Coming Attractions

As the seemingly ceaseless rain halts and the clouds part just enough to reveal the thinnest rays of sunlight, I scurry outside and collect water-smoothed glass and metal bits that’ve eroded from the back terrace—the perennial midden of memories slowly being covered by a blanket of germinating grass and tiny white flowers.

With the heavy lifting of landscape remodeling complete, I’ve started to enjoy the simple task of tending the green spaces I’ve reclaimed from the bramble by slowly purifying the trash-glutted soil around Gay Gardens. Anything I find that’s in decent enough shape is recycled back into the landscape’s architecture or as part of my tiny vegetable garden.

I cobbled together the wee veggie garden enclosure out of cast-off building materials, and other bits I uncovered around the yard.

I cobbled together the wee veggie garden enclosure out of cast-off building materials, and other bits I uncovered around the yard.

During my latest pass over the grounds, I notice pavers protruding from the terrace bank. After a little dusting off, I track their path into the dense foliage below the house, and wonder where the path once led, and who strode down it.

Above me, a moss-covered tree that’d been completely obscured by English ivy has buds peppered along its branches—all on the cusp of blooming. Insects buzz impatiently around the unopened flowers, nudging them with their thrumming bodies before abandoning their attempts and retreating into the woods.

No longer covered with vines, the tree is blooming again. And grass is slowly springing to life where thick, sprawling blackberry bushes had rooted. I think the $10 vintage bird bath from an estate sale fits perfectly.

No longer covered with ivy, the tree is blooming again. Along the hill, grass and flowers are slowly springing to life where thick, sprawling blackberry bushes and invasive Japanese knotweed had rooted. I think the $10 vintage bird bath from an estate sale fits in perfectly.

Once I deposit handfuls of shredded plastic, shattered bottles, and unidentifiable, rotted building materials into my garbage can, I make a quick detour through the garden and pluck slugs off of my juvenile broccoli florets and toss them downhill.

As I tiptoe along the stepping stones leading around the house, water gurgles up from the over-saturated ground beneath them, spraying mini geysers onto the muddy, soaked grass. My circuit ends at the front door just as clouds clutter the sky and rain begins pouring down. From beneath my front overhang, I watch rivulets cascade down the warped clapboard, silently pooling and bubbling out from beneath the paint like lanced cysts.

I survey the yard and cleared beds and smile, thinking back to the tangled jungle it was before.

A view to the front terraces--all of which are now free of choking ivy, and sun can actually get through.

A view to the front terraces. Now freed from a canopy of ivy and vines, the plants can actually get sunlight.

As if to remind me of my body’s inability to deal with the onslaught of wind, rain, and perpetual dampness, my temples begin throbbing and my ears start ringing. Lately, I’ve come to realize that my body isn’t the one I once knew: I’ve started flirting with chronic pain, and it seems with every year, my joints and muscles conspire to contort my body into the frail figure I’ve always worried was in my future.

I straighten my back and wander back inside to deduct the latest grocery bill, and watch the balance dip into the double digits. I staple a wad of papers from my mechanic—an unexpectedly immense bill from my car’s broken axle—and tuck it into my accordion file folder. The past year has been pretty lean by necessity, and with the cost of living in Seattle creeping higher every year, I worry about how long I’ll be able to hold onto Gay Gardens. Until I’m pushed out, I’ll continue to make ends meet to keep this place all my own.

In the meantime, to entertain myself with cheap thrills, I’ve been ghosting through estate sales during their final hours to cherry-pick chipped pots, neglected lawn equipment, or unwanted garden gnomes. There’s a certain satisfaction with finding some long-forgotten piece of someone’s personal history—perhaps a gag gift, or a beloved treasure—and re-homing it to my little rotting oasis.

Mr. Pipps, the wee gnome, and the concrete planter were both partially buried in an overgrown garden (at an estate sale). When I expressed an interest, they just told me to dig it out and take it. So I did, flowers and all.

At an estate sale, I found Mr. Pipps, the wee gnome, and the concrete planter both partially buried in an overgrown garden. When I expressed an interest in them, the organizers just told me to dig it all out and take it. So I did, flowers and all.

Following a recent estate sale haul totaling $11, I settle in with JoJo for the evening, and treat myself to Arrival.

