Welcoming the End of Summer Break

MSU students are flowing back into the city. My son went back to school today. We are falling back into routine. Earlier nights, earlier mornings, tighter schedules. And I’m okay with that. Summer has always overstayed its welcome in my life, and, as every writer (or anyone who works from home) knows, summer is hard on output.

Back in June, I finally got myself from 40,000 to 50,000 words in my newest novel manuscript. Each paragraph was a hard-fought victory over summer distraction, including having my son home for the summer (no day care) for the first time whilst also continuing to work full time. In July, I don’t think I wrote much of anything. I was busily working ahead in anticipation of camp and vacation, entertaining dear friends at our house, editing someone else’s novel, and then gone for two weeks, during which time I was surrounded by people and working fairly diligently on actually getting a tan.

In August, it was (intensely) back to work writing pages and pages of catalog copy for the Summer 2017 list. I began to think I’d been quite foolish to set a goal for myself of finishing the first draft of this novel before my WFWA writing retreat in late September. My yard and house had atrophied — badly — over the past two months of busyness. We’d been eating out most meals because no one had the time or energy to grocery shop or cook. The weight I’d lost in June by diligently tracking what I ate started creeping back on. And as an introvert used to working in the house alone for much of the day had about reached my limit of days-strung-together-without-a-decent-chunk-of-solitude-thrown-in-there.

Enter Guys’ Week.

My husband and my son had one glorious week of fun planned out for the end of summer, which included lots of time out of the house and two overnight trips. During Guys’ Week, they went to zoos and museums and the LEGO store. They rode carousels, water slides, and elevated trains. They ate way too many coney dogs and made it through a tornado. They drank $6 slurpees and stayed on the 50th floor of the Renaissance Center.

Me? I wrote 20,000 words. In one week.

I could have spent my non-work time that week cleaning the house, doing the laundry, grocery shopping, mowing the lawn, and all the other stuff that needed to get done. But I chose instead to focus on writing.

When he’s an adult, I’m sure my son will have memories of a very different type of household than the pristinely clean one I grew up in. He may remember that many nights for a while there was a bag or a box on the table rather than serving bowls. Occasionally, this bothers and embarrasses me. But I’m comforted by the thought that he may also remember that his parents pursued their passions every chance they got.

In four weeks, summer will be officially over and I will be in Albuqurque, New Mexico, with ninety other writers, women (and one man) who have become dear friends and fellow sojourners in the realm of writing and publishing. We’re all at different stages of our manuscripts and our careers. I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one with a messy house and an empty fridge.

And I’m willing to bet that I’ll have finished my first draft before I step on that plane.

Creative Waiting

Waiting stinks. When we want to do something but it’s not happening on our timeline, we can get impatient and sullen and full of self pity.

Or, we can get creative.

Last summer a realtor called us inquiring about whether we or any of our neighbors were thinking of selling. Housing stock is low in the area and it’s a great time to sell.

Except when it’s not.

I had thought this spring we might make it work, but it’s just not the right time for a variety of reasons. Boo. I had been dreaming of gaining another room, maybe a bigger yard, hopefully less traffic noise and more tranquility. But mainly, more space. And I’m always excited about the possibility of just doing things a little differently.

So there’s a part of me that’s bummed. But there’s also a part of me that says, Okay, what can we do in the meantime to freshen up and make this house work just a bit longer?

The easiest way to freshen up is a new coat of paint. And the room I spend the most of my time in is the office, which is, in my son’s words, “An ugly green.”

I didn’t think so, of course, when I chose the color a decade ago. And I still don’t think it’s ugly. But maybe it is time to move on to something a little lighter and brighter. So I’m examining paint chips.

And the process of moving things out of the room in order to paint will facilitate some further decluttering and reorganizing. Why put it back the same way when there might be better options? Plus, while everything is away from the windows and baseboards, I’ll touch up the trim as well.

I don’t really have a timeline for doing this, but I’ll be sure to share the results when it’s done!

 

Anticipation

Once we get into February, it’s always the same for me. Utter elation when the sun shines, pervasive gloom when it’s gray, and the urge to do something to hasten spring. Yesterday I had that urge. Of course there’s nothing you can really do to get the leave back on the trees and wake your garden up. But when the birds start singing mating tunes, it feels as though the time for sitting around is over.

So yesterday I got out of the house. I stocked up on birdseed to make sure all those lovely little birds would visit my yard. And, oh, they have. Cardinals and chickadees, downy woodpeckers and white-breasted nuthatches, juncos and house finches. Their energetic hopping and flitting about makes me ready to do the same.

