It’s been a busy month, with a week-long gig at a glorious old grand hotel as artist-in-residence (and marriage counselor); our son moving into his own digs (it’s time, it was expected, but Oh God, it was still hard….) and my daughter Robin announcing her engagement to a very nice young man named….Rob. (He told me earnestly last week, “Mrs. Udell, when you say ‘Rob’, I can almost always tell which one of us you’re talking to!”

So marriage, and committment is on my mind today. Mine, my daughter’s, and the delightful woman I spoke with at length during little artist workshops I gave at The Balsams.

How on earth did I end up advising a perfect stranger about marriage?? It started when the woman corrected me when I referred to her partner as her husband. “We’re not married, but we’ve been together 10 years,” she said. I asked why they hadn’t married. It was a sad story of a difficult first marriage, and fear about making that kind of commitment again.

We talked over several days. It was obvious they were both good people and cared deeply for each other. She said she had no doubts about him–“He’s a good man.” But still she was afraid of history repeating itself.

I finally said to her, “Don’t make decisions out of fear.”

How long does it take for a man to prove to his beloved that he is the real deal? That his love is real, and their relationship is based on respect and love?

It’s like saying, “When I have a lot of money, then I’ll feel safe.” Then you have a million dollars, but it’s still not enough. “When I have TWO million dollars, then I’ll feel safe.” True story, from Martha Beck.

If 10 years is not enough for someone to prove their intentions, what will another 5 years mean? Another 10? A lifetime?

And you’ve essentially said to this person you love, “Actually, ‘never’ is good. Is ‘never’ good for you?”

Of course, I immediately felt I’d overstepped myself and apologized.

But the day I left for home, she told me she was starting to change her mind.

Later that same day, my baby girl told me Rob had proposed to her, and she had accepted.

My only concern was they hadn’t known each other for years and years, and began dating each other only recently. Did they have enough evidence to make this decision? What if it didn’t work out?

Then I realized I’d decided about Jon in just about as much time.

And I realized there is no way to be absolutely sure about love. We make our best guess, based on the evidence that matters to us.

And we take that magical leap of trust, and hope.

She posted her relationship status change on Facebook, and my husband had this to say:

It has been a wonderful thing to behold. Rob and Robin are highly self-aware people who are smart enough to know the right thing when they see it, and strong enough to work through a process that will take some time and adjustment. I was quite unprepared for how happy this has made me!

My post? “Plus he’s funny & SAYS he thinks we’re nice!”

What does this have to do with art? Plenty. Why am I writing about marriage here today?

Because so many of the things that really matter in the world are based on this leap of faith.

Pursuing your passion. Making art. Getting married. Having kids.

Even pursuing success, when I deconstructed my desires for it, came from a need to show my love and commitment for my art; to hope people love it–and me!; to create a teensy bit more love and hope in the world with the work of my hands and my words.

Whether we mean it or not, whether we sought it or not, or found it or not, love has been by our side every step of the way.

Sometimes we are surrounded by people who cannot show their love very well, or even by some who can’t love very well.

Sometimes we have to create for ourselves the love we can only imagine.

But it’s there. And if we are lucky, and if we are open to it…

When we find it in some small measure, it is a treasure.

And when we find it in abundance, it is a blessing.

The more times I sit by a hospice bedside, holding someone’s hand as they they go out on the tide of their life, the more I know the truth of these hauntingly beautiful words…

…Time has transfigures them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

by Phillip Larkin, from “An Arundel Tomb”

In all that you do, in all that you make with your whole heart, may love find you there.


Does this happen in other families?

My husband and I have been arguing the last few days, ostensibly about our house but the subtext was our relationship. I claimed he wasn’t listening to me and that we weren’t talking effectively. As an example, I brought up some issues about the house.

Our house needs some major repairs, and we just don’t have the money to pay someone else to do them. We don’t have the inclination to do them ourselves, either. Oh, we tried a few do-it-yourself projects at our first home, with mixed success. Basically, we came to the conclusion that a) we aren’t very good at DIY, and b) we hate it. Our family motto? “Better dead than renovating.”

