I’m In Way Over My Head: On big magic and finding just the right book at just the right time.

A few days after we found our gorgeous, magical home, I got the keys from our landlord and B and I broke in at night like teenagers, guilty and excited, to walk through it again. The bright red door, the high ceilings, the beautiful wood floors, everything took my breath away, left me giddy at my own good fortune. When we had visited, it had been full of bustle and people, with the contractor working and our landlord wheeling and dealing, light and noise everywhere. In the quiet and the dark, all ours, we really saw it for the first time.

It was filthy.

Our new home was a disaster; it is impossible to overstate this. Every wall had upwards of 50 nails sticking out of it, having all apparently been treated as gallery walls by a squirrel with ADHD and a hammer. There was dust everywhere from construction and repairs, which was to be expected and even appreciated, but the dirt went deeper than that. Cobwebs hung from every ceiling. Layers of grime caked the floors. The kitchen tile was unmentionable. It shall not be mentioned.

My heart was still thrilled, but my brain was doing elaborate scheduling gymnastics, calculating the number of hours that would now need to be spent cleaning simply to make the place move-in ready. Was our landlord planning to bring someone in? Would he be patching the walls and re-painting? Would he agree to have every appliance in the house removed, lit immediately on fire, and replaced? I was wandering around squinting and tilting my head uselessly when I heard B take a sharp breath.

“What is it?” I said, alarmed that there could be anything I had failed to notice yet.

“A mouse just ran from there to there,” he said, pointing across the kitchen, at which point I mentally calculated the physical and psychological costs of arson.

Rats unsettle me to no end – just typing the word makes my skin crawl – and I regard all smaller rodents as rats with better PR. Most people tend to fall on one end of the rats vs. snakes debate, and my end is a hard and firm line in the concrete: I would rather be strangled to death by a boa constrictor than come within a square mile of Fievel himself. Some of this has to do with the ubiquity of mice in NYC apartments, and, in particular, the family of mice that once took up residence in an apartment where I stayed for a summer. Tell me any terrible roommate story – and I have plenty of my own – and I will certainly top it with an unconquerable assembly of rodents who stole food under cover of night and left only droppings in their wake. I cannot emphasize enough how deeply I did not wish to once again share a home with them. And yet. And yet. And yet.

Here we were.

I went back to the condo and emailed our landlord to ascertain what of the nearly condemned disaster zone I wished to call a home he considered his purview and what of it mine. “I didn’t notice it being that dirty,” his response ran. A single tear rolled down my cheek as I read it. “I didn’t notice much about nails in the walls, but I’ll have the contractor check.” He wrote back the next day. “The contractor must have handed me 200 nails today!” he declared in amazement. The contractor was obviously on my side.

“What should we do?” I responded. “Will you be having Bill patch and paint? Do you have someone coming in to clean? Do you know someone who might be willing to stage a theft of all of the house’s major appliances, allowing you to replace them with the insurance money?” One long email thread later and we had sussed out the following: I was going to clean, I was going to paint, and I was going to get a break on the rent for the month of October.

We had keys by October 1 and move-in rights by the 5th. B’s irregular schedule had him free to do the heavy lifting on Monday, October 13. That gave me Saturday to Sunday to render the house hospitable to our boxes and inhospitable to the current menagerie of tenants. I set Saturday for major cleaning and assessment, and Sunday for follow-up. I spent years as an executive assistant and my time management skills are superior, and I strongly suspected two 12-hour days weren’t going to cut it.

Holding a key or not, letting yourself into a completely empty house is breaking and entering. As I stood in the empty living room Saturday morning, watching the dust rise in the spots of sunlight, the house’s patient silence occasionally broken by the sound of a car in the street or the neighbor’s dog, I understood again why we had fallen in love, why the house was worth the trouble. Underneath the grime were gorgeous wood floors; french doors opened up between the living room and what would be the library; the only carpet in the house was brand new, in the bedroom. I did not believe we had made a mistake. The house, I sensed, was less sure. What were our intentions here? it wondered. It had been hurt before. It had been neglected and forgotten. It had been utterly taken for granted. Humans had made for poor tenants. Like any new love, I had to prove it was worth the trouble to both of us. I started in the kitchen.

