Thursday, October 18, 2007

Coming Home

I'm back from another trip, this time to Kentucky. More school visits. My husband works hard to keep things going while I'm gone, and I have to give him his props: he does a pretty dang good job. I came home to children who were alive, basically clean, and in good spirits. The laundry and dishes were done. The fish had not died (I'm very fond of this fish, despite the fact it has remained nameless for over a year now; it always seems so happy to see me when I walk into the room). Nobody had gone to school lunchless or underpantless. In short, a job well done.

But the fact remains, that my husband, while possessing a healthy respect for cleanliness, cares not one whit for tidiness. He does not do tidy. He does not notice when things are untidy, when the school papers (checked homework, field trip notices, Read-a-thon sheets, Weekly Readers) pile up on the tables and under the tables, when the mail teeters precariously on the edge of the kitchen counter, when the rinsed recyclables seem to have taken up permanent residence beside the sink. Not even on his radar. So my job upon returning from my travels is to tidy up, room by room.

I don't mind tidying, though when I'm away, I always have grander visions of what I'll do when I get home. This time I thought maybe I'd finally whip that attic into order. We have a walk-in attic off the second floor, a wonderful and dangerous thing. In our old house, we had no storage space; here, we have the attic and a garage (detached, no less). The temptation to just chuck everything in there that doesn't fit in the closet is just too great to be resisted, and resist it we don't.

But suddenly, on the road, I envisioned an attic of order and light. An attic where there is a corner devoted to children's toys that are only played with on occasion, and a corner for the Christmas decorations, and a neat stack of file boxes against one wall ...

I remember when I read Anna Karenina a few years back, one of the scenes that struck me most is when Levin is riding home on the train; he's been away for a while and now he is filled with hundreds of plans for what he'll do the minute he arrives. He'll fix this and plant that and get the whole place in ship shape order. When he finally does get home, his energy completely evaporates and all he can do for a couple of days is wander around aimlessly.

That's me. Get me out of the house, all I can do is come up with big plans for the house. Return me to the house, all I can do is tidy up here and there and wonder when I can sneak in a nap.

So today I tidied. The attic remains lumpy and dumpy, everything strewn hither and yon. It is safe for another day--or probably another month. But the living room has been voided of clutter and all the Star Wars paraphenalia has been returned to its rightful owners, and the ten billion catalogs that arrived during the three days I was out of town have been recycled. That's about what I can do for now. That attic will have to wait.

Monday, October 8, 2007


At some point during the cleaning cycle, my house completely loses it. By cleaning cycle I mean this: At the beginning of the cycle, I clean frantically before a) the arrival of out-of-town guests or b) my book group meeting, and then I rest lazily on my laurels for the next two-to-three weeks until I can no longer walk into the upstairs bathroom without sinking into despair. During week two of the cycle, the house teeters on the edge of respectability, and then one day it falls into the abyss of the downright dirty.

It seems to happen suddenly, this falling off, but of course on some level of my psyche I'm observing it as it happens. There is a certain amount of denial that goes on. I do a little touch up around the sink with toilet paper, wiping up little hairs (how I hate them) and bits of dried toothpaste, and I tell myself, "There, that should do it for another week." I dab at spilled juice in the fridge, run a finger over a bookshelf, and feel the house has been rightly restored to its pristine state.

Yesterday I realized that my house and I have come to one of our frequent impasses. It desperately needs to be cleaned, I desperately need to do a dozen other things. But while it's possible to put off dusting for long stretches of time, and the junk drawer can be reorganized at a later date, there comes a time when bathrooms can no longer be ignored. And if the floors aren't swept and vacuumed sooner rather than later, who knows what manner of vermin will feel free to move in and settle down?

So today I am cleaning. I am taking little breaks between the tubs and the beds and the desktops strewn with debris (kleenex, tiny car wheels, game pieces, sundry playing cards, Valentines from 2003, Kohl's price tags) to write this. Right now I am full of energy. After I clean Jack and Will's bathroom, I will probably be done for. It is a horrid bathroom, tiny and full of nooks and crannies. We moved into this house in May, and it is a good 1,000 square feet bigger than our last house (which was quite small--I don't want you to get the idea we've moved into a McMansion or anything), but the bathrooms are miniscule (the house was built in 1965, long before luxury bathrooms were all the rage).

