House Almost Beautiful: My Muse And The Never Ending Project

In the past year, I have spent way too much time walking around my tiny house and noticing my less-than-perfect surroundings. Our home of over forty years has benefitted from a few updates and additions. As time passes, paint colors beg an update. Window treatments need an overhaul. Furniture could be rearranged. While I have lived with the current state of affairs for a while, my desire to change things up has roots in one of my many vices: a recent overdose of home decorating shows that has me jonesing for a redo.

My viewing preferences come in the form of one specific obsession–the Canadian designer, Sarah Richardson. Sarah is a big name and a bit of a brand up north. Her vintage shows–Sarah 101, Room Service, Design Inc–run daily on the Dabl channel. My sacred Sarah ritual causes me to stop whatever I’m doing and turn on the television promptly at 2 p.m. My dependence on Sarah grounds me in a quasi-schedule. It also causes me to take to the websites of Amazon, Wayfair, and Lowe’s to replicate her ideas, a habit that has become a costly hobby.

Even though some of the shows date back to the mid-2000’s, Sarah’s timeless style appeals to me. I watch in awe as she trolls through antique stores, pausing at some broken-down piece and imagining how she will breathe new life into the borderline junk. She always sees potential in someone else’s discards. Sarah repurposes old decrepit bureaus into bathroom vanities and refinishes chandeliers, well past their sell-by dates, into shiny, glittering fixtures. Like a magician, she transforms tiny, cramped spaces into seemingly spacious, usable rooms. Her innate sense of scale and texture translates into visual appeal that, in my humble and somewhat untrained opinion, is perfection.

I must confess the whole design obsession is not new for me. I refer to myself as untrained but, in a little known piece of Mami trivia, decades ago, I spent a year and a half in an Interior Design program at a local college. I studied Art History, Textiles, Color, and Drawing. I visited museums, admiring Caravaggios and Titians for their deep, rich tones and use of light. On field trips, I strolled through the collections at the Fashion Institute of Technology. I created mood boards–presentations juxtaposing swatches of fabric, paint chips, carpeting, wallpaper, and furniture ideas. I developed floor plans for imaginary clients. I never completed the degree but I learned enough to transform our own home, frequently. My long-suffering husband usually played along. Nonetheless, Tim was relieved when I changed career paths and studied school counseling in a Master’s program. I returned to non-design related work once our kids were older and I know his relief wasn’t based on additional income flow alone.

With my reawakened interest in home design, Sarah seeped into my psyche and before long, she invaded my dreams. After watching an episode of Sarah 101 where she constructed a baby’s changing table designed to fit over an old bureau, I found myself working on the same project in my sleep. I measured and mitered joints with my assistants, Barack and Michelle Obama. Besides watching too much t.v. I was also reading Becoming, Mish’s memoir. Worlds collided, a sure sign of a Sarah problem, an obsession with the former First Couple, and an overactive dream life. 

My pandemic Sarah habit has inspired a few minor changes. Since last summer, we have repainted a few rooms and dissolved a dining room to create an office for Tim’s ‘work from home.’ With the completion of each tiny project, I anticipated my next conquest and Tim shrugged. Sarah’s ideas, teamed with my own modest knowledge, sparked more projects. Most of the time, I pondered silently, germinating an idea fully, so as not to rile up my husband prematurely. I knew he dreaded hearing “Hey, I was thinking…” He’s had a twenty year respite while I abandoned my home rearrangement in the interest of counseling America’s youth. But now, I’m retired and back home for good, rejuvenated and teeming with ideas inspired by my muse–my Candian idol.

Last week, when Tim walked into the house after a game of golf, I am sure he had a moment of PTSD. In the few hours while he was out, I had dismantled the living room. Tired of the arrangement, I covertly contemplated a change. With a clipboard in hand, I sketched out a few options. I removed all of the breakable items, leaving behind the heavy furniture. In the old days, when I deconstructed the rooms, I seldom required much help to shift the big stuff. I could usually get things back together before Tim returned from work. He tended to appreciate the final product, especially when I cut him out of the process.

This time was different. I am older now, and I hesitate to acknowledge it, weaker. Moving the piano by myself posed an impossible task but the monstrosity needed repositioning before anything else could slide into place. I stood in the middle of the room, helpless, dreading Tim’s gasp when he walked in the door. I suppressed my panic and practiced how I would frame my sudden need to rotate the seemingly static pieces. I readied myself for any reaction, knowing that his outrage would pass. My new arrangement would be worth the bother.

