Busy and Bored

The home improvement phase continues. The Sherwin Williams Snowbound in the family room is crisp and clean. The Benjamin Moore White Dove in the hallway is a little softer. I’m oddly chuffed about the hall closet. Painting is the easy part, but the prep and the cleaning and the ever-present worry of spilling a bucket of paint or stepping in wet paint adds to the stress, so I’ve toned down my enthusiasm. I’ve paused the painting and spruced up the spaces I’ve painted. An abrasive sponge and some cleaner will pick up the–ahem!–paint splatters from floors and door frames. I moved a small bookcase out of the family room–which opened up the room, natch–turned it on its side, put it on the floor of the closet, and now we have cubbies for shoes. I simply moved a shoe rack from one corner to another, and the hallway seems to flow in a new direction. I used the power screwdriver to install a new hook rack in the closet and to switch the two racks in the hallway. I even used the drill function for the first time. These simple changes yield big results. I walked in the house today and exclaimed, “Well doesn’t this look sharp?” to the dogs.

I haven’t painted the upstairs hallway yet, but I moved a bookcase next to another bookcase, transforming the landing. Now I have a big empty wall that’s going to be a lovely White Dove after the next painting surge, and I’ve started to think about what to do with it. I’m keen on those German schoolhouse botanical charts:



but they’re expensive, so I began shopping around. That led to a latent interest in mushrooms. Would it be too morbid to buy a vintage print of poisonous mushrooms?



It could be educational and metaphorical, as if I’m teaching my children to be wary, especially of beautiful things. Then again, the poster is German, so my kids might see nothing but fungi.

This vintage German poster search somehow led to searches for vintage German home decor. And then I learned a whole lot about midcentury planters, German and otherwise, because it’s time to introduce some plants back into this house. I’m kind of digging the McCoy planter, about which I knew nothing until two days ago.




Maybe it’s occurred to you that I have too much time on my hands. Funny thing is, I don’t. I am working so hard and I’m exhausted. But I’m also so lonely and bored out of my mind. All of this online window shopping seems to be filling a need for a hobby. I need a hobby. I need to rest. I need more time for work.

At work, despite my resolve to ease up on service, I remain involved. I just finished up my second search committee, and now I’m on a third. It’s a lot of work, but I think it’s important work for the university. I am still involved in these new campus initiatives. There’s this committee, that one, that other one, and I initiated the visit of a really interesting speaker to bring to campus. This is all good stuff. I’m getting myself out there. I’m contributing. And I have nothing better to do. I mean, I do. I have to cook and clean and parent and walk the dogs and shop and teach and read and drive and shovel and exercise. But, golly, I’m looking for something else.

A well-designed poster in my building caught my eye, and then I realized that the invited speaker coming to campus next week, in an area outside my own, does the same kind of research my co-author and I are doing. I put the public lecture on my calendar, but the next thing I knew I contacted the Director of the Center that is hosting the speaker to see if I could meet with the speaker one-on-one. She set up a coffee date for us. I used my Amazon Prime to get the speaker’s book delivered, pronto. I’m going to read up, and next week I’ll talk to someone I never thought I would be talking to.

I really don’t have time for this. I came home from work today to find that both toilets were clogged. (My regular toilet paper is out of stock, and the kids seem to just unroll the new toilet paper right into the toilet.) One toilet overflowed, but that was the easy one. In the other, the dogs had taken the toilet paper out, and I found it strewn in various places in my nicely painted hallway, family room, and even on the newly carpeted stairs. I plunged, I soaked up, I mopped, I disinfected. This is what I came home to, right after I remarked on how sharp the place looks. I’m overtaxed. But, oh gosh, I’m so darn bored. I feel like I have time for anything else but this.

After that, I capitulated to boxed veggie burgers from the bakery, because it seemed wrong to chop and saute veggies after spending so much time with toilets. The owner of the bakery rang me up and I expressed embarrassment at my last-minute purchase of vegetarian junk food. “What are you kidding?” he said. “We eat these all the time!” The local producers of food are also very busy, apparently. “Do you have rolls?” he asked. I told him I was just going to use our (local) bread. He ran to the back and came back with some rolls that hadn’t risen properly and couldn’t be served. He put 4 in the bag, and then I think he felt awkward. “Four burgers. Four rolls,” he pointed out, trying not to refer to the mere three people in the family. I assured him that the hungry teenager would make good use of the fourth. “You’re the best,” I said, as I left, and he is. There are all sorts of good people and things out there. I don’t have a lot of time to discover them. But I think I need to.


