When life gives you lemons…


Last fall, a bedroom opened up in our house. This was not a happy event. In fact, it was a heartbreaking one, and as I’ve mentioned previously it means that Cane is now living elsewhere 50% of the time.

Because we are still trying to define and understand and figure out how to respond to what is happening, a reality that seems in constant flux, we don’t know when or how Cane’s daughter will live here again. Because my twins are graduating from high school this spring, things are up in the air with them, too. We really don’t know right now where any of the three will be living come September. There are all kinds of endings/beginnings and upheaval and loss and possibility and dread and anticipation swirling around us.

twins in NICU

In some ways, things are not unlike this time, when much felt unsure and unknown.

For a short time the unoccupied room remained as it had been, a chaotic mess, a concrete representation of so much gone wrong. I could feel the weight of it every time I passed its door. When it became clear that the room would not be occupied for some time, I decided to clean it out rather than let it remain a shrine to our collective pain. I boxed up belongings and swept the floor and opened the windows to let in fresh air. There was little solace in it, but it felt right.

Except, the room itself still felt all kinds of wrong. When we first moved here, it belonged to my daughter, who painted it a fairly awful shade of brown. (We didn’t say that when she painted it, other than to each other. I think it’s safe to say it out loud now.) Cane’s daughter didn’t want us to paint it when she took over the space, so the color remained. After clearing the room of its belongings, despite all my cleaning, it was still a sad, depressing, dank, poopy-brown cave.

So, over winter break, Cane and I painted the room.

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Donning the full-body suit to paint the popcorn ceiling with a sprayer.

The transformation felt miraculous. It changed almost instantly from a dark hole to a clean, clear canvas.

Not that I captured any good photos of it...

Not that I captured any good photos of it…

What to make of it? Maybe a sewing room? A guest room? Somehow a combination of both? Something, I thought, that can easily be dismantled when we need it to be a bedroom again.

On craigslist I found an Ikea table just like one we’d once owned with large sides that can fold down. I thought I could use it as a sewing/crafting table that would tuck up nicely when guests were staying in the room (and that could easily be stored until another room might open up to become a sewing/guest room). When I put the table right in front of the window, though, with its wings spread wide, I soon realized I wouldn’t want to take it down or move it to a side wall, where it would need to be if we were to put a bed in this space.

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The reality of our new normal was sinking in about the time I put the table there, and it felt terrible. The empty spaces in my days filled up with hard truths that left me sad and angry and lonely. One of them is that the room isn’t going to be needed as a bedroom for a long time and that we have no clear pathway back to living together.  Another is that we rarely have guests, and that’s not just because we didn’t have a guest room. I admitted to myself that the existence of one wasn’t likely to change that, any more than keeping it an empty bedroom would heal Cane’s daughter or us. I felt I needed to ground myself in what I know to be real, and I didn’t want our home to feed any fantasies about our life together.

So, I let go of the bedroom and the guest room and embraced the creative studio. The idea that if we couldn’t have the family life we’d  hoped and worked for, at least I might have a comfortable, light-filled work space brought some small comfort. With the room cleared of everything but the sewing table, I decided it would be nice to also have a large work surface at standing height. (After making a standing desk at work this fall, I am now a big fan of standing desks.)

At Ikea with a friend, I found some trestle table legs that allow for adjustable height.

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Those, I thought, could be used in any number of ways in the future. So, it would be OK to buy them. The Ikea table tops were a bit spendy, though. One of those seemed like too much of an investment for a table I might need to take down in a few months. I thought about a sheet of plywood, and then Cane had the idea of using a hollow-core door for the table top. It’s perfect. Large and light-weight and inexpensive.

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It will be much easier to cut out fabric on this table. In addition to storing my cutting mat, it’s also holding my scanner and a paper cutter and some other doo-dads.


Stained the door, but left the legs just as they are.

For the first time in my life, I have a “room of one’s own” just for creative work.



