The last two weeks have been drywall weeks. If you’ve ever lived through drywall construction or, heaven forfend, had to hang-mud-sand the stuff yourself, you know that this is one of the messy parts. Insulation was messy, too, and smelly, but didn’t last for two weeks. When I thought about the children having to vacate their room for five days, when I thought about the last remaining floor space in our pretend kitchen being entirely covered by their mattresses, I knew we could do it if we had to. But there was a more attractive option: head somewhere inviting, somewhere with doting grandparents and beautiful scenery and no sheetrock dust. So I packed up the kids and the dog and we went, leaving poor Mr. G to fend for himself since he couldn’t take the time off work. It was a good decision.

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Family walks are still something of a challenge, and I foolishly left the baby carrier at home. So in between piggybacks from me and his willing Granny, Jolyon studied bryology and learned to eat sheep sorrel and avoid the rabbit turds. Sometimes we opted to stay home while the others exercised the dogs, because Granddad’s mighty fine swing set needed attention.

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And we stayed indoors sometimes, too, playing the kids’ favorite board game. My grandfather devised it and painted the board when my mother was a child. It’s called “Hit the Hay,” or “Hippa Hay,” as it’s rendered by the under-fives. I’m no longer sure of the rules, having played so many simplified versions, but it’s always a good time.

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We came home to a handsome new ceiling in the kids’ room and a lot of plastic and dust and more dust everywhere else. I’m chipping away at the clean-up, wiping down one surface or another any time I glimpse the sponge lying idle. Flooring starts this week. It’s exciting to arrive home and view the progress every evening. I’m still enjoying this a lot. But oh, was it nice to have a shower and a kitchen sink for a few days! Thanks, Mum and Dad. It’s so good to be able to go home.

Of bulbs and bubbles

The first day of the early dark. Since it wasn’t quite raining, Ada and I planted the last of the tulips. The bulbs have languished on our front porch for several weeks; a couple of  them had gone spongey and a few had shriveled and furred out in powdery crystals. We planted the spongey ones just in case and put the crystallized ones in the compost. Ada admired the sleek russet jackets of the healthy bulbs and made herself a collection of the skins that peeled off. The box recommended a 7″ hole, which was a real ask as I scrabbled amid the roots with the slim little blade of my grandmother’s trowel. I gave up at about 5″ deep and let my daughter use her tiny hands to nestle the bulbs into their narrow burrows for the winter. I hope the tulips will not be divas about their shallow beds. There’s no room in my haphazard gardening for divas.

Every so often I descend on the perimeter of my home in a burst of energy, grubbing up clots of wild geranium, digging out an invasive common pokeweed—which sounds drab and unassuming but is actually so fantastic in appearance (enormous leaves, red stems, showy white flowers, shiny aubergine berries) that I’d just been watching it all summer to see what it would do next. My friend Barb finally identified it and warned me it was toxic, so I donned full battle array and menaced it with my clippers and shovel before it could drop too many of those berries. But I am an inconstant gardener. The plants I feel most affection for are those that fend for themselves: the Pieris japonica, the lace-cap hydrangea, the anonymous white rose that climbs up the southwest corner, the native redcurrant, the Japanese anemones. The hydrangea and the rose do get an annual pruning, and it will have to happen early in case a window of dry weather should appear, and with it the house painters. A week of dry weather this month is about as likely as a week with no tantrums, so I’m not holding my breath, but I’m going to be prepared all the same. Ada wrote a charming four-year-old autobiography and drew our house complete with its patchwork of red, grey, and brown paint swatches on the south wall. It may well look like this until spring. Sorry, neighbors. It will come right eventually…

My days are a headlong dash of job juggling, school juggling, and haring off across town after things like pendant lights and the right waterproof paint for the leaky basement. I do my knitting in bed—I can feel Carson Demers’s glove across my cheek—or sometimes in the car during nap time. Today Jolly snored serenely through the Prairie Home Companion joke show while I worked a fingerless glove all the way from the thumb gusset to the bind-off row, which would have been a real victory if I could just figure out how to replicate my bind-off for the first glove. After the second ripping my boy woke up and that put paid to progress for the day.

Now I’m home from singing All Saints’ evensong—a Brewer Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis, Schütz’s “Selig sind die Toten,” a Kievan burial chant. I like evensong. It’s a beautiful word and a beautiful service; it feels worthwhile to gather the mind into calm focus and summon up the energy to sing well at a weary hour. The children are asleep, although Jolly sang a goodly chunk of the Music Together canon to himself in his sweet baby soprano before finally nodding off. I’m surrounded by piles of laundry and voting paraphernalia, trying to decide whether a modern-day feminist should embrace an equal rights amendment that’s 90 years late or take umbrage at the implication that she’s not already covered by the standard set of guarantees to citizens. (My voter’s pamphlet offers no arguments in opposition—apparently no one wants to come down publicly against rights for women. Some progress, at least. Brown people driving cars are not nearly so fortunate in this voting cycle.) On this day of honoring the beloved dead, I’ll fill a belated bubble on behalf of my grandmothers. I’m sure the one with the trowel was fierce on the ERA in her time. I’d let my equality-obsessed daughter do the honors with the blue pen if it didn’t constitute elections fraud and if she could be trusted not to fill in all the bubbles.