I started in the kitchen mostly because it was the most depressing room in the house, and I knew that the next day, hours and hours into the effort, I might not be able to psychologically withstand it. In some rooms, layers upon more layers of paint showed through the corners; B and I made a game occasionally of tracing the occupancy back through them. Who had thought hunter green was a good living room color? Who had painted over it with a more neon shade? College kids and stoners, we often guessed, and we were pretty sure we right about that.

The kitchen could only be traced back two layers. Layer the first: at some point, someone had chosen to paint the kitchen – the kitchen, where people eat and gather and are, one hopes, merry – a deep, dark gray. This wasn’t so particularly offensive because it could be spotted around the edges; this was so particularly, excruciatingly painful because the layer over it was, Layer the second: a thin, uneven yellow. The kitchen walls looked like a deep gray that some 100 foot tall, mean-spirited child had impatiently covered over with yellow highlighter and left there. We were living in an irresponsible giant’s dollhouse.

The previous tenant’s tendencies being what they were, every drawer had something in it: markers and pens, old rusty nails, dirty rags. The inset cabinet held an abandoned collection of dirty hurricane candles and damp newspaper. I found wet plastic bags under the sink. But it was at the walk-in cupboard where I realized just how we might have attracted mice. Dog food was spilled everywhere, including, for reasons unknown, the windowsill. The shelf at eye level housed one open container of flour and another of sugar, along with crumbs of an unidentifiable origin. There were mice droppings. just. everywhere.

I cleaned, and I cleaned, and I cleaned, and I cleaned. I used products that contained the legal limit of bleach, and, occasionally, straight bleach. I opened the front and back door to let the air flow through and to try and chase out the musty scent that lingered in odd spots. There was evidence of occupancy on every shelf and in every drawer, but the house smelled abandoned. When my 12 hour day was over, I was still in the kitchen.

Before I left, I laid out traps and sprayed all through house for bugs: down along the baseboards, up top of the windows, and all over the basement, which was certainly haunted and where I also laid out roach traps. We had something – I wasn’t quite sure what – small winged bugs that I knew rationally were not roaches, but at the first sign of any infestation my New York heart couldn’t let rest until I had prepared for the worst. Then, very tired and utterly filthy, I went home.

It’s easier to avoid reality when concentrating on hard physical labor than when alone with my thoughts, and alone with my thoughts, what I couldn’t help but think was this:

I’ve made a terrible mistake.

I’ve uprooted B and I, and cost us both money we don’t have, for a dream that is actually a nightmare. Somewhere, among all the signs that this was the best and most right thing in the world, I missed something vital, and we are fucked. I have fucked us.

What am I going to do.

My friend the witch, who has a way of very occasionally getting you just what you need before you or anyone else or even she herself knows you will need it, had recommended a book, and I had bought it weeks before in anticipation of moving: “Mind Body Home” by Tisha Morris. I always want to love instructive, non-fiction books, and never do, so I try to avoid wasting my money by avoiding buying them altogether, but I had bought this one on impulse – and, of course, never opened it. Exhausted and out of ideas and at roughly the end of my mental and emotional rope, I opened it now.

The book opens thus: Part I: Getting to Know Your Home. There couldn’t have been a more perfectly written chapter for my tired, shaken soul and equally worn-out body. It detailed every way in which, essentially, my tiny magical house was perfect. Perfectly situated (on a hill, behind a large tree), perfectly laid out (back door over to the left, so energy will not whoosh straight through the front door and out again without pause, whoosh being a technical term used when contemplating feng shui and its myriad consequences), even perfectly numbered (our address is, all told, an 8, a number which, properly applied, can bring abundance in every area). By the time I was done reading the book cover to cover, staying up far too late into the night and facing an early morning and still more cleaning-related battles with mother nature’s life cycle (decay leading to regrowth, meaning my house was falling apart and the earth was trying to reclaim it out from under me), my heart was resting easier: every sign was perfect, every planet in alignment. I was right. Our house was magic.

I went back in after a few hours of sleep and surveyed the progress. The kitchen already felt better, although I considered gravely the consequences of being unable to afford paint, finally concluding that it would be paint over groceries, no questions asked, since eating in the sickly yellow-gray light would be nearly impossible anyway. I moved on to the bedroom, cleaning dust and grime off of window ledges and baseboards, cobwebs off of ceiling corners. Despite my ministrations, the house wasn’t having it; I found bugs everywhere, and the blinds in the bedroom fell off while I was cleaning them, landing on me with a hard and painful thwack and leaving a sizable bruise that would linger for weeks. Every time something went wrong, I reminded myself of the book, and that nothing good comes easy, and got back to work.

