A large farm table sits at the center of our home between windows and books and doorways to other rooms. It is the place where we eat and work together as a family, where we naturally gather with one another and friends for food or craft or talk. Yet in a more abstract way, the table is also a telling of the soul, a litmus test of our family’s connection and availability. As our little everyday things–mail, school and art work, groceries–accumulate and sprawl the surface, the table always asks us honestly, have you made time for one another today? Have you cleared the lingering clutter of your life to sit with food and story? . . .
READ MORE of what I wrote about our family table life for The Common Table today.
When we bought our first home so many years ago, I thought of home and garden design in terms of magazine spreads–things and furniture and plant life neatly arranged in exactly the right place, constant, tidy, and perfect. It was a finite process in my mind, one with clear beginnings and endings and words like finished and unfinished. Although I do love renovating homes, arranging furniture, and finding the perfect spot for our favorite little things, I’ve realized over the years that design, both indoor and outdoor, is a far more organic process, one that longs to breathe and evolve along with its inhabitants. Regardless of the completeness of your space when you move in to it, the concept of home is something that develops and grows with time. All good things truly do take time.
For all the time interiors require, gardens have taken me longer to learn. My journey with growing and nurturing plants has been one characterized more by error than anything else–I hope this brings some of you comfort. In our first home, an apartment, I created a flower garden on our patio–a tiny nook where we could sit and enjoy natural beauty instead of the concrete parking lot below. In spite of my best effort, I watched, frustrated, as plant after plant died that season. Year after year, with each new beginning, my husband would sort of raise his brow as if to say, “are you sure?” I’ve never been one to back off learning too easily, but it’s not a surprise that my love and patience for plant life has burgeoned alongside my mothering years. They are independent but parallel journeys, one always whispering secrets and skills to me about the other. In spite of failure, each planting has taught me something new and given me more resolve to try again, to learn.
When we moved into our current home, the plant-life had overgrown everything outdoors. Vines crept up and around trees. Dead branches scattered about the yard and dangled from branches. Pieces of trash–tires and old pipes and bottles–lay intertwined beneath heaps of enmeshed stems and leaves. Our yard, although living, had been forgotten and abandoned. During our first spring and summer last year, we began cutting back and cleaning out some of the rubbish. Sometimes nurturing means tearing down and clearing out. We filled bag upon bag of leaves and decayed brush, and often, it appeared as if we had done nothing. Life can be like this, yes? In one instance, progress might occur overnight, while in another, it evolves more slowly through a series of minutia. Don’t discount the minutia.
In early spring this year, my husband, children, and I cleared and cut out the entire back part of our yard–all of the brush and dead bits–down to the soil. We tilled and leveled the earth a bit and then replanted sod. We purchased old railway ties to create vegetable garden beds and planted 18 tree saplings. Everywhere we live, we plant trees. Although all of our plantings are small, just a bit more than seeds, they are simple reminders to me that everything–the mightiest oaks to the most pivotal human lives–begins small.
Whether you’re gardening or decorating or parenting, beginning a business or a new relationship, be patient with the growing process and don’t forsake small beginnings.
14 | What does courage mean?Can you think of a time when you had to be really courageous?
olive | It was brave when I slept without my blanket and when I stopped sucking my thumb. | This week you helped Dad plant and water new tree sprigs in the yard. You’re happiest when your hands have something to do–also when no one wakes you up in the morning.
blythe | Courage means being really brave. Sometimes I’ve had to be brave to tell the truth. I also had to be brave to go on the zip-line the first time. | You innately want to take care of things and others around you–something I love about you– but sometimes I have to remind you not to parent your siblings. Perhaps this causes the most tension between you and Olive–your longing for order and care-taking, and Olive’s independence and contentment with chaos. Although some days are really difficult, I’m so grateful that you’re learning now how to be merciful and gentle with your gifts.
burke | Courage is sacrifice. It means you’re willing to do something no one else will do, like when I have enough money to buy something for myself, but choose to share it with someone else or buy something to share. | You know how to work and rest well. In one moment, you might be steadily swinging a sledge hammer to help take down our mini-brick wall and another moment lying on the sidewalk like a cat in the sun, motionless for several minutes at a time.
liam | It means you stand tall when you lose hope. I had to have courage when I got stitches and when I crushed my finger in the door a couple of years ago. I don’t like when painful things happen to me. | You had to get stitches in your knee this week after you fell while climbing a fence. The doctor had to remove a large splinter of wood from your leg, but you cringed the most about the shot they had to give you for numbing. Like your father, you despise needles.
