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I miss a thousand Sundays.

I miss the Sundays Kyle and I spent in the coffee shop last summer, sketching out floor plans, drinking lattes and eating coffeecake that left our fingers sticky. Kyle is gone for work now and it is winter. But those Sundays fell away, anyway, long before the cold came and Kyle left again. Because there were (house) things to do.

I miss the Sundays that came before that, in Texas, during our last year there. When we would sometimes go to the gym together, but almost always go to the coffee shop together, taking over a pleather couch that stuck to the skin. Kyle would spread his Italian or Farsi language books before him, and I would work on my novel. The luxury: getting lost in pleasure.

I miss the Sundays when I lived in Brownsville. I spent mornings at the small Catholic church where the congregation parked in the grass and gravel, where the Canadian priest told good stories and spoke jovial, terrible Spanish, and which every August blessed the students–some of the high school ones mine, fidgeting at the front in tucked-in plaid shirts and carefully gelled curls. Afterwards the flea market, for a watermelon agua fresca and to look at puppies. And, in the evening, barbecue and writing workshop with friends, bags of water hanging on the patio to defend us from the flies. I was so full: of sun and things I cared for, and also, banana pudding.

I miss Sundays, period. Last semester I was, of my own volition, on campus seven days a week. Working my full-time job and teaching Saturdays and taking real estate classes on Sunday. Not a single day untouched by fixed obligations.

But last semester is over. It is a new year. And I ended the year right: with a two-week trip that included the whirling dervishes of Turkey and the glamorous malls of Dubai and time with a best friend and a trip to the desert and–and–the opportunity to see Kyle.

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Unlike *some* houses I know, Dubai buildings don’t lean.

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Sun.

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Hot air ballooning in Turkey.

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Cappadocia.

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Handsome cats of Ephesus.

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Followed by two weeks where I returned to my job, but also, had a brief return to weekends.”Kyle,” I said,  “do you know how much time is in a weekend?” (Spoiler alert: he does.)

And somewhere in the last month, I drank down books, close to twenty of them, and let the words work set me right, building up all of the things that 2014–with starting two new jobs and finishing renovations on New House and buying Oldest House and completing half of my real estate certification and Kyle gone for five months, with more months in sight–had worn away.

Books about houses advise ceilings of varying height. They note that high ceilings are nice, but that their true impact comes from contrast. So, too, I think it is with time. My free evenings and weekends have already ended, but I still have Sunday. It seems more vast than it ever has before. How much it can be filled with. And though the line is fine, what I want to fill Sundays with is not obligations, but rituals that pin the things that matter in place.

Of course, I know that what will actually happen is that Kyle and I will fill it with house tasks. That’s just the nature of the beast, until we make it through the two renovations at hand. But I’ve also decided to start Sunday with coffee by my husband’s side (unless he wants to go work on the house while I quaff coffee, in which case, love you guy and see you later!). And drafting blog posts that I’ll upload on Monday, regularly, starting tomorrow.

I don’t want to miss any more Sundays.

 

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Once, when I was a skinny-legged elementary school student with a vendetta against carpets, I kidnapped the oriental rugs from our downstairs living room and dragged them up two flights of stairs to the attic. Adult-me is a little mystified by this intense dislike of carpets, and even more mystified that I cared enough to be spurred into action. Lugging heavy carpets up the stairs is not a good time. 

But then again, adult-me just spent days finishing the floor Kyle installed in our previously carpeted back room. Which also fails to qualify as a good time. So some things don’t change.

We decided to install new mixed-width pine flooring over the old pine flooring upstairs and over the plywood subfloor downstairs, because, given the delicacy of new pine, eventually it’ll look a whole lot like the beat up floors we wanted to salvage. Also, pine flooring is cheap, and we have another house (*cough*Old House*cough) that is actively trying to bankrupt us.

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But the thing is, cheap isn’t cheap, if you assume your time is money. Unless you’re talking about spray painting old light fixtures, which is the winningest win of Renovation Land. Luckily for me, I assume my time is worth nothing. Or maybe, like, a penny an hour. So here’s how much pine floors cost:

Pine from the excellent local lumberyard: approximately $1 per square foot, so approximately $150 for the back room

5 hours spent researching whether pine floors should be tongue and groove, shiplap, or square edge:  $.05

5 hours researching the best way to install said pine floors—cut nails, screws, or glue?: $.05

12 hours screwing down floors in the back room: $0 (Kyle’s time–free!)

