Monday, April 06, 2020

ABC 2020--Post 2--A Tour of the Sparrow Nest

The Nest is surrounded by very large trees.
We note that one window on the side is lower than the other.
That's where my desk is.

I have a writing cabin called The Sparrow Nest.

This is about how it came to be, how it turned out, and why we built it as we did, should you embark on such a project yourself someday.

Every writer dreams of a quiet, secluded spot, I think. One danger of such a place, says Stephen King, is that you might begin to think that your life serves your writing, rather than the other way around.

But it can't be argued that I, being easily distracted, needed quiet in order to write, I needed to write because I had a monthly deadline, and such quiet was hard to find in this populous household living in an old house with porous walls.

At one point, we had considered carving out a little second-story enclave for me at our seed warehouse, and had actually sketched out plans. Then Paul started dismantling the machine shed by the creek that his grandpa, Orval, had built 70 years before, and we got the idea to build a little writing shed with the lumber.

The logical spot for such a building was across Powerline Road, in that narrow slice of swamp and oaks between the road and Muddy Creek. Of course it was too flood-prone there to build on the ground, so Paul decided to put it on concrete posts, level with the road, up above the 500-year flood plain.

We sketched ideas and drew up plans. If we kept it off-grid and 200 or fewer square feet, we shouldn't need a permit, we were told.

We had no idea what we were in for, and how hideously difficult it would turn out to make such a simple project a reality. Would we even have begun, had we known?

I've often felt, in this process, like Nehemiah building the wall of Jerusalem, beset by relentless harassment and opposition.

The Sanballats and Tobiahs of our lives mostly included the following:

1. The county pencil-pushers who regulate such things. All was going well with the process until one guy with the road department saw that Paul was pouring concrete out there and made a great and noisy protest, all the way up the county ladder. As a result, we needed a permit, and the process dragged out for a full year. We had to get signatures, blueprints from an engineer, permissions, stamps, forms, and other frustrating, detailed requirements.

Just recently, we had the final inspection done. Paul told the county inspector the whole story. The inspector apologized for how hard it was and told him that, just between you and me, that should never have happened to us. It ought to have been a straightforward, perfectly permissible shed. 

2. Life. I knew going into it that work on the cabin would come after Paul had taken care of pastoring at church, principalling at school, and officiating at the warehouse, and other duties.
Neither of us had any idea how many crises those jobs would entail, how exhausted he would be, or how discouraging that half-finished cabin would be for both of us.
One small example that is typical of a hundred: Paul had great plans to work on a back deck for the cabin over spring break last week. Once again he drew diagrams on graph paper and picked out lumber. He had a nephew double check his plans for anchoring the corners.
Then the corona virus hit, and there was a run on animal feed. In the one week of spring break, the warehouse processed and shipped over twice as much as normal: 269 tons of two-grain chicken scratch, organic oats, beet pulp, 5-grain scratch, and more. Paul's employees were working around the clock.
Of course we were grateful for the extra business, but both of us were sad that it meant the one little window of opportunity to build the deck was closed. When spring break was over, Paul spent up to 8 hours a day figuring out the technology for teaching online, in addition to cleaning an extra 500 bags of mousy grass seed, taking care of church stuff from a social distance, and shipping the normal 120 tons of feed.

Were we simply too visionary and unrealistic, starting out? Paul and I both regularly come up with great ideas that bog down in the actual materializing.

Or were we beset by spiritual enemies who didn't want the cabin to fulfil its purposes? Because it often seemed like we were pushing up against something unseen but determinedly oppositional.

I worried that the cabin would be irrelevant by the time it was finally finished, that all the kids would be gone and I'd have a whole quiet 2-story house to write in.

The cabin has now been usable for almost three years, ever since it was built off-site, mostly by my nephew Austin Koehn, and lifted into place. It evolved so gradually since then that I can't really say when it was considered finished by others looking on. To me it has felt like my place of peace and concentration from the day the crane lifted it onto the concrete stilts, even when there was still plastic over the windows and I had to climb an 8-foot stepladder to get inside.

In some ways it may never be finished, because we will always have great ideas for improving it, such as that deck that isn't yet.

Meanwhile, it is truly my sparrow nest in the same way that a little brown bird fluffs her feathers and settles into a warm nest shaped exactly right for her.

I write there, of course. "Writing" includes typing out an article for Vibrant Girl magazine or a chapter of fiction, as you would expect. But I also critique submissions from my writing group, research printing companies, organize my stacks of random notes before they slide sideways onto the floor, prepare talks, coax my stubborn printer, write to young writers who ask me for advice, and answer emails.

In the quiet, ideas bubble up. Distractions are minimal. I show up and associate the space with work, so I work.

Except when I take a nap or watch the ducks in the creek.

The Sparrow Nest has proved equally valuable as a place to talk with people. As mentioned, I was afraid I would no longer need privacy by the time the cabin was finished. As it turns out, we have six adults living here. They are in and out all day long, plus, also as mentioned, our house has porous walls.

