renovating as newlyweds: lesson #1

This is my first post in a series of lessons we’ve learned from mixing newlywed life with renovation life.

Throughout these reflections, let it be known that we have sincere gratitude for our home and the opportunity to renovate a fixer-upper. We sought this lifestyle, and we own that decision! While we are thankful for our story, we also recognize how we could have entered into the phase of “renovating newlyweds” more intentionally. That’s what the heart of these lessons is all about–intentional living. I’m choosing to share these reflections both as a reminder to myself and as an opportunity for others to potentially gain vicarious insight–without all the extra headaches!

Lesson #1: Maintain sacred space.

A place where you can be present, pause, and abide apart from work.

And I quote from my previous blog post,

“Our ceremony was simple, small, and sacred. We planned it in such a way that would enable us to feel most present.”

We lived into that value so wonderfully on our wedding day… but we overlooked it for much of our first year of marriage.

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Just after our wedding, we merged our lives into one small bedroom in a cramped house with roommates–for what “should have been” a couple of weeks and turned out to be four months. That room was our one getaway for shared space together. But it wasn’t really a “getaway” at all. We both worked from home sometimes, and we often did so in that bedroom. (Sometimes that meant me skyping with a student, and sometimes that overlapped musicians practicing in the house. We obviously didn’t plan this whole Clancy situation out very well!) So this one small room became a sort of storage disaster, multipurpose work space, and the place where we were supposed to be able to unwind.

Then, after four months of married life with roommates at Clancy, we sort of moved into our new house. I say sort of because we moved ourselves from room to room, depending on what needed to be worked on when.

A temporary living space…
…turned storage space.



Throughout our time at Clancy and the many months of renovating our fixer-upper, we failed to maintain sacred space. We overlooked the importance of defining a physical space as a place to get away from it all–away from working from home, away from renovation tasks, away from contractors doing their jobs…

Mentally, no space in our home truly allowed us to leave the renovation to-do list behind. Not only that, but we still lacked a private space to make our own; we essentially shared the house with contractors coming in and out almost every day for many months.

Matt and I wholeheartedly agree that we would have seriously benefitted from renting an apartment of our own until most of the renovations were done. In retrospect, while budgeting for an apartment would have eaten into our limited renovation funds, we believe it would have been entirely worth it.

An apartment of our own would have allowed us to escape the chaotic world of renovation (during such an important transitional time in our relationship!). And let me tell you, renovation IS chaotic. Especially when it’s your own home, where you invest your time, energy, money, and emotion.

We wish we had given ourselves permission to live more as newlyweds and not so much as business partners, and we think an apartment would have encouraged that. Sacred space of any kind would have undoubtedly worked wonders. At the very least, we could have prioritized immediately completing one of the bedrooms as a space to check out of renovation mode.

But instead, we were immersed in demolition and remodeling and contractors coming and going and budgeting and re-budgeting and cutting costs by pouring ourselves into the labor…

We’d forgotten to invite ourselves to be present, to pause, and to abide apart from work.

This comically cramped drive home from IKEA was basically a metaphor for our lives as renovating newlyweds!

If you are about to enter into marriage–and especially if you’re taking on a fixer upper together–I encourage you to define a sacred space to be present with each other, where nothing else can consume your attention; a space where you can both pause and take in what’s happening between the two of you in your new marriage;  a space you can call home and abide in apart from work and renovation goals. Oh how I wish we’d maintained that for ourselves.

Lesson two, soon to follow!



renovating as newlyweds: a series of lessons

On May 30, 2016, Matt and I married each other in our most favorite place to relax: along the shore of Lake Michigan. Our ceremony was simple, small, and sacred. We planned it in such a way that would enable us to feel most present, and we absolutely loved it.

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In our earliest days of marriage, we eagerly awaited the call securing our mid-June closing date on our first home together–a fixer-upper house in our most favorite place to abide: on the hill of Belknap Lookout, overlooking downtown Grand Rapids. We would move in as soon as possible–right after restoring the original 1890s hardwood floors and slapping some new paint on the walls. Until then, I’d just move myself and minimal belongings into Matt’s room at Clancy (a house shared by musicians). Only a couple of weeks before move-in! How perfect!

Or so we thought…

Well, we closed on our house almost two months later than expected. Renovation plans got moved around in all sorts of ways. Our proposed schedule had fallen apart, and not-for-long at Clancy turned into four months of marriage and some change. (Nothing against the roommates, we’d just hoped to live in our new home as husband and wife far sooner.)

On July 29, 2016, Matt and I finally closed on the house. We call it Livingston, just as we each called our previous homes by their street names. Almost immediately after closing on Livingston, we began renovations–in August, instead of in June. Making the place even remotely move-in-ready took us until mid-October.

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On our wedding day, our house was under contract

Yes, we were newlyweds, and our first several months of life together as “team Gabriel” were nearly consumed by tackling renovation tasks and sharing our space with several contractors, almost daily for five months.

On May 30, 2017, we celebrated the end of a hectic era: devoting our first year of marriage to renovating a house together, while living in it.  (And, no, we’re not actually finished with all of the renovations…but we’re considering ourselves “done” for now, with the rental unit completed and most of the main living spaces in our unit!) As you can see, we took on a massive project from the earliest days of our marriage up until our first wedding anniversary.


And now we can finally breathe.

We learned a lot from our experience, and the lessons are worth sharing.

