Don’t Move–Improve!

When we moved into our little brick house in late 2005, we repainted every room and ceiling, brought in our furniture, and generally left well enough alone apart from adding or replacing furniture. Sure, we did some home improvement projects–the ceiling in the basement family room, the main floor bathroom, the roof, and the landscaping being the ones that come to mind. But other than that, for the most part, nothing’s changed really significantly in the last ten years.

Then somehow, we ended up changing five rooms rather dramatically in the course of about a year and a half. Some of those changes have been highlighted in earlier posts on this blog, but I’ve been wanting to get them all up in one, with before and after side by side.

So here goes…

Sun Room to Cigar Room

I’ve a feeling a great many people (especially women perhaps) might be of the opinion that these pictures surely must be backwards. But no, and in fact transforming the very feminine sun room into the very masculine cigar room was my idea, not my husband’s. The result is that we both spend a lot of time in this room now where before he almost never did. Those wicker chairs were not terribly comfortable. And now he has a place to smoke cigars all year long without being exiled to the freezing or mosquito-y outdoors. We spend a good deal of time writing out here, as well as entertaining friends while children roam the rest of the house unsupervised. It’s great. We finished more of the work by the summer of 2016. To see more of this room, click here.

 

Warm Kitchen to Cool Kitchen

So. Much. Painting. This project was six weeks of pretty concentrated work, most of it painting all those cupboards and all that woodwork a bright, washable white (they were just painted with primer before that and got so filthy). This project took up much of October and November 2017. To see more of this room, click here.

 

Office to Master Bedroom

This was part of our big room switcheroo starting in January 2018. With our master bedroom on the first floor, there’s more privacy for everyone and our wandering about well after our son has gone to bed doesn’t disturb his sleep as it once did. I like waking up in a room with an east facing window, even if the blinds are drawn because little fingers of sunlight get through the bamboo blinds and nudge me awake. Well, they do when there are no clouds, which hasn’t been often of late.

 

Master Bedroom to Kid’s Bedroom

Somehow, we got almost all of my son’s possessions into one room rather than having them scattered throughout the house. He has far more room and storage space than he ever did before and the door can just be closed on the mess. It’s a beautiful thing.

 

Kid’s Bedroom to Office

And of course, the reason behind the room switcheroo was to give me an office that was 100% mine, with no one else’s desks or stuff in it. I’ve worked from home for thirteen years, so it was about time. It has really helped my mood and my peace of mind. More pictures of this room can be found here.

All of these improvements have made our house function better and have made it more livable. We have fallen in love with it all over again and have stopped considering a move to someplace bigger. Sometimes you already have what you need–you just haven’t figured out the best way to use it. Now I think we have. And as we were moving all that furniture around in the ice and snow and rain we decided that to move an entire house just seems like too much work anyway.

Now we’re entering the season when most people are thinking of spring cleaning and big home improvement projects and we find that our big projects are mostly done. So what will we do with ourselves if spring ever comes? I suppose we’ll just have to sleep soundly, work without interruption, eat a great dinner, and sit back and enjoy a cigar.

Goodbye, February

It’s twelve degrees warmer this morning in mid-Michigan than it is in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In fact, we’ve had a string of unseasonably warm days. Last week we had a rapid melt of over a foot of snow, plus two days of steady rain, causing the Grand and Red Cedar Rivers to flood. There were small-scale evacuations in neighborhoods near the rivers. And then we had three days in a row that felt like early May.

We’ll be back down in the 40s for the first couple weeks of March, which is more appropriate for this time of year, and there are still some snow showers in the forecast, but not much. I understand that groundhog saw his shadow way back at the beginning of the month, but I guess marmots are not the best prognosticators of global weather patterns.

I’m always happy to see February drift away in the rear view mirror. This year I have spent most of the month on moving rooms around in my house. A small, enclosed staircase with a right angle is part of the reason it took so long. The crazy weather is another. The stairs mean large items must go in/out an exterior door on the second floor that leads out to the roof of the smoke room, and up and down a ladder propped against it. Which, of course, you can’t safely do in a foot of snow and ice, nor in a deluge.

Everything big is safe and sound in its new room. Finally. After all, I’ve been planning for this move since July of last year, drawing schematics and making lists of the order in which things would have to be moved.

