Decluttering

I use to keep everything. Every thing. My bedroom was colorful but cluttered, childlike but claustrophobic. And while part of it had to do with a sentimental streak the width of a comet’s tail, the other part of it was being young and confined to a bedroom or studio; one simply cannot contain one’s worldly (cheap, abundant) goods to a single room. One could argue my Zen-like shift toward simplicity is eased by having my own place with more room to spread out my trinkets, but really, I just ditched and donated the excess, keeping just the things I love and nothing more. I still have the occasional pang when I see someone’s cozy kitchen stuffed with cookbooks and plants and coffee mugs jumbled on the counter, but simple is my mantra now. It’s so much easier to dust.

Still, I hadn’t parted with everything. I’ve carted my vintage linens and bonanza of blankets from place to place, using them for the occasional picnic. But mostly I just liked the look of them piled high in the cupboard. But after reading this article on medium.com (addiction forming to these quick, likable reads), I culled even the linen collection down to the bare bones, with a couple of extras thrown in just because I don’t live in a 200-square foot cottage. I feel better already.

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Black Friday

Today I give thanks for not having kids, thus avoiding the chaos of Toys ’R Us on Black Friday. Or Toys ’R Us anytime, really. Both make me jumpy. I give thanks, too, for having the kind of family that does not expect anything with “plasma” in the title. Nothing that would require me to join the stampede at Target or the running of the bulls at Best Buy with a concealed weapon ready to threaten the competition. Nothing that demands I line up inside, and most especially not outside, or take a number or fight a tween for a gadget that requires batteries. I am content, this Friday, to relax in my living room, assembling nothing, needing nothing. Except an elephant print silk blouse I scored at the consignment shop for $17. I mean, I’m not without a soul.

elephant

Yard sale finds


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How cute is the print from The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Boook Art? Answer: super cute. Also, a museum dedicated to picture book art? Amazing–and apparently two hours from my house. Yes, the elderly caterpillar may be a bit creepy, but I choose to think of them as a colorful, spunky duo with excellent eyesight. I bought it from an older woman and her 30-something daughter who said it had been hers–I assumed when she was a kid.

“Don’t tell anyone I don’t have kids,” I told her.

“That’s great!” they agreed.

“Would you like a minute to say goodbye?” I asked.

“It’s OK. We’re glad it’s going to such a good home.”

Which made me wonder why they assumed it was going to a good home. I could be a collector-turned-destroyer of picture book art. I could banish it to the basement. I could despise caterpillars and torch the print.

More likely, I will find a good spot for it on the staircase or in the bathroom, because every bathroom needs a whimsical caterpillar print.

At home, I noticed the exhibit was in 2004, nine years ago. I quickly did the math (well, not that quickly) and realized that the previous owner–let’s say she was 30–must have also bought it as an adult. How interesting.

Yard sale finds

Can you be mildly obsessed with something? If so, I’m mildly obsesses with Pinterest. I see the line and I’m not stepping over it. Nope. I saw these painted oars in stylish designs on Pinterest and decided I needed one even though I don’t have a log cabin or canoe.

painted oar

Todd Farm is an antique / flea market on the North Shore that I’ve been meaning to go to for years, so naturally I picked a rainy weekend to visit when the vendors were sparse but the bargains were plentiful. I’m sure they were even more plentiful if I were out there at dawn with a flashlight among the hardcore bargain hunters, but there’s no need for that.

I scored this vintage oar for $20 and am torn between its patina and sprucing it up with some color. I’m also torn between hanging it above my living room mirror or along the staircase as a decorative bannister. My indecision will probably paralyze me until spring. Cat appears for scale or because she’s hoping to be a model.

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Landlocked sailing

I don’t like to brag, but I went out on my tricked-out luxury yacht last week and sailed around (and around) tiny Redd’s Pond in Marblehead until I realized it was not the open ocean. This guy in a rowboat was in my way, so I didn’t get very far. Also, a little boy was fishing and I was afraid he was gonna reel me in. Then I realized this was a race of model yachts and that my giant yacht could take out the whole fleet of toy yachts in seconds. I stood at the helm yelling “I will crush you!”