As a kid, I never favored sitting through the seemingly endless sequence of previews leading up to the featured presentation; I resented their temporary blockade of cinematic pleasure. But now, the previews are one of my favorite parts of movie-watching.

While JoJo dozes on my lap and I crack open a chocolate bar, I let myself melt into the film—let it reach inside me, and revel in how it resuscitates my heart and mind, and reminds me of the strength and courage it takes to brave each new day with hope, sincerity, and unabashed awe.

Lately, the sheer exhaustion of existing—of listening to the grinding and groaning of my car, pushing through the rigors of work, resisting and marching and railing against authoritarianism, and deducting the constant bills—has felt especially debilitating. But I know the only way to get through is to push onward—through the rust and jams and daily machinations.

And in the meantime, I’ll continue to surrender my mind to immersive daydreams—my own collection of coming attractions—that help fuel my creativity, and propel me toward my goals. But amid those fantastic mental wanderings, I’ve often been reminded that this—the fringe, the in-between of barely making ends meet, the rusty gears, and worn parts—is a wondrous privilege: a most luxurious life, a featured presentation all its own.

Getting Bent

Halfway into the crawl space, my flashlight flickered horror movie style, the telltale sign of imminent, consuming darkness. I’d be alone, beneath Gay Gardens, surrounded by cast-off insulation tubes filled with mummified rat remains – their long, serpentine tails hardened, their taut, paper-thin skin stretched over hollow shells.

Above me, through the floorboards, Joanna pitter-pattered anxiously; Lassie’s antithesis, she’d likely curl into a ball and lick herself had I called out for rescue. It was just me and the corpses and the fading light.

My glasses fogged from my labored breathing, and I could feel blood dribbling across my mouth. Ever the wet blanket, my immune system was having none of this. If I wasn’t opting to turn around and crawl out willingly, my body would force me to – a nosebleed would tip the scales.

Tumbling out of the unhinged, rotted access door, I unfastened my jacket hood, tossed my dirt-caked gloves to the frost-covered ground, and pulled off my bloody face mask. I gulped down the cool air, and held my glasses away from me, watching their lenses slowly clear. Around me, piles of old wood, moldy cardboard, and rusted pipe fragments lay in piles.

A replacement mask and a new flashlight battery later, I hauled out more piles of junk, along with the insulation tubes and their desiccated passengers. The most random task on my weekend to-do list was done, and I even walked away with a few unexpected prizes: a hand-painted flower pot and a 1950s milk glass mixing bowl.

As I folded the tubing into my tiny garbage can and topped it with the bag of dead rats, I could almost feel the house breathe a sigh of relief; or, maybe that was me.

***

Cleaning has always been a way for me to center – to unplug and dust away mental cobwebs – and Gay Gardens has certainly afforded plenty of opportunities to do just that. It’s been a labor of love, and an anchor as life continues to change and unfold.

And while I don’t know what the future holds for me or this little cottage, I’m thankful every morning that, for now, I’m its caretaker. Plenty of people have asked why I’m putting so much effort into a place that’s not even mine, and that’ll most likely be bulldozed at some point down the line. My response is simple: “Why not?” I, too, sometimes question the amount of blood, sweat, and tears I keep putting into this place, but then I acknowledge the importance I’ve always put on creating a home wherever I land. The process has always been a source of strength, and right now I need this place as much as it needs me.

I often need the quiet and the calm to melt into myself, to plan out my next steps. Lately, I’ve needed more time away from the hubbub, and the growing national horror. I’ve cycled the energies I’d usually expend scrolling through Facebook feeds to other hobbies that interest me more – things that actually elicit in me a drive to start that next new chapter.

While I still have a long ways to go, I’ll enjoy each moment along the way to my next great endeavor – whether I’m scaling a mountain, crossing a border, or bending into a crawl space.

Moored

The closing credits of A Little Chaos roll through the rain-streaked windows, the lamplight fuzzed by condensation forming inside the sunporch’s drafty windows.

Plumes of steam from the steel mill quietly explode into the night sky, drifting uphill with the wind and spreading around this sagging house.

I tilt my head back and exhale, my breath hanging momentarily before disappearing into the woods behind me. The makeshift door to the garden hangs open, and light from inside the house casts just enough of a glow to guide my impulsive, late-night garden cleaning.

