Always in Your Direction

So it’s taken me a few days (almost a week, my good woman) to figure out how to wrap up this Vermont caper. Excited plans for a woodworking project? Fulsome review of power tools available at Lowe’s? Mooey love letter to the state of Vermont and promise to join the “Bern Unit” (Bernie Sanders’s campaign)?

Enough pondering and procrastinating. I’m just going to let this rip, like an eight-foot board through a table saw.

When my husband saw me on the last day of the course, he told me that he’d seen “a new Charlotte, or maybe the real Charlotte.” My Carhartts were covered in sawdust, and I was thrilled to show him the tiny house and its babbly brook. He noted that I “was joyous and never apologized once.” (The customary call of the Furtive Short-legged Morford is, “Sorry, I’m sorry, I am so sorry.”) He said I was confident, independent, and full of hope and ideas.

The class ended with hugs and a nifty certificate confirming my completion of the course. As the hours brought us closer to departure, I wondered how I would keep that fierce, friendly soul that my husband was so delighted to find when he arrived.

The last time I’d taken myself away for a week was almost 30 years ago, a trip to Sanibel Island that began after a judge in the District of Columbia ended my first marriage. Going away after the divorce was an escape–but also a conscious choice to be alone with myself, since alone-time was what I seemed to have been determined to get.

I flew to Florida, rented a car, and deposited myself in a condo on the beach. Every day I read by the water, bounced in the waves, looked for nice shells, and ate alone on the condo balcony. I strung it with twinkle lights, drank wine, and ate shrimp.

Now I was decades older, somewhat softer (or a lot softer), but happier and more content. I was going home to a house I loved with a husband I adored and a crazy show-up dog and a crazier show-up cat. I could never have imagined, back on that twinkle-lit balcony, that I’d be sitting in Vermont with my feet in a brook and a book about joinery in my lap.

I’m fond of a poem called, “If My Glasses Were Better I Could See Where I’m Going” by Charles Wright. It reminds me that  we actually do know where we’re going–sooner or later–and therefore to make the most of these few days that remain. To be the person I was on these trips. To stay humble by learning new things, and at the same time welcome my truest self. I hope you will want to do the same.

“As for me,

I’ll put on the pilgrim slippers some of these days

There, where all things are forgot.

Till then, I’ll see that the grass gets mowed.

Till then, I’ll check out the cloud’s drift, and the season’s drift,

And how the days move, one at a time,

always at night, and always in my direction.”


You Are Now Joined, I Mean, Joineried

Now I want you to put down that wine glass and walk to whatever drawer–furniture, people!–is nearby. Pull out a drawer and look at the corners. Feel how it glides (or lurches) out as you pull on it. Push it back and see how it closes … And give silent thanks to whatever machine (likely) or woodworker (less likely) put a bunch of boards together so you could have a nifty wooden box that slides out–smoothly, we hope–to offer itself to You and Your Stuff.

“Joinery” is the business–my definition here, highly unexpert–of making one bit attach to another. It is far more complex and artful than I ever realized. You can whack two boards together so they’re perpendicular and say, “Whatevs, I’m bored,” and that’s a “butt joint.”

Or you can grab your chisel–your fine furniture one, thank you–and spend the next two days chinking out “dovetails” and “pins” to create a gorgeous corner that no one will notice except you and the bemused archaeologist who someday digs up your crib and wonders why you spent so much time joining two bits of wood.

I’d file joinery under the category of “it ain’t necessary but it proves we’re civilized,” like braids (just stuff that hair in a rubber band), food garnish (why bother with squiggly sauce decorations, just throw the hash), and music (let’s grunt around the campfire and be done with it).

The varieties of joinery are infinite: dovetails, finger, rabbets, dadoes, scarfs (not scarves), laps, bridles, and more. Then you can pile ‘em together and make joints that sound like those excruciating ice-skating jumps that make me turn from the TV and hide my head in the fridge so I don’t see some nubile teenager taking a big leap and crashing into the camera pit: the “full blind rabbeted dovetail” or the “through tenon with a plunge router.” (Cue the sports announcer, in hushed tones: “Now comes the moment in this skater’s program that will either clinch the gold or send her back to Toledo,” etc.)

In class we made finger joints (crazy automated fun), dovetail joints (tedious but beautiful), and straight-on, get ‘er done butt joints (best). Then we sanded the drawers for what seemed like hours, the drone of the orbital sanders and the roar of the exhaust system drowning out any hope of conversation.