I also stopped by a greenhouse in town and got some little succulents for my petite vintage windowsill planters. Why succulents? They’re easy, they’re cheap, and in the summertime I can re-pot them together in an arrangement and place them outside if I want to. Beyond that, I’m used to getting succulents from the days our cat ate everything else that was green.

Now when I look out my office window toward the bare backyard, I see a preview of green and a tiny world that is busily getting ready for warmer weather. Perhaps I should get busy on my own nest. Someone hand me a sander and a paintbrush…

On the Beauty of Stepping Back

A Rose Blooms on Veteran's DayLike it or not, twenty-four hours is all you get. Subtract sleep (eight hours if you’re lucky) and work (another eight hours if you work full time) and you have eight left. Personal hygiene, prepping and eating meals, doing dishes and laundry and picking up after yourself, gassing up the car, driving to and from work, getting the kids off to school and activities, church and volunteering, hopefully getting in some reading time or an episode of Brooklyn 99 or The Man in the High Castle

Friend, your day is slipping away fast. And that means your week is slipping away. In aggregate, your life is slipping away and you probably don’t have the time to properly lament that fact.

I have been asked on more than one occasion how I “do it all.” Work, kid, writing, gardening, canning, sewing, teaching, etc.

Well, here’s the dirty little secret: I don’t. Not all at once, at least. I haven’t sewed a piece of clothing for myself in well over a year. I didn’t manage to can cherries, raspberries, pears, or apples this year. I did the absolute bare minimum in the garden this summer. I also barely manage to keep my house in working order. I often go to bed with dishes in the sink (and on the counter), with laundry getting wrinkled in the dryer, and with toys strewn all over the house.

And every once in a while I have to step back, look at where I’m spending my time, and reevaluate. I did this back in 2007; the result was quitting grad school. I did it again in 2012 and decided I needed to quit being a docent at the zoo. Suddenly during this crazy fall, I felt the need to reevaluate once more.

I realized that I was overcommitted in general, but specifically in two places: in my local writing group and at church.

As a board member and the marketing/communications chair of CCWA, I was committed to monthly meetings, but also to developing and keeping up the website, helping to plan events that required extra meetings, attending as many organizational events as possible, blogging and asking others to blog, trying to remember to tweet, developing and giving talks, etc. It wasn’t an everyday commitment, but over the year it amounted to a lot of time away from family and, ironically, from writing.

At church I have been prepping and teaching an adult Sunday school class, serving as a deacon, practicing and singing in the choir, attending two worship services, doing building renovations, and often leading singing, lay leading, prepping and serving communion, and trying to be a semi-decent pastor’s wife type person on top of that. On Sunday mornings especially I was rushing from activity to activity with not a moment to stop and chat with church members or visitors on the way. On some weeks, I might find myself at church three or even four days out of the week.

At an especially busy time, I realized that my entire week was spoken for by these two very worthy, fun, and rewarding aspects of my life, plus my son’s one extracurricular activity:

  • Monday night: deacon meeting during which my son had to entertain himself at church (family grabs fast food on way home, son gets to bed too late)
  • Tuesday night: take the boy to karate (family eats whatever I can scrounge up and make into a meal at home)
  • Wednesday night: choir practice and midweek service (husband takes the boy to karate; family either scarfs down early dinner at home or eats separately)
  • Thursday night: CCWA board meeting (family eats out again, again separately)
  • Friday night: take the boy to karate (family would eat at home but no one has had time to plan meals or cook, plus the kitchen, somehow, is still a disaster even though we’ve eaten out nearly every night)
  • Saturday: spend 9 hours at church sanding floor, prep for Sunday school at night
  • Sunday: teach Sunday school, practice choir number, sing choir number in service, come home to crazy-messy house and try to reacquaint myself with my husband and son

It was easy to see that this was just too much, despite the fact that, taken individually, I valued each of these things. I had no margin, no white space, no mental rest or physical rest, no time to let my mind breathe, no time to take care of myself or my family or my home.

So I looked at all of the things I was doing and found the ones that could be done by others. No one can be my husband’s wife but me. No one can be my son’s mom but me. No one can write my books but me.

But could someone else be a deacon? Absolutely. Could someone else serve on the CCWA board? Absolutely. Could someone else sing soprano? Absolutely. And probably there is someone out there dying for the chance to do those things, looking for an open spot, for a need to fill. Me stepping down could create that open spot.

