Reclaiming, repurposing, and recycling materials have become so popular these days. I’m a huge advocate for those ideas myself, and trying to get better at employing them all the time. Before I throw something away or into the recycle bin, I usually ask myself if it can serve another purpose, or maybe be given away or sold to someone else who may find one. Jars, plastic bags, and bottles get washed and reused. Leftovers get composted or fed to the chickens. Clothes are brought to the thrift shop or goodwill.
Even my house and barn are basically recycled, being about 200 years old and still serving their intended purposes. The barn is full of old things, items the farmers before me saved to reuse. Waiting there are bits of metal, scraps of wood, pieces of rope, ties, tools, hardware and parts of equipment I nowhere near recognize.
In their honor I continue to save it all. Just in case they were right, and I, too, might need something someday. Really, you never know.
To help “recycle” my house even more, this summer I’m undertaking the task of redoing the upstairs bedrooms. They are very old rooms, with bumpy lathe and plaster walls, uneven wide-board pine floors and squarehead nails that haven’t seen a sander in decades, if ever. Small dark closets hide in corners, still smelling of mothballs. The floorboards lay scuffed and scratched, nails sticking up here and there, and have become warped and bowed under the longstanding pull of gravity.
On the walls, sheets of wallpaper have been covered over by even more coats of paint. Nervous of what lies beneath this layer cake, I’m following in previous owners’ footsteps. I’m painting the walls and inside the closets, patching up plaster and gouges, maybe adding some trim to the ceilings when all is said and done.
The jury is still out on the floors. Anyone who has tried to sand around square nails will understand. I may paint them, too, get new rugs or even (gasp) install wool carpet over their rough surfaces. Or I might just leave them be if my energy runs out.
Why I waited so long to do these old upstairs rooms, I’m not sure. The rest of the house has been remodeled for awhile now, most jobs having required work a contractor had to accomplish. Part of the reason may be they weren’t used much except as guest rooms. If left unheated or without a window air conditioner, they are freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer. The short doorways and uneven floors made setting up furniture a challenge (shims became a constant companion). And the lone bathroom is microscopic, with a slanted ceiling requiring everyone (men included) to use the toilet sitting down.
But this summer project is not just about making the rooms look pretty again. It’s about making them more functional and useful, not leaving them as spaces I only enter every once in awhile. I went to some trouble a few years ago making them at least habitable for other other people. Now I want to take something back for myself, to reclaim the space I neglected or gave up.
One bedroom has become my new creative studio. The light in this room is my favorite in the whole house. Treehouse-like, it sits up among the branches of the big maples, dappled sun streaming gently in from the north and east. The energy inside the room has always felt quiet, peaceful, and as if it was just waiting for me to reclaim it. My laptop and writing desk, paints, canvases and easel, all my photography equipment and other art supplies have already taken up residence.
I couldn’t even wait to finish painting the walls before I moved everything in. And I’ve been happily utilizing this newfound space ever since.
Virginia Woolf wrote once about a woman needing a room of her own. Rooms in most houses each serve a very specific purpose, often to be shared by others. They are bathrooms or bedrooms, a kitchen, a laundry room, a living room or office, an attic, a basement, a closet. They exist as spaces for eating, sleeping, storing, or heeding nature’s call. A barn houses animals or equipment, and a garage is more a home for cars than the people that drive them.
It’s often hard to see beyond a room’s original intent, or to carve out a space within those spaces, I’ve found, to serve a creative purpose. Distractions pop up everywhere. In the kitchen and dining rooms my dogs and cats pine at me for food. In the living room the couch and tv simultaneously call out my name. The bedroom whispers, “sleep,” or “do some of this laundry.” And outside in the barn, lawn equipment and gardening tools remind me there is always a job begging to be done (the farmers would be proud).
My repurposed bedroom has become the room of my own, however. Just for making, for writing, for painting and art, for creating with no constraints or secondary requirements. I try not to use the word “work” in there, a term that finds it way into and outside of just about every other corner of the house.
It is a good feeling, a new one, one I didn’t really expect to discover because I thought before, “surely I have enough space.” But no one else will ever need to use this room except me, eat there, sleep there, watch football, sit or stand there. Like the only child I am, I secretly still relish the notion of having something I never have to share.
The other bedroom will remain for guests, they do sometimes come and stay, and the bathroom and closets will get much-needed facelifts. I’ve installed an air conditioner to remove the stuffy summer air, and will heat them better this winter so as not to neglect the rooms again (I like to think leaving all the layers of wallpaper and paint helps insulate the walls, though that’s probably just laziness talking).
And after this project is done, I’m sure I’ll find another one soon. With an old house there’s always something to be fixed or updated. But with each job, it comes more and more into it’s new life, being repurposed and renewed for (hopefully) years to come.
When I think of the word “recycle” these days, I don’t just picture tin cans and glass and cardboard going into a factory and coming out as something else. Now I think of my house, of all those scraps leftover from other lives waiting in the barn, of all the creative projects yet to come in my newfound studio. I imagine everything beginning a cycle along with me, born again, that we are moving into this next one together.