Willow Wood, Chapter 3... How to Survive Your First Month

Updated: Oct 24

The day after the construction crew left was an idyllic day in early June, and I was spending it sitting in an old white-wicker chair on the blue front porch. The wicker chair was shedding paint chips, making fake snow on the deck with every move, and it was old enough the reeds had loosened to a nice comfortableness. I had a sweating glass of iced tea and it was dripping into my lap as I puzzled over a problem. I was wondering how I was going to survive the next month.


There are all manner of things to get used to in a new place, and all manner of things that you’ll have to do without for a while. Especially if you are moving into a renovation project. My mission at this point in time was at once simple and yet seemingly impossible: make it through the month.


I had packed everything I owned into thirteen boxes and tucked them neatly into the shed, and now, my list of owned and easily accessible items was limited to:


  • One backpack of clothes and necessities

  • One sleeping bag

  • One bowl

  • One spoon

  • One box of cheerios

  • One stepladder

  • One bucket

  • One wooden bear

The sun dipped below the willow tree in the yard and dusk rushed in, the cold north breeze tagging along like a younger brother. It had been a warm week, but in typical spring fashion, was turning cold again. In the rush of the roof-raising, no one had thought to see if the furnace was working or not. It wasn’t.


I wandered back inside and ate a bowl of cheerios for supper, then washed my bowl and spoon and set them on the counter to dry. Then I tried to take a shower, but the head wasn’t working – something to do with the water pressure the guys had said, so a bath it was. At least the water heater was working.


I crawled into the sleeping bag, which was laid out on top of a stack of two box springs and two mattresses, because they had needed to go somewhere out of the way and had all gotten stacked together. It took a running leap to get on top, and I only hoped I’d manage to stay there through the night. People die from falling out of bed, you know.


I spent the rest of the night contemplating other ways people can die. Any new homeowner will recognize this complex as the First-Night-Alone-In-The-New-House effect. Every unfamiliar outside noise sounds like a monster sniffing its way toward fresh human blood, every creak sounds like an armed robber who wants nothing more than to murder you in your sleep, every hiccup from the freezer sounds like an evil mutant mouse who… well, who knows what those do, but it can’t be good.


In the morning I blinked away the sleepiness and ate another bowl of cheerios, went to work, and came back tired. The invisibility spell on the front entrance of the park hadn’t worn off yet, and it took three tries to find it. Then I ate more cheerios and surveyed the mess. It didn’t look, or feel, like home. Bare ceilings, chipping plaster, floor covered in tarps and drop-cloths, half the kitchen cupboards stacked in the spare room…


Well, I didn’t have much, but when I took stock of my Owned and Easily Accessible Items, I had everything I needed to start making it into a home. Disaster is, of course, a normal part of life, and doesn’t detract much from one’s ability to make something of it.

I think the most important first step to making home is to unpack. It doesn’t matter if you’ll only have to move it again in a couple weeks, or if you’ll have to pack it away so you can paint, or shift it around so you can clean. When you put a toothbrush in a drawer, and put your clothes in a closet, and set your shoes by the entryway, it does something miraculous. It turns what used to be a disaster into a haven of comfort. Could something so simple possibly have such a great effect? Yes, as simple things so often do. Morning coffee, bare feet in the grass, a smile at the grocery store, chocolate truffles… the list could go on. Unpacking really is crucially important.


The next step to making home is to make a friend, especially if you, like me, are single and living alone. It’s never good to live completely alone. The best roommates are always cats (more to be said on that later), but with the disastrous state of the property and my life, I decided to wait on furry creatures, and I instead adopted the aforementioned wooden bear.

wooden bear

He was a chain-saw sculpture bear, which I have never cared for, but somehow he was different. He’d belonged to the previous owner, who had left him behind in a sad state of abandonment, tipped over and face down in the dirt in the back yard. I’d found him during the roof-raising and put him in the shed so he wouldn’t get thrown out with the trash. Now I cleaned him up, scrubbing away the filth and years of mistreatment, set him by the front door, and named him Charley. Every morning when I left, I’d tell him goodbye and do have a nice day, now, and every evening when I came back, I’d inquire about his day and tell him gracious sakes the traffic these days and when do you think that invisibility spell on the entrance going to wear off and did you hear that the old cannery is going out of business?