I shove my hands into shadowy corners of the planting beds, lifting giant, drenched leaves off purplish kale starts. My lone celery plant’s neon green stalks glisten in the refracted light. Rain drizzles down the back of my hoodie, and soil grinds under my nails.

And I laugh into the darkness. 

This is what it feels like to be alive.

A train blasts its horn far downslope, fracturing the drip drip dripping from the rain spouts above. But the momentary break reminds me of why I came out here in the first place.

I feel around in the dark crevices of the wood pallet wall for the pot of chopsticks – the perfect mini stakes for training seedlings to grow upward. I snag a splintered one, its old Made in China sticker flaking away. I scrape off the rest, letting its gold flecks mix with the dirt beneath my nails.

After one last glance at the darkened garden, I amble uphill to the cottage’s bright red back door, and scuff the bottoms of my slip-ons across the doormat. Beneath the porch light, a tiny stream of rainwater drips down the weathered clapboard, breaking at the edges and pooling on the saturated wooden stoop. Ballerina-like, I sweep a large terra cotta strawberry planter over to the corner, situating it just beneath the cascading drops.

Everything in its place. 

The pot’s dried soil quickly saturates, and I will the bell pepper seeds just below the surface to germinate.

When I toss my shoes onto a rusted midcentury serving platter just inside the door – my own makeshift shoe tray – the clatter jars me unexpectedly. Water-logged leaves and twigs pepper the platter’s paint-flaked surface, and coat my shoes – barely distinguishable as the crisp, preppy pair I’d bought for my wedding. Now soggy messes, their sides fold in, giving the appearance that they’re imploding. I stoop and gather the leafy leavings, which is when I realize the scene depicted on the platter is a wedding ceremony.

Oh, Universe. You cheeky asshole.

Dusting off my hands, I switch off the light and head over to the drooping yucca plant – the weight of its opening leaves causing the stalk to bend in on itself and kink. I bury the chopstick alongside its base and gently tie it up with some stray string.

A little support

Over the past two weeks, I’ve felt more like myself than I have in a long time. I want to do everything at once, be everywhere. But I have to remember that, sometimes, I start growing so quickly, in every direction, that I lose my balance and nearly collapse in on myself.

And while I’ll keep striving to rebuild my life with purpose, I’ll be mindful to do so slowly, intentionally – reminding myself that a little mooring every now and then may just be what I need to flourish.

Ebb & Flow

Seattle’s hallmark fall mist filters down through brittle leaves to parched soil. From a single, mossy branch at the top of my plum tree, five purple orbs dangle enticingly – the last vestiges of the growing season.

Deterred by the empty fridge, my growling stomach convinces me that coffee and plums will work just fine for a Saturday morning breakfast.

But then, emerging from the shaded side of a rhododendron, an obese squirrel lazily lopes toward my bounty, sniffing at the decimated plum skins and pits he and his brethren have littered around the yard as he nears the tree’s gnarled trunk.

Animal instinct kicks in, and my disheveled fro grows menacingly – my own hackles. The dogs scatter as I run out the back door, dragging a paint-spattered utility ladder in my wake. The ensuing ruckus from the ladder clanging down the squeaky mud porch stairs startles my nemesis, freezing him midway up the trunk, his marble-like eyes fixated on the insane person running toward him, hissing madly.

He flees. I win. Breakfast is secured.

Back inside, I slice my spoils and drizzle them with honey. Coffee steams in my mug, and Joanna sits nearby, pulling at the stitching of my childhood Care Bear turned dog toy.

On the faded, leather-topped drum table above her, a shock of pink from an African violet’s flower catches my attention. Sometime in the night, its tiny buds sprang to life – blooming quietly, elegantly, fully; the cupped blooms fill with morning light – nature’s entreating communion chalices.

***

After my second cup of coffee, I decide to check in with the rest of the world and open my email. Just a week ago, I’d refresh my inbox every five minutes – hoping for relief in the form of a subject line reading, “Job Offer.” Now that that particularly exhausting, yet satisfyingly cleared hurdle is behind me, I’ve purposefully unplugged – looking skyward, reading, working outside, painting, and relegating my phone to my mental dustbin until I need it.

