Sunday, December 20, 2009

Renovating House, Renovating Self

Day 1 Home Renovation

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

My Color Palette

Renovating House, Renovating Self

By Zinta Aistars

I’ve heard it said that when one dreams of a house, the house symbolizes self. Dreaming of an attic, for instance, corresponds to dreaming of one’s intellect. Dreaming of a basement hints of what lurks in our subconscious. Dreaming of a bedroom is, of course, our sensual self, and the kitchen, for some, perhaps, speaks of the heart of our house, our self. There is the exterior, the self we let show for curbside appeal, and then, what lives inside, an interior that is our inner selves, protected and hidden except from our closest friends, whom we invite for the occasional visit into our interior spaces.

I have dreamt of long and winding hallways with many doors. Which one to open? Why can’t I find my way inside my own house? Why did it all seem so dark? At last, a window, and I rip open the drapes to let the light inside.

For years, more than a decade, my house deteriorated around me. This, the house in which I live. A single mother on a meager income for a household of three, no outside support, we lived from paycheck to paycheck, nothing to spare. The house would have to stand on its own. And over the years, that necessary neglect began to show its effects.

I never meant to live here this long. From the day I moved in, having to find this house in a great rush—I had less than a month to find shelter for my little family of three musketeers before a lease would expire—I was in disbelief when the mortgage was granted to me. Me? A homeowner on my paltry salary? Yet my credit was good, and apparently the bank—some fifteen years ago—trusted me. I was handed the key. I’d found and closed on the little house in 28 days, a near impossible feat, I was told. Maybe there was some element of destiny …

That didn’t mean I had to love it. It was a grudging friendship at first. I was more relieved than excited to be a homeowner. My children would have a roof over their heads. A door I could lock, I hoped, against the dangers of the world … although that proved to be far from truth. Still, I felt gratification. When I walked from my marriage, it was because my children’s father had begun to love the bottle more than he loved me. One of his parting shots: “You’ll never make it without me.”

Oh? Damned if I wasn’t going to try, and more, succeed. And I have. Some fifteen years later as homeowner, I have seen my children off into the world. My daughter lives in Chicago, an MSW who is currently deputy campaign manager for a woman running for office in the Illinois state legislature. Her campaign platform is all about strong and independent women. My son is making a solid living as an electrician, about to receive his degree after a longer and more rocky path. The woman in his life is an Iraq war veteran, shrapnel as hard evidence still in her flesh. He likes strong and durable women. And this house, small and humble as it is, has been our headquarters for entry into the world and all its untapped possibilities.

Looking back on these years under this roof, I can’t say they have been happy ones. Indeed, they have been the most testing, sometimes the most cruel years of my life. This house has seen far more dark than light. I stand now in the living room with its two corner windows, and realize how little light comes in, no matter the time of day. I’ve let the wrong people into it—the sort who have one face for curbside appeal, but entirely another behind closed doors.

My house was falling apart. The roof leaked in several places. The windows were cracked and let in cold drafts. The floors were worn, tiles broken. The paint peeled and faded, showing the smudges of those long, dirty years. The furnace belched and refused, finally, to work any longer. The window AC units in summer popped the circuits more than cooled.

My house, my self?

Oh dear.

Hit bottom. That place in the basement where shadows lurk, the rats of despair, the broken subconscious that has started to accept the lies of bad men that I am not what I should be, that I "can’t make it without you," that this is the best I deserve.

Not a quick process, not a paved path, not a road easily taken, and surely not without battle waged and waged again, and again, but at last there was that moment … that crack in the door that let in a warm and golden light.

It was on a wilderness retreat that I had one of those treasure epiphanies. I had rented a tiny cabin in the woods, not more than 30 minutes drive from my broken house, to seek solitude and healing. I found it. There, and in a thousand other places. But it was in that tiny cabin in the woods, so close, that I suddenly realized: I can find the perfect place just where I am. It may be that I do not have the Alaskan wild about me, or the majestic and soaring crag of Rocky Mountains, or the rise and foam of the Baltic Sea, or the quiet sanity of the Keweenaw. All places I loved or had called home for a short while. Yet here in the Michigan woods, I had realized how little I really needed to be happy. A warm and tidy place.

I do not long for mansions. I do not care about competing with the Joneses, or anyone else, for that matter. My walls do not need to be papered with money; I’d rather they not be. The older I get, the more I appreciate a simple honesty—in person and in place. I was just a few miles away from my home address and I had found that longed for quiet peace. Why not bring it home with me?

Home. All my life I had sought Home. Dual citizenship, bilingual, ever traveling, what did I know of Home? It was everywhere. It was nowhere. It was, I realized, a sense of peace I had to carry within myself.

