Thrift-in-Trifles Decorating

Although the Doctor’s daughter [Lucie Manette] had known nothing of the country of her birth [France], she appeared to have innately derived from it that ability to make much of little means, which is one of its most useful and most agreeable characteristics.  Simple as the furniture was, it was set off by so many little adornments, of no value but for their taste and fancy, that its effect was delightful.  The disposition of everything in the rooms, from the largest object to the least; the arrangement of colours, the elegant variety and contrast obtained by thrift in trifles, by delicate hands, clear eyes, and good sense; were at once so pleasant in themselves, and so expressive of their originator, that, as Mr Lorry stood looking about him, the very chairs and tables seem to ask him, with something of that peculiar expression which he knew so well by this time, whether he approved?
             ~ Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities  

I’ve been in homes that have this pleasant, comfortable, tasteful ambiance.   They are lovely places to live.

I think decorating know-how is a gift, don’t you?  Just like some women can wear rags with panache, some folks can take cast-off furniture and make a cozy home.  It doesn’t come naturally to me, but I can be taught.  My oldest sister and my youngest brother have “an eye” for placing furniture, for hanging pictures, for creating visual balance. 

Where did you learn this stuff?  From catalogs, magazines or television?  From floor models of stores?  Did anyone take interior decorating classes?

I have to see it modeled, usually in a friend’s home, and imitate it. 


Homesteading Stories

I find homesteading stories fascinating. The challenge of housing, feeding and clothing a family, working the land, tending animals, and nurturing souls continually captures my imagination.  There is grace in the stories of daily life.

The first book I ever owned was Little House in the Big Woods.  Each birthday and Christmas my parents gave me the next book in the series until I had my first collection of books.  I thrilled in the details: a pig’s bladder for a balloon, homemade bullets, Pa’s fiddle, trips to town, maple syrup.  When I read the stories to my sons, I was shocked to realize that Laura’s family subsisted an entire year (!) on the fish from the creek.   Looking at the stories through adult eyes gave me a clear-eyed view of the hardships.  It is, however, the simple joys of life which linger in your thoughts after reading these.

When my boys and I started reading Ralph Moody’s Little Britches series, my first thought was, “Why, these are the Little House books from a boy’s point of view.”  Set in a Colorado town, the Moody family eked out a living however they could.  They heated their house from coal picked up by three miles of railroad tracks, sold chicken droppings to the neighbors for their gardens, grew and canned vegetables, delivered their mother’s home-baked goods to folks around town.   Life was a series of problems to be solved.  Everyone worked hard, doing what they could to contribute to the family.

While this book is primarily about the internment of Japanese in relocation camps, the first third of the book recounts the Sato family’s life building a berry farm near Sacramento.  They would harvest wild spinach leaves, cut shoe bottoms from old tires, buy two thousand pounds of rice (stored in 100 pound sacks) after the check from the strawberry growers arrived.  The mother kept the clothes mended; the father kept the tools repaired and engineered ingenious solutions from the raw materials in the barn. 

When I read that Susanna Moodie’s 1852 book, Roughing It in the Bush, was as well known to Canadian children as the Little House books are to American children, I put this on my stack of “must read”s.  Where it still resides, unread. 

From the back cover:   This frank and fascinating chronicle details her harsh –and humorous– experiences in homesteading with her family in the woods of Upper Canada. Part documentary, part psychological parable, Roughing It in the Bush is, above all, an honest account of how one woman coped not only in a new world, but, more importantly, with herself.

Now I want to cancel my plans for today and read this book.  [This title is a work in progress at Librivox..yay!]

Story-telling is a strong motif in each of these books.  The father or mother picked up some hand work in the evening and told stories, quoted poems, and read books aloud.  I think these authors write so well because they grew up in an atmosphere saturated with the spoken word.  The Bible, Shakespeare, Longfellow were companions during the dark nights.  The authors marinated in turns of phrase, rotating them over the fire of their imaginations, eating them bit by bit.  

I am always inspired by the hard work.  I can work hard in a spurt of energy (then collapse the next day), but these people worked with daily diligence over the long haul.  When the children rose, their parents were at work, and when they went to bed their parents were working.  Reading these stories revs up my engines, makes me long for the ache of sore muscles after a good day’s work.

What books or movies about homesteading do you recommend?  Have you read any books above?

