Settling In

My living room with that comfy couch and art on the walls.

I have my stuff! Friday morning, five weeks after Dan and Ryan and crew from Santa Fe Moving &  Storage loaded my furniture, many boxes of books, tools, art, and other household goods onto a truck to move out of my house on Altura Road, a semi-truck and trailer from Cody’s own Cook Moving & Storage pulled up in front of my house here with my load.

I meant to shoot a photo of the truck and crew, but I was so excited, I forgot. (A real bed after five weeks of sleeping on my camping mattress on the floor! My office desk and chair! My pots and china instead of paper plates and a battered camping pan! A couch to relax on in the evening instead of my little backpacking chair!)

A real bed to sleep on!

A friend said, “It’ll be like Christmas when your stuff finally comes.” Well yes, if Christmas involved a lot of sweaty work moving furniture, assembling shelves, hauling, unpacking and collapsing boxes; and many trips to the recycling center with packing materials….

By the time the Guy arrived 28 hours after the movers left, I had much of the unpacking and arranging done.

After the movers left, there were stacks of boxes everywhere…
And now, it’s starting to look like a home.

The Guy hadn’t seen the house, except online, and as I explained my renovation plans and we walked my neighborhood trails, he nodded and smiled.

“I approve,” he said in his thoughtful way when he left this afternoon. “It’s simple, it’s a good size, and it’s a great location with nearby wild in sight and in easy reach. It’s home.”

He’s already talking about a longer visit in mid-September, when Ring Lake Ranch, where we will both be working for the next two months, closes for the season. I look forward to time together exploring the Buffalo Bill Center for the West, Cody’s world-class museum complex, checking out the riding trails in the McCullough Peaks, and wandering the river.

What have I been doing while I waited for my household goods to arrive? Beginning house renovations, of course. Starting with insulating and putting up walls in the small attached garage so it won’t heat up the house in summer, and freeze it in winter.

And then choosing and ordering plank flooring to replace the ancient shag carpet in my office.

My office before floor work and painting…
And after. A much lighter and more cheerful space.

I did the painting; my contractor installed the plank floors. Painting walls in my office was the beginning of “un-browning” the house, which the previous owners had painted a shade of mocha brown throughout–including the ceilings of all of the upstairs bedrooms! The whole effect was just… dark.

Experimenting with sunny yellow to lighten the gloomy rooms. (Notice how dark the hall is.)

I picked three colors, a soft sage-green for the dominant color, plus a pale blue with hints of turquoise and a sunny yellow for really dark areas, and set to painting a wall a day. I knew I couldn’t get the whole house done in the time before I leave to work at Ring Lake Ranch on Thursday; my aim was simply to brighten select walls throughout the house.

The hall after painting one wall yellow; my office down the hall with sage green and pale blue walls–and shelves and books!

In between painting and cleaning, I’ve been tending my new landscape, both the domesticated yard and the strip of sagebrush-bunchgrass prairie outside my fence atop the river bluff.

I pruned a pickup-load of sprouts from under the neglected boxelder tree in the side yard to encourage it to grow upward and shade the west wall of the house. I cut down another truck-load of fat and half-dead Mugo pine stems, and trimmed dead branches out of the big cottonwood tree that shades the front yard.

The boxelder trimmed into a tree-shape again.

I also spent some sweaty hours crouched on the river bluff, hand-pulling cheatgrass, an invasive annual grass that not only crowds out the local wildflowers and bunch grasses, it is extremely flammable. I haven’t finished the whole strip of bluff-top, but I have made a good start by removing three yard-bags of cheatgrass and its seeds.

A yard-bag full of flammable cheatgrass and its seeds.

The renovation of the house and the tending of the yard and nearby wild are all part of my mission to restore–or as the Guy says, “re-story”–this place where I live. Bringing light back into this house gives it back its healthy and essential beauty; tending the landscape and removing invasive weeds–the bullies of the plant world–helps the community of the land withstand climate change. I am reciprocating for the gifts I receive: the shelter of the house and the joy I take from the land and river.

Botanist and member of the Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer calls reciprocity one of two responses that transform our commodification of the living world into a healthy relationship of giving. The first response, she writes, is gratitude for the gifts of the living world, and the second is reciprocity: what can I give these beings in return for the gifts they give me?

What I can give is my time, sweat, creative energy, and a deep appreciation of the stories of this house and the land.

Restore, re-story, reciprocate–all imply a new or renewed relationship. And that is something we sorely need these days: a new and respectful relationship with the community of our fellow humans and those with whom we share this living planet, and with life itself. I cannot change the world, but I can change my small part of it by building a reciprocal relationship based on respect and appreciation, and my own sweat, creative energy, and time. It’s part of living with love, even in–especially in–this hard time of dying.

A Passion for House Renovation

One of the ways I’m staying sane through the coronavirus pandemic is focusing on house renovation, chipping away at my punch list of what needs to be done to make Casa Alegria sustainable and ready for its next three decades of life.

Perhaps engaging in renovation seems frivolous in these times, but it’s part of my calling to heal my community, wild and human. That includes tending land, buildings, and those species with whom I share this Earth. Right now, it especially means putting money back into the human community by buying my supplies locally, supporting local businesses, and employing local tradespeople. It’s my way of giving back in a time when so many are struggling.

House renovation isn’t something I was born to. I didn’t grow up using tools or understanding how buildings work. My interest born of necessity. When Richard, my late husband, died of brain cancer in 2011, I was left with a staggering amount of medical debt. Most of our assets were tied up in a beautiful but unfinished house that he had built and the adjacent historic studio he had partly fixed up. I needed to sell the whole place and I couldn’t afford to hire out the finish work. So with the help of generous friends, I learned how to use tools, materials, and design; and to hang doors, install baseboard, fabricate counters, put up drywall and other wall coverings, shape copper and sandstone, and mill trim. It was grueling but empowering work.

Me in the early Tool Girl days, working with my incredibly talented friends, Tony (cutting galvanized steel) and Maggie (shooting the photo) to finish a tub-shower alcove in the unfinished master bathroom.

By the time that property sold and I paid my debts, I was deep into my next project, overseeing construction of my first-ever solo abode, a small passive-solar house plus a garage topped with a guest apartment. I loved that little house, and had a hand in every last detail, from the re-purposed gym flooring in the apartment to the hand-carved bathroom sink in the main house.