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In Hudson, I buy antlers

Hudson is a not-yet-comfortable mix of super high-end antique stores and families living in poverty on the next street over. A tough mix but a reality of so many towns converting their old buildings downtown to lofts and studios. It’s a destination for Manhattanites furnishing their summer homes and for me looking for a treasure under $50. The Red Chair, a beautifully curated shop of Belgian and French antiques and textiles, invites visitors to linger, but the prices reflect the time and energy it must have taken the owner to scout out treasures in the French countryside and lug them back to the States.  The street is one long stretch of colorful shops and cafes, and it feels like scouring a flea market with air-conditioned pockets; a view of the Hudson awaits at the end of the street.

The work of artist Lee Musselman graces numerous storefronts along the main street, many in the form of doll head figures the artist calls “spiritual guides.” The shops are showing support for an artist who celebrates found objects–a man now in failing health. One shop where Lee worked has two deep bins of his art scraps: antlers, bones, dolls, tin. I dig out a pair of antlers with a tuft of fur still attached and buy it; the money will go to his caregiver. I spend a moment thinking of this artist I’ve only just learned about and about the deer who shed its antlers, unaware that a piece of it might the next day become art.

Hudson shops

Lee Musselman art

Country mouse

My friends give me a hard time because I don’t have curtains on my windows. They’re just . . . too much. Yes, I suppose someone walking by could see me half-naked, but the chances are slim because I live across from a cemetery. I’m cool with ghosts checking me out. So when I arrive at my vacation rental and see a wall of windows, I am in heaven (ironically, where all the ghosts are). It’s like staying in the Philip Johnson Glass House. The only difference is that my house is not in the middle of the country so when it’s lights out on vacation, it’s the darkest darkness I’ve ever seen. Fireflies are welcome little flashlights.

As you might imagine, it’s also very quiet, aside from moths batting themselves against the windows and really, really big beetles that hurl themselves at the door so fiercely it sounds like someone is knocking. Which is a scary thought in the middle of the night. In the middle of nowhere.  Insect static aside, the quiet and stillness are welcome in a world filled with noise. And serendipity being what it is, I happen upon a fantastic podcast, On Being with Krista Tippett and the first episode I hear is an interview with Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist trying to preserve the few remaining quiet places in the world. The man really listens. Also, is that not the coolest job? Anyway, he doesn’t define quiet as the absence of all noise, but the absence of man-made or non-natural noise. Even in the quiet woods there are leaves rustling and water dripping and birds singing. I hear it all this week.

Red Hook windows

House at night

The same view at night. And this is with an exterior light on.

Dark dirt road

 

The daylight trickles in, dampened by thick tree cover that keeps the house cool in the midst of a heat wave. Maple roams the house sniffing everything, while I appreciate the well-appointed house and its mid-century modern charm. I pretend that I live there, enjoying the Bose system and walk-in shower, and devour weeks of New York magazine. I’m stealing a lot of their ideas–an old hospital cart that holds toiletries, taxidermied animals that are not as creepy as they sound, and this fantastic suitcase idea:

Suitcase of books

I have a suitcase, books and magazines too. This will happen pronto.

Maple on washer

Maple finds it is coolest on the washer

Yard sale finds

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If you ever shopped at the original Filene’s Basement in Boston, you know if you saw something you coveted  you had to grab it, despite who was holding on to it at the other end. Bargains are strangers to politeness. At a yard sale today, I spied an antique wooden toolbox that another shopper had her grimy hands on. Not one to actually take it out of her hands, I waited until she walked away, debating the $20 price and what she would do with it. No debate necessary from my point of view; I got it for $15. It was my only find, aside from a $3 bag of potting soil that a guy nicely hosed down for me (you can keep the slugs, thanks) and put in my car. The soil will go right in the toolbox, which I plan to use as a planter, while the other woman berates herself for walking away. But given the sad state of my plants after the heat wave, she’ll probably get the last laugh.

