We moved into this house a little less than a year ago.
New Home, May 2022
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.
Bedroom ceiling 03/23
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?
Leave a comment below!
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When I came to Maine from Colorado, I left behind a small log house on four lots in a mountain town of about 1,000 people. I was fortunate enough to find good renters. I’d never been a landlady before, but the prospect of renting was less overwhelming than actually trying to sell the house while making the huge transition to Maine.
My childhood consisted of moving from here to there frequently, and the constant upheaval and insecurity was hard. I didn’t really make friends or invest in any particular place, because I never knew when we would have to pack up and go again. By the time I was a teenager, my family had settled down, but by then I was getting ready to go out into the world and make a place of my own, so there still wasn’t any security.
Then I got married and had children, and finding a home was largely driven by my husband’s wants and preferences and what our young family needed, not by my own desires. It became apparent over my years of marriage that the house that appealed to me and the house that appealed to my husband were rather different in terms of location, style and layout. We moved from place to place, and I made do wherever we were — a skill I had a lot of practice with. It was the family that mattered, I told myself, not the house.
When the boys were ready for school, though, it was important to me to settle down somewhere, as I didn’t want them to have the experience I did of always being the new kid in school. At that point we moved to the little town referred to above, where I stayed for more than 20 years. The house we bought when we moved there sheltered us, along with dogs and cats, but I never really liked it. Once again, it had been my husband’s choice.
Fifteen years passed and I found myself alone with a cat in a big house I’d never loved that hijacked me with ghosts and memories everywhere I turned.
I sold the house, discarded a lot of stuff and, after a couple years of searching, heard of a dilapidated old log house that had been rented that was about to go on the market. One of my friends was a neighbor, and one spring morning we went to walk around it.
It needed a lot of work, but I was charmed. My friend went up 3 cement steps in the back, found the back door open, and we walked in.
It was outdated, tiny, inconvenient and badly neglected. Everything, inside and outside, was frayed, ragged, used up, dusty and dirty.
Falling in love is a strange thing. What is the complex, mysterious response a person, object or place calls from us? It’s got nothing to do with beauty or even suitability, that’s for sure, at least not for me.
I felt akin to the house. There it sat, and had been sitting for over 100 years, on a weedy and trash-filled patch of ground with large old trees around it, unloved, unseen and unappreciated. It was small and ugly and shabby. I myself had never noticed it in all my 15 years in that town.
Nobody loved or wanted it.
That’s what captured my heart.
Nobody loved it.
But what if somebody did? What if somebody wanted it, cleaned it up, gave it some care and attention?
So I bought it, remodeled one end, gave it new windows and a new front door. I had the wood floors stripped, sanded and sealed. I insulated, put in a little wood stove, patched and painted. I raked up bags and bags of trash and built garden beds out of cardboard, newspaper, huge loads of manure and fill dirt, moldy straw and hay and compost. I hung birdfeeders and wind chimes in the trees.
I didn’t know it then, but in loving that house and bringing it back to life, I was taking the first steps in loving myself, and eventually leaving that little town for a bigger, wider world.
I lived in the house for five years, and I was struck, over and over again, by how the house and land responded to every bit of attention I gave them. They never shrank away from me. I never failed or disappointed. The place blossomed. It bloomed. The garden grew. The trees filled with birds. Sunlight poured in the new windows and turned the old floor to the color of honey. Indoor plants throve on the wide windowsills.
The house was like a mirror. It reflected back to me creativity, color, light, modest luxury, simplicity. As I lived my life in it I saw myself differently than I ever had before. I had made a beautiful place, peaceful and welcoming.
For the first time, I thought maybe I had something to offer the world. Maybe I was of some use after all.
In my head, it was all settled. After nearly 50 years of moving and being subject to someone else’s needs and choices, I had come home. For the first time in my life I allowed myself to put down deep, deep roots. I filled the house with my music, my books, my spiritual work, my art, my hopes, dreams, desires, fears and griefs. I joyfully lived without clutter, piles, and collections of junk that weren’t mine. I burned candles and incense and had flowers by the kitchen sink and in the bathroom.
Never again would I have to move. I was safe. I laid in bed at night and felt the house around me like sheltering wings. I had at last realized the deepest and most painful desire of my life — a real home. I would live the rest of my days in safety, serenity and security. The house and I belonged to each other and took care of one another.
Last month I put the house up for sale, and last week it went under contract.
I don’t know how to express all the thoughts and feelings that led me from that place to this. To say I emotionally outgrew it feels true. To say my old life began to feel much too small is also true. Gradually, I understood a house can’t provide me with the safety I’m always looking for, after all. I thought I’d reached the highest peak of my own desire and possibility, but when I got there and looked around, I began to see higher peaks still.
I’d created a home and called it a life.
I was also aware my love for the house exceeded my love for myself. Part of me still waited for someone to show up and do for me what I did for the house. Inside me, a sweet maiden stayed powerless and waiting for a prince on a white horse, but I wasn’t a maiden. I was a menopausal woman, expert in the art of pleasing people, with two adult children, two divorces and a history of abuse. It was too late for the prince thing, and I was bored by it anyway. What was a downy-faced idiot prince going to do with a woman like me?
I recognized the more mature (ahem!) parts of me were simply lonely for healthy, meaningful connection with other people, and no house, no matter how beautiful, comfortable or beloved, could give me that.
Then there was the anguished voice from deep inside, imprisoned somewhere behind my rib cage, that kept saying “I can do more than this! I can be more than this!”
Anyway, I chose to leave Colorado, the house and my life there, though it was like tearing myself in half. Still, I’ve never regretted that choice, and I know now that I don’t want to go back to my old life and that little town — even if I could.
The house I’m in now hardly notices me. It needs nothing from me, and nothing I can do will fix all that needs fixing and update all that needs updating. This is frustrating, at times infuriating, and oddly peaceful. All the energy and love I used to give my home is now going into my writing and into shaping myself and a new kind of life. In a strange and convoluted way, leaving the home of my dreams has at last brought me into direct, intentional and mindful relationship with…me.
I wonder if perhaps I’m the home and safety I’ve always been searching for. How ironic.
I’ve been weeping on and off as I let go of my house. I want to do it, and it hurts. I wonder if I’ll ever have that again — such a perfect home. I wonder about the new owner, who is also a single woman. I hope she feels as sheltered and nurtured there as I did. I hope she’ll touch the trees and feed the birds and glory in the iris and roses and clematis. I hope the owls will wake her in the deep winter nights, calling from the huge pine trees in front. I hope she draws close to herself as she sits in the sun where I sat, sleeps under the ceiling I had patched and painted myself, feeds the wood stove, washes dishes and relaxes in the bathtub.
I hope she and the house will love one another and be happy together.
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