115I mentioned months ago and weeks ago that we were turning an underused room into a library.  It’s finally done and it’s a lovely space.

I am enchanted with the idea that of a library, reading room and game space up at the top of the house where sounds can barely reach you and one can get lost in a great book. I look forward to the day when I’ll get to hang out and read up there.  In the meantime, I’m pleased to have made the space!

The major goals were 1) to create a space to store all of my favorite work related books; 2) to create a space where the kids could go and browse for a new unusual book to read; 3) a place for the kids (Big Girl especially) to play checkers or chess with a friend; 4) a retreat.

I think we hit all of those goals.  But it took some effort.  For one thing, it’s very small room.  It was a lot of work though to make it truly usable.  The room itself is less than 10′ x 8′ and has three doors and one window.  It used to be a small office, it could be a small kids’ bedroom, but instead we decided to make it a library.  With all those books it could too easily become a storage room instead.

To maximize storage, floor space and airiness, we decided upon a bright glossy wall color, very minimal built in shelves and floor pillows.  First, we had to clean the mess.  The picture below is already a cleaned up version.  The room was full to the brim of stuff! (Anyone else still storing 15 years of bills and receipts?  I know my husband would love to talk with you about all the reasons we needed that paper. )

IMG_3238                IMG_3240

Next we picked the color and repaired the damages to the walls.  I used the same brown for the trim that I used in the kitchen a few months ago.  Big Girl and I decided to go for a bright navy blue that we though was kind of like blue velvet wallpaper.  Then we built book shelves by mounting 1″ x 2 ” to the wall, mounting shelves to them, and using posts on the fronts to make secure.

IMG_3250 002

This was an affordable way to build in almost 100 linear feet of bookshelves.  It took some real work though since our lathe and plaster walls are crumbling and we needed to insert toggle bolts before attaching the 1″ x 2″s.  (Thanks to my dad for this vision, drill bit and manual labor!).

We decided to move flor tiles from the kitchen (before the revision) up to create a rug.

Then the girls and I turned our attention to the floor pillows.  We bought some new fabric for these, but we also used TONS of stuff laying around the house both for the fabric and also for the stuffing.


We used an old dog bed we had bought for a little kid who kept falling our of the bed!  We used old bed pillows in a stack.  We cut open other old pillows and pulled apart their fluff to revive them.  And, we broke up old bits of foam (from an old breast feeding pillow and some other stuff) to create new filling for another pillow.  Little Girl spent several days hand-sewing another pillow for the room too.

All in all, it’s a lovely, sunny spot for reading.  I’ve just started Carol Berg’s _Soul Mirror_ (the second in the Collegia Magica) series.  Maybe I’ll find a chance this weekend to sneak up there for a bit and read.


scarf and purse
Scarf that Big Girl is fingerknitting and purse.

Winter can make any house seem small… and messy too.  The cold weather has been keeping us indoors and hanging around in the living room.  This can be cozy but it can also be a recipe for frustration and claustrophobia.

About two weeks ago I decided I couldn’t stand another elaborate art project taking over the first floor or another fight with the kids about whether or not we can save the lego building they made.   So, I decided it was time for us to rethink how we are using our space… and find a way to create some more!  Luckily, we have a pretty easy solution: a mostly unused third story.

Our third story is not as comfortable or nice as the rest of the house.  We have done very little to refinish it, it’s not insulated and we rarely turn on the heat up there, the space is oddly broken up with eaves and closets, and the original lathe and plaster ceiling is starting to crumble under its own weight.   Although we ostensibly have offices up there, we have not really made much use of them and instead have generally just been using it for storage or as the occasional guest room. On the plus side, we have two more rooms up there AND a full bathroom.

I’ve wanted to reclaim and refinish this space for a while.  I’ve had grand visions of breaking out the internal walls and creating an amazing master suite up there.  We’ve also discussed letting Big Girl move up there and having the girls no longer share a room.   Both of these plans are long term and involve major renovation: installing insulation, removing and replacing walls, replacing windows, refinishing the bathroom, adding a bump out and re-roofing the house, etc…  You know just your average $10,000-$100,000 project.  Not happening any time soon.

Instead, I decided to create a plan for refinishing and reusing this space now! I began by having the girls help me turn the larger office/guest room into a sewing room…  with a budget of $0.

