Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Art of Making Things Beautiful

The new shelf

I'm late. I needed to start my seeds—a few weeks ago, most likely. Is it already gardening time again? The weather here feels like spring. It's practically balmy. 44 degrees yesterday, sunny. I had on a light jacket as I moved about my chicken yard, dropping handfuls of compost for excited birds, who pounced on apple cores and soft tomatoes like they were plum puddings, kicking them around the yard. I have moved my little hen in with the other hens, leaving behind a chicken yard that will become a new garden bed this spring; its soil scratched up and fertilized, all the bugs picked out. I have empty palettes, and it's time to imagine what will fill them in.

Our wee little kitchen. Imagine it without the shelf.
That task is easy enough. I've been looking at heirloom seed catalogs again—glossy centerfolds full of exotic vegetables making gorgeous love to the camera lens. Tomatoes—white, green, deep burgundy, red. Purple tomatillo. Yellow, purple, and red carrots. Names like dragon, atomic, amarillo, scarlet Nantes. There are lettuces, crisp and soft and streaked with red, veined with purple; bitter, mild and sweet. Yes, I swooned, I am ready. I am ready to try again. Last year, my seeds suffered in a makeshift greenhouse adjacent to the front wall of my house. I couldn't keep them wet enough or warm enough. They cooked by day and froze by night. Once full of possibility, they ended their lives as dried-up stalks up death in my compost pile. Then I had to shell out for starts.This year, I'm learning. I'm moving those suckers inside. Where, though, in my tiny kitchen, might they go?

A shelf! Suspended above the chest freezer, in my window. Yes, yes, right where I spend half my life. There I could have seed trays and nurse them with the tender care usually reserved for heart patients on a ward. I need space, I boomed. I walked around muttering. Space! And now.

In an effort to make his wife happy, or perhaps to silence her, my husband then began work on a seed-starting contraption: he bought lumber, sawed boards, and hauled it all in to assemble in its place, all with the enthusiasm of a pall-bearer crushed under the corner of a coffin as he marched. Perhaps there should be a support group for the partners of gardeners: a place where they can talk about the paces we put them through. Oh, hon, I just need you to make some row covers. Can you fix the watering system? I need you to build a box without stepping on my seedlings while you do.

At some point, though, as he was doing all this pacifying shelf-building, he looked over and saw his wife grimacing at him.

"What?" he demanded.

"It's just—really ugly..." I muttered.

Ugly, of course, is the last thing that matters to these men with nails and saws. What? It's going to hold seeds, right? You want it should like a Mona Lisa while it does?

"It doesn't go with with the kitchen," my mother explained. All this was lost in translation.

She was right. It looked like a big, stupid scaffolding hung from my ceiling. I like my kitchen. It's the least awful room in my house. My living room floor is unfinished, with vinyl still attached to the places where we pulled off linoleum. The front door jamb is unpainted. The back door is part duct tape and part glass. I like my kitchen. In my kitchen, I can imagine that I live in a nice house. If I just stayed there, I could almost feel something like pride. I need the seed shelf, though. Where else will I start tomatoes all the colors of balloons?

"I could paint it," I proposed.

A long conversation ensued about paint. White or green? Could I match the green of my counter tops? Did I need to sand? OK, I can paint it. It will be OK. I could have my seeds and my sense of pride as well. I couldn't help but feel I might be missing something, though.

I've lately been reading blogs about decorating with junk. It occurred to me rather suddenly to embrace the crate-like quality of the shelf. Was there a way to have it look intentionally trashy rather than accidentally so?

Stencils! I thought. I'll just make it look like that was the look I wanted all the time. I bought stencils.

"I want to hang herbs from the bottom to dry," I told my husband.

"You'd have to hang them from the side," he said. Of course I would.

Eureka! I purchased three antiqued brass rings for herb hanging attached to the side of the crate-shelf-blight.

All this done, maybe I've just inhaled something, but I actually like this shelf. It looks—chosen. And there's something to this choosing of things that end up hanging around bugging us, things we would rather do without.

Some people start with an empty house and imagine what they want. Then, they fill it in, piece by piece, building toward the effect that they hold perfectly in their mind. They can see it before they see it. They know where to put each piece. They know what to get. Some people start planning in high school. What do I want to be when I grow up? They take classes. They choose a college. They choose a career. Later, they marry and, much later, they have kids. They put each piece in place carefully. They build a real life from what they conceived of and planned for assiduously.

Myself, I start with a bunch of random objects. A couch someone gave us when they upgraded to a better one. Figurines that were presents to me over the years. Children's art—the kind of which the child is especially proud. Kachina dolls my husband had an idea he would sell and make some cash. I started with love and impulse and worked backwards to make all the pieces fit. Kids first, then marriage, and career not at all. This is my life. The life I love. Things happen and I work them in.

Things—and lives—are beautiful, I think, because we want them. When they're dusted and painted, when they're cared for, they belong. We find things to compliment them. We find ways to make them shine. We see them as belonging where they are.

Things out of place, by contrast, are things unchosen. Realities we'd rather not love because, in hating them, we hope that they will somehow disappear.

This making things beautiful is the art of taking what we're given, choosing it, and marking its beauty with the tender hands of love. It's easy once you see it, once the flaw becomes a strength, once you stop wishing for what you do not have.

A shelf, I think, is a really good place to start.


  1. "Things—and lives—are beautiful, I think, because we want them." What a beautiful reflection Tara. Perhaps it is time to start choosing to love what we have. I'm certainly working on it myself this year.

    1. It is certainly something I struggle with, and it's easier to do with a shelf than with other things. I was once told the key to happiness was to want what I already had. I've never made very good use of that advice.

  2. "I started with love and impulse and worked backwards to make all the pieces fit." I love that description. We, too, have many hand-me-downs and art made by little hands. It may not be stylish, but it has a homey beauty.
    (PLEASE post pictures after you finish the shelf! I can't wait to see what you do with it!)

    1. I am curious what I'll do with it, too. I am not sure whether it will get much further than it is before I cover it with plants. I toyed with lining the shelves with a sort of oil cloth-like feed bag that I had with a beautiful hen on it, but it didn't seem to fit. We think we'll turn the feed bag into a tablecloth for that ugly cat feeding table instead. And I may get some tin farm signs to hang up in the kitchen, advertising eggs and things like that. With all that, the crate-looking shelf may just look right at home.

  3. Wonderful reflection, Tara. I think my life has been a blend of planning and letting it be. The house in which I have lived for the last 26 years is certainly a put it together piece by piece sort of place. All the pieces have been chosen, some more than once. Much like my life, actually. Some parts were chosen (a career in education) but the path to get there just sort of appeared.
    I do find it hard to take something that I didn't ask for and make it beautiful. I'm still learning how to do this.

    1. It's so interesting to hear about other people's ways of putting together their homes and their lives. The trick for me is not to just end up with things. I get a lot of unplanned-for objects and complications and, if I'm not careful, they just hang out looking ugly and out of place. I don't always apply the intention to make them fit.

  4. Ahhhh.. garden porn. I fall victim to their glossy siren's call every year.

  5. Beautifully done as always. We just had the it's time to start the seeds conversation (for the third time this year, since I'm always wanting to start in January but Hubby declares that it's too early--unfortunately, the science is on his side). Hubby said, "Is that green folding table going to be big enough this year or do I need to figure something else out?" I settled for the green table, but we'll be keeping this post as a template for figuring out something bigger next year. :)


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Faith in Ambiguity by Tara Adams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License