Creek House, my little house, and Treehouse, the adjacent garage with guest apartment above. 

Then Wyoming called me home to be nearer to my aging dad, and my brother and family. I found what I thought would be my forever home, a gorgeous and incredibly dilapidated mid-century modern house built the year I was born. I spent two years renovating it from the scary boiler in the basement and the eccentric wiring, to the non-functioning bathrooms and the roof, with the help of my hard-working and easy-going contractor, Jeff. I redid the yard too.

The classic mid-century kitchen in my Cody house (after painstaking restoration). Don’t those colors just make you smile?

As I was finishing that project, Dad, who we all thought would live at least another decade, died of an aggressive cancer. I considered my options, put the house up for sale, and decamped to the warmer climate of Santa Fe, where I already had a circle of friends, plus a little rental condo. I bought another condo in the same complex, and dove into another renovation project: replacing the carpet with plank floors, re-doing the galley kitchen, and painting the all-white walls lively colors. After I moved in, I also replaced the dying furnace and the old, leaky windows and sliding glass doors, and added a French door from the second bedroom to the patio. While I was at it, I renovated the rental condo too. (I may be certifiable, but I really enjoy bringing new life to neglected living spaces.)

The living room of my condo. It was charming–if still quite small at just over 800 square feet–by the time I finished renovating it! 

Last fall, I realized that I am not a condo person. I need more space and fewer people nearby. So I found Casa Alegria, sold both condos, and moved. When I broke the news to my brother, he said, “If you move again, or buy another place to renovate, we’re going to stage a family intervention.” He was kidding. I think.

I reassured him that my new house only needed “a little work,” and I wasn’t planning on moving. The latter is true, and the former is subject to interpretation. My definition of “a little work” may be generous.

Here’s what I’ve had done since moving in November: removing all of the insulation in the attic over the garage and laundry room in order to evict the resident rodents and their leavings, blowing in new insulation, installing gutters, plus installing a new garage door that actually seals (to keep out said rodents). Then came replacing the old, marginally functional pellet stove replace with a new, efficient woodstove. During all that, Carlos, my wonderful handyman, replaced all of the clunky light fixtures with more graceful ones that use energy-saving LED bulbs, and also painted some of the walls to offset the pervasive whiteness.

The kitchen, with all-new LED floodlights, one wall painted yellow to emphasize the warm pine cabinets, a new double-sink and faucet, and Zapotec rugs on the floor.
The great room, with pale sage accent walls, a hand-forged chandelier over the dining table, and a dog occupying the blue leather couch.
The master bedroom with its cielo (sky)  blue wall… 

The next big renovation project was replacing most of the open-able windows in the house, and a few exterior doors too. The old ones were leaky metal, the new ones are tight, and the same style with divided lights, but they are wood on the inside, and power-coated steel on the outside.

Replacing the living-room windows on a not-balmy day in winter… 
The finished living room, definitely worth the effort!

We were in the middle of the permit process for the next project, a roof-mounted photovoltaic system, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down New Mexico. After a few weeks, the crew came out with masks and gloves and installed my system. Last week, Public Service of New Mexico connected it to the grid, so my electric meter now runs backwards! (Those solar panels produce about twice as much power as we use.)

The photovoltaic crew after installation, celebrating at a proper social-distance. 

What’s next? A little yard work, some mechanical work (adding super-efficient heating and cooling units to replace the old and very inefficient electric baseboard heat), and down the line, replacing the leaky windows in the sunroom with more efficient ones. But for now, I’m going to head for my guy’s farm. His gardens need renovation, and I know just the person to take on that project.

Stay safe and well. Blessings from me to you and yours!

Giving Thanks: Gratitude Practice

Santa Fe sunset

Gratitude is good for us. Brain research shows that simply being grateful releases neurotransmitters that act like dopamine in our brains, making us feel good, and boosting our overall health.

New findings show that practicing gratitude actually rewires our brains to be more altruistic, activating areas of the brain that reward our generosity by increasing the neurotransmitters that signal pleasure and also goal attainment. In other words, the more we find ways to be grateful, the more generous we are and the more we give others a reason to be grateful. That feedback loop gives us more happiness and satisfaction.

The hook is that we can’t just be grateful over one meal, one day a year. We have to make it a habit to remember specific things we are grateful for on a regular basis. And consciously act in generous ways, too.

Those who have read this blog for a while know that Thanksgiving marks a difficult time of year for me because my husband, Richard Cabe, died of brain cancer a few days after Thanksgiving in 2011, when he was just 61. His death followed that of my mom, who died in February of that year. I midwifed both deaths at home, as each wished, with the help of family, friends, and hospice care.

It’s been eight years. Still, I tend to fold inward in late November, not so much from grief, but from anticipatory anxiety. Those two deaths catapulted me into a few very difficult years as I dug myself out of what seemed like an impossible amount of debt, and invented a life that was happy, sustainable, and satisfying.

As an antidote to the trauma of those events and the blues that stem from my muscle memories, I consciously practice gratitude and generosity at this time of year (not only now–I’m just more aware of it at this season). Here’s what I’m most grateful for right now, in no particular order:

Casa Alegría, in our surprise Thanksgiving snowstorm

My new house, which I call Casa Alegría, “House of Joy” in Spanish. It’s been through foreclosure and needs some serious love, but it’s such a beautiful space with great light and open spaces inside and out, plus it feels sheltered in its little hollow. It offers both refuge and expansive views, a nest that gives me a wider perspective on the world, both literally and figuratively.

The great room, with its two-story-high ceiling of tongue-and-groove pine, sun-space opening onto the nearby wild, and The Beast, the pellet stove that supplements the sun’s heat.
The loft, with my desk tucked into the south-facing dormer with it’s sixty-mile view all the way to central New Mexico’s Manzano Mountains.
The kitchen, all warm-colored pine cabinets and cozy beamed ceiling. (There’s a hummingbird nest in the New Mexico locust tree out the window.)
The master bedroom with its sky blue accent wall, and a door leading directly outside to a little covered porch facing east toward the greenbelt below the house.

