Dear Carla: Rebuilding Spaces

One tiny, cultivated corner of my mind.

Good morning, Carla—

It’s been a while, I know. When did we last email? May? June? It was before our family trip to Hilton Head, right after school got out, and before we moved back in to our house after the renovation. It’s been a solid half-year. The texture of that is dense with time-gone-by-ness, but again, nothing to do but pick up where we left off.


How are you, Carla? I remember you were having some health issues last spring—bronchitis, was it? Something chesty and heart-chakra oriented. Have you been breathing easier?


Our re-created house is incredible. (All except the carpet, which is strangely light in color and shows every zygote of a mess, every granule of dirt. Did we really choose carpet that was so pale? Add that to the mulch we put out back to cover the mud until the deck goes in and our carpet basically always looks like a dirty version of white sheet cake with sprinkles. But there needs to be something to keep it real and imperfect, right? It’s simply not on-brand IRL—just learned that acronym, BTW and am using it as heavily as when I learned what OG meant during COVID—for every detail to be flawless.)


But, as I said, the house is incredible. We really have stirred up a study in the science of spaces. Suddenly all our old towels demand to be cast into the night. A mountain of dirty shoes by the front door feels like something we should be fined for. Our chunky wooden rectangular table was suddenly too big for the space—what with the built-ins and the peninsula. (Hi, I am someone who now uses the terms ‘built-ins’ and ‘peninsula’.) So we traded it in for an adorable retro little round thing with matching chairs that have backs with decorative metal curly cues that chomp on sweaters. 


Where are you living now? Still enjoying the single life? Sometimes I think of those years, with an abundance of “free” space and time. But I know better than to think life was more fulfilling then. I spent most of my time feeding unhealthy relationships and personal afflictions. But you seem to have a better handle on single-ness than I ever did.


When we first moved back in to our house, it’s been five months now, we hustled simply to get shit out of the apartment and into a closet, cupboard, drawer. Not much nuance. Sure—shove the tea in that drawer! Dish towels will be fine for now, folded on the electric griddle on that shelf. We went from living with a kitchen-cave, the size of a closet and with a handful of cupboards for food and dishes (think Mortal Combat: there can be only one) to knocking out an entire wall and tripling the cupboard space with built-ins on the far wall. 


We joke with guests about the profundity of going from piling Cheerio boxes sideways on the dinner plates to having cupboards sit as bare as Mother Hubbard’s. Second and third teer kitchen appliances (looking at you, Keurig and ice cream maker) can move inside from the garage to the upper cabinet. These are glorious times. But it all does require some thought.


What I’m realizing, is that there was an odd payout to having limited space to work with. Essentially, you are off the hook from intentionality. Shit goes where it fits. Things go where you heave them. Refinements are for those with more space.


Space-in-time and literal space are not all that different. Too much space without a clear plan is not that friendly, literal and figuratively. We chose not to add square footage to our house for a number of reasons. The one I set my sights on was “more to clean” but it goes beyond that. It’s more to tend to. More to care for


Let’s pause here, Carla, because I feel like this is a universal issue. “If only I had more time” seems to be the mantra of current society, even as we fill our schedules with cheap outings and rushed unnecessary errands. But the fact is, I wrote more during COVID than ever, with two kids and a husband at home. There was an urgency to time-spent. I had no room to waffle or be flaccid. The perfectionist in me wanted to edit my blogs to the nubs, but—too bad!—time was up! Put down your pencils people!


So now I am back-peddling a bit from the shove-it-all-in motivation of the summer to thinking of spaces in quadrants to consider, settle into. I have a friend who is a savant in imagining how spaces will be lived-in, and what they will need to function optimally and joyfully. She’s able to take proactive measures to skirt clutter long before clutter occurs. It’s a master-class in visualization. I, on the other hand, am much more experiential. My body needs to be in a space to feel it, see it, know it. Those plants almost work there…those end tables have potential…that wall, oh my, so many walls to bring to life. It takes time and listening for a space to become complete as a reflection, and a support to those who inhabit it.


