Saturday, December 17, 2016

A Note to the Republic, for which I Stand.

“The world has been abnormal for so long that we've forgotten what it's like to live in a peaceful and reasonable climate. If there is to be any peace or reason, we have to create it in our own hearts and homes.” 
― Madeleine L'Engle, A Swiftly Tilting Planet

I hardly know where to begin, even with Madeleine's very good quote considered. Because I've spent the last six weeks trying to decide if this blog should stand as a refuge from every ugly thing that's happened since the national election, or not. Refuge is a necessary thing when bad news seems to permeate an increasingly out-of-control world. We need to be able to get distance to think, gather strength, comfort ourselves with the familiar and the routine. When does it become escapism, willful ignoring, closing the door on those civic duties to which we are called, and to fellow citizens who need our voices? I do not know. I only know that increasingly, the answer to those questions may become very, very important. So while this blog has been a personal narrative about me and my home life, I couldn't pretend that the last months of our national discourse hasn't had me deeply worried. I would like this place to be as it always has, and if that's a refuge to me or others, that's a good thing. But I also don't want it to be a bubble. Because bubbles are fragile, and I refuse to be that. So here I am, struggling through this post as I've struggled through the last months of this politically grim year.

Right now, I am operating from these two positions.

1. I am repossessing patriot as a word that defines me, because I am. I am a patriot. I love my country, and I believe in the ideals towards which we have been imperfectly and at times violently struggling for well over two centuries. I believe that at all times, that means criticizing the hell out of it--where it's failed, where the people who claim to lead it have failed, when its citizens are failing to hold its government accountable. Everyone from Thomas Jefferson two hundred years ago down to the anonymous protester on the street corner yesterday has this right and responsibility. To the people who have said to me in the past months "if you don't like it, you can just leave....": Fuck no, I'm not leaving. My people have been in various ways always here (native peoples), since 1749 (Irish Protestants escaping religious violence in Belfast), or here since the 1880s (Germans living in the Ukraine, fleeing Russian oppression). My family members fought wars on this soil and abroad to defend this country's ideals. I am not going. I am not going to be quiet. 

2. I'm going to continue to love the people I love. Only I'm gonna do it louder. My circle of family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors includes people who don't think like me, believe like me, vote like me, or look like me. I think that's pretty well the whole point. This country has never, ever, in its entire history, been just one story about one kind of people who are exactly alike. That this republic is constructed of millions of individual stories, that they can encompass a broad range of human experience and thought, and still come together under one ideal, "We the People"-- is not just our struggle (and it has been) but it has also been our triumph when we get it right. And we do, often enough, get it right. That is worth fighting for. Right now, loving (in all the ways we define it) the people who are not just like me may not be only an act of love. It will be an act of solidarity. It will be an act of protection. It will be at times an act of civil protest. So I'm going to love. Out loud. Hard.

Stay and speak. Love loudly. That's what I have right now. I hope it is enough. I hope it is enough for all of us. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Tackling the Sad Porch (Part Two)

This is going to be the quickest of quicky "during" project posts, because the truth is I'm avoiding beginning the housework and baking that needs to be done for 12+ Thanksgiving guests. But that's the way I usually roll. Procrastination is the last refuge of the lazy and introverted. And I am both.

The sad porch, as it turns out, was sadder than Tom and I thought.

I think the only thing holding it up on one of the corners was inertia and habit. A badly done roof job and an absence of a proper gutter aimed rain water straight at the foundation of the porch, and a series of wet summers had turned the foundation to weak wood-fiber sponge. It was a little scary.

Tom started in tearing it back to the studs so he could see what needed replacing. (He is the hero of this story, by the way). After shoring up the rotten parts with solid, dry, new supports, he re-sided the outside. We left the windows in place, because tearing it completely out wasn't in the plan, if we could avoid it.

It seems like such a small start in this photo, but the clean, primed siding looked so much better than the old rot it seemed a little miraculous at the time.

Here's Tom at work doing trim. Notice the repaired fascia/roofline. It was beginning to look marginally attractive at this point, even with so much left to do.

Uh, yeah. The interior also needed love. Lots and lots of love. We used the same siding vertically in the inside of the porch as inexpensive paneling.

We also stained several miles of it to use as the interior porch ceiling. 