The children raised, I had been offered a new job, and the salary allowed for more than living from paycheck to paycheck. I had room to breathe. I had room to dream.

And I dreamt of a house …

First, I had to clean up the mess. The debts must be paid off before any rebuilding could begin. Done. The man with the heart of lies must be driven from my doorstep. Done. The children must be safe and well and happy on their chosen paths. Done.

It was now my turn.

To look into my house was to look in the mirror. I saw neglect. I saw abandonment. I saw, too, betrayal. I had not stood by her. I had left her for last. I had cared first and foremost for all others, woman the caretaker, and forgotten that I, and my house, mattered, too.

My turn. My house, my self.

I swore to do it, too, without owing anyone. No one would ever say to me again: “You couldn’t do this without me.”

First, the furnace. There in the dark underbelly of my house, that broken, steel giant whose roar had grown quiet. A new giant was brought in, corded to it—an air-condition unit so that my windows could at last be cleared of whirring boxes and be instead open to light. Next, the sagging roof, gaping by now with holes to the elements. My living room ceiling had split open in agony, dripping a dirty trail of water into my room. The house was in its death throes and demanding attention, as fast as I could give it.

“I’m sorry, “ I found myself saying to that wound in my ceiling. “I’ve neglected you too long. So long. You deserved better.”

A week they hammered away up there. Ripping open my house to sky, fresh air flooding in. Two raccoons were driven from my attic, their nest swept away. No more unpaid tenants. Rolls of insulation unrolled to soften the sound of rain pattering overhead. Rows of shingles, neat and tidy, appeared.

Curb appeal was improved, my summer was pleasantly cooled, winter came with the comfort of reliable heat. But a house becomes Home by other means. I interviewed contractors as a woman interviews potential suitors on a dating site. Will you care for my place with gentle touch and consideration? No hidden agendas hidden behind plaster and paint? I want solid structure that will endure whatever storm comes and still stand strong. And if you upset my dog or kick my cat, you are gone, handydude, gone.

The handydude I finally hire turns out to be another Latvian, my ethnic countryman, someone with whom I grew up. All is right with the world again, and he has earned my trust. Given advice when I ask it, backed off when I make my wishes clear—even if they sometimes seem a tad over the edge of eclectic and into odd. Only I will understand some of my choices.

I watch from day to day as he guts my house. The walls come down, the ceiling is gone. Before the dawn, they say, comes the darkest moment, and my house must endure this denuding to the bone. Her bones show, her skeleton, and I see her age now, no makeup to hide or disguise it. She is in her 50s, and not everything about her is up to code anymore. Codes change. She has stuck to what she knows. But she suddenly appears willing to embrace change.

David the Handydude gently pads the spaces between her studs with new insulation. New drywall goes up, new ceiling. Cracks are patched in and repaired. There is little that will stay of the old, just the bones of her. I look at what were once white walls and imagine color. She has been pale for too long, she deserves deeper hues—the blues of a stormy sea, the sage green of the moss as it grows in the forest, the browns of soft earth, the deep grey of an older woman grown dignified and not all in her revealed to the world in passing.

While David works, bringing along Luke to help, and my house shivers in its nakedness, awaiting her new façade, I realize I don’t yet know how to decorate her. She and I have been all about purpose, nothing frivolous, nothing just for the joy of the thing.

What now? What do I like? No, not my children, not those men passing like stormy ships in the night, but me, what do I like, and she, my house, what does she want?

Thinking about my own choices is at first overwhelming, and then, like strong drink. I am giddy, near intoxicated, with the prospect of choosing—just for the fun and beauty of it. Yes, what do I like, who am I as a house? As a Home?

I can’t remember the last time I had such fun. Such frivolous fun. The money melts, but I have it to melt now, and David comes with me for an afternoon of shopping. I make my choices and he explains the practical whys and wherefores of my choices, presents me with an array of alternatives I may never have considered. I had no idea there were so many options. Lighting fixtures. Switch plates, even. These, the lights, my son happily offers to install. I lose sleep for more than one night considering the colors in which to dress my rooms. White has been banished. There are new windows to be installed, a fireplace that I can turn on with a switch, new floors to be ordered, new appliances. I am awed by an entire catalog of ceiling fans, when I thought there were just a few… there are thousands, from flapping bamboo fronds to steely propellers to unfolding wings. I am dizzy with it all, near tears one moment, laughing the next.

So much yet to be done. So long awaited. It’s my turn. It is her turn. We are both getting ready for a new age ahead, friends at last, mirrored selves, two midlife women proud to be where we are and still standing. Ready to dress up for the ball.

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