Building Shelves, Building Community: Opening the Doors to Closer Bonds

A few months ago I was standing in my kitchen while preparing for my weekly meal prep. I went into the back pantry where we store food items and was frustrated with how disorganized it all was. There were multiples of the same item scattered around the shelves that probably sat there for months, if not years just taking up room. We were running out of space in the cabinet where we kept most of our dry goods and the area we had in the pantry was poorly organized and overflowing with food items. Most of them not likely to be used for years. It was overwhelming and frustrating to say the least.

As I stood there looking at the mess that we called the back pantry, I wondered how and why it came to be this disorganized. From what I could gather, as I said in my post on how we treat our pantries, one of the ways we got here was by treating (our) pantry like a museum. Curating different staples. Things (we) should have to have food. One thing was clear. Something needed to change.

Still standing there and looking at our collected mess, I racked my brain for ways to improve our storage situation. To give you an idea of what the pantry looks like, it is a small space, maybe 20-25 square feet. There is a closet on the left that is void of shelving. Only the casing of an old broom closet that house items that aren’t of much use or never get used. A spatula hangs on the inside of one of the walls that has never been used for a grill that had been thrown out years ago. Two non-slip plastic mats hang in the middle of the closet casing and have been for years. An ironing board that hasn’t been touched except to be moved from one spot to another. And a dust pan, two brooms and a Butler that rarely get use.

On top of the underutilized cabinet/closet space is where a good portion of the food we store lives. It’s above eye level and difficult to access without a stepladder. All sorts of cans and bottles of things waiting to be used in no particular order. Scattered about and stacked on top of one another like a jigsaw puzzle.

On the other side of the pantry is a metro rack. If you don’t know what a metro rack is it’s something that is used in the food service industry to store food. Dry goods or dishes are usually kept on these shelves and it’s about 5 1/2 feet tall with 2 1/2 foot deep shelving. And the entire unit is made from a thick gauge chrome wire. Ours is packed with dry goods and appliances that hadn’t even been thought of for a long time.

Next to the metro, on the floor to the left are stacked cases of bottled water and more appliances and dishes that are also collecting dust. If you were alive in the 80’s, it looks like a scene from a Mad Max movie. Items that sometimes got used mixed in with pieces of garbage where someone could hold up and survive some cataclysmic event.

There and then I decided to do something about it. I felt as though living this way was an admission of giving up. Like we had thrown our hands up in frustration and gave in to the chaos. Though I was frustrated, I was unwilling to accept defeat.

I went to architecture school for a semester. At some point in my educational career I thought I would be an architect. On a whim really. It was a very costly impulse decision. But I had little guidance at the time and it seemed like the best option available. There were some useful skills I learned from my stint there. One of the professors said that students often ask him what they’ll be able to do after their first semester or year there. He told us that we’d be able to draw up a blueprint, floor plans for a project. So I got my sketch pad and starting fleshing out ideas for the pantry space.

I came up with a few iterations that I felt would best utilize the space. First, everything needed to be off the ground and preferably at eye level. Next I measured the square footage of useable shelf space we had and compared it to the space we’d be building to make sure we had enough room.

After I had the plans laid out, I showed them to the people I live with. They looked them over, gave me some feedback, things they’d like changed for ease of use. And I created another plan from the newly discussed ideas of how the shelves could be arranged.

It felt as though we were collaborating on a shared sense of space and love of food. We were growing closer by coming together to make our house feel more like a home. There’s also a feeling of ownership that comes with molding the space around you that you use every day.

All of our personalities were cohabitating in the design of the pantry. One person’s practicality in switching the most used shelves closer to the doorway. Another’s love of natural wood shades in the material for the shelves. And me wanting to create the feel of an orchard rack, to store and display fresh veggies from the garden. All of our ideas, tastes and preferences coming together in a place that we use daily. Reminding us of our shared connection.

After we hammered out the plans, I mentioned I was going to be building shelves to a friend of mine and he told me he’s been looking up woodworking videos on Youtube. He recently helped his mother replace some of her shelves. So I asked if he wanted to help and he was pumped about the idea.

We got together to take a look at the space and bounced a few ideas off of each other. He had an idea of how the shelves should be supported and I laid out the spacing and square footage. We went to a local hardware store to price out the materials we needed and later that night I put a budget together for the project.

It took some coordinating to get our schedules to line up but we got there. We chose a day and my friend began the process of gathering the tools we needed for the job. I met my friend in a nearby town, we took a trip to buy the lumber and got started building the shelves.

When we arrived at the house, we made plans on how we were going to prepare and cut the wood to size for the shelving. It was early and we had all day to put the project together so we weren’t rushed. We could take our time. We set up on the front walkway, just outside the front door and got to work on measuring and cutting the pieces.