First we cleaned out the space, throwing away or recycling tons of old journals and books, gathering old pictures into one space and generally getting rid of the old to make room for the new.  I must admit that this felt bittersweet; in recycling 10 years of journals and donating Boice’s Advice for New Faculty Members, I felt the pain of failure more acutely than I had in the past bunch of months.  I even put my Ph.d. diploma and bound copy of my dissertation in the closet… not out of spite but because in making space for new things it is necessary to cast out some of the old things.  This is true for a room as much as for my soul.

The result was a room with a pull out couch, a large desk/work space, a large coffee table, an empty book shelf, lots of wall space and a corner filled with a 5’ x 5’ stack of books to be relocated across the hall to our future library! (more on that soon)

Next, the kids and I pulled out all the fabric from the closet.  This too was bittersweet.  Lots of the fabric scraps were gifts from friends and family from a baby quilt I had made for Big Girl before she was born.  Other pieces of fabric were baby clothes I wanted to reuse in some way and a few maternity clothes that remind me of the good parts of being pregnant (the sheer wonder and magic of growing a baby!).  Having Little Girl and Big Girl help with this took away the sting, we weren’t casting aside their babyhood, we were building on it!

So we did: Little Girl sorted the pieces into general size of little scraps, small pieces and big lengths.  Big Girl sorted them into color and texture and put them on the shelf.  I did some ironing and lots of folding.

folded fabricspools of ribbon

Then we went on a ribbon scavenger hunt to dig up all the bits of ribbon and notions that we had around the house.  We had a “ribbon drawer” in the dining room so you know this was a substantial project.  We strung the ribbons on dowel rods that I had laying around and hung them on the wall.

We finished all this about 10 days ago.  And, we have been hanging out in our sewing room a ton (which means much less mess in the living room too!).

Little Girl’s first sewing project back in December made her fall in love.  Since then, she has sewn herself a stuffed animal (Pancake the Turtle), a stuffed heart for a friend, and she is working on another project for my sister’s birthday present.  She is working with embroidery floss and felt so far and it is a really good match for her 4 year old fine motor skills.  I am amazed at her determination.

heart pillow

Big Girl has sewn a few small projects, mostly from the kit she began back in December and she’s been finger knitting too.  She’s making a very cool scarf as a birthday present for my sister and promised to make one for me next!

And, I have been learning to quilt.  I have pieced together a bunch of squares from scraps and am planning a blanket.  I also just created a small purse (the final part of said sister’s birthday present) that I practiced hand quilting on.  Boy is that hard!

quilt squares

It has been wonderful to reclaim this part of our house.  Doing so has increased our living space and created an place where we can lay out big projects that we want to come back to later.

But, it’s not only physical space we’ve gained.  We’ve also gained emotional space by saying that sewing and crafting is something important that deserves a space of its own.  Lots of people have playrooms—a space for kids to go and play with their toys.  Playrooms say that the toys are legitimate and playing with them is an important part of childhood.  Having a shared craft space does the same thing!

I feel like we’ve also created some mental space.  By cleaning out the old work related stuff, I made more mental room for whatever comes next.   Also, I think we made some mental space for thinking about crafting and making differently.  By creating a space where we can make things for ourselves and others we are saying that gifts need not only be bought in a store.  They can also be made by hands, big and small.

Our kitchen ceiling fan was supposed to be white but time and dirt had their way.  I splurged on a beautiful stained glass light fixture for above the table so there was nothing left in the budget…  at all.

Hello spray paint!

Borax, hot water and a scrubby sponge made pretty quick work of the grime that had built up on the fan.

fan cleaning1

Next I spray painted the blades a dark brown to simulate wood and match the trim color throughout the room.


painting blades

I decided to spray paint the body of the fan in the same copper paint I used on the radiator cover, cabinet handles and switch plates.


painting the base

The effect is a perfectly coordinated fan that I bet would have cost us $200 bucks to replace.

finished fan close up

finished fan in room

Time to move on the the finishing touches.  These depend heavily on kid art!

Not for my life yet.  I haven’t really gotten started on that… which I must say is oddly liberating.  Maybe all you non-planners out there are on to something?

But, here’s the rest of the plan (with pictures) for the kitchen.