That done, it then took an hour to hang the cabinet doors using innocent-looking hinges from the hardware store. We chiseled out the space for the hinges, set them in place, put in the screws with a good deal of cursing, then found the doors–so carefully measured and cut–didn’t close cleanly. In fact, they crashed over each other. It was ugly.

So out came the screws, off came the doors, and the table saws were fired up to skim another fraction of an inch off so the doors would meet together in harmony. It kinda worked–they closed on pressure but drifted peacefully apart once you let go. The teacher gave up and slapped some blue masking tape on them, saving the fix for tomorrow.


So admire your doors, how they swing open and close, and your drawers (furniture, people!), how they pull out when you ask them to, and retract into their parking place when you’re done. There’s far more work–and art–in all that than you realize.

Rip It Good

The second day was better. I’d had a night with my trusty companion, the lizard brain that whispers, “Your suckiness is beyond all suckitude ever” and I realized–”You again?”– I didn’t want this coming on this vacation with me. So I plowed into Day 2 determined to muscle my way to the power tools, to charm these strangers, and generally throw myself into the experience.

I ripped eight-foot boards of plywood (cut them on a table saw, running the saw along the wood’s grain), whacked boards to the needed length using the chop saw (cut them across the wood’s grain), and rocked the router (groovy little hand-tool that carves little gullies into the back of the cabinet so the backboard can fit in all nice and snuggy). I measured and measured and wondered if all those school fractions from a hundred years ago would come flooding into my brain and help me out. (They didn’t).

At lunch time I offered that I was going to walk across the road to see the swimming hole mentioned at orientation. Two classmates came with me, both Vermonters well-versed in the ways of this particular country. A “private property” sign greeted us, so Classmate Greg went to find the owner and see if it was OK for us to look around. He waved us over to meet a couple sitting in lawn chairs under the trees and wearing pink shirts.

When I got there I saw that the couple was naked. The woman was well-fed, her ample bosom calmly cascading over her gut, while her hirsute mate got up, his man-bits bumping between his legs, to leash the dog. We followed their directions to the swimming hole, where half a dozen nude people lounged on the rocks in the flowing river.

Once upon a time, when my family lived in Canada in the swinging ‘70s, my mother and I stumbled on a nudist beach. I remember the sight of pale pink bodies draped everywhere, utterly imperfect and completely OK with that. When you go to a “clothing optional” spot, you are not going to see Sophia Vergara and Orlando Bloom. You are going to see Santa Claus and the missus without their suits.

And I was OK with it. The classmates chatted with the nude couple, about the weather, the dog, the water temperature, and I marveled at the casualness of it all. We walked back to class, leaving these jolly folks enjoying nature au natural.

That afternoon we made “biscuit joints”–not a southern waffle house but a way of aligning two boxes using little “biscuits” shoved in tidy slots made by the biscuit cutter, a hand-held tool the size of a coffee bean grinder. It belched smoke and black dust as it dug small ditches into which we tapped the little biscuits. Then we learned about the different kinds of wood glue and the time limits they give you to get your job done before they set and blam, whatever you wrought is fixed in time whether you like it or not.

The instructor told us he’d been a student of a famous woodworker/artist who took valium before she applied wood glue, the pressure to get it right was so great. So we moved quickly, painting the glue into the divets, shoving in the biscuits, then gluing everything together within five minutes. Then out came giant clamps for the corners and the mid-section, to make sure that glue knew what it was supposed to accomplish.

At 5:15pm I was aching to go back to the tiny house, soak my tired feet in the brook, and make myself a gin and tonic. (The plan to be virtuous and treat my body like the temple it is by abstaining from alcohol, chocolate, and cheese evaporated after that dusty drive over the mountain.) And then the instructor announced that it was time to learn how to sharpen tools.

I vaguely remember something about barbers “stropping” their blades against leather bands–this is what this part of the course was about. The careful, almost holy process of sharpening a chisel, using your full body to scrape the tool along the smooth surface of water stones. My bleary brain absorbed the necessity of having “beater chisels” and “fine furniture chisels,” one for the pedestrian stuff and the other for art. Then all I could think was that my feet hurt, my back hurt, my arms hurt, and I just wanted to sit in the cool water.

