October 26, 2017
Five months ago this night I innocently threw a load of sheets and towels in the dryer, and the next thing I knew, my house was in flames.
“Contents fire,” the forensics experts agreed, with clinical detachment.
In other words, they had no idea what aberration in that whirring mechanical heart caused my home to be savaged and my life snatched out from under me. It’s hard not to feel angry—at the dryer manufacturer, the detergent company, the experts themselves.
They have no idea.
But God knows. He watched this story unfold, tongues of flame kindling, licking hungrily out of the dryer, gnashing their way up through ancient beams and timbers. And He looked on with compassion, with tender foreknowledge, with grief—not impotently, but not rashly, either. We know this story could only get to us through the unfailing shelter of His love, and coming through that filter it’s all been as gentle as possible.
He could have prevented it, but I do not believe that He engineered it. Here’s what I do believe: that He aches with His creation over the casualties of a fallen world, but that He loves us far too much to see our grief go unredeemed.
I’ve meant to be much better at chronicling latest developments in this space, but, truthfully, developments have either been too heady to keep up with or too stagnant to share. August saw the end of the demolition phase, a long heartbreak of ripping and tearing against which I often covered my ears, even out here in this little tabernacle of a trailer. Seeing as the fire was centered in the areas Philip and I most particularly loved and had poured the utmost of our physical labors, it was devastating to behold such ravages of un-building. There was not a board foot of heart pine in our den that we had not handled and placed ourselves; not an inch of that kitchen over which we had not plotted and puzzled, with paintbrush, measuring tape and caulk.
Philip’s magnificent bookcases in the den; the checkerboard kitchen floor we’d painted together over a Labor Day weekend; the countertops, cabinets, ceilings, walls, floors, trim, sheetrock, wallpaper and fixtures which had made up our atmosphere, all consigned the dumpster. It was ruthless.
After the last truckload had rattled off, strewing hazmat booties and water bottles in its wake, I noticed a floorboard near the end of the driveway, bearing its share of grey and white checkerboard. I thought of the painstaking work even that one board had seen; the hundreds of steps of both strangers and loved ones that had passed over it; the welcome it had been to my bare feet of a morning.
I picked it up, and then I threw it down again into the leaves. What was the point?
Then I stooped once more and retrieved it, gently this time, running my fingers over the worn surface, torn so mercilessly from its neighbors.
I don’t know why I kept it, but I did, perhaps for the same reason I kept the hand-painted, smoke-blackened motto from the den, and my grandmother’s cookbook, melted past repair. These are memorial stones for me, tangible witnesses of an unfailing intention hovering over all this sadness, like the Spirit of God hovering over the waters at Creation.
There’s nothing for it, that board, these remaining walls, these yawning spaces seem to say, but to begin again.
To choose once more, as Wendell Berry put it, a long choosing, chosen over and over.
If our work mattered before, it matters now—and now in a way we couldn’t have imagined before.
There was a day in mid-September, a conversation, a moment, I now look back on as a turning point. A place of despair into which the sunlight of intention suddenly broke, our intention and God’s. The intention He had laid upon us, and the work, and the gladness of the work. We felt strengthened by it, stung into life and decision after months of un-building and enervating sadness.
We had been sitting at our little dinette, reeling over yet another stalled hope, when Philip suddenly looked at me and said quietly, as if from a place long-remembered and only lately recalled, “You know, I’d really enjoy rebuilding my bookcases.”
Such a simple statement, almost a passing comment. But it landed in my heart like Whitman’s ‘gossamer thread,’ catching, taking hold, so that I flung one back.
“I want to repaint my checkerboard floor,” I said. “And hang my own wallpaper.”
For months we’d been living in this place where other people were telling us what they were going to do: gut this, mitigate that, take out this ceiling—and that one—and that one. All the ceilings. I found myself racing ahead of the demolition crews, numbering strips of bead board, taping hastily scrawled signs to plaster surfaces.
THIS WALL TO REMAIN.
It was like a desperate little stance against the sadness, howsoever futile.
But so much of it was out of our hands. So much more sadness had to come true before it could come untrue.
In that one conversation, however, that one moment of ownership and solidarity—with our house and with each other—we stepped out of a long tunnel of other peoples’ choosings and into our own. Within the span of a few, brief words, we came out into the daylight, and the air was clean and sweet, bright with possibility and the wholesome prospect of honest toil.
For weeks I’d stayed out of the house as much as possible, dreading the assault of memory and the hopeless aspect of rooms once so crowded with life—our life, a life we had shaped together under the mercy of God. But now we raced across the yard together, eager as children to catch some fleeting fairies’ gift before it vanished.
