Saturday, July 30, 2016

Family Time in the Dining Room

When you have lived in a beloved home for almost twenty years and have left its cradling walls, sometimes your mind returns on what happened there. What exactly were the daily lessons we all learned from one another as we raised our children (and ourselves)? As I look back to the rooms of that wonderful home, I have to say the dining room is where most of the mentoring was done. Blogpost about our home called: RIP Bridge Haven, our old home I don't think I realized it at the time, until now a few years later, but our ideas had more purposes than I knew.

When I was much younger, I read the quote by J. R. R. Tolkien that describes a hobbit house. I secretly wished to make it into a home like Bilbo Baggins, "It was a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or storytelling or singing or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness...." When we lived in our first apartment in New York City, I decided to initially tackle the furniture. I wasn't sure how furniture would transform it into a house that drew storytellers and singers. But I opted to try...

The first piece of furniture we bought in our marriage was no other than a dining room table. We both decided we wanted to entertain as much as we could--even with our meager budget. Since we both came from large families, the notion to regularly invite others to our table sounded satisfying, cozy. We found a 1910 long oak table in New York City where we lived, the kind you lengthen by pulling out each end. Often we would stretch both our budget and our table to fit 14 or more people at the extended table. Sometimes people would bring dishes too, presenting many treasured memories in those early years of our marriage. That table brought lively, peppered conversations, developing bonds of relationships that still reverberate today. I thought then our worthy endeavor to entertain and invite had been realized.

The experimental round table in our dining room.

Since the long, corridor kind of table was pleasant and inviting to me, I was surprised when my husband came home about ten years later with a loftier idea: to make a round table. His devised plan? To cut two semi-circles out of plywood, join them together, and give it a lavish stain and varnish. The table would be about eight feet across, fitting 12 people comfortably. He thought we could just put the new round plywood circle over our old trusty rectangle table, providing a way to increase lingering conversations with our tween children. Eventually, we had six children, plus his father who lived with us for almost seven years. His round table brainchild was just one more experiment in how to raise kids. I decided to go along with his design of the table. What could we lose? Hadn't King Arthur and The Round Algonquin Table in NYC benefited from a round table?

Here is a picture at Christmas with the Boxing Day crowns on, one tradition during the holidays. On this particular holiday, from Thanksgiving to Christmas, I draped a canvas painting tarp over the table. During that entire holiday, everyone wrote down their blessings on the canvas fabric. We used it as a tablecloth for awhile, reminding us of that particular holiday. Later it became an expansive picnic tablecloth...

For a while, after my husband set up the round table, he quietly measured how much time the kids would linger after meals. He would smile contentedly to himself at how long people stayed at the table--not wanting to rush away to leave the conversation. No words were said, but I think even he was a little surprised how well his undertaking had succeeded. When we invited guests to dinner, the same result happened; people more naturally conversed, laughed, joined in on jokes. There was a natural magnanimity to the round table, with no hierarchal placement. Everyone faced one another, with equanimity. My husband was right: his experiment with the shape of a circle for our dining room table worked marvelously. I can even say that plywood wooden table changed the dynamics of our family. 

After a few years, I made this large "lazy susan" that twirled around in the middle of the round table. I wood burned some of our favorite family sayings, watercolored the wood, and then glazed it. Again, there were not a lot of words or reminding, but these simple family quotes reminded my kids that our family could do hard things, like their grandpa always said, "Do the difficult" or their great-grandma said, "Cherish your dreams." The quotes were always there in the middle of the table to encourage, maybe even instruct. Every night we would light some candles during dinner. I think the dripping of wax on the candles signified that while we were all together, it was a sacred time. When we blew out the candles and went our separate ways, then our time had elapsed. But while we were there, with the flickering lights at our table, that time was all ours. 

The symbol of a circle means completeness, with no gaps or breaks. To know that you will ultimately gather every day, looking across and rubbing elbows with those people that share your walls, gives an increased desire to connect. Maybe even reaching out to make any wrongs be made right since the last time the circle gathered. That table was where children were quizzed for an upcoming test, played games, and sat with their grandfather. I remember many significant family discussions at that table too, one being when we thought of moving to another city. I don't remember the vote, but my son told me the ballot box came out and we voted on a possible move. Again, the round table brought consensus, unity, and understanding--if there were ever any breaks in the circle. 

Another piece in the dining room was a little more discreet, perhaps even silent most of the time, but it was our "Family Mission Statement." It hung above the round table, a document that was edited for three years before it ever made it to the wall. Each of us, with unanimous consensus, signed that agreement (I won't publish it here because your family can hash out and revise their own if they wish). But oftentimes, I would look at the wall above the round table, remembering what we all had agreed to do--to love one another, no matter what. To have fun, support, and encourage one another. 

A few years later, I peeled off some pictures that were hanging on one wall and decided to paint my own version of a family tree. My friend and I painted the tree one afternoon. I love storytelling, especially the family history variety, and well, with the ancestor names on my dining room wall, wouldn't their stories beg to be told? 

Here is the tree, in all it's glory that spanned our dining room wall for many years. You can see it was not painted with a true artist's eye, but the names (the branches had my kids' names on it), with the trunk filled with ancestor's names. I liked the idea that the roots had the ancestors' names on it, signifying where we all came from. The fact that tree bark can be several inches thick signifies that it protects the tree from fire and disease. I always felt that tree, with all the ancestors' names on it, shaded us, protected us.  

I liked to think that both my husband and our Icelandic, French, Swedish, and English ancestors enjoyed the notion that their names were on our dining room wall--sometimes several hundreds of years after they had died. If anything, the tree provided a canopy of wisdom and goodness, with some of their stories.