We really earned our bourbon (er, lemonade) that day. 

Here is the porch ceiling going in: 

Painting has commenced in this photo, but we're still working out little trim, caulking, and interior details. 

And now I must go pretend I like housecleaning. I'll be back post-T-day with the "after" of the screen porch project. In the meantime, I wish you all plenty of turkey, gravy, dinner rolls, pumpkin pie, and football, or whatever makes it your four-day weekend of bliss. See you soon!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Sad Porch (Part One)

It is true that I did not completely lead with my practical mind when I bought Ruth (my house). I'm a romantic about houses, and of course that's dangerous to one's sanity and bank account. 

One of her many charms is that she has a screen porch. Screen porch! For Midwesterners, this is a short form of saying "my house allows me to be outside in the summer without being eaten alive by mosquitoes." Also, "my house has a room that becomes a walk-in refrigerator/freezer just in time for the holidays, and thank goodness, because there's no room to put Aunt Lydia's cranberry jello salad in the fridge."

That's where the practical side ends. Screen porches on old houses should also be like a misty, out-of-focus photo from a back issue of Victoria Magazine. They should have vases of fresh flowers, and white wicker, and ladies with dark hair (that would be me) reading Edith Wharton while sipping lemonade from vintage glassware. 

But I have described my screen porch's quality and construction before, thusly: two guys got drunk on a couple of cases of Natty Light and decided to build a screen porch out of whatever shit they could find laying around. 

About as far from Edith Wharton and fresh flowers as you can get. Add to this a smelly fungal sponge of an old carpet, and sickly shades of "old bruise" mauve and dirty pink beige paints, and it was pretty depressing. And frequently in the beginning used to store stuff during ongoing home-improvement issues elsewhere. 

I am not proud. 

I would also like to mention, for posterity, the clusters of fake plastic ivy the previous owners hung up there to make it festive. 

Over the last five years, I was basically putting lipstick on the pig by painting out the murky purple with leftover paint from other projects, and telling myself that keeping it clean and tidy out there was enough. 

But I saw rot on the exterior siding of the porch and knew it was just a matter of time before I was going to have to get serious about it. Then along came the new dude in my life, and one day this summer Tom took a crowbar to the outside of it. 

It was just as bad as I thought, and worse. And it ended up being what we (and by we I mostly mean he, because he totally wore the superhero cape on this one) worked on for the better part of our summer weekends. 

I'll be back with a progress/part two post soon!

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Postcard from Galena, Illinois

I'm weirdly untraveled in the area of the Midwest where I grew up--Iowa and surrounding states. My childhood experience didn't include much travel at all, and then I lived elsewhere--Seattle and Detroit--for most of my adult life. So in many ways I'm more familiar with the Pacific Northwest and Michigan than the place that's supposed to be home. 

Like I said. Weird. But also, I've discovered, a fun and unique perspective. I get to be a tourist and make discoveries in a place that has already long been home to me. Best of both worlds. 

Tom and I had planned a long summer weekend trip away months before July, but I'd set aside the vacation days and almost completely forgot about it. And then my aunt passed away, and I just didn't have any enthusiasm for anything for awhile. I didn't realize that we'd forgotten to make reservations until the week before. 

Oops. Since Galena, Illinois is a huge tourist destination, that was nearly a deal-breaking oversight. I lucked out with a room at a local B&B, though, and it turned out to be a happy accident. It was uncharacteristic of my usual over-planning self, though. 

To me the best part of vacation is not the destination so much as it is just being pried away from my usual routines and obligations. I need that, because I get too attached to them. And even though I'm as big of a homebody as anyone, sometimes I just want to get gone, you know? Besides, if I never get outside my own city limits and never hit the highways, I miss stuff like this: 

Yep. That's a plastic life-sized skeleton torso (with eyeballs) mounted to the back of a semi-cab. I have no idea. Mascot? Warning? Joke?

Galena, Illinois is a river town that used to be a major steamboat port before the railroad expanded west, and now has a large downtown historic district, boutiques, restaurants, B&Bs, other words, a touristy tourist trap tricked out in Victorian-era gingerbread trim. 