So, in celebration of successfully completing our first and largest phase of renovation work–and, meanwhile, successfully making it through our first year of marriage, I offer you a series of honest posts featuring lessons we’ve learned from mixing newlywed life with renovation life.

Coming up next in this series:

Lesson #1: Maintain sacred space.

unit 2, made new

Our home at Livingston is a two-unit multifamily, divided by floor. Matt and I live in our first unit, which includes the main floor and basement. When we purchased the home, we were lucky to be able to fix up the main floor and move in, as it was tenant-free. The second unit was occupied by a tenant, which also seemed lucky, since it would buy us time to do any renovations upstairs and supplement our mortgage a bit in the meantime.

I say “seemed” lucky, because actually, we had quite a few expenses with said tenant. It wasn’t all that wonderful, and unfortunately she ended up in jail and we were forced to evict in order to regain possession of our rental unit–which ended up happening after her lease would have been up. But, that’s a risk you take when you buy a new home, tenants included. And having this home is still well worth it in the end! (I can say that more easily now that we’ve moved past that challenge…)

Our property manager (who was also our realtor) has been awesome throughout everything we faced upstairs. He helped us regain possession and get things moving along so that we could remodel our second unit and get it rented as soon as possible. With help from many contractors, the project is finally complete. (Most of those contractors were wonderful, but not all of them…we had some rough experiences that I’ll save for another post.)

It’s been quite a year, being newlyweds, first-time homeowners, renovating our own home as we live in it, and fixing up the rental unit…but I am so happy to say that we are finally on the tail end of this. We are thankful for what we’ve been able to accomplish in the past year, but we believe we overloaded ourselves and should have invited more space to breathe than we did. We knew before we got into this deal that it was going to require a lot from us–time, money, energy, sanity even…but we underestimated just how much. All in all, this will still have been a wise investment of our time and energy, and we are happy to share the progress!

Here’s a tour of our upstairs rental unit at Livingston, room by room. The “before” photos are what the unit looked like when we first gained possession of the rental unit. The “after” photos are what the unit looked like at the end of remodeling, before some lingering details and cleaning.

Living Room




My goodness, the change of flooring alone worked wonders in this entry+living room. I really liked the idea of letting the tenants decide how to use this space, so we decided to remove the transition from vinyl to carpet. The new noise-proofed flooring throughout the entirety of the room makes the space feels more cohesive and open, and now our tenants have more freedom to choose in the multi-purpose space. (By the way, those were transition strips hangin out in the middle of the room, waiting to be installed.)


Dining & Kitchen







I wanted the kitchen to feel more connected to the dining area so that they would each feel brighter and larger. So, we had the spaces both painted white to make them feel more united and to take advantage of the amount of natural light that shines here. We had the cabinets professionally painted to give them a nice update, and I covered the existing countertops with a few layers of countertop paint (read the how-to here). These fixes may not hold up forever, but they were budget-friendly and significantly impacted the look of the space.







This bathroom needed some love, particularly in the way of cleaning. Once that was settled, we painted the walls, leaving the vaulted ceiling white to help the space feel a little more open. We had wood-look tile flooring installed as well as new vanity fixtures. This bathroom has a closet (not pictured) and lots of open space for any additional organization the tenants might like.



Bedroom 1




Those blinds. Yikes. This room gets the best natural light and has the best view of any room in our entire home (including our unit), and we didn’t want that to go unnoticed. We had the window frames and trim touched up, changed the carpet to a light gray, and repainted all of the walls. We chose to paint the small nook off the master bedroom alabaster white to set it off as its own little space and to take full advantage of how bright such a small space with a window can look. I imagine the nook as a sanctuary for reading or painting…or as a vanity room where you can get ready in the natural morning light. More practically, it might just be a great place for storage separate from the sleeping space.



Bedroom 2




Bedroom two was just far too dark for its size. The deep gray walls and dark brown carpets seemed to swallow the natural light from the room’s two windows. This room catches more of the late afternoon sun and not so much morning light, so the new tones invite an easier wake-up routine.


Bedroom 3




This third bedroom was home to a young boy, and while I thought the blue was very fun for a kid, it just didn’t seem broadly accessible. So we carried the light gray in from the other bedrooms. This room is a sort of an odd shape, but if you’re like me, it invites creative potential with all its nooks and crannies.


Office/Bonus Room




This room is certainly an added bonus, despite its lack of window and odd doorway maze. While this room isn’t a legal bedroom, it’s a great space for an office, playroom, music room…whatever the tenants need.


Our goal for the upstairs rental was to update the space in such a way that anyone might like it. No more obscurely colored walls, no more dark carpet. We truly had to balance the great potential in this space with the requirements of a diminishing renovation budget (for the entire house). We’ve put in so much work with so many contractors over the past year, but I think we did a pretty swell job maximizing our budget for such a large project. There’s more to show, and so much more to tell…but that will come in later posts.

Thank you for sharing encouragement throughout this season of work! Matt and I have sometimes wondered whether we’re crazy for taking this all on when we did. But our cheerleaders helped us keep our sanity. Now it’s time to step back and admire how far Livingston has come, and to take things more slowly as we approach year two of marriage and life here at Modern Livingston.

breaking in Texas

Since we embarked on this journey of home ownership last July, we’ve put a lot of time and energy into renovating our 1890s fixer upper. Despite all the extra work we’ve temporarily taken on, we strive to maintain a balance of fruitfulness and abiding. So in the beginning of March, it was time to walk away, let our contractors do their thing, and hit the road!

