Gather Ye Roses…

posted August 9, 2011

Today in our writing class, we read from a great book called Writing Begins with the Breath by Laraine Herring. She encourages her readers/writers to “Conjure a smell that reminds you of a place that has significance for you. Once you identify the smell, bring it fully into your body. Feel it around you…Now drift to images. Don’t try to control the images, Let whatever surfaces be perfect. When you feel ready, begin to write.”

What came to me, almost immediately, were the rose gardens of my great Aunt Barbara on Mt. Desert Island, ME, and those of my grandmother Lila on Long Island. As a child, I used to sit among those roses, tracing the thorns, strong as horns, sometimes gently pricking my finger with their points. I used to watch for the buds to open into those mysterious folds. I wondered at the powdery softness of the petals, like butterfly wings. Some roses smelled more strongly than others. Some had Japanese beetles hiding deep in their petals.

We are almost finished building our dream kitchen. Actually, we have hired some fabulous men to build our kitchen. The process began in January in the dark and cold, and we drew up plans with our friends who are designers and tried to remember every last little fantasy we’ve had over the years about what we wanted our kitchen to be. Mostly we cared about big windows overlooking the backyard of the house. Ours is an old Victorian, and like many of its period, it is oriented to the front. In the late 19th Century, one was all about sitting on one’s porch watching the folks go by in their carriages and buggies, or on foot, waving at the neighbors. The backyard was for tossing out the dishwater and worse. The backyard was for the horses, cows and goats. (We have a falling-down barn with an opening between the bays for feeding the horses to prove there was once livestock out there.) The backyard today is full of gardens, lawns where the kids race each other, a huge pine tree with branches that touch the ground in a round, creating a sublime space underneath where Tom has built a tree fort and attached a play structure. The back also has a patio with umbrella-ed table and chairs (and forty-five huge colonies of ants which we are not murdering with chemicals, but we do have fantasies of getting some chickens to lunch on them–when the kitchen is finished.) The backyard is what I want to be focused on as I wash the dishes or eat my breakfast. The backyard is why I bought the house eight years ago this month.

Our kitchen is turning out better than expected. The floor is in, the windows already make us giddy, the trim was done today; tomorrow the fine carpentry work will begin on the pantry and mudroom. The stove is in place; plumbing is coming soon. I have samples of gorgeous knobs from Anthropologie for the cabinets; in a few weeks when the kitchen tile comes in, I will match them and order them.

I thought I would be so happy building my dream kitchen. Instead, I have this lingering feeling of anxiety in the very center of me. And today when I was meditating on the aroma of roses, the thought came, “Elle doesn’t have a grandmother’s garden to go to. She lost her grandmother the gardener.”

Which is why we have the money to build this kitchen.

This is why I feel sick about it.

It’s not strictly true that she doesn’t have a grandmother’s garden to go to. My mother has a beautiful home in Virginia with gorgeous flowering bushes and trees in the springtime which we visit. She plants daffodils and basil in pots. But she is not really a gardener, not in the sense of cultivating over a long period of time (she did that with us, and with her tennis game, and now with the novel she is writing.) But she is in Virginia, and we don’t usually get there in the summer.

Life is so strange and swiss cheese-like. One moment everything is fine, and the next, someone you know and love is diagnosed with a brain tumor. I found a candle Tom’s mother had given Elle when she turned 3. A 3 candle which we’d forgotten to put on her cake. Jay is turning 3 next week, and I have it on the makeshift counter so I don’t forget this time. Interacting with the 3–moving it to make space for the dirty dishes, putting it carefully back– makes me think of her, of her wonderful generosity, of her inability to come into a home without a gift in hand.

On church on Sunday, Steve preached from Matthew 6:19:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

And also from the Tao, verse 15: and here I paraphrase): “Can you wait, unmoving till the right action comes? The master is present and can welcome all things.”

No wonder I feel soul-sick. We are spending huge amounts of money, time and energy on our kitchen–on ourselves. And this is not a comfortable place for anyone to be, especially not someone who is trying to live a more awakened life. Being so focused on our little kingdom here in the Happy Valley makes me feel guilty and weird, not to mention grieved at the loss of the person who gave us the money to do this project. I thought I had learned by now that treasure is not on earth, but in heaven, and the heaven I have found here on earth is all about serving others, through listening, singing, writing, laughing, showing up, making a space. Could I have spent the money, energy and time some other way, some more generous, awakened way? Yes, of course I could have.

But I didn’t, we didn’t, and here we are in August, not January when we set the ball in motion. We have made our financial choices, and the work now is to make the best of them. We took a chance, by not holding onto the money. We took a chance by making a decision, and when one makes a decision, one leaves oneself open to vulnerability. Just as one does when one writes a book, releases a CD, gets onstage, does anything that anyone can have an opinion about. For years, I lived in fear of bad press. Then I got some, and it didn’t kill me. The worst bad press is the kind you give yourself.

Someone in one of my writing groups, on hearing a draft of this piece, said, “But your kitchen will be all about service. You will be cooking, creating meals, feeding your family and your friends and the people who come to writing retreats.” This is so.

It’s not about having objects. It’s about having experiences. Kitchens are about experiences.

Roses were my flowers. Born in June, I claimed them as mine and let my April-born sister have the more fragrant lilies of the valley. Roses have thorns, and dream kitchens have a price tag. And all I can do with this long-standing dream is to bless it, to accept it, to know now that I can dream way bigger than a kitchen, and to cook a meal in it for my family, cook a meal in it for the family we know who is dealing with brain tumors, to thank God that my rose is in full bloom today and to appreciate it as deeply as I can.

The Comments

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  1. This is beautiful. Your house sounds wonderful. I love porches and weird yards.

    I bought and renovated a house in 2008 with the proceeds of the sale of my apartment in NY. I bought it for the second floor deck–otherwise the house was totally lacking in personality or charm.

    I felt sick the entire time–that I was fortunate when so many others were suffering. People remember that. I didn’t think it was any big thing but the right thing to do and they appreciate that.

    People like that I took a charmless house and made it charming.

    A house is a good thing to put money into. It’s a place where countless memories will be made.

    Your daughter will grow up knowing her great-grandmother.

    (I’m an old friend of Robbie Woliver’s)

    But I used local labor and local materials when possible

  2. Oh, Nerissa, I so understand. I agonized over using money inherited from my grandfather for a house down payment back in 2007, six years after I inherited it. Even though I know my grandfather would have heartily approved of my buying a house, it still was a huge decision and it took a long time for me to feel comfortable with it.

    And now, four years later almost to the day, I love my house. It is full of things that remind me of my grandfather (and the rest of my family) and I am thankful on a daily basis for my blessings.

    What I suggest for you is to elegantly frame a copy of the loveliest picture of Tom’s mother you can find and hang it in the kitchen. It will be a comforting presence, and being a copy, you’ll be able to replace it if it deteriorates due to the cooking environment.

  3. These comments are really helpful, Pia and Adam. Thanks. I do know my mother-in-law wanted us to spend the money this way, and that influenced our decision. I will put our favorite picture of her in the new kitchen, along with her wonderful needlepoint which read, “Dull Women Have Immaculate Homes.”

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