I’ve just gotten started on the work Casa Alegría needs to feel like a healthy home, beginning with painting a few of the all-white walls in shades of sage green, pale terracotta, dawn yellow, and a soft sky blue. And replacing aged light fixtures with new, energy-efficient ones. The more substantive work will begin this winter, when the uninsulated garage door that no longer shuts completely is replaced with a new, insulated one. (That door not sealing explains the money I spent sterilizing the mouse-infected attic above the garage.) Then I’ll have insulation blown into the attic, which has none after I disposed of the old mouse-pee-crusted fiberglass batts. Plus gutters added to the front portal and the north- and east-facing roofs.

Then comes replacing all of the openable windows and a few of the exterior doors with more efficient ones that will actually seal as well as letting in more light. Followed by stabilizing an exterior post or two, a tricky process that involves putting jacks under overhanging roofs and carefully removing a post, digging a foundation and pouring a concrete base, and then replacing the post using plates and bolts instead of simply nails.

All of which sounds like a lot of work, but is nothing compared to the two years of starting in the basement and working my way upwards re-building the Cody house!

Badger in his Santa Fe-styling winter coat!

Another thing I’m particularly grateful for is the company of a charming canine caballero (gentleman), Badger, the 11-year-old Vizsla in the photo above. Badger has been visiting for the last two weeks while his guy was away on a road trip. In his own polite way, Badger insists on two long walks a day–we usually do three miles or more–on the roads and trails around the house. He also insists on playtime when I’ve worked too long, usually by sitting up on the couch and howling until I come downstairs from the loft!

Badger and his person, DeWitt, wandered into my life when I was teaching at Ring Lake Ranch in September. That deepening friendship is another thing I’m grateful for. DeWitt generously spent a week here helping me move. He insisted on playtime too, so we spent a night relaxing at the hot springs at Ojo Caliente, and then played hooky for a whole afternoon exploring part of the old Camino Real with DeWitt’s sister, Lori, and her friend Allison, and their horses. It’s been so long since I had horses in my life that I had entirely forgotten the joy of simply riding a trail for a few hours without any agenda or schedule.

Riding with the Guy and friends.

And that’s another thing I’m grateful for: I’m relearning joy and play. I have been pushing myself so hard for so long that I have neglected the practice of stepping back from relentless do-ing into a more loving and trusting be-ing. It’s time for me to re-learn be-ing and letting my heart guide me.

I’m also grateful for all of you, and the love and compassion you offer the world.

What are you grateful for?

Re-Storying A House

When I first saw my Cody place, the classic mid-Century modern had clearly gone through some hard times. The signs of neglect were obvious and numerous: roof shingles curled and broken, the carport added to the front entry sagging, once magnificent windows filmed with age and dirt, piles of stained mattresses and filthy insulation in the garage, the antique boiler laboring to keep the house warm, the three bathrooms with two working sinks, one working toilet, and one dubious shower between them; the overgrown yard, a tangle of dead shrubs and dirt and trees growing too close together. 

The living room when I first saw it, and that was on a good day… 

It was a daunting project, no doubt about that. But I could see the promise in the place. What gave me pause–and also tugged at my heart–was what I can only describe as a sense of despair, as if the house and yard had given up. 

So of course I had to buy it. I believe in healing and restoration–of houses, land, people. I could see that the place had a lot more years ahead if someone would only take a chance on bringing it back to life. 

Which I've spent the last two years doing, with the help of some talented trades-folk, most especially my contractor, Jeff Durham. The house and yard are renewed from roof to basement, and from front to back and side to side. The place shines and sparkles and sings again.

The backyard before

The backyard now, after tree-trimming and removal, meadow-seeding, and many sweaty hours hauling gravel and rock… 

Now that it's finished, I wanted to know if the place needed anything else from me before I head south. So I asked a new friend, an energy worker and healer in various modalities, to "read" my house. What Kim learned motivated me to do something I've intended to do all along, but haven't found the time for until now: research the house's story, at least as far as learning who owned it over the years. All I knew was that the house was built in 1956, and that there had been only two long-term owners. 

What I discovered from the county records, the history archives at the library, and from friends and neighbors was fascinating. I am only the seventh owner of this house and, oddly, the third widow. 

For most of the sixty-two years since the house was built, it was occupied by just two sets of owners: first, and longest, Inez and George King, who bought the house in 1969, and lived here until 2003 (George died in 1981, but Inez seems to have happily stayed on for another 22 years until her death in 2003). That year, Patricia Baumhover and Howard Madaus bought the house from the King's children; they, or at least she, lived here until 2015. (Howard, a military historian and former curator of the Cody Arms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody's big museum complex, died in 2007. Patricia, a librarian at the Park County Library, lived here alone–but for her cats, according to the neighbors–for another eight years.)

The house might well be called the King House though, since the Kings were in residence for 33 years, just over half the lifespan of the house today. I searched the archives for a photo of Inez, and couldn't find one. (History tends to erase women unless they are famous.)

I did learn a good bit about the King family, who moved to Cody in 1946 and developed Wapiti Lodge, one of the older lodges on the North Fork Highway, the road to the East Entrance of Yellowstone. After George and Inez sold the lodge and retired in 1970, they moved to town, presumably to be closer to their kids and grandkids. (Their descendants still live in the area.)

Wapiti Lodge in 1948, in the early years when the Kings were developing the complex. 

When I read Inez's obituary, I was delighted to discover that she was a gardener who enjoyed "working in her yard [and] tending to her flowers." In renovating the house and yard, I did my best to preserve the heritage perennials I uncovered, including the huge patch of fragrant lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) in the back yard just outside the living room windows. I was careful to site the deck far enough away from the house that the patch wouldn't be disturbed. (My mom loved lily of the valley too.)

Lily of the valley from that big patch in the backyard

I also divided and spread the English iris (Iris latifolia cultivars) that I suspect Inez planted so they now bloom throughout the front yard, and did the same with the daylilies I found languishing in the shade along the east side of the house. And I planted peonies (Paeonia spp), another favorite garden flower of Inez's era, along with tall Asiatic lilies (Lilium hybrids). 

One of the patches of English iris I suspect Inez planted, blooming this spring after I dug up and divided the tubers to give them more space to flourish.

As I pack up to move south, I think about Inez and Patricia and the other women who have loved this house and yard, and hope they approve of all I've given this special place. And that the new owners–whoever they will be–will continue to fill this place with love and laughter and joy. 

Renovation Reckoning: Before and After

I was planting native perennial flowers from a local nursery's July sale this afternoon; the sun was hot, and I was sweaty and tired. "Why am I working so hard? Is it worth it?" Rescuing this dilapidated house and yard felt overwhelming and never-ending. 