Which I don't mind if you see it for what it is, eyes open. Also, tourist trap or not, I'm a huge history geek. It doesn't matter where I go, I'm gonna pry some history lesson out of it. And Galena's are pretty good as history lessons go. It includes a former home of a U.S. President, Ulysses S. Grant. 

I'm a reader of presidential biography, I'm always keenly interested in visiting presidential historic sites, and this one was one I honestly didn't know about. Grant lived in many states over his lifetime, and this home in Galena was gifted to him by the community after he became a civilian again, post-Civil War. His family lived in it for only a very short time before he became President, and afterwards returned only rarely. 

I liked Grant's taste in chairs. The green velvet armchair was so beloved it traveled with him on tours. 

The day we toured the Grant home was broiling hot and humid, the house was only open on guided tours, timed every 15 minutes, and packed full every group. I was annoyed that we were pushed along, and annoyed at having to look at everything over the shoulders of other tour group members. I'm arrogant enough to not want to be one of the unwashed masses, and unwilling to admit that I'm just as unwashed as the next person. Sigh. Also, I just don't like crowds. 

We took a selfie while we waited for our turn at the guided tour. We bought hats in downtown Galena because it was so hot. Our children were not amused by this development as shared on social media. We, however, thought we were stinkin' adorable. 

One of the saving graces of the downtown area on this hot weekend was Galena Brewing Company. 

I wish I could say the same for the rest of the restaurants and bars in the area. They were high-priced, mediocre mostly, and getting away with it because, well, lots of tourists packed in a small town with few choices. 

If the eats weren't the best, I could have easily spent an entire afternoon photographing all the architectural interest.

There is a lovely city park on the Galena River, named after their presidential citizen. 

With a restored Victorian fountain....

And a pedestrian bridge over the river to the downtown area. 

The historic neighborhoods were intensely pretty

Our B&B ended up being a perfect choice, even if it was last minute. I had a serious case of garden envy. 

The breakfasts there were large and excellent, and made up a great deal for the less-than-great restaurant situation elsewhere. (Readers can find the B&B's website here.)

Did any of my readers and friends take get-away weekends this summer? Where? What are some favorite places in your area? 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016


Photo by Dyan Millsaps Shirley. All rights reserved. 

In July, Karen, my aunt and godmother, died.

The cemetery in July is blindingly hot and bright, with sunshine reflecting off white curtains of swift wind-driven clouds, and off Missouri farm hillsides so rustling and vibrant with growth they sigh and gleam like the flanks of living animals.

The day we laid her to rest was just like that. The heat and light were brutal, especially when grief-- the collective grief of husband and daughters and grandchildren, sisters and cousins, friends and townspeople-- made us all wan and weak in the face of our loss.

Even so I could not think, if such a cruel thing had to be endured, that it could happen at any other time of the year. Karen was a farmer and the wife of a farmer. She loved the land and all good green growing things. She was at her happiest then, it always seemed, and it was then that she was in her element. In that sense it was a blessing we were able to say our goodbyes to her with that high and handsome land all around, in the fullness of the summer season.

She had two daughters and eight nieces and nephews, and she had a heart big enough to mother us all. She spent so much of her life in July and other months too, welcoming us up the gravel driveway to the farm, cooking and baking for us, sending us to the hen house, helping us find the new kittens, picking hay out of our hair, making us wash our dirty bare feet at the back door hose, scolding us, patting our backs, making dresses for our dances and quilts for our beds. It was only right that we all made it back for her one more time, and we did. I wish we'd done it more often in recent years, but we made the big mistake of growing up, and the intricacies of our own adult lives carried us down that gravel road, but not back. I suppose this is what grief is mostly made up of. Regret.

She had the elegant shoulders of a slender 1930s movie star, but she wore plaid short-sleeved shirts and jeans and sneakers and perpetually carried enamel pans, full of vegetables for dinner that night or cherries for canning or kitchen scraps for the hogs. Her garden was eternally enormous, and with every passing year more and more flowers--cleome and cosmos and sunflowers--budged in with the asparagus and tomatoes and beans. It grew a little wilder too, with the neat rows of the past run a little ragged and butterflies, barn swallows, and martins skimming the air. It wasn't a competition in her mind, though. Earthy potatoes and full-blown roses both held equal glory in her worldview.

