House Words & House Pictures – Escapees from a House Journal III

“No wonder people get in a permanent state of denial about the need for building maintenance. It is all about negatives, never about rewards. Doing it is a pain. Not doing it can be catastrophic. A constant draining expense, it never makes money. You could say it does save money in the long run, but even that is a negative because you never see the saving in any accountable way. When, after months or years of nagging, you finally do the work – refinish the floor, hire the roofers, replace the damned furnace – you have nothing new and positive, just a negated negative. The problem that needed fixing turned into an even worse problem during the chaos of repair, and then it went away. Even the Bible is on your case for waiting so long: ‘By much slothfulness the building decayeth.’ (Ecclesiastes, X, 18).

Yet the issue is core and absolute: no maintenance, no building. And that’s what usually happens. Every building is potentially immortal, but very few last half the life of a human.”

Stewart Brand How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built


These guys feel the pain.


House Words & House Pictures – Escapees from a House Journal II

“The front door has always been a place of great symbolic importance. Ever since men lived in caves, the front door – and its threshold – have demarcated the transition between inside and outside, between safety and danger, between the public and the private worlds. We angrily show people the door, or considerately we walk them to it; we knock on the door and wait to be invited in. It is the place for many everyday ceremonies of arrival and departure, for familial hugs and for furtive, adolescent goodnight kisses. It is the memory of these that gives front doors personality – that is why we adorn them with Christmas wreaths and Thanksgiving corn.”

Witold Rybczynski The Most Beautiful House in the World

entry way collection

And then there is the entry way.

House Words & House Pictures – Escapees from a House Journal I

“Houses are really quite odd things. They have almost no universally defining qualities: they can be of practically any shape, incorporate virtually any material, be of almost any size. Yet wherever we go in the world we know houses and recognize domesticity the moment we see them.”

Bill Bryson At Home: A Short History of Private Life


Bowls – maybe they all have bowls.

A Bungalow in Eagle Rock – and a Spring Salad

Flying from Anchorage and arriving in Southern California for the weekend felt such a treat – similar cloudless blue skies, but much warmer temperatures and no late March ice underfoot! We visited gardens in bloom, worked in our son’s garden, and ate great meals.

Our son and his sweet bride have made their classic California bungalow, in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles, so welcoming. One-story with a garage on a fairly busy street, it has commonalities with Downtown Abbey and our house in Washington – white walls and fir floors, books and pictures – but it invites one outdoors.

A few steps up from the garden, a large, veranda-like covered porch stretches across the back of the house. With newly dark-stained wood floors, an old blue-cotton covered loveseat, cushioned wicker chairs and a hammock, everything about this porch makes you want to linger with a book. The guest room opens onto the porch (all the back doors are sliding doors, no snow or wind to keep out), and I love to step straight out in bare feet.

The young couple has transformed their barren back yard, a rectangle of scrubby grass, into a city oasis. Just a small square of spring-green grass remains and around it, in generous garden beds, grow a pomegranate, persimmon, olive, lemon, orange, and banana tree. (It astounds me to write that list.)

A tall wooden spirit house from Thailand occupies one corner, surrounded by shrubby drought-resistant plants, and St. Francis stands in another corner amongst rosemary, lavender, and blooming sweet william. A row of closely planted podocarpus screen the near neighbors.

The winter kale was ready to be pulled and replaced by zucchini, pepper plants, and tomatoes (later in the season they might come north to Alaska and Washington). After planting, watering, and weeding it’s March bliss to a Northwesterner to have a beer under a sun umbrella on the brick patio – and to eat breakfast outdoors as well.

The new kitchen is brightened by tubular skylights, white walls and cupboards, and made colorful by open and glass-fronted shelving full of pottery and travel treasures. An eating counter with stools replaced the wall between kitchen and dining room. It’s great place to perch and watch a fabulous meal come together, thanks to the sweet bride!

She served “Vegetables and Brown Rice Salad,” and later sent her recipe. (It seems like you could easily vary both the vegetables used and the quantities.)

In a large bowl mix together a couple of diced carrots, a cup of white beans, a couple of chopped tomatoes, a tablespoon of sliced shallots, a zucchini (cut in half and sliced), finely sliced kale, and kalamata olives. To dress this mix, the sweet bride recommended regular oil and balsamic vinegar salad dressing, suggesting I add a little soy sauce or sesame oil. She warned me to add the dressing sparingly.

Mix in a cup of cooked brown rice, combined well with a tablespoon of lime juice, and season with salt and pepper.

Rice and white beans and real spring – treats!

Wm:T house

House Rules

Rules we abide by (or ignore) in our own houses can be complex and mysterious in origin. Where do we get these notions that fill our home rulebook?

My mother is the source of some of my rules: no ketchup bottles or milk cartons on the dining table, and from her Irish roots, “if you kill a spider, it will rain the next day.” She believed houses should always have fireplaces but no overhead lights actually used. We lived in a 27-foot trailer for some time, so I’m not sure that rule worked out for her, but I’ve remembered and obeyed it.

An old neighbor of long ago, the one, who had four little towheaded boys when our towhead joined the neighborhood line-up, was the source of several tricks and truisms. (I was so new to both homeownership and motherhood at the time that I readily absorbed her rules.) She declared that if the toilets weren’t clean, the house wouldn’t seem clean, and recommended at the approach of unexpected visitors to pull out the vacuum. A vacuum in the middle of the floor signals a cleaning in progress!

My old friend who lives on Bainbridge Island taught me about counter wiping. We joke about it, but it’s true. A nurse, she knows germs. Also, she possesses Scandinavian blue-and-white clean genes, and her house can sparkle – with towels and sheets fresh from hanging on the line outside, cut flowers on the kitchen table, homemade preserves.