Now we’re down to the little stuff:

  • our son’s old karate belts, which we’ve been meaning to get into a display case
  • a small file cabinet that is mostly filled with things that could be stored in the attic or tossed
  • the light we removed from the old office/new bedroom that we’re going to put up in the living room
  • a random assortment of items that belong somewhere in my son’s new room, but we’re not just sure where yet

I could probably get it all done in a day, but since every spare moment of February has been spent on this project, I actually need to pause and spend some concentrated time on my other big project: first edits on my debut novel, which are due to my editor in twelve days. (Psst, if you missed it because you’re not on my newsletter mailing list, the new title is We Hope for Better Things.)

Hopefully soon we’ll have the last bits of our lives put back together and I can take some pictures to share with you. I’m happy with how well it’s turning out.

And I’m thrilled that, like February, it’s almost done.

 

Operation Kitchen Facelift Has Begun

I didn’t notice it happening , but our black walnut tree has already dropped all of its leaves and stands tall and bare back behind the garage. It’s been an odd fall, not nearly so colorful as last year’s. The trees were stressed from a dry summer, then it turned cold and we thought the fall color might be a week ahead of schedule. But summer returned and the trees are confused. My maples are still green and the walnut looks on, either embarrassed at jumping the gun or smug at his preparedness for winter, I don’t know which.

A similar confusion exists in our house right now. We’ve started a kitchen facelift of sorts that has progressed slower than expected because of the little absurdities and quirks of an old house that doesn’t fit today’s standard dimensions. We’re on our third sink purchased for this project and now waiting on the plumber for professional installation (we don’t mess with plumbing if we can help it) who had come earlier this morning only for us to discover our sink conundrum.

I’ve picked a color to paint the walls and realized with the new, very dark countertops that the cupboards really do need a new coat of fresh, bright white paint. That’s a long time coming, as the people who lived here before us had the entire house painted but all the white woodwork and cabinetry is actually only white primer, not paint, and it gets dreadfully filthy. So I’ll be removing doors and drawers, filling in all the old hardware holes, painting everything, repositioning the holes for the hardware, and installing new knobs and pulls.

This all takes time, of course, so it may be a while before I can share a before and after post with you, but I’m hoping to do so in the next couple weeks perhaps. I suppose the nice new countertops are like my walnut tree: clean, bare, and ready for the next chapter of life. Everything else in the kitchen? Green maples, all of them.

Just a Girl in the World

Today, as you might know, is International Women’s Day, and as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed I was struck by the juxtaposition of two posts. The first was posted by an novelist/missionary I have the privilege of knowing through my work in the publishing industry. She and her husband serve some of the poorest of the poor in Mozambique. Here’s what she has been up to today:

The very next thing in my feed was this “sponsored” post (which is another way of saying it’s an ad):

A cooking hut for a woman being rebuilt with the help of another woman, who will also be helping to rebuild half a dozen other homes, made mostly of natural poles, dried plant matter, plastic tarps, and even garbage. Then a marble kitchen in a $35 million dollar compound.

I clicked through to see what $35 million dollars bought Gwen…

Now, I’m not a redistributionist. People can spend the money they have earned on what they want, and many wealthy people are great philanthropists. This post isn’t about the disparity between Mozambique and Beverly Hills. It’s about women.

And I’m not anti-Gwen Stefani. Like many people of my generation, I am a huge fan of No Doubt, Gwen Stefani’s band in the 1990s and early 2000s. I love her feminist song “Just a Girl,” which came out in 1995 when I was fifteen and felt all of its lyrics deeply. Ms. Stefani has done well for herself, projecting a confident, powerful female persona to millions of girls and women (though lyrics of some other songs and her overly sexual videos may undermine that at the same time).

My novelist/missionary friend from the first post? She writes strong female protagonists, sells tens of thousands of copies of each book, and is the winner of several awards, so she has a reach too. Still, when stacked up against Gwen Stefani and her rock-star kitchen, how many of us might be tempted to feel like the little things we were doing with our own lives just didn’t matter quite as much?

On this International Women’s Day, I’d like to submit that my novelist/missionary friend who is piecing back together grass huts that will likely fall apart again during the next big storm is doing more important and lasting work than Gwen Stefani, and that women should strive to be more like the woman with dirt under her fingernails than the one with the sterile, pristine, marble-ensconced palace who only encounters dirt in the tabloids.

Menial tasks that will have to be redone (like dishes, laundry, and cleaning) are not inconsequential or somehow “beneath” us, despite the fact that, unless you work in the cleaning industry, you do not get paid to do them. To those six or seven poor families who see a woman of God helping them rebuild, my friend’s labors may mean the difference between being safe and being exposed to the elements.