The project went smoothly from that point on. We put the supports in for the shelving first. Then we cut the boards that were meant to be the shelves down to size and any additional cut outs to fit in the space. We dry fit the shelves and added an extra length of 1×3 to the ends of the shelves to make sure food items didn’t slide off the ends. And it only took one afternoon as opposed to the two days we thought it would take.

There were a few surprises along the way, a few extra measurements we needed to make to allow for some extra bracing we hadn’t planned on. And we had to hand screw some screws from where the closet was too narrow for the drill. But all in all the project was a success.

As we finished up, one of the people who I live with was coming home. So after we cleaned up the tools and scraps, we showed them the new shelves and they were excited. After my friend left, we stood around and talked about the new renovations. We talked about getting my friend a gift card to a local grocery store as a way of saying thank you and to show our gratitude.

We also saved a bunch of money by building the shelves ourselves. They may not be professionally done, but they look good. And we also made plans to scrape, plaster and paint the entire pantry. Something that was started 17 years prior but was left unfinish.

As we were wrapping up our conversation about the shelves someone said that if I ever wanted to invite my friend and his wife over, maybe for dinner or something, that they thought they would enjoy that. This was a shock to hear.

The people I live with have always been a very private bunch. They are not extroverted by any means and the thought of inviting others into our home seemed a foreign idea to me. So hearing them say something to the tune of opening themself to the possibility of a new friendship was a pleasant surprise.

Since building the shelves, I suggested to one of the people I live with that we could sand and paint the entire pantry. Making the space feel brand new. They’ve been in the pantry every day since, sanding and scraping the walls and ceiling getting ready for the day we’ll paint. And they are also picking out the paint colors for the pantry as well.

None of this would be possible if I didn’t take the first step towards making our house feel more like a home. By taking care of the neglected areas of our house, the poorly designed, mess of a pantry and turning it into functional, usable space. Not only functional, but a space where we want to spend time and care for. And that we’ll always remember the time and effort we took to come together to create the sense of feeling at home in our pantry. This is what I mean when I say making a house feel like a home.

There are other projects that need doing as well. In our journey, unfortunately there have been a lot of neglected corners that now need the loving attention turned towards them. There is a long way to go, but it feels a little lighter knowing that there are more people willing to lend a hand. To support each other along the way.

And the shelf project almost didn’t happen at all. As I said above, it took some time to come together. Most of this was due to a communication error between me and the people I live with. We’ve always erred on the side of being polite. We don’t make a lot of waves and we’re quiet and keep to ourselves. So while I was drawing up the plans that I showed to the people I live with, they never gave me a definitive answer on when I’d be able to start the project.

I had already asked my friend for help and was only waiting on the go-ahead. One day I came downstairs into the kitchen while they had been cleaning out some area of the house and I noticed that they had put a bookshelf in the pantry closet. When I asked why it was there, they said they were looking for something to fit in the closet for shelves!

This was confusing as we had already discussed the plans for the shelves. On further inquiry, I found out that they weren’t sure I was still going to build the shelves. It had been a while since we spoke about them and they assumed I had forgotten about it. While in the meantime I was ready to go and only waiting for their okay. So it was a simple miscommunication. We were all a little too polite to ask one another if we were ready to take the next step, stalling the project for 5 months!

A small miscommunication and the shelves almost didn’t happen. This happens often with the people I live with and I’m sure we’re not alone in this. My experience with communicating needs is that I don’t want to be a burden on or feel as though I’m hassling someone by asking too many questions. There’s also a component of not feeling worth the time due to the neglect I’ve endured in the past. But this is also something we all share to some degree.

Maybe not feeling as confident in ourselves as we’d like to. Feeling that our best efforts are somehow not going to be enough. Or worse yet, we put our best efforts forward and somehow get rejected for them. Feeling as though we won’t add up no matter how hard we try. If you’re not used to putting the effort in, your mind will make up all sorts of reasons why you shouldn’t even bother.

So be the person who asks too many questions. When in doubt, ask! From my experience people are more than willing to field a few questions. And if it’s for everyone’s benefit why not ask. I’ve gotten in the habit of setting deadlines for when I talk to people. I don’t go too long before following up with someone I’m in the middle of discussing something with. I feel better knowing that there will be some closier on the projects or ideas I’m collaborating on with other.

Look around at the projects you have going on in your life. Are there areas where a friend or family member could step in and help? Are you planning a garden for the first time? Ask around and see if you have anyone in your circle who’s been at it for a while. I find that coming together for a project builds stronger bonds in a relationship. Not only that, but you’ll most likely learn something new while building a shared connection through experiences. So ask the friend for help, put yourself out there. People are generally pretty friendly once you open the door. Peace 🙂 and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Shelving” by Robbi Baba is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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