By Gabrielle. Photographs by Robyn Wishna and also Emily Rothenbucher.
Rebecca Barry is the sweetheart storyteller behind the can’t-put-it-down book Recipes for a Beautiful Life. It’s a memoir that almost didn’t happen — more on that, just ahead! — overflowing with a hilarious, often touching, and always authentic recounting of living a creative life while raising a family and translating the pressure-filled reality that most of us face on the daily. An even shorter review? It’s a joy.
Her home and interview are unsurprisingly inviting — unsurprising to me because I was hooked from our very first correspondence, when she sent me this: “We live in a brick Italianate house built in 1865 that we bought and have been working on since our first child was born. The house is beautiful and unruly, with original hardwood floors and pocket doors, old sun porches, and hand hewn moldings. We live in half of it, and the rest is filled with wonderful tenants: artists, musicians, beekeepers and barristas. It is on Main Street in a tiny rural town. I’ve attached some pictures of little moments in our house.” Yes, I was hooked. It sounded to me like a haven of sorts. A messy and creative refuge where creativity holidays and beautiful moments simply exist.
I’m inspired every time I re-read Rebecca’s words. And I really hope you are, as well! Welcome, Rebecca!
I live with my husband Tommy and our two sons, Liam and Dawson, who are 11 and nine. Tommy and I met in 1999 when we were both working in NYC for CosmoGirl! Magazine. On our first date in October, Tommy asked me if I wanted to spend New Year’s Eve in Bermuda with him and his friend – a trip he’d been saving up for for five years. I said yes, and by New Year’s Eve I knew I would marry him. Neither of us proposed until months later – eventually we both did – but that night we were all asked to write down New Year’s resolutions that we would all read at the next reunion. The resolutions were written in private and sealed, and five years later when we opened them, Tommy had written, “I will marry Rebecca Barry” and I had written, “I will marry Tommy Dunne.” So the feeling was mutual.
Both Tommy and I work at home. I’m a writer — I write for magazines and I write books; my most recent one, Recipes for a Beautiful Life, just came out from Simon and Schuster in April. Tommy does copyediting for Glamour magazine, and a few years ago we started our own magazine, a local publication called Fresh Dirt Ithaca. It’s a profile-driven magazine about green living. This is a perfect place to write about that lifestyle, as we’re surrounded by organic farms and farm-to-table restaurants and people who keep coming up with innovative and delicious ways to live in harmony with the planet.
Tommy and the boys love hockey, soccer, skiing, Magic the Gathering, and music. They’re all in the community theater’s production of The Music Man this year, and last year Dawson was Oliver. When I’m not writing, I love making ornaments and cake toppers out of clay (Fimo is my medium of choice), something I started with the kids when I was stuck on a novel. It turned into an Etsy shop called Mermaid to Order. Those are cats from my shop on the bookcase in the pictures, as are the mermaids hanging on the wall.
“This is what my writer’s block looks like,” I say to people when they ask me about them. I don’t know why all my creatures look so happy, because writer’s block is horrible. But they all seem very cheerful about it.
We are a very emotional family (especially me and the boys; Tommy is a little more even-keeled), which makes for more quarreling than I think any of us would like, but there’s a lot of humor and love in the mix too, so that kind of balances it out. We are also surrounded by family; my sister and her husband live down the street, and my parents live 30 minutes from us in the house we grew up in, which really helps. I’ve often felt that the nuclear family, while wonderful, can be a lonely unit all by itself. I really love having extended family and good friends nearby. It’s deepened my life immensely and made me a much better mother.
We live in a small town outside of Ithaca, New York, in the heart of the Finger Lakes region. I love it for so many reasons. First of all, the landscape is just — I don’t know, it’s more than beautiful, it’s moving. There’s water everywhere — deep, old lakes and waterfalls — and miles of farmland and wooded hills. There’s something about the lakes that makes the hills in the distance look blue, so we’re surrounded by all these gradations of bright greens and blues and flowering trees in the spring. And songbirds! Bluebirds and chickadees and red-winged blackbirds. Once I was riding my bike past a forest of pine with a swath of deep yellow goldenrod in front of it, and perched on top of the goldenrod was a bright red cardinal. It was such a colorful sight I had to stop and just stare for a minute. I have experiences like that all the time here and it makes me so grateful and awed by the natural world. I guess that’s what I mean about the landscape being moving.