But I can have someone over for a private conversation in my cabin. We drink tea and no one can hear what we say. The conversation stays within those old wood walls. I've had sisters-in-law over, neighbors, friends, and my own adult children. I've had guests who needed me to listen and others who listened to me. In the laughter and tears as the sun slants through those old-fashioned windows and across the table, I sense that something good is happening here, valuable enough that it's no wonder we faced such strange and relentless opposition.

During this time of isolation, my vigilant children and Kate Brown the governor won't let me have anyone over. I am so looking forward to more afternoons with tea in the yellow pot and interesting people around the table.

Sometimes, the Sparrow Nest is also a guest room. When our son Matt comes home to visit, he sleeps in the loft.

In many ways, the Sparrow Nest feels like it belongs to everyone. Many have followed the story of its coming to be. It's right by the road, so anyone can see it.

Perhaps that was what made people feel they had the right to show up and see it for themselves. The day I looked up from my computer to see an old man with his face up against the window in the door, peering inside and scaring me half to death, that was the day I realized I had to draw some boundaries.

Naturally, this coincided with a year of finally learning to set boundaries in many other areas of my life. These things always come from all directions, it seems, when it's time for me to learn the next life lesson. Boundaries are what you need as a human person with limited resources. They make you sad, sometimes, and they might upset others, but they are healthy and good.

So now there's a gate across the walkway. Any of you could climb right over it, but it still sends a message.

The gate, like the rail, is made of pipes.

Also, you can come inside for tea only if I invite you, because I've learned, painfully, that that is the best way. A place of peace and rest and imagination requires a degree of protection.

Today, though, I'm inviting you inside, via photos, for a virtual tour while you're staying at home.

Thank you for your interest, and I wish you a similar space of your own, when the time is right.

A few facts and specs, as requested by my friend Miriam Iwashige.

The cabin is 12.5 by 16 feet, which keeps it at 200 square feet, the county's limit for a basic shed. That is easily big enough for what we use it for, with the exception of a few Thai dinners for 8 or 10 that Amy served.

The posts are 8 feet high. So far we've had floods that came four or five feet up the posts, but I don't expect a floor-level flood in my lifetime.

Paul put four pieces of rebar into each post, and the engineer said that wasn't enough. So Paul added bracing underneath to compensate. We assume this will keep it safe and standing during the predicted Cascadia earthquake.

The sturdy bracing underneath.
Most of the lumber came from the old shed at the warehouse. All of the corrugated metal on the roof and inside came from the same source.

Certain components in the walls and roof, such as plywood, were purchased new.

It was a lot of work restoring all that wood, but the results are lovely.

We bought the windows at garage sales. If we did it over, we would buy new windows. It was far too much work to redo the glass, the glazing, and the painting. Although I love the results.

The view of Muddy Creek out the back door. We've talked about taming this wilderness,
and last summer our son Ben hacked a path to the creek, but
I'm fond of the overgrown, natural look too.

The back door, which will lead to a little deck, when God wills.

As you can see in the above photo, we heat the cabin with a propane heater. It works quite well, except the heat tends to whisk up to the loft. It helps if I run a small fan.

The plan is to have a propane tank underneath the cabin, with a hose coming inside. 

Sometimes a small electric heater is sufficient.

Which brings us to: electricity. Technically, the cabin is off-grid, but we have found ways to bring electricity to it for lights, my computer, and the electric kettle.

If our system doesn't work long-term, we do have a generator we can hook up.

At least one engineer son has ideas for using the creek to generate power.

Half of the cabin has a loft.
Half does not.
This half has an old light I found, where else?
At a garage sale.
As you can see, I never put curtains over the windows. I love all the natural light, but it also looks bare and doesn't offer privacy if someone sleeps there.

I may decide to hang lace curtains or blinds, someday. Or not.

Ann Lamott says to keep a 1" picture frame in front of you when you're writing.
Tell yourself to write only enough to fill that frame.
Do it again.

The ladder--with pipe rails--leads to the loft.

The ladder slides back and forth on that pipe.
The rails extend on up to make it less treacherous to find your footing,
climbing down.

One of the best decisions I made was to insist on the window above my desk being lower than the others so I could see out while I was working. Paul protested about this, since it wouldn't look right to his carpenter eye.

But I insisted, and I'm so glad I did.

I have a big screen, keyboard, and mouse that all sprout from my laptop. You could come up with more efficient methods, but this works for me.

My desk, which is made of--what else?--reclaimed wood and pipes. The two drawer pieces slide underneath,
or I can pull them out if I need more flat space.

These are the little animals that inspire characters in my stories.

My living room.
The corrugated-metal wainscoting is the same stuff that's on the roof.

 I really like to use heirlooms and items with connection to the past. In the picture above:
My mom crocheted the rugs and made the quilted wall hanging.
Paul's aunt Allene crocheted the afghan that's on the couch, for a wedding gift.
The folded quilt also came from Aunt Allene, more recently, when she had to move to assisted living.
The white blanket on the round chair came from my goodie bag at the ladies' retreat in Texas last October.
The green chair is one of a set of three that belonged to Paul's great-grandmother.
Imagine, all those people and times coming together in one place.

