Coloring my world

The editors from Country Living haven’t called yet, but when they come to do a feature on my interior decorating style, I’ll bet they describe it as “L.L. Carib-Bean.”

The new touches I’ve added to my 20-plus year-old dwelling have not, I don’t think, placed it outside the quaint little cabin category. It’s definitely not one of those places you’d drive by and wonder “Don’t they know they’re in the Maine woods for crying out loud?” But while it may not qualify as froufrou, my decor is by no means a standard fishing and hunting “it gets us out of the rain” type place either.  As the pros would say, I “brought the outside in” with natural earth tones, lots of pine paneling, birch floors and dark cherry cabinets. I added a tile hearth in the same vivid blue that, on a good day, matches my view of Bald Mountain and Saddleback. And, of course, I threw in plenty of prerequisite forest (a.k.a. Rangeley green) accents. Then I kicked it all up a notch with splashes of color not often naturally occurring in the environment, at least not at this latitude. The end result makes a unique statement about my remodeling influences, including:

  • I’m making up for the fact that, in my formative decorating years, I defaulted to brown. Thirty years ago, when I moved into my first and only completely brand new house, I had little decorating experience and even less furniture. I did, however, have a tan Naugahyde couch and chair set and a couple beige lampshades. So I put in brown and rust-toned carpet that would “go with everything” I hoped I would later have, while “not showing any dirt” from the  outdoor dog I had and the kids I eventually would admit I hoped to have. My kitchen and bathrooms featured harvest gold, avocado, copper and all those other stuck in the ’70s shades. Behind closed doors in my bedroom, I even had a bright red carpet. But my living room stayed brown and blah for at least a decade.
  • Tom and I agreed we wouldn’t just go with the typical moose and loon motif when making renovations. We do love moose and loons, of course, and still are left with almost as many inside as we see outside. We just strived to be a bit different. So, instead, we came up with wild flower bathrooms. To contrast the knotty pine paneling throughout the rest of the house, we had the two bathrooms and the kitchen sheet-rocked so they could be painted. Buttercup yellow was my choice downstairs, accessorized with Black-Eyed Susan print curtains and (coming soon) wild flower art. For the upstairs bath, I chose the palest pink to compliment my purple, pink and white lupine shower curtain, my hummingbird and lupine stained glass in the window, and one of my favorite pieces of artwork: A moose standing in a field of lupines! (He’s your typical Maine moose picture, but just a bit different, hanging there in his pink and purple habitat.)
  • My color scheme was dictated primarily by stained glass. As I showed you in Come and Meet Those Dancin’ Feet (Part Two), my favorite keepsake and interior focal point in my previous house was a piece of stained glass – a particularly vivid piece featuring green grass, cobalt lake water and three bright red roses. I’m sure in reality my decision-making timeline spanned several months, but here’s how I remember it: 1) Tom told me I had a window of opportunity to decide on colors for paint, countertops, etc., for the Rangeley reconstruction. 2) I didn’t take him seriously enough quickly enough because: a) I had been living in the same quarters for so long that picking stuff out meant a quick trip to the Home Depot for either damage control or camouflage, and b) having a virtually clean redecorating slate was too good to be true and, in a twisted way, scared me into inactivity. 3) I was sitting in my Rochester kitchen, drinking coffee, gazing at my stained glass in bewilderment, wondering how the heck I was going to not screw up my one big chance to showcase my treasures in a new home, when my “window of opportunity” suddenly solidified right in front of me. I knew I would hang the stained glass in my new Rangeley kitchen. It would be a focal point forevermore, shedding light and color throughout my first floor, contrasting beautifully with my dark woodwork, matching my mountain-blue hearth and my grandmother’s blue Danish plates I’d hang on the beams! And the green glass of the grass would make a perfect paint color!
  • I matched the color of my kitchen walls to green stained glass (see previous bullet) on a really sunny day. With my new focal point in mind, I immediately marched off to Home Depot and made color choices in record time. (A true believer in supporting the Rangeley economy rather than a big box store, I wasn’t going to buy paint, countertops or Congoleum there. My mission was to match up swatches to bring to the Rangeley Building Supply for them to make the order.) What I described as New Leaf for my green kitchen color, the paint manufacturer actually called Swamp Splash. While this lively spring green did match perfectly with my stained glass still hanging in Rochester, it initially alarmed our building contractor with its incandescence. Adding in appliances and dark cabinets toned it down considerably and, to my knowledge, hasn’t scared anybody since. The end result is a Key West sort of ambiance in the western  mountains of Maine. 
  • I have a serious passion for red. Red cars, red-headed men, red carpeting (see first bullet). Fortunately, when devising my scheme of rustic jewel tones, I tempered my passion and incorporated red as an accent color only. I have a bit in my area rug, a few pieces of my mother’s ruby glass displayed here and there. Tastefully toned down, I’d say, and not what people expected I’d come up with given free rein. Those who knew my passion for red and pictured me remastering Belle Watling’s front parlor on the shore of the Big Lake seem relieved.
  • My other favorite place in the whole world is a tropical beach. I hope my readers aren’t dismayed when I admit that, even surrounded by Rangeley’s four-season splendor, I still often dream of turquoise waters and beaches lined with palm trees and hibiscus. In terms of decorating direction, this polarity has left me somewhere near the intersection of Rangeley Plantation and Coconut Grove.