1 hour fruitlessly attempting to cut plugs from the pine boards: $0 (Kyle’s time—free!)

3 hours gluing in Amazon-purchased plugs into the holes: $.03

1 hour of deep, dark despair when every plug pops out during attempts to cut them: $.01

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2 hours cutting the plugs once the nifty little plug cutter arrived: $.02

1 hour spent figuring out how to MacGyver the handheld sander to the shopvac (thank you, random person who uploaded a tutorial on using a laundry detergent cap for exactly that purpose): $.01

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2 hours sanding and cleaning up all the sanding: $.02

2 hours researching distressing wood floors, which included watching videos of men beat floors with chains and reading lengthy explanation of how distressing is an art best attempted only by experts, before deciding to simply beat the floor with a sock full of nails: $.01

Replacement cost for socks destroyed by the distressing process: $10

15 (feels like closer to a million) hours researching the best way to finish pine flooring, ordering samples of finish, and feeling very conflicted: $.15

Fiddes Hardwax oil for finishing: $300 for enough to finish the whole project, so approximately $45 for the amount used in the back room

2 hours laying on the first coat of Fiddes tinted hardwax oil: $.02

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1 hour putting on the clear topcoat of hardwax oil: $.01

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New quarter round to trim the new floors, caulk, and a new caulk gun: $35

4 hours installing and caulking the new quarter round, most of it spent trying to figure out the nail gun/compression unit combo, or as Godiva and I think of it, the Scary Thing that Makes Big Noises: $.04

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So putting floors down in the back room cost only $240.42.  And about 56 hours of our lives that we will never get back again.

But—but!—I love that new floor. And in that 56 hours there was also: two dystopian audiobooks, which made my life seem kind of awesome, and learning that, actually, I am perfectly capable of using scary tools all by myself, and watching the transformation of the wood as the finishing coats went on. Which is to say that, in the middle of all the drudgery and sawdust, there was pleasure and satisfaction, too.  

This is a good thing to remind yourself of. Especially when you still have an entire upstairs that needs floors.

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I want to tell you how you are supposed to do a project. No, wait. I’ll let my neighbor tell you, a talented contractor who does beautiful work: You’ve got to spend lots of time planning and then you pick the project and then you get it done. You can’t try to do everything all at once.

But, actually, you can.

Like, you can paint and hang your new light fixture:
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And you can start painting:

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And you can lay floors:

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And you can get new appliances in:
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And while you’re at it, you may as well change out the fluorescent light for a chandelier.

And you can start taking wallpaper down:

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And you can have your roof re-shingled and you can go to a wedding and you can take your dog for a stylish haircut:

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And you can put in new faucets:
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And you can start that new floor plan:
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And then you can stand there and look at the chaos and realize you don’t have a single room that would qualify as done and go: oh.

There are only a few ways forward from this point. One option is to pick an entirely insignificant project you have a chance of completing so that you can, finally, check something off your list and refocus. Or you can sit on the floor eating Thai food and drinking local beer and looking around you with horror/wonder. Which is what we went for. And while I slurped down noodles I thought about when I first started teaching and remembered the veteran teacher who kindly said honey, you can save the world. Just maybe not all in one day. And I thought: maybe I’ll learn. Eventually.

But not all at once and not in one day.

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Everyone knows that once you’ve been in a relationship long enough, the bad things start to show. With Oldest House, it took about a week.

For one thing, our upstairs floors are not refinishable. I’ve spent enough time in the HardwoodFlooringTALK chat forum (wait, you haven’t?) to know the patina of old floors is something special. There’s a glow something gets when it’s dinged up and stained and rubbed bare by life. We wanted to salvage these floors. But the tongue and grooves are worn too thin for sanding, the (lead)painted borders have oxidized differently from unpainted parts and won’t stain the same, and someone smeared Bondo over large patches of the floor. The professionals agree: these guys are a goner.
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Oldest House isn’t the only one that’s a little less than perfect. I am also pretty sure that Kyle and I have revealed every least likable thing about ourselves over a year and a half of renovating three 100+ year old properties. Weeks filling and carting buckets of dank, bone-studded dirt. Followed by weeks carting buckets of old plaster and scraping coal dust off of forearms. Then there was the theft, and then the break-in. There was also the cold night we attempted (and failed) to hang windows till one in the morning, and the carting of appliances down a frozen street at midnight. We’ve fought over tile and we’ve gone what feels like weeks without sleeping and we’ve failed to save birds.