We’ve been interested in checking out Austin, Texas for several years now, particularly because of friends and family who live there and love it (and convinced us we’d love it too). We finally made it happen last month–and as a reno couple who looks up to Chip and Joanna Gaines, of course we added Waco to the itinerary!

Day 1 :: Thursday :: North Austin

Fresh off the plane, we had one thing in mind: eat TexMex. Our friends Whitney and Robin met us at a local Trudy’s restaurant for Mexican martinis and SUCH good food. I had a chicken-stuffed fried avocado with refried black beans that I’m now craving all over again.

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Day 2:: Friday :: Salado, Waco (Magnolia), & Austin (The Domain)

Friday morning, Matt and I kicked the day off with Chick-fil-a (because I have to eat Chick-fil-a when I travel…even if a few franchises finally opened in Michigan…), then we made our way toward Waco.

We made a pitstop for coffee in a village called Salado. The place we chose was called Lively. It turned out to be a buzzing little cafe with all kinds of intriguing food options (but, Chick-fil-a). The prices were surprisingly low and the coffee was perfect. Fueled for Magnolia!

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Once we completed our hour-and-a-half trek from Austin to Waco, I kept an eye out my passenger window for those famous Magnolia silos. But just like Chip and Joanna Gaines, those silos were so unassuming. They weren’t the first thing I noticed in Waco, and in fact, they kind of snuck up on me in their modesty as we turned a random corner. And I like them even more for it.

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And behind the modest first-look, absolute grandeur. I couldn’t put my camera down. There’s much more to share about our trip to Magnolia, and you can find it here.

After our venture to Magnolia, Whitney and Robin showed us around The Domain–which is basically a big, beautifully-designed outdoor mall with upscale shops and restaurants. (Austin friends, does that description fit the bill?) We ate at a place called The Yard House, which boasts over 100 taps and 100 dishes. (It’s a chain, but the one closest to Grand Rapids is in Chicago, and I hadn’t heard of it before.) They have a drink size called a “half yard”, and this is what it looks like:

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Day 3 :: Saturday :: Austin (South Congress)

South Congress quickly became my favorite part of Austin. If you’re from Grand Rapids, think busier, bigger Eastown with an excellent view of downtown.

Our first exposure to South Congress was with our cousins Jeff and Rachel. They had won an outing for four to Otoko, a 12-seat, 20-course omakase restaurant. (Think Jiro Dreams of Sushi. We feel so spoiled that Jeff and Rachel chose to share such a special experience with us!)


This food experience was truly the very best I’ve ever had. We swapped our wine pairings for six sake pairings to enjoy throughout our meal. Everything was presented to us in writing in personalized menus–super helpful for following along with what it was we were putting into our mouths!

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If I had to choose a favorite dish, it would probably be the white sea bass with irizake. The most interesting dish was our very first–it included sawagani (Japanese freshwater crab), which we were told to eat in one bite! I was a little hesitant to put an entire crab into my mouth in one bite, pincers, eyes, and all, but when our cousin Rachel said it was like a potato ship, my bravery kicked in. Rachel was right, it totally crunched and tasted like a yummy potato chip!




Day 4 :: Sunday :: Fredericksburg + Johnson City

On Sunday, we took a drive through Texas Hill Country to explore an old German town called Fredericksburg. We strolled through some shops and ate a meal, then made our way back toward Austin. We took one pit stop in Johnson City, at a place called the Hill Country Science Mill. The intent was to check out art by McKay Otto, but we ended up doing much more than that. The Science Mill is an awesome museum full of engaging activities, seriously for all ages. One of most interesting exhibits is called “cell phone disco”, and it features sensors that translate the electromagnetic waves from your cell phone into visible light. This was such an interactive place, and it kept us all entertained!


Day 5 :: Monday :: South Congress & Downtown Austin

On our last full day in Austin, we spent most of our time in South Congress and the downtown area. Matt and I started the day with bacon gruyere crepes at a June’s bistro, breakfast tacos at Jo’s, and smoothies at Juice Austin.


Whitney joined us later for lunch at Home Slice (because their pizza smell followed me around South Congress, and I just HAD to have it). But first, photos with Mr. Rogers. After sharing a few pizzas at Home Slice, Whitney took us into Big Top Candy Shop, where adults melt back into children.






We then drove downtown and used the energy from our sugar rush to walk up to a view.


It was windy. All the more fun walking up the hill.


We made our way to a couple places for happy hour drinks and snacks, and later met up with Robin for some good ol’ Texas barbeque. I must have been too hungry and thirsty to take any photos at that point!

A trip to Austin is well worth the ticket. We had such a great time doing what the locals do–and sprinkling in some touristy treks. We were happy to share our adventure with some friends and family, but even if you’re traveling solo, there’s enough to keep you entertained (and well fed…) in Austin, Texas.

finding Islay

In honor of National Puppy Day, I decided to document our early journey with our spoken-for puppy, Islay (pronounced “EYE-luh”). She’s named after the Isle of Islay in Scotland–home to breathtaking nature and our favorite scotch. (It’s also at the top of our dream vacation list.)

My husband Matt and I have wanted a medium sized dog or two for awhile, but we knew we needed to wait for the right time. As we began to anticipate that our major interior renovations would wrap up early spring, we started the puppy search. We’ve had our hearts set on a teddy bear shichon (named Watson–my idea) and a Boston terrier (named Dracula–my husband’s idea) for many years.  We decided to go with a teddy bear first, as my companion during Matt’s tours…sweet deal, if you ask me!

