I am repainting my porch. It is currently in utter chaos. Before the beautification can begin, decades worth of paint has to be removed.
This is not an easy project, but one I chose to get myself through the last month of quarantining. I have been watching with envy as my parents, older friends, friends who are teachers or health care workers have all gotten their COVID vaccination.
A sense of normalcy is so close.
I have about a month left before I am eligible. I am hoping that when I am finally vaccinated, I will feel as though I have made it through one of the most disruptive and transformative periods in recent history.
Hopefully, I will do so unscathed.
Chaos, Closing In
The porch is also my way of avoiding the chaos I have felt closing in on me within my house. After being stuck at home for a year, I am intricately familiar with every single thing that needs to be done to my 100-year-old house. Every. Single. Thing.
I will spare you the entire list of projects that I have created for myself. Painting the porch is a great way to escape the chaos inside, while listening and watching as Spring emerges. So, it has been an extra bonus that I have been unexpectedly transported to an otherworldly place while working on this porch.
Peeling Back the Layers
I am using a heat gun to aid in the scraping of the paint, which is thick with layers that no one has scraped in years. When I started on the slats that are part of the front railing, I noticed a distinct smell begin to emerge.
As I held my paint gun in one hand, scraping with the other… I would get a whiff of what smelled like a pine forest. Pine sap was oozing out of the wood. This would not be happening if the wood was new. But this wood has probably been on this porch for over 50 years.
Untreated wood is just naked wood, taken from a tree, and cut up into boards. No chemicals, no pressure treatment. Just pine wood from a pine forest. And that pine forest on my porch is now wafting its beautiful aroma in my face, as the heat gun draws out the wood sap.
The smell is serendipitous. A few days before I discovered the magic of the pine smell on my porch, I had gone to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
This is an otherworldly place.
The refuge is tucked within the tidal marshes on the Eastern shore of Maryland, where migrating birds stop in Spring on their way northward. Herons, bald eagles, woodpeckers, owls, and a slew of other wildlife abound.
And, it is surrounded by loblolly pines.
These tall, majestic trees can grow to be over 100 feet tall and live for over 200 years. They tower over the marshland. They are also the preferred nesting place for bald eagles. Early colonists boiled loblolly pine resin to make tar, which was used to preserve wooden boats.
I’d like to think that my porch railings may be made of loblolly pine, though I’m not really sure.
While at Blackwater, I scanned the marshland. The so-called “ghost forests” were evident. Rising sea levels have claimed what once was marsh and forested land. The water is taking the loblollies.
They emerge from the water like lost soldiers, their limbs long gone. Only their long bleak trunks remain.
There was a feeling in the air of organized chaos, not unlike the currents of the ocean, cloud patterns, or a flock of birds. These trees were en mass, being reclaimed by the sea.
Beautification is So Close
As my porch scraping continues and spring unfolds around me, I contemplate the beauty and fragility of nature. And the appreciation we seem to gain of the things (nature, community, dining in restaurants, youth) when we realize they are slipping from our grasp.
I hope to save this porch wood from having to be replaced, at least a little while longer.
As I continue to peel back the layers of time, I am beginning to imagine my porch as a great ship, made of loblolly pine. Sealed and weatherized by its own sap. Once painted, maybe I will sail away on it, watching as summer moves closer towards me, bringing thunderstorms, cicadas, and other organized chaos.
I’ve only been creating art for about four years. If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be making and selling art, I would probably have dismissed it.
I did not see this coming.
I grew up in a house with parents who were exacting. My father was an electrical engineer, my mother a nurse. Everything had a place, everything was very ordered and structured. There was a correct way to do things. There was an incorrect way to do things.
Growing up in this highly structured environment helped me become a successful professional writer. I can work under pressure, get things done, and meet deadlines.
Perhaps if my parents had been hippies who had actually let my true artist nature bounce around the backyard in bare feet with a butterfly net in hand*, I would not have grown into an adult able to hold a job. (I may be slightly exaggerating here. My parents did actually let me run around the backyard in my bare feet… but I did have to clean up afterwards.)
Chaos, Lurking Beneath
It turns out.. lurking beneath the surface of these learned skills of organization and structure, there was a natural tendency towards creativity.