Cats tend to be better conversationalists than wooden bears, but Charley had a quiet steadiness that was greatly appreciated in the pervading chaos.


The final step in these initial homemaking efforts is to add just a touch of hominess. You don’t want to go too far at this point, because you’ll only have to take everything down when you repaint the walls and ceiling and re-install the cupboards, but a small touch is absolutely necessary.


One of the greatest signs of hominess is cleanliness. Nothing says abandonment more than a thick layer of dust. I folded away the drop clothes and swept the floor, wiped the sawdust off the kitchen counters and put my spoon in a drawer and my bowl on top of the fridge. Then I found a rag with less than five stains on it and draped it over the handle of the oven as a kitchen towel. Satisfied that the kitchen was feeling better about itself now, I turned my attention to the living room.


Without furniture, there’s not much you can do to minimize the empty space, but if you remember, I did have a few more items in my arsenal to use. I found the empty bucket and turned it upside down, setting it against the wall. Then I dug in the shed for a blanket and draped it over the bucket, making an effective and uniquely shaped side table. Next, I folded and piled the drop clothes together, pushing them into a somewhat sitting-chair shape. With a grocery store candle, a book, and a cheap thrift-store teacup dug, the reading nook was nothing to complain about.


And the last item in the list – the stepladder – what can you use that for? I often used a stepladder for practical purposes, such as reaching tall items, painting trim, and hanging roses from the ceiling, but I’ve found its best use lies in daydreaming. Oh, sure, you can use it for hanging pictures, but more often, it’s used for measuring, making plans, starting projects, and seeing what the living room looks like from above. A stepladder is a passageway to what could be possible; a Jacob’s ladder that leads up to the stars. I was in the mood for daydreaming. I used the stepladder often. Perhaps too much…


Once I’d taken care of the most important aspects of moving in, I turned my attention to the other problems, such as the dysfunctional furnace and drippy shower head.


You may be wondering why these were at the bottom of the list of First-Things-to-Do. It’s because they are really not very important. For one, it was spring, and while it was cold, I ran no risk of freezing to death. With enough blankets, one could sleep quite comfortably. For another, I quite enjoyed being forced to take a bath instead of a shower. It was a carved-out window in my day to do things inefficiently, slowly, impractically, and to take time to let my mind wander away from the business of the day.


But mostly, the furnace and the shower head were at the bottom of the list because our natural priorities are very rarely where they should be. If you spend all your time fixing furnaces, buying and installing new shower heads, researching Best Microwaves, and making sure the oven is up-to-date, you’re not going to have a home – you’re going to have a functional place to eat and sleep. It’s not the same thing. Function is important, but home is more so.


Home means different things to different people, so I won’t pretend to make recommendations. For me, however, home is a quiet haven to escape from people and work and noise. For me, having a place to sit and read, and a candle and a cup of hot tea, was invaluable comfort. It made the home stable, settling a peace into it that couldn’t have been provided functional furnaces or functional shower-heads. Home can survive without function, and function has a way of taking care of itself eventually, anyway.


As for the furnace, the problem was the pilot light. This was my first encounter in dealing with the ancient furnace, which I soon learned had a serious attitude problem and an unwillingness to be consistent with the smallest things – not so much that I’d fire it and hire a replacement, but enough to make me wish I could afford to. The pilot light was, to my dismay, buried two and a half feet deep into the furnace, behind a tiny 1-inch hatch that was spring-loaded to stay closed at all costs – fingers and pilot-light-lighting attempts be hanged. It took me and two technicians to find it, and a very, very long stick and some match-lighting ingenuity to start it up again.


And the shower? After a month, I realized the issue was no issue at all. (you see, if I had been worried about functionality, I would have bought a new shower head, spent countless hours installing it, while in reality it wasn’t broken to begin with) The nozzle setting was merely turned to “off”… which is an odd setting to have on a shower head, but it taught me another important life lesson: if something doesn’t work, push all the buttons in various combinations until it does.

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