We contacted a few teddy bear breeders, and the timing worked out for us to go with Celena–the same person who bred for my mom’s dog, Beau. I told the breeder I was on the lookout for a brown and white boy, and she told me we had first pick of the next litter (yay!).

When the litter came, there turned out to be only two puppies. Celena was anticipating four or five, so two came as a surprise. There was one black and white boy (who looks just like my mom’s dog Beau), and one brown and white girl with some dark gray in her face and tail. Well, the plan was to take home a brown and white boy named Watson, so we weren’t so sure what to do. But we had first pick at the top of a long list, and the timing just felt right. We decided to put down a deposit on the little girl, and we flirted with the idea of naming her Watson anyway.

We tossed around some other names, but nothing really seemed to fit. Then we remembered an old idea we once had, to name our future pups Islay and Skye after the Scottish islands. Islay was the only name besides Watson that we got excited about, so we picked it.

When we first “met” Islay, she was just two weeks old and too young for us to hold–she couldn’t even see or hear yet. We weren’t supposed to get our scent on her, but we got to sneak a peek of her when we delivered our deposit. When Celena walked toward us with the pup in her hands, everything just clicked. She was Islay, and she was joining team Gabriel.

Two weeks later, we got to hold Islay for the first time. Her eyes and ears had recently opened, but she couldn’t walk yet. She could slowly pull herself up my coat with her tiny arms, and all she wanted to do was snuggle. She kept burrowing into the crevices between our arms and torsos–basically into our armpits. Islay was so sweet, and we were happy we had chosen her.

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This morning, the day after National Puppy Day, we saw Islay for a third time. Today we got to play. Now she knows how to use her legs, and boy does the girl like to run around! She was so active this time! She loved playing with her little unstuffed toy, wrestling with her brother, and jumping around our hands. She even played some gentle tug-of-war.

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We can tell she’s developing a fun little personality, and at this point, she is so eager to explore her surroundings. Even when her tired brother fell asleep, Islay was pestering him to play. We also had our first experience with training Islay not to bite. Her tiny teeth are coming in, and she tried to munch on our fingers a bit while playing. After about an hour of playing, Islay finally tuckered out and got snuggly all over again.

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We can’t wait to take her home in a few weeks! The timing is working out really well. We finally have interior doors, and they’re installed and painted. We replaced our exterior doors, and they’ve been painted too. The only things left in our unit here at Livingston are trim and light fixtures, both of which we have lined up with contractors. And neither of which will get in the way of raising our little Islay.


how I really feel about the Gaines & Magnolia


Let me tell you why I like Chip and Joanna Gaines.

They pursue their passions.

They overcome obstacles.

They do so wonderfully, as a loving team with such mindful hearts.

I like Chip and Joanna Gaines because they inwardly and outwardly live into values I admire.

Sure, there’s also the fact that Joanna and I share a love for home design–but honestly, that’s not my favorite thing about her. Her shared interest makes her even more relatable to me, but the reasons I admire her most are listed right up there.

In fact, I’m about to drop a bombshell: Joanna Gaines and I favor very different design styles, and I don’t dig hers all that much. Farmhouse just isn’t my jam. Joanna does it flawlessly, and I appreciate her keen eye for it, but that’s not the main reason why I admire her. Don’t get me wrong, I’d have a blast styling someone’s home with a modern farmhouse look–but I wouldn’t do it in my own home, and I wouldn’t enjoy doing it all the time. Joanna does it incredibly well, because she’s talented and because she loves it. I daresay Joanna feels the same way about my favorite design, midcentuy modern. She can totally pull off a beautiful midcentury modern home, but it’s not her favorite choice of style. (If we had to step away from our favorites and meet in the middle, we would probably land somewhere near Scandinavian design.)

What I love about Chip and Joanna Gaines isn’t so much what they do, but how and why they do it.

I first admired the Gaines because of the Fixer Upper TV show they unintentionally landed. Though I don’t watch much HGTV (probably because I’m living it a little too much to also find entertainment in it), Fixer Upper is my favorite home renovation show. Again, not particularly because of the designs–but because of who the Gaines are.

What really made them feel like “my people” even more than watching their show was reading their heartfelt book, The Magnolia Story. The Magnolia Story resonated with me in so many ways. Chip and Jo share about how they first connected, how they made their way into the world of home renovation, what they love as individuals and how that brings them together as a team… They share their hearts, their struggles, their strengths. I relate to their values, their obstacles, their passions, their will to create. The way they live life serves as a positive example for a far broader audience than just home design fanatics. (I know, this is all coming from a design fanatic, but trust me on this one! Give the book a read, and I bet you’ll find you relate to it too!)

Anyway, that’s why I like Chip and Joanna Gaines, and that’s why I wanted to visit the Magnolia Silos during our vacation to Texas.

For those who don’t know, Magnolia is the main umbrella under which Chip and Joanna run several business components. There’s the Magnolia Market shopping center, Magnolia Home decor line–not to be confused with Magnolia Homes, the renovation company– Magnolia Bakery (including the Silos Baking Co location), Magnolia House bed and breakfast, and more…it can be kind of confusing. They basically do it all!


On our first full day in Texas, Matt and I ventured out from Austin to Waco to check out the grounds at the Magnolia Silos. The Silos are a sort of community gathering place featuring a market, bakery, garden, several food trucks, and a large yard.

