A chronicle of Mike and Julia's adventures creating a home on the Missouri range...

Monday, February 29, 2016

Last minute preparations

     I’m writing this post from a hospital bed where I have been marooned for monitoring after a successful “external cephalic version” that flipped our formerly breech baby. While I am overjoyed to now be carrying a healthy head-down 38 week old, I am also feeling increasingly panicked about the impending responsibility of bringing a tiny helpless baby into our homesteading lives. As we walked into the OB floor of the hospital this morning, we passed a newborn being wheeled down the hall and my stomach burst into butterflies. Ack! How are we possibly ready for such a little being to become our reality? I would gladly accept the sore feet and back, the uncomfortable sleepless nights, and the constant need to urinate in exchange for a little more time to prepare.

Before, total chaos!
      One reason for this is our house—while we have made good progress in some regards, I can’t help but look around and think “this is not ready for a baby to inhabit”. Perhaps it is a failure of imagination on my part, because I know others have birthed babies into far less comfortable settings (ahem, away in a manger?) In fact, two of our good friends who are moving onto land in our neighborhood this spring just found out that—surprise!—they are expecting an addition way sooner than they intended to be, complicating plans for building a small house and completing a masters degree program. While I feel confident on their behalf that there will be a imperfectly perfect way forward and that all will eventually be well, I can’t seem to muster the same faith in our relatively settled situation.

Shelves in the closet? Happy thought indeed! 
     I’ve gone through a series of conjectures about what missing piece of our house will yield a sense of calm preparedness in me. First I thought it was the flooring: I thought if that was just finished, our house would feel ready. But once Mike installed the final piece, all I could see was the clutter of tools and boxes all over the nice finished floor. So I built shelves in our closets and went on an organizing mission to get everything up and away. This definitely improved the lay of the land, but the feeling has lingered. My next thought was perhaps having the bathroom completed would help the house feel ready for an onslaught of midwives and family and visitors? So we commenced with plumbing and tiling and bathtub moving, as well as sink vanity and compost toilet construction. While the room still needs a door, trim and running water, it feels useable. Still.

      The next glaring deficit has been our stairs, inside and out. We have been using a step ladder for years to climb up and down to our deck without trouble, but now all I could picture was tripping on the rungs with an infant in tow. So one warm day I determined to finish a set of stairs and dragged Mike into assistance with heavy lifting. Another check off the list. But what about inside? Those stairs are now screaming to me “death trap!” Meanwhile Mike has been heroically handling our heavy duty chores—hauling buckets of water from our cistern (which is nearly full of water, but still awaiting a pump to eliminate the middleman step), chopping and managing the firewood and stove, and more—all while also installing flooring around the house. He just finished our upstairs bedroom with beautiful black walnut flooring. Now, as you might have guessed, I have my mind set to building a bed frame and closets, perhaps wishful thinking at this point unless I can transform myself into superwoman!

      We have been postponing unpacking our bed, linens, clothes and baby paraphernalia until the floor was finished. In fact, our changing table has been housing our tool and fastener collection for the better part of a year and has only last week been liberated for domestic duty. Surely having a bedroom set up will help me feel nested and ready… right? While we are forgoing the pregnancy right-of-passage of decorating a nursery, it would probably help to have some signs of an expected baby somewhere in the house, I would think. I keep telling myself there will be time for unpacking before the baby comes, and if not? If the stork comes early? Then hopefully my friends are right when they point out that all the baby really needs at first is us. 

      In case you haven’t noticed the trend, the list of to-dos seemingly grows longer the closer we get. I know there isn’t enough time for the house to be completed by the time I am full term, and inevitably I too will have to surrender to imperfect perfection. Oddly, the deadline is ambiguous—perhaps in a few days or perhaps in a month?

      I write these words to the clicking metronome of the fetal heart monitor—the computer beside me sounds out the beats per minute. 141. 138. A kick or two sends it up to 155 and eventually back down to a flat line lull. The baby must be asleep. Watching the four tiny chambers of the heart earlier with their rapid flutter of valves pulsing in the swirling black and white ultrasound image was a visceral reminder that my will—to finish our house projects and clean and prepare—is only one will in this equation. There are now two wills at work in this body (one that very stubbornly wanted to remain head up until this morning!) and I have to make room. Our friends who are parents assure us that loss of control in the birth process is the first in a long series of surrenders that impress upon you your total vulnerability in the relationship: you can’t control how the birth goes or the health of the baby. You have to let go over and over and over as they learn by pushing further and further away from you, indefinitely. Perhaps accepting that is the hardest work of being a parent.

    Coincidentally I just got the all clear to rejoin the outside world again, so I should wrap up and keep moving forward with the day—into the unknown, yes, but also perhaps to squeeze in a little more plastering while the light holds and I still have a little more time!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Winter homecoming

    Mid- January, Mike and I packed up our old conestoga wagon and made the long trek back to Missouri, arriving in the midst of our first Missouri winter! It has been so amazing to be here in this beautiful spare landscape at this time of year, especially because we can enjoy the beauty of it from inside our own home. I know how basic that sounds, but I have been reveling in the fact of it: the snow is falling outside, the wind is howling, rain is pounding, and the elements are performing their messy winter alchemy while we are dry, warm and protected inside this space. Okay, okay, you get my excitement about our home-dwelling reality... So what about the details? Is the stove working out? The cistern?