I will also insert here that I treated spaces very differently when I lived alone. I was bolder and more brazen. I did shit like dangle beads and hand-maid candles from nails next to a framed poster of The Lady of Shallot, by John William Waterhouse. I’d break apart sheets of composite wood and borrow the neighbor’s drill to put nails into the pieces and reconnect them with hemp rope. I was a big fan of pillar candles in wall sconces. Spaces-as-tiny-galaxies require an entirely different approach when a partner (who has a very different aesthetic. Design-wise, he is half a mini-Coors lite to my two fancy 8% beers, dropper of THC oil and dark chocolate, if you get my translation.). The needs of a habitat evolve. Then you add in children and, wow. Spaces require 100% more forethought as well as afterthought to maintain their shape and form. 


With regards to the room where toys reside, it’s easy to think of the term “she let herself go.”


Two dear friends got me a generous gift card to The Container Store. I just recently realized I can order online at 9pm after my aforementioned two beers, etc, because a physical trip to the mall is clearly out of reach right now. There was a time, before kids, when I used to make a regular—physical, human— trip to the store “Peppercorn” on Pearl St mall. Think of an Alice in Wonderland array of All Things Kitchen in the most pristine order: Japanese Saki sets, gallery-worthy dinner settings, aprons hung like eclectic curtains in a row, orderly cookbooks like beautiful heirloom volumes stacked meticulously on the bedside table. 

The place was crawling with middle-aged staff people in blue aprons who followed you around like a mom following a toddler, silently re-placing anything you may have hung up sideways or put down a-slant on the pile. This would have been annoying in any other scenario. But at Peppercorn, they all felt like mini-superheros, helping to keep me on track and clarify my thinking.


The Container Store website was clearly different, but had potential. I feel we’ve adapted to the post-COVID world of online interpretations of everything. Starting small, I searched “kitchen utensil organizer” for our two flat kitchen drawers that have taken on the look of when Ruth dumps out her toys on the floor to find the one Bluey figurine. I measured. I considered. And this simple tending to a corner of physical space felt not unlike working out a tangle from a small section of Ruth’s hair. Or like planning one flower in the garden. Or like plotting out one or two things for my week.


I suppose it’s worth mentioning that I no longer work, Carla. Are you still working on your Masters in…what was it… social work?


As you may remember, for a solid decade before COVID I worked 12 hours a week giving massage to folks who had Alzheimer’s and dementia. It was the perfect deal, even when the kids were too young for school and I had to piece together daycare and sitters. It was flexible—I could come in at night or on weekends if the kids were sick—but otherwise, it had clear and boundaried hours. My work was a thing I held dear. It was a space of heart and—most often—calm. It tethered me to a true and essential version of myself. And, importantly, logistically, it was twelve-hours-a-week that were accounted for, that I could build from. 


When COVID hit, that all came to a screeching halt. Management changed and everything turned corporate. (Many many phone calls were not returned. Carla—they even cleared out my massage room without telling me and all my things were rescued by the handyman and stored safely in his shed until I could come to collect them!) 


Not unlike moving into this new house, it was clear that I’d need to start over. I chose to pivot to studying Trauma in the body, through the same school I trained in massage fifteen years before. I happen to be in an era of life with lots of empty cabinets, so to speak, and I’m trying to fill them with meaningful things. I’m not sure what I’d do with an “actual” job right now, since sickness is an unpredictable constant. (It’s worth considering all the parents out there who have “real” and “actual” jobs who also have school-age kids who get sick every other week. What do they do? Bless them.) I have two massage clients per month right now and, even still, I’ve had to reschedule a handful of times for each of them since August. One even recently fired me because she needs someone who is more “dependable.” 


What I’m saying is, this is a re-building and re-organizing period of life. I’m working on my Level-Two training for Trauma work, and it is slow and pieced-together when the stars align around my health, my healthy kids, and my clients’ health and the health of their children. 

As it all comes together, organizing a drawer is an act of care for my mental health. But so is creating a beautiful corner with a framed photo, a plant, a blue-and-white porcelain bunny. Both are physical acts of tending to what surrounds me.


Thomas Moore—yes, the same Catholic monk I’ve been obsessed with for decades— said in his book, Care of the Soul: “Surrounded by plastic ferns, we will be filled with plastic thoughts.” And, of course, the opposite is true. Surrounded by intentionality, creativity, order, and meaning will provoke thoughts—and dare I hope, a future—of the same nature. 


Ok, Carla, I’ve taken up too much of your time already. I have a tendency to carry on.


Please write me back. A crayon on the back of a receipt is great. Or you can cut out letters from a magazine and glue them onto a paper bag. Any form of correspondence is perfect. The odder the better, I can read subtext. 


Love you forever, H.



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