I also love the town because I can walk everywhere. Every morning I go to the coffee shop on the corner, where I sit with the same group and swap gossip, and we have great restaurants on our street and a new bowling alley that looks like it dropped out of Brooklyn into our village, and there’s a farmer’s market on Wednesday we go to where our kids can run around with all of their friends for hours. I guess the main thing I love about it here is that it’s a place where people come to live out their dreams. My friend Kate has her own custom clothing company that she runs out of a studio in her house, my friend Sarah makes a living selling handmade jewelry on Etsy. My friend Evangeline runs her own farm and feeds half the community with the fruits and vegetables she grows, as do my friends Nathaniel and Emily. People are building houses that run entirely on geothermal and solar energy, insulating with straw or wool, farming with horses, and my friend Maria just started a carpentry school for women. It’s just a really cool, imaginative place to live.
And maybe because so many people are starting their own businesses, money sometimes feels a bit tight. You can get by on about $30,000-$50,000 a year here. (The median income in Ithaca is about $30,000.) You can live well on $80,000-$100,000. You can buy a decent three- to four-bedroom house here for between $200,000 and $300,000, which might seem reasonable except that property taxes are pretty high. But overall the quality of life is really wonderful.
I kind of feel like our home found us. At first we intended to move to a bigger city nearby, and as we were driving through town on our way home from looking at houses, this one just jumped out at us. We fell for it for completely romantic reasons. The roof needed work and the floors slanted, but it had beautiful bones and original pocket doors and the people who had lived there before us had taken good care of it, and so we just bought it.
It was definitely a wake-up call when we realized how much work an old building is, especially one with four other apartments in it, all with bathrooms and kitchens that need maintenance. I guess the first lesson we learned was to live in a space before you start renovating. That way you can get a feel for what it wants and you want. I really see houses as living, organic spaces. I can’t help it. I’ve always been that way. Our house is 150 years old. It has been through a lot, seen a lot, and definitely has its own ideas about the way things should be.
I’m not sure if I have a lot of other tips for others renovating their own homes because we are still learning, but one thing that has helped us immensely is finding a contractor we trust to work with us. It just helps to have a third person who knows a lot about old buildings to help us make decisions. Tommy and I can come up with a lot of ideas, and then a millions reasons that they might or might not work, but a contractor can make a big difference in terms of talking out the true cost and whether or not an idea makes sense. Case in point, Tommy wanted to put a new bathroom in the front of the house to increase the value of one of the apartments. I thought that was going to be too much work. We went back and forth and back and forth until finally, Julie, our contractor, mapped out for us exactly what the cost would be and how long it would take and we decided against it. Without her, we’d probably still be arguing.
The biggest and most successful improvement was definitely the roof. It cost close to $40,000, and meant tearing off the original tin roof, then putting on a new metal one. The nightmarish part, besides the huge expense, was trying to come up with the money for it, which took a long time, and dealing with the repercussions of not replacing it. I spent too many nights lying in bed dreading rain, or upstairs with Tommy bailing out the attic during a storm. I remember once, when things were really kind of down, we were low on money, I was stuck on my novel, the kids were sick, and I went into my study and listened to an anti-stress CD full of guided meditations to alleviate negative thinking. I was doing pretty well, and then one of them went something like, “Repeat after me: I have my health. I am warm. I have love in my life. I have a good roof over my head,” and I just started laughing, because even at that moment Tommy was trekking up and down the attic stairs emptying rain buckets.
But I love the tin ceilings we’ve restored, and the kitchen we put together in one of the apartments, as well as the soft blue walls and white floor that we painted in the apartment that used to be an old apothecary, which make the upstairs bedroom look like a clear sky in winter. And I love living in a building where so much of it – the plaster walls, the moldings, woodwork around the windows, and the brick walls themselves – were crafted by human hands. Every day, looking at the windows or the sun porches on the back of the house, or even the details on the old coal fireplaces makes me happy.
We live in a portion of our home…and share the rest! I LOVE sharing the house. I love going to sleep at night and hearing other people moving around, dishes clattering in the sink, the rise and fall of their conversations. We have several musicians living in the building, so sometimes I can hear someone playing their guitar or banjo, or singing. Being a landlady is a really great job for someone like me who loves other people’s business!