That night’s dinner: roasted yellow beets and purple carrots with freekeh, topped with a poached egg. And a book.


Lab Partner

That night the car ahead of me stopped to look at the school sign and take a picture. I saw Virginia license plates and wondered if this person could be someone to talk to. The school was alive with bearded and/or tattooed people, all friendly and casually dressed.

I waited for the Virginia car to park so I could greet its driver, a gorgeous woman who threw her arms around me and announced her name as “T” (for “Taisha”). We took a walk around the property, checking out the camping platforms, the stone oven, and the solar shower which turned out to have a zipper-themed set of doors.

yestermorrow outhouse

Orientation began and we toured the facility, seeing the library, the dining hall, and the various classrooms. After a quick supper I reported to the woodshop, where the instructor, a wiry young man with boundless enthusiasm, welcomed the class. The room was full of machines, pipes, tools, tables and the Fun Meter:

fun meter

There were six of us: four men, two women. I quickly realized I was the most ignorant of the group and Humility settled in as my lab partner. The other woman was half my age and built tiny houses for a living, along with teaching the school’s course on the subject. The men were, respectively, two native Vermonters who worked in high-tech, one of whom had been laid off and was making a living doing home repair, and the other who was still employed but looking forward to retirement.

The other two men were an earnest young man from Brooklyn who carried an enormous bag of Japanese carving tools, and a guy with a magnificent red beard below a bald head. He had most recently worked as a “large equipment operator” in the Antarctic and was a school intern, cleaning and repairing machines in exchange for room and board.

We were handed our homework: read the shop safety manual and “think about drawer pulls.” The manual was a pile of pages about woodworking machines, describing all the horrible things that could happen to you when you operated them. Severed digits, wood kicking back into your face, shrapnel of saw’s teeth spiking your eye–I wanted to run. I never got to thinking about drawer pulls.

On Monday, the first full day of class, the instructor passed out the diagram of the cabinet we’d build, which looked simple enough: shelves, doors, nice box. Then he said, “Make your cut list.”

I watched as my classmates scribbled furiously, checking their tape measures and drawing diagrams. “Cut list?” What was that?

The tiny house builder saw me frozen and had pity. She explained the drawing and its measurements, and suggested what boards might be cut to what length. I pretended to get it,  and inwardly despaired of my decision to come here.

There was talk of “kerfs” and “splines,” “butt joints” and “warps.” Wood, we were reminded, was a live thing that would either cup, bow, crook, or twist, or maybe all of the above. Machines were turned on and off, plywood sheets were drawn from great stacks, tape measures snapped with authority, and I felt utterly ridiculous.

After nine hours of this the tiny house was sanctuary. I took off my closed-toe shoes and sat by the brook, watching the water burble over my aching feet. At least this part was good.

toes brook

Dad Was Right

That night I did the Hotel Rumble–room too hot, room too cold, pull darkening curtains, enter womb of blackness, konk out, oversleep. Breakfast was a “western omelette”: an intriguing rubber mitten with specks of minced pepper and, oddly, potatoes. I slammed some coffee and was off.

I crossed the Delaware with considerably less elan than George Washington and headed into New York. It was gorgeous: 360 degree views of mountains, with the sun rising in the east (and in my eyes).

Then I entered Connecticut and the zen state vanished in a crush of speeding trucks and decrepit road surfaces. It was the Thunderdome–everyone out for him or herself. Forty-five miles per hour through a work zone? Lean in, Grandma! I hurtled around curves and charged up and down hills, cars chewing on my bumper as trucks roared past. Who needs thrilling roller coasters when you can drive through Connecticut?

I bounced into Massachusetts and reached Northampton, a charming town that was not so charmingly short on hotel rooms. A music festival listed as a “must attend” by Rolling Stone magazine meant every possible room was booked. I finally scored a vacancy at a drive-up motel with smoking stanchions outside every room and a parking lot full of pickup trucks and their jolly riders entering rooms with cases of beer. At cocktail hour I went to the ice machine and stood meekly behind a huge guy emptying ice into an equally huge cooler. My gin and tonic that night was an English one: no ice.

My dear father was worried about my driving to Vermont by myself. He pondered how he could accompany me, even though he’s 85 and has given up driving. He gathered his faded maps and we compared them to the Google-suggested route. He was concerned that “a beautiful young woman alone in the mountains” would not be safe. That was touching as I’m not young, not sure about the beautiful part, and completely ignorant of what mountain roads would be like.

