The Worst of Times; The Best of Times

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.


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.

I’ve always loved this painting by Frederic Leighton (it’s called “The Painter’s Honeymoon”), and when I bought a print to hang in the RV, Philip asked if it was supposed to represent our rebuild planning sessions. “Only, if it were really you and me,” he said, “you’d have a phone in your hand, scrolling Pinterest for William Morris wallpaper and farmhouse sinks!” 😉


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.








    1. Yes, yes, yes! Of course! I want to hear (and see) all the luscious details of this rebuilding stage, too. Thank you for being willing to share with us.

  1. So glad for a glimpse of spring!! Yes please, by all means, write that series! Would love to see the resurrection in progress. Much love to you both!

  2. Yes please! I would love to hear from you more than a “hello and goodbye” and a quick hug. One day my life will slow down and I’ll have the time to soul commune with you again but right now it is a raging train of teenage busyness so in the meantime…sign me up please.

  3. I would read every word of an email newsletter like that. This project of redemption is, to me, such a beautiful demonstration of all things being made new. It speaks to me. Also I think of you guys every time I switch over a load of laundry to the dryer. Praying for you!

  4. Yes, oh please include me in your rebuilding newsletter, Lanier! You’ve inspired me to include a friend or two in my own 1890s-kitchen reconfiguration adventures.

    Reagan Dregge
    [email protected]
    (My husband Brett and I chatted with Philip at Hutchmoot.)

  5. I kept thinking that your waiting was like pregnancy. And then you closed that entry with labor language. Just amazing, the way God brings beauty from ashes. How He shifts our perspectives from sorrow to joy and holy anticipation.

    I’d read more of your journey, gladly!

  6. Oh please keep us posted about your progress. I was already sad about your loss, but it is even more extensive than I thought! You hearts appear to remain unsinged and even eager for the restoration, which is so thrilling. Carry on and do report!


    That was not what I intended to paste but I think it works! ?

  7. Well first, Indiana would welcome you with open arms.

    Of course, I would love to receive email updates as I’m sure would my daughter, Stephanie (who has a degree in Interior Design and loves reading about making old houses beautiful again). 😉

  8. I would love to follow along in a newsletter, especially for the wallpaper! 🙂 I once had the opportunity to stay with an artist friend at the Ezra Pound House in Hailey, ID, and they must have at least five different Morris wallpapers. I swooned.

  9. I’m at the beginning of my own creative building process (not to be actually building for a year or two). I would love being able to follow your thoughts and processes as you rebuild your home.

  10. Do please add me to your e-mail list. 🙂 I remember watching This Old House as a child with my family on Saturday mornings (on military TV in Japan, no less!), and it remains one of my favorite programs. I’m sure I will love the Ivester version just as much.

    May the Lord bless you and continue to sustain you on this journey, friend. <3

  11. Praise be to the Builder of all things good, and all things new, and all things beautiful! I would love to be included in your email updates as you see your home returned to you.
    I am Indiana born, of farming blood, and can testify to the quality of their farm sinks! Jama 🙂

  12. Oh, I’d love to hear more! I live in a cabin in the woods but have a special place in my heart for century homes.

    Please include me in your email list. And would I be able to find you on Pinterest?

    I am encouraged to hear of your newfound joy in this tragedy.


  13. I would love to be a part of your email list. Also, my son and daughter-in-law live in Indiana and I go there frequently. Perhaps, I could help get that sink back to Georgia

  14. I am so VERY glad to hear all of this. It’s been hard, but to be able to rebuild, what a blessing!!! God bless and protect!!! Also would love to be in on any emails you send out! ~ Elizabeth

  15. Lanier, your gift in writing is back in full force. You make me want to pick up a pen! Yes, include me in your emails about the house…

  16. I would love a newsletter about the house! It’s so beautiful to see newness and goodness coming out of this, Lanier. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  17. Yes, my friend, I’d love to celebrate with you each inch of progress and every nostalgic look back. If your sink is anywhere close to Evansville, Indiana I live about 45 minutes south of there. We could meet for lunch.

  18. I would love to follow your journey on email. We are rebuilding our lives in a slightly different context, but so much of what you’ve said rings true for any Christian journeying through the trials of life.

  19. Yes, please – add me to your email list, Dear Lanier!

    Your house will be absolutely beautiful…I hope you frame that beautiful old scarred piece of checkerboard floor and hang it in a place of prominence in your kitchen…its spirit, as was.

    I just adore you! You are such a cool person and your attitude throughout this tragedy/life-changing event has been so inspiring. We send prayers for the rebuilding!

  20. I would love to follow your story and hear details on the rebuild. Thanks for taking us on this journey with you!

  21. Yes, please Lanier, I would like so much to hear how your home is progressing and coming into the vision that you are already seeing in your mind’s eye. I know the Lord is with you in it and pouring out “grace upon grace” for all you do! May much joy be yours in the days ahead.

