We moved into this house a little less than a year ago.
The chaos of the transition gradually ebbed away, leaving me beached with all my things and a sometimes fearful, sometimes eager curiosity about what this new chapter of my life would bring. This move, for me, was not random, but intentional. I felt it as an important step in my journey to an unknown destination. At this point in my life I’m not much interested in destination; my fascinated gaze rests on my inner and outer landscapes as the days come and go. I travel in the direction of freedom, space, and simplicity.
These last months I have spent time sitting in various places in my space dreaming, imagining, listening to the whispers of this old house, audibly exploring the surge of the neighborhood outside my windows and walls. I have watched the garden leaf out and bloom, then wither and die. I’ve learned the slant of the sunlight coming through the tall windows. From the chaise where I sit writing this morning I can see a patch of eastern sky through the bare branches of a neighbor’s tree outside the kitchen window; from here I watch the dawn come during my early morning journal time.
We have updated the electrical system. We have updated the plumbing. We have invested in a hybrid hot water heater, shaving our electrical costs. We have bought and installed a sump pump in our wet cellar. I have brought home innumerable paint chip samples, pinned them to walls and woodwork in every room, watching them glow and dim as hours and seasons pass across them.
I have refrained from adding anything to my space, filling it instead with a mist of dreams and imagination. Indeed, I subtract objects as I clean and scrub and mop the scarred, stained, pine floor. I’ve lived with the gouged trim, the slapdash paint, decades of nails, rusting staples, and screws in the plaster walls which, when pulled, leave large, crumbling holes.
When I first saw the house, in pictures on a real estate site online, my bedroom was being used as a dining room. It remained a dining room the first time we were here, New Year’s Eve 2021. Our attention was drawn to the exposed original tin ceiling in the living room next to it; we were told the same ceiling was above a newer suspended ceiling in the adjoining kitchen.
In the then-dining room, now my bedroom, another suspended ceiling was installed, the kind with a metal grid supporting ceiling panels seen in office spaces. Some of the panels were painted in lavender curlicues.
It was laughably hideous. I laid in bed and looked up at the ceiling, wondering what was above the curlicues. Another tin ceiling? Plaster? The naked underside of the floor above? One day I would find out.
That day was a couple of weeks ago. One morning my partner and I took the tall steps into my room and pushed up one of the panels, revealing an old plaster ceiling that had been wallpapered and then painted. We could see ancient water staining and cracks.
Once I knew, I couldn’t wait to get the suspended ceiling down. I gathered tools and ragged sheets to throw over my furniture and went to work.
Some of these old houses have plaster made with asbestos. Wallpaper and glue contained arsenic to discourage rats. Older paint often contained lead. As I worked, I uncovered at least two layers of wallpaper and three of paint. I opened a window for ventilation and, wincing, pulled nails and screws out of the plaster, which created the most damage. I used a putty knife to peel up the curling loose edges of wallpaper and flaked paint, leaving what is firmly adhered in place. I worked for a couple of hours, absolutely happy. It took another hour to clean up the mess and get the debris into the dumpster.
I’ve taken out two thirds of the suspended ceiling now. The room remembers its former elegant lines. In some places the plaster walls are stripped naked. As I lie in bed, I wonder what this room has contained. How have others who lived here used this space? Who chose the first layer of wallpaper, and the second? Whose hands glued, papered, painted? Who put in this screw and that nail, and why?
Some might find the room austere, bleak. I don’t have much in it right now, because it’s just more to cover, move, and clean as I go. I have a single bed, small but as luxurious as I can make it. The high ceiling soars above the ragged walls like a cloudy autumn sky soars above tattered trees.
All my life something in me has rejoiced in bareness, in spareness. The space between and around objects means more to me than objects themselves. Color, light, air, and music, ever-changing, pure, without form, sustain me more than things.
In this bedroom, in this house, I’m conscious for the first time in my life of a longing for expansion, not to contain more things, but to contain more life, more being. I’m awed by my own freedom, my release from so many burdens I carried in earlier years.
Peeling away flaking wallpaper, brushing away crumbling plaster, I feel like a sculptor. Gentle-handed, I pry and pull. I’ll fill holes, patch, spread joint compound. It will take time. It will make messes. Plaster dust will float out my open windows. One day walls and ceiling will be ready for new coverings of color and texture. I’ll throw sheets over piled furniture, work, clean, move it all back, one wall at a time. I’ll replace the two tall, elegant windows. I’ll glue up faux tin ceiling tiles, honoring the house’s colonial period and aesthetic. The days and hours will pass. Light will move across the walls and ceiling. I’ll open the curtains in the morning and close them at night. I’ll eat and sleep, work and write, swim and walk while the seasons turn around me.
As I stroke the house, uncovering, reducing, baring, and finally reclothing its lines, my own skin loosens, cell by cell. My eyebrows and lashes diminish. My skin thins and dries, stained by sunshine, silver-rippled by the full moon of long-ago pregnancy. My flesh softens.
Neither the house nor I will again be firm-fleshed, new, perfect. Repaired plaster has a variable, subtle landscape. I have lived in my body for nearly 60 years. Life shapes us and makes us its own. Many lives have had their being within these walls, but I am comfortable with their ghosts.
I think of my own ghosts, too, as I work. Life and time have molded the house and me. The ghosts we call memories stay within us, haunting or blessing, as the case may be. As I chip away at painted-over screws and staples, remove panels and pull away pieces of metal grid, I release the house from the past as I release my own excrescences, recognize and mitigate my own toxic layers of what others expected and how they defined me.
I did not know how captive I was until I found myself free.
- What has held you captive in your life?
- Do you find more joy in stripping down (subtracting) or layering on (adding)?
- Are you more likely to repair flaws or cover them cosmetically?
- Are you distressed by “imperfections” in your environment and/or your body and cover or hide them, or do you honor them?
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