“We could put a larder here!” I said, standing on the blackened site of our erstwhile utility closet. “A real, honest-to-goodness old-fashioned larder, with open shelving and compressed French doors—and screens to keep the air circulating.”
“What do you think about leaving the chimney exposed?” Philip asked, running his hand over the beautifully mottled brick.
“And let’s put in a transom over the door here,” I cried, running into the hall and up the stairs. I had just noticed the way the late afternoon sun was wavering, water-like, over the lath and plaster surface, and the beauty of it seized my heart with a painful thrill. Unimpeded by walls which, sadly, did not remain, this light was like a blessing, a splash of promise and vision amidst the gloom. When the walls went back up, we had to leave a way for that light to get through.
That day gave me permission to enter the creative stage of this story, and the intervening weeks have been a quiet flurry of drawings and plans, of ideas fleshed out on sheaves of graph paper, of estimates and measurements and compulsive Ebay searches. (I’m sure many of you will find this hard to believe, but I honestly had no idea that the “farmhouse” look was such a thing until I really started digging into this rebuild, and figured out, not only who on earth Joanna Gaines was, by why I had her to thank for the fact that all the kitchen sinks I wanted were out of our budget. ?) We’ve found a contractor that we love and look forward to working with (yet another grace-laden tale), and I’ve managed to track down a North American supplier of my beloved Morris & Co “Sweet Briar” wallpaper for the den.
A few weeks ago, my best friend traveled from across the world to sit in my hollowed-out house and help me figure out how to configure my kitchen. It seems like only yesterday we were drawing wedding dress designs and bridesmaids’ bouquets, but it’s fitting that our girlish schemes should foreshadow more grownup concerns. Life is such an unexpected landscape of light and shadow—as we’ve both had occasion to learn—and to bring a new grief into the company of old joy honors both in a deeply satisfying way. For hours we drew, erased, laughed, puzzled, sipped tea, double-checked dimensions, while the light poured in from the west and filtered gently among the dusky shadows.
That night she emailed Philip and me from the next door “guest quarters” of the Airstream.
“I witnessed hope today in shadow and ashes,” she wrote. “Kept in the strength of our Good Father, the mercy of the Son who knows our suffering, and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit…you can do this!”
October 30, 2017
So much hope; and so much yet to be required of us. In a way, the hope makes it harder than ever, as it often feels like we’re being swept out of a great current of purpose into these maddening eddies of policy and delay. What was needed in the demolition phase was fortitude and faith (and honesty in the absence of both); a commitment to build again the work of our hands and the work of others’ hands.
But the need of this moment is both simpler and starker: patience.
Patience, when, of all times of the year, I’m pining for my home most keenly, when the scents and the lengthening shadows of the turning season send arrows of longing through my heart. Patience, while my beloved house sits, empty and forlorn for days, weeks—months, now—on end, timbers groaning for redemption, its thresholds splitting under the strain of a waterlogged foundation and its hearths literally breaking over the grief of it all.
Heart-rending patience, even–especially–as I glimpse a new landscape over the brow of this barren hill.
But these longings are birth pangs: they tell me that new life is on the way--is already here.
November 7, 2017
Last week we received the long-awaited news that our insurance company had approved the rebuild estimate, and the very next day our contractor started pulling permits. Next week the work should begin in earnest, and this week we’re finalizing decisions on bead board widths and stair placement and electrical specs. I still feel like I’m dreaming; I can’t wait for the ring of hammers, the piercing whine of the circular saw, the smell of fresh-cut lumber.
“Now, this isn’t going to be a relay race,” our contractor told me the other day.
In other words, he’s staging the phases of this project to avoid delay as much as possible. More like a marathon than a sprint, and when the running starts, we’re all going to push on through until we reach the finish line. Such a massive undertaking, but we’re eager to give ourselves, heart and hand, to this good work. Even as the year wanes a close, I see the wilderness flushed with the first faint greening of early spring.
p.s. We love our home, and we want to restore it as lovingly and as meaningfully as possible. I can’t wait to tell you about the deepened and heightened vision fueling our rebuild, and the ideas that have flowered from it—one of which literally had me dancing with excitement the other night as I related it to Philip! I’m thinking very seriously about creating a newsletter-type series chronicling this project (This Old House meets “The Money Pit”?), wherein I’d share quietly via email more than I’d typically feel comfortable putting out on the web, such as some of the history of our place, some of our ideas, and lots of before and after pictures. If you’d be interested in such a thing, I’d love to hear from you in the comments. ?
p.p.s I did actually track down a sink, you’ll be happy to know. The only trouble is that we have to drive to Indiana to pick it up. Thanks, Joanna.