Because Aunt Karen never passed up a moment to notice. Beauty. Creation. Good things. She pointed out bluebird nests, or strawberry blossoms, or wildflowers under the oak trees in the pasture, or a new baby calf, or the dark gloss of healthy midsummer corn. "Just look at that. Look at that. Isn't that pretty?" Being with her was a near constant invitation to notice the fine things contained in the everyday. It didn't ever occur to me that my whole life she was gently teaching me the most important lesson of all. Not that tired concept of "gratitude", which speaks so much of obligation; but the vocabulary of an open heart, words that we could all use more of in our increasingly cynical world. Wonder. Fascination. Joy.

I have always loved gardening--thanks, of course, to her-- and now it has become my solace in grieving her. I feel near her there, digging in the dirt. I thought of her days after her death, when my dirty fingers patted neatly-petaled globes of zinnias. I thought of her weeks later, when I filled up the bird bath. I thought of her in August, when I was stooped head and shoulders into the tomato patch, filling the giant stainless steel mixing bowl with them. I think of her every time a hummingbird flits too close, bravery inversely proportional to emerald size. Now bees and butterflies swarm the asters in October, and still I'm thinking of her.

But thinking of my aunt only carries me so far. Even the stories I could tell others, and I could tell plenty, will bear fainter and fainter witness as the years pass from this sad July. In the end, I think the only way to really honor the aunt I miss so much is to absorb parts of her, sink the good I knew of her into the marrow of my bones, so that those things I loved about her become an actual part of me. And for her, to honor her, I'm going to touch the shoulder of the person next to me when I see a pink sunset, a fat bumblebee, a sparkly stream, and invite them the way Aunt Karen did, to see with an open heart. Just look. Look at that. 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Return to April

I'm going to take liberties with the timeline, and toss the blog back to April. You can do that in blogger world. I wish you could do that in real life, too. Just a little, now and then.

I've had a lot of emotional adjustments to make this summer. Some were very good, and some were bad, and some were in between. But while I'm trying to make sense of them enough to write about them (and I need to write about them), I felt like April was a good, safe place on the calendar to visit.

In April, Tom and I went to Missouri to see my Dad. My sister Dyan came up from Atlanta, and we made a long weekend of it in the Ozarks.

This is the view from my Dad's place, which we call "The Hill." I wish this was a painting.

The Ozark hills in April are made up of tree bark and green mists and blue sky, mostly. But it also has dozens of tiny wonders you'll miss if you fail to pay attention. You need to get up close and personal with an Ozark spring to really know it like you should.

New oak leaves are as rosy and beautiful as any spring flower.

And mayflower is hidden under its own great green silk umbrella:

Blue-eyed grass. It should be the name of an Emmylou Harris album, shouldn't it? 

We visited Wilson's Creek National Battlefield. Ancestors fought in this battle (you can learn more here). We keep returning, partly because my Dad's a military history buff, partly because we ran a race as a family here (read about it here), and partly because it's just one of the most indescribably pretty pieces of land in southern Missouri--rolling hills and winding creek, oak savannah and tallgrass prairie. Below is the Ray farmstead. It is sobering to realize so many men sacrificed their lives in a place so beautiful, on a hot day in August 1861. 

Dad and Tom are in the photo, two of the men I love the most in this world. They met for the first time that weekend. They got on well. (Whew.) Then again, I sensed they would. Some things fall into place like they were meant to happen all along. 

I have a fascination for stone fireplaces. I'm not sure why, but I always come home with photos of them. 

The furnishings in the Ray farmstead museum are so simple it feels serene. 

Local volunteers and museum docents are dedicated to bringing history to life here. This gentleman told us about life on the battlefield for a Union soldier. 

I was fascinated by the design, angles, light and shadow of this split rail fence.

And the bark of this chestnut tree:

And sunlight filtered through sassafras leaves.

Sassafras light. Those are two words I've been playing with since I took that picture, bouncing around in my head. What do they mean? I don't know. Still, I like the sound of them, paired with the memory of that April weekend. It's a good alternative title for spring in the Ozarks. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Fear, Remorse, and Home Repair (is that all?)

I have not been a responsible homeowner.

There. I said it.

Now that I've confessed, let me go back a bit, and explain.