So when I came inside to clean up and cool off, I took a moment for a project-reckoning and scrolled through the hundreds of photos on my computer documenting the work. Looking at before and after shots, I immediately felt better. Here's a quick tour photos, so you can see the transformation too. 

The photo above is the house when I first saw it in October, 2016; the photo at the top of the post is the front view now. Among the changes: a new roof replacing the crumbling old one, new gutters and eaves, ugly and leaking carport removed, new windows (including in the garage door), trees removed, trimmed, and relocated; gravel paths and sitting patio added, along with pollinator plantings, including a native-plant rock garden. 

Here's the back view as I first saw the house and yard through a screen of sickly Rocky Mountain juniper trees planted too close together and never thinned. Not so appealing, is it?

 

And the backyard now, after much tree-thinning and trimming, plus new windows, roof, gutters, and that fabulous new deck. Oh, and paths and sitting patios in progress (I need a load of gravel to finish that project). 

Oh, yeah, much better!

Let's go inside. I fell in love with the house for its classic mid-Century Modern details, including the big windows sited at the corners of the rooms, letting in lots of light and bringing the outdoors inside; the wood floors; and the fabulous original and very retro kitchen. All of which were in very bad shape then. I can admit now that the house was "scary," in the words of my friend Connie, who toured it with me when I first saw it. (But I knew I could rescue the place.) 

Below is a photo of the living/dining room, which in real estate parlance "had potential." (Meaning it needed a lot of work: the windows leaked and were fogged with age, the floors were scarred and filthy, the chimney lining cracked, the paint and light fixtures cheap and ugly, and so on.) 

Today, the room shines, with the floors refinished, new windows gleaming, energy-efficient light fixtures that pay homage to the 50s, and paint in mid-Century Modern hues. The original fireplace with its massive horizontal brick surround and mahogany mantel works again, with a new gas fireplace insert.

 

I love this room!

Through the doorway is the retro kitchen (photo below) that totally charmed me when I first saw the house, despite cheesy appliances and light fixtures, dirt, and a terrible paint and tile job. 

Who could resist the sunshine yellow color of those metal cabinets (top of the line in 1956, when the house was built), and the original beach blue stove? Not me.

After some hard work, a little creative vision, and a chunk of money for new windows, light fixtures, paint, floor coverings, and appliances, that kitchen gleams again. (By the way, it's bigger than it looks: I've had a dozen people in there hanging out with me while I was cooking dinner.) 

Turn around (photo above), and you see the kitchen even has its own breakfast nook, with attached powder room. Very '50s! It too, has come a long way since I moved in, when it was so NOT charming. 

At the other end of the house in the bedroom wing, what is now the master suite was a sad and cold place when I arrived the winter before last.

I lay in my sleeping bag on my camping mattress one evening before my furniture arrived and contemplated what to do with a floor that was so scarred it couldn't be saved, and a room where one end was basically a storage area-cum-hallway leading to the attached office. (photo below)

The other half of my bedroom, with the steps down to the office on the right-hand side of the photo.

Gradually I saw the possibilities: an en-suite bathroom in one corner, a laundry center and linen shelves in the other. So it became, with some seriously creative design and a lot of Jeff's skilled and meticulous work. (The linen shelves and stacked washer-dryer live behind the screen.)

The rest of the bedroom looks pretty great now too, as you can see below. (For before and after photos of my office, part of that master suite, click here, and scroll down.)

Sleeping here is a pleasure now… 

There's more. The downstairs, which was not only dark and dingy when I first saw it, but had this weird smell (Connie refused to even go down the stairs!), is now a light and bright family suite, with its own bathroom that has a cool sliding barn door with a full-light clouded pane. (photo below)

There's a laundry room down there too with an water-efficient front-loading washer and efficient dryer, plus Pancho and Lefty, the brand-new gas boiler powering the baseboard hot-water heat and inline water heater. And a new master electric panel replacing the two dodgy old ones. Overhead the attic is now insulated so the house stays warm in the winter and cool in the summers. 

It's been a big project, and an intense one. But I've been fortunate to have a great contractor to work with–we enjoy collaborating–and other skilled and talented tradespeople who have come to respect my vision (even if they did think I was crazy at first!).  

Looking at these photos, I'm proud of what we've accomplished in the past twenty months. Finishing doesn't seem so daunting now that I see how far we've come. (There's one more bathroom to renovate, the yard to finish, and I've got a punch-list of smaller details in the house.) But we're getting close. And Oh! does this place shine now…

The only thing I regret is that Richard, the love of my life, designer and builder and sculptor extraordinaire, isn't alive to see it. He would be proud of me for discovering my inner Tool Girl.

Tomorrow is his 68th birthday. I think I'll sit on the back deck after work, and raise a glass to celebrate his life and spirit. He'd like that. 

Richard Cabe (1950-2011), always beloved…

Tool Girl Again: Why Rescue Houses?

I was trying to explain to a friend why I would spend a year and a half plus a tidy chunk of money renovating my wonderful but very, very neglected mid-century modern house, and then decide to sell it when I finish. 

"It's the project," I said. "I can't resist a good renovation project."

That was a weak answer, and my friend knew it. She gave me one of those you-are-crazy-but-I'm-fond-of-you-anyway looks, and changed the subject. 

So what is it about building/renovation projects that has me hooked? As I've written recently, I've clearly got a "Jones" for this work: I've finished, built, or renovated three houses in the past six years. That despite basically never picking up a tool more complicated than a screwdriver or a spade until I was in my late 50s. And only then because the guy who could design and build anything died of brain cancer before he finished our house. 

That man, the one I loved with my whole heart, my late husband, Richard Cabe, was the quintessential tool guy. He owned hundreds of them, both power and hand. He could (and did) sculpt a firepit out of a one-ton granite boulder, design and build his own hand-operated crane, hoist the roof beam of our house using just ropes and pulleys, build anything with his own hands, and also out-fox an opposing lawyer as an economic expert witness. He was just that brilliant.

A boy and his tools: Richard adjusting the load-carrying beam on his gantry–hand-powered crane–after he set in place the 450-pound sandstone block that became the sculptural base for our mailbox. He had just had one brain surgery then, and would have another set of brain tumors removed in a few weeks. None of which deterred him from sculpting–or climbing ladders. 