Maps are a big deal in my family. They are how you know your place in the world, and how you find curious stopping points that have anecdotal potential. (Every time we drive through West Virginia I threaten my husband with a trip to the national fish hatchery.)  My British uncle, when he wasn’t reading train tables to calculate travel times, was opening topographic maps to confirm hill heights for country walks.

Ordnance Survey maps are more treasured than the Bible. There is a stack of them in the library where I work, neatly organized by UK county, and I sometimes go down there and look at them, knowing that few people seek them out. I am grateful to the unsung librarian who keeps them in order for those–like me–that might.

Confident in the 21st century wisdom of Google, I set out for Vermont. All was well at first: I found one of the best state welcome centers ever–beautiful views, artwork, bathrooms and free coffee.

vermont rest stop 1 vermont rest stop 2 vermont rest stop 3

As soon as I got off the highway, however, my father’s predictions came true. I was a) lost; b) on an unpaved road; and c) feeling like an idiot.

I plowed ahead, unpleasantly aware that I didn’t know how to fix this. Warren Mountain Road? This must be it. Up I went, as the pavement gave way to gravel and the “GPS Not Advised” and “Snow Tires Required October-May” signs appeared. Up I went, in clouds of dust, bouncing over rocks and pot-holes and wishing I’d listened to Dad. It was like a macho LandRover ad except with a Toyota Camry.

Eventually I came down the mountain, road names non-apparent despite Google’s confident listing, and plopped unceremoniously into the town of Warren, Vermont. I emerged non-triumphant, car covered in dust, 30 minutes of panic ebbing into embarrassed relief, and there, there in front of me was a Relais & Chateaux hotel. I couldn’t believe I’d endured the mountain route and taxed my four-cylinder sedan beyond what it was ever built for only to find a luxe hotel that already knew how to get here.

I turned the car around and headed to the address I had for the rental. And it was worth the pain of getting here.

The tiny house was, unlike so much on teh interwebz, exactly what was promised. Right on a babbling creek, completely private, and utterly functional. Forget a room of one’s own. Everyone needs a tiny house of one’s own.

house at night

“The Studio.” I put up the twinkle lights 🙂

In the Beginning

… was a flyer in a local coffee shop advertising a “home repair for women” course. “Why not?” I thought, knowing that I have paid tradesmen–and tradeswomen–good money for fixes both basic (clogged sink) and behemoth (Stephen-King moment when the walls rumbled, the toilets overflowed, and the tub filled up with Scary Brown Awfulness, all at the same time). It was time to figure out if not how to do it, at least to understand how it’s done.

“The best time to take your toilet apart is when it’s working,” said the cheerful teachers, after we’d separated the base from the tank and practiced lugging it across the floor and settling it exactly over the target pipe in the floor. (Now I cannot unsee toilets that are crooked.) After the class I understood–sort of–how it worked, but no way was I going to take it apart on an otherwise peaceful Saturday night.

The experts mentioned a school in Vermont that taught home-building and carpentry. I snooped around its website, picked a course, and, after exploring it daily for a few weeks–I’m a woman of action, you know–I idly clicked, “register.” Fortunately, a “sorry, this class is full” bubble popped up and I was relieved of that risk. I also realized I was disappointed.

So I emailed the site to ask if there was a similar course closer to home. “We always put one spot aside so two people don’t try to register for it at the same time,” came the reply. “It’s yours if you want it.” My bluff was called. If it was a marketing ploy, it worked. I said I wanted it.

I sent in the deposit and reviewed the site’s list of accommodations, including on-campus dorms (bunkbeds, yay!), cabins (no plumbing or electric, woot!), bring-your-own-tent (er, no) and three scary words: “shared composting toilet.”

I reviewed inns and B&Bs but couldn’t see myself checking into a fluffy-curtain’d bedroom and facing strangers for breakfast. Then I saw a listing for a studio on a creek, a “tiny house” that was included in the school’s course on that subject. I emailed the owner–”I don’t know you,” my husband observed as I clicked away, in a staggering display of proactivity–and back came the response, “It’s available.”

I sent in that deposit. That was three months ago, and now it is time to go through with it. The next posts are about the experience–in the hope that it helps any of you who, like me, are too often afraid of leaving the Comfort Zone.

poindexter start