[The learning life is a happy life:  After I wrote about homesteading, I found this video of urban homesteaders.]


Her Own Room

Girl Embroidering 
Georg Friedrich Kersting (c.1814)

The desire for a room of one’s own was not simply a matter of personal privacy.  It demonstrated the growing awareness of individuality–of a growing personal inner life–and the need to express this individuality in physical ways.  Much had changed since the seventeenth century.  […]

We know immediately that the room [in painting] is hers.  Those are her plants on the windowsill; it is her guitar and sheet music on the settee; it is she who has hung the picture of the young man on the wall and draped it with flowers. […]

Fanny Price, the heroine of Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park (written the year before Kersting painted this picture), had a room where she could go “after anything unpleasant below, and find immediate consolation in some pursuit, or some train of thought at hand.  Her plants, her books–of which she had been a collector from the first hour of her commanding a shilling–her writing desk, and her works of charity and ingenuity, were all within her reach; or if indisposed for employment, if nothing but musing would do, she could scarcely see an object in that room which had not an interesting remembrance connected with it.”

~  Witold Rybczynksi in Home, A Short History of an Idea

*     *     *     *    *

Did you have your own room when you were a child? 

I did, but it was a closet.  I loved that little room…most of the time.  Another post, another day.  My husband always shared with his brother, shared with his roommates, shared with his wife.  He’s never had a room of his own.  [moment of respectful silence]   There are worse things to endure!  And that bit about my husband  having to share hasn’t been mentioned in decades.  So don’t think he’s bitter. [wink]

My thoughts are like children bursting out the school door for recess.  Screaming with exhuberance, focused on the far side of the playground, these thoughts will not stand still.  So let them gallop and romp.  There will be time for corralling soon enough. 

The Courage to Purge

My zone in the garage, the “after” picture.

Lately, I’ve been a brave little buckaroo.

I’m learning to purge.

Don’t worry, I’m not upchucking.  Bulimia will never tempt me.  It doesn’t take all my fingers to count the times I’ve experienced what Hank the Cowdog calls reverse perestroika since I was twelve years old.

I’m Throwing. Things. Away.

It’s hard.

Somehow, growing up, I developed a hatred of waste.  As poor as we were, there was always the sense that “someone else might be able to use this.”   The facility with which some folks fling something like a dirty towel into the trash, makes me wince.  I feel righteous indignation at the disposable society that we’ve become. 

So we recycle.  We use stuff until it is no longer usable.  We take stuff other people are pitching if we can use it.

Our culture has become so affluent that we cannot even give stuff away.  The local Salvation Army went under, in a bankrupt sort of way, because their trash bill was greater than their receipts.  Think about it.

My personal little MySpace, the zone in the garage (I prefer the British pronunciation: GAIR-azh) under my dominion, was, well, beyond the beyonds.   The lovely counter was invisible.  It was the landing zone for all kinds of stuff.  Leftover garage sale remnants, old curricula that no one wants, papers to file – in short, the detritus of decades of my life.

Every three years or so, God blesses me with the perfect mindset for this kind of job.  I stiffen my sinews, twist my head looking aside, and start filling garbage bags.   Those  large, round earrings that no one would take?  Gone.  Clipboards galore?  Out of here.  My favorite mug, chipped right were you sip?  Trashed. Boxes saved and tumbling over everything?  Recycle.

Then there was the file cabinet.  Stuffed so full that your knuckles began to hurt as you approached it.  Good stuff mixed with useless rubbish.   In one moment, I broke an eccentric little habit that even my husband didn’t know I had.  I saved years of utility bills.  When the file got too large, I made a ledger of notebook paper and wrote the information down from each month’s bill before I tossed it.  Our kilowatt usage, price per kilowatt, and amount paid.  Water, gas, electricity, phone.  Years of information.  That’s why I didn’t answer your letters timely, Mel!

In an epiphany of blinding clarity, I asked myself, Why?  So in 1983 we paid $17 a month for water.  How does knowing that help me?  Out they went, pages of useless information.  It was a Neil Postman moment.

But I admit to being a little lost.  How do you do it?  Do you save three months at a time?  A year?  Nothing?

A. HA!!  I need to switch to online bill paying and voila!  my paths will be made straight. 

But I am curious.  How do normal people file their bills?

Oh beautiful counter, it’s so good to see you again.