I used to say Richard could design his way out of a paper bag–only he would build a better bag first. 

While he was alive, I never considered myself capable of conceiving, repairing, or restoring structures. I could design a landscape or restore a stream, yes. But build? No. Then Richard died, and out of sheer financial necessity, I had to finish both our house and his hundred-year-old studio building. Soon. Or lose them both in the morass of post-cancer bills. 

Thanks to patient friends (that's you, especially, Maggie and Tony Niemann!) and knowledgeable trades-folk, I learned to use tools, to hang doors and trim windows, to frame doorways and build counters, and to envision the way buildings work (or don't). In the doing, I learned that while I'm not a great carpenter like Richard was, much less a sculptor, I do enjoy and find satisfaction in the process of solving design challenges of light and space and color and form, of materials and tolerances, of construction and restoration.

What precisely do I love about that process? Something deeper than only design: "Here is this neglected space with badly-designed, old windows that leak. What can I do with it?" It's more the challenge of learning the place well enough to hear its voice, to ask, "What do you have to offer? How can I facilitate that?"

As with my office in the photos below. I saw the paint colors right away; adding bookshelves to the walls, and insulation to the attic were also a no-brainers. But it took me over a year to hear that what that window-bay needed was not just new windows, but windows in proportion to the ones in the rest of the house, with a built-in seat below.  

The north-facing "sunroom" opening off my bedroom-to-be as I first saw it. Yes, the floor was that filthy, and yes, the windows were so scarred it was like looking through fog.

Now that room just sings. It could be so many things for different people: an office, sure, but also a playroom, a craft room, an artist's studio, a kid's bedroom, a reading and movie room… Restoring it returned its beauty and its utility in the original sense, its ability to be a useful and comfortable space.

That same room almost two years later, brand-new window-seat, new windows, paint, insulation,and all. It's happy and inviting now. 

That I have sweat and skin in the game (not to mention money) just makes the work all the more satisfying, all the more meaningful. My body remembers. Restoring the house becomes part of my felt experience.

Friday I spent four hours scraping and painting the west-side house eaves to stay ahead of the guys putting up my new gutters. When I finished, I was both exhausted and exhilarated.

"Yes!" I said to myself. "I did that!" I'm not as good a painter as Shantel Durham, my contractor's daughter, is. But I can do some of the work, and get some of the satisfaction of a job done, and done well. That feels very good. 

Are those good-looking eaves and gutters, or what? The eaves on this side of the house were shabby and partly rotted when I first saw them. Now they shine. (Those are heritage tomato plants in the stock-tank planters, grown with seeds from Renee's Garden.)

As does relaxing on my deck as hot afternoon eases into cool evening. As robins chuckle and wrens fuss, a bright yellow tiger swallowtail flutters through the yard, and the twin fawns of the mama mule deer who haunts our block pick their way carefully, small hooves clicking, down the alley.

As this sixty-two-year-old, beautiful but long-neglected house settles in, ready to shelter, nurture, and inspire for another six decades–and beyond. 

What I love about this process of seeing buildings anew, is that "re-storing." Or as my friend, writer and ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan puts it, "re-storying." In listening and tending to these places, I am giving them back their voices, their stories, the gifts they have to give us. 

That makes my heart sing.

New office windows (yes, those shingles need their color-coat of paint), new deck, which still needs steps, and new paths beginning to take shape. Old house and yard, new life. 

The Gift of Renovation: New Understanding

One of the things that fascinates me about house renovation, or any kind of restoration work (including digging invasive weeds in Yellowstone, which I'll be doing next month) is that the process of changing something outside ourselves often shifts our internal perspective as well.

In the process of working with my contractor, the amazing Jeff Durham, and the other tradesfolk who have helped me revive this long-neglected house, I've experienced "aha!" moments that I'm not sure I would have seen in any other way. Certainly not so quickly or so clearly.  

Take our current project, replacing the old, leaky, and cloudy windows in the bay in my office with new ones. (My office is the extension off the back of the house in the photo above, with the bay where my desk has sat since I moved in a year and a half ago.)

We replaced all of the other windows in the house last summer and fall. (Except for one other bay window, which I'm not going to replace, but I am going to refinish.) I didn't plan on replacing the windows in my office bay, first because I thought since they were 30 years newer than the rest of the windows in the house, I could live with them. 

I could have, except that with new windows throughout the rest of the house, it was painfully clear how cloudy the ones in my office were. Looking through them was like looking through a perpetual mist.

My office, pre-window-replacement

Then over the winter, I realized how leaky they were compared to the new windows in my bedroom, which shares the same airspace with my office (the two rooms are separated only by a wide doorway and two steps down). The hot water baseboard heat was on in my office about twice as much as in the rest of the house, and I still had to run my electric fireplace to stay warm. 

Once I decided to replace those windows, I ran into issue number three: design. My office was added to the house in 1982, when bay windows were in vogue and mid-century modern design was not. So neither the windows nor the bay follow the horizontal lines of the original house. (In the photo at the top of the post, notice how even the huge triple-window unit in the living/dining room is wider than it is tall, and the horizontal framing separating the lower panes emphasizes that.)

The office windows were taller than wide, proportionately wrong for the rest of the house. So the question was, without tearing off the bay itself (an expensive proposition), how could we give the windows a more horizontal look? 

I decided to make them shorter, so they would be proportionately similar to the large upper panes in the living/dining room windows. After measuring the windows, we settled on two-thirds of their original length. Meaning below the top of my desk would be solid wall, with glass from there up. 

We ordered the new windows and then Jeff got busy with other jobs, and soon it was winter, when neither of us wanted to tear out the old windows in below-zero (F) temperatures. 

Window replacement time finally came this week. I spent Sunday evening moving my desk, plus printer stand and file cabinets, and reassembling the whole thing under the bookshelves on the east wall of my office. 

My desk in its new location, before window replacement

As soon as I finished, I sat down at my computer to try out the new configuration. I looked over my left shoulder at the window bay and realized the now empty space would be perfect for a window-seat. So now instead of moving my desk back there once new windows are in, Jeff will build a deep, comfy window seat to fill the bay. 

I would never have "seen" that window seat without moving my desk out of the space, and reconfiguring my office. And I wouldn't have gone to the trouble of moving my desk at all if it hadn't been smack in the way of replacing those old windows. 