No shoes in the house is second nature to anyone who has lived in Alaska.

From my very good high school friend’s mother, I learned to always leave a house or a cabin clean when departing. Dirty windows block a huge amount of light. That’s longtime Anchorage garden writer Jeff Lowenfels’s rule to encourage light for houseplants – and lifted spirits for humans.

My painter friend taught me to shut the shades and close out the dark each evening, a ritual I love here where the winter nights are even darker (not now thankfully!).

The rules for how to hang paintings come courtesy of Don and Julie Decker, the owners of the Anchorage gallery where I used to show. The museum rule is the center of the painting at about five feet above the floor – the Deckers could masterfully eyeball that height. It’s so easy to hang things too high, and as our younger son said to me recently, it looks weird once you notice.

Cheryl Mendelson in “Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House” taught me her way to make beds – to add an extra flat sheet over the wool blanket, then fold the top sheet over that – protecting the blanket. Mendelson’s book contains 854 pages and many rules – great stuff really – how to “properly” wash dishes by hand, how to light a fire, how to clean most anything in a house.

And same with Ellen Sandbeck’s “Organic Housekeeping,” a gift from Mrs. Hughes, I read it from front to back, and the rule I remember is no sponges (“bacterial incubators”) for dishes. Ever. Maybe.

Rules. Are these rules about rigidity or about comfort? You must have them also. Probably some of yours contradict mine.

But we all know what rules are for, right?!

Scizzors,chore lists

“On Whirlwind Hill”

Blogs and houses suit one another, and within this month’s house focus, I get to tell you about my painter friend’s brand new blog – “On Whirlwind Hill: an artist’s memories of a family farm.”

For longer than I can even imagine – some 300 years – her family has lived in their part of Connecticut, farming on Whirlwind Hill. Although other houses also appear, a beloved farmhouse occupies the center of her story. With my childhood homes being many and motley, I am drawn to people who live their young lives in one place – with roots in houses like the farmhouse on Whirlwind Hill.

In part this blog came about because of an exploration during sessions of The Workroom, so I’ve read some of the story (and seen wonderful drawings of the farm), but I don’t know how the narrative will unfold in this blog as memoir. I like to watch my painter friend’s creative mind turn memory into writing and image, and look forward to following along.

I hope “Her spirits rose…” readers will have a look, Mondays and Wednesdays and the occasional Friday. The address for Whirlwind Hill is

It would be great to see you there!

Houses – and Dolly Parton

When I dreamed up the house theme for “Her spirits rose…,” I didn’t expect to spend so much time at Downtown Abbey. But I was much in Anchorage as the result of a fall on an icy running trail, which changed Mr. Carson into a temporary Mr. Bates, without the metal brace but with the walking cane, a trouble compounded by another injury – of Lady Baby’s friend RoRo (who cares for her on work days). Fixable woes, but painful and discombobulating to life and schedules.

So this April brimmed with much unexpected Lady Baby fun, and instead of contemplating books at home and further in my archive, searching for thoughts about artists’ houses or thinking of my house, I’ve been making a study of animal houses. The sort of houses that provide shelter in the scores (and I mean scores) of books we read these days to Lady Baby.

She listens to a pile with breakfast, a stack with lunch, a good selection after getting cozy in the sleep sack before nap and bedtime – and throughout the day, during moments of “lets sit down and have tea and read” (me), or the sudden discovery of a book on a shelf or a table and the request “pease read this” (Lady Baby). One book almost always leads to “nother book” and “nother,” and this bottomless appetite thrills me. Grandparents, being all about time to read and read and read, rarely have to set limits.

We read lots of books about animals, animals that have their houses built-in like snails, animals that build their houses like birds or spiders, or animals that find houses like bears’ caves, raccoons’ hollow trees, and the holes of mice. Of course, many animals live with us in our houses – “Clifford The Big Red Dog” being a tight fit, “Six-Dinner Sid” resides in six houses whose owners don’t know about each other.

And, maybe most memorably, we read about animals that have houses containing all the attributes and comforts of home. We always like to visit Peter Rabbit’s little burrow, and the intricate structures built by the mice in the Brambly Hedge series – dwellings with cozy fireplaces and bunk beds piled with quilts. Chester, a young raccoon, lives in a hollow tree with his family, and in one book has to leave his home and move to another part of the forest. “Bear Snores On” in his cave that is often the site of parties with his friends. Anthropomorphism, yes, but so much fun.

“Need a House? Call Ms. Mouse!” is a definite favorite. Ms. Mouse, a decorator, architect, and builder, provides plans for houses for all sorts of animals to meet their specifications and needs – an elegant hanging pear for a worm, a three-level below-ground fox den, an Asian-flavored, “leaping success” of a pad for a frog.

When we moved from Anchorage to Washington much of our Downtown Abbey library was transformed into credit at Title Wave, the huge second-hand bookstore in Anchorage. When I suggested to Lady Baby that we go there and buy a lot of books she nodded yes, and added, “and eat French fries!” Okay. Sounds good.

Lady Baby is lucky, she has lots of books and chances to go to the library. In one of her books I noticed a label from “Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.” When I asked Mrs. Hughes about this, she told me the book is from Dolly Parton. If you sign up, Parton’s amazing organization will send your child a book each month from birth to five years!

The books come in the mail, addressed to the child, are age-appropriate, and include some classics like “The Little Engine Who Could” and contemporary books. One day we received “Pretend,” and that seemed perfect – as pretending is just beginning for Lady Baby in a big way – aided and abetted by books!

I’m in awe of The Imagination Library ( – what a wonderful thing for Dolly Parton to do.

Ms. Mouse with book list