A property management company rep has responded to my email about altering the lease with a sterile: “We’ll need to ensure that your income alone can cover rent. Please send your most recent pay stub.” Although the response isn’t entirely unexpected, I’m suddenly awash with anxiety – my eyes darting around to freshly painted walls, out the windows to cleared planting beds and newly rooted shrubs.

All this could be taken away with one email, one turn of phrase.

I delete “Thanks a fucking lot!” and reply appropriately, infusing my message with the requisite saccharine subservience most tenants convey to avoid falling out of grace with their landlords. I know this is a business to them, and they couldn’t care less about all of the time, effort, and expense Andy and I both dumped into this heap; that there’s still some persistent electrical problem; that every morning I clear away cobwebs, courtesy of my arachnid roommates; that I’m constantly fighting against some natural element to reclaim this house of paste and popsicle sticks. (#FirstWorldproblems)

But as unintentionally hurtful as the message was, the subtext is nothing new. Just like everyone else, I have to carve out my own niche of existence and defend it.

To live means to fight. It’ll never be an easy ride, and that’s okay.

Living in this cute, rotting house, I’m constantly reminded of the transitory nature of material things. Years from now, will someone be sitting on this sun porch, scribbling away in a notebook or chatting over coffee with friends? Or will these walls and weathered floors be splintered into the earth and overtaken by ivy, or gone entirely and replaced with a McMansion block devoid of personality? I wonder where I’ll be and what I’ll be doing. If I’ll drive by one day to remember my new beginning in this little house.

Part of me accepting the inevitability of change is acknowledging that I’m constantly in motion, colliding with possibilities, obliterating obstacles while creating life, energy, and fulfilling moments in which I feel complete – as though I’ve curled up in my most threadbare, comfy clothes on my weathered sofa with a mug of hot cocoa in hand, watching a storm roll in through the open windows.

Letting the wind blast my face, the cool air filling my lungs – my mind marveling at life’s ebb and flow.

Gay Gardens

Sweat beads on my brow, and Jimmy Eat World’s “Middle” blasts through my ear buds. Brier-pricked and cut, my gloved hands receive little in the way of protection from nature’s most annoying floral bastards. My paint-spattered, dirt-coated glasses slip and fall into the growing pile of freshly weeded detritus amassing at my feet as I bend to unhook a gargantuan, spiked vine from my pilled It Gets Better tee.

Now free of unwanted hangers-on, I step back and survey the cleared areas of the sprawling stone-laid terraces. Insects dart over the freshly uprooted soil, congregating around fractured, dewy stalks and root balls. I pause my music and sink into the morning’s natural calm. Hollow, browned stalks of Japanese knotweed clang together in the wind like bamboo chimes, and dead leaves filter down through new gaps in the overgrown canopy and settle in sun-dappled piles.

Gay Gardens, the early months

It’s an uncharacteristically hot Seattle day, and the formerly shaded earth quickly dries while I sit for a much-needed respite, feeling the worn stones warming the insides of my calves. Like Kate Winslet in A Little Chaos, I’ve been methodically unmasking mature ferns, shrubs, and trees from their brambly oppressors and mapping a new, slightly haphazard order onto the leftovers.

Metaphors for every sort of life experience drift in and out of my mind as I till the soil and pull at stubborn roots. I give each thought a little slant of limelight before letting them dissipate into mental white noise.

***

Sided with weathered, warped yellow clapboard and sloppily trimmed in faded red, the cottage sits on a shoddily cleared terrace, accessible only by a rickety wooden staircase built into a steep hill just off an arterial, hilly road in West Seattle. Its seclusion is just what we wanted – the antithesis of our small Capitol Hill apartment in the center of a growing party district of young twenty-something college students.

And while the subsequent tours with the uninformed property management company’s agents brought us vis-à-vis with the cottage’s less than stellar drawbacks, we went for it – mostly because its location, privacy, and space aligned with the most desired bullet points on our wish list.

Of course, being a post-war cottage that’d been overgrown for a few years, it needed a lot of help, which hadn’t exactly been a priority of the decade-long tenant before us, or the property management company: turd-colored, faded interior paint; an illegally enclosed back deck; a disgusting bathroom; dirty, ivy-covered windows; hole-pocked walls; and more than a fair share of creepy-crawly roommates.

But even before we fully moved in, we decided to separate. Sharing a home that feels more like a staging area isn’t easy for anyone, which is why the forgotten gardens started to play such a therapeutic role for me.