Once we completed the hour-and-a-half trek, I kept an eye out my passenger window for those famous silos. But just like Chip and Joanna Gaines, the silos were so unassuming. They didn’t stand out against everything around them, shouting, “Look at me! Here I am!” In fact, they kind of snuck up on me in their modesty as we turned a random corner. And I like them even more for it.

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And behind the modest first-look, absolute grandeur. I couldn’t put my camera down! Everything is so beautifully put together.

I’ll take you on a bit of a tour through our Magnolia venture–and I’ll even include some additional links to enhance your internet-travel experience.

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Magnolia Market

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This is the Magnolia Market, filled with all sorts of Magnolia-made and Magnolia-supported product. In The Magnolia Story, Joanna explains her love of putting together an experience for her store customers, rather than just placing some practical stacks of product. I think she pulled that off wonderfully. Several little nooks are set up throughout the store, each of which features neatly arranged decor and items for purchase. Some items appear to be decor but are in fact available for purchase. They must just replace particular decorative items as they’re snatched.

I’ll share a few photos from inside the store, but you really can’t beat being there in real life.

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Chip’s corner was filled with tools, leather products, hats, and more. Of course, a main decorative feature is his famous “demo day” tagline.

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Also spotted: some of Jimmy Don’s iron designs.

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We loved how they hung dipped paint brushes to show the dried colors in Joanna’s Magnolia Home paint line.

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This image above features only one main section of the Magnolia Market. In total, it’s about twice this size. And yes, it was packed. We went on a Friday (which we were warned could be pretty busy), but truly, the traffic moved quickly. We purchased some items but didn’t have to wait in line long at all.

Magnolia Bakery / Silos Baking Co

Speaking of long lines… The bakery had a surprise grand opening this past summer, but you could have told me it just opened days before we arrived. The line into the bakery wrapped around the back of this building for quite awhile, and I never saw it get any shorter.

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The Grounds

The grounds feature an astroturf lawn with yard games and comfy seating. Just beyond that are several picnic tables surrounded by food trucks. We ventured around the grounds a bit and grabbed some BBQ at one of the trucks (which we selected only after visually devouring the menu at every single place…)

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You could spend the whole day at the food truck park and astroturf lawn alone. We lucked out with such a beautiful day, and it was so nice to just soak up some sunshine and observe the grounds for a bit. If I lived nearby, I’d surely stop in to relax here often. I could’ve stayed here engulfed in my very first issue of the The Magnolia Journal, but we had things to do and places to see. (By the way, I just discovered that a one-year subscription of The Magnolia Journal is currently on sale for $20 at Amazon–YAY! I’m subscribing right now. This link will take you to the subscription page!)

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The Garden

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After seeing the splendor of Magnolia’s progress, we took a drive to visit the little place where it all began. This old Magnolia market, also known as “the little shop on Bosque”, is where Joanna first opened a home decor store. This is where she started forming connections with clients interested in her eye for design. As Joanna was running this shop, she was also helping Chip fix up little flips. And with their growing clientele between the two, they sparked what would become the multi-faceted Magnolia of today.

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The trip to Waco was worth it. I’m thankful to have seen up close the fruit of Chip and Joanna’s years of labor.

The Gaines are inspirational to me not because they are famous, but because of how they pursue life and spread light to those around them, despite their fame. I believe the story of Chip and Joanna Gaines is full of beautiful lessons for us all.

Are you a fan of the Gaines? What about their journey resonates with you?

7 simple steps to transforming your countertops

It’s true what they say about fixer uppers…you always spend more money than you plan to. With that in mind, it’s important to identify things you can salvage–ways to cut corners in terms of cash, but not in terms of visual appeal.

When we began renovating our own unit at Livingston last summer, we listed and then prioritized the ways we wanted to improve our home. Remodeling the entire kitchen was on the list, but to save money, we decided to salvage the existing cupboards and countertops for now. And they weren’t pretty. But it took little more than some time, energy, paint, and cheap materials to completely revitalize the kitchen look.

Here’s a before and almost-after (obviously still undergoing remodeling), to give you an idea of how drastic the simple changes can be:


So when it came time to assess renovation goals in our upstairs rental unit, and as the list grew longer and longer (and more costly), we quickly decided to salvage the cupboards and countertops there, too.

Note: Decide what’s worth saving if you’re doing it yourself (or if you’re paying a contractor). The bathroom vanity in our rental unit was in need of structural help in addition to aesthetic help, so we decided that was worth swapping with something brand new. Not asking for extra headaches over here!

When our rental unit became vacant (for the first time since we’ve owned the house–we inherited tenants when we bought the home), the kitchen looked like this:

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We had the cupboards cleaned (oh my were they greasy!) and painted by our pro painting team. They turned out great!

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Looks like the painting job is over, right?

Don’t let that countertop fool you…

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DIY time. This is where I come in.

Voila! New life!

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(Here’s that early before picture again for the sake of comparison.)

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I’ll walk you through the simple steps to upgrade your countertops–if by “upgrade” we mean improving the existing counters on the cheap.

Countertop Paint How-To

Things you’ll need:

ML countertop 009

Rust-oleum countertop paint is truly the perfect cheap and simple fix (about $25 for the quart of paint, which should be plenty), and I couldn’t recommend it enough! The paint can shows “color options”, but you aren’t actually limited to those options thanks to the awesome technology at your local home improvement store. This time I did select the light gray from the color list. When the paint is dried, it forms a hard, smooth surface. It’s perfectly washable. (And if anything attacks your countertop, you can apply touch-ups!)