You can’t keep flaws from emerging under all of this pressure. So here’s the truth. Under stress, Kyle likes to watch movies like Swamp Creatures 3. Worse: he likes to watch these movies when not under stress. Meanwhile, I indulge in obsessions: list-making and relentlessly sifting through chat forums like “PaintTalk” and “HardwoodflooringTALK,” determined to find the best way to [fill in the blank with something that I know nothing about and will never be an expert in].

We have other, less lovable, qualities too. But like Oldest House, most of these quirks showed up relatively early–years ago–and so when they reveal themselves in renovating it’s hardly a surprise. Kyle is too cautious and I am too fond of risk-taking. Kyle wants things to be perfect, while I just want to get things done. Kyle forgets to play fetch with Godiva during dinner and refuses to hand-feed Mango, while I… well, actually, I’m an exemplary pet parent. But still, the point is, it isn’t our imperfections that have been the lesson of renovating. It’s how perfectly we balance each other out. And that’s the interesting thing about flaws: in the right setting, they might be the best thing about you.

So I’m perfectly happy that our lives are a mess. Which they are. We have new wood floors waiting:

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And the paint obsession is back:

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It’s okay because I don’t want perfect. I adore old houses and badly behaved pets and marriages with patina. And my husband. So this Friday Kyle and l will celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary. And by celebrate, I mean: I asked Kyle if he wanted to order a pizza and buy a bottle of wine and start painting the downstairs of Oldest House. And he said no.

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Kyle came home from his month in Italy on Monday, which happened to be his birthday, and I got him the best/worst gift you can imagine, depending on your love of surprises and your zest for renovating.

Hello, Oldest House!

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It’s not a total surprise. Right before Kyle left we had to face cold, hard reality, like: Old House won’t be done for at least another year. And we don’t fit into our current one-bedroom suite in the New House, mostly because Kyle and Mango and Godiva have too many shoes (I will be their fall girl no longer).

We needed a new home.

So the week after Kyle left our agent took me to see the house, and two days later we had it under contract, and this past Friday—the week Kyle came back—we closed. Which means that, for the second time in less than a year and a half, Kyle has more or less bought a house without seeing it.

This girl, at least, learns her lessons.

Sort of. We’re not renovation-free here, either. This house is our oldest yet, built in 1849. But it’s in good shape, good enough that we should be able to move in within a month or two and renovate from there. So while smart people push Old House back into standing up straight, we are going to make ourselves a home. A home with two old apple trees and a stained glass window that opens and master stairs with a lovely curve and a set of servants’ stairs into the kitchen and fireplace upon fireplace upon fireplace.

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There are less pretty things, like the small kitchen desperately in need of a refresh, and the patchy paint, and the washer and dryer you have to squeeze past to get into the shower. But it’s the early days of love. I can hardly see those things at all.

Kyle, on the other hand, isn’t given to infatuation. “It’s a cool house,” he says, after seeing it. “I like it. But it’ll be work.”

But work! Work might be the best part of it! This is our start-again moment, our chance to show we’ve learned from mistakes at Old House and can do things right.  I make an Excel spreadsheet that codes different tasks by priority level, time, and money. We will be strategic, this time. We will make the misery of Old House worth something.

But. Monday was rainy. We had to do something.  And so we did exactly the same first thing we’ve done in both Old House and New House. We tore the carpet up.
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The flooring isn’t as pristine as Old House and isn’t quite as banged-up as New House, so whether it is salvageable or can be painted or we have to run new flooring remains to be seen (if anyone has any thoughts on that, I’d love to hear them). But I don’t care. These old floors, never finished, marked and scarred: that’s what a fresh start looks like.

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I have finally reached the point where, after living like a crazy person (as in, renovator) for so long, I am hungry for things right and things in the right place. I am ready for something that feels like home. So in the last week I’ve been running through my checklist, determined to take care of all low-hanging fruit. I have called plumbers about potential leaks and appliance repair men about potentially-wonky fridges. What do the repairmen tell me? Things look fine. Just keep an eye out. Wait and see.