When ‘creativity’ finally emerged for me in my early forties, I didn’t recognize it as such. It was more like learning to embrace chaos. Or maybe it was just a desire to take a bunch of seemingly unrelated and scattered items and bring them together in a new way.
I believe it emerged when it did, because I was actually in the process of destroying the life I had carefully built for myself... but that’s a whole other story… for another day.
Art gave me a way to take the scattered pieces of my life, rearrange them, and make something new.
This is what I did in my latest piece, Hibiscus in the Desert.
I usually work in encaustic, but was feeling bored and unwilling to go into my cold-as-Alaska basement studio in mid February to work on anything. So, I went to the art store and bought some water colors.
This is something I could do upstairs. I thought it might get me out of the art rut I had somehow fallen into.
I got my water and brushes ready and started playing around. But, I just couldn’t help myself. After experimenting with the water colors, I realized, I just wanted to add more stuff to the paper, so I added tissue paper, pieces of cut up dictionary pages, string… I glued them onto the paper.
The glue was messy and I was getting it all over my hands. The tiny bits of dictionary pages were getting stuck to my fingers. The tissue paper bubbled.
The project was in chaos, but I let it be. Somehow, that little bit of playing around in a completely foreign medium had loosened things up a bit. I was soon down in the basement heating up the wax. I put on an extra sweater and the pair of wool slippers from Nova Scotia to keep my feet warm.
The Riskiness of Art
The same day I was doing this, I talked to a friend of mine who is struggling with her aging parents. She talked about her father’s desire to drive while going blind and her mother’s dwindling mental capacity.
I said to her, “It’s an impossible situation. You’ve got to balance the need for their independence with your own concern that they might accidentally set themselves on fire because one of them forgot to turn off the stove.”
While she was talking about that, I was talking about getting out of my art rut.
“How did you do it?” she asked, about getting myself out of the rut.
“You can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that got you into the problem… so I stepped outside my usual pattern and way of doing things. I mixed it up and tried something new. Once I did that, something broke free and creativity just started to flow,” I said.
Sometimes brilliant things just fly out of my mouth. This was not one of those times. This time I was just quoting Einstein.
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Einstein was a creative genius.
Art, like living on your own at 87, is a slightly risky endeavor. It can break you open to new ways of seeing, new ways of thinking. And, that’s what I love about it.
While I still have to meet deadlines for work, I get to play in the realm of possibilities, dream of new ways of being in the world, and create my own piece of the world through my art.
It satisfies that part of myself that needs to rebel, to create something new, to dismantle the structures of things, throw them on a table, re-arrange them, and imagine something new.
Like a Hibiscus in the desert.
I talked with a friend the other day who is one of the most optimistic people I know. Even in circumstances that I would not call promising, he usually believes everything will turn out all right.
But this week, when I talked to him, he seemed uncharacteristically down. And who wouldn’t be, really?
We’re in the middle of a pandemic, millions of people are out of work, the flames of racial injustices are roaring-- all while the environment throws us wildfires, hurricanes, and flash floods.
It’s overwhelming. Who wouldn’t be down?
You’d have to be living on a different planet to not be affected by all that is swirling around. It’s like a toddler decided to take over and we are now living on a burning island in Lord of the Flies.
Finding the One Silver Strand
The conversation reminded me of a particularly glum period of my life after an epic adventure that went sour. A series of unfortunate events forced me to reframe how I viewed myself, the world, and myself in the world.
It wasn’t an easy passage to the other side. But things had gotten stirred up.
After the dust of misadventure had settled and the immediate crisis had stabilized, there was a period where I felt as though I was in a cocoon of darkness.
In the midst of seemingly endless darkness around me, when I couldn’t see how things would ever improve, I had a sense that I was connected to something larger than myself.
I saw it in my mind's eye as a tiny silver thread that connected me to the larger universe.
That tiny strand of silver was my signal line.
A signal line is the one thread that connects the spider to the web she has built. When something gets caught in the web, she can easily climb the line back to the web to collect her meal.
In the fog of darkness, I had a signal line.
When you’re hanging on by that thread, it isn’t time to push, to do, or even to try and climb out of the hole you’re in. It’s time to let the darkness cover you like a blanket, to rest, restore, and renew.