We started with some minor demolition by removing an old air conditioner in the kitchen wall.  When I say we, this was totally my husband’s job.  I could cope with the fact that the thing was seriously gross but I was not going up on the two story ladder in the back of the house.  Luckily he agreed pretty quickly once I promised to do all of the plastering, patching and painting.

airconditioner removal

In addition to painting the walls green and the trim brown, refinishing the table to make it dark brown, the other major project we decided to add on was a backsplash.  I did the backsplash too.  After considering and rejecting several different tiling options, we decided that we wanted to add pressed tin as our backsplash.  Thanks to the miracle of plastic, we were able to add our “pressed tin” backsplash in a lovely copper hue to the area behind the oven, sink and cabinets.  It was very easy to work with this product.  I needed just an exacto, scissors, a sharpie and a ruler.  It looks fabulous too.  So fabulous in fact that it made everything else look lousy.


sink wall

That is where the spray paint comes in.  I really want to both limit the amount of money spent on this project and also avoid much waste by buying everything new.  So, after picking out stain with Big Girl we went to the spray paint aisle.  I’m not sure if spray paint has gone through a profound transformation in the past 10 years or if I was just giddy with the excitement of it being on the shelf instead of in a locked cabinet that required supervision to access but…  I had a great time seeing the very many colors and effects available in spray paint these days.

Big Girl and I had to work hard to try and match the backsplash tile labeled “oil rubbed bronze” that looked copperish with the various options of metallic spray paint out there in the home improvement store.  Eventually we found a “hammered copper” that matches well.  We used that to paint the radiator cover, lightswitch plates and cabinet handles.

radiator part1radiator 2spraypaint outlets 2

And now we are in business.  All that spray painting saved us lots of money (which helps to cover the cost of those too pricey backsplash tiles!) and gave us a really coordinated look.  Next up check out the super fan refinishing project.

About thirteen years ago, my husband and I bought a fabulous apartment in Jackson Heights, NY.  It was big, bright, airy, pre-war and had gorgeous details like parquet floors, high ceilings, real plaster walls, etc…  This purchase was timed well, we bought before the real estate bubble expanded and before anyone was considering Jackson Heights hip. (Before the Starbucks moved in, and before the neighborhood was the focus on several NYTimes articles.  For example, here’s a recent one: http://nyti.ms/1MFGfJj)

Because of this luck in timing and some financial luck as well, we bought a two-bedroom apartment in NYC!   We couldn’t really afford any furniture though.  So, most of what we bought to fit our new, bigger and nicer place was from Ikea or Home Depot and we worked hard to transform that stuff and the older and more broken bits we had dragged from our previous apartments with paint and imagination.

One of the new pieces we did buy was a small unfinished pine kitchen table and four chairs from IKEA.  It wasn’t the fancy extendable table that I came to covet at other people’s apartments.  No, it was the cheapest they had.  (I just checked and they sell it for $69.)

After staining it with red wine, paint, markers, and tomato sauce,  I eventually stained it on purpose, adding a fancy detail with painters tape to create a two-toned effect.  Despite the fact that the stain bled slightly, making the edge a little fuzzy in a few spots, I came out pretty well.  Well enough, that moved it several hundred miles when we left NYC for my new job back in 2008, when Big Girl was a newborn and I was a newly minted PhD.

Seven years later, this same table is one of our most used pieces of furniture.  And, boy does it show it.  A couple years back the original chairs broke so we replaced them.  Equal parts optimism and frugality, we once again bought the unfinished pine ones with the intention of staining them right away.  Now they are covered in penciled names, crayon scribbles, paint splotches and food bits.  Thus, among our refinishing projects are 1 Ikea pine table and four pine chairs.  All in need of a thorough sanding and staining to fit my dreams for our new kitchen.

But do I really want to try and get kid help on this smelly and complicated task?  In fact, I can think of at least four reasons why Big Girl should not be allowed to help me sand and stain the table and chairs.

First, are kids allowed to use stain?  Think of all those toxic chemicals!  I’m not sure of the chemical make-up in stain (and I am not going to start googling it!)  but the smell is enough warning.  That stuff is clearly toxic.  And, like all “good parents” I try pretty darn hard to limit my kids’ exposure to all the toxins I can.  It is easy to start worrying about all the toxins in our environment and how important it is for children’s health to limit their exposure to them.  While I think limiting toxins is very important, I’m wary of falling into spiral of fear about all of those invisible risks.  So, for now, I’m silencing that worried voice.  I’m not talking about exposing Big Girl to those toxins all the time.  I’m talking about the two of us spending time using wood stain for a few hours.  Luckily, it’s warm enough that we can even do it outside.   I am not going to re-cast this as a “safety” issue.