Within the boundaries we live in our homes, they are the bridge to our inner and outer worlds. Undoubtedly, the rooms and walls that we live in distill memories and wisdoms that linger with us forever. They prepare us to journey on, to find courage, to learn how to meditate, and more than anything to love without borders and divisions. I would say in unlikely places, such as tables, chairs, and with a candle's glimmering brightness, people are grown--the old and the young, the small and the tall. The special rooms of our lives will always open to us wherever we rove, reminding us of things that were taught to us within its walls. Memories of home cushion and fuel us to do hard things, just as Bilbo learned: "The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the road has gone, and I must follow if I can."                             


Monday, July 25, 2016

The Poetry of Barns

In front of one of my favorite barns, a place that has taught me woodworking. It is a place of immense creativity and camaraderie.
Here are some iconic barns, a part of Mormon Row, in front of the Tetons in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. In the 1890's a group of 27 homesteaders clustered in these pastures in front of the majestic Tetons. Now visitors come from all over the world to view the much photographed barns, remnants of an earlier frontier history in the Jackson Hole Valley. The area is called Antelope Flats.

All of my life I have had a fascination with barns. I love every variety--the tilting roofs with bare scaffolding that show every patch of weathered vein in the wood. You know the one that looks like it is slumping, crumbling, begging for a new friend--the kind I crawled around as a child. The spacious, light-filled beams in other barns can resemble a nave in a cathedral, giving awe-struck, even reverent moments and revelations. Sometimes, if we listen long enough, a barn can unravel long-held secrets. Like people, they have personal traits and characteristics in their spaces that are unique to them. No barn is the same. They each have a purpose to their story--whatever their anatomy.

Barns are a symbol of someone's heritage, their life choices, opportunities, and what they reaped. They are a reservoir to store precious livelihoods, keeping animals that allowed them to retrieve their harvest. Both mammoth and small barns were made with keen design and skill, and attention to every joint and nail. As my boys dismantled an old barn this summer to retrieve the beautiful reusable wood, my son commented, "I was amazed at the arduous work that I could see someone had done eighty or so years earlier. As we pulled out the long, rusty nails, I could see the care someone had taken to build their barn. I wanted to preserve as much as the wood that we could for the next chapter in the barn's life--to make an art barn." Indeed, they knew they were in a special territory, where some unknown people had sacrificed and toiled. It only seemed right to gather as much as they could to use again.

My son, Elias, who has been helping to make an art barn this summer.

Part of the work team to dismantle "the old barn" that will now have a different purpose: to fuel a desire to create with art. The windows, some that will have access to a loft, will have views that inspire painting, writing, and sculpting.

Dismantling the old barn
Gabriel Deerman, an art instructor who changed our lives with his attentive interest in my son's art work (Elias, my son,  has autism). We all became kindred spirits when I heard of his dream to renovate two barns on his property between Toronto and Montreal, Canada. He is building art studios for he and his wife, and will offer art workshops in the Tamworth, Canada area. Here are two posts I wrote about him and his future art studio and classrooms: Fostering Creative Collaborations and I want our house to smell like art  Here is more information about Gabriel's barns turned studio/classrooms: Salmon River Studios

Here is another famous barn in Heber Valley, Utah, called the Tate Barn. It is located just below Soldier Hollow, where there was the cross country runs for the 2002 Olympics.

Barns are typically rooted in seasons of harvest, tending animals, and family celebrations. But they are also monuments to strong people who were resilient in long ago storms. Like the joints of wood that solidly bind barns together, they connect us to other times and tales. Barns can attach us to groves of trees, meadows, fields, and rivers that are hallmarks in our hearts. With their soft moans and howls on icy nights, barns shelter us. On summer days with the sun glistening through the shadows, they make us feel safe, and at home within their walls. Barns allow the smells, sounds, and close proximity to nature that most homes cannot give. They are a link to the land, that all of us crave, whether we know it or not.

Several years ago we thought we might relocate to upstate New York, and I began to search for a new home. The reason that I fell in love with a property outside of Rochester was not the 1820 house, but you guessed: it was the beautiful barn on the land. As I roamed through that renovated barn, I could envision lively Halloween and Christmas parties, with plays and music with friends and family. The empty stalls seemed perfect hiding places for frolicking children. But it was not to be. We did not move to upstate New York. But other barns have kindly compensated--to inspire me with beauty, friendship, and creativity. My circle of relationships have been widened, as I remember and am linked to the people who toiled within the barns that I love. 

An old weathered barn, one who has known many seasons, invites you to enter his past. And as you come in, an old barn can whisper true tales--not only evoking former days, but infusing a deeper sense of history, a desire to create, a love of community.  I believe everyone should have at least a few memories in a barn. Never underestimate the power of a barn.

A barn dance, with people of all ages, enjoying a square dance.

A wonderful friend and artist, working in a barn. He is describing to some young people the correlation between clay and The Potter in Isaiah 64:8. The scripture reads, "But now, O Lord, thou art our father, we are the clay, and thou our potter, and we all our the work of thy hand."
A barn can be a place of immense creativity. The paintings of nature on the wall, the woodworking, and in another corner is where artists can create pottery.

It's satisfying to get out and work in the fields--to get away from 21st century distractions.

A pumpkin farm in upstate NY.  Barns just naturally go with autumn.
Being part of a barn dance this summer. These young women spontaneously put together a barn dance, providing the music for the gathering. It was a night we will all always remember, maybe because it was in a barn?
A horseman friend walking from the barn, preparing to saddle his horses. The scene reminds me of a poem that invites us to a more simple life:

I'm going out to clean the pasture spring;
I'll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clean, I may
I shan't be gone long--You come too.

I'm going o.ut to fetch the little calf
That's standing by the mother. It' so young
It totters when she licks it with her tongue,
I shan't' be gone long--You come too.
-- Robert Frost