Zen and construction dust

Like many flood victims in Oakland County, we’ll soon have a dumpster in our driveway and a construction crew in the basement. Watching our contractor haul rolls of soggy carpeting to the curb this morning, I recalled the following column, which I wrote in 2003. The full version is reprinted in Writing Home.

Zen and Remodeling

We are always in transition. If you can just relax with that, youll have no problem. – Pema Chodron, Buddhist nun

The construction crew hasnt even started yet, but Im already bracing myself for several weeks of chaos and plaster dust. Half of our clothes and most of our toiletries have been temporarily stashed in other regions of the house. With the exception of our master bedroom, in fact, everything upstairs is in a state of minor upheaval. I hate living like this.

Its all in preparation for our next remodeling project, which includes new plumbing, tile, and fixtures for our circa 1926 bathroom, plus expanded closet space and a paint job for the spare bedroom. The crew is scheduled to begin this week, but thats just what they tell me. Until I see trucks in the driveway, I know better than to count on anything. Being married to an architect and having survived several remodeling projects, I now have a grasp of what I call “building trade ethics.”

Even in the most professional situations, building trade ethics bear little resemblance to the Protestant work ethic. For starters, people in the building trades do not follow a nine-to-five schedule. These guys have their own system, and its up to you to figure out what that is.

They also speak a different language. For example, if the plumber whos installing your new toilet says hell be back to finish at noon on Friday, its possible that he really means maybe sometime on a Friday next month.

With few exceptions, though, the results are worth it. If you love your old house as much as we love ours, you realize that a disrupted schedule is a small price to pay for the lifestyle improvements youll get eventually.

And if you really want to feel smug, you can tell yourself that your renovation project is also for posterity. Fixing up an old house is a gift to the community – which is why I cringe every time someone tears down a perfectly decent old home, only to replace it with a brand-new Big Foot palace. But thats a topic for another time.

Right now, Im trying to focus on the positive. Compared to one of our last projects – a kitchen makeover and a sun room that took nine months to complete — this next effort should be … less of an effort.

Still, every time our walls give way to a sledge hammer, Im reminded that change is messy. More often than not, you must tear something apart and disrupt your routine to make things better. You cant install a new shower, for instance, without uprooting the old one. You cant hang new wallpaper over old wallpaper and expect to end up with a smooth, bubble-free finish. And you must never varnish a hardwood floor before sanding away its stained or splintered imperfections.

Likewise, you cant sugarcoat the rigors of self-improvement.

Come January, everyone wants to be thinner, healthier, wiser, smoke-free, and less wrinkly. And wed like to achieve these goals as quickly as possible, preferably with a single-dose pill that works while were asleep.

But self-improvement takes time and willpower, which is why some of us give up before weve hit the target. As every dieter knows, the “in between sizes” stage – the first plateau — is the trickiest. The process is ongoing, arduous, and more than an act of faith.

My dear old house is also a work in progress. It has taught me how to be patient and how to make sense of the chaos that precedes any kind of transformation. With a little luck, I think we can survive another month of plaster dust together.

So, bring on the building crew. Whenever.

Home is here, now

So I’ll try to see into your eyes right now, and stay right here, ’cause these are the good old days.” — Carly Simon, “Anticipation”

Thanksgiving2My grown son, who’s married and lives in Chicago, is back in town with his wife for a friend’s wedding. It’s a short weekend visit, but I plan to enjoy every minute of it.

This morning I recalled an earlier autumn homecoming, nine years ago, when Nate first left the state for college. As a brand-new empty nester, Id been anticipating his fall break and return home. I looked forward to being Mom again, if only for a few days.

Two weeks earlier, I channeled my inner June Cleaver and planned a week’s worth of family meals and favorite snacks. I reorganized my work deadlines, freeing extra time to take him out for lunch at his former haunts. My husband repaired the plaster damage from a roof leak in Nates bedroom, and then repainted it.

As soon as our son walked in the side door, the truth hit home: What the kid really needed was a low-key week. Stressed-out from exams, Nate wasnt expecting a fanfare or fancy dinners. Hed been looking forward to sleeping in and simply hanging out with family and friends. In my efforts to turn his visit into a special event, Id forgotten that my son didnt want to feel like a guest in his own home.

Realizing my error, I released my grip and let the week unfurl without a plan.

In retrospect, the high points of that first break were the times we ran a few mundane errands together. Driving around town, between trips to the dry cleaner and the drugstore, we chatted about Nates classes, his new friends in the dorm, and the music he was listening to then. College was turning my snarky adolescent boy into a thoughtful young man — and I found myself enjoying his company.


More than wrinkles and gray hair, our kids never fail to remind us of our own aging.  Overnight, they morph from preschoolers in OshKosh overalls to college students in size 12 running shoes. Letting go also requires that we accept the fact that time isnt standing still for any of us.