At 10pm, all the light long gone, I decided I was as done as I could hope to be for the present, and called it quits. Following the advice of more than one book on magic, I went through the house and dropped salt in the four corners and put a bowl of salt in the middle of each room, then went through the house entirely with a large sage smudge. In the morning, I was meant to be able to sweep up the salt and have, energetically speaking, a clean slate to start from. I gave the house one last dubious glance before I shut the door behind me. It no longer felt hostile, but it did not yet feel welcoming; it sat, heavy and silent and judgmental, quietly on the hill, waiting to see what we would do next.

We finally moved our boxes a few days later when B had some time, since I was now fairly certain no particularly exotic strains of disease could have survived the bleach onslaught for which I was responsible. B was supportive but understandably skeptical. I could only put so happy a face on the proceedings. While technically clean, the house still felt dark and off; bulbs needed to be replaced, every room needed to be re-painted, and, as with any new house, the insult to injury was that we couldn’t find anything we owned, boxes taking up corners and space and looming in dangerously tall piles, disastrously stubbed toes waiting around every corner. I was in the living room sitting on our one clear couch when B called from the kitchen.

“Hey, did you clean these cabinets?”

“Yes,” I paused. “Why?” I asked, and made a beeline for him. He was holding open the cabinet doors. Inside was a quantity of mouse droppings that suggested the one mouse we had laid eyes on was merely a single inhabitant of a large city of rodents residing somewhere on the premises. I checked the pantry. Even worse. I retreated to the bedroom, curled up to breathe into a paper bag, and grabbed The Book, which, to my deep and abiding gratitude, had several paragraphs dedicated to rodent infestations, or, as it was more gently phrased, “mice.”

“Mice are about holes and energy,” Morris says; to keep rodents out, we have to own the space where we live, and to be fair, no matter how badly I might want to, I did not quite yet. So I kept cleaning and unpacking, trying to stuff our things and our energy into every corner, to make it our own; I had the contractor find every hole in every baseboard and repair it, I used every natural solution known to man (fun fact: peppermint oil repels mice, and is also twice the cost of solid gold, by the ounce). Still, a few weeks into the move, B and I weren’t really comfortable; when I sat on the couch, I kept my feet up and off the floor, where a furry creature might run over it, inevitably resulting in me burning the place to the ground and dancing in the ashes. I had had grand plans when we signed the lease, but my dreams had narrowed down to the size of survival and, on a good day, avoiding arson.

We unpacked slowly but surely, and bled money, slowly but surely, mostly at Target: lamps, throw pillows, the odd rug, assorted detritus, the occasional DVD because we were at Target anyway, and it was there, and buying ourselves a new DVD might feel nice, what with the move being a disaster and the bleeding money everywhere. We painted the kitchen, and it helped as much as I had thought it would; I even began to think we might someday cook things there, and even eat them. I was in there putting up new curtains, from Target, when I noticed one of those terrible bugs I had seen when I first cleaned the house on the windowsill. I yelled for B.

“What is this?” I asked, pointing.

“Stinkbug,” he said. I sighed. Of course it was.

“Well, at least they’re not roaches.”

Stinkbugs are entirely harmless and bizarrely docile; they’ll sit still and wait for you to kill them. Which I did: three on the same windowsill, one on the other window frame itself, and one by the sink. I finished putting up the curtains and, with curtains on my mind, wandered into the den.

“Should we switch out the old curtains for the ones we bought?” I asked. Our landlord had considerately left curtains up to get us by, but given the condition of the place when we moved, I was eager to relocate them to a box in a far corner of the basement.

“Sure,” B said, and went to get the new ones. I pulled up the stepladder and took the old set down. Chilling comfortably on the back were three more stinkbugs.

“I’m not doing this right now,” I said firmly, out loud, and went to the kitchen, an area recently conquered and likely free, for one brief and blessed moment, of encroaching pests, to make myself boxed mac and cheese for dinner. I settled onto the couch in the living room to eat and a stinkbug flew from the ceiling fan directly into my eye, then dropped in confusion straight into the bowl I was holding.