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Note to the child selling lemonade: people do not like when you act as a personal shopper and follow them around, asking them if there’s anything they’re looking for and would you like to buy some lemonade? No, no I wouldn’t, because I’ve seen kids in the kitchen and you’re . . . germy. But I’m a sucker for an articulate kid who seemed disappointed that “nothing was too my liking” and gave him a quarter for his icky Crystal Light. Kid’s gonna be a salesman. At least when he’s older I can hang up on him.

 

Yard sale finds

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A 7-day heat wave ends tonight. And weeks of a yard sale shopping drought ended this morning. Traveling and weather have thwarted my bargain hunting, but today, in 90° temps, I made it to the handful of sales that were on (picture sellers languishing in the shade of a tent after dragging their belongings out into their hot yards) and got exactly one thing. And that was enough.

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The lump in the bed is not a giant pea but my cat enjoying the cool sheets.

I found the loveliest patchwork duvet cover that looks like vintage tea towels sewn together. At Anthropologie it would be $325. At a yard sale, it was $20 for the cover, bed skirt and two shams. I hesitated because it was a full size and my bed is a queen, and while I’ve made that mistake before (but this chenille bedspread is so cute it HAS to fit), this time it was the perfect size, proving once and for all that the full / double bed designation is a strange one.

Maple, genius hunter

I’m not a big fan of zoos, but I respect the movement toward enrichment ideas to keep animals engaged in activities that challenge them–ones that they’d find in their natural environment. To that end, I try to keep my cat occupied while I’m at work. I use whatever’s handy–egg cartons, yogurt cups, cereal boxes–and hide treats that she has to find. It seems to work for a few minutes anyway. When I’m home I try out new items to make sure they’re safe, which is how Maple came to have a paper bag on her head.*

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*No cat was harmed in this exercise. In fact, I think she’d endure this embarrassment daily if I kept the treats coming.

Then I found just the thing: this activity box you can stuff with mice, balls, and treats. Maple loves it, but if I had to fish out my treats from a box, I would not be pleased. Another reason it’s good I’m not a cat.

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Gangsta cat

My friend tells me that my cat, Maple, is a little vandal. “Sit on the right side of the train when you head home and check out the abandoned train with graffiti all over it. You’ll see ‘Maple’ spray painted in a couple of places.”

Apparently, my cat has been tagging trains.

OK, so it probably isn’t my cat because I lock the door at night, so I know she can’t get out, but seriously, whose gangsta tag is “Maple”? It’s so . . . sweet.

On a lunch excursion this week, I spot this amazing piece of work on Stuart St. in Boston. The clever style smacks of Banksy. If you haven’t seen the documentary on this artist–Exit Through the Gift Shop–you should. It’s weird, like graffiti  done by a cat.

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A little research turned up the fact that the artists behind this are Os Gemeos (twins) who have also contributed art to the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston.

Garden club showdown

I like supporting local garden clubs rather than the giant Home Depot mass-produced plant department, and usually find a couple of interesting plants that I’ll manage to let wither in the sun by season’s end. I’m looking at you, lamium of cheerful yellow blooms.

I end up at the Driftwood Garden Club of Marblehead (say it with a heavy Down East accent, dahling) where plants are plentiful, artfully arranged, signs separate the annuals from the perennials, and hoards of helpful ladies who lunch are ready to answer questions about the best light and soil for the fanciest plants in Marblehead.

“I can’t believe they’re selling loosestrife,” a man tells me, clutching a bunch of pots. “It’s illegal because it’s invasive. Oh, this isn’t the illegal type,” he decides. I move away from him and the contagious plant.

Couples line cardboard boxes with their selections and $50, $60, $80 is exchanged. I have a heart-to-heart with myself (You’ll kill them. Don’t overdo it.) and buy some violets and the lamium, which a woman tells me nearly glows in the dark. I keep forgetting to venture out at night to see if it’s true.