Its a sobering thought — and ever more poignant when autumn leaves start to scatter across our doorstep.

Earlier this fall, for instance, I watched from a distance while the neighborhood teens posed for homecoming photographs in their formalwear. Giddy with anticipation, the girls could barely stand still while a group of proud parents focused their cameras. The boys struggled to look comfortable in freshly pressed suits and ties. Their youthful beauty took my breath away, and my heart ached a little.

It occurred to me then that my days of snapping photos of prom gowns and homecoming suits were over. And I wondered: Had I fully experienced those moments, or simply captured them on film to savor later? How often had I dashed mindlessly from one “special” event to the next?

Recalling the lyrics to Carly Simon’s “Anticipation,” I’m struck by the fact that our “good old days” are unfolding right here and right now. But we have to slow down long enough to appreciate them.

Its a worthy thought to ponder before the onset of the winter holidays – before all of us get tangled up in holiday lights and lists, decorating marathons, and long lines at the malls.

In anticipation of Thanksgiving, Im adding all things beautifully mundane and uneventful to my gratitude list.  Im counting my commonplace blessings — the bowl of red apples on the kitchen counter; the mischievous cat chasing the pens on my desk; a pot of vegetable soup simmering in my slow cooker; a weekend visit with my son and his wife.

This season Ill practice coming home to the present moment, to the grace of ordinary days on my calendar.

Stress-free Holiday Parties?

A smiling face is half the meal” – Latvian proverb

Now that November’s here, shelter magazines are already featuring stories on holiday entertaining. Here’s a favorite essay from Writing Home — reprinted with the hope that it will set the tone for a more relaxed holiday season at your house ….   

The Secret of Stress-free Dinner Parties

My friend Pam knows the real secret of successful entertaining, and I wish I could be more like her.

Pam doesnt spend weeks obsessing over what she’ll serve for dinner, nor does she turn her life inside-out when a carload of company arrives from Cincinnati for the weekend.  And its not that she doesnt care. Pam and her husband, Steve, genuinely enjoy hosting friends and family, which partly explains how they make it look so effortless.

I like to remember the winter evening my husband and I were invited to their home for an impromptu dinner with another couple.

“Wear something comfy, and dont expect anything fancy,” Pam warned us. “Were just having a casual meal before the holiday rush.”  But that didnt mean beer and pizza on paper plates. This was a real celebration of friendship.

Pam had dressed her table with a navy blue cloth and a simple homemade centerpiece of apples, tangerines, and pears. Around the fruit she lit a few votive candles. Before lifting a fork or a wine glass, Pam asked that we all join hands and give thanks for our years of friendship and the chance to slow down long enough to eat a meal together.

As promised, for dinner she served comfort food, including roast pork, a vegetable casserole, and spicy baked apples for dessert. The whole evening, in fact, was cozy and relaxed and nourishing — and Pam insisted she enjoyed it all as much as we did.

“We wouldn’t entertain as often if we felt we had to make a big deal out of it,” she told me.

I’m still trying to break the habit of making “a big deal” out of hosting company. The folks we typically entertain, after all, don’t expect a major production. But like many women I know, I was brainwashed into thinking that making dinner for company is synonymous with staging a photo shoot for a shelter magazine. I worry that my guests will scrutinize my housekeeping and discover my inner slob. And while I love to cook, I still worry that anything I serve, whether its meatloaf or Lobster Newberg, wont turn out like the photos in the cookbook.

Of course, my feelings of culinary insecurity always rise like bread dough at holiday time.

Come fall, even before Ive folded up the Halloween ghosts, Im already fretting about Christmas decorations and turkey recipes. By mid-November, everything on my to-do list starts leaping around in my head like a chorus of nervous elves. And by the time the holidays are over, Im thanking heaven that they are OVER.

But it doesnt have to be like this. Fussy entertaining puts everyone on edge and creates just as much pressure for guests as it does for the host. The quickest way back to sanity is to remind ourselves that most people are easily pleased with home cooking and real conversation. We dont have to own Waterford crystal or serve meals worthy of a four-star chef. And the ones who truly enjoy our company aren’t judging us by our napkin rings.

Sharing an evening with good friends is a gift in itself when the occasion is heartfelt, the presentation simple. Pam and Steve figured this out a long time ago, and that’s why it’s always such a pleasure to gather at their table. — Cindy La Ferle

French adventure

Life itself is the proper binge” — Julia Child

One of the challenges — and pleasures — of maintaining old friendships is finding new ways to surprise each other.

Last weekend, it was my turn to host a few women in my neighborhood who’ve been close for more than two decades. For our semi-annual gatherings, we take turns hosting and try to come up with a special theme dinner or a local culinary adventure.