Now that we’re both in our respective nests, it’s time to move forward – to take time to celebrate the good times, focus on the future. And, for me, perform plenty of internal weeding.

***

The whir of far off traffic on the bridge melds together in a wave-like, rhythmic tide, lulling my eyelids closed. Seclusion like this is beyond rare, especially as Seattle continues to boom and rental prices soar. I’m sure at some point I’ll get priced out, the cottage will be torn down by a developer, and the carefully curated landscape will be razed asunder a bulldozer.

Until then, I’ll be channeling Kate and using the landscape both as an emotional crutch and an aesthetic treasure. And will keep slathering as much lipstick – and paint – on this cute pig as possible.

Because I’d like to keep Gay Gardens full of character and far away from descending into a moldy, waterlogged lair wherein I routinely swaddle my fro in a cashmere headdress and soft-shoe down the hallway to the applause of a ragtag crew of feisty raccoons.

As my cackling drifts up through the attic, between cracked seams, and melts into the night.

The Starting Line

The orange extension cord’s serpentine coils lay across the kitchen floor, mounding at the base of the overworked, cream-colored refrigerator. A casement window hangs open, a tiny mouth breathing in the Seattle chill – a harbinger of fall.

Beyond the freshly painted sill, the yard sits upturned, its overgrown beds gutted – their English ivy and blackberry interlopers ripped out, the browned stalks and residual leaves scooped up by obese robins and thrushes for nest-making, along with the occasional displaced worm for dinner. This ramshackle stretch of existence is my Eden.

Leering over my steaming coffee cup, I’m fixating on the Mission-style, glass-fronted cabinet neatly filled with brightly colored Fiesta, the plants sitting atop cascading down like leafy waterfalls. Joanna is taking a post-breakfast nap in the bedroom, which means the house is silent and still – my favorite time of the morning.

I walk around assessing the cottage’s rooms, mentally scrawling lists of what still needs to be done.

  1. Paint trim
  2. Move dresser
  3. Add curtains

Everything’s been moved and reorganized into a space that’s now uniquely mine. From recent investigative forays into the far reaches of the house, I’m coming to know each nook and cranny. As I strip off layers of 50s wallpaper, and empty Cold War-era End Days larders of canned peaches, peanut butter, and assorted jellies from the crawl space, I daydream about the people who used to live here, and craft their backstories. I wonder if they, too, spent each morning staring out these windows, conjuring fantasies of what they’d make of their existence.

Despite the progress I’m making, I sometimes find myself overwhelmed by everything – succumbing to the numbness and ambiguity of every anxiety-inducing detail on my radar: a needy dog, an endless list of housework and landscape maintenance to complete, a social network to build, an electrical problem to be fixed.

Joanna’s wet nose startles me fully awake, making me slosh coffee out of my milk glass mug onto the weathered tabletop. In the freshly cleaned windows’ reflection, I watch as she drags a gutted seal plush to a sun spot and collapses in a heap of wrenched-out stuffing. Dust kicks up from the floor, the particles dancing in the slates of sunlight pouring in; they look like sea monkeys somersaulting in the air, disappearing in the blink of an eye, making me wonder if I ever really saw them.

I refill my mug and add milk, watching the white marry with the deep, dark roast – swirling together in a tiny cyclone, a contained storm. There’s beauty in this chaotic world, if only we stop to recognize it.

My joints ache, like a cat eternally caught arcing its back, hoping for the release a solid stretch – the most mundane contortion – will bring. A spindly-legged house spider performs arabesque arachnid aerobatics while weaving its silken tapestry from the leaves of my beloved geranium. I get up, stretch, and relocate my eight-legged breakfast companion, watching her drift down from the open window and scurry into another crevice in the board and batten.

I let the sunlight warm my face, and the breeze tousle my unkempt curls. Birds dart from nearby branches into the thicket far behind the house, reminding me that there’s so much to see, so much to explore – that there’s a whole world waiting.

Joanna sniffs at the door and circles, watching me expectantly. I shrug off the morning, the fractured thoughts tumbling around, and embrace the uncertainty of the day with a smile, open mind, and sense of humor.

Because I have a dog to walk, walls to paint, plants to grow, and cookies to make for new friends.

And a cottage with electricity that works most of the time.