Day 13: The Story of the Big Yellow House, Part 4

Tom and I moved quickly. I was 36; he was 41, and we wanted to have a family. Both of us had been undecided on this issue until we met each other. Then we got clear, fast. We got engaged in August 2004, moved in together a month later, and got married in May 2005.

But a few months before the wedding, Katryna was about to have her second child. It was an election year, and I hit the road with Lisa Loeb and Carrie Newcomer on a mini-midwestern tour called “Folk the Vote.” I have known both artists for years, since the early 90s when Carrie was well-known in the folk world, and Lisa was a newcomer like me. Now Lisa was a star, with a roadie who brought a Stairmaster to each dressing room so she could work out before her gigs. Did I want to be a soloist? What would I do when Katryna took this leave? I couldn’t afford not to work, but I didn’t want to tour by myself, or at all. I wanted to be with Tom.

When I had bought the Big Yellow House, I’d included my tour salary as an essential part of the calculus. We needed to cut our salaries for Katryna’s maternity leave. Meanwhile, Tom was working as a reporter and writer for People Magazine, but this was per diem work, and he too had to hoof it for his paycheck. He was rethinking his entire life path and had just applied to graduate schools to get a Masters in Counseling degree. How would we pay the mortgage?

Somewhere on the highway between St. Louis and Cincinnati, Jill Stratton, my dear friend and organizer of this whole tour, started talking to me and Carrie about this great life coach she was working with. Suddenly, she turned to me and said, “Hey, Nerissa. YOU should be a life coach.”

Something inside me clicked awake. I came home from the tour, did some Googling, applied for a program with Martha Beck, and six months later, I was trained and had a full practice of clients.

[It was like opening a curtain on a whole new world to have a client bring his or her portfolio to me. I worked with so many different people over the course of the six years I was active in my practice. Each one a treasure. I stopped coaching in 2011 for a number of reasons. Most of it was scheduling. If I could have set office hours, (“The Doctor is In, 25¢ Please”) I would still be coaching. But people don’t necessarily want to be coached at 10am on a Thursday morning. They want to be scheduled on their time, and my kids need me during most of the hours when clients could talk.]


In May 2005, Tom and I got married at our church in West Cummington, where the minister Stephen Philbrick takes his authority from his previous work as a shepherd, poet and cashier at the West Cummington Creamery. He is the wisest person I’ve yet to meet, and Penny Schultz, the music director, fills the sanctuary with soul every time she sings or plays.

After the service, we brought our friends and family back to the house where a tent was set up in the back yard. My band played, Tom gave a 20 minute speech, and we danced till after dark. The next day, we had everyone back for leftovers and playing in the back yard.

Then we hopped a plane for the West Coast for our honeymoon and my first book tour, for my novel Plastic Angel.



We kind of lay it on.

Today the guys are back. There’s a giant truck mixing cement and pouring it into the foundation over the newly-laid insulation. I have heard from all five of my beta-readers now, and just finished my own read-through of the latest draft of The Big Idea. I am eager to finish this draft, and I have hopes of getting it off to my potential agent by Christmas. The news of the world continues to be bad, and my loved ones are still suffering, and so I have Tom’s admonition, “Write like your hair’s on fire” cycling through me. Along with the voices of the Freedom Singers, whose work I admire so much, (and whose CDs seem to have disappeared from the internet.) I highly encourage you to give them a listen if you ever need to be inspired. Here’s my current favorite one.


Day 11: Cement and Synchronicities

It’s been lovely to live a bit in the past, as I sift through old photos and remember the house and yard the way it used to be. 2004 had seemed such a hard year, in some ways, even though the Red Sox won the World Series. Kerry lost the election, and we threw a party to commiserate. We made a big poster and wrote our sad feelings on it. Guests also wrote things they were grateful for. I was furious with the right-wing Christians for being so hypocritical. That was the beginning of something for sure. And who wouldn’t go back to the political climate of 2004 compared to what we are living through now?

The groups continued. I had a Tuesday group and a Thursday group, each with its own distinct flavor. The format was and is this: write for 50 minutes, share only what we have just written. The group may respond to the writing and the writer, but only with noticing what works in a new piece of writing. We don’t offer constructive feedback. We just say what we liked, or noticed. “What sticks out?” is my perennial question. Something curious was happening in the writing groups. I always began to writing session by reading a prompt; usually a short poem or line from a novel. Sometimes some writing inspiration, sometimes an exercise. But inevitably, some theme would arise as writers read their work. Everyone would use the color orange in their piece, or there would be a root vegetable in everyone’s poem, or South America would show up. These similarities would never have roots in the prompt. There simply seemed to be a group unity, a synchronicity happening in the room, a current we all plugged into.