The open-air office: windows out, framing for the new ones in progress, with the studs for the wall behind the new window-seat in place.

Moving my desk shifted my perspective in some deeper ways too. Instead of facing the windows and my backyard-renovation-in-progress, my view is now my bookshelves with their rows of volumes by favorite writers on the West. Looking at those spines revived a long-dormant dream of spending more time exploring these expansive landscapes, and less time taking care of my beautiful but large-for-one house and yard.

New windows in, wall "dried in" with sheathing and house-wrap, and a much clearer view of my backyard… 

Since I was a child, I've imagined "someday" hitting the road fulltime to wander, write, and explore wild places throughout the West. I'll be 62 this year, older for the first time than Richard was when he died of brain cancer. That fact reminds me that I can't assume life will offer me a "someday." If I want to follow my long-time dream, I need to start planning now.

So I've decided that my next house will have four wheels and solar panels on the roof. But first, I have a house and yard to finish renovating. With a great deal of love and care, and eyes open for what other new perspectives the process may yield. 

Trimming the exterior of the new windows. Shingles and paint to come… 

A Jones for House Renovation Projects

I'm in New Mexico for my final work trip of this spring, and today I took the day off (I know, me, not working?!) for some personal care. (I'm working on that finding-a-sustainable-life-pace thing, and taking time off to take care of myself is part of that practice.)

This afternoon, I was telling Heather, my fantastic hair stylist at Rock Paper Scissors in Santa Fe about my renovation-project-in-progress of my house in Cody. (That's my renovated mid-Century Modern living-dining room in the photo above. It was not in that kind of shape when I bought the house.)

"You love a house project, don't you?" she said. 

I do. It occurred to me later that I've been engaged in house renovation or building projects for much of the past two-plus decades, beginning with the sweet little brick duplex Richard and I bought as our summer home in Salida, Colorado, in 1995, when we still lived in New Mexico. That duplex was built in 1902 in Salida's wrong-side-of-the-tracks West Second Street neighborhood, close to what was then an extensive railroad yard.

Like many houses in the neighborhood at that time, the duplex had "potential" in real estate parlance, meaning it was in very bad shape. The building boasted an ornamental brick front (which had been spray painted blue) and original wood sash windows (which neither opened nor shut after nearly a century of weathering), hand-plastered walls, antique wiring (so old it was actually flammable), and plumbing put together with duct tape instead of actual joints. In hard rains, the roof leaked down the inside of the walls, and there were locust sprouts growing through the joints between the pine floorboards in a few places.

But the price was right, and the little duplex was in walking distance of everything we loved about Salida: the river, the library, the town trail system, the hardware store, and downtown with its galleries, coffee-shops, and bookstores. So we bought it, fixed the worst problems, and rented it until we moved to Salida fulltime two years later. 

Dad, Mom, and Richard on the dilapidated front porch of the duplex in the summer of 1997. We (I and our alcoholic handyman) had carefully sanded the blue paint off the brick front by then.

By the time we moved, Molly was in college, and Richard was on the road as an expert witness testifying in cases in 23 different states about the deregulation of the telecommunications industry. His usual MO was to arrive home on Friday night, write or edit testimony over the weekend, and fly off to the next case on Sunday afternoon. 

Which left me in charge of the crew making our place habitable. While I finished my fifth book. Mind you, it was Richard who understood building, and spoke "tool" fluently, not me. But I was there and he wasn't, and no construction project stays even close to schedule if the decisions have to wait for the weekend for the job boss to be home.

So I became de facto job boss. Our contractor (thank you, Bob Spencer!) and his crew learned to come to me with not only questions, but explanations for what the outcome of the decisions I was making implied. I learned a lot about house guts and renovation before that duplex was finished enough that we could fully move in. I also learned to trust my instincts. 

Which came in handy over the course of the six years (!) we spent building Terraphilia, our house across the alley, and began the renovation on the historic brick industrial building that was Richard's studio. For the most part, Richard handled the building and renovation, and I handled restoring the land and block of adjacent creek. But after my experience as job boss on the duplex renovation, I had a say in the design and building decisions.

Terraphilia with Richard's studio behind (peeking out on the right-hand side)

To Richard's (and my) surprise, I also proved an adept helper in a pinch, like the October night when he came home after finally wrestling the last sheet of leaking metal roofing off of his studio building, and reported that underneath, the decking planks had large gaps between them. A snowstorm was predicted by morning, so he needed to get waterproofing membrane on the roof or risk damaging the hundreds of books and tools in the studio, along with his big table saw, planer, and other woodworking machines. 

I volunteered to roll the layers of waterproofing membrane across the steep roof so he could do the skilled bits like repairing rotten planks and stabilizing the brick parapets. After some discussion, he agreed (I suspect only because no one else was available). We finished "drying in" the roof at just before two am, and then staggered across the alley to bed, exhausted. The next morning brought ten inches of heavy, wet snow. The studio roof didn't leak a drop. 

My budding competence at building renovation projects came in handy again when Richard died of brain cancer five years later, leaving both the studio and the house unfinished. The studio needed a ceiling, new wiring, new plumbing, and some drywall and paint. A combination of friends (a shout-out to expert painter, Robbie Smith!), volunteers (thank you, Grant Pound and the Colorado Art Ranch crew), and professionals completed that work with me as job boss. 

The inside of the historic studio building after finish-work. 

The house was a bigger project. It lacked interior trim and baseboards, interior doors, cabinet doors and drawers, and a finished master bathroom (only the toilet and my soaking tub were in place and functional), and involved design and materials challenges that Richard had talked about often, but never solved. After our nephew did the trim-work and baseboards in the attached guest apartment (thank you, Andrew Cabe!), I imagined hiring out the rest of the house. Until I looked at my finances and realized I couldn't afford to hire anyone else. 

I had only been job boss up to that point, and occasionally grunt labor. My tool competence was approximately nil. I had everything to learn, and no time to waste. I needed to sell the whole complex to pay an overwhelming amount of post-brain-cancer bills. When I rashly told my friends Maggie & Tony Niemann, software developers who also rehab houses, that I had decided to do the finish work myself. They said, "We'll teach you."

My best friends, the air compressor and larger of the two pneumatic nailers, both of which lived in the back hall of the house for nine months. 