Second, it’s too hard a job for a kid:  Maybe. It is hard work to sand the years of dirt and grime off the table and chairs and it’s intellectually hard too to figure out how to avoid any brush marks or fix a splatter especially since we are using stain & polyurethane combined.  But, I don’t think hard is a reason not to try.

Third, she might ruin the project.  Or, fourth, she might ruin something else… like her clothes or jacket.  Oh, well.  She might or she might not.  If she does, we’ll fix it as best we can.

Anyway, I can think of two great reasons to let her help: sharing the joy and pride of taking something ugly and making it beautiful and teaching her some skills that she can use in the future.

So we did.

First, we went and picked out the stain color.   I let Big Girl take the lead on that part.  We decided that we want the kitchen to feel like being in the forest.  So we are going to do a deep green on the walls and dark brown as accent color.  Big Girl picked out a nice dark brown stain.  Then I bought us each a new brush and sanding pads in medium and fine grit.

After we returned from the store we brought the furniture out to the driveway.  I convinced my very fancy daughter to go put on some clothes she doesn’t like to help mitigate risk four.  Then, I explained that our first job was to sand the table and chairs to make it smooth so the stain can bond.  I took over first with the medium grit to wear away at the old stain and the worst of the mess.  She did the second coat with the fine sand paper.  My arms got tired and my hands got scratched but Big Girl entertained me with her imaginings and she really helped get the job done much more quickly

IMG_2751 (1)

After wiping down the furniture with damp rags and taking a lunch break.  We began the staining.  It was hard to both teach her what she needed to know and also let go enough so she could make mistakes.  (Hmmm.  I think that sentence actually summarizes my entire experience as a parent.)  I decided to limit my instruction to “going with the grain” and not getting the brush too wet.  I limited my micro-managing by having us work together on each chair so I could catch drips and get the areas she missed.  We were a great team.  About an hour later, the first coat was done.  We added another coat and now we have “lovely tree stumps to sit on in our forest”!

Turns out there was another reason for having her help.  It was really fun to do it together.

refinished table

Then I realized that if I wasn’t going to get tenure then I didn’t need to revise that hopeless article yet again.  In fact, I gleefully realized, I never have to submit an article to a journal again if I don’t want to!

Letting go of all the time I’ve spent worrying, the time I’ve spent planning, and for a little while anyway, the time I’ve spent writing means that although I have lost my job,  I have found some time.

One thing this found time will allow me to do is engage in big projects! First up, it is time to renovate the kitchen.  When we first moved into our house I had a five month old baby (now Big Girl) and was starting my job as an Assistant Professor two weeks later.  Since that time, we’ve done a lot of work on the house: removing cabinets built into the living room to hold an extensive record collection, excavating the fireplace and installing a gas unit, tiling a fireplace surround, painting, wallpapering, and mending.  We also hired people to do some of the other work for us: replacing windows, installing insulation and refinishing the bathroom.

At the start of all this, the kitchen was one of the better rooms.  Off the shelf granite and cabinets that were obviously installed just before the former owners put it on the market.  Not what we would have chosen but perfectly acceptable.  It had a dishwasher and my dad helped replace the electric range with a gas one.  Nicest kitchen we had ever had!  Seven years later though, the kitchen lags behind the rest of the house.  Countless cooking and art projects had scarred the walls and that ugly builders’ off-white paint has started to look vaguely pink.

Turns out we don’t need to keep that ugly kitchen a single day longer!

As I’ve started working out the renovation plan I have also remembered something about myself.  Before I got my job—back in grad school and before—I was always working on art projects.  I painted each room.  I built mirrors from old windows.  I refinished our furniture.  I painted and collaged chairs and folding tables.  I recovered couches (using duct tape and safety pins the first few times) and I created art.   While I haven’t completely given up that part of my life in the past bunch of years, I have certainly sequestered it into limited projects conducted in short bursts… and almost always with the kids

Now, I have the time to go back and do something I used to love: making our kitchen look fabulous with paint and creativity.  And, I’m going to combine it with something else I love to do: teaching my kids practical skills, empowering them to try out new things, and helping them take on big projects so they know both the pride of success and how to fix things when we (temporarily) fail. (For some inspiration on that idea, check out K.J. Dell’Antonia’s blog post on Motherlode a few months back: http://nyti.ms/1L9inrq .)

My girls are 7 and 4.  We have spent hours and hours coloring, painting, playing with clay, tie-dying and gluing.  It is time to introduce them to stain, spray paint and the idea that an entire room can be a canvas.

First up, refinishing that old, battered kitchen table.