On my way home, I stop at another plant sale in the more middle-class Salem. In a small church hallway, there’s a variety of greens–nothing in bloom yet–and admit it’s a bit of a sad scene after the fauna of the garden club in the neighboring town. I buy something because I feel bad, but for a dollar, it will probably outlive us all.

Also, these petite pink English daisies are now my favorite flower.

birdhouse and plants

Yard sale finds

This weekend I headed to the Marblehead Art Walk, which was a bust. This was likely due to the fact that I missed it by an entire week (May is disappearing faster than I thought, apparently), so in wandering around looking for art or the art-making workshop I was keen to attend, I realized there was no art. But all was not lost. I hit up a few early-season yard sales and was pleasantly surprised to find (wait for it) art.

Everyone needs a pineapple oil painting, no? This one is heavily textured, like a pineapple, but the frame is a little staid for my tastes, which I probably should not have said to the seller after she gave it to me for $5, but no worries; I went to the paint store and they mixed me up a sample of an avocado green for $3. That little sample tub is my tip of the day, people; if you have something small to paint, samples are a bargain. Or does everyone know that already? Anyway, this weekend will involve funkying up the frame.

Turns out the seller is a poet so we chatted about people and organizations we had in common (You love Grub St.? I love Grub St.) and she even invited me to join a local writing group, which I must say, I hadn’t expected when buying a pineapple painting.

pineapple painting

But why stop there when I could dig up a second piece of art–this one of a madame that will go in my bathroom, if you must know. The style of the drawing (or watercolor? This is how little I know about art) is reminiscent of Toulouse Lautrec, yet it’s signed something like Lilead or Iliad, which must be wrong, because the Interweb turned up zilch about the former and a million references to Homer for the latter. Who cares. The vibrant red frame is perfect, no painting necessary.

madame drawing

I also found a packet of Bookmarks for Cooks (can’t bring myself to write in my cookbooks), which should help when I make a note like “Add more cheese.” I expect most bookmarks will say “Add more cheese.”

Finally, I scooped up this gold, worn heart locket, which is as oversized as it looks, for 25 cents. Come on! I don’t yet have the right dangly chain, so if you have one, get in touch. I need to wear this puppy before the steampunk movement passes.

heart locked

Yard sale finds

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The season has begun.

At a school fundraiser, I spot two things you normally don’t see on the bargain-hunting circuit: a man playing bagpipes and a girl cradling her ferret–two odd lumps that both emit strange sounds. But I will not be distracted by the hoopla. But in fact, I was distracted: by the time I make it over to a unicycle for sale, it’s gone, which is probably just as well because in what scenario am I actually mastering the thing and not falling on my face?

You might think given the unicycle and the picture below that I have kids. I don’t, but I like mini cookie cutters as much as the next kid, and they’re just the right size and shape for animal crackers. And, like I always say, where there’s a rooster banner, there’s a reason to celebrate. The tiny Halloween-themed notebooks I’ll hand out to trick-or-treaters in October.

Maple and yard sale finds

rooster banner

Given my newfound collage mania, I buy a couple of books–one of photographs, one on constellations–that I’ll try to rip up without thinking I’m going to hell. A vintage Clue game for $1 might also make its way into a collage; the furry tail in the photo will not. And my favorite find: a one-of-a-kind wood-carved painting of an aviator bunny in a polka-dotted plane. My friend pointed out that carved in the bottom corner is “July ’72,” the month and year I was born, like it was destined to be mine. I think it actually says “Judy ’72,” and while I don’t know Judy, I really wish I did. I think we’d get along.

yard sale books

Literary collage workshop

I like me some good collage therapy–an art outlet disguised as life mapping or vision boards that allows for perusing beautiful images that I collect like a magpie for what I pretend is a work of art. But I rarely find the right images or collect too many disparate images, or don’t have time to arrange them all just so. But in a literary collage workshop at the MA Poetry Festival last weekend, I grabbed materials from trunks of colorful scraps, photographs, stamps, sheets of music, and lines from poems, and realized a sort of jungle theme had emerged organically: a bird, a bunch of bananas, trees.