Our tenants have really enriched our lives, and I often stay in touch with them after they go. Pam, our tenant who lived next door for years, has become an important and dear family friend. And I like to keep up with Bri, who lived in the apartment attached to ours and gave my children art lessons. I just pulled out the paintings they did with her the other day and they are magical. I hear people complain about being landlords, but for me it has been a lovely experience. In nearly 11 years of having tenants, we’ve only had one unpleasant situation, and that one I chalk up to miscommunication and inexperience on our parts as much as anything else.
My book, Recipes for a Beautiful Life, was recently published. You would think that as the person who wrote the book I would be excellent at describing it, but I always have a hard time saying what it’s about! I think because I’m so close to it. Basically, it’s the nonfiction book I wrote while I was supposed to be writing fiction. I was under contract for a novel I’d proposed, and it just wouldn’t come. In the meantime every day, I would write in my journal or put a post up on a blog I had about the kids and making a life here, and finally, when it was clear that I had to put the novel aside (and by that I mean both my editor and I agreed it was unpublishable and I got depressed for three months), I started looking for something new to write and I could see that all of the energy and light and love I’d been trying to get into the novel was in these little vignettes I’d been writing about our day-to-day life. So I put them all together and made this book, which is really about trying to build a life that is connected to things you love, following your dreams and surviving when they get unruly, and how tricky and wonderful and soul-enriching that is. But it’s also about living near your family and trying to get along with them, and small, very funny children, who are also a handful, and not getting what you thought you wanted but finding something else. Or, as Redbook said when they included it in their “5 fabulous, even life-changing, new reads” in their April 2015 issue, “finding the magic in the mess.”
To be perfectly honest, one way I managed to write the book was that I have a really messy house. You can’t tell from the pictures because I cleaned up a bit, but if you moved the camera to the right in that picture of our magazine pages up on our magazine wall you would see stacks of papers and general detritus. So having clean space was one thing I really let go of. I was also lucky in that I had very close, good friends living nearby, as well as my sister.
But it was hard to be doing so many things, and when I look back, all I can say is that I wish I had spent a lot less time working on something I didn’t like. It was draining, and I missed my children when I was working on my novel and they missed me. It’s not that I think you shouldn’t work when you have small children, because that wouldn’t have been possible for me, but if it’s at all possible, enjoy the work you’re doing. Once I got to the book I wanted to be writing, things got much easier.
I just think the more you can take care of yourself and keep yourself in a place where you’re doing things you like, the more you’ll enjoy your children. Which is kind of the opposite of the way we’re trained to work: to make everyone else happy, and then take care of yourself.
Now whenever I look at a project, the first thing I ask myself is “How do I feel about it?” not “How much money will it bring in?” Because if I feel drained or unsupported at the thought of it, it might end up costing more than it’s worth. If that’s the case, I either say no, or try to find a role in the project for me that might be more fun. I’m a big fan of, “No to that, but what about yes to this?” I just think in general, that makes for a happier family.
I hope my children remember how much fun it was to be living in a house full of creative people – the musicians, artists, midwives, and teachers who came and went while they’ve lived here. I hope they remember the spontaneous meals we had with friends and neighbors, playing in the back yard and the creek. I hope they remember walking home from school and going to their aunt’s house for dinner every week, and climbing trees at the Farmer’s Market on Wednesdays. And I hope they remember laughing. I am sure they will also remember me getting mad at them for being on the computer when it’s a beautiful day outside, or standing over them saying, “Listen! I picked those sugar snap peas with my own hands, so eat them!” But hopefully those memories won’t eclipse the other ones.
The thing that has surprised me most about being a mom is how amazing it is. And I use that in the fullest sense of the word. I am amazed at the love I feel for my children. How deep it is and how much it has split open my heart. I am amazed at how angry I can get at someone who is so much smaller than me. I am amazed at how much noise four people in one house can make. I am amazed at how much my anxiety level has increased now that I am responsible for them.
And I am amazed how grateful I am sometimes when we’re all in the same room and getting along and everyone is healthy and safe and the trees in the backyard are swaying gently as if to say, “See? We told you. Everything is fine.”
I was also surprised at what this has done to my writing/art. When I got pregnant with Liam I worried that as soon as I had children I’d become boring and never have anything to write again. But what really happened was they brought me closer to my own voice. People always told me how cute children are, but as soon as they started to talk I was surprised at how brilliant they are. All of them, not just mine. They’re just that much closer to spirit, I think, so they come up with funny, true things all the time, but they don’t have the harsh judgment adults often do. I just loved listening to them and talking to them and that started to inform my work.