“Ok,” I said, then marched into the kitchen, dumped dinner into the trash, and went through the house for the next several hours methodically cleaning every window, frame, and set of curtains, folding the old ones neatly into a box for the basement and putting the new ones up. It was the most valuable lesson I learned about my new home: in this house, there are no “later” problems.

Despite my best efforts, we continued to find occasional evidence of rodent visitors. I switched from peppermint oil to DCon with a heavy heart, and after one dramatic Shakespearean re-enactment by a dying mouse on the sidewalk out front, witnessed with glee by a few teenage boys, they disappeared, relocating with haste and my deepest gratitude.

We painted the rest of the rooms and finished unpacking and got around slowly to the little touches: books on shelves, pictures on the wall, lamps on side tables. Which is how we discovered, of course, that there wasn’t a three-pronged plug to be had in the house, necessitating an emergency trip to Target for converters and a few conciliatory DVD purchases. Our movie collection grew by leaps and bounds those first few dark, cramped months, when every newly discovered aggravation and inconvenience reminded us both that I had gotten us into this and had no way of getting us out.

But despite the dark, and the cramped, and the aggravation, we built the occasional sweet memory too. B’s youngest sister came over and spent a whole day putting together bookshelves with me (we bought them at Target), enchanted by the way the trains ran across the street, visible from the front room. The nephews and niece came over and ran in circles, enchanted by the way the rooms, all connected, allowed them to traipse forever without stopping. We bought a respectably sized Christmas tree and I loaded it with enough lights to power a small rocket, listening to old Billboard holiday hits while B read in the living room. It felt homey, occasionally, and warm. It felt better, but never just right. I resigned myself to the notion that it might all have been a mistake, after all, but that it would be one we could live with, if one that I would never quite be allowed to live down.

With the unpacking done and the tree up, we scheduled a holiday housewarming party. I woke up in the morning, went grocery shopping, and cleaned quickly, setting cider to mull in the slow cooker and putting up final decorations. Standing in the kitchen, bright and cream-colored, I mixed up a batch of cookies; I made sure there were blankets folded on the couches in case people got cold late in the night. I looked around at the neatly organized shelves, the furniture in its place, the tree in the corner, and in a moment I realized, there it was, our home; the one I’d been waiting for. It smelled like cinnamon. I was fairly certain no one would stab themselves on a sharp corner or accidentally step on a dead animal. The tree was bright and merry and the menorah was adorned with candles that complemented the gentle smoky color we had painted the library; a long table in the living room was loaded with drinks and the fridge was full of food. When our friends came they would leave their coats in piles on the bed, and stand in the cold night air on our front porch to smoke; they would avoid the mistletoe I had insisted on putting up and make faces at me when I insisted they kiss underneath it.  Beneath the tree, unbeknownst to B, were the first gifts we would open in our first real home together: coordinating, but not matching, very tacky Christmas sweaters.

As I broke down one last box and absentmindedly disposed of two stinkbugs that had hidden out there and, upon realizing that I could not plug in my speakers for the party, grabbed a converter from the stash I kept in my top desk drawer, I thought: Houses want to be loved. Ask Tisha Morris, she’ll tell you. But houses also want to be useful, I thought, plugging in my computer and setting motivational holiday music to play. They’re like people that way.

A year later, our home is so beautiful and magical it still takes my breath away. Sometimes I’ll be sitting in one room looking into another and think, “It’s so perfect.” Sometimes B and I will turn to each other and say, “I love our home,” like two kids newly drunk in love too overwhelmed by emotion to stop their amorous declarations. I think cleaning is therapeutic and I do it regularly; I’m convinced the house responds, like plants and children, to being cared for and attended to. We’ve filled it with happy memories and constantly make more.

And one year later, I’m thinking about how magic is made, how we find the things that we need, and how they make their way to us, asked for or unbidden. The year is bookended in that way, for me; a book started it, helping me get through the house, and a book is both ending it and starting something new, helping me find my way back to myself and the things I want to create in the year ahead, and in fairness, both of them came from the witch; which has me thinking about how we find the things people need and how we give them and, sometimes, receive them in turn. How words are magic and the receiving and giving of words makes my life. How we build things, tangible and intangible. How we live within things – walls, sentences, the words “I love you” – and make a home there.

One thought on “I’m In Way Over My Head: On big magic and finding just the right book at just the right time.

  1. What a great piece.
    We all have journeys with houses and homes. You have written beautifully about making this your home.
    Such a treat to read


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