As much as our culture wants us to keep doing, (to stay open during a pandemic at all costs!), when you’re feeling like you are hanging on by a thread… it’s time to retreat.
This is how the new gets born.
When I eventually had the strength to climb out of my cocoon, I was forever changed. I wasn’t the same person I had been before the series of unfortunate events.
It was time to weave a new path, a new web, a new life.
We are collectively all hanging on by a thread. And when the storm passes and we have the strength to pull ourselves out of the cocoon, we will need to weave a new future.
In early September, a flash flood ran through my little slice of the world. Forecasters called for heavy rain and possible flash flooding. I wasn’t worried.
Thirteen years ago, I invested in a lot of money to install a sump pump and French drain system in my basement. A necessity for my house, at the bottom of a hill… in a neighborhood built on reclaimed swamp land.
A narrow band of rain barreled down on my town. I went to check on my basement. Sump pump working.
As long as that pump was pumping, I was in the clear, I thought.
My thought was wrong.
A river formed between my house and my next door neighbor Mario's house. My backyard was flooding. The end of the block filled up with enough water to fill a neighbor's car with water up to her seats. The new levee being built on the other side of the town (in anticipation of more storms due to global warming) was at capacity.
After oggling for a a few minutes at the sheer volume of rain that was barreling down, I went to check on my basement. My kitten’s litter box was floating on top of ten inches of water. My furnace, my hot water heater, washer and dryer were all sitting in almost a foot of water. My heart sank. I went back upstairs, with a long, heavy sigh.
This was one of those moments when home ownership felt like the worst idea in the world.
A few days later, after the clean-up, mopping, and dry out was complete, I called my friend Kirsten. It was time to try and start each piece of machinery that was in the basement to see if it was still working.
I needed some good juju. We sent positive energy to the water heater before I tried to start it.
“Hot water is what separates us from the animals,” my brother texted, when I told him I was waiting for my basement to dry out before turning on the water heater. Good to know.
I turned the gas back on and tried igniting the pilot. Success! After four days of drying out, I was back in business for hot water.
My dryer started right back up. My furnace kicked back on. I was feeling very, very lucky and contemplating moving to the desert. The last thing that needed to be tested was the washing machine. I was hopeful. This thing is built for water, I thought. I put a load of clothes in and turned her on.
She refused to fill with water. She was dry as a bone. How ironic.
I called Kirsten again. We got centered. We sent good energy to the washing machine. We read her energy. … to see what she might need. “She feels like a happy machine, with a possible hiccup,” said Kirsten. “Check the machine where the hoses come into it.”
I did as she suggested and there, in the back of the machine was a secret panel. I could see a piece of folded up paper sitting behind the panel. Instructions? I was beginning to feel like Sherlock Holmes. I got my socket wrench out and took off the back panel. I unfolded the piece of paper.
It had very specific instructions for resetting the machine. “Position cycle selector at 9 o’clock. Depress start button while rotating cycle selector knob 180 degrees. Release start buttons and all LEDS will light. This is position zero.”
Who comes up with this stuff? Should I also hop on one leg while doing it? I tried five times before I gave up.
I looked at the instruction sheet again. It had a schematic of the machine and realized I could open the front of the machine. I did this and noticed that below the tub that holds all the clothes, on the bottom of the machine, were about 50 wires. I placed a box fan by the wires for a few days. Maybe they just needed to dry out.
I tried the ridiculous instructions again. Nothing.
I caved and called a repair man (a mortal sin in my father’s house, as he fixed everything himself).
The repair guy came fully loaded with a COVID mask and face shield. He spent less than five minutes waving some sort of electric meter around the wires before he declared, “Your motor is spent.”
She had died. And there was nothing more to be done.
There are times in life when a flood of emotions overruns you and it’s hard to keep yourself together. And then there are times in life when an actual flood overwhelms you and it’s hard to keep yourself together.
And then there are times where it’s hard to distinguish between the flood of water and the flood of emotions.
This is one of those times.
Looking at the world from above the fray. Houkje writes about following her intuition, observerations on the magic of the natural world, and navigating creativity and chaos in an uncertain world.
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