So that’s what I did. I contacted the leaders and supervisors and directors of those groups and let them know that, come 2016, I was stepping back. Not one of them was upset with me. All of them understood. And once they had all been told, a weight lifted off my shoulders I hadn’t realized was there, even though I hadn’t really gotten anything off my plate just yet. There are still Christmas baskets to distribute as a deacon. There’s still the Christmas cantata and all the extra practices that entails for choir. There’s still the annual writer’s conference (Write on the Red Cedar) to advertise and execute for CCWA in January. But just knowing that within a matter of months those commitments would be over put my mind at ease.

Maybe you’ve found yourself in a similar situation — overcommitted and exhausted and wondering where each day is going, unable to find the time or mental energy to serve your family, take care of yourself, or pursue your passion. Why not take some time as this year draws to a close to reevaluate where you’re spending your time and energy. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I doing this out of a sense of obligation?
  • Does this bring me joy?
  • Is this good for my family?
  • Could someone else do this?
  • Is this how I want to spend my time?
  • What do I really want to do — both now and in the future — and how do each of my current activities feed that dream or drain time and energy and imagination from that dream?

I think you’ll find that the answers you give will tell you what you can step back from and what you really want (and need) to do with your precious twenty-four hours.

What We Can’t Let Go Of, We Must Store

When one of her daughters gives her a charge — please keep your eyes open for boxes and newspapers — my mother comes through in a way she might never do for anyone else (even herself). A month ago she came to my house to help me go through the kitchen cupboards so I could clean and repaint them while my husband was gone at a conference. We thought we’d pack up anything I don’t use much — fancy serving pieces and vases and such — so that there was less cluttering the cupboards when we list our house.

At that time, she brought a bunch of boxes and two grocery bags full of the Wall Street Journal. As it turned out, neither of us felt like cleaning out the kitchen. We just felt like sitting around and talking. So that’s what we did. All weekend. It was great. And the boxes sat forlornly in a casual ziggurat in the middle of the office.

A week later when I was in New Mexico, my husband and son traveled to the east side of the state and visited Grandma and Gramps. They came home with the back of the Explorer filled with boxes (all of which at one time held about a dozen bottles of wine each…now I’m not judging, but…that’s a lot of wine).*  Those boxes I stacked into a fortress wall in the sunroom.

Now, I still haven’t tackled the kitchen, but I did start boxing up a bunch of stuff in the office, including sewing patterns and my extensive collection of notions, binders full of magazine clippings, fabric, yarn, and some other random stuff. I also boxed up a bunch of gardening supplies, pots, and a few books in the sunroom. I’m cleaning and reorganizing as I go, chipping away at that massive to-do list I created this summer.

And pretty soon, the fun tedious, backbreaking, filthy part: pulling everything out of the attic, hunching over and pushing these boxes the entire length of the house in order to get them in the very back of the attic, going through all the stuff we just pulled out of the attic to see if we can get rid of any of it, and then carefully putting it all back again.

This stuff from the attic, sunroom, and soon the kitchen is just the tip of the iceberg. The part that’s underwater (the 90% you can’t see) is basically my son’s toys (only child — yes, I promised myself it wouldn’t get this way, but it has). We’ll see how much I can move on to new homes before Christmas.

And for some dumb reason I popped onto Zillow today just to see if there were any interesting new listings…and I found a great house in a great, non-flood-plain location, for a good price. So I’m just constantly flipping through the pictures and hoping it won’t sell and that they’ll relist in the spring for a lower price yet. Hey, a girl can dream.

*According to my mother, those are the kind of boxes the grocery store had. Um, yeah, sure.

House Hunting Fever Has Struck

I love looking at houses. I love going to open houses. I love to watch Rehab Addict and, to a lesser extent, shows like Love It or List It and Property Brothers. So to be back in the position of someone who is searching for our next house is really fun. Yes, I scour Zillow during lunch. Yes, Zach and I have made a pretty extensive list of must-haves, would-likes, do-not-likes, and don’t-forget-to-check-fors. Even the boy is in on the hunt. “Does it have hardwood floors?” he asks about every house we view online.

We recently identified a neighborhood and even stumbled upon a house we thought was perfect. We checked off almost everything on our wish list as we roamed the rooms. We sort of fell in love. Then we learned more about 100 year floodplains. Ummm…no. Michigan’s capital city is located at the convergence of two major rivers and a pretty dynamic creek. It’s had major flood events in 1904, 1947, and 1975. I’m not sure I want to press my luck with floodwaters. So, we crossed that neighborhood off our list.