  22. I’ve been thinking of you and how it’s been going. Was hoping you’d be back in by Christmas, as I know how very much it means to you! Whenever you and your dear halls are reunited, it will be a lovely day! Know that you are in my prayers. Please add me to your list❤️

  23. Oh, I would love to read about your dreams working their way into reality in my email inbox! Your recent posts have been unspeakably poignant and dear to me in my own season of death-to-resurrection; it has been and will be an honor to journey alongside you in this process. You are in my prayers!

  24. I would so love to follow your journey more in-depth as you rebuild your home. Please let us know where to sign up!

  25. Would love to hear about the rebuilding! Have you read “Culture Care” by Makoto Fujimura? I just finished it and so much of what you shared here resonates with the message of the book — that artists/writers/creators are called to bring beauty into a world of despair and brokenness and that these acts of redemption are desperately needed in our day.

  26. Funny story about my kitchen sink. We live on a farm….I had been searching internet for a drainboard sink. Mentioned it to my husband a few times….mentioned they were expensive….he finally thought to tell me that there was one out in our junkyard. Walked back there and found the sink of my dreams, in my own junkyard. We used a black faucet and drain with it and is perfection. Love using it every day. Best of luck.

  27. yes, anything you write I would love to read…it is a story of redemption, isn’t it? All a picture of Him and what He is doing in the midst –

  28. Please add me to your list if you decide to do an emailed ‘progress report’ on the rebuilding of your home. I’m glad there are now moments of encouragement and inspiration, that fresh ideas and energy are beginning to flow. Having grown up among New England farmhouses, that comfortable and welcoming ambiance is familiar and beloved. However, a bit of ‘tweaking’ for modern conveniences doesn’t go amiss.

  29. Your faith and hope through your trials reminds me of the cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 11. Thank you for sharing your story! I would love to follow your journey chronicled in newsletters!

  30. Sign me on for email updates as well! “Mr. Blandings Builds his Dreamhouse” is my favorite point of reference 🙂

  31. I am so glad the rebuilding is beginning! I would really like to hear more about your journey and be on your email list.

  32. Please put me on your email list, Lanier! I only recently found your blog and have been so heartened by your words, faith and life. Much love from Montana–

  33. I’ve been following your blog for several years. Yes, I’d really enjoy hearing about your rebuilding journey. Please include me!

  34. Would love to hear about your rebuilding journey via email! We (my husband and I) are on a “rebuilding” venture of our own, making his childhood home into our home. I feel ya in the farmhouse fad. I’m finding it may be cheaper to make my own curtains and doors, for goodness sake! (And learning a new craft in the process… a heaven-sent, new mercy of its own)

  35. I’d like to get your emails, too! Your love for your home is infectious, and I’d enjoy getting to hear more about your plans and inspirations. Thanks for inviting us into your experience and sharing with such vulnerability. <3

  36. Please include me in the email updates. I found you several years ago via YLCF, and then you started writing at the Rabbit Room and made me happy all that day. Thank you for letting us into your life! Under the mercy ~

  37. Oh, I eat up every bit of your writing, and have followed the ongoing tale of your beautiful house with especial interest! I would LOVE to be added to your list if you begin one. I am so, so glad that God is redeeming this experience for you, which we knew He would…. but the wait to round the bend from despair can be excruciating. I am blessed to read of how He is blessing you.

  38. Thanks for continuing to share your story with us. I’m also interested in your newsletter. I look forward to hearing more about the rebuilding!

  39. I’ve been following your blog for a couple of years now, and Lanier you have such a beautiful gift for writing and capturing moments. You are truly inpsiring. Count me in on the newsletter too, please!

  40. Dear Lanier,

    Your courage and joy in the midst of these struggles is a such a blessing to witness. Our Father is so faithful and kind, even in the midst of the greatest of hardships. I pray that an overwhelming sense of His presence and His love continues to surround you as you embark on this new season.
    I would dearly love to be a part of your email list and see the beautiful transformation that is to come.

  41. I would be eager to follow a newsletter chronicling your home restoration. We have just recently moved into an old farmhouse that dates back to 1790. We have lots of plans and projects, but having 8 children, I know the house is going to be a “lifetime project!”

  42. Your writing is so lovely, Lanier. Please keep me in your email loop. I don’t want to miss a single beautiful, graceful story. And thank you for sharing your joys and sorrows with us here. You faithfully point to truth and light.

  43. I have been waiting for my new home for over a year, never thought it would be this long. Though my circumstances are different (read, “better”) than yours, I would love to hear about your rebuilding. As I look back, I can see the benefits of waiting, as my path is guided by One who knows better than me. His timing is perfect and His faithfulness neverending.

  44. Thrilling. “…He loves us far too much to see our grief go unredeemed.” Beautiful words! Count me in on more in depth updates!!! Press on!