And that woman who is getting back her cooking hut? I bet she appreciates it more than Gwen Stefani appreciates her (frankly hard to look at) rock-star kitchen.

Today’s feminism often looks like a strange combination of worshiping Beyonce and screaming and flipping people off rather than listen to someone with whom you disagree. But feminism that makes a real difference in the lives of women is generally quieter than that. And frankly, it doesn’t pay all that well.

It’s my friend Jamie who works with women in the prison system.

It’s my friend Jeni who is in Thailand working to free women and girls from the sex trade.

It’s my sister Alison excelling at a traditionally male job.

It’s my mom who chose to stay at home with us when we were little, kept a clean house, and cooked dinner every night, but who also went to work when we were older.

It’s all of the amazing women writers I know who create female characters who have the wherewithal to admit when they are wrong and forgive when they’ve been wronged.

It’s the women in my church of different generations who have persevered through hardship, who have raised incredible children as single moms after unplanned pregnancies, who have survived a spouse’s infidelity, who have carried on with grace after the death of loved ones, who have been friends and mentors to other women.

If you are a woman reading this, I hope you won’t buy into the lie that feminism has to look a certain way. That it must be angry or hypersexual. That it must be full of bitter resentment against men or our society. It can simply be you being the best person you can be to your family, your friends, your coworkers, and yourself.

You don’t need Gwen’s rock-star kitchen to feel fulfilled. You don’t have to scream to be heard. Build a grass hut for someone. Get your hands dirty.

You’re just a girl in the world. But you get to decide what that’s going to look like.

Staying Put and Scheming about the Future

A couple summers ago, we began considering putting our house up for sale. Driven by a number of factors, one of the most important of which were schooling options for our son, we started cleaning stuff out, sprucing stuff up, and living on Zillow.com. The plan had been to possibly list the house this past spring. That didn’t happen.

We still weren’t in as advantageous a position as we were hoping as the Lansing real estate recovery stalled. The urgency to move was lessened by us finding a good private school we love that isn’t too terribly far away. And then this summer I thought, hey, if we’re probably staying here at least a few more years, why not make some improvements, and thus began the transformation of the sunroom into the cigar room.

Our space and storage issues remain, but some recent scheming has made it plain that it would be possible to stay long term, just as we had originally planned when we moved in. This would mean some thoughtful reconfiguration of rooms, some creative storage solutions, some updates and upgrades around the house, and hopefully (please, please may it be so) some willingness to let go of some STUFF.

We’d like to do some updates in the kitchen, someday I’d really like to replace our deteriorating driveway and squirrel-hotel of a garage, and we’ll have to tackle the issue of closet space when we eventually move our bedroom into the current office. But some of these repairs and changes open up opportunities.

For instance, moving the master bedroom to the main floor got me thinking about adding French doors to the back yard, redoing the upper patio, and having my morning coffee out there. Updating the kitchen will mean adding functionality and style. Moving the boy into our current bedroom will mean he has room for all his STUFF in there and I won’t see it all over my living room. And the small size of his current bedroom, which would become my office and studio space, means it can only be mine and no one else’s stuff will fit in it.

Muahahahahaha!!!!! A room of one’s own, the holy grail of rooms. It almost makes me want to start moving stuff around now.

The decision to stay put for a while has lit our creative spark, which is a good thing. Last month Zach made more custom built-in shelves in the fun room (aka, family room) and a couple days ago we starting scheming about new custom shelves beneath the basement stairs to house all the hiking gear.

I’m sending away a bunch of little-used STUFF from the basement, garage, and yard through liberal use of our area Freecycle group. A number of things I’ve saved over the years “for if we ever have a bigger house” can now be let go of. Things I packed away when I was thinking about showing a house and then moving, well, if I don’t miss them over the next year and they’re nothing of sentimental value, that will be the next wave of stuff to go out to new owners. And if you know me, you know I love getting rid of STUFF.

We may still find that in a few more years we’ll want to move and the opportunity will be just right. If that’s the case, we’ll hopefully have less STUFF to move and an updated house to sell. But in the meantime, we’ll get to enjoy any improvements we’ve made, rather than just doing all that work for the next owners.

Or, maybe the feeling we had when we first saw this house back in 2005 — that we could live here forever — was right all along.

 

Only time will tell.

 

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.

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.