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I stood in the near-dark a few nights ago, thrilled to be able to burn a small pile of limbs and dead wood, one of many piles waiting for attention on my property. I watched this one crackle and crumble in the face of the flames. I wielded my pitchfork with care, keeping the water hose close at hand.

There is something exciting about watching a fire at night. One good flame can spread its light for hundreds of feet all around. Nighttime’s a good time to burn, as the air is generally calmer than during the day. Still, I was careful, as it’s been dry here, to wet down everything in the vicinity of the fire, including the trunk and limbs of the nearby tree. I watched as the bits of black ash, some still twinkling with orange at the edges, floated to the ground; and I was grateful that I finally had water here, making it safer to burn.

Tonight I am inside my home-to-be, watching other debris fall, like sifted flour, to the floor. I am covered in dust, a fine white powder that makes the room hazy. The dust descends from the wall in front of me and covers my hands and arms, coats my hair. To protect my lungs, I’m wearing a protective mask.

I’m standing in my new bathroom, sanding the freshly “mudded” walls.

“Mud” is the white goop that is applied to new sheetrock to hide the seams and imperfections.

After it’s dried, it must be scraped or sanded in between applications.

It’s dirty work, and doesn’t offer the immediate gratification of a blazing fire. Tonight I am fretful, a weary madwoman. I am asking myself: Am I saving any money—really—by doing this work myself? Or am I just making one holy mess? My muscles are tight and my feet hurt.

It has been a few weeks since I celebrated in my last post the arrival of water and electricity to the Pixie Plantation (See my previous posts), the site of this madwoman’s efforts to create a home out of a classroom on ten acres of North Florida land. The walls of my bathroom were finally built, and I thought, surely, within a matter of a few days, I’d be able to paint those walls.


It turns out that the two nice guys, Ray and Russ, whom I hired to erect the walls around the tub and install the sheetrock, were also involved in another project and were not available to come back in the foreseeable future to finish what they’d begun. So, I said to myself: I’ve got to get this done! I’ve got to move on! I’ll have to find somebody else or do it myself!

Do-it-myself. Such an alluring concept. And yet, consider the acronym: DIM. Is this the bright thing to do?

When I calculate the amount of money I am spending in gasoline to make the 100-mile round trip to do this work, and the many days that have elapsed since the bathroom walls were built, I wonder about the wisdom of this do-it-yourself project. Because I am new at this, it’s taking me much longer than it would a professional. And I’ve had to buy some tools I didn’t already have. So, tonight I ask: Am I dim or am I just a little light flickering, flickering, determined to burst into something bright and beaming?

As I work tonight, I vacillate—from one minute to the next—between feeling defeated: I give up. I give in. (I crawl down the ladder.)

And then hope rises: I can do this. I can do this. (I crawl back up the ladder.) Putting sheetrock mud on walls is not rocket science, I tell myself. Dirty, yes. Tiring, yes. But not rocket science.

Once I realized that the nice guys, Ray and Russ, were not as available as I’d hoped, I got the name of someone else. Glenn arrived on my makeshift doorsteps the day after I called. Short, bearded, with big blue eyes, he looked a bit like an elderly elf, which is not a bad thing in a Pixie pad!

Glenn lives not too far from my new property and is willing to act as consultant/teacher/mentor, coming for one-hour tutorials. He and his helpers are also willing to do the work for me, when I need it. Thus far I’ve paid him for two visits to coach me on sanding sheetrock, putting tape in the corners to seal them, and also give me advice on preparation for laying tile on the floor.

On the first visit, he told me to get two sheetrock “knives” and a pan in which to put the mud.

He explained how to put the tape in the corners and said that doing that part of the work wasn’t hard but tedious. “Your arm will get tired holding that pan,” he said.

On the second visit, he seemed impressed. “You did real well in those corners. Everything’s coming along.” I think he was surprised. As we concluded that session and he stepped out of the building, he said, “Not many women—well, I know this is a stereotype—but, not many women would take on a project like this with such hard work.”