As you can see, it is rather spare. It is still a concrete representation of how things are.  Despite my efforts to create a space easily dismantled, it feels wrong, somehow, to create it at all, to invest anything in it, to do more to make it mine. It feels disloyal, or cruel, or as if I’m giving up on or turning away from a young person who needs support, the child of the person I love. I’ve wondered if I am. I’ve worried, working on this post,  that my intentions will be misinterpreted, that others might think my actions say that I don’t want her back in my home or that I’m glad she’s gone.



What does it mean if I make this space pleasing or celebrate it in any way?

I am not.

However, I don’t want to pretend that I haven’t found pleasure in this space. I’m discovering how nice it is to be able to leave a project out half-finished and to be able to return to it without having to haul everything out and re-find my place in it. I’m discovering that having a dedicated room to create and work in is affecting my process and what I’m able to do. Those things feel good, and they help me tolerate all the things that don’t. As I putter with paper and thread and photos, I feel myself healing from a variety of wounds. I am not glad the room became empty, but I am glad to feel my strength returning. I know I need that in order to work toward being able to live again with Cane’s daughter, to create a new home in which all of us can feel safe and be healthy.

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I’ve always hated the “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” thing. Looking for the silver lining in any dark cloud is a good thing, sure, but I’ve always taken this aphorism to mean that we can turn whatever it is that’s bad into something all good. I thought it said we can (and, it goes without saying, should) just repurpose the sour fruit life’s given us into a treat devoid of any burden or disappointment–and that’s always seemed like a nice but false idea to me.

lemons retro

It’s just not this simple.

This room, though, is helping me see that it’s possible to take a more nuanced view. Lemonade, no matter how sweet, always has a little bite to it, doesn’t it? With a lot of work, we can reduce the lemon to its juices and temper its tartness with sugar, but we can never entirely remove its tongue-puckering qualities. So it is with this room.

Getting use from the room feels better than letting it sit empty. Being real about where we are and accepting what is feels better than living in denial or suspension, putting our lives on hold while we wait for things to get better or struggle (futilely) to make them something they can’t (right now) be. We’ve been holding our breath like that for nearly two years, and I need to exhale. Yes, I have found pleasure and joy and healing while working here, which is certainly sweet, but the tang of our losses keep those refreshments from ever sliding easily down my throat.

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Lemonade sign photo credit: amy.gizienski via Compfight cc

31 thoughts on “When life gives you lemons…

  1. Diane says:

    Beautiful post, Rita, and no one who follows you would EVER think you were happy about what has happened. But refusing to use the room for things that bring you joy or at least contentment makes no sense. Please enjoy it without guilt. We’re all pulling for things to be different for your family, but the only time any of us can live in is now.

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, Diane. I guess that’s what I was trying to say, and what I’ve been coming to terms with: That I have to find ways to be OK with what is now. I like to plan. I like to know what’s coming. That things with all three of our kids are in such flux right now is pretty uncomfortable for me. I’m learning to find comfort within discomfort, though. Don’t get there every day, but I keep trying!

  2. Lisa says:

    I think this is a beautiful post. I can’t imagine that anyone who regularly reads this blog would imagine that you find joy in this difficult situation. I am glad that among the bitterness , you have found a little bit of solace and comfort.

    From an aesthetic perspective, I love how the white brightens everything up, and you have such a nice warm woods and whites vibe going on there. (I have a whole pinterest board on woods + whites.) I think it looks like a wonderful place to be creative.
    Lisa recently posted…RugsUSA are horrendous, don’t buy thereMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Oh, I love that fabric on the chair, too. It’s an old piece I found in a vintage shop. I’d been saving it for something worthy of its awesomeness, and then I decided I need to just use it now because who knows if there will be a someday or a project I deem worthy enough? I don’t want to miss out on things I have now because I’m waiting for something in the future. I guess that’s one theme of this post.

  3. Marian says:

    This is such a beautiful post, Rita, and Diane and Lisa have summed up my thoughts on it perfectly. It would have been so unhealthy to keep the room as it was. But because our brains are similar, I can completely understand how hard it must have been to take that first step, and to try to put to rest those unreasonable and self-recriminating thoughts.