In the end, Tim helped me with my dilemma without much argument. Fortunately, our muscles remained unstrained and intact. Once everything was in place, I stepped back and absorbed the change, feeling a bit Sarah-ish. The result pleased me and fully vaccinated friends who have visited have given my efforts multiple, enthusiastic ‘thumbs up.’ On the other hand, Tim refers to the exercise as “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” I ignore him.

The time spent critiquing the inside of my home, combined with my friend Sarah’s inspiration, provided a diversion during these quiet months stuck in the house. Still, even though we can move about more freely, I know I’m far from finished changing things up. Today’s frontier: the upstairs shower curtain–which of course becomes drapes, rugs, towels, candles, and matching soaps. Lucky for Tim, you can’t move a toilet or a tub without a major demo. He’ll be glad to know he’s off the hook. For now.


Guilt and the Art of Blogging

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Poor Mami! Since I embarked on my full-on memoir writing journey, my beloved blog is my very neglected and under-loved extension of me and I feel guilty.  With its inception in December 2017, Mami has been my focus and creative outlet.  I have dedicated myself to creating and promoting new Mamis on a regular basis. Over fifty blog entries have been read in seventeen countries, with over 1800 visitors to the site. Mami is my passion and my “baby”, but if lack of blogging was a case for mandated reporting, I would have called DCF on myself!

Guilt is something I come by honestly. As a Catholic, I feel guilty about everything. Instilled in my home and parochial school education, I live on the straight and narrow (most of the time) because of guilt.  And I don’t always see it as a negative. Guilt holds me to a higher standard. Because of guilt, I make my bed, send greeting cards, and empty the dishwasher. It’s a master motivator when plain old responsibility doesn’t quite do its job.  Without guilt, I would be a lot less productive most days and watch a lot more “Family Affair” and “Petticoat Junction” reruns. Instead, I keep busy. Guilt wrecks all of my best attempts at being idle.

My mother was really good at guilt. Laying it on nice and thick, she guilted me into just about everything I accomplished in my early life. In the end, I appreciate it.  As for my own children, the products of a different generation, they are less thankful and blame my parental guilt trip on their collective long standing anxiety.  I guess that the plan: guilt->anxiety->accomplish something.  The key is to not get stuck at “anxiety” and as Nike said, “Just do it!”

So here I am at the keyboard on a Monday morning, concerned that I haven’t written a Mami in a few weeks, banging out a short essay on “guilt”. Once again, without guilt, I would be doing any number of other things, such as scrolling through Facebook, liking pictures on Instagram, and playing with my bitmoji’s fall outfit. Instead, I write. And from here, I have a goal to generate ten pages of memoir writing before sundown. Goals and guilt go hand in hand. I have both, most of the time.

So for now, I write a Mami on a half-assed topic to allay my guilt. Nevertheless, my writing machine and my brain are revved for today’s marathon so I guess my guilt paid off once again.  And barring any disaster and a “That Girl” marathon, it looks like today may just a be one of those guiltily productive days.  At the very least, I wrote a Mami and I call that a guilt-free success!

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Thoughts on Becoming a Writer

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This spring, I enrolled in an eight week memoir writing class at the local library. It was risk-free as well as being cost free, with no grading and no cash exchanged. As an additional bonus, I gave myself permission to quit at any time. It was a place where I could test drive my writing vehicle, this blog I affectionately call Mami, to see if I was on the right track and if my writing had a wider appeal than my loyal friends and family. Aware that they are a biased audience and know my story first hand, the cheerleader role that they have assumed delights me, but I needed a true critique. And if the criticism hit too close to the heart, I planned a speedy exit back to the bosom of my dedicated and slanted followers.

While it did not always flow readily, I always knew that I could write, at least at the perfunctory level of business memos or the college brand of term and research papers. Professors, coworkers, and friends over the years have commented on my writing. From their feedback, my personal style apparently shines through, as evidenced by the frequent, “I bet Marie wrote this”. I accepted this recognition as compliment yet I never imagined that writing could ever be my calling. It was a passion but never a vocation. My skill, however, traces its roots to my high school experience and a teacher, a man named Bill Murray (not the actor), whom I greatly feared. However, it was through this fear that I developed my craft. It was Catholic school, after all, and we were bred on fear which, in theory, would give birth to our future success.