A small firestorm of thoughts crackled in my mind. Women? Strangers to hard work? I think not. But, I by-passed what might have been a mildly scorching feminist  rant and reached into my truck to get the money to pay Glenn. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” I said as I handed him the $35. “Something drives me to do all of this. I like doing the work and, for years, I’ve wanted to build my own house.”

I stand in this home-to-be tonight, fluorescent lights blazing, and put down the sheetrock sander. I pick up the pan full of mud and hold it in my left hand. In my right I hold the knife. With a couple of swipes of the knife I cover a small imperfection in the dried mud. Not bad, I think. It is getting easier.

For tonight, I’m still on this project. Tomorrow, or the next day or the next, I may call in Glenn and the troops. But, for now, I’m on it. There’s no stopping a woman and her dream. This dim light flickers. Maybe soon she’ll burst into flame.


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I drove home this evening into an amazing sky: a firey sunset with peach-colored clouds and a long, vertical plume. It was a gratifying afternoon. Dobie (my pooch) and I spent some hours on my “job site”—where I am converting a used portable classroom into a home. This afternoon I was focused on…mud, actually. Mud of two kinds: mud, meaning wet dirt, and mud meaning sheetrock “mud”, the stuff that is applied to “raw” sheetrock (or drywall) before it is painted. More on the latter in a minute.

As to the wet dirt: the operative word here, in reference to my painstaking progress on my project is…wet! As of last Friday, I now have water on my new place. An outside spigot never looked more beautiful than this one.

I turned on the faucet and, voila! This changes my world at the Pixie Plantation. I can finally wash this building and paint it and I can mix the powdered stuff I got at Lowe’s to install tile flooring. Perhaps most exciting of all, I can water my plants!

In order to have water, I needed electricity, since I’m relying on a well to keep me “watered” here. It was Friday two weeks ago, that my electrical guys were able to return to work for me. (See my prior posts for background.) Will, the electrician’s assistant, and his helper, Omar, installed outlets and ran electrical lines in my new place, primarily in the bathroom and kitchen.

It wasn’t until the following Friday that I arrived to find monster trucks and machines and five guys from the power company—all there to bring power to my building!

From a huge spool, they strung cable to the top of the power pole on my property.

Then they dug deep trenches and ran the cable to the power box near my house-to-be. Finally, they got their heads together—literally—and hooked everything up.

Last Saturday, a new contractor, Ray, and his son-in-law, Russ, showed up and began working on my bathroom, taking up where Kermit the contractor left off. (Kermit has been gently, but firmly, dismissed from the job site—at least for the time being.) They constructed walls around the tub area in the bathroom and hung sheetrock.

In the lower right hand side of the picture is a roll of insulation, which I installed in the bathroom walls.

Thursday this week Ray and Russ returned and Russ put “mud” on the seams of the sheetrock. Today, after I sanded most of the areas he had “mudded”, the exterior walls of the bathroom look like this.

You can see that the illumination in the building is the original: intense, white, buzzing fluorescent lights, under which many children toiled to take their tests. Eventually, I will do away with them. For now, they provide the building with a workshop ambiance—quite appropriate to the activity going on! Twenty-two fluorescent lights is a bit much, however, for one little home. But, that’s a problem I’ll solve later.

For now, I’m happy to have light.

And I am thrilled to have water. While Dobie romped this afternoon, I dug holes in the ground, planting some of the bedraggled daylilies, purple coneflower, and other items that have lived in pots at my house for the past three years. The ground is terribly dry and packed hard, so I am using post-hole diggers to make a hole, plopping the plants in the ground, and then making mud (halleluia!) by watering liberally with my hose.

In the next few days these plants and the others will be all cozy with mulch that should help them survive the winter and give them some nutrients, in addition to holding at bay all of the vines and growth I didn’t manage to pull up.

