As I inhabit the house now it’s almost finished, I am positively subdued by the subtlety of it. The way light comes in, sharply it seems sometimes, but playfully, edges vacillating with movement from something beyond its’ control. Along with the trees and the remaining old glass in the windows, the house reaps reflections and really lives.
I didn’t notice the light in the house when I bought it. Unlike my first house where the upstairs bedroom sang out to me like angels when I first saw it; the January light filling the bedroom like it was September in LA. Instead Parchment captivated me with its’ forlorn, disconsolate state. Like an abandoned puppy you could not help but pick up, I took the house into my care without thinking twice about the responsibility. I wonder now, after the grueling renovation, that Parchment House is maybe sighing, exhaling, simply breathing back the lost 11 years of loneliness to give me such a light loved space?
It was my father who taught me first to consider light so particularly by looking at photographs and paintings. Later in college and the discovery of darkroom chemistry I truly fell in love with the magical and beguiling ways of light and shadow. I wish with all my heart that I could sit with my father at Parchment today, build an afternoon fire and watch the journey of light around the house, flickering along with the flames as both darkness and light dance together into each room. He’d have enjoyed that.
In a shoebox, the back of a deep drawer or buried in a trunk in the attic alongside silver trinkets and vintage glass no doubt accompanied with a note from my mother saying, “In case I died here’s some notes for you on the silver”, somewhere there is a cassette tape of me talking and singing to myself in the bath when I was about 6. We didn’t have a shower back then and baths were a once weekly event usually on a Sunday before the start of the school week.
Before bathing but after dinner it was time to choose the nightgown and place it in front of the fire to warm (we had an open coal fire for the first few years then gas but I don't recall when it was changed). My favourite nighty was white flannel, long and princess style. It was the gown I wore one particularly memorable morning when after retrieving milk from the doorstep I tripped on the length of it half way up the stairs, breaking the milk bottle, cutting my finger, blood everywhere and my father gallantly rescuing me, sweeping me high above the danger, nightgown trailing beneath us.
It took a while to run the bath, the old tub being a deep cast iron enamel but it held heat forever. I climb in, ouch ouch, hot, watching as my flesh seems to turn more white than it already is as the water laps over me and then in a moment my hair, once fluffy long locks, becomes seaweedy strands that stick to my body unless I submerge myself completely and then soft tendrils float around me just like a mermaid and I dream of being something else. With my ears underwater I witness my own self living. Heart beating, breath breathing and the distortion of the waters lens makes my fingers look long and elegant.
Unbeknownst to me my parents, just this one time, set up a recorder outside the door and taped me. It was a babbling, garbled monologue for the most part, chatting away to my imaginary friend, singing a little, hearing the phone ring and calling out, “is it for me?”. The solipsism of childhood; total self absorption until you want the world to notice you.
Post bath would likely entail a sweet treat, the last tv of the evening and the plaiting (braiding) of my hair whilst wet. Going to bed with a tight wet plait was fun, the cool wet braid contrasting with the warmth of my skin. I remember the following mornings and how it was so fun to undo these knots to discover curls and kinks and a magical new me.
I very rarely bathe now for I can’t sit still long enough. I dare say I love the idea and will sometimes draw a long bath, light candles, pour a glass of something, leave the phone, take a magazine, submerge and then 5 minutes later I’m a fidgeting wreck. Seems a little strange then that I would invest so much space, money and time into a 500lb cast iron tub for Parchment House. But, just looking at it reminds me of being the 6 year old in the bath at home, unquestionably safe, imaginatively playful, looking forward to the warmed nightgown and the magic of who I would wake up to be in the morning.
I’m sitting in my courtyard in Chicago seeing in my peripheral vision the ants on the table busily going about their life while I research the history of names of people associated with the land on which Parchment House stands. I’m doing this because I was lucky enough to receive in the post the other day something called an abstract of title. This thing is a written history of all the recorded documents and proceedings related to my specific property. The document dates back to December 30th 1835 when John Trout purchased the land from the United States Treasury. I rather feel I’m a voyeur on a part my own past that hasn’t happened yet.
I am an only child and I have no children. Soon enough all of me will be gone. We must accept that eventually we all disappear. But then I realize John Trout is not gone because I am googling him, along with all the other names on this extensive document. Few I have found, references in newspapers to foreclosure mostly, others I’m not convinced are the same person by name so I don’t wish to conject.
In re-shaping this house, my imagination whispers to me it’s the house from my past and of my future. In turning the parchment like papers of this newly acquired old document I absorb both the weight and lightness of time. The moments in and passing of life are much to do about transmission. Weight needs balance, lightness needs space. Balance and space. Something to aspire to in life, as well as maybe the notion to look back in order to look forward.