    I hope that when/if your twins leave your house in the fall it’s a gentler transition. That, at least, has been my experience with my daughter going off to university (although I acknowledge I’m only having to let go of one child at a time) — her room is still hers, and quite a lot of her things are still here, and she’s still here for breaks and holidays….it’s still her home, and I have rather clung to that thought and found solace in it, even while missing her enormously.

    The room you’ve created is beautiful — bright and simple — and I so hope you’re able to find comfort in its use.
    Marian recently posted…Soul-Sustaining Scenery Versus the TreadmillMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I suppose part of the reason I have those feelings is that I worry how Cane’s daughter would feel about this, and I don’t have a way to know. I think of my daughter, who will be leaving in the fall, and how she’s already asked that her room remain her room even when she’s not living here full-time. I know, though, that she’ll be coming home for breaks and holidays. I have told her that it will remain hers, but that we’ll likely make some changes so that others (my parents or Cane’s mom) could sleep in it if they visit. She was OK with that. I think the fall transitions will be fine, once we get to them. It’s the anticipation and the uncertainty now that’s hard. I like to rip my band-aids off all at once. Slowly inching them off isn’t my style.

  4. Sarah says:

    I found myself wanting to alter the metaphor slightly: life gave you lemons, you made lemon juice — puckeringly sour, but useful in all sorts of cooking, and at least nothing went to waste.

    I love that Cane helped you make over the room a bit. The results are lovely — bright and calm, and true to your 70s color palette/aesthetic.

    In the past I have been in a place where I wanted/hoped for something to happen in my life, and for quite some time kept a physical space that was in some way earmarked for it or arranged for its eventuality. But then when I finally changed the space, I found that other ways of accommodating that potential happening suggested themselves to me. There would always be space that could be carved out for the very important things. Sorry for vague-commenting but I hope the gist of my point is clear.

    I would never imagine that you were glad Cane’s daughter is no longer living there or think that you didn’t want her back. Actually I’m consistently blown away by the care and commitment you show to her — even though you don’t write much that’s explicit, the depth of your feeling is there between the lines.
    Sarah recently posted…My wardrobe this season: New life for gray jeansMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, Sarah. I understand your meaning, and I hope that you are right. With so much about our family poised for change, I’m finding myself open to all kinds of possibilities. I know, too, that holding tight to some idea of how we think things should go might blind us to better ways. I’m trying to be OK and accepting so that things can unfold. I’m pretty weary from struggling. I appreciate your perspective on my feelings about this. They are complicated, for sure. It’s strange to care about someone but feel the need to draw strict and tight boundaries with them, especially someone who isn’t fully grown.

      And I love your take on the lemon metaphor. You’re so right. This room is lemon juice more than lemonade, for sure!

  5. Josh says:

    I have always found interesting the metaphor that out psyche is a house, and is often both revealed by, and intertwined with, our real-world living space. And how changes in the latter can make changes in the former. I know it has been true for me. I hope this space brings you some of its evident calm and optimism.

    With that said, every time I hear that lemonade expression my snarky side kicks in. It’s a standing punch line in my family, actually. We like to quote Jodi Foster’s character from the movie Little Man Tate. Her girlfriend has talked her into taking a job waitressing in Florida, at a hotel that was supposed to be fun, swimming pool, etc. Of course the place turns out to be a total dump. Her friend pulls out the “oh well, when life gives you lemons..” in a perky voice. Jodi deadpans: “Gina, this ain’t lemons. This is dog shit.”

    • Rita says:

      This made me smile. 🙂 And want to re-watch that movie, which I saw years and years ago.

      I think spaces are really important to how we feel. That’s true for me, anyway. It’s a running joke between Cane and me that my first criteria for restaurants is not the food, but the lighting. I know that having this space to work in has affected my psyche. I feel really calm in there. It’s becoming a bit of a retreat. I’m understanding that I might need to continue to have/create such a space in the future, even if it’s not this particular room.