Today, there is a foundation for Little Yellow. Hudson’s been watching the trucks come and go from his perch on the kitchen couch. He’s inside today because our neighbor saw a coyote trotting up the street. Hudson is fierce, but not that fierce. Katryna is coming by in a few minutes to load her car up with copies of our new Christmas record, Joy to the World, as our album release party is tonight in New Haven at First Presbyterian Church on Whalley Ave. We are going to sing with Ben Demerath, whose voice is like our long-lost third. Tomorrow the trucks will be back. If we keep making this kind of progress, we could have a roof by the time the snow flies, and that would mean the barn could be finished by spring.

Speaking of spring, it is Dec. 1, and as I walked home from the Y, I had to look twice at the forsythia bush in my neighbor’s yard.

Yes. You are seeing what you think you are seeing. Poor, poor Mother Nature.

And it occurred to me that once Little Yellow (who will NOT be yellow) is built, I will lose my view of the Y in the red maple. It’s amazing how in every gain there is a loss, and in every loss there is a gain. But today I get to see it.

Day Ten: The Story of the Big Yellow House, part 3

I have no photos of the house from before 2005, because my hard drive crashed and I lost all my pictures. I still grieve this loss. Gone are most of the photos of Tom and me when we first met, our first Adirondack hike (Cascade, July 2004), and many many photos of little Amelia when she was toddling about and saying things like, “Tittens! So toot!” and “I can’t beeve it! It’s so geat!”

The house was originally a pale yellow with brown shutters. Not my favorite combination. I didn’t want to have a yellow house. I saved up to get it painted ASAP. In fact, I hired ASAP Painters in April, 2004. When I alerted one of my writing groups to this eventuality, someone in the group said, “But surely you will keep the house yellow? You must! It’s the yellow house!”

I paused. One of the contracts I’d signed in my heart when I bought this house was that it would be something of a shared commodity. It would belong to me and the community, both. So I swallowed hard and went looking for shades of yellow I could tolerate. I decided on a daffodil paired with spring green. Tom then suggested some strong dark red trim, and we liked the idea of using another green, too. Now we had almost a painted lady.

My weekly workshops were such a joy to me. I couldn’t believe how interesting the writers were, how much I admired their work and enjoyed their company. After a weekend at Kripalu, it occurred to me that I could also run weekend retreats. I posted, somehow (this was way before Facebook) somewhere, and filled two back-to-back weekend retreats in July and August 2004. Tom was still living in Haydenville, but he came over and cooked and helped, and his dog Cody lay on the carpet and urged the writers on by napping. Mike Biegner christened us Nerissa Neruda and Tomas Tomatto, and the era of the retreats was upon us. I have offered a minimum of 3 per year since 2004.

Meeting Tom, of course, changed everything. We found each other at the Starbucks in Northampton, and after a second date on a snowy night in December, we were bonded. “He’s salt to your pepper,” quipped my friend Amy upon seeing us together for the first time. There was no question that we would shack up. There was a small question of whose shack. As much as I loved Big Yellow, I loved Tom more, and I was willing to contemplate moving to Haydenville. But Big Yellow won Tom’s heart, eventually. Plus, as beautiful as the country is, it’s no small thing to be able to bike everywhere. Tom is a biker.

So Tom put his Haydenville condo on the market, and when it sold, we took the proceeds to renovate the back bedroom. We hoped to have a family, so we would need the space. And as fun as it was for me to have that giant wardrobe room, we thought it better to convert it to our master bedroom and add a bathroom. I had been wishing to sleep in the back of the house, where it was quieter, closer to the gardens, farther from the street. In the era in which the house was built, the idea was to maximize proximity to the street. The porch and all the best windows faced the road. The back of the house was where the livestock dwelt and the sewage got dumped. So there were very few windows facing the back. I wanted to change all this.

Awesome back hallway with the one window to the back. This window stayed! But now it’s our bedroom window.

So in the spring of 2005, we began work on the house, and we planned our wedding.

Day Nine: The Story of the Big Yellow House, part 2

The house was huge for one person, and I delighted in it. That first night, I climbed the elegant staircase and stood at the top, looking back down into my gracious entryway. This is mine. I am alone. But I am not alone, because this house is a friend. It felt like a partner. An accomplice. I had escaped something, and had fallen into the arms of a new lover.

I slept in the master bedroom. I used the front bedroom for a guest room. During my years on the road, I spent so many nights as a guest in other people’s lovely rooms, I had always wanted to pay that debt back. I used a third bedroom for an office, and finished my drafts in the eastern facing window on the second floor. The house had, at one time, been converted to a duplex, and the fourth bedroom had a non-working sink, a washer/dryer and the ghost of a stove.