Lansing, like many other larger and older cities, is a patchwork of neighborhoods, some nice and safe, some not so nice or safe, and in almost any given spot on the map, if you go four blocks one way or the other, you can find yourself in completely different neighborhoods. Plus, you never can tell when a neighborhood is on the way up or might take a sudden turn the other way. That makes staying within city limits a dicey proposition. Outside of Lansing, though, it’s harder to find the type of home we want at a price point that will work as we consider sending our son to a private school. Then there’s the matter of everywhere else we go on a regular basis: church, karate, work. You don’t want to be too far away from any of those places that you go several times a week.

While we puzzle out the perfect spot to transplant ourselves, we continue to do the work in our house to get it ready to list. We’ve moved bookshelves, cleaned out files, stowed away hobby items, and started the process of repainting most of the woodwork in the house. There’s a lot of cleaning out to do — the garage, the attics, the basement, the littlest pack rat’s bedroom — and a few bigger improvements to consider, like kitchen countertops and a new garage door opener.

Lucky for me, I finding purging, cleaning, and painting to be cathartic.

This, That, and the Other During a Busy Week

I can hardly believe my good fortune, but I am headed back Up North this weekend for a few more days at Lake Louise, this time with just the boy in tow. He’s old enough for Kinder Camp (K-2), which is just for a weekend with at least one parent or grandparent staying on. I’ve never been to this particular program before, but I hear there are nice afternoon nap times (this is for me — the boy hasn’t napped in four years) and earlier bedtimes than what has become standard at the junior high camp (I think I heard 8:30 rather than 11:00). I do believe I shall have time in the evenings to finish a book I’m reading and who knows what activities we’ll be doing during the day.

On a very happy note, I’ll be going up eight pounds lighter than I was last time and I’m hoping to continue losing while I’m there. For someone who was pleasantly surprised to have no to-do list just a month or so ago, I’ve suddenly turned into someone with many little goals — weight loss, house purging & sprucing, novel reading, writing, etc. — and a few new responsibilities at work that I’m still getting my mind around. It’s been a stressful week, so I’m happy to be leaving it all behind for one last little bit.

On the purging front, Zach and I went through a bookshelf last night and actually found things we could part with. I’m hoping for further sifting tonight with a couple other shelves, then possibly moving the emptied shelves up a narrow and twisting set of stairs to the upstairs landing. Our potential realtor advised us to open up a doorway to the bathroom we never use, which we had blocked with bookshelves in the office, in order to stage the house correctly when the time comes. And there’s no time like the present to get some stuff out of the office, which is wall-to-wall furniture right now. I’ve already cleaned out a cupboard for the boy’s overflow of art supplies and gotten rid of a small shelving unit. What I need now (desperately) are some big empty Rubbermaid bins for extra fabric and yarn of mine. And then I think, maybe I should just get rid of the lot of it! Or at least a lot more of it.

You ever watch shows like Love It or List It and think to yourself, yes, there have been many real improvements in this house, but the biggest one is that there’s not so much CRAP ALL OVER THE PLACE! It seems like it is rare that a house is truly too small — we all just have too much STUFF. Sometimes I just want someone to back a garbage truck up to the front door so I can commence tossing. But . . . it’s not all my stuff. And I live with two of the sweetest little pack rats there are. So, storage solutions is the name of the game.

Time to get on it!

Welcome, August…Wait. It’s August? Are you frickin’ kidding me???

woolly thyme
Between last night and today, I’ve spent seven hours of intensive labor weeding, trimming, deadheading, and tidying up in the yard in the August heat. Good gracious. I had to take a nap this evening just to function enough to write this piddly little post. But when July is lost to swarms of mosquitoes and a week out of town, there sure is a lot to do when you finally get out there.

monarda
thimbleweed & monarda
tomato
roma tomato

anise hyssop
sage

morning glory

kale

liv tyler rose

spiderweb
black-eyed susans
white swan coneflower

The Big Purge Begins

July has been an odd month around here. My eggplants aren’t growing (like, not at all since they were put in the ground), the biggest crop of mosquitoes in twenty years has hatched (yet I’ve escaped with nary a bite!), and a week or so ago I got a phone call out of the blue from someone who worked at a real estate office asking if I knew anyone in our neighborhood who was thinking of selling their house. Apparently, the housing stock in my quite desirable neighborhood is very low. Rather than wait for clients, this realtor was taking the initiative to find them.

It so happens I don’t know anyone who is wanting to sell. “What about you?” the man asked.

Well…

The truth of the matter is that we had a realtor give us an assessment two or three years ago that did not turn out terribly favorable. We bought our house in November 2005. When a realtor hears that, she gets a pained look on her face and says, “Ooo…” Lansing real estate hasn’t recovered as well or as quickly as some other cities and the comparables in our area (which seemed to be all she considered) didn’t allow her to get us a price point we could work with. So we figured we’d be here for the foreseeable future. Not that that’s bad. We love our house. Everyone loves our house. People walk in the door and they are compelled to comment on how cute or adorable or classy our house is.

