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Levees in London: Inside the minds of "Project People"

Updated: Apr 12, 2021

I'm sitting in my lady lounge, feet propped up so they are warming in the sun as I type this. It's early morning on Saturday, and I am taking a little moment to myself before work crews arrive to start pouring concrete and laying out the base for the new deck. Many days have been spent demolishing the old deck in preparation for a makeover. Thus far, the project has been a family affair. Music blaring in the backyard while Zac and I rip out hundreds of nails, from decomposing boards. After each board is stripped, it is catapulted onto a tarp below where our kids wait to load them into wheel barrows. They each take turns loading and racing the scraps to the front of the property to be sorted for pick up. Avah, Arden and Asher have the best time trying to beat one another, which makes me wonder why in the hell we spend money on hoverboards when our kids are really entertained by rotting wood in a wheelbarrow. We have grown concerned our neighbors believe we are breaking child labor laws, but we know it's shaping their character, and cutting down on time. We look so American right now. Throughout this demolition process, I have posted pictures of our rag tag crew and the current mess that is my back garden. The resounding response, 9 times out of 10, has been, "why are you investing so much time and energy in a place you don't own." I hear you, pour a drink, let me explain.

When I met Zac in 2003, I would have never guessed the kind of talent that lurked behind those big brown eyes and washboard abs. I'm not kidding. In the beginning, the depth of my desire was just to see him naked... that was my big plan. While I would love to say it was a cerebral connection, it wasn’t, and I had no clue I'd be looking at him naked the rest of my life. I promised honestly folks, I was not thinking long term at eighteen. Never had I ever seen a man shaped like him, and so I was curious. To set the scene and give deeper context, Zac's nickname in college was "Sauve," and it wasn't entirely because of his excessive use of hair products. He was a real college campus Casanova. Zac radiated his own brand of youthful and confident ruggedness that made him almost electrically charged. My eighteen year old heart stood no chance. After we began dating, the fun-loving attraction turned into a deep admiration when I discovered he also had a creative edge. It was something right out of cheesy movie, I was "twitterpated."

I was also poor, as most college kids are, and so when I had to move into my first apartment and stock it with furniture, Zac quickly built me a table to go by my bed side. It was the most touching gift: a wooden love letter made with me in mind. The table was painted lavender to match my room, with spindle legs and a tiny metal infinity shaped pull for a little drawer that could hold all my chapsticks I had roughly sketched an idea on a piece of paper and suddenly, it appeared. This was the start of something bigger, I could feel it. Having never lived completely on my own, or had the freedom to play with design, this was an exciting jumping off point. Little by little, I'd pick up old furniture from trash bins and road side dump sites and Zac would help me refinish them for my place. Some of my furniture choices became "Frankenstein projects," where by the time we were finished, Zac had rebuilt almost the entire piece AROUND the junk I brought him. Because we were still so newly dating, we would carefully waltz around design ideas trying to spare one another's feelings and great ideas. Basically, Zac never mentioned that it would have been easier to just do it his way from the start, and I would never mention that I thought his timeline was bullshit. It was the dating phase, and so every project was an opportunity to delve a little deeper in our communication and refine our skills in treading between one another's creative perspective. By my first summer, my college apartment was a glorious collaboration, and it had all come together by the hands of two college kids using the townsfolk castoffs. It took off from there.

Dynamic Decking Duo, freezing our asses off.

The longer we dated, the more we became infamous on our college campus. We were the discounted, slightly trashy, Chip and Joanna Gaines before they existed. Need a Halloween inspired homecoming float? Talk to Zac and Baileigh. Need props for Sorority Recruitment? Talk to Baileigh, who will then put it all on Zac. If you needed a design project done, weird or otherwise, you called us. At twenty, the closet of Zac's fraternity apartment was not full of liquor, but tools. Almost all of them found or bought second hand, because #wewerestillpoor. Zac would set up a make shift work zone in the fraternity house chapter room and we would bang out project after project as they came. Most of the time we were paid in alcohol, if we were paid at all. It didn't really matter to us because we loved the challenge and the process. So much so, Zac didn't bat an eye when he was asked to help design and build a large scale tiki bar and deck for his fraternity house. This was the first time I thought, Shit, we are just kids! We could kill someone if we get this wrong. I didn't reveal my concern, mostly because we were still dating and being the "Doubting-Debbie" didn't sound sexy. Draft after draft, he talked design, supplies, cost and labor. Finally finishing the plans to execute the deck as a "Work Day" project with the help of the entire fraternity. That was our family. Yep, 100 frat boys are about to build a deck with the guidance of my husband, who looked like the leader of a boy band himself. What could go wrong? Pause and think about that, It is a lot to consider. If you can believe it, after days and days of digging, the consumption of countless Natty Lites, there was the footprint of a fantastic tiki bar! All construction went pretty much as planned with the occasional injury or two, and those were most definitely "user error." From the top floor of the Pike Fraternity House, the building project looked like an effortless dance: a measure, a cut, an assembly. Those Tikki Bar plans were bold for their time, to include bar-side swings and authentic bamboo detailing thus making it the ULTIMATE frat party centerpiece. On the surface, I was excited I was able to participate, but internally, the building process cracked my heart wide open: I met the REAL Zac. When you're young, and falling in love, it's like walking around in a heady smoke. You're suffocating, but every breath in, leaves you gasping for more. Through the fog, you lose the sight to see the reality of events taking place, because you are WAY too busy enjoying the high of newness. You'd leave Earth if you weren't tethered to something like responsibilities or a job. Freshman year, my mother said I majored in "Zac Levee Studies," and she wasn't far off. Before this particular project, I was trying my best to be the girl deserving of his attention, while he continued performing a balancing act of feigning coolness and liking a new girl. It was a Rom-Com classic set in small town Louisiana...