As the dreary (and rather long) winter weather draws to an end, something shifts in us too, doesn’t it? The spring sunlight has a way of imparting new and necessary energy to our souls as well as our environments. It becomes what Leo Tolstoy called “a time for plans and projects.” Although we’ve spent much of our recent days working outdoors clearing and planting (more on that later), indoors we’ve been welcoming the new season in a few simple and specific ways, too. The flannel sheets and heavier linens have been tucked away and exchanged for crisp white linens and lighter coverlets. Oil diffusers replace most of the warmer candles and small hand-picked flowers gather in glass jars along our surfaces and shelves again.
There’s a reason so many people talk about cleaning in the springtime. The bright air and soft light draw attention to all the collected dust of winter, the closed window crevices and unused shelves. For years, our family has aimed to practice more natural cleaning, making or purchasing products that rely on naturally occurring ingredients rather than harmful chemicals. Since we’ve always lived in old homes, I’m also always looking for natural ways to brighten the scents that linger in older spaces.
Over the years, I’ve skeptically dabbled with essential oils, trying to distinguish truth from trend, and while we haven’t subscribed to any one organization or product, I can testify essential oils are wonderful for a variety of purposes from personal health to home. If not used medicinally–although we’ve dabbled a bit with that too–they are incredible for bringing new life into spaces through natural aromatherapy. A few of the oils, including tea tree oil, eucalyptus, rosemary and peppermint have also been known to contain antibacterial properties, too–making them an ideal choice for safe, non-toxic cleaning around the home. Like most concentrated substances, it’s best to leave the blending of oils and carriers to adults.
After a discussion about the benefits of oils, Nicole recently sent me a bottle of Young Living‘s Thieves (a blend of clove, lemon, rosemary, cinnamon, and eucalyptus) to try at home. I’ve included it in a few cleaning recipes below, and it smells divine. Beyond house cleaning, I’ve added a few drops to my own and my girls’ baths, to our diffuser, and even tried using it a bit topically. Although in several ways, I’m a novice to the world of essential oils, I jotted down a few ways our family is currently using oils to create natural cleaners for our home. I purchased amber glass spray bottles to use since oils tend to encourage the leaching in plastics. Happy spring!
| multi-purpose spray |
16 oz. glass spray bottle
2 cups filtered water
4 tsp. castile soap (I use Dr. Bronner’s Eucaplyptus soap)
40 drops of Thieves (or another anti-bacterial oil)
Shake and spray on any surface. We use this on most any hard surface in our home, including kitchen counters and tabletops, cabinet doors and knobs, bathroom counters and sinks.
| linen spray |
16 oz. spray bottle
1 cup filtered water
4 tbsp witch hazel, rubbing alcohol or vodka
20 drops lemon oil
20 drops eucalyptus oil
20 drops lavender oil
Shake and lightly spray on any linens, including bedding, fabric pillows, sofas, or rugs. As always, if you’re nervous about the material’s reaction, test a small spot first. Thank you, Kaylan, for the recipe.
Time always moves faster than we expect. Like fishing with bare hands, I often grasp at it, trying to hold still all that is so slippery and wild. More pictures. More words. More to remember today and all that makes up right now. This week, in the midst of our flurrying about with spring projects, I was comforted by these words, “but Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Some moments in parenthood can be snatched in film and words, and others are simply folded away within us.
olive | you create a meal for me everyday, at times in the real kitchen and others right in your pretend one. I can’t wait to see this art form grow more in you.
blythe | “I think God is doing something really good with our family.” I think I agree entirely.
burke | a few friends, hot dogs, and smores–a small but proper celebration of your 10th year.
liam| planting sod together, our hands muddied and tired.
When we first bought this home last year, several large projects needed our immediate attention, meaning repairing leaks and holes and years of abandonment had to begin before we addressed any of our more aesthetic wants. Our children loved our last home (the only one they really knew in childhood) with its large climbing trees and playful indoor nooks. Most of the indoor spaces they loved so much, I had created for them in their infant/toddler years or even before their birth. Although I realize they were cultivated with time and care, it’s hard for them (even as they’re getting older) to always have such perspective. If life truly is always trying to teach us something, I suppose the lesson we are all working through is this: all good things develop with time.