And they did: we spent an average of two evenings a week and one weekend day for the next nine months at the work. I am in their debt forever. In the process, I  learned to live with an air compressor in my back hall (to power the pneumatic tools, which I also learned to use), to mill lumber with the giant table saw, planer, jointer, and belt sanders in Richard's studio. I learned how to work with not just wood, but also metal, stone, and other materials. And I learned how to understand what lay behind the design decisions I made. Hands-on work implementing your own decisions is perhaps the best way to truly learn. If not the easiest.

The living room at Terraphilia, the big house, after we boxed in the studs dividing that long block of windows, and added trim and baseboard throughout. 

While Tony and Maggie were teaching me how to finish the big house and helping me do the work, I also oversaw the design and construction of my little house (Creek House) and garage with second-story guest studio (Treehouse) at the other end of the block. For that project, I went back to job boss, only occasionally picking up my tools to do some finish details. It was the first building project I had overseen completely on my own, and I'm still proud of it. The spaces turned out as beautifully as I imagined, and the passive solar design worked just the way I planned. (Whew!)

Treehouse (on the left) and Creek House (on the right) from across the creek that inspired the name of the house. 

Three years after selling Terraphilia and the studio, and moving to Creek House and Treehouse, I picked up stakes and headed home to northwest Wyoming. Where I fell in love with the totally dilapidated mid-Century Modern house and its too-big yard that are my current project. (Both house and yard had been negletced for decades. My friend Connie, after touring the house when I first looked at it, told her husband Jay that the place was "scary." In hindsight, I agree!)

New roof and eave work to come next month, plus more plantings to replace the lawn in the front yard… 

A year and a quarter after that January move, I can see the end of my current house and yard renovation project. It's been deeply satisfying to revive this once-beautiful house and ready it for its next sixty years. I've mostly been job boss on the house, but the yard has taken a lot of physical and mental labor: muscle and grit and determination. So I have sweat and skin in the game, and I'm already wondering what's next. 

I realize now that building and landscape renovation is in my blood, and I'm not likely to quit anytime soon. So somewhere out there is the next project that will suck me in… The truth is I'm wholeheartedly in love with the whole renovation and building thing: the challenges, the design problems, and the work with tools and materials. It's satisfying to bring structure and place to life, engaging body, brain, and heart. 

Me, sweaty and determined Tool Girl at work… 

Fall Reckoning

The verb reckon, says my dictionary, means to calculate, be of the opinion of, or be sure of. It comes from the Old English (ge)recenian, meaning "to count up."

At this time of year, when summer has given way to autumn, I like to spend a little time reckoning with where I am in life. In that, I am using reckon in the old sense: to count up. As in, count up what I have achieved in the year as fall slides toward winter, toward shorter days and longer nights, my time to be more contemplative.

I am in a reckoning mood because I have spent the day preparing my yard for the end of gardening season. Cody's municipal irrigation water ceases running tomorrow, so I did the last watering today. And then emptied, rolled up, and stored my hoses for the winter. 

I also cut down my tomato "jungle," the heritage tomato plants I grew from six varieties of seeds from Renee's Garden Seeds, and took the last tomatoes still clinging to those exuberant vines into the kitchen to ripen in bowls. 

That's only part of the harvest! I grew Tangerine, Stupice, Pompeii Roma, Pandorino Grape, and Black Cherry tomatoes. All delicious and heavy-producers, despite the deer, who persist in "trimming" the vines. 

Now it's time to stop and take stock the year so far, to reckon what I've accomplished. 

The biggest thing is that with a lot of help from friends and family, I moved back to Cody, Wyoming, the home of my heart. In January. In the midst of the snowiest, most blizzardy winter in decades.

January 18th: Almost home!

Next biggest is that I've run a full-scale renovation project to bring this house back to life since then, starting with replacing house guts, those essentials that no one sees but which we depend on (boiler, hot water heater, wiring, plumbing, insulation). 

Pancho (in blue) and Lefty (the round online hot-water heater tank) moving in to replace Igor, the antique and failing boiler.

I sometimes forget how much we (my trades-folk and I) have gotten done in nine months. Here are a few before and after photos show the scope of the project. 

The living/dining room in January, looking less awful after I finished hand-scraping and refinishing floors that had suffered thirty years of neglect. 

The living/dining room now, with new windows, new light fixtures and ceiling fan, paint, new blinds, furniture, and so on… 

My bedroom the first night (a week before the moving van arrived)… 

My bedroom now, after new windows, new floor, paint, new light fixtures, etc… 

And looking in the other direction, at what was empty space, the new en-suite bathroom with soaking tub, and the new laundry center

I have hundreds of photos documenting the restoration, peeling away layers of neglect and unfortunate changes to bring this lovely mid-century modern ranch house back to life. When I look at them, I am amazed to realize the transformation we've effected.

There's more to do. There are more windows to replace, and there's one more bathroom to restore, a deck to build out back, and a new roof, along with repairing damaged soffits and fascia.

But wow! The house and I have come along way since January.

A detail of my restored kitchen, including the original beach blue oven and copper range hood, both brought back to their original look, still working after 61 years.

Next biggest thing in this reckoning is Bless the Birds, my memoir-in-progress. I started over in March, writing the story anew from the beginning. I thought I'd be finished by now. I'm not (surprise, surprise!), mostly because I keep having to put it aside to earn a living. But I am more than halfway through and eager to pick it up when I get back from a work trip to Colorado next weekend. 

The other thing that's surprised me about Bless the Birds is that this experiment in telling the story in a radical new way actually seems to be working. Stay tuned… 

Another huge thing in this reckoning is personal. I am happier than I've been since Richard, the love of my life and my husband for nearly 29 years, saw the birds that were the only major symptom of the brain tumor that eventually killed him

That happiness comes in part from being home in a place that has always lifted my spirits and made my heart sing, and in part from the community of friends here who have welcomed me so warmly. It also stems from being able to spend almost four weeks this summer in Yellowstone doing my "radical weeding" work to restore a small part of our planet, as well as from the project to restore this house and its equally neglected yard, and from my writing. 

My happiness comes despite the turmoil in the world, the hatred and division that dominate our nation's politics and public discourse. 

I am determined to shine the re-kindled light in my heart and spirit beyond my own skin. My mission in life is to restore this beautiful blue planet and nurture all who share it. Every one of us. 