Despite all the things we repurposed or bought used, the whole project cost alarmingly much more than we had expected. I tell Paul periodically that I really feel I need to write a bestseller, just to break even.

He insists that it was worth the price. I needed it for me, and the fact that ministry happens there makes it even more of a good investment.

So I honestly don't know how much it cost, exactly, because I don't want to ask and Paul doesn't want to tell me. I am grateful for Paul's attitude about it, but I'd still feel better, overall, if I wrote a bestseller.

Here's my "kitchen."
I haul water from the house to make tea or coffee.
The countertop is an old metal "worktable" top that used to be my mom's.
Paul built the island underneath it 25 years ago when we lived in an old house by
the freeway.
I want to make a nicer curtain for it someday.
With the cabin being by the creek and in a flood zone, there was no way we could meet the requirements for plumbing of any kind. So I haul water out as necessary.

Lacking a bathroom limits overnight guests to the young, adaptable types like Matt.

Once the back deck is built, we might build a little enclosure at one corner with a camping toilet inside. It could be carried to the house to be cleaned.

Here's where we have tea. The table is a wonderful find that I bought
from a woman who used to read my newspaper column.
It can go from very small to very large and seat people comfortably at every stage.
My friend Sharon Coblentz gave me the teacup rack on the wall.
 It is a lovely thing to have a nest, a warm and welcoming space. I wish you one of your own.

Special thanks to everyone who played a part in the Sparrow Nest coming to be:
Paul, first and most
Keith Birky
Kevin Baker
Austin Koehn
Our sons--Matt, Ben, and Steven
Emily, who painted, cleaned, and spackled
Everyone who followed along and encouraged us.


  1. So thrilled for you! Perfect and unique to you and your needs. Is there a story behind the bell by the front door?

    1. Yes! Emily gave it to me for Christmas.

  2. I love it... every inch of it. A perfect place to dream, imagine, envision and co-create... for a divinely inspired pen... EVY.

    1. Thank you. Please come for tea when you are in Oregon next!

  3. Me encantó. No se mucho inglés, pero realmente es una gran bendición para ud y nosotros quienes de lejos leemos y nos sentimos como parte de sus logros. Realmente maravilloso lugar, lugar de paz, armonía y sobre todo de mucha inspiración. Una gran familia muy bendecida. Me sirven de mucho ejemplo. Abrazos en el Señor desde Argentina.

    1. Gracias! I put your comment into Google Translate. Thanks for stopping by, and be blessed!

  4. It's amazing what all you fitted into that tiny nook: functional, meaningful, and attractive items; yet it doesn't look cluttered. And the name is perfect. I love the abundance of natural light. And I agree with you, having a window you can see out of from the desk is important. At my "sheltering at home" desk for work, my back is to the only window in the room. However, I face a mirror in which I can see "out" the window.

    Sorry you have encountered so many barriers in the Sparrow Nest's construction. May it continue to serve as a sanctuary, even though you can't have friends over right now. LRM

    1. Thank you. I'm glad you get at least a glimpse of the outdoors while you're working.

  5. Keep us posted about that best seller! Can't wait to read it!

  6. Delightful description of a delightful haven. I remember the drama involved with building it, and am so happy to have this tour!

    1. Thanks for following the story. I am sooooo happy to be at this stage of things.

  7. What a perfect answer to all my questions--and what a lovely outcome for all that planning and labor. I love how you've been able to include items that trigger warm memories of loved ones who may never be physically present in this space otherwise. I also like how you have fitted the Sparrow's Nest into its natural environment rather than having to alter the natural environment to accommodate what you might have imposed on it. All those hassles with regulations might even someday prove to be redeemable for good purposes. The Lord can do that, over and above the good work that already happens there.

    The "bathroom" problem is one that I've puzzled over too. If the following seems like TMI, feel free to disregard it. I came across a camping solution that might offer you some ideas. Picture the enclosure being like a tiny fold-away tent in which you situate a toilet. The toilet can be as simple as a 5-gallon bucket fitted with a toilet-seat-and-lid assembly. A supply of wood shavings or sawdust nearby (perhaps in another bucket) supplies the toilet bucket before use and again after each use. It's emptied on a "compost pile" that is never used for food crops unless it has decayed for at least three years.

    The advantage of this over building a permanent enclosure would be that all the supplies could be tucked inside a bench seat with a lift-up lid. The equipment could be set up only as needed and would thus be less intrusive in the overall deck design than a permanent enclosure.

    1. Thanks for giving me the idea for this post, Miriam.
      I've gotta say, at this point I don't see redemption for the hassles but maybe you can have faith on my behalf.
      And thanks for the bathroom idea! I'll make note of it.

  8. Thank you for the tour, Dorcas. It's good to remember that even our ideal little writer cabins or blue castles still take a realistic amount of hassle. :)

  9. Those green chairs have me swooning!

    1. Thank you for appreciating them. They are special.