On the same day I was shooting and then posting this deceptively calm and composed photo:

A crew of men were in my basement cutting steel i-beams, welding, and generally making an earth-shattering noise in my basement. 

So much so that the dining room post published that day was an act of clinging to sanity more than anything else. I needed to focus (pun intended) on an accomplishment rather than the chaos going on literally under my feet. I could barely write a coherent sentence. I'm still a little at a loss for words. 

It all started back in the summer of 2012, the year after I bought my house. My basement was a mildewed and funky 1970s dark paneling fright of a black hole. It looked like this: 

It smelled. It was ugly. It was......hard to know where to start. And I didn't know where I wanted to end up. My first act was to send samples of the ceiling tiles off to be tested for asbestos. The test came back negative, so we could start demolition safely. I think that was the last good decision I made about this space. 

My son tugged and yanked and pried and swore at that paneling for a whole summer in his spare time between his paying jobs. I really appreciated the help. And then we discovered this: 

Not a good-quality photo, but you get the drift. A crack. A horizontal one running at ground level and right under the windows, with a rather significant stair-step gap almost down to the floor. It had all been hidden behind the paneling in the basement, wasn't noticeable to the eye from the outside, and wasn't obviously out-of-square in the upstairs living area of the house. The inspection at sale had entirely missed this rather significant flaw in the structural integrity of the house. 

The consensus was that it had been there awhile, and had in fact, happened mostly all at once, when someone did a really shitty job pouring the driveway down the south side of my property in the 1980s. It butted right up against the foundation, and the initial pressure, followed by the settling and shifting of the concrete over the years, caused the damage. 

It wasn't progressing, but the very sight of it overwhelmed me to the point of not progressing, either. Typical of my over-thinking nature I researched the problem a lot, assembled a list of contractors and then.... couldn't move forward. And every few months a more immediately urgent problem and financial issue would come up, like a water heater splitting open, and it would move to the back of my mind again. 

This was the house ownership version of being so afraid of a lump under the skin that you don't go to the doctor to get it investigated. It never goes away. Neither does the worry. It had been nagging me forever. But still I was afraid of finding out the answers. 

As it turned out, the research I did over the last four years (Seriously. Somebody slap me.) made initiating the repairs easy. 

However, making the first phone calls was the only easy part. There was a reason I was afraid to face this, and the collecting of bids, horrific expense, weeks-long lending rodeo with my bank, and scheduling issues meant I was right, even if I was stupid. If that makes any sense. It was almost exactly as bad as I'd feared. 

Except that it was fixable. And now it's fixed. The contractor reinforced the wall with steel beams so the crack can no longer progress, and the system includes a way to tighten the braces twice a year, so that the wall comes back towards true gradually over time (though it won't ever be 100% again). 

I don't really have any excuse for how I handled this whole thing, except that I was feeling overwhelmed. I've been overwhelmed since I bought this place, and how badly I don't think I realized until recently. And though the check I wrote was huge, so is my relief. 

My advice? Don't be me, an anxiety-ridden home-owning deer in the headlights. Secondly, old home ownership is not for sissies. I didn't think I was one, but this pretty well beat the snot out of me. 

It has given me perspective, though. I don't think I'll complain about painting woodwork trim. Not for at least a little while. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

June in the Garden, 2016

I've decided that perennial borders aren't for people who can't appreciate subtlety. Because mine looks pretty green from the sidewalk in front of my house, even at peak growing season. 

But that's okay. My favorite color is green, and if you care to take a closer look, there's a lot of other colors going on....

It seems to change every minute too, so I'm often grabbing my camera and making quick shots right after I come home from work, instead of doing proper camera settings. 

There's also plenty of weeds, too, and that's a job that's never done. Can you believe that I don't mind weeding so much? I can't say I love to do it, but it's work that seems satisfying to me, and you can let your mind crash its gears on something else entirely. Gardening must be the philosopher's hobby. 

The froggy is from a ceramic birdbath. Mostly birds don't bathe in it, but lots of pollinators come to have a drink. There seems to be more bees this summer, and I'm happy for that. 

This May Night Salvia is a true, vibrant blue, but it always photographs rather more like grape-soda purple. I'm not sure it's the limitations of my camera lens or the limitations of the photographer. 

What's gorgeous in your garden this summer?