Just one of the boys. The best boys. Best times ever.

All we did was dig, dig, dig for a long long time.

Yep, That is brunette Baileigh.

I miss these guys, they made everything, even work, really fun.

During the construction I found underneath all that hair gel, the tanned skin and that car salesman smile was a creative mind wild with ideas. This thrilled me. Zac was in his best form covered in wood shavings and yelling over the hum of a drill and thud of a hammer. Quite naturally, I found my place as his handy assistant, witnessing his brilliance as he worked, and standing in as his sounding board when a project got hairy. Even though I barely understood what the problem was, OR how to fix it. He trusted me as his sidekick, without me ever having to prove I had any knowledge or skill. At the same time, he was continuously proving he wasn't just a dreamer, full of good ideas but no follow through. Nope. As Mona would say, "he didn't write a check with his mouth, his ass couldn't cash." More eloquently put for this post, he was a doer. At a time when I was young, dumb and broke, he mirrored what I wanted, and gave me exactly what I needed: the opportunity to create, and a partner to do it with. Eventually the smoke of newness cleared, and from then on, we stopped pretending to be something we weren't, and we just enjoyed the building process.

We enjoyed the fruits of our labor.

This creative project song and dance has kept us busy, and remained a huge part of our relationship. Thinking it over, it might even be what held us together when times were hard, and the fog of life rolled in. We both openly admit, the dating filter wore off a long time ago, and so we are little less worried about voicing an opinion, or two, or five. I think I have even found a way to make "Doubting Debbie" a little sexy. These days when we aren't on the same page, same book, same planet, we manage to talk things through amid the mess that is our garage. It's the most perfect and truthful snap shot of a marriage: your life is a scattered floor of boards, and nails, and glue, and all your issues and hang ups you brought to the party... You have no other option but to adjust your attitude, work with what you have, communicate your hopes, and build something together.

It's now Saturday again, my back is throbbing, my hands are so scratched and dry that it hurts to bend my fingers to reach the computer keys that I may have used, had it not been so painful to touch. Our backyard is a stock pile of wood, tools and cider cans. Why are we investing so much time and energy in a place we don't own? A few reasons really: First, we are firm believers in leaving a place better than you found it. Thats not some cute coffee mug bumper sticker, we really try to DO that. Blooming where you are planted in this transient military life means you have to till dirt and plant seeds for trees you may never see. We are okay with that. Second, this is another opportunity to create in a longtime partnership. As in any working relationship, we have issues, lots of issues. How Chip and Joanna Gaines always look so pleased with one another is beyond me. Has she ever thought of throwing a hammer at his head? Just asking, for a friend of course. Zac and I disagree on projects, we work each other's nerves when we are trying to decide what is the best way to accomplish a goal, mostly because we have such opposite perspectives. I often think he is "punking" me when he explains his vision the first time. I think, surely that can't be how you want to do this. So we hammer it out... literally. Long hours spent performing tedious tasks gets us back on the same page. One of us will inevitably break an angry silence with, "I guess I can kind of see what you are thinking on this one, maybe we can figure it out using your idea." Physical exhaustion really has a way of making you want to lay down your sword. Collaborating is our method to connection. Third, I believe that every project we take on, is preparing us for something, something bigger picture. While I don't know what that is yet, I don't believe all return on investments are simple black and white. There have been things I invested in over the course of my life that I thought I would never see again, and so amazing is our creator that they most often come back around. (At the most divine time, I might add.) Great example: I received an email from a perfect stranger living in Paris Island. She wanted to reach out and connect with me because her kids were enjoying a miniature house Zac and I built years ago. Apparently, as each person moves away, they gift it to another in the neighborhood. That little house has given countless military children the opportunity to have the playhouse experience they may not have had because they move so often. Thats a win in my book. Everything we build, every thing we learn each time we build, is refining us for some bigger plan. What that is, I am patiently waiting to know. If you have any ideas, feel free to write them in the comments below, we are all ears. Until then, there will be splinters in our hands, mud on our floors and saw dust in our washing machines.

The little blue heart house. Also, the best time with some of our best friends.

While we wait, and as we wait to come out of lock down, we hope to continue to share the progress of our garden. Cheers to Spring, big plans and big projects.

Love (and mud) from London,

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