  6. Gretchen says:

    Lovely post and a lovely space. I’ve never given much thought to the make lemonade aphorism before; I like your take on it. Guest rooms always make me feel kind of resentful about people I think should be visiting us more often.

    • Rita says:

      I never thought about that possible impact of having a guest room. I just thought I would feel sad if I finally had a guest room that only rarely (or never) had guests. I also thought it would be wasteful. Maybe it’s different for me because the people I’d most like to visit us just can’t get here easily or often. They live too far away, and it can be hard for them to travel. I think I’d love visiting your home; it seems like one that is filled with a lot of happy activity.

  7. Kari says:

    Oh friend, you have a way of making the best of a situation that sucks.
    I on the other hand would be eating mass quantities of Oreos.
    OMG maybe I am going through this process for you?
    No I need to accept that I just eat mass quantities of Oreos.
    Sending you loads of love.
    Kari recently posted…Kicking Off 2016 With Some BallsMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I have been making more trips than usual to our favorite pie spot. Banana cream, chocolate cream, the occasional key lime. Yesterday we had lunch out and I had biscuits and gravy followed by banana pudding. So. Comfort food abounds. 🙂 If I were doing cookies, it would be Mystic Mints all the way. Do they even make those any more? Those are my ultimate comfort cookie because my mom used to get them for me when I was sick.

  8. Alexandra rosas says:

    This wasn’t easy and i can feel that. And you’re right, it’s not making lemonade out of lemons. If we were together right now i know we’d talk about going on living when some seasons shock the breath out of you. You are not just letting it sit, and with sharing that act with us you give us all hope.

    • Rita says:

      Boy, you nailed it: “some seasons shock the breath out of you.” Thank you for giving me language that captures my reality. You don’t know how much I’d love to be able to sit with you and talk. I’m glad we get to do this, the next best thing.

  9. Laura says:

    We’re not comfortable, are we, with how grief and sadness (and anger and all sorts of other rotten emotions) can lie side-by-side with normalcy and routine and even pleasure and joy? It’s like we think we have to pay some sort of bleak and unavoidable devotion to these dark occurrences in our lives with our time and our energy just to prove how seriously we’re taking it, somehow. And yet, that’s not how we end up coping with them, is it? It’s how we end up stuck on them, and letting them grind away at us. I think making this room into a space for you is your way of finding your footing again. Coping may look selfish, and it may indeed even BE selfish, but I’d like to divorce the word from its negative connotations. We can only cope when we’ve got the resources around us to respond. For you, that is a space to create and reflect. With those resources, you’re better equipped to address the things that trouble you.
    Laura recently posted…Burying the Lede (Or How I Started Dating Again)My Profile

    • Rita says:

      No, I don’t think we are comfortable with this. It seems to be the children that bring that out the most in me. What you say in the end, that’s what I was trying to say near the end of the post. The telling of this narrative is probably tidier than my living of it. I’ve told what I understand in hindsight, but at the beginning all I knew was that I had to clean/fix that room. I knew on some level it was about reclaiming something, but how or what I didn’t know. I’m grateful Cane gave me the space to do it and trusted me even though it wasn’t easy for him. But, what I see now (as I’m recovering) is how beat-down I was, and that this project has somehow been part of rising back up. It might be selfish, but I reached a point where I had no more left to give. I can see it becoming more possible to give again. It’s the oxygen mask thing.

  10. Skye Leslie says:

    I guess what I’ve had to learn and keep learning through my own disappointments and some sorrow, is that it does become possible to hold, what may seem, opposing views in each hand. That it is also possible not to succumb to either emotional tug completely but that it does inform each view to know them, somehow, at the same time. A long time ago, my middle child became a drug addict. It, over time, destroyed his health, prevented his further emotional development, interfered with any kind of meaningful relationship between us. Because of this, at first, and for a long while in to it, I thought that the only thing I could acknowledge and hold was his addiction. And that made me angry, bitter, afraid and constantly worried most of the time. It didn’t work. For me, at least. Over time, and with very specific boundaries regarding some issues, I’ve learned to live with the despair and heartache of a drug addicted child, now adult and at the same time, I’m able to celebrate him, my love for him, the good and grace filled glimpses of who he is at his core. It’s a little like walking two roads, one foot planted on each, at the same time. I’m grateful for your so articulate write – it was a good reminder of how we can learn to carry the bitter and the sweet and, of course, a delight to read your writing. Much love, Skye

