A couple of years ago, my mom gave me back my first cookbook, with a note pasted inside: “Clearing out — can’t throw away — you do it!”
Around the same time, I saw somewhere a switch plate that looked as if a dictionary page had been pasted to it. I could do that, I thought. And tucked the idea way back in my mental filing cabinet, in the part of my brain that isn’t wholly obsessed with writing and reading.
I’m a writer by trade. I live in language every day. I spend all day, every day writing and reading, with the necessary breaks to feed myself, do laundry and wander around outside.
My email signature line says, “Writing and other good stuff” — I line I added several years ago, on purpose, to remind myself that I’ll have more to write about if I actually go out, and you know, experience the world. So I learned to make paper, and weird little books, and erasure poetry. I incorporate these into the writing workshops I teach. Fun for me, for attendees, and a good reminder that we are always surrounded by more language and ideas and creative possibilities than we might realize.
Back to the switch plates. I came across my childhood cookbook on Saturday morning, and oh, joy! — the brain-file with the image of the dictionary/ light switch appeared. I unscrewed the switch plates from the kitchen wall and headed to my workshop with a small bottle of Elmer’s glue (mistake — more on that in a minute). By the end of the day, I had an array of personalized switch plates for every room in the house.
For the front hall, the frontispiece of Witold Rybczynski’s The Most Beautiful House in the World
For our bedroom, from Dava Sobol’s The Planets, quoting a poem by Diane Ackerman —
“At night I lie awake/in the ruthless Unspoken…”
For hallways and stairwells, pages from long-ago-read Doubleday paperbacks.
For the kitchen, pages from my first cookbook.
I loved the conversational tone of that cookbook. I think it was the first book of nonfiction I read by choice. I learned to cook from that book. And I learned that storytelling was possible, desirable — necessary — beyond the fairy tales and storybooks I cherished.
Here’s what I learned on Saturday about gluing words to switch plates:
- Elmer’s glue is too slippery, and doesn’t dry fast enough, and when it does, it’s gummy.
- Modge Podge Decoupage stuff is better. I used gloss, which actually dried to a soft sheen that will repel fingerprints and moisture.
- Applying Modge Podge with a foam brush to the paper first gave better results than applying it to the switch plate.
- Thinner, older papers were easier to work with.
- I had a good time figuring out where words and images would appear. Holding the paper piece and the switch plate up to the light before gluing helped. Each paper was just under 1/2 inch large than the plate. I cut the corners of the paper off to reduce bulk. The glue-wetted paper is a bit stretchy, and acts almost like papier mache as you form it around the edges and corners.
- The little bubbles that appeared in the thicker paper were gone once the item dried, the paper shrinking to the surface of the switch plate.
- Two coats of Modpge Podge on the front.
- Once dry, I used an awl to poke the screw holes from the front.
- From the back, I used an X-acto knife to cut an X shape for the switches, leaving flaps to fold back.
- Mistake — I tried at this point to re-install the plates, but the little paper flaps got in the way.
- Coated the back of the plate with Modge Podge and fastened down the flaps, so each opening was nicely framed by glue-coated paper. Re-installation easier.
- When I went around the house uninstalling switch plates, I marked the back with a Sharpie so I’d know the location. Helped with re-installing, but more importantly, made it easier to choose the text/images I wanted for each room.
I like best the ones that are simply text spaced on a page. Purist, I guess. But next, I might use nursery rhymes or Eric Carle pages for my grandchildren. Pages from the New York Times Book Review. Favorite poems. Comics.
And to be clear, I don’t tear apart perfectly good books. I buy slightly damaged books at Goodwill and library sales, anywhere I find them, and use the inside paper to make new paper, repurpose the covers and spines to make new books and journals.
It is not possible to have too many good words hanging around with us.