The Simple Steps

STEP 1: Wipe down the counters. Don’t worry too much about stains since they’ll be covered anyway, but be sure to get rid of any debris or caked on materials you can. I recommend using a de-greaser or other similar cleaning product.

STEP 2: Tape the perimeter of the countertops. Take your time with this. I personally think it’s the worst part of the project, but perhaps the most important. It’s smooth sailing after this step, so don’t skimp on doing a good job! (Helpful hint: Make sure that the foam brush you’re using will not meet the wall above the tape line. I cut it close with choosing not to double up the tape along most of the perimeter, but I don’t recommend that for a first-time attempt.)



Be sure to tape around the sink very carefully. I used my fingernail to ensure the bottom of the tape tucked tightly around the sink, then I folded the tape down overtop the sink. (I forgot to take a picture of the taped sink pre-painting, but I think you can still tell what I mean in this photo.)


STEP 3: Shake + stir the paint. Shake the sealed paint can for a bit. Make sure there isn’t any debris on the lid that will fall into the paint can upon opening. Open the can and use a stir stick to make sure the paint is mixed well.

STEP 4: Paint the first coat in a THIN layer. This paint is quite thick (and so sticky), but it thins out very nicely with the foam roller. Thin out the paint to the point where you do not see distinct lines or layers, but make sure to get more paint if the foam roller starts to get dry and sticky. Throughout this step, use a foam brush along edges and in any places the roller can’t reach. Go back and forth between the little foam brush and the roller to be sure the paint is evenly spread. (Warning: Globs will stay globs. I promise it’s really not difficult to do this well, you just want to concentrate on a small area at a time!)

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STEP 5: Let the first coat of paint dry for at least at hour. If you’re ready to paint another coat but the countertop is still wet or sticky, wait, wait, wait. You’ll mess with the smooth texture if you dive in too soon. (Can you tell I’ve learned some things the hard way? Ha!)

STEP 6: Once the first coat is dry, paint a second coat. Depending on the color of your original countertops and the paint color you chose, you may need to do a third coat. With this gray over off-white, I only needed two coats before touching up any patchy areas (after additional dry time).

STEP 7: After the countertops are completely dry, remove the tape. Take this nice and slow. (I guess that’s the theme here.) You’ll want to be careful not to quickly rip a piece of tape that is buried into the dry paint. To help with nice, clean lines, I recommend pulling the tape up at an angle away from the paint. That probably sounds like nonsense, so hopefully these pictures help:


Last but not least…

Step back and marvel at how simple that significant transformation was!

ML countertop 007

Happy renovating!

-Shay Gabriel

do you believe in magic?


Lately I’ve been reading a book called Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. The book was gifted to me by my close friend Allie, who, like me, lives a life that’s quite unscripted; and who, like me, loves exploring new ideas and expressing herself creatively. (You can follow Allie’s blog here!)

My favorite thing about Big Magic so far is the way that Elizabeth Gilbert explains the life of an idea–yes, the life of an idea, as if a single idea is some conscious entity living outside of us.

In her book, Elizabeth Gilbert writes:

I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us–albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human’s efforts than an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the realm of the actual…

Elizabeth goes on to explain that an idea will search and search until it finds someone to bring it into the physical world. She says that when an idea finds you, it will try to “wave you down.” If the idea finds you inattentive or unresponsive, it will move on and try to work its magic on someone else. But if it finds you inviting, the magical idea can slip through to your consciousness and begin its work.

(Intrigued yet? You can snatch Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear for about $6 on Amazon through this affiliate link. Low cost, great reward!)

I love the way Elizabeth Gilbert talks about ideas. To perceive ideas not as something I am responsible for creating out of thin air, but instead as something that has already exists, has accepted my invitation, and chooses to work with me–that gives ideas a different sort of power than I’ve ever previously imagined. It gives me, and you, a greater power, too–that we have the power to say yes or no to ideas as they fly by is a wonderful thing to consider. It reminds me of “missed connections” between humans in search of relationship; perhaps a chemistry is there between two people, but if each individual is not openly receptive to the other, nothing remarkable transpires. Perhaps it is in fact the same way with ideas. Perhaps when we are uninviting to ideas with which we could spark great passion, those ideas fly on by, searching for someone else.

This talk of openness and the potential for “big magic” reminds me of a profound recognition in my own life journey.


For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a passion for both teaching and interior design. As I progressed toward high school graduation, society told me to pick one thing and stick to it. So, I decided to pursue a degree in secondary education, setting my love for design aside.

I started along a path toward a traditional teaching role, seeking the wisdom of those who went before me.

Over many years, I poured my energy into education. But over time, it became clear that my passion for working with students didn’t quite fit the classroom mold. I preferred personalizing learning for students outside of a large class setting, reaching out to those whose needs might be easily overlooked. So, I began to pave my own career path. I took risks and worked hard to hone my craft, establishing a teaching role that was truly life-giving for me and fruitful for my students.

My trajectory eventually led me to become a self-employed teacher and tutor, through which I could uniquely provide for the needs of students and their families. Getting here was overwhelming at times. I navigated my way through unmapped territory, letting my skills and interests guide the exploration. It might have been easier to pass off my flashlight and let someone else lead the way. But I’m glad that I didn’t give up. Following my heart and taking risks paid off, and I’m thankful for the work I get to do today.


As I mentioned before, in high school, I was led to believe that I had to pick just one thing and stick to it. Why? Because society said so.