This is, undeniably, sage advice. But I don’t want to wait and see. What I want is movement. Instead there are delays, and structural engineers have jury duty, and so things go. Onwards. Slowly.

I imagine that, much like self-discipline, a person only has so much patience. I think I’ve been even less patient than usual because I’ve been waiting for Kyle to come home. He was in Italy the last month, doing work and maybe—perhaps mostly—eating gelato.

His absence wasn’t as hard as last time, because our lives are a little less hectic, but I missed that guy. Also, I really wished I had someone to help with the recovering cat-in-a-cone. Mango’s determination to get outdoors makes me look like a paragon of patience. And Godiva, the notorious man-hater, kept running to strange men in uniforms with her tail wagging, only to sadly turn away, and haunted the door in the hopes that the right man in a uniform would show up. This is what our house looked like the last few weeks:

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If impatience isn’t the most desirable quality, at least there is this: it is often, if not always, rooted in the inexplicable optimism that something better lies ahead.

And sometimes that is exactly right.

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Mango is free to come and go. The dog’s man is home. And all of  us have a new old home to look forward to, perhaps as soon as Friday. Update soon.

There is a reason our renovations are taking so long. Meet our architect:

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I don’t want to call Mango out or anything, but he doesn’t have hands.

Okay, actually, Kyle and I do have hands, and we are the real architects at Old House, and we are still terrible architects. We started drawing plans for that house last summer. We drew them online, we drew them on graph paper, we cut out to-scale paper stairs and bathtubs and moved them around ad nauseum.

But these homeowners drawing house plans have had difficulties. For obvious reasons, like: we’re not trained architects. But there’s also the vision thing. I am probably a little too close to Old House, and trying to sketch up new plans can feel like running into someone I went to high school with. It doesn’t matter what has changed or what could change; I see them as I knew them. And, also: there’s a little bit of a who-am-I-to-take-down-Milt-Finch’s-wall sort  of feeling.

What helped free me from that feeling was reminding myself how renovated Old House already is. The home started as the 1850s four-room rectangular box of a working man.  The big renovation came in the 1870s, when the new owners bumped the house out two feet to the left and added the back rooms on (this is also the likely root of our leaning house, but that’s a story for another day). At some point a bathroom was added, and then there was the kitchen thrown on sometime in the early 1900s, and the last real renovation was sometime in the 1940s, when the stairs were moved to facilitate the renting of sleeping rooms to soldiers. The only consistent history of this house is restless people, trying to make it their home. Which has relieved me, at least a little, of the instinct to preserve. Preserve what? When does history start?

But what really helped is this: that one contractor recommended tearing off half our house and then we had to hire a structural engineer and then he—surprise—needed a final floorplan before he mapped everything out. It was actually time to make a decision. So we made it. I sketched out the plan roughly and Kyle did the final drawing and I brought it to our engineer.

The engineer looked at it carefully. “I can hardly see the lines,” he said. And I explained how it was funny he said that, since Kyle had left a note on this very copy teasing me about the rough, heavy lines of my original sketch. Light, firm lines only the note said.

Well, said the engineer, kindly. That’s not bad advice. Except how about, when you are finally sure, you make the lines really solid and really clear?

But the problem with our architects, really, is that they are us. We’re rarely sure of anything. So I’m grateful for the crises that push us into imperfect plans, because at least we are moving forward. And I am also grateful for this little guy, who went through unexpected surgery this week–and who is going to be just fine–and who has woken me up just about every hour on the hour for the last week in the hopes that I might change my mind and finally let him out:

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What a cat sulking looks like. Call it an “Elizabethan Collar” all you want, but Mango isn’t fooled. And he doesn’t like wearing a cone.

And then there is this girl, who knows how to stop curtain-sewing in its tracks:

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In other words, as happy as I am to literally have a plan, I am just as grateful for the things that keep us from our plans. They’re pretty important.

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Sometimes a contractor will recommend you remove the entire right side of your leaning Old House and the whole second story. And then the structural engineer will say, no, don’t necessarily do that, but you do need to remove what’s left of the plaster you fought for and the siding you lovingly restored. It’s not totally clear that this will, actually, fix the problem with your leaning Old House. You’ll just have to wait and see.