    Let me say that things did not start out well. When we first drove up to our house, we had no idea what to expect. Our neighbor Brian had kindly offered to light a fire in our stove earlier on our arrival day, and so despite the frigid temperature outside, we had hopes of entering a toasty house. Wrong. It was just above freezing inside, only slightly warmer. Still, bundled under every blanket we had, we slept warmly that first night with high hopes for our stove’s performance the next day. But the next few days of feeding the stove all day didn’t bring up the temperature inside beyond 50F.  I think we both began to despair that we had failed. Maybe we hadn’t insulated well enough, we overestimated our stove’s heating capacity, we designed for passive solar heating all wrong. Mike pointed out one night that he could see his breath. We were sitting mere feet away from our stove. Something was definitely wrong.

      So what is a frustrated, shivering person supposed to do but problem solve the situation? We couldn’t produce more heat, so how could we lose less heat? I thought about the concepts in "Passive House" design: create a super-tightly insulated envelope so that not much heat or cold needs to be generated to condition it with. To determine the weak, leaky points in the structure, a series of blower tests are used, along with thermal scanners to see where air infiltration is happening. Although we didn’t have access to such equipment, we felt through the house for drafts and such. Perhaps not surprisingly, around several hastily installed windows and doors there were some noticeable streams of cooler air coming in. The glass on our double-pane windows was also frigid, and then there was the most glaring opening we hadn’t bothered to close in our haste to leave: the hole for the stovepipe going through our roof. Goodbye heat, hello cold drafts! There was very likely a thermosyphoning effect going on between the two. The last point we considered was that our thick clay-plastered walls were acting as a thermal mass, retaining the cold as we tried to introduce heat. That effect would reverse with time, but it took a good week or two.

      So after some work installing weatherstripping, spraying several cans of “Great Stuff” insulation, making thermal shades we can lower at night, and sealing up the hole around the stove pipe, I am very very relieved to report that we are warm! Which presents its own problem... how to regulate our stove to yield temperatures above 55F (which seems to be the temperature average when not running the stove for a day) but below 85F (a miserable temperature to try to sleep in), all while also meeting our cooking needs for the stove? A programmable thermostat really has its charms, which are hard to replicate the old fashioned way!

      We have had a learning curve cooking on the stove as well. Our stove gets very very hot, which has yielded some burned dishes and skin (yikes!) as we have gotten used to its subtleties. There is a perpetually shifting range of temperatures on the cast iron cook top, depending on where you place a pot or pan, closer or farther from the firebox. The stove box is also somewhat fickle, ranging from 200 to 700 F (!), but we have found most temperatures cook most baked items decently if left in the right amount of time. Finally we have been able to cook pies, roasts, pizza and other baked dishes that we hadn’t been able to cook decently in our outdoor kitchen. Also, thanks to the cold temperatures outside, we have had “refrigeration” via our cooler. For the most part though, food-wise we have been eating lots of our stored root crops from last year’s garden—sweet potatoes, potatoes, squash, pumpkins, apples—as well as canned tomatoes, pickles, beets, etc. And let me not forget pork! We aren’t sick of it yet but I can see the potential… 

     And though winter, of any season, is the obvious candidate for taking some down time away from work—cooking, visiting friends and neighbors, reading by the stove and making things—our main goal the past month has been to get further along on the house before the baby is due to arrive and our time, energy, and focus shift in a new direction. Currently as I write, Mike is pounding away on floor installation (using a loud, hammer-drive floor nailer… this baby has a promising career as a drummer I think!) I have been tackling work on the bathroom, and am determined to see it functional by March. (Let me just say, an outhouse in January does not have the same allure as an outhouse in May…) To start with, I have plastered the sheetrock walls with a finish lime plaster which I then lime-washed with some blue iron-oxide pigment mixed in for color. Lime is a great natural finish for areas where certain hygienic qualities are desired, as well as breathability, as it won’t trap moisture. My friend Sarah pointed out to me that the cheese-aging cellars in France where she lived and worked were lime plastered for that reason—no strange mold strains growing there! So, perfect for a humid area like a bathroom. Next to come are wainscoting and a tile floor and then our tub can finally get installed. Let me just say that bathing in a galvanized wash tub is also losing its farmhousy novelty!

      As the baby grows larger and larger, my range of motion and energy are shrinking, but I am still awkwardly and slowly able to work. I guess this is around the time in their pregnancies that many women go into a frenzy nesting and cleaning their homes. While I might like to be at that point with our home, our reality is much clutter, work mess, and assorted piles/boxes/furniture endlessly being shuffled around. Still, I can’t complain, especially when compared to the birth stories of many of our neighbors and friends in nearby communities who welcomed babies home to tents or walls of unplastered strawbales and the like. The babies don’t seem to notice, go figure. And to see their beautiful children and homes now, I know we will be there too someday soon… all will be well!

     At any rate, we are still making time to relax and have fun in our last child-free months. Our community gets creative in winter. For example, with ice skating tag in a giant snow maze at our neighbor’s pond.  (I cautiously pushed a chair around like a walker so I wouldn’t topple over, which was pretty soon seated by a small girl too young to skate!) Yes, it is hard to imagine what our lives here will soon look like with a little one in tow. But we give thanks for all the community support around us, near and far, helping us figure out the way into parenthood!