But in the end, I didn’t follow society’s prescribed path to becoming an educator…

…so why did I have to follow society’s standards and stick to one passion?

The truth is, I didn’t have to.

I was about six years into a reliable teaching career when I fully realized this. I had worked to gain flexibility in determining my own schedule, so why couldn’t I make space for design somewhere in that?

My mind re-invited thoughts about design. And just as soon as I offered it space, design moved in.

The consciousness of design worked its magic almost immediately–as if it had been patiently waiting for me all along. Perhaps it respected what was required of me to establish a reliable career, and it waited for the day I could offer available energy. Perhaps it knew that a true spark could not ignite between us until I recognized my ability to live life in an unscripted manner, accepting both passions with welcome invitation.

Though I don’t fully understand the power of ideas and their conscious potential, I certainly recognize that as soon as design knew I was open to opportunities, it brought them to me.

It’s been about a year since the first big design opportunity approached me.

And that’s a story I’ll save for another post.


Partly I share this to express joy over the wonders of the universe. The cycle of seasons inspires me to reflect, and I’m in awe as I recall how suddenly design answered the invitation to use my energy.

I also share this because I believe it has the following implication for all of us:

There is transcendent power in making space for ideas to find you.

Have you experienced the “magic” of ideas in the way Elizabeth Gilbert describes? Do you have a similar story about making space for ideas to find you?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories on the topic!


newlyweds in the northwest

From mid-October to early December, my husband was on tour. He toured solo for most of this musical venture, which led him west from Grand Rapids, Michigan, all the way to the Pacific Coast.

Salt Flats in Utah
Matt’s favorite part of California: Big Sur
Mount Shasta in Northern California
Oregon (I’m obsessed with the trees in Oregon and Washington)

I saved up my credit card miles and chose to tag along for two weeks in November.

My scheduled trip partially overlapped my students’ Thanksgiving break, was past the halfway-through-two-months-of-no-Matt mark, and perfectly landed me in the Pacific Northwest leg of Matt’s tour. Win, win, win!

We love the Pacific Northwest not only because of its storybook charm, but also because its a sort of home away from home. We have several family members sprinkled around Portland, on both the Washington and Oregon sides of the Columbia River. We like to explore both states during our visits.

First, we spent time in and around Portland. Matt was playing in Bend, Oregon when I arrived to Portland, so my first night in town I visited with family near Vancouver. Matt and I met up the next morning over brunch with our aunt and uncle. Then we took off in the Dragon Wagon (my beloved car that was also away for two months ;)) and ventured about an hour away, near Hillsboro. Matt played a show at a beautiful vineyard called Tualatin Estate Vineyard. They treated us so wonderfully there, the guests were very friendly, and the wine was SO GOOD. All of it. (They spoiled us with many tastes.) We discovered the joy of grenache and haven’t found one we’ve loved as much since.

Tualatin Estate Vineyard


We spent the next couple of days checking out more of Portland with our cousins who live close to the city. We indulged in delicious sushi, oyster (that was a first for us!), prawn, pho (also a first!), ramen, and ice cream. It was a great start to an incredible food journey.

Our favorite ramen bar in Portland: Boxer Ramen
Salt & Straw–where you can find the yummiest, most creative ice cream!

Next, we ventured up and around the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. Matt had a few shows booked at Robin Hood Village Resort in Union, so we made that our anchor and ventured out along the coast of the Peninsula during our free time.


Robin Hood is such a cute, laid back little resort with cabins nestled into a quiet wooded area. It was built as a personal getaway in 1934 by Don Beckman (the set designer for the original Hollywood Robin Hood movie).  Locals and tourists alike hang out at the restaurant/bar, which is where Matt performed. The people were so inviting, and the food was beyond what I could’ve even hoped for. We became obsessed with seafood pasta, made with fresh fish the chef himself would catch. We had crab mac and cheese, salmon mac and cheese, shrimp linguini…and it all outperformed any seafood we’ve had before.

The landscape around the peninsula was breathtaking. (Especially the time we spotted a bald eagle resting on a post in the water!)


In the middle of our week in the Peninsula, we took a trip to Seattle. We ate our favorite yellow curry at ZapVerr in Fremont, hung out in familiar places a bit, then met up with a couple of our friends in Redmond. We had such a fun night in with them, complete with delicious personalized pizzas, a variety of local brews, games, and some throwback tunes. After lunch the next day, Matt and I journeyed back to Union for another night at the Robin Hood resort.

When we left Union, WA, we decided to take the long way “home” to our grandparents’ place near Portland. We drove from Union to Aberdeen, then alongside the west coastline of the Peninsula. We stopped at the marina in Westport–one of the largest commercial fishing ports on the coast, before heading all the way down to Astoria (crossing the Columbia River on 101…the bridge is so long and strange…)

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Westport Marina


It was very cold and rainy, but we found a covered tower to hang out in.

Once we reached the Portland area, we spent the remainder of our time between our grandparents’ home near Vancouver and our cousins’ place in Portland. Matt and I took one last day trip before Thanksgiving; we drove to Cannon Beach and Oswald State Park.

Cannon Beach
Haystack Rock (right) & The Needles (left)
Matt took me to see a favorite spot of his–Cape Falcon at Oswald State Park
Cape Falcon
We made it through a long, winding walk in the woods, spent some time here at the Cove, and rain began to pour just as we were leaving. Perfect timing!