We essentially wait til someone who knows anything about houses happens to come for a social event, and makes some comment like, “Did you know you have carpenter ants?” and then he refuses to laugh when we say, “No, but our spiders have a plumber’s union”, and points out we could have the house fall down on top of us if we don’t do something NOW, and then maybe we finally admit that maybe it’s time to call a professional. A highly trained professional. (Note: Not us.)

But anyway, there are some things going on with our house, there are decisions to be made, and they were big scary house repair decisions, and we weren’t talking, and we were in a bind, and I wanted to talk about why we couldn’t talk about the house.

In an effort to make amends, my husband immediately offered to talk about the house.

“No!” I exclaimed. “That was an example I gave about what was wrong with how we talk about stuff. Now I want to talk about US.”

He still wanted to talk about the foundation and the floors. “That was a metaphor!” I yelled. “You can’t skip ahead and talk about the metaphor!”

That has to be one of the oddest sentences ever uttered in the history of mankind.

I then left to go out of state to a bead and gem show. I took both my kids with me, figuring it would give us a day out of the house.

Had I any prescience at all, I never would have left the house that fateful day.

I had a great time. I swear, every bead I’ve been looking for, for the past year, was at that show. I wanted to spend my annual income there. My daughter literally held my coat tails as I oooohed and ahhhed over all the vendors’ tables.

I came home broke and happy.

Oh, if only I’d known how short-lived my happiness was fated to be…..

When we came back, it was to CHAOS.

In a fit of inspiration, my husband had decided to refinish the floors.

He’d pushed all the furniture aside in two rooms. He’d rented a sander. (Can I sue Home Depot for not having a waiting period and a reference check on people inquiring about sander rentals, like they do handgun purchases?)

And he was in the middle of sanding our living room and dining room. There he was, piles of furniture everywhere, DUST everywhere, wearing a face mask and headphones, bopping away to his favorite music, and OPERATING A DRUM SANDER.

Without telling me.


Here we are–smack dab in the middle of a renovation project! With NO NOTICE!!

I have orders to fill, a photo shoot tomorrow, an open studio in two weeks. I’m supposed to be cleaning my studio, not emptying my house.

After a lot of yelling and finger-pointing (Jon: “You said we needed to work on the house!” Me: “I SAID it was an effin’ METAPHOR!” Robin: “Daddy, I have a paper to write this weekend–you don’t expect ME to help, do you?!” Doug: “Do I have to help? I’m tired!!”) we decided to go for it and get it done as fast as possible. Maybe we could finish it up by Sunday night and get back to normal quickly.

Alas, the horror continued to unfold.

You don’t sand, strip and polyurethane floors quickly.

They may make it look fast and easy and simple in all those damn DIY home improvement shows. But it’s not.

It takes days. Days and days and days.

Even the “fast drying!” polyurethanes don’t mean it when it comes to floors. And “time saving!” formulas means it only takes 48 hours instead of 72 hours (two coats to dry versus three coats to dry.)

And that doesn’t include the 72 hours bare minimum it takes to dry enough after the LAST coat until you can put the damn furniture back in.

To find out what we had let ourselves in for, I called a friend who is a contractor. “Well…..,” he hemmed and hawed. “Usually when I redo floors for people, I tell them to go away for a week.”

A week?


Our plans to do one-half of each room at a time so we wouldn’t have to completely move the furniture out of each room, fell apart. That would double or even triple the project time. We needed to get those rooms CLEAR so we could do both rooms at the same time, and get it over with.

Things started to railroad. There’s no room to move furniture anywhere else. Maybe the back hallway our son was using for a clay studio? Right! So we took two hours to dismantle his wheel set-up, his shelves and his bags of clay, and moved them to the basement.

Now our back hallway leading to the hot tub is full of sofas.

