Discover more from Carrot Cake
If you missed Part 1, you might want to backtrack and read it first.
It’s still dark when I wake up. After a few moments of getting my bearings, I gingerly swing my legs over the side of the bed and plant both feet on the floor. My body is stiff and rickety in the morning. I’ll need to move around for 20 minutes before I can put socks on without feeling like my spine might snap in two.
The house is quiet except for the occasional creaks and groans from my steps. I pull on the clothes that I left in a neatish pile on a bench at the foot of my bed. I step into a pair of slip on house shoes. I can hear small snores from the room down the hall. I know that it’s between 5:00 and 5:30am. I don’t need to see the clock.
I tiptoe down the stairs and make my way over to the woodstove. I keep a small box of kindling and shavings on a shelf in the corner. The larger split logs are stacked in a metal rack on the floor. I get on two knees to build a little nest of wood shavings and newspaper. It goes inside and I light it with a lighter. The nest catches quickly and I start to hear the satisfying snaps of burning wood. The clock is officially ticking. I usually get about 70 minutes in the morning to myself.
I let the fire work and put on a kettle for hot water. I sneak outside to the barn and put some weight into the old door to get it rolling on it’s overhead track. There’s a woodstove in here also. This one gets a nest too. I light the stove and head back to the house. These couple of trips from the house to the barn are magic. I get to spy on the world waking up. The quality of light stops me in my tracks. There are splotches of pink and orange mixed with the smallest puff of clouds. The sun isn’t up yet but it’s trying to crack the surface of the horizon. The whole thing looks like rainbow cotton candy. The air smells clean and fresh. I can see the river behind the house. It looks like smooth navy blue glass.
I sneak back inside. Still quiet. Any parent will tell you that these morning moments can feel as high stakes as a navy seal mission. You’re one clumsy step or dropped item away from blowing it and waking the rest of the house. I put hot water in an insulated metal jug and add some more sticks to the fire that will heat the first floor and buy me some time.
I duck back into the barn and roll the door shut. I add some sticks to the barn stove. On a shelf, I keep a tin of coffee that I have sent over from a little shop called Ski the Whites in Jackson, NH. I grind some beans and set up a french press to soak for the next 10 minutes. When you search for french press instructions on YouTube, one video with a mustached barista calls for a seven minute soak. In my mind, the extra three minutes gives me a stronger brew.
During these ten minutes, I’ll either pace around the barn if it’s freezing outside, or I’ll do a slow lap around the yard. I’m trying to get into my body a bit and get settled.
The barn is 1500 square feet split between two levels. It smells like sweet sawdust. When I first bought the place, the barn cleaning project was seven days a week for months. I rented a dumpster and got rid of a truckload of old junk that the previous owner couldn’t bring himself to part with. There was a 1970s riding mower that hadn’t been started in 40 years that was doubling as a barn rat’s summer house. There were piles and piles of old tools and doors and hardware and boat cleats. There was a hundred year old outboard motor. There was a heap of small pieces of scrap lumber. The inventory was not the well maintained old stuff you’d want to keep and show your friends but the kind that was owned by someone who had died or given up decades ago. I did salvage a few odds and ends. I polished up a couple boat cleats and mounted them vertically for coat hooks. I saved the scrap lumber for the stove. Any larger items that I was keeping, I moved out into the yard so that I could start with a clean slate. I remember standing outside the open barn door looking in and visualizing what I wanted this space to be.
On the first level, I’d built a gym in the corner. I covered the floor in thick rubber horse stall mats. The anchor piece is a rack for pull ups and squats and a place to hang various straps and bands. There are 12 or 14 kettlebells of various weights, a bench, and a barbell with plates that I bought on Craigslist. Leaning against a wall is a pushing sled that I work up and down the driveway a few times per week to compensate for the slices of blueberry pie. The gym is a tool to burn anxiety off and to keep old man time at bay. I secretly hoped that as my kids got older that they’d want to train with their old man, just like I did.
The second floor loft is a workshop dedicated to making stuff. Art projects. It’s carved into different “rooms”. There are no walls, the different sections just spill into one another. There’s a room where we paint together. There’s a low table with stools and a couple of easels of various heights. There’s dry paint splattered on every available surface.
The floor in the “music room” is covered by a large oriental rug like you see on stages at concerts. My autistic son is showing interest in percussion so I’ve been adding floor toms and bongos and snares to let him experiment. If he showed interest in rare stones, I’d rob a museum. I’m sure most parents of special needs kids feel that. You’re so anxious to help the kid feel like they belong that you’ll sacrifice everything. There are a couple of acoustic guitars on stands and a small Yamaha digital piano. I’m not at all musically inclined but it’s nice to have this stuff around. The kids love to tinker and fiddle with it and if you have a talented friend stop by it’s an incredible venue to sip wine or smoke a joint and listen to them play. In a small nook over in the corner is my spot. It’s why I’m in the barn right now.
I pour coffee into a heavy mug that’s got some of yesterday’s grounds in the bottom and yesterday’s chapstick on the rim. The rim might get a wipe from my sleeve. The grounds become part of today’s cup. Like a sourdough starter. I take my seat at the desk. I found this desk at an estate sale up the road. It’s an old beauty. The surfaces that never get touched are dark wood. The areas that are highly trafficked by oily fingers and forearms are worn and lighter in color. It’s got a flat work surface and a set of shelves and nooks and crannies that make up the back border of the desk. There are little side walls so that you get the feeling of being tucked away in a snug at a cozy pub in Dublin.
I take a cautious sip of coffee (the kind where you preemptively flinch in preparation of your tongue being torched for the rest of the day) and take a look through my notes. I scribble notes on scraps of paper and in the notes app of my phone. Anne Lamott calls these snippets her “bag of rags”. I’m looking for something promising that might be fun to write about. If I get this part right, the next 60 minutes can feel like an acid trip.
The notes are peeks inside my brain. I walk around with my antennae cranked up to 11 (can’t help it, wish I could) and the result is that I’m often scribbling down notes and feelings and things that I pause to notice. There are existential questions about how to end a marriage in a thoughtful way. There’s a picture and a note about the landfill in Braintree and how it smells like sour death. There are ocean pictures and mountain top selfies. I have 100s of these little clippings from life. I’ll pluck one of these notes from the pile, tie off a vein with a piece of rubber hosing and try to open that thing up and ride the lightning for an hour or so. If I’ve done this right, my fingers will struggle to keep up with what’s pouring out of me. I’ll keep my ass in the chair for 60 minutes and just get out of the way.
I’ll find a decent spot to wrap for the day and let the fire die off in the stove. I’ll have one more cup of coffee, do some miscellaneous tinkering around the barn and dump the contents of the used french press into the compost heap. I’ll slowly walk back to the house. Resurfacing from a good session takes a bit of time. Like a scuba diver who’s gone deep enough to be at risk for the bends, I take my time transitioning back to civilian life.
The kids are up. They are standing on chairs rooting through the snack cabinet together. I’ll try to redirect them to some other activities so I can prepare a decent breakfast but all they really want are nutra grain bars and toast with butter. I usually lose this battle.
It’s Friday morning and our piece of Maine feels full of possibilities. We’ll spend lots of time outdoors, in the workshop, and in front of the stove. I’ll cook some dinner for us. We’ll have a tub and then check the front door every 2 minutes for the guests we are waiting on. Everyone dashes out the door when we hear crunching gravel under tires.