Mr. Murray, a cruel taskmaster and a purveyor of snappy commentary, would return essays to his students in a state that nearly was unidentifiable. My class assignments, handwritten on crisp white composition paper turned a sea of red ink, convinced me that I had a problem – I clearly could not write. To address this issue, during my Junior year, I enrolled in Mr. Murray’s Composition 101 class, knowing that I needed focused assistance to correct my wayward grammar and usage.

On the first day of the semester, I walked into Mr. Murray’s classroom, sheepish and contrite, ready to be shown the proper way to basic writing. He looked up from his desk and, in his patented, caustic style, sniped at me, “What are you doing here?” Already terrified of the man, I lowered my eyes, responding with a trembling, “I can’t write.” He looked at me with confusion and retorted, “Yes, you can! This class isn’t for you. Go to the library and you’ll do an independent study.” Shaken by his borderline complement and banishment, I scurried off to my new Period 3 home. Throughout the semester, Mr. Murray assigned writing prompts to me and, as I sat in my solitary confinement of the school library, I dutifully pumped out essays. The time spent alone to write for writing’s sake offered me the opportunity to hone my style for the first time. Through this formative experience, I grew as a writer, with the proof being papers progressively less mutilated by the harsh scourge of red corrections.

Unfortunately, my confidence never quite caught up with my writing ability. As much as the written word came easily to me, I never imagined a life driven by the need to write. I stood on the sidelines and observed as my friend, Gail, who was a journalist and editor by trade, enjoyed the perks of her work. Annual assignments took her to Fashion Week in New York, her weekly columns required dining at the newest, cutting-edge restaurants, and frequent nationally syndicated articles fueled my envy. Another graduate of the School of Murray Hard Knocks, Gail knew her life direction early on. As she pursued her career, I floundered, working at an array of jobs, and finally landed in the field of school counseling. My passion for writing, while confined to college recommendations and staff emails, smoldered under the weight of the daily grind of my work life. Not interested in serious discourse, I burned to write a blog about silly, inconsequential things about which I have an opinion. In the end, Gail encouraged me to give into my curiosity. Directing me to what I needed to launch my idea, which included all manner of social media and a domain (Mami Knows Everything just happened to be available), I secured the pieces. In her antique home in Maine, the birthplace of the poet, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Mami Knows Everything was born, as well.

With time, Mami transformed into a place where I could share my joys and sadness, my high and lows, and my story. Amazed that people found interest in the thoughts that lived in my head and drove my script, I discovered freedom in my essays, as well as a sort of therapy. I watched as the metrics on my blog site rose and ebbed, in direct relation to the scope of interest in the topic. The writing became easier, more fluid, and more fluent. Mami provided a hobby and an outlet that evolved into my own personal forum for which there was an audience. Yet, I was not a “writer”.

On the day that I was told that I had a ‘voice’, I became a writer . The actual moment happened in my memoir class, the one for which I prepared an exit strategy. Apparently, the development of ‘voice’ is a big deal since developing voice does not come easily to some writers. ‘Voice’ is developed with time, practice, and the willingness to offer a glimpse into the soul. I’m pretty sure my ‘voice’ sounds like me, saddled with a thick Boston accent and blessed with a healthy dose of sarcasm. In any case, I write from the ‘heart, baring my emotions fearlessly and honestly. My ‘voice” in real life mirrors Mami‘s'”voice’ in the writing.

A fellow student in class, who was struggling with technique, directed a question to me as “a writer”. I forced myself not to look over my shoulder, wondering to whom she directed the question. I answered with command, surprising myself. In that moment, I sensed a palpable evolution as a “writer” with my confidence, long lost, fully restored.

A few weeks ago, a publisher reached out to me about Mami. The communication took me by surprise and, in turn, I considered my response with care. Being of a suspicious nature and a rabid ‘Googler’, I first researched the credentials and on-line presence of this person. The verdict: very real. I engaged the expertise of my son, another writer, who also backed up my findings. Clearly, one hundred and twenty nine thousand followers on Twitter don’t lie! Intrigued and honored, I responded with interest and trepidation, not knowing my readiness for where this opportunity might lead. That part of my story has yet to be written.

For now, my ‘voice’ and I will sit tight and infuse our message into Mami . In the meantime, I can feel my transformation taking hold. I write daily. I dream about ideas and sentences. I wake up in the middle of the night with topics swirling in my head. I outline my next essay in the shower. I suspect that those traits define a “writer”; if so, perhaps, the metamorphosis is complete.

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