Time was running out as it usually does when you’re knee-deep in art-making, but the pressure worked. With only five minutes before the next workshop would begin, I started slapping down images on a board in places that felt right, that all worked.

Instructors Missy-Marie Montgomery and Trish Crapo (check out her collages here) shared their own beautiful collage creations inspired by lines of poetry and encouraged us to layer both literally (materials) and figuratively (ideas and themes); one participant said she makes a drink and a collage every night; one young girl emerged with a masterpiece. I’m putting mine up on the wall and telling visitors it’s a rare work by a local artist.

jungle collage

 

collage with peach

In addition to pages ripped from books (shudder!), the artists brought some pages that had undergone a process using Citra Solv, a cleaning agent-turned-art material that blends the ink on a page to create colorful, abstract designs. You can read it about it on this artist’s blog.

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With a minute or two left, each workshop participant introduced their collage, and I had the sudden feeling that everyone had been secret collage prodigies. Still, I loved the workshop, the creative process, the artists let loose from their poet selves. I’m eyeing my books with a new sense of possibility.

collages on display

Perception

“Are you Kate’s sister?” a woman asks me.

“Who’s Kate?” I ask.

She points to a dancer about to perform. Kate is lanky with disheveled hair, a crooked tooth or two, and dressed in bright, appealing colors. I size her up then size myself up, which is, of course, impossible to do in any objective way. Kate appears friendly and interesting, but she’s too quirky looking. She’s a lot older. Her underwear peaks out as she dances (me? never) but she has the confidence to keep on dancing (I’m with her there). In other ways, I see myself, especially in her colorful presentation, unruly hair, and funky glasses. But then, she has the boldness to perform a creative work in front of a crowd (uh-uh) and she’s artsy and chaotic in a way that screams free-spirited artist (nope).

In high school, my friend can’t wait to tell me she met my twin who was playing in a visiting school band. In the auditorium, I see the band members file in and spot her immediately. Oh, God. Her? I am humiliated that this is how my friend perceives me. The girl is gangly and awkward, and while OK, I was gangly and awkward, I wasn’t ready to own it as a freshman.

I think of a summer writing workshop I took two years ago, all creativity and summer dresses, when a participant told me I looked and sounded like Teri Gross. I love Teri Gross but I wasn’t sure I wanted to look like her (she’s older, NY accent). Today, I would say Thank you and smile.

TerryGross

I turn back to watch Kate, graceful on the stage in a way that I am not, and start to embrace not only the qualities that we share but also some that I don’t care to share but have to admit are right on. I think about approaching her after the show to tell her about the comparison, but I don’t want to risk a shocked reaction or watch her scrutinize my face. But hey, she should be happy to be me; here I am sitting in the audience of her show–surely I have good taste–and not a smidge of my underwear is showing.

Need help with 528 down

This mammoth crossword that ran in Virginia’s Daily Press captured the people and events that made news in 2012; what will make the news next year is anyone who can finish it. In addition to its size (820 across and 815 down), the print is so tiny that filling in any of those boxes is an achievement. I have a massive two lines completed but am confident I can knock this out in a couple of months. With a magnifying glass. And a jumbo eraser. And Google.

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Ugly gift contest

Some families have sweet, wholesome traditions of hanging their stockings by the fireplace while little ones run amok in footie pajamas; others leave cookies for Santa on a special plate while trimming the tree and singing Deck the Halls; in my family we have a new ritual: the annual ugly gift contest. This is the second year we’ve scoured yard sales and thrift stores to vie for the prize: an ugly bargain.

The tradition got off to a rocky start last year when my entry was confiscated by officials at Logan Airport for being too ugly. OK, not really, but you can read the story here. This year, I skipped the whole flying thing and drove to Virginia for Christmas. I wasn’t taking any chances. With my ugly presented nestled safely in my luggage in the backseat, the TSA couldn’t touch me.

Crowning the winner would be tricky as everyone in the family offered a contender. How would we determine, impartially, who won? We tossed around the idea of a secret ballot, but when the nominees were unveiled all at once on the table, one thing became clear: no vote was necessary. We had a clear winner.