So, take one tiny bathroom, and two boys who are not always possessed of the most accurate aim, and a bathtub filled with assorted plastic pieces that were once attached to other plastic pieces, but now float around rather abstractly by themselves, and add one woman and a spray bottle of Mrs. Meyers, which smells so good but doesn't actually clean all that much (I'll pull out the Comet and other toxic cleaners when nobody is looking), and you have me and my morning. An island of frustration and little tiny hairs. Fingers crossed that I'll survive.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

An Ode to Quilts and the Quilters Who Quilt Them

I am almost finished with the quilted patchwork throw I've been working on since the summer. This is my first foray into anything resembling quilting, and I've really loved it. I don't think I'll ever be a classic quilter; I am too messy for that. But I found a book in the library called Liberated Quilting, and I'm pretty sure this is the art form for me.

Liberated quilting, from what I can tell, is quilting for people who can't color inside the lines. It is for people who understand a little messiness is a natural part of life. It is, in short, for left-handed people who have difficulty sewing in a straight line.

I found Liberated Quilting by Gwen Marsten when I was at the library looking for books on the kind of quilts I would love to be able to make. Most of these quilts are by or are inspired by African American quilters. They have wild colors and rhythms and are rarely symmetrical. Straight lines are not required. And they are beautiful. Incredibly, heart-renderingly beautiful.

This afternoon I sat down with a quilting book I have checked out more than once from the library, and one day will actually buy: The Quilts of Gee's Bend, a whopper of a coffee table book that is filled with the quilts and words of an an amazing group of women, all of whom live or lived in the same tiny community in Alabama and made quilts that are nothing less than art.

You can evaluate these quilts formally if you wish; talk about pattern, rhythm, line. And many of them show the handiwork of artists who intuitively or intentionally made great use of classical elements in their work. But what I love so much is that these great works of art come from the stuff of daily life, work clothes and curtains and dish towels and old Easter dresses. Go look at what's inside your laundry basket and imagine it as material for artwork that I would argue rivals the great modernist painters. Ain't that a pip?

I have always wanted to paint, but I am a lousy painter. But I can see making abstract, liberated quilts. I could see quitting knitting and taking up quilting full time. A confession: I am not one of those people who goes all crazy over yarn. I go into yarn shops and see lots of beautiful stuff, but it doesn't make me swoon. I appreciate it, I like the feel of it, but I don't end up spending hundreds of dollars and then hiding the credit card bill. I have virtually no stash.

Fabric, on the other hand, I could look at for hours. I'm nuts about it. And now I have reason to believe I can actually do something with it. This is big. This is very big.

Monday, October 1, 2007

When You're Too Tired to Cook ...

Last week I went to South Carolina for four days. Three of those days were spent talking to middle school students, doing a song and dance I do about writing and books, signing copies of my books, and hanging out with media specialists, formerly known as librarians.

When I came back, I was exhausted. But there was no time for relaxing--I had a conference to attend here in my hometown, a meeting of the regional Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. My editor, who came down from New York, and I did on an hour-long session on how we work together. I worried that the session would seem solipsistic and self-congratulatory, so both Caitlyn and I focused on how much work it takes to make a book, how many revisions we go through, how getting a book accepted for publication is just the beginning. We spent very little time gushing over one another. We didn't want anyone in the audience to throw up.

Caitlyn was here with her family (after the conference they would continue to drive south, destination Hilton Head), so the weekend also involved entertaining her husband and two little girls, which turned out to be an easy job indeed (her five-year-old daughter and any my almost five-year-old son were clearly separated at birth--they are both a mix of sociability and contrariness, lots of bluster, a good dose of sweetness tempered by an impressive self-assertiveness--they had a great time together). Nonetheless, by the time the weekend was over, I was beat. I'd planned to make salmon and new potatoes for dinner, but when the time came, I couldn't muster the energy.

Sick of pizza, my husband suggested something just as easy and a lot cheaper: spinach linguine. This is something I avoided for a long time after starting Weight Watchers. There are certain meals it's hard for me to control myself around (there is a pasta dish I make with sausage and mozzarella and tomatoes that completely does me in), and spinach linguine has been one of them. It is serious comfort food. But we tried it a few weeks ago and I did the Weight Watcher's approved half cup of pasta, and I was good with that. Also, since I no longer serve it with fabulous, buttered Italian bread, there are fewer calories overall to be consumed.

Here's what you need for spinach linguine: a package of Stouffer's creamed spinach and 12 ounces of linguine. You can use a whole pound, but it spreads the creamed spinach a little thin.

Boil the pasta according to directions and microwave the creamed spinach according to directions. When they're done, mix them together in a large bowl. I add salt, pepper and about a half teaspoon of nutmeg, and if I have parmesan cheese on hand I throw some while I'm mixing things around and also put a bowl of it on the table.

This dish takes as long as it takes to boil the pasta (ten minutes; the creamed spinach microwaves in four). It tastes high in fat, but is actually not. It's warm, it's filling, and best of all, it's quite tasty. Jack likes it. If Will actually ate food, he might like it, too. A girl can dream.