A Fresh Coat

The family room is done. (Thanks, Jean, for schooling me on getting the second coat up and the tape off in due time!)  I’ve just kept painting, right into the hallway.

After not getting help from the first paint store, I found much better service at a second store. They’re on my list now, as reliable folk.

The people there show me samples, ask me what I don’t like, and we narrow it down to what I was looking for.

I still haven’t mastered the art of choosing white paint, but I’ve gotten a lot better at it.

I make some mistakes painting. I learn from them. I can fix them, or live with them.

I just do a few sections at a time, to do what’s manageable and not overwhelm myself.  Then I’m surprised at how much I can do in one shot.

These are all the practices I use in widowhood. I’ve learned a thing or two about widowhood, though, through this painting project. I’ve realized that it’s now routine for me to eliminate options until I make a decision. That’s because I never know what I want, and that’s because I don’t really want anything. But I know what I don’t want, or what doesn’t feel right. 

I gotta trust my instincts. Despite all the home repairs I’ve had to do, I haven’t done much to improve the place. That was something I used to do with my husband. As I’ve wiped the paintbrush back and forth, I have visceral memories of fixing up this or that crummy apartment with Steve in our twenties, or making things nice for the kids later on. Those thoughts would have been met with too much pain a year ago. Making things nice was something reserved for us as a couple, not for me alone. It has seemed so pitiful to make things nice, just for me and the kids.

Something changed. Maybe it was a month of really good sleeping pills that provided some much-needed rest. That was followed by a break that I devoted to minor home improvements, and once I finished them, I looked around and thought, “It’s time to spruce this place up.” I found myself saying to Daughter, in response to some minor inconvenience, “That’s no way to live. Let’s fix that.”  Suddenly it seemed like the dinghy hallways were too dark, there were lots of scuff marks and mysterious splatters. This is no way to live, and there is such an easy solution. Simply painting walls was unimaginable a year ago, not only because I couldn’t bear to do it, but I didn’t even see the scuff marks on the wall.

I see those scuff marks now, and I paint right over them. The painted hallway is so bright that it looks like I added a new light. As I tear the tape off the wood, I step back, I see it, and I take it all in. 

And here’s the final lesson I’ve learned, the hard way–I don’t get my hopes up. Freshly painted walls are not going to change everything. They’re an improvement, but not an escape or a transformation. A fresh coat of paint is just a fresh coat of paint. That moment of admiring my handiwork, of seeing the effect–that’s the moment. That’s it. That’s all there is, and it’s everything.  

Now, onto the next hallway. And there’s a wall downstairs I’ve suddenly noticed. Onward.


snowboundI thought my intensive home improvement would be done when the kids went back to school, but snow days and two-hour delays meant that Christmas break extended well into January. So I just extended my home improvement streak and scooted daughter out of the house to the flooring store to help me order the carpet and bathroom flooring that we’d had someone in to measure a year and a half ago. We picked new materials (she has an eye), remeasured, the guy and I came up with a plan to get started, one job at a time. The carpet on the stairs, which the dogs had gnawed through as puppies, years ago, will be replaced. We even picked a new color. New linoleum in the bathrooms should make them look crisper and cleaner. I walked through my very-clean-house (the break was long, much cleaning ensued), visualizing these small but significant repairs, when the walls started to look dingy. A fresh coat of paint would take care of that.

When I told a friend, she urged me to hire a painter, because some of my walls are really high. I concurred. But, alas, I found myself at the paint store, just poking around to see paint colors. I asked the guy about white. He was not helpful. Drats. I have no eye for color. Husband had a very good eye, and so my lack of talent atrophied even further after being with him for two decades. He could see what I couldn’t, and I just deferred to him. He’s gone, the paint store guy was no help, so I did what I do best–research. A quick internet search introduced me to the fraught politics of white paint. Warm whites are good. No, no, cool whites are where it’s at. There’s something to do with natural light, or with the age of the house. It made no sense to me. What makes a white cool? You don’t want cool in a cold climate…or do you? My research results were unintelligible to me, so I took the pragmatic step. I held up white paint chips to the walls and chose the one that seemed the cleanest. I ordered a gallon of Sherwin Williams Snowbound at the paint store. The paint guy was like, “Are you sure?” {raised eyebrow} The day before, he told me the shade of white didn’t matter; it really depends on the color of my lightbulbs. Now he had an opinion about my paint color. I resisted a head thunk, paid up, went home, and slapped that Snowbound on two walls in the family room. It’s a low-stakes room. If I screwed up, it’d be okay because it’s not an important space. But I’d get to see what a white paint looks like on the wall, and maybe if I saw it, I could form an opinion on white paint, or just have a reference point.