More often than not, we end up renting a movie to watch after dinner — a documentary, foreign film, or even a chick flick that our husbands wouldn’t care to watch. (At one get-together, for instance, we spent an afternoon watching both versions of Grey Gardens, starting with the original documentary.)

Always a Francophile, I opted for a French theme this time around. And since I already own Amelie — one of my favorite foreign films — everything fell into place.

For me, half the fun of hosting a dinner party is shopping and planning for it. Turning to The French Slow Cooker by Michele Scicolone, I chose an easy boeuf en daube that could be prepared ahead of time. The day of our dinner was unseasonably warm, so I opened the windows in the garden room and set our table for dinner there. When my friends arrived, I served brie and strawberries, then put together a simple salad of pears, blue cheese, almonds, and French vinaigrette.

Of course, no dinner party is complete without the right music. For this one I chose the musical score to Midnight in Paris and French Cafe (a collection of original French classics, including Bridgette Bardot’s Un Jour Comme un Autre). I also own the musical score to Amelie, so I played a sampling as a preview. After dinner, oui, we poured French roast coffee and headed down to the rec room to watch the film.

When it comes to entertaining our oldest friends, it’s all too easy to get stuck in familiar ruts and routines. And when life gets crazy-busy, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with throwing in the dishtowel and meeting for a burger and a beer at a local hangout. But it’s twice as much fun to shake things up and try something out of the ordinary. Each time we do, we create a wonderful new memory. — Cindy La Ferle

–Bottom photo: Image of Audrey Tautou as Amelie, from the film. For a larger view, please click on each image. —

Useful and beautiful

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” — William Morris

After quitting Facebook and limiting the hours I spend online daily, I’ve suddenly reclaimed more time to dig into household projects I’d been putting off for ages.

Borrowing my mantra from William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, I’m making it my mission this month to eliminate everything I don’t find “useful or beautiful.” In other words, this goes much deeper than the topic of spring cleaning or tossing mismatched Tupperware.

It’s about refurbishing an entire lifestyle.

At first, the very thought of sweeping the whole house at once seemed daunting. So I divided my “Pitch and Purge” project into small, manageable steps. Drawer by drawer, room by room, day by day.

Starting with my home office, for instance, I cleared every scrap of paper and dried-out pen from the top of my desk. Then I tackled the bookshelves, filling two grocery sacks with paperbacks to donate to our public library’s annual book sale.

Newly energized by my clutter-free office, I turned my attention to the garden room. One of my favorite spots in our home, the garden room hadn’t been redecorated since it was added to our vintage Tudor about 16 years ago. Because it serves as both an eating space and a sunny spot to read our newspapers, I wanted to make the room even more functional and inviting.

This goes much deeper than the topic of spring cleaning. It’s really about refurbishing an entire lifestyle.”

Clearing every shelf in the garden room, I found additional space to display the Portmeirion Botanic Garden dinnerware we use daily. I gleefully tossed or recycled the knickknacks that were cluttering the tabletops and shelves, saving only the pieces that hold sentimental value. Then I moved some furniture, which opened up more space and makes the whole room look newer, less cluttered. Lastly, in keeping with the room’s original purpose, I added a few more plants to cheer us until spring arrives. The plants, in fact, were the only purchases I made in addition to a new set of woven placemats for the table.

Upstairs in the bedroom, I filled 10 garbage bags with clothes and accessories I haven’t worn in years. Though I can’t bring myself to pare down to the 10 essential pieces listed in Jennifer L. Scott’s Lessons from Madame Chic: The Top 20 Things I Learned While Living in Paris, I’m trimming my wardrobe down to several key pieces in a neutral palette. I also pitched an entire bag of shoes that hurt my feet — because life is too short for unbearable footwear, no matter how cute it looks.

When I am not pitching, I’m re-purposing. The cosmetics in my bathroom cabinets and drawers are just a case in point.

Like many women I know, I used to feel guilty about accumulating (and not using) creams and cosmetic samples that don’t work for my skin type. Instead of tossing them, I’m giving some of the creams a second life by using them on my hands. By placing these products within easy reach around the house or in my purse, I’ve freed extra space in my bathroom. An added bonus: The creams that were too rich for my face are now making my hands look nicer. (Note: Liquid cosmetics that are more than a year old may be spoiled and should be tossed.)

I’m nowhere near finished with this project, of course, but I hope it will be ongoing. Every day, I try to look at each room in the house with fresh eyes, then ask myself:  What is useful, what is beautiful, and why do I own it?

As I type this, my soul feels lighter. My possessions have less control over me. My life is less cluttered. And my home, which I’ve always loved, is bringing me twice as much pleasure.  — Cindy La Ferle

NOTE:  For another spin on the topic of house-clearing, please look for my “Puttering” meditation on page 158 in my collection of inspirational essays, Writing Home.