Throughout my childhood my mother, perhaps by way of her own complexes, volunteered at day centres, charity shops and group homes in West London. I would visit these places often and the other people frequenting were to me a magical bunch of people; a group of fluid, fascinating characters. There were schizophrenics, homeless, manic-depressives, addicts, alcoholics, the lonely, the anxious, the isolated, the elderly and generally anyone on that thin line between normal and whatever the rest of society deemed weird or unacceptable. I would turn up and dance my 6 year old innocence and imagination into the room, share stories with them that were filled with the real stuff of their thoughts, the difference between our stories being a notion of freedom one step away from the curse of an addled brain or a disapproving society.
This formative education, coupled with my own private fantasies: from childhood, a family friend with a garden at the bottom of which I believed there to be fairies; an imaginary St. Bernard dog called Ira and an imaginary friend who’s name I forget but who I remember was much naughtier than me, and then more lately, less privately, depicting the ironing of a loaf of bread and the construction of an octopus cake….it all amounts to a life led by a whimsical mind.
So, with fairies at the bottom of the garden, imaginary dogs and octopus cakes, the fact that the interior of Parchment is coming closer to a finish, I turn my imaginations to the outside. Yet another challenge at my doorstep as I try to fathom the design of big open spaces. I am drawn to small courtyards and English cottage gardens, brick patios and trellis’ heavy with climbing, flowering plants. I want small spaces in the big spaces, areas that inspire dreams, naps, feasts, play and naughtiness, but the sharp reality at the moment is the cost of gravel per ton, how much does a ton of said stuff actually cover, how level is the ground and be careful not to dig near the septic. It’s all a bit like trying to get my imaginary dog to fetch a ball; in more ways than one he just doesn’t really get it.
And any budding designers out there want to take on the house landscape project for little to no money and help me straddle that thin line between crazy and real to nurture a landscape of whimsy?
Lastly, with some excitement I can say Parchment House also has the recent addition of 16 acres to ensure the protection and privacy of its' property. Approximately 12 of these acres are tillable and I am looking to discuss ideas for farming from people in my community. There's a wet area by the river that would be great for blueberries....anyone want to raise bees, plant grape vines, grow a lavender field, food crops...? Contact me via email, I'd love to chat.
My first boyfriend at school and he was a score: the bad boy in our year, taller than most, tawny hair longer over his eyebrows, a good fighter, smoked weed, bunked off class with aplomb and had the best pair of lips in the whole school. We would kiss for days, laughing together at how long we could do it without being bored. One day we were at my best friends’ house in her living room that had doors opening to the garden and it started to pour with rain. A classic English Summer rain bucketing down fast and with giant fat sloppy drops that stops as quick as it unexpectedly starts. He and I rushed out declaring it was time to kiss in the pouring rain. I remember the feeling, the sensation of snogging like crazy the guy you love in the pouring rain, lips all wet and hair plastered to our faces and grins as big as melon slices in between our breaths as we looked at each other and sucked in the life right there between and to and from each other.
Parchment House now has french doors from the living room to the outside where there were once windows and a chunky pair of bookcases. Was the decision to install these doors perhaps subliminally driven by this formative experience? I doubt it and it doesn’t really matter does it, because now and forever more these new doors are fondly imbued with a memory from my youth and well, gracious, when it rains I will be mesmerized, awash with thought and a melon size grin thinking of childhood kisses.
When I was 14 or 15 a young boy at school declared his love for me. We were skirting around the edges of officially going out together, there was obviously an attraction, yet my interest in him was more a curiosity than any kind of deep seated desire. One day he took me to his house to meet his parents, show me his room. We spent many hours together but I don’t recall what we did much else than chat and smoke some weed. Surely we did a lot of tongue kissing since that was de rigueur at our age, but I don’t remember it. He was gallant enough to bring me home the few miles from his house and as we sat waiting for the bus at the top of my road to take him back I had a feeling that the relationship wasn’t going to work. Those days the buses were the old style double decker where the back corner was open and you could stand hanging onto the pole and be exposed to the street. As he took off, he grinned back at me, hanging on with one arm, threw the other wide open in the air and shouted, “I love you Johanna Lowe”. He seemed genuinely thrilled with his feelings and his declaration. I knew right then it was never going to work.
Gut feeling and experience typically add up to good decision making. But, as life would have it, one doesn’t always go with that. For instance, I recall a couple of really bad relationships where I knew I was mad as a hatter to go forth with this person but yet still chose to exercise masochism over a loving commitment to myself. Also, having met some really wonderful men over the years and rejected a couple of them who were probably outstandingly good choices, it’s plain my gut and my head have made some rather poor decisions.