Bulbs in the dirt. Ballots in the box. What will emerge out of the mud when the days lengthen again? Weeds, mostly. But, with any luck, notes of beauty and hope as well.

English stitches

When you travel to a place that’s been shaped by human culture for millennia, there are so many layers of craftsmanship and beauty it’s hard not to stand gobsmacked in the middle of it all. I’ll bet I could spend a lifetime visiting Bristol Cathedral and still find new details in its architecture and decoration to admire. I had about four hours in Bath, which wasn’t remotely enough to take in its sweeping Georgian crescents or properly imagine the Roman temple. Everywhere I traveled there was so much to take in it almost seemed futile to point my camera anywhere at all, as I’d be missing so much more than I captured.

But one thread that drew me, particularly in the churches, where so many centuries of best work have been preserved, is how that work is still going on. These places are not museums; they are living and changing and responsive to human needs and aspirations. Stones that were shaped and set eight hundred years ago are now cushioned by beautiful kneelers stitched by modern hands:


I was charmed by these humble native birds and thistles, so elevated by good composition and color choice and expert needlework, full worthy to rest among the countless artistic treasures of Salisbury Cathedral. (Pssst, want to see some astounding stained glass and learn about how it’s made? Of course you do.) Having tried my hand at a bit of basic counted cross-stitch, I know just enough to appreciate the skill in evidence here. Look at the variety of stitches in the thistles and the way the artisan has held the brown and cream threads together to give the bird’s breast more subtle coloring:


In Oxford I wandered through the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin and was struck by another piece of modern stitching. This beautiful embroidery was adorning a lectern in the Adam de Brome chapel:


This part of the church once served as a courtroom, and this hanging depicts scholars and common folk waiting for judgment. (Note the rats, who don’t seem to be waiting for anything.) Issuing from the judge’s bench at right are some of the actual decisions handed down 550 years ago: “The inspectors shall test the quality and quantity of the beer in the colleges. Beer shall not be sold before it has had time to cool.” – 12 November 1462. “Simon Marshall and John Merton shall forgive each other all past offences and provide an entertainment of goose, wine, bread and beer at St. Mary’s College.” – 10 January 1462.


My curiosity about this wonderful hanging lingered and I spent some time on the internet trying to ferret out its origins. Lo, I found the blog of the artist herself! There I was able to learn that this is machine embroidery—an entirely foreign country for me. I’d love to watch Suzette Smart at work. I can hardly imagine the squillions of stitches that must go into a piece like this and I wonder how long it takes. Plus there’s such subtlety in the shading of the colors. (Must not get too interested in this. I do not need more hobbies!)

I’m thinking a lot about the interplay of old and new as we press on through our big house project, too. Imagine, a 1″ x 5″ ridge “beam” has been holding up our roof for the past hundred years! Somehow I think of things having been built to last in the olden days—somehow they have lasted—but the contrast with the hefty and numerous slabs of laminated veneer lumber supporting the new construction is striking, and not just because the LVL is brilliant vermilion. (Everyone is to run for the east end in an earthquake.) I feel a deep affection for all the quirky details coming to light for the first time in many decades—the toothpaste green siding lurking on the wonky old interior (!) attic walls, the lath and plaster, the frail wooden beams. (I don’t think the builders have a lick of regard for the poor roof, which was so far out of parallel that they had to cut every new rafter a little differently and rough cut the plywood out of square to cover them.) Today the roofers are hard at work applying composite shingles, which is excellent in light of the forecast for rain all the rest of this week. Inspection is tomorrow, and then we can do the exterior siding, trim, and paint. That’s all exciting from a weatherproofing standpoint, too, but it’s the interior spaces I’m keen to see taking shape. I’m loving the nesting decisions—which lights, which paint, which tile? I’ve already dragged home a sturdy farm table to serve as my new work surface and can hardly wait to steal a sander from my father and set to fixing it up. We’re ever so lucky that we get to do this, to give this house just what it needs to be an ideal home for our growing family and evolving lives. My romantic side wishes we could quit work and do a lot of it ourselves, but my practical majority is just grateful we can afford to have it done quickly and professionally. The craft room, though? That’s mine to finish. After the kids go to bed I’ll be up there lovingly applying coats of the perfect grey paint, sewing curtains, building shelves in the closets, moving old things into new spaces, adding the work of my own hands to that of many capable others.