  45. Dear Lanier,
    Would it be too presumptuous to share that this beautiful piece invokes dear Anne Bradstreet’s poem of 1660 ‘Verses upon the Burning of Our House’? I pray not for just as that beautiful poem captures that deep beauty that flashes forth only from heaven-graced handling of acute pain, so does your chronicling of these wrenching events. Anne wrote: ‘Here stood that Trunk, and there that chest,
    There lay that store I counted best,
    My pleasant things in ashes lie
    And them behold no more shall I’
    But then later she lifts her eyes and bids a triumphant adieu to her earthly store, in light of her present apprehension of her treasures above. When I read writing like this it makes me understand why Martin Luther, the Reformer, was said to have observed that the devil hates the pen. I would be honoured to continue to share in this journey with you both. Denise Armstrong

  46. Wow, thank you for the beautiful post. The way you weave grace through your story of despair is marvelous. I would love to hear more about your journey in a newsletter! Thank you again 🙂

  47. Oh Lanier,

    Your words rang in my heart and dripped from my eyes tonight: “So much more sadness had to come true before it could come untrue,” and “the beauty of it seized my heart with a painful thrill.” Both are echoes of Samwise lines. Samwise—the hobbit with a deep love for heath, hearth, and home. . .my favourite of the crew. The only one with the hope that there may yet be a return journey. The only hobbit to carry cooking pans through the wilderness, who sacrifices sleep to cook for his weary master. Sam would grieve over the loss of your Shire with you, then help you rebuild and plant a party tree to boot. . . So, it’s apropos that his words reverberate through your own lines.

    Remember, there is light and high beauty far beyond the shadow. The ash heaps—physical and emotional—that seem so high now are but a small and passing thing.

    My parents live near Indianapolis and have a spare room if you need a landing place. . .and I would love to be on your e-mail list.

    Under the Mercy,
    ~ Jody

  48. I’m captivated by your style and ability to verbalize feelings. My DH and I built our own house, ourselves, and can empathize with your tenderness toward your home. Please, count me in!

  49. Yes, I would love to see and hear what you are doing with your house. I believe God will make beauty out of your ashes. Love how you are able to feel creative again. God bless.

  50. Please add me to your email posts… the journey will surely now take on an energy and a new vantage point, of looking ahead with hearts filled with quiet happiness and gratitude as the new rises from the old… of the certain knowledge that special memories are waiting to be made again, just around the bend…

  51. So inspiring to hear of your journey. I’d love to receive your newsletter . . . and love, love, love your word choices. You make thoughts sing.

  52. I’m so glad that things are once again looking up for you, and that you are able to throw yourself into the rebuild! I would love to read your newsletter, and I am dying to hear every little detail of the wallpaper situation. Gosh, I love wallpaper!

  53. It would be such a delight to experience the beauty of rebuilding with you! Thank you for seeing the joy through tears; it’s an example for us all.

  54. Your words have been a gift to me over many years. Thank you.

    I would love to read any you share about the restoration, and I keep you, your husband, and all the creatures you love in my prayers.

  55. Yes, please! I would love to follow along on your journey to rebuilding your home, and your life after the fire. God is good at turning ashes in beauty!

  56. Hi Lanier,

    I think I’ve been reading your blog for about 12 years or so now (I first discovered you in an issue of Inkblots Magazine). I’ve never commented on any of your posts before, but I wanted you to know that you and Philip are on my heart and in my prayers during this season of rebuilding. I would so love to be included on your email list if you decide to write a series about your restoration project.

    Thank you so much for your beautiful blog. It has been such a blessing and means of grace in my life.

  57. I would love to read your newsletters. Have lived through the rebuild of my own beloved farmhouse (ravaged by water rather than fire), and am still sort of incredulous how well it all turned out. Wishing the same for you.

  58. Always pointing to the Creator, your words are like a devotional. Please add me to the lengthy list! Am loving that wallpaper and wonder if I can persuade the dear husband to paper the grown daughter’s room. Hm…

  59. Yes, please, I would be delighted and honored to receive these missives. We do not know each other except in the sense that we’re both in the Family of God, yet I have had the audacity to pray for you and yours over the years since I first discovered you, and will be blessed to make those prayers more specific.

    All of Heaven’s best to you and yours, along with many thanks!

  60. Lanier, I met you very briefly at Hutchmoot this past October, and first read your beautiful words at the Rabbit Room – exactly one year ago this month. I am in the very beginning phase of renovating an older home in Knoxville, Tennessee. I am intrepid with fear at this prospect – feel overwhelmed – when in the past such an occasion would ignite me with passion and excitement and boundless days energy. I am not sure what drew me to your blog this evening (I should be Christmas shopping!) but I am grateful for your words tonight and I would LOVE nothing more than to be included in your email series. I believe your journey may be a wealth of inspiration and encouragement. Thank you for opening up your life to strangers and kindred spirits.

  61. A tree with roots pushing UP requires me to tear out 40% of my home. Hearing about your rebuild and renewal inspires me to move forward with this disturbing task.

  62. Yes please to the email newsletter! I’m borderline obsessed with old homes and dream of lovingly restoring one.

  63. i so want to read these posts ….i have lost you for a long time..and just found you once again.
    thank you for adding me to this list..

  64. Stumbled upon your Instagram account and then started reading here. Love your home and your views on Making a home. I’m sorry to have missed your email series on restoring your home after the fire… is there any way that I can read them yet? Thank you!

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