Our final drive back to Portland was full of magical surprises. The vibrant, wet colors…the sunset…the moment I proclaimed that I wanted to see an elk, and immediately two appeared (not featured here, but stored in my brain for good)…


double rainbow, allll the way

The perfect scenic route to close our northwest wanderings.

A few days after our last road trip, we shared a Thanksgiving meal with our family in Vancouver, and then Matt and I parted ways–I flew home to Michigan, and he continued his tour in the same direction.

Matt’s tour continued eastward (toward home!) for another two weeks.
Paradise Valley, Montana

the rarest of years


As this year comes to an end, Matt and I have had so much to reflect on. 2016 was truly “the rarest of years,” as we now call it.

In 2016, we:

  • house hunted,
  • got engaged,
  • planned a ceremony,
  • got married,
  • lived in a cramped rental with four men,
  • put together a celebratory backyard bash in honor of our marriage,
  • purchased a multifamily house in need of fixin,
  • inherited the tenants living in our second unit,
  • began renovating the first unit as our own,
  • moved into the incomplete renovation just a week before Matt was scheduled for a music tour…

…to name a few things. All this alongside maintaining our work as a private tutor and a musician, growing our shared home renovation business, Matt touring in the spring and again in the fall, and keeping the travel plans we had booked well before we realized what beautiful chaos 2016 would unleash. Whew!

You might be thinking we’re crazy for taking that all on in such a short time. I’d have to agree. In fact, most of those experiences were packed into less than 8 months. 2016 was filled with many blessings, but 2016 was a lot of work–in such a short timeframe.

We had what we thought was a perfectly manageable, simplified schedule of order in store for 2016. While we were quite in control of setting dates around wedding plans, we quickly learned that in the world of home ownership and renovation, you are often at the will of the wind. We thought, “We’ll get married the last week of May, pack and store all of my belongings except a few clothes and work supplies, close on the home the first week of June and just stay in Matt’s apartment until then, have the hardwood floors restored right away while we’re on vacation in North Carolina, return to finished floors and start moving in, and spend the rest of June, July, and maybe August renovating the home while we live in it. By then we can just focus on the reception in August. And our house will be up and running in time for the new school year” (when I work from home part-time, using Skype)… “We’ll be back to a normal rhythm, settled in before the fall, with plenty of time to breathe before Matt goes on tour mid-October to early December,” we thought. The plan seemed perfect, and boy were we excited!

And then reality worked out a schedule of its own. We wouldn’t end up closing on the home until the final days of July. Contractors’ schedules were incredibly packed due to the rigorous home restoration market, so once our closing date was shifted, everything needed to be shifted. A lot. In opposition to our idealized schedule, we lived in Matt’s old apartment (with his roommates, and without my stored belongings) for four months instead of a couple of weeks. Our floors were refinished at the end of September. Our bathroom+laundry renovation began in October, and Matt left just as the floating countertop and sink were being installed. (We still have to design and install the shelving next to our stacked washer and dryer, but we’ve pressed pause on that. Probably just for sanity’s sake.)

While we didn’t choose the timing of events surrounding the process of home ownership and renovation, we chose the goals we wanted to conquer this year. Sometimes with high anticipation, and sometimes with overwhelming frustration, we conquered those goals. We were challenged and stretched in more ways than we could have ever anticipated in 2016.


Here and there, I’ll encounter someone who shares their interest in my Modern Livingston Instagram and blog posts. And like most people, I love hearing that others are enjoying my work and hobbies! But sometimes, I get the vibe that they think our life is easy…and that is a facade I hope to never portray. Our journey has presented many mountains to climb. Our story, probably like yours, is one of depth, with conflicts, climaxes, and so much in between.

Why do I share this? Because I believe in the power of thoughtful honesty. I believe in the power of vulnerability, of being relatable.

Social media may teach that we ought to post polished pictures only. That we ought to appear to have it all together. Social media is often a great disguiser of truths. It can trick us into believing that others’ lives are easier than our own. That while you had to face the difficult journey of a climb before reaching the mountain’s peak, others are just air-lifted there.

And sure, we all tend to preserve moments of happiness and success through photographs more often than difficult times. I don’t have pictures or posts declaring our many moments of feeling emotionally, physically, or financially overwhelmed. I didn’t turn to blogging when I felt weakened by living in constant transition. Instagram didn’t capture the looks on our faces each time our plans fell to pieces and we had to fly by the seats of our pants. This year required of us more patience, persistence, introspection, and adaptation than ever before…and, well, in ways that pictures and words could never fully describe anyway.

I truly don’t know how we got through all we did in 2016. From where we are now, we would never turn back. Not to undo those experiences, nor to relive them! (Perhaps with an exception for reliving the day of our ceremony…that was the most powerfully present, transcendent day, and I would repeat that again and again if I could.)

Matt and I were not air-lifted to the top of a mountain throughout the year’s experiences. This year had the highest of highs, but also such difficult lows. And sometimes the two are  mysteriously bundled together as one. We worked through all of it, together, and often with the support of dear friends and family.

For the life we lived in 2016, we are thankful. For all its unfamiliar, all its woes, and all its wonder, we count 2016 as one powerful story. We welcome 2017 with the widest of open arms, but  2016 will forever remain “the rarest of years.”


Cheers to a new year! May you be able to look back on 2016 and highlight both the highs and the lows for how they’ve grown you. And may you look forward to 2017 with hopeful anticipation, embracing the challenges required to attain your greatest goals.

Happy New Year!

Shay Gabriel