If you are me, this is when you start to cry. You think about how awful it was lugging buckets of plaster and being coated with coal dust and how having to start again—after you thought you stopped—is so much worse than starting the first time. You think of the joy when you uncovered that lovely old siding and the methodical tenderness with which you patched all those holes left by insulbrick and the 17 shades of paint you went through to find just the right one. You think about how all of that time, your time, could have been a novel, Sunday brunches, trips to the mountains. And that now you will spend more time destroying what you worked so hard on. You think of Milt Finch.

So Kyle talked to the structural engineer. Because Kyle is brilliant and has somehow, while working a fulltime job and remaining fluent in Italian, become fluent in construction. Meanwhile, I tapped into my own finely developed skills. I went to a different room and snuffled.

It’s not like we aren’t experts in small disasters and mistakes and just general bad decisions. There are some that I haven’t discussed. For example, here were the faux butcher block countertops of our rental before I got started:

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The scratched faux-butcher block beforehand.

And then here they are after painting. At this point I was still thinking, Pinterest, you have lots of good ideas!

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Up close, right after painting. At this point I was still thinking: Pinterest, you have lots of good ideas!

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The painting was fine. But the Envirotex topcoat I put on was a beast to apply, bubbled up like mad, and likes to scratch. Not trying that again.

Now, these are our DIY light fixtures for the New House. We used sheets of perforated metal that you can buy at Lowes. Said our tenants: “Awesome! Probably saved a bunch doing it yourself.” Uh, no. Actually, we didn’t. And they ate up our time and still aren’t perfect. Not really a win.

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I don’t have a picture of the before, but let me paint a picture for you: a bare fluorescent light. This is way better than that, but arguably, replacing with a light we loved would’ve been cheaper and taken less time.

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Again, not bad. But was this cheaper or quicker? Nope.

Old House, though, is the epic fail, a catalogue of things gone wrong. Foundation fixes and break-ins and—time after time—trying to save something we have no chance of saving. Objectively, this all kind of sucks. But here’s the great news: our rebound rate is getting to be nothing short of spectacular.

After the structural engineer left, I pulled myself together. Well, actually, I let myself go for a little bit of melodrama first, because I am Italian, and Kyle said nice, reassuring things, and then I pulled it together. Same deal. Within an hour we were sharing a bottle of wine with friends and figuring out how we’d continue. We put together a plan. Big things lie ahead. And, of course: so do more mistakes and disasters, big and small. That’s the price of moving forward.

If we have to keep making mistakes, I am glad they are in the direction of too much hope and too much love. On the other hand: it would be really nice to stop making mistakes.

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Years ago I stood by a river in Mexico on a sunny day, caught in a congeries of tourists. The person handing out tubes to float the river asked me and my then-boyfriend which we preferred— a tandem tube, shaped like a figure-eight, which would accommodate the both of us? Or two single tubes?

Tandem, said my boyfriend. Single, said I.

In the end we each got our own, but my partner held them together the entire time we drifted, while I sulked and thought: but I don’t want to be a tandem-tuber down the river of life. I liked the guy; it’s just that I was a Khalil Gibran, let-there-be-space-in-your-togetherness, sort of girl. Actually, I was more of a maybe-a-little-bit-of-togetherness-in-the-space sort of girl. The relationship didn’t last.

What makes this relevant to renovating is not just that I spend a lot of time fantasizing about vacations in exotic locations, but also: I spent about 18 hours over two days standing side-by-side with my husband in a bathtub, and I. was. glad.

The thing about my last post, when I said that we were Goodbye, New House (Almost)—the almost was key. We like our new tenants and I think they like us, which is good, because we basically lived in their apartment last weekend. We finished a lot of things before they moved in. But…

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that was the upstairs shower/bath. Still not tiled. We told them from the start it wouldn’t be done by the time they moved in, and they were relaxed about it, but we couldn’t wait to finish so that we could return to renovating one disaster at a time.

Tiling is Gibran’s ethereal dictum manifested in porcelain and grout. What you want, when tiling, is a field of tiles separated by precise, thin grout lines. What you get is tiles colliding towards each other or careening away from each other, because you cut something wrong or didn’t realize the walls in your old house bowed out, or because you accidentally knocked one out of place while putting in another, and also and mostly, because you (that would be us) don’t know what you are doing. Kyle and I have, separately, both faced down tiling and lost. Spaces in the togetherness, ones which don’t stretch too wide or disappear, aren’t easy.