    • Rita says:

      Oh, Skye. This hits close enough to home that I know too well what you are writing of. Thank you for sharing these words with me. I am in awe of your generous, loving, and positive spirit, knowing the little I do of the trials it has endured. Let’s both of us keep writing. Deal?

  11. Shannon says:

    Oh, Rita! This one hit home for me! First of all, I love the look of your new space. (Very much!) But I absolutely understand all your mixed emotions. I don’t know what to tell you, because there isn’t anything I can say that will make it easier for you. But I can tell you my story, which I know from experience helps because there is strength in numbers. 🙂 The bedroom next to mine started out as my parent’s bedroom, which I have memories of until I was 9. Then my dad left and it became my mom’s bedroom alone, which I have mom memories of for the next 27 years. 27 years of every day memories. Then she got sick and I took care of her in that room for 4 months. The last 3 of those months spent 24/7 in that room as I slept next to her when she needed constant care. Then she passed away in that room. A moment that will forever be etched on my psyche. I cleaned out the room (all except a nightstand my great grandpa made and sentimental stuff I moved into the closet) fairly soon after the funeral because I simply could not stand the emotion of it, but I struggled with what to do with the space. I felt like if I left it empty it would be more of a reminder that my mom was not coming back. I eventually settled on craft room…bought a cool table, put up shelves. But it turns out…I simply canNOT spend time in there. I just can’t do it. It is now what amounts to a closet/storage room. I have the majority of my clothes in there, my secondary alarm clock, and I’ve strung two clotheslines now that I hang my clothes and don’t use a dryer. So the room serves a purpose. I go into it multiple times a day…but it’s all “in-and-out” trips. Nothing where I spend more than 5 minutes. I will occasionally go in there to look out her window like I did when I wasn’t leaving the house as I cared for her. It brings back memories both good and bad, but sometimes I need them both. I know this story doesn’t make your situation better, and I apologize for the length, but what can I say…you make me want to share. 🙂 PS. If the guy in that lemon-suit from the poster offers you lemonade, do NOT drink it…it came out of his NOSE! 😉
    Shannon recently posted…Ghost Of Information Enjoyment PastMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Story is what saves lives, I think. So I always appreciate hearing yours. Even the ones that break my heart, like this one. I think I would have a hard time turning such a room into one that I could bear to spend much time in, if I’d lived through what you did in it.

      I know that a big part of what I needed was to remove, as much as I could, the bad juju I felt in that space. It was too much a metaphor for…everything. I can’t tell you how different I started to feel when the white paint went on the walls. I think I can imagine why it would be more difficult for you to recreate your room. It would be erasing all the good as well as the bad, and it sounds as if you had far more of the former than the latter. And I’m guessing that even in those 4 months at the end, there were moments of profound good. Maybe the room is exactly what you need right now for the stage of grief you are in right now.

      And not only did that lemonade come out his nose, but it’s full of lemon peel, too! Grossness squared. 😉

  12. Skye Leslie says:

    Yes, my lovely Rita – it is a deal. I will continue to write. As I hope you will. It is the only exercise I know which, at some point, restores my sanity. Beside that, my love for words and the ability to form them in to sentences and paragraphs and grasp, hopefully, some sense or even nonsense out of them – is something which is always with me. By the way, it was grand to sit beside you the other night at the reading. Much love, Skye

    • Rita says:

      Much love to you, too. Isn’t it great that no matter what we have (or don’t), we need almost nothing to be able to write? No expensive materials required, and it can be done almost anywhere. Hope to see you again soon.

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