Choosing paint color has lately been similarly telling of my character. Most recently, having chosen the interior color for the window frames and watching as the guys started painting, I thought to myself, it’s too blue, but I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to look indecisive and I didn’t want to be wrong with my first choice. Yet everyday I went back to the house, as they were moving along from one window to the next, I kept telling myself it wasn’t right and I would wring my hands and sleep badly. Finally ( it took a whole morning to get the courage up and to formulate the words just right) I texted the painter and sheepishly told him it had to change. “It’s fine, he said, we’re not too late because I haven’t done the finish coat yet”. My elation and relief was palpable. I was right not to commit to my first color choice and better yet I was right to admit to being wrong and work through the change.
I am tenacious at least, if sometimes lacking in better judgement or too stubborn to pay attention to what my sense tells me right off the bat. Perhaps I shall look at my love life as layers of paint, up to now just lacking the finish coat.
There are moments when ideas and your confidence in them are thrust out quick and crisp like a toboggan ride on the first perfect snow. Then there are ideas that get the long drawn out treatment like an uphill muddy walk where your boots aren’t quite warm enough and they're rubbing at your heels so you’re getting a blister and the wind is always in the wrong direction and your nose endlessly runs while your hair whips across your face and sticks to the mucus trailing across your cheek. Could very well be the same idea, just a different day. Name it tenacity, doggedness or sheer bloody mindedness, all of that helps figure out the idea.
As does inviting 23 people to dinner in your barn to give you the deadline you need to determine whether or not the idea of having 23 people to dinner in your barn is a good idea.
After 2 days working on cleaning out and it still looks like the above picture, a next good idea is to get a dumpster. (I had foolishly thought I could save $250 by loading all the stuff from the barn into my car to the local dump. That was a really stupid idea.)
So what did I learn?
Get a dumpster.
Don't leave drywall out in the rain.
Raccoon's poop a lot.
Don't overestimate the size of a Saab wagon.
Don't underestimate the weight of objects.
Be very grateful for good weather.
We all hoard something.
Wear a mask.
Listen to music.
Then drink beer.
Be profusely & eternally grateful to help offered from friends.
The evening was lovely. It was an experiment and I hope the first of many collaboration and exploration.
It's November 8th 2016 and we are counting votes.
There's a whole lot of ideas coming.
I'm holding fast to mine.
As you know, I wasn't looking to buy a house but somehow Parchment House found me. On my way to the bar one day I, daydreaming, missed my turn. I pulled quickly into the semi circular drive of a house just past the turning and noticed it had a ‘for sale’ sign up. I looked at the house, glanced at the barn, got out of the car and felt gripped with a sensation I can only liken to clapping eyes on a man for the first time knowing you have to be with him. I was tingling, alert but fuzzy, confused by my reaction, a little afraid and most of all aware of a deep sense of determination that had set into my bones like mortar to a brick.
In a new relationship romance is everything. The notion of being in love, of being excited by an unfolding mystery, intrigued by the sense of discovery and feeling giddily disconnected to reality, all this keeps you moving forward despite odds. You hope you will always be in love and romance is crucial to this.
I am 39 days away from my one year anniversary of buying Parchment House and despite all the odds I am still in love, though it is a little more grown up now. I think this is partly due to the nature of the process of designing, planning and construction. There is constant engagement, steps to take, decisions to be made, the relationship is forged, even though sometimes it feels like it has a life of its’ own. Some days you feel it’s running away from you, some days it’s like a train barreling towards you. Then there is actual fact; a wall comes down, a pipe is run, a tree cut. Just as a love note gets slipped into the jacket pocket, the walk in the Summer rain is remembered and the argument gets made up.
And so, I am currently being romanced by the presence of walls. I haven’t had walls since Winter. It’s quite remarkable what vertical physical planes will do to your mindset. I’m now guided through the interior of my house, which forces me in the nicest way to move according to plan. I can no longer meander willy nilly through spaces between studs from one room to another and I can no longer see straight through one space to another aside from expected doorways. There are new parameters and boundaries. In one sense I am comforted by this and in another I am nostalgic for the recklessness. I guess I’m just going to keep working on creating order from chaos and looking for chaos to create order from, all the whilst hopefully letting romance in.
One longstanding realization for me moving to the USA from England has been the often open welcome and willingness of people here in America to help me take something on.
As my country flails following a vote to leave Europe I was heartened to have a group of friends come help me burn a pile of wood this past weekend (June 24-26). One could say it was emblematic but that wasn’t by design.
Parchment House has an 11 year (at least) history of neglect and the back pasture was heavily wooded with trees and carpets, tires, car seats, oil drums, etc. Much work happened to clear this and consequently I was left with a house high pile of trees, stumps & brush. Thus waiting to chop & burn and hence, the event.