Whatever collection of quirks has influenced my unique style, I’m glad all those decorating decisions are behind me, literally. The color wheel has stopped spinning, the paint palate is dry and I am most pleased with how I made my window of opportunity shine. I am especially glad this time of year, when I look past my hearth and my ruby window ornaments to the reds, greens and golds of fall in Rangeley. Country Living will call it “Kaleidoscopic!” That is, if they hurry up and come out here while the leaves are still on my trees.

Book smart

When it comes to home improvements, I’m not what you’d call a do-it-yourselfer. Conditioned since early in childhood to “just stay out of the way so you don’t screw this up worse,” the only thing I tend to do completely by myself is bathroom chores. I am definitely a “build it for me, let me try to use it for a while, and then I’ll make silly suggestions on how to improve it next time” type of girl. About the only thing I have ever tried to build solo is my self-esteem. Way back before Barnes and Noble devoted a whole section to self-help books and I had to search around the shelves in the back corner, past all the alternative lifestyle manuals I didn’t want to crack open, I’ve been a self-help journeyman. Rowing my own boat, discovering what color my parachute is, chasing after my cheese, and manifesting my own destiny, I’ve studied it all. But books that teach you how to make something concrete, something three-dimensional and real enough so that, if you’ve pictured it this morning you can be using it this afternoon, I never cracked a one. They were always on the other side of the bookstore, away from me, along with the readers who had already manifested their destinies and were celebrating by building themselves a patio.

I should point out here that, as a technical writer, I can write those kinds of books. I can interview computer hardware engineers, refer to their schematics, figure out how they expect Joe IT manager to install networking component A into device A without electrocuting himself, and write the book about it that gets shrink wrapped and shipped with each sale. I have published volumes of guides for propeller-headed audiences,  filled with words like flange, rack-mount, configure and counter-clockwise, and illuminated by little number-and-arrow-annotated diagrams. I once even devised a whole table to describe recommended torque values for G3G134-P installation! 

I can successfully tell someone else how to assemble something because, typically, I’ve had long, drawn-out pre-deadline test phases when engineers would follow my words like gospel, give me endless prototypes to monkey with and, ultimately, would take ownership of my instructions if none of us electrocuted ourselves by following them. I can do this sort of work for pay because I’ve had middlemen. And by far the most valuable of those middlemen was a genius graphic artist named Bob. You see, while I was referring to engineering schematics, Bob was actually understanding them and transforming them into drawings that illustrated component A sliding into device A. He would take the G3G134-P from a flat, one-dimensional CAD print out and actually show its tiny assembly screws and its rack-mount adapters and all of its networking interfaces in drawings that would make its black, boxlike features practically leap off the page in high-def. Once I could study Bob’s drawings, I could wrap my text around them, layer on the little numbers and arrows, and I’d have some step-by-steps even I could follow. And if the steps were really complex, Bob and I and our engineering team were bolstered by the caveat that empowers all cutting-edge technology to make it out of the development lab and into the hands of users: Depending on your operating environment and your specific device configuration, your results may vary from those depicted in these instructions.

So how did it ever come to pass that I could articulate remodeling instructions for my home renovation? How did I take a firm stance at the conception end of such a major redesign process and still want to be the end-user of the product? And how in the world did I do this in partnership with practical, level-headed Tom, who is so handy that he once fixed a toilet with nothing but a plastic fork, some string, and his own ingenuity? He bought me a book.

From the down to earth part of the bookstore I had previously only imagined, Tom purchased The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live by Sarah Susanka. At first wary of the “blueprint” part of its title, I soon discovered this handy book had pictures. It showed actual before and after illustrations of homes like ours that needed to do a lot with not much space. It had tips and tricks and conversion charts, gathered from families that, I felt fairly certain, were living happily ever after with their own handiwork. When I figured out I could refer to various parts of this book as my prototypes for a kitchen layout, for how to translate my desire for “casual, open living spaces” into real nuts and bolts lingo, it became my bible.