Before slapping on the Snowbound, I used my power screwdriver–like a pro (Remember when I didn’t even know how to use one?)–to remove old screws. I spackled and sanded and taped the moldings. Then I slapped the paint on. I did this in the dark, which means I couldn’t really see where the new paint was laying, and hastily, because Downton Abbey was on at 9. No problem. I finished and cleaned up in time for the show, and did an okay job. I could leave it as is, or apply a second coat, I thought, but my semester began the next day, so I wasn’t going to get back to it immediately.

Why, do you suppose, I painted a room the night before the semester started? I was in the thick of meeting a deadline for an article revision, and I’d spent the better part of the weekend in the office. I hadn’t even finished my syllabi. Why would I start this paint job and leave it unfinished? I kind of think I did it aggressively. With the return to school, for both me and the kids, we’re back to the old routine. Wake up in the dark, cook and clean, drive, drive, drive, read, go to meetings, sort of think, drive, drive, cook, clean, tend to animals and people, go to bed and hope I sleep. I think I kept the tape on the moldings so that I am obligated to pull out all the painting materials and slap that second coat on. Hey, it’s something different.

And I don’t mind it. I’m starting to feel so much better about the house. When this widowhood started, the house felt like a weight bearing down on me, a problem to be fended off. I’m starting to feel a little more agency here. It’s mine. It can be nice. And this is good, because I’m getting out into the world more, but I don’t still don’t feel at ease there. It’s better than it was, but the inevitable reminders arise–I note all the parties I’m not invited to, all the memories I’ve lost, all the pleasures I miss out on. These small discomforts nag at me, and I’d rather be home, really. Besides, I rarely get invited anywhere on weekend nights. Those can be my paint nights. There’s that second coat to be done, and a hallway, and another hallway, and although I agreed to hire a guy to get the high spots, maybe I can just rig up the outdoor ladder and get those high walls done. After all, by the time I climb that ladder, I’m going to be awfully experienced at painting.

And maybe even good at picking out a white. The Snowbound looks great in the family room–stark white against the wood frames. It strikes a kind of Scandinavian vibe. As I consider it for the hallway, though, I wonder if it’s too stark. I see, now, that the hallway has a deeper hue. Oh, the current paint in the hallway is a warmer white. I kind of get it, now that I’ve seen a cold white on a wall. I will let this all simmer. I’ll get it, eventually. That’s pretty much how this widowing has been going all along.


I have made no secret of my love of Dyson products. Golly, Mr. Dyson was a Classics major. This Christmas I splurged for the new Dyson Hard, which lightly vacuums while it mops. You’d think the expense is extravagant, but I’ve gone through so many mops in the past few years–they don’t make ’em like they used to–that I think this may pay off. I loathe dragging out the bucket and the Murphy’s Oil and the mop, and dumping it all out afterward, and I have to do that so often; the two giant dogs track mud into the house, even though we dutifully wipe their paws when they come inside. I tried a wet rag on a swiffer, but that just spread the dirt around, really. So, yeah, the Dyson Hard was a family gift next to the Christmas tree. 

The Dyson Hard runs on a rechargeable battery, but the charge only lasts for about 15 minutes. That seems brief, but it has proven enough time to do a pass-through of the ground floor of the house. That’s enough. It’s almost like it’s urging me to tidy up, then stop, recharge, do something else.

I need to be told that, actually. Apart from a few work excursions, I’ve pretty much been home with the kids over break. All this hanging around the house led to a whole lot of housework. I’d started with the deep clean of their rooms, and then I just kept going. I’ve hit nearly every room in the house, golly, nearly every corner and cupboard of the house. I peered into closets as if I were a home buyer, and got in there and got rid of the cobwebs in the deepest corners.  I wasn’t even sure why I was doing this. It wasn’t manic, I wasn’t panicked, I’m not selling the house. I was just getting ‘er done. And there was a whole lot to get done.