There was some bad wallpaper and a linoleum floor. I used this room as a wardrobe, which was the ultimate in extravagance. (I love clothes!) This freed up my bedroom to be just for sleeping, yoga and meditation. There was a room in the attic that needed extra heat, and I thought about renting it out. But my workshops were always full, and as it turned out, I never needed to take on a tenant.


The house was full of curiosities. For one thing, there was a door to the outside, halfway between the first floor and the second, and no stairs. I discovered that at one time the house had been converted to a duplex–thus the ghost kitchen. When this was done, the back staircase had been closed off and removed on the first floor, where the owners had installed a full bathroom (off the kitchen. A tub, shower, sink, the whole 9 yards). The staircase descended from the back of the second floor down half a story. A door had been cut into the wall, and at one time, there were rickety wooden stairs as egress to the backyard. But these were long gone when I arrived, and so the door was simply an oddity that terrified my sister and brother-in-law (they had a two-year-old). I loved it. But it was rather impractical.

It was a strange time in my life, by anyone’s account. Even though the band had broken up, in some ways, we were at the height of our popularity. I was regularly recognized in airports and highway rest stops. I am sure this is why it was easy for me to fill up my writing groups, in the beginning. My sister and I were still performing at least 100 dates a year–even though she had a little daughter, and was about to get pregnant with her second child. We’d released Love & China to great reviews, and our audience seemed to be adapting to our more acoustic sound. But we were definitely not getting rich. We were making about as much as a private school kindergarten teacher, and in order to achieve even that, we had to hustle and play all the time. She wanted time with her new family. I wanted a garden. And to write and write and write and write and write.

When I moved to Northampton, I gave my cats to a fan, and I gave my dog, Mia, to my ex-husband. We’d been sharing her, which had become increasingly awkward, and I decided to cut the cord. Solomon’s baby and all that. I missed my long walks with Mia in the Hatfield cornfields, watching her little black tail flying just above the bent-over stalks. But I loved my new neighborhood, and my new neighbors, and my new back yard. I loved the gardens, even though my friend and manager Patty took one look and said, “There is no way you can keep those up!” (She has proved herself right in this. But it ain’t over yet!) Most of all, I loved this new career I had stumbled into. I was leading writing groups. This strange idea with which the house presented me has turned into a vocation, and a lifeline. And now, a house in my backyard.

Day Eight: The Story of The Big Yellow House, Part 1

I bought this house in 2003, when I was newly divorced, thirty-six and optimistic. I’d just signed a book deal with Scholastic, and I was working on the soundtrack to go with my first novel. I wanted to meet someone and have kids, and I also knew with complete certainty that I would be absolutely fine if I stayed single forever. I was full. But I was tired of living in uber-white Hatfield, which seemed light years from the Northampton I had long been in love with, even though my place in Hatfield was a mere three miles out of town.

I’d been looking to move for several years, even during the dregs of my first marriage. I’d employed an intrepid realtor, and she periodically sent me listings. On July 18, 2003, she sent me an email:

That house on Prospect Street that you like has just lowered its price. Wanna come see it?

Of course I wanted to come see it. I’d driven by it for years, always thinking, “Well, that’s a nice house.” It had the requisite wrap around porch, the big maple in the front yard, with a dogwood nearby. It was near Childs Park. Perfect. But I couldn’t afford it, even with the drop in price. Nevertheless, I drove down the gravel driveway and parked in the back yard. The owners were exceptional gardeners, and the place was a veritable Eden; Victorian hydrangea, lilies of all kinds, phlox, and even blueberry bushes.

I crept up the stairs to the back porch, and a cat dashed by. I entered the kitchen and my heart started pounding. This really was my dream house. And I felt despair that I was putting myself through this torture. It just felt like home.

I followed my realtor to the front of the house, and there at the great south-facing picture window, I had a vision. I saw my ratty couches from my Hatfield music room arranged in a circle. I saw people focused on notepads and laptops. I saw musicians with guitars on their laps. And as I stood in the doorway between the two parlors, I did some quick calculations: if my house in Hatfield would sell for $10,000 more than my realtor had guesstimated. If the owners of this house would come down another $10,000. If my parents would grant me a bridge loan–because my house wasn’t even on the market yet. And if I could somehow figure out how to run writing groups. And maybe if I took on a tenant–this was, after all, a big house––then I could, just possibly, make the mortgage each month.

The next day, I signed the P&S. A month later, my house in Hatfield sold in a bidding war for $10,000 over what I’d asked. Six weeks after I had my vision, I was moving in. And eight weeks after the vision, I had two nights full of writers who had committed to my groups for the next ten weeks.

Monday night group, April 2005

“Why are you buying this gigantic house?” some friends asked. “You are a single woman.”

“I know,” I said. “But I think I am going to meet someone and have kids. We’ll fill it.”