I’ve written about this before, but I remember once I was working on a book review and was reading Charles Bukowski, and Dawson who was then three, came in and picked up “The Women,” and said, “Can you read this to me?” I said, “I don’t think you’d like it, it doesn’t have any pictures.” And he said, “Okay, I’ll read it to you, then.” And he opened the book and said, “Banana face, banana face, I got naughty songs in my head.” I don’t know if you’ve ever read Bukowski, but that summarizes most of his work. I didn’t even know what to say. I nearly called my editor to say, “Listen, you might want to hire my kid to write these, not me.”
So instead of limiting my art, I feel like they’ve expanded it. They’ve inspired a book and an Etsy shop full of playful creatures I don’t think I would have made if I wasn’t living with children, and I’m now working on a YA novel. In many ways I feel like being with them lifted a veil for me between my work and my heart.
Now that they’re nine and 11, I miss that connection to magical thinking I feel like they had when they were four and five. It was such an incredible thing to be around. I wish I hadn’t been so sleep-deprived. But I love the sweetness and humor and perspective they still bring to our family.
I wish someone had told me how to keep things simple. I recently saw a friend of mine who has a seven week old baby who hardly sleeps and she said, “You know, as long as I take care of the most important things: we’re all getting food, we’re all getting rest, we’re all drinking water, I’m okay.” And I thought, That is so reasonable. I’m sure people told me that, but I didn’t listen, I was too busy trying to work and make my own baby food and I don’t even know what else.
I also wish someone had told me that so many of the things I worry about – Will we be all right? Do my children get enough nutrients? Did I scar them for life by screaming at them? – are just noise. Actually, people did tell me that, but I wish I’d been able to believe them.
But maybe that’s the point: we don’t listen to what people tell us when we’re in that stage because it’s so new and intense, and everyone is trying be good at it when it’s so hard to know what you’re doing. So I guess I wish I’d also known it was okay to feel all of it when it comes to having children – the joy and the love and the rage and heartache, the loneliness and the bliss. That you are going to love them and you are going to hurt them even when it’s the last thing you want to do, and you are going to wish you’d done better, and you are going to be so, so tired. But you can always, always come back to love and saying “I’m sorry.” Even after the worst fights. And you are going to find romance and beauty in your life in new ways you never imagined. And that most other mothers are feeling that way, and it isn’t easy, so just let’s just all give ourselves a break and stop trying to do everything alone.
And I also wish someone had said that it’s okay to feel sad, even if it’s sometimes for no apparent reason. We have all of this shame in our culture around sadness and struggle, and I keep thinking why? No life is untouched by grief or rage, and it’s our struggle, our darker feelings that help deepen our lighter feelings and make our lives more fully rich. I also think trying to avoid them just makes them darker and bigger, so you might as well just meet them and say, Okay. Here we are again. I’m so angry, or I’m just depressed, I don’t know why, I just am. That’s what kids are so great at doing. They feel everything, and then they have a good cry and get over it, and they wake up the next morning and say things like, “It’s a beautiful day outside! It’s just raining.” I love that.
Thank you, Rebecca! This is pretty priceless advice: “When I look back, all I can say is that I wish I had spent a lot less time working on something I didn’t like. The more you can take care of yourself and keep yourself in a place where you’re doing things you like, the more you’ll enjoy your children. Which is kind of the opposite of the way we’re trained to work: to make everyone else happy, and then take care of yourself.” Game-changing, right?
And this on dark feelings that pop up in the night: “Trying to avoid them just makes them darker and bigger, so you might as well just meet them and say, Okay. Here we are again. I’m so angry, or I’m just depressed, I don’t know why, I just am.”
Oh, man! I could just continue to copy and paste all the goodness of Rebecca’s interview! I guess I’ll do what I’ve been doing since she sent it to me, though: read it one more time. If you’ve got a favorite part, tell me which one it is so I’m not alone at my Rebecca Barry Appreciation Society meeting!
P.S. – Are you living with your own kids in a unique way? Are you interested in sharing your home and experiences with us? Let me know! We love to be inspired! And it’s a lot of fun…I promise! Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here.