Cocooned in a canvas butterfly chair, I am relishing one of the summer’s last truly warm evenings. A glass of Chardonnay is perched on a 1950s metal telephone stand while my address book and Rand McNally Road Atlas are bundled on the shelf below. I alternate between designing a road trip with my sister and focusing on the nearby hummingbird feeder, just a simple affair with two perches poking under plastic daisy openings. I nearly yelped at my first sighting, earlier this year. I didn’t really believe they existed--not in my yard, anyway. I was content with the sparrows and bluejays, cardinals and blackcap chickadees. But now I am a captive audience to what has become a popular pit stop in their migration south. Greedy ants find the feeder first, plunge in and accumulate on the surface of the nectar. Are their corpses spelling out “Eat at Joe’s”? Certainly they've been no deterrent to the hummers, who zoom in, imbibe, and then take off. And serenity descends along with the dusk.
Oh, did I mention? I have no steady income. Work comes in ever smaller dribs and drabs as I try to figure my way out of this quagmire, both economic and internal. I have been living mostly on diminishing savings and a self-designed simplicity plan for almost half a decade. I bought this seemingly manageable fixer-upper of a house in 2000, when freelance illustration and luxury goods consumerism was in full swing. And so I swung up the Hudson River from Brooklyn to continue to do what I do while exploring other creative outlets. I had a dream to convert the 1920s brick garage into an art studio as well as workshop, to make memory-based assemblage art and the kind of mess I would lose my security deposit over in a sixth-floor pre-war apartment on Eastern Parkway.
For the first time as an adult, I had a tiny yard that teased me to try my thumb at gardening, and a car to pick up flea market finds for stripping and giving new life to. In the summer of 2001, my head was full of DIY dreams.
Then came September 11th. At the end of that day I unfurled from my fetal position to absorb the unbelievable truth. I had lost two men that I could never imagine life without. One I had hoped would visit; we had pored over a map as I pointed to a dot not so far away from his center of the universe, Manhattan. I trusted he would keep his door in the city open to me as well. The other was going to help me gut and renovate my kitchen, and be my coach as I embarked on this new life in This Old House. September 11th changed everything. Now I was on my own.
Finding my center of gravity after being emotionally eviscerated was not easy. Balancing new needs and losses with the independence and adventure I still sought became my biggest challenge over the next few years. My house was my baby, requiring lists and measurements, clear decisions, and full attention. It still needed my vision and most especially, my hope. Many times, I burrowed my head in the pillow. But just as many more, I raised it up again.
First task was separating my girly-pink strand of DNA to concentrate on the rest of my genetic treasure trove: my father and grandfather had built my childhood home from scratch, and I was determined to pick up the hammer passed down to me through the generations and continue on the family path. And so, over the last decade, my house (and I) have been chugging along. While still not the whiz I’d envisioned with power tools, I’ve become competent. And great with the cosmetics, as you might expect from a fashion artist. Not just interior painting, either. Witness my careful releasing of grey paint on clapboard while balancing on a tall ladder, stretching as far as my arm can reach to hit that last spot under the eave. Anything I can do, I will do. That includes grunt work: ripping off Tin Men-era aluminum siding, digging a ditch for the French drain to direct water away from my carpenter ant-infested garage, dragging rocks up the terraced hill for strategic placement within the sedum, lopping off branches that hang too far over my little cinderblock patio. But now, almost a decade later, I have come to recognize my limitations. And it gives me a chance to stop and rest. (Even hummingbirds do that, I have noticed).
After initially ignoring a structural defect on the porch, I decided a few years ago to hire a local handyman from the Pennysaver: always a crapshoot. He was so good and so reasonable that I asked for an estimate to waterproof the garage roof. While doing that, Joe looked over to the hillside that rises up from my patio. “You ever think about having a waterfall there?”
Not really. A waterfall? That sounded way too luxurious for my bankbook. I didn’t think I was a “waterfall” type of person. He offered to make one gratis, as this was a newly discovered creative outlet that he truly enjoyed. That I understood, so for the price of a pump and plastic pool (and payment for labor, as I insisted), I had a working waterfall. The sound of trickling water tumbling over rocks proved to be instantly soothing, as I sat there and felt the stress seep away through the metaphorical boulders I carried in my system. September 11, 2008 passed with a little more serenity than the years before. I also had a new saint in my life: St. Joe.
In September 2009, I was even less able to absorb a “quality of life” expenditure. I looked at my backdoor, dreading another winter of trudging through snow or frozen mud, lugging groceries while fumbling for keys. I had been slowly creating a brick pathway, but the slope of my yard stalled the project as I pondered how I would handle the approach to the door. I stretched a tape measure over the grass and decided a little wooden deck would be nice. Just 6 by 10. Joe’s estimate came to $300 for materials and labor. So of course, I would stain it myself, and a week later it was finished.
My little grey deck has become the center of my universe. I watch the comings and goings of birds, bees, and butterflies, brazen squirrels, neighborhood cats, even the odd raccoon or skunk. I see and hear my waterfall through the feathery leaves of the elderberry bush planted over Rufus’ burial spot. He had accompanied me from Brooklyn, my once timid, stray basement cat who fully blossomed here in Beacon. This is where I have my morning coffee, plan my day, my week, my life. I write, read, call my friends and family. Here is where I can just Be.
In 2010 I have even less money in my bank account, and therefore more reason to justify my self-stimulus package. This year I am turning indoors. Winters in the Hudson Valley are beautifully, bitingly cold, and heating bills high. Evenings I will be cuddled with my cats, Tizzy and Mi-ro, in the living room, quaffing Vitamin D, Cabernet, and battling the blues that inevitably settle in. The thermostat will be set at 62 and I have a plan:
I am tired of looking at a certain chair: a 1950s Thonet $5 flea market find, blue vinyl with a tear held together with duct tape. I am tired of covering it with my Great Aunt Lenora’s knitted quilt, an adored heirloom not meant to drape cold, ripped vinyl, but me! I have found the perfect fabric and a reasonable upholsterer. And I will have to ante up $300 when I pick up the chair.
My now annual “quality of life” serenity-stimulus package will be put into action yet again. And after September 11th has passed, I’ll be good to go. In my fashion.