My entry: evil-eyed moon in gross mustard color with flexible joints

My entry: evil-eyed moon with flexible joints in gross mustard color. Third place.

Mom's entry: an undeniably ugly figurine / statue thing with sea life in relief, appropriately rendered in the letter "U" for ugly.

Mom’s entry: an undeniably ugly figurine / statue thing with dolphins in sculptural relief, appropriately rendered in the letter “U” for ugly. Runner-up.

My sister and brother-in-law's entry: a flamingo orb with a neon flashing and glowing ball set in an urchin-like vessel.

My sister and brother-in-law’s entry: a flamingo orb with a neon flashing and glowing ball set in an urchin-like vessel. Winner.

Yeah, the last one. While the orb (?) was the original gift—ugly enough on its own—my brother-in-law stumbled on a starfish . . . receptacle (?) that housed the flamingo egg (?) nicely. We still don’t know what to make of it. My mom tried to give an award to the winning couple from a bag of seemingly regifted items; the winners declined more crap.

In many ways I was the loser: not only did my moon come in last, it also garnered a few likes from the crowd, which was dispiriting. Regardless, I’m still calling it a victory, because when I packed up the car to come home, not one piece of that junk was in my trunk.

The case of the disappearing turkey

Thanksgiving is not the time to try new recipes, but who has time to do a dry run of an elaborate meal? Plus, I’m a risk taker. A jump-out-of-a-plane skydiver. A zipline-over-the-canyon kind of gal. Well, not really. Regardless, I go foolhardily into new recipe adventures on Thanksgiving with total confidence—my first being Rachael Ray’s stuffin’ muffins recipe that failed. Hard. Instead of crunchy yet moist individual portions of stuffing, the muffins remained wet balls (go ahead, I’ll wait), uncooked in the middle. Still, I liked the idea of making stuffing in cupcake tins, so I brought them to my friend’s house anyway and we had a good laugh. Too ambitious, my desires.

Last year, I made gingerbread thinking it was a brilliant idea to swap out dried old ginger spice for the real thing, freshly grated. Calculations veering on trigonometry did nothing to achieve an accurate substitution amount. Result: ew.

This year, I tried a recipe I’ve had in my collection for a decade but have never made. A rich chocolate tart calls for a special occasion and Thanksgiving seemed just the occasion. But dough and I just don’t get along (it refuses to be dough), so while I managed to at least make a chocolate crust, I failed to note that cocoa powder is not the same as cocoa. You knew that? You could have told me.

I also realized halfway through (seriously, there’s a reason you should read recipes all the way through before attempting, but we’re stubborn, you and I) that the magazine clipping with the recipe was missing the part about how to make the chocolate filling. After Googling around and going for it, I had a rich chocolate tart that was half rich, half dry as unsweetened cocoa.

But no matter. All would be forgiven once everyone saw the adorable turkey figure I stenciled on the tart using a hand drawn turkey silhouette and powdered sugar. Before popping it in the car this morning, I took a peek at the tart only to realize that the turkey had disappeared; the sugar had dissolved into the chocolate, as if embarrassed. Back in the kitchen, I sifted more sugar around the salvaged stencil. Crisis averted. Until I arrived at my friend’s house with the turkey half dissolved again and fading fast.

But this is a day to be thankful. Thankful that I have friends who will pretend the bitter tart crust is delicious and that the cute turkey is still clearly visible even when it’s not. At least I snapped a picture of the sucker for proof. If you too want to attempt this tart using actual cocoa powder, and can somehow manage to roll the dough out to the recommended 4″ x 16 ”  rectangle and find a tart pan that size while not burning the edges and not watching your turkey shape disappear, by all means try the recipe.

On my drive home, a shooting star shot across the sky—a magical moment considering that it was, well, a star shooting across the sky to its death but more so because it was so clearly visible even from a city highway. You’d think I wished for more sense when it comes to baking, but I didn’t.