That means restoring kindness and generosity of spirit. Day by day, word by word, action by action, person by person, species by species. 

We all carry our own light inside. Like love, that light increases when shared. Together, our ocean of light and love will spread. Together, we can turn the tide. 

I send the light and warmth of the flames in my restored hearth to you all. Blessings!

We Are All Tool Girls

It started out innocently enough: On Friday afternoon, Jeff Durham, my contractor, was trimming the outside of the new windows in the kitchen bay, which is right next to the front entry. (The photo above shows the old windows, the brick enclosure in front of them on the left is the "planter" box.) I looked at the brick enclosure, and said, "You'll have to climb over that stupid thing." "Maybe it's time to take it out," he said a grin, knowing I can't resist a challenge.

That planter box has been on my to-demolish list since I first looked at the house. It's not original, it doesn't fit the house design, and worse yet in my book, it's unusable, wasted space. Because (1) it's too far under the deep eaves which keep my house cool in summer to get enough sun to grow anything, (2) if you filled it with soil it would rot the original cedar-shake and redwood siding that abuts it, and (3) it's too deep to fill anyway. 

"I'll take the first swing," I said. I had made good progress on one of two essays I'm writing for the 2019 Weather Calendar published by Accord, and I was feeling cocky. 

Jeff said mildly that each course of brick was two layers deep, so a sledge hammer might not be the demo tool of choice if I wanted to salvage the bricks. (He's worked with me for seven months now, so he knows my "recycle and reuse" ethic.) He went out to his workshop trailer and got his Bosch rotating hammer, something I had seen guys use in the past (Richard had one) but never laid hands on myself.

My new favorite tool: an 8-amp rotary hammer with chipping bit.

Jeff plugged in and proceeded to chip out part of the first course of bricks while I watched. He set the hammer down and looked at me. "Maybe you want to do it yourself," he said, with that grin again. (He does know me!)

I did. I got my work gloves, and while Jeff finished bending and cutting the powder-coat metal trim for the two windows outside the planter box, I whaled away at the top three courses of brick on the box so it would be easier for him to step over to do the trim on the next window. It took me a little while to get the feel of the rotating hammer, which is like a mini-jackhammer in terms of impact and kickback. 

Getting started on planter-box demo…

By the time he was beginning on that last kitchen window, stepping over the now-lower brick box, I had gotten my technique for separating bricks from mortar down, and had a good rhythm going. We worked companionably until about six-thirty, and then as he packed up his tools for the night, Jeff said, 

"I can leave you the rotary hammer so you can finish up tomorrow." 

I straightened my sweaty back and rotated my shoulders, aching from bracing the 8-pound hammer and its vibrating impact. I looked at what I had done, including the pile of mortar chunks and un-salvageable brick (some bricks are cracked, some don't come free of the mortar). "I think I need your dump trailer too."

He nodded and said he'd pick up the workshop trailer in the morning and leave the dump trailer when he did. 

Progress… (Notice those beautiful new kitchen windows with their custom white metal trim.)  

Which is how I came to spend most of my Saturday muscling a noisy rotary hammer, and sweating as I hauled bucket-loads of mortar chunks to Jeff's dump trailer, parked in my driveway. I honestly didn't think I'd be able to finish removing all the brick–12 courses high on one side, 14 on the other, double-thick, and 40 inches long by 50 inches wide equals a lot of brick and mortar to remove. 

And that hammer got heavier and heavier over the course of the day, as I got sweatier and more gray with mortar dust. But I kept whaling away, and I swear I felt my skinny biceps growing with each course of brick removed!

I can't shoot a photo of me working with a rotary hammer, because keeping it balanced and aimed is a two-handed operation. But my friend Connie Moody stopped by late in the afternoon and shot some photos. So there I am, sweaty and filthy Tool Girl. 

You'll have to imagine the noise, like a small jackhammer banging away… Thanks, Connie!

Brief commercial: Connie is half of the duo of Jay and Connie Moody, who manage the Thomas the Apostle Retreat Center outside town. If you are looking for a peaceful retreat place with gorgeous long views of the nearby mountains, check out the center's website. TAC boasts comfy and moderately priced rooms, a labyrinth to walk, Jay's beautiful Habitat-Hero-award gardens, and Connie's delicious meals. You don't have to be Christian to stay there… 

I finished chipping out the last course of brick late yesterday afternoon, and then schlepped the remainder of the pile of mortar chunks plus the broken bricks to Jeff's dump trailer, one bucket at a time, my muscles groaning with each load. I swept up the worst of the mortar dust, and hosed down the newly exposed walls and porch post. (I'll remove the mortar stains later, with a small grinder equipped with a brush.)

Then I just stood there with a huge smile on my face, admiring my new, more open front entry. I can already imagine the built-in bench that will tuck into the corner once walled off by the brick planter, with a small wall-mounted water feature above it bringing the soothing sound of trickling water, which I will be able to hear inside the kitchen too… 

I was sweaty, filthy, and weary, with every muscle aching, but I felt great. As I soaked in the tub later, I thought about what is so satisfying about this Tool-Girl work. Part of it is getting to do some of the actual hands-on work: I am project manager on this house renovation. I design (with Jeff's input), search out materials (ditto). But I rarely get to do the actual work, because I'm not the expert and I have a fulltime job already. 

Another part is knowing that Jeff will lend me his power tools, that he trusts me to be careful and capable, even if it's my first time with a particular tool. Reminding myself that I can do this hard work makes me feel powerful, in a positive way, and capable, and strong. 

That's a lot for a 60-year-old "girl" who grew up small and slight. And who didn't grow up or go through most of her adult life with any kind of tool-girl tendency or competence. I am Tool Girl, hear me roar… 

Every "girl" should know how to use tools, and learn the basics of building and un-building, of creating and repairing what we and others build. Whatever we do in our lives, knowing how to work with our hands and muscles makes us strong and capable, more grounded.

The truth is, we are all of us, whatever our age or size or background capable of being Tool Girl. We just don't believe it, we don't know it in our bones until we do the work ourselves, even just once. Then our bodies remember that strength and power and pride in ourselves, and carry it into the rest of our lives. That's a good thing for everyone.

We are all Tool Girl, hear us roar…

The dozens and dozens of bricks I chipped out are now edging the gravel paths and patios under construction in my yard. (Gravel to come later.) in this new incarnation, they're both useful and beautiful.