-used mattock with a pointed blade at one end and a scooping blade at the other. The granite river rock I’m prying out there is about half the size of my head and weighs a good ten pounds. 

Fortunately, after the past two-plus years of finish carpenty and construction work, plus landscaping, I’m pretty buff. And I have good tools. 

I woke yesterday morning feeling a little cranky and out-of-sorts, unusual for me. I figured that honest manual labor would put me in a better mood, so after I finished my household chores, I got out my mattock, industrial strength rake, flat-bottomed shovel, and the screen Richard made me when he taught me how to lay flagstone. 

The screen in use

And I set to work loosening the hard-packed ground, prying out rocks, and screening the rubble. The fine material serves as a bed for the flagstones, the gravel-sized rocks go on a nearby path, and I set aside the larger rocks for other landscaping work. 

A couple of sweaty hours later, I had laid three flagstones, and used up all of my energy. But my mood was significantly better.

I felt so good, in fact, that I figured I’d put in another few hours today if I wasn’t too sore. Which I wasn’t, although I woke feeling curiously out-of-sorts again. 

This afternoon, I whaled away with the mattock and loosened up another section of ground, raked and screened, and laid two smaller flagstones. (Smaller meaning they weigh less than about 75 pounds and I can move them by myself.)

The flags I laid this weekend are the five on the left side of the photo. 

Then I spent measured some of the big flagstones in my stack to find one that was the right size for the gap between the flags I had just laid.

(I don’t cut the flagstones to fit–it’s more fun to use the shapes as I find them, fitting them together like pieces in a puzzle. Sometimes they fit closely, sometimes not so much and I fill in between them with tightly packed gravel. I enjoy the creative process and seeing the pattern emerge.)

I found one that I think will work, and then tried to figure out how I could slide it down the hill from the stack to the patio. But it’s simply too big for me to handle, so I’ll wait until I can get someone to help me move it.

The tape measure marks my chosen stone: It’s almost two feet wide by four feet long, and about three inches thick. I figure it weighs about 150 pounds, or 40 pounds more than I do!

As I was cleaning up and stowing my tools, I had Richard on my mind: except for the screen, which he made for me, the tools are his.

And I realized why my mood was low. Six years ago this very weekend, Richard and I were headed to a joint artist/writer residency in the San Juan Mountains, two weeks of time out that we both badly needed. The Sunday morning we were to drive to the cabin and settle in, he began seeing birds.

Thousands of them. Birds no one else could see; hallucinations that were the only major symptom of the tumor growing in his brain that would eventually kill him. 

Oh. That’s a pretty significant anniversary. 

The patio-in-progress

As I was writing this post, I thought about why I find it so tremendously satisfying to lay flagstone. Part of that satisfaction comes from knowing that I am capable of the hard physical work. Another part comes from being able to use my muscle and creativity to work with rock and earth, and create sculptural forms. 

That love of using muscle and creativity to sculpt stone, steel and wood into abstract forms is part of what motivated Richard’s art; creating pieces that expressed his love for the common materials that speak of the beauty of this earth. 

It seems fitting that on this anniversary of the birds, the hallucinations that wrenched apart our life the way a catastrophic earthquake dramatically reshapes solid ground, I would feel compelled to lay flagstones, using the tools and skills taught me by the man who held my hand and my heart for almost 29 years. The man I love still–and always will.


Richard Cabe, his face steroid-puffy, his right brain and vision both impaired, but his hands still sure when they touch the rock, smiling as he demonstrates how to lay flagstones, three months before he died…