But when we bought our house, we weren’t planning on having a child. The boy will soon outgrow his small bedroom, we live near a very busy street, and we live in the worst school system in the area. His particular elementary school is one of the best, but come to find out he can only go there through third grade as the school is being completely converted over to Chinese immersion and the contemporary students will go…I don’t know where. We had thought we could stay here until the boy was a sixth grader (despite the size of his bedroom). In June we found this was not the case and began fretting about what to do next.

Enter this random (or was it?) phone call.

Sure we would be disappointed by what this new realtor would say, we met and talked about the house. Unlike the previous realtor, this new guy took into consideration the substantial improvements we’ve made over a decade in our home — the new thirty-year roof, the renovated bathroom, the incredible landscaping, etc. And when he came back with the numbers we were pleasantly surprised. His recommended sale price was a full $20,000 higher than the old realtor’s recommendation a few years ago. Suddenly, moving to a different school system was a real option. We decided we will likely put the house on the market in the late spring next year.

And you know what that means: ten months of purging, cleaning, touching up paint, and getting every room ready to show well. It means getting rid of crap that has accumulated over a decade of living in one place. It means my recycling bin will be full every time it is put on the curb. It means lots of lists and projects and weekends with mom over helping me scrub and sort and sell. (My mother once moved house five times in less than four years, by herself, with two children under five. She is an expert.) I’ve already begun to ruthlessly go through my file drawers and bookshelves and magazines, and I have a detailed plan worked out to tackle every inch of the house over the coming months.

I’m not sure exactly which community around here we’ll end up in, but after ten years in one place — the longest I’ve lived somewhere since my childhood home on Lesperance Court — I’m excited about the prospect of finding the right house for our family of three in a great school system for our son. It will be difficult to leave such a beautiful home and yard, but a new place will be like a new canvas on which to design another beautiful home and yard, armed with the knowledge and experience we’ve gleaned from the past decade.

So beyond the usual fare of articles about writing and Michigan and pretty pictures, for the next year or so this space will be a place for me to share with you the odyssey of moving house.

And Spring Slips into Summer

Foamflower, hostas, and a stunted Japanese maple frame an angel bought years and years ago and then forgotten in the garden behind the garage. Now she has center stage in the main shade garden.
Foamflower, hostas, and a stunted Japanese maple frame an angel bought years and years ago and then forgotten in the garden behind the garage. Now she has center stage in the main shade garden.

Have you ever told yourself you’d change and then actually done it? This weekend I really lived my new “to-be list” philosophy. I did do a lot, but I never made a list of things to accomplish and then checked it off, item by item. With everything I did, I felt no rush, no pressing need to do it now, no guilt in the doing or the not doing.

I spent time with my son at Van Atta’s Greenhouse and Nursery, I mowed and transplanted and weeded, I filled a dozen or more pots with annuals, I managed to keep the kitchen pretty clean. Saturday morning, Zach and I were talking about finally putting in a new fire pit sometime this summer. By afternoon, it was there! Suddenly we were roasting hot dogs and marshmallows in the backyard.

On Monday, the boy and I went downtown to visit the various war memorials and monuments and statues, and to check out the “fuzzy” Capitol building (the dome is currently covered with scaffolding as they do maintenance of some sort). We were practically the only ones downtown. We talked of war and sacrifice and men and women who served. We talked about how our state became the Arsenal of Democracy, turning auto factories into factories that made munitions and tanks and Army vehicles; how women built the machinery and the ammunition that finally subjugated the axis powers in WWII; how some wars must be fought and some do not make a lot of sense; how some people come home heroes, some come home to sneers and derision, and some never come home at all. We talked about men in our family who fought and those whose number never came up.

The wind was gusting and it started to rain on us. By the time we were home again the sun was out. We watched Charlotte’s Web for the second time in two days, and now the boy is a spider (with just four legs) who gives spider hugs and spider kisses and makes his webs out of the pile of dirty laundry his father gathered at the bottom of the stairs.

In the coming days we will celebrate the boy’s seventh birthday, his class will take a field trip to the zoo, we’ll take him to his first Brandi Carlile concert (shh–it’s a surprise), he’ll have a birthday party at the park with his friends, and we’ll celebrate with some family the next day.

May is always a big month here.

But I’m not sweating it. I’m loving every minute of it.