Still, I want our children to attach here, to live and enjoy right where we are, to learn that home and beauty are within us, not always the space itself. With a little intention and several individual conversations, I have focused on the kids’ rooms more this new year. Here’s a few ways we’ve managed these changes.
begin with small, inexpensive changes | Even the smallest, most inexpensive changes can make a room feel like their own: fresh paint, new pillows or throw blankets, a piece of art, a few favorite images.
repurpose something | When we purchase or make something for our home, I like to choose something that could work anywhere. Several of the pieces currently in the girls’ room weren’t always intended that way. Shifting adult furniture or art around the house can give the room or the piece a fresh look.
create a cozy reading/play nook | Cozy nooks are quite necessary in shared spaces, especially for introverted children. They can be the perfect hiding spot to read, play, or enjoy a little quiet alone time. My friend Terri makes the sweetest play tents and cushions for her shop Blue House Joys. She recently made one for us and my girls are smitten with it, swapping sleeping in it at night and enjoying everything from reading to tea parties in it during the day. If you’re interested, I’m hosting a $50 giveaway to her shop over on my Instagram page.find one special feature | If you spend anytime looking at other kid spaces, you might find yourself wanting to add too much in one room. Instead try to narrow down one or two (if the room’s big enough) special features that your child(ren) would love. In the girls’ room it is a play kitchen area and a play tent.
use multi-purpose furniture | I prefer kids spaces without tons of clutter, since they always manage making a mess all on their own. To help keep their spaces tidier, our children own minimal toys and their furniture easily tucks their dearest knick-knacks away to make clean up easier, like a storage bench or a play kitchen. Since Olive still adores pretend play and being in the kitchen, we found a used kitchen set on Craigslist for her birthday. I painted the pink panels and damaged corners and roughly sewed new curtains for the hutch–just like new. Both girls adore it and since it’s a little larger, I imagine they’ll use it for a while, enough to justify the space it consumes.
| sources |
Although I’m leaving the sources for all of the room details, I’m doing it more so that you can see how spaces collect and evolve with time in our home. We tend to purchase or build pieces that can be used in any room in our home, shifting as our needs change. For instance, Blythe and Olive currently share a queen bed, which belonged to me and Mark in the beginning of our marriage. It now belongs to them and also doubles as our guest bed when friends or family visit.
headboard, a stained panel of walnut, formerly my sister and brother-in-laws
side table, found on the side of the road and we refinished
chair, bought at a thrift shop several years ago
storage bench, IKEA, bought 10 years ago when toddler toys were stored in our townhome living room
11 | What was the most interesting thing you learned this week?
olive | Learning how to tie my shoes! | We’ve had so much rain the last two months. Our yard has been more like a marsh than a lawn, perfect for hunting worms and frogs and watching the birds gather their morning meals. On this day, with your rain gear and ear muffs, you wandered the yard, watching and singing.
blythe | In the book Pollyanna [what I'm reading right now], Pollyanna loves being outdoors and is always nice and polite and happy, even when the people around her are grumpy and mean. She teaches people the “glad game.” | You, Olive, and I made wildflower seed balls together for a project this week. We’ve been now listing all of the places around town we plan to deposit them. Making and planning both make you so happy.
burke | Octopuses have three hearts. | Your collections of Calvin and Hobbes are tattered and coverless, some of them losing pages with every read, yet you still laugh aloud at your favorite parts.
liam | Terrapins are in the same family as turtles but are a little smaller and live in marshlands and beaches in the US.They almost became extinct because of hunting. | I recently purchased a few new picture books for you guys, and you can’t manage to put aside this one. I’ve been so grateful to remember your need for picture books, even as you grow older.
12 | What was your favorite part of our trip this weekend?
olive | I loved everything! Roasting marshmallows, the zip-line, being with friends! Just say everything. | On our first step into the freezing river, you squealed, “We’re living in the wilderness again!” Somehow your spirit seems proportionately sized in the outdoors, large and alive and full of endless curiosities.
blythe | My favorite part of the weekend was getting to hike and paddle-boat. | In spite of the icy cold water, you pleaded to swim in your clothes. And once you were quite wet, you wanted a dry, warm towel. It really was a little too cold for swimming yet.
burke | I love sleeping in a tent outside. | All weekend we kept finding you slinging arrows at the target or searching for various wildlife–the most unusual being a green lizard with a blue belly you discovered. You seem so peaceful and relaxed in nature, as though you have a mutual respect for one another.
liam | I liked all of the hiking we got to do. | Our friend had a high-powered pellet gun that you were able to use over the weekend. Although guns still somewhat terrify me as a mother, it was sweet to watch how responsibly you handled it, always making sure the other kids were nowhere near. Everyday I seem to notice more ways you’re growing up.