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White groutr: it’s like those terrible grout lines never happened.

So this one, we did together. We also: actually checked to see if the bathtub was level before laying the first row, nixed subway tile in favor of giant tile, and bought a wet saw. It’s nice to feel like we are finally learning some things. We finished with the tile quickly enough that there was time for me to finish a Tim O’Brien book, and time for Kyle to watch a movie (Swamp Creatures 7, I think). And this time, instead of a post-tile defeat, we went out for a fancy French dinner and celebrated, grout still speckling our hands.

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Kyle believes renovating calls for work boots. Things that lace up and beat heavy against the floors and probably—this is just a guess—make your feet sweat. I, on the other hand, have worn boots exactly twice during renovations.

Once I borrowed Kyle’s boots to crawl into the as-yet-unseen, and therefore scary, attic in the Old House. And once I pulled on my rain boots to clear out the piles of cardboard boxes that had been moldering in our dirt-floored basement for at least thirty years. Not just boots: I put on a hazmat suit. I wasn’t risking Death by Spider.

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I can understand that work boots are, objectively, a way, way better idea. But I also know that practicality and preparation have taken us only halfway through these renovations. Blind optimism and a willingness to jump in, prepared or not, have done just as much.

So I wear sandals. I’ve worn them to sweep up the plaster and lathe pried from ceilings and walls and to haul buckets of dirt and to paint houses inside and out and to lay flooring and to move piles of wood. I believe in whatever gets you through, and they’ve gotten me through a lot.

Especially this last week, as we’ve worked to finish the two bed/two bath unit in the New House. Here is the general state of that unit Friday evening of last week:

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What? Are your kitchen appliances NOT dangling from the walls?

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As of last Friday, we still had to—among other things—lay new flooring in three rooms, refinish the stairs, run new wiring in the kitchen, install new appliances, hang new blinds and curtains, install and caulk shoe molding throughout, paint all molding and railings, paint and/or install lighting in several rooms, tile a bathroom floor and install new fixtures, clear out what looked like a jungle in the backyard, and—what felt like the biggest feat of all—get all the tools out and clean up the house so that people could actually live there.

And our tenants wanted to move in the following Saturday. Which meant: one full weekend and one week of post-work evenings to accomplish the list above.

It was a crazy week. But we had Kyle’s family for the weekend, who tackled the re-grouting and made magical things happen outdoors and who ran errand after errand. We had lovely friends spend two nights with us painting and doing electric. We had the friend who sent us renters in the first place (we need more time we said! you need a deadline she said!) bring us vegetables and reassure us it looked great. We had each other. For everything.

And this Saturday morning, as we shuffled the final tools out the door, our tenants moved in. I’m throwing some before/after in, but fair warning: we never took real-real afters, because, you know, you forget things when you are delirious and sleep-deprived.

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Dining room before

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Dining room now.

 

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Stairs: stained, polyed, painted.

 

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Upstairs loft area then.

 

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Upstairs loft area now.

 

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Back bedroom then.

 

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Back bedroom now.

 

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View down the hall into the back bedroom.

 

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Kitchen then.

 

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Kitchen now. In Renovation 2.0 we will paint the cabinets.

 

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We were so grossed out by the bathroom we forgot to take a then. This is it now.

 

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Our tenants started moving in a few days early. This is what it looks like when renovations + moving in collide. One big mess.

It’s strange to be suddenly exiled from a place we’ve spent so much time in. It’s strange to be nearly done with the New House. But that’s how goodbye time is: it’s better when it’s sudden. Especially for people like me, who excel at nostalgia. I can miss things that weren’t important, that weren’t pleasant, that have barely passed me by. This summer I’ve been missing last summer, which was mostly spent patching one million holes and steaming wallpaper off. What gives me affection for those days is not what we were doing, but who we were with—those late-night dark n stormys out on the patio with neighbors—and also, who we were—entirely undaunted by our broken-down old house, full of naïve faith that we would finish Old House by Christmas.

It’s not like this summer has been bad. It’s just that this is the summer I will miss next year. Not too far off in the future, the dust of exhaustion from last week will rub off. And what we will remember, which will leave us just a little bit in awe and also a little bit longing, is how we pulled off this sort of impossible thing with the people around us.

And, I would like to note: at least one of us did it in flip flops.