“I want the new kitchen cabinets to be this color, but this style,” I’d proclaim to Tom, flipping through the book and pointing. “And I want that place where we said we could hang my special blue plates to be something like this, but without that wall in the way.” Soon the The Not So Big House book was dog eared and crammed with sticky notes bearing numbers and arrows that eventually corresponded to a building plan and workable instructions. I never had to say “flange” or talk about torque, but I began to feel like a real engineer. If I couldn’t articulate what I did want, I could refer to what I didn’t want and work from there.

My initial reference manual soon became part of a mini library of do-it-yourself remodeling books. I even graduated from Barnes and Noble and Amazon to hardcore purchases straight from Home Depot, right on the shelves by the duct tape. What drawers fit my lifestyle, how light fixtures could add the perfect accent, and how to store pots and pans without needing a head lamp to find them — I had a book about it.

They’re in storage now, gathering dust on our do-it-ourselves book shelves. I sure was glad to have them, knowing there could be no prototype phases and my results couldn’t vary if I wanted to live with and in them with my specified husband. I got book smart, got my head out of the clouds (where I was drifting, attached to my imaginary self-discovery parachute) and helped execute the biggest project of my life. Not only is the end result exceeding my requirements while conforming to the strictest of all regs – those mandated by the Maine Land Use Regulatory Commission – it is the perfect operating environment for rowing my own boat.

My fork in the road

Oprah would call it my “Aha!” moment — that pivotal point in life where I had to choose one course of action over another and forge ahead. Living in logging country, I now know to ponder a fork in the road, hypothetical or otherwise, much more seriously. Both directions may look passable, but not too far off, one turns into a gnarly spur road taking you way, way off course. Five years ago, though, when I stood at my crossroads with my “smart thing to do” blinders on, I walked right into danger and almost lost my bearings for good. “Aha!” would have been too poetic. My change of direction, when I finally let my heart lead the way, was more like a “Holy crap, what did you almost just do, you idiot?” moment.

Direction “A” was the common sense thing to do, the “right” choice according to our bank book and, no doubt, all those level-headed, man on the street-type people I imagined grouping themselves on the side of reason. It first came into focus as a hot tub conversation. It was fall, near closing up camp for the season time, when it was necessary for Tom and I to adopt an all-business, end of summer attitude so we could forget that we really didn’t want to leave Rangeley, didn’t want to go back to school/work, didn’t want it to be September already. Practicality went way beyond talking about packing up and shutting down, though. On this night, it watered down the wine, drowned out the loons calling, and pretty much counteracted the whole purpose of a hot tub soak. Topic of discussion was our tiny, four-room cabin which, after 20 years of use and sharing it with the critters, needed a roof and other major improvements. Sneaking up on early retirement, would we be able to add enough living space to relocate comfortably and affordably? Not according to the Land Use Regulatory (LURC) guidelines, or so we first imagined. LURC said our setback from the water, originally 85 feet when we built the place, would now need to be 100, minimum. We couldn’t add rooms to each side, either, without infringing on our neighbors’ property lines. So, even though we loved our waterfront property, our discussion kept coming around to how it just wouldn’t work to keep it, to sink more money into it to live there, only to have our dreams of a fulltime residence constrained by LURC and other logistics. And, more than anything else, our thread of conversation kept winding its way back to one huge positive in the midst of all the negatives: Our tiny cabin on its beautiful spot of shoreline, even needing some repair, had appreciated in value four times more than our investment. Our real estate in Rangeley could fetch double the selling price of our four season home near the bright lights and bigger cities.

Sell it, we decided. With the profit, we could build from scratch “exactly what we wanted” in any of those just as nice towns like Farmington. We wouldn’t have to be right on the water. We’d have college-town culture, brand spanking new everything and money….money to travel wherever and whenever we wanted. Course we probably wouldn’t come back to this lake, to Rangeley. That would be too sad. But we would go to Alaska, to Jackson Hole, to Yosemite, to all those other lakes Maine was famous for. Wow, we’d even start exploring islands we’d earmarked in Caribbean Travel and Life. Our girls were grown up now, they’d understand how we couldn’t keep camp, given our exciting new agenda!

Oprah says you can navigate your way through an “Aha!” moment to your best possible course of action by quietly posing the alternatives to your inner self. Does one make you feel more “open” and light-hearted, while imagining the other drags you down? Does one make your gut clench while the other expands your solar plexus? YES a small voice was saying. But still I hauled myself and my sinking innards into the realtor’s office that Columbus Day afternoon and signed a contract to put my camp on the market.