Tired from his romp this afternoon, Dobie is not quite sure what to make of the fact that he’s been allowed to run—sans leash—on the property the last few times he’s made the trip with me. As I write this, he is zonked out on his bed. Time for me to do the same. Tomorrow is likely to be another day in which I’ll sand some more on the sheetrock, apply more mud, dig more holes outside, put in more plants, and water them in.

For some of us, life doesn’t get any better than playing in the mud!


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Cast of Characters:

Randy, the electrician

Will, the electrician’s assistant

Wallace, the building inspector

Kermit, the unreliable contractor

Kevin, the well guy

Scottie, the well guy’s assistant

The wildflowers

The wildflowers put on a pretty show last week, but I was focused on other things.

On Monday, at the end of a busy and productive day, Will, my electrician’s assistant, and I stood in the kitchen as he identified, again, the places where new outlets and wiring were needed. This used, portable classroom is receiving a simple make-over, and long pieces of plastic-coated strands of metal and lots of gray electrical boxes are critical to making it my home. (Please see my previous posts for background.)

“You’ve got to have an outlet for every two feet of counter space,” Will (pictured above) had explained earlier in the day. “You’ve got to know exactly where your sink, counter, and appliances will be.”

So, I’d spent time with my measuring tape, imagined opening the refrigerator door (Boy, that’ll be a tight fit.), standing at the invisible sink washing dishes (Won’t it be nice when there’s a window right there?), and reaching into an imaginary pantry (Darn, it won’t be as big as I’d like, but it’ll have to do.). So, here Will and I were at quitting time on Monday, identifying all of the electrical components they’d add the next day.

Or, so I thought.

As the list of necessary and desired electrical elements grew beyond what my electrician, Randy, had originally cost-estimated for me, I explained to Will that I needed for Randy to let me know what additional charges would be involved.

And, then, I made the critical mistake.

I expressed anxiety about what Wallace, the building inspector, would say when he came to inspect the electrical work. The plans I’d submitted included a bathroom that was part of the original construction. As you can see, however, I picked out a classroom with no bathroom at all.

Kermit the contractor had worked on Saturday, and when he finished, the skeletons of my walls were standing.

But, Kermit failed to show up on Sunday to hang sheet rock, so the studs were still exposed, all but shouting “new construction”. I worried that the building inspector would fine me or, in general, make things difficult when he saw my project wasn’t going according to the plans I had submitted.

To Will I said, “I’m not sure what Wallace is going to hit me with.” But, I wasn’t going to slow down the project. It was time to get on with this show.

Will missed that part of the script.

Maybe he didn’t want me to get “hit”. Or, maybe it was a Mars and Venus thing. Warring planets, crossed stars, minds in alternate universes. What registered in Will’s brain was: “STOP. DO NOT PROCEED.”

And, that’s what he told his boss, Randy, after he left my property Monday evening.

Meanwhile, tired and exhilarated, I coasted home in my universe that evening, Venus as my guide.

Tuesday morning came. Bleary-eyed, but determined, I drove to my property. It was as if I’d walked into a darkened theatre, the curtain drawn. What had happened to the actors in my play? I tromped around my property and looked at long trenches…

…and white pipes tucked neatly into the ground.

By midday, I headed home, called Randy, got the story, and nearly cried. Could he come on Friday? No, he said, that wasn’t a good day. We left things hanging.

Next I called Kevin, the well guy. “Hey, Kevin, I thought Scottie was going to be back today to finish the work.”

“Ellen, he’s on his way. His mother’s been in the hospital and she might need more surgery. That’s where he’s been this morning. But, he’ll be there.”

Then I called Kermit. Told him I was angry (my words were a little more crass than that) when he didn’t show up on Sunday. And he said, “Aw, Sweetie, I didn’t mean to rile you. You shoulda called me.”

Biting my tongue, too close to lashing out, I told him I’d talk with him later.

Meanwhile, my dears, this building comes along slowly. Kermit will likely be fired. Randy and Kevin and their assistants, Will and Scottie, will come through for me.

And, always, despite the drama going on in my schoolhouse project, the weather is cool and the wildflowers are blooming, putting on their very best show.

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