I remember as a child what an event the cutting of the hedge was. My father would first decide that this was going to happen, usually on a Sunday and then the hedge trimmers would come out. They were fairly blunt, hand held trimmers with enough rust to them to make the mechanism of open and close slightly resistant. I recall him having such fatigue in his muscles afterwards. Our hedge was huge. He would silently move along and up and down it on both sides, with me following, black plastic bin bag in hand, collecting all the trimmings. It was never a very happy event, definitely a chore. Mowing the lawn was another exercise of belief in a set of blades that were about as sharp as the hedge trimmers but it didn’t matter. The doing it mattered.
Life was different then. It’s slightly unfathomable that just 40 years ago, during the first decade of my life we had a coal fire for heat and a black and white tv.
Chop & Burn was an event in the spirit of my enduring american experience. I needed to clear up and burn a pile of wood which by myself would be a tremendous chore. How could I make it less so? Just ask and make it a party, a gathering of willing souls.
I grew in spirit that weekend. The camaraderie was sweet and humbling. With the gentle encouragement and support of people around me I did things I wouldn’t normally do or was .afraid to try. I used a chainsaw for the first time in my life and wielded an axe too. I also wore dungarees, which I haven’t since back in the days of coal fires and black & white tellys.
As the sun went down and the giant pile of amber burning wood slowly turned to grey I thought about my father and wished he could have been there to see how a chore can be made a joy and how his little girl figured out that burning stuff is way more fun than bagging it.
All has been quiet on the blog front hasn't it? I haven’t come up with anything to write about, even though a lot has happened. I think actually I've been a little overwhelmed after deciding to remove the 1960's cement fiber siding off the house, revealing the 1920's clapboard. It was certainly not a necessary thing to undertake and once the work started I realised (again) how taking on a task is never as simple as it seems and inevitably leads to many more tasks. The original siding is in great condition but the work ahead; power-washing, scraping, pulling nails, filling holes, priming, staining, staining again, cutting and staining and fitting trim pieces, all of this looms. Throw into this mix the skills and personalities needed to get the job done, the schedule of work, the weather and when all is said and done you stand back and ask, "was it worth it?". Time will tell but blimey I hope so.
Of my childhood memories, blackberry picking and nettle rash went hand in hand. It was an essential part of the experience of our holiday and more than that, it was needed for the crumble. Mummy would make blackberry apple crumble and we'd eat it hot out of the oven, covered in silky scorching Birds custard in the middle of August, when England in the middle of August was predictably scorching as custard.
A good friend tells me that my younger years spent in nettle patches says everything about me and he may be correct. My trials with Parchment House a case in point perhaps but also not forgetting a few past relationships, all suggesting a moderately masochistic streak in me. But I am getting distracted.
So, last Friday, with the perfect sun and a good few days behind me, I was determined to go pick nettles, the impetus to make pesto for a pasta supper and also the promise of a bag of them to the chef at my favourite Chicago restaurant. After research I learn to only cut the first 3 bracts and so this is what I do. It’s quick work and all the while I am brushing aside the bugs and watching the bumble bees and butterflies. It's an engrossing activity, one which gets you close to the ground and at which point you start to notice the smaller details. As I moved slowly, cutting and day dreaming, my eyes focused in on something I could barely contain my joy about; morels! Well, actually just 2 of them but still, I have morels on my property. I was giddy with triumph, even though I hadn't actually done anything. As I knelt down to take some photographs of my prize, my bare knees sank deep into a pile of nettles. That fiery pain and the red welts that followed were testimony to my feeling of joy, pure and simple. Me, a masochist, what do you think?
Half gallon pail of fresh picked nettles, lightly packed
Good quality olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1 medium shallot roughly chopped
2 handfuls pine nuts toasted
Zest of a lemon
Juice of a lemon
Scant tablespoon of honey
Quarter to half cup fresh parmesan grated (to your taste)
Small handful fresh basil
Couple good pinches of sea-salt
Wash nettles thoroughly wearing gloves.
Blanch them in boiling water for a few seconds then shock in ice water.
Drain well (easy in a salad spinner)
They can now be handled without gloves.
Remove all the leaves from the stalks.
Then use a clean dish towel to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. You'll have a tight dryish clump of leaves at the end of this.
Put in a food processor along with the other ingredients except the oil. Pulse a few times to amalgamate then start to drizzle the oil slowly in, pulsing as you go, until you get to a consistency you like.
Serve with your favourite pasta, as a sauce for lamb chops, a dressing for potato salad, spread on fresh bread with a ripe tomato and anything else you can dream up.
You can also freeze it in ice cube trays, which will take the sting out of the prep of a mid-week meal.