Looking back on it, I don’t so much remember it as a gut clenching moment. It was more like a hole opened in the floor of the realtor’s office and swallowed me whole, pen in hand, along with the sinking realization that the dollar signs in my head would never buy my way back to solid ground. I did manage to get out of the real estate office, and the quaint streets of Rangeley framed in fall foliage blurred as I got in the car and cried all the way back to Rochester, NH. I cried past all the property for sale signs just outside of Rangeley, where Tom said we might be able to build a cute house by the river. Through Farmington and south to the turnpike, not able to pick my head up to look out the window or even for a Subway sandwich, I cried. Not crying tears you dab with a Kleenex, but two-year-old bawling, gooey, hiccuping sobs.

Luckily, the universe didn’t allow me to ignore instinct for much longer. Waiting for us in our driveway back in Rochester was Becky, one of our grown up girls who needed to hear our news and would, reluctantly, agree and understand. Even more rooted in Rangeley than us, Becky had found her calling working as a counselor for the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust environmental camp. And now, what a coincidence that she chose to make her first trip home from college (where she was learning to be an outdoor educator) on the night we agreed to sell the source of her inspiration!

“We’ll be able to go to such cool places,” Tom said after he dropped the bomb. But Becky didn’t hear anything about Jackson Hole or meeting up in any of her future home bases. “No, no, no!” she said as she stomped off to her room and slammed the door. “We are not having this conversation! Not now. Not ever!”

Fast forward a few years to August. Tom and I have slept in the garage loft above all the stuff from our camp we’ve shoved into storage when the old roof was torn off to rebuild two stories higher. I am standing in sawdust looking out at my new view from what is shaping up to be the best bedroom I could ever imagine. Thanks to Becky serendipitously slapping us upside the head, plus umpteen different remodeling plans to fit enough square footage on our tiny footprint, a realtor grateful we would be staying to support the Rangeley economy, and a builder who worked miracles, I was enjoying my second-story panorama. I now know without a doubt that we couldn’t have gone through with selling what was rooted in our souls. My “Aha!” moment, the poetic one, came after I got a timely shove down the road less traveled. And looking through my white birches, across the lake to Bald Mountain and Saddleback in the distance, gratefully breathing in the new cabin smell, my heart soared and still does.

You can get here from there

So how does an out of work writer and her recently retired teacher husband “leave it all behind” to move permanently to their cabin in Maine? What’s it really like living ten miles from the nearest stop sign and 37 miles from the nearest traffic light on a big lake with a long name that, in Abnaki, means “moose feeding place?” 

Good questions. In the three months since my big transition north, I’m starting to come up with some answers, which I’ll share in the following posts. As they come, I’ll also share answers to things I’m still pondering, sometimes in the middle of the night, and sometimes after embarking on a chore I used to take for granted that now involves bug spray, a change of clothes, a water bottle, an ice pack and an itinerary posted on the refrigerator so loved ones can come find me. I’ll share how I came to uproot myself after living in the same house in the same city for all of my adult life to move year-round to what had previously been my summer camp. I’ll share how I got here and how I intend to stay.

For now, I do know for sure, that my transition from Flatlander to Rangeley transplant would never have grown past a whim without a few prerequisites. To take this leap of faith and begin to make it work, I needed:

  • Enough money and enough faith to believe that enough will be enough
  • A  vision for a new lifestyle with the guts to follow through when opportunity allowed and the grace to back pedal or change course if it didn’t
  • A sense of adventure
  • A sense of humor
  • A logistical, up-to-the minute project plan that would impress even the most detail oriented spreadsheet gurus from my office working days
  • A soul mate who instigated and inspired and, more often than not, just plain took charge of all of the above necessities, and still thinks he wants to pull up his Adirondack chair next to mine when it’s all said and done

Some folks say we’re crazy. Some say we’re “too young” to retire, to which we say we’re “just young enough.” Some say we’re taking a huge risk leaving the malls, the curbside garbage pickup, and ambulances that can reach the emergency room fast enough to resuscitate us.  Even one friend says we’re way to far from a wine and liquor outlet to make this lifestyle feasible. It’s a bit too early to say they’re wrong. The jury’s still out…at least until next April or May when we can, hopefully, still claim victory with whatever  the winter thaw leaves in working order. And if we can’t, and we truly are crazy, let’s hope it’s sweet old Nana who could marvel at the same birch tree over and over like she’d never seen it before kind of crazy. Let’s hope it’s not standing out in the driveway with a shotgun and a tin foil hat kind of crazy.

Meanwhile, I also know for sure I already have the most crucial element in this whole leap of faith, and have possessed copious quantities of it for the past 23 years. I love Rangeley. I love this place, its people, my new-old house here that holds all my treasures. I love the way I feel when I walk down to my waterfront and can still see my daughters as toddlers running ahead of me eager, as I was, to jump in. I am rooted in this land of lakes and mountains. Always will be. With that grounding force, along with the previously mentioned keys to survival, plus lots of blankets, dried beans, homemade wine and stacks and stacks of reading material, the saga begins!