I did this in Summer 2012, but it was different then. I felt overwhelmed by the stuff, by our prospects. I made five trips to the dump, countless trips to the thrift shop. Every once in a while the kids will wonder where this or that has gone, and they will recall The Great Purge, as if they’d been through a Stalinist march. This time, though, it was different. There wasn’t as much to get rid of. I’m just keeping house. During this break, I’ve taken charge of all this stuff, and all of this space, rather than feel like it’s controlling me. There’s a balance between being overwhelmed and trying to control your surroundings. I think I struck it, this time. I merely took ownership. This space is mine.

That all seemed good and healthy, but at some point, my other Dyson appliance, the pet vacuum, was flailing. It was time to stop using the vacuum to clean and, instead, pause, and clean the vacuum. I took the vacuum apart and found the dog hair that was impeding the suction, but then I kept going and disassembled the vacuum and cleaned all the parts. Once you rinse the filters, you have to give them 24 hours to dry. I laid all the parts out on a cloth and lamented the temporary loss of this loyal companion. And it occurred to me that this is all the part of the genius of the Dyson. Living without my vacuum for a day is not deprivation, it is Dyson’s way of saying. “There, there. You’ve done enough, for now. G’on get outa here.”

And so I did.




Ringing It In

I spent this New Year’s Eve day overseeing the deep cleaning of the kids’ rooms. One child just needed a thorough vacuum. I found myself dusting off Slaughterhouse Five, which I’d given him last year and forgot all about and gave him this year, again. I must have thought he was old enough for it last year, and–forgetting that–I must have thought he was ready for it this year. And so it goes. The other child–at a sentimental age–needed deep purging and reorganizing, as well as the thorough dusting and vacuuming of all the tender, teeny, little keepsakes and notes and whatnot. I tried to play a mere supervisory role, letting them do the cleaning. I was, nevertheless, roped in. I loaded and carried out a few bags of trash, a box of thrift shop donations, a small bag to give to a smaller, fellow lover-of-horses. And so many loads of laundry, countless, really. I can hardly account for the loads of laundry that I’ve done today.

As dinnertime rolled around, I found myself assembling the stuffed seitan that I’d been too weary to make for Christmas dinner, and to follow that, the chocolate fondue that we’d been too stuffed to eat on Christmas Eve. The seitan was an elaborate recipe, some sort of vestige of 1970s co-op vegetarianism in this, the Paleo age.  Being unfashionable, I assembled the two cups of wheat gluten, and sage, and every other hippie condiment you can think of. I rolled the sage stuffing into the wheat gluten dough. It smelled delicious. I even threw together a vegetable broth to baste the seitan loaf, and in its last basting, filled the sides of the pan with roasted potatoes. 

As I cooked, I remembered that on the last New Year’s Eve with my husband, we’d party-hopped to three parties, one to a parent of my son’s, the other two to colleagues. Those people may all be hosting parties this year, but I’ve been invited to none of them. I recalled, too, that husband was so sick that year. I’m not sure what I’d take–lots of invitations from superficial colleagues, or this quiet and loneliness. What does it matter? I haven’t much choice in the matter.  Here I am, today. I have sage from Ed the farmer, and onions, and Swiss chard, and mushrooms from the farmers market, and it smells good, and that’ll have to do, for now.

We plugged in the tree lights, lit the candles, put out the good plates, and I wished the kids happy new year while they chewed away at the glutinous seitan loaf. I was pleased to stuff them with Good Things. We chatted, sat back, and prepared ourselves for the fondue course. I melted the chocolate in our delicious local cream. I served strawberries (not local, natch) and apples and spongecake and pretzels. The kids dug in. We chatted. We dipped. We enjoyed. Soon the kids admitted, sheepishly, that they were stuffed. When I met my husband, I felt like such a Papist in his family of Episcopalians, and I feel that way sometimes with my children, when they get so formal and polite and I just feel so unrefined. I assured them that was fine. Golly, I served enough food to feed another family. What I didn’t tell them was that I just wanted them to feel…plenty. I wanted to feel that there is more than enough for them out there. I was stuffing them with my good intentions. They politely set their fondue sticks down. We cleared our dishes, in good spirits, and Daughter queued up the Doctor Who Christmas Special that she’s been waiting for all week. And so it goes.