My daughter remembers she bought a ton of chicken to make Chicken Tikka Masala. It needs to be cooked immediately, because we take the can of polyurethane’s directions seriously when it says, “Do not use around open flame.” She starts sauteeing chicken with a vengeance–great pans of chicken. It’s going to be hard to get to the kitchen for the next few days…. It makes us feel a little desperate. We huddle in the kitchen and eat hot chunks almost as quickly as she can fry it. I mean, saute it.

Around this point, a friend who is a divorce lawyer came by to see how it was going. (He’d heard the worst when he called earlier.) We have a running joke about Ted. Whenever Jon and I have a whopper of a fight, I scream, “I’m calling Ted!” and Jon will yell, “No, I’M calling Ted!”

Now that I think about that, it’s not really a “joke”, is it? Oh well.

I met Ted at the door begging him to represent ME, but he says he refuses to represent friends. I tell him he’s a jerk and I hate him. NOW will he represent me? He laughs and helps us move a sideboard. “Don’t you think a husband starting to refinish floors with NO WARNING and while the wife is not even in the same state is grounds for divorce??” I demand. He is very, very careful about what he says during the entire visit. Except he laughs when we say we think the entire process will take two days. This doesn’t look good.

Also, our downstairs bathroom and TV room are marooned. No access until the finish dries! At the last minute we remembered our gecko in the den (“Ohmigod! Greg!!”) and moved him to Doug’s bedroom. Also our toothbrushes….

We remember that Robin has a VCR in her bedroom. Did we also get her a DVD player? Please, please, please God…. “No, but I have a DVD player in my laptop!” she says cheerfully. Well, maybe we can gather in her tiny bedroom and watch movies together. “Sure!”she says excitedly. “Only I have to clean my room first.” This is looking worse and worse.

The reality of what we’re doing starts to sink in.

We have created one of those “severed brain” scenarios with our house. The living room and dining room are right in the middle of our railroad layout. We COULD have crossed over to the other end of the house by walking through the upstairs. Except that the back hallway we could come down through is now full of sofas, remember?

For the next two to three days, we will need to come downstairs from our bedrooms and EXIT THE HOUSE and go around to the back to get to the kitchen.

What about the cats?? How do you keep cats out of there??

We shut the cats in the back of the upstairs, where they had originally been shut in when we foster cared them. (We quit foster-caring cats for the humane society, because we kept keeping them….) They’re a little frantic (“Hey!!! We LIVE here now!!”) but they’ll get used to it. Whoops, forgot to move their food dishes….

I realize I haven’t even read the Sunday paper yet. And also realize I now have to go outside, around the house, and back to the other side to get it.

And that there is now no place to sit and read it.

I know when this is all done, with any luck, at least we will have two rooms with lovely floors. I know this will also give us a chance (e.g., “force us”) to clear out a bit of the clutter.

With any luck, we will also look back on this little episode and laugh and laugh and laugh. “Remember that time we left town for a few hours, and Daddy started to refinish the floors? Remember how MAD we were?! Remember how we had to go outside every time we wanted to get something to eat?? That was somethin’, wasn’t it?”

But for today, I’ve told my husband that I’ve already recited the first two lines of the Islam divorce ritual. “I divorce thee, I divorce thee….” One wrong step, and I say the third one–and run for Ted, the divorce lawyer friend.

So how are we doing?

Well, we just applied the first coat of finish. It looks….well, better than the old floors. Not quite “stunningly beautiful” yet.

But I went out and bought pop and Kit Kat bars for the kids, and a bottle of red wine for Jon and I. Ruth and Ted took pity on us and invited us for a late dinner. At least we won’t have to eat in our bedrooms tonight, while perched on Robin’s bed watching “Rent” on her little laptop…..

And I’m almost…ALMOST…at the point where I’m thinking this might be funny.


I’ve actually had a glass of wine, and I’m feeling a little mellow about the whole thing.

As you value your life, do not call me tomorrow after the reality of what we’ve gotten ourselves into, hits me.

P.S. Did I mention that today all four of our phones’ batteries went dead, too?