The next episode of Climate Changed is out, which features an interview I did with Dr. Veronice Miles, where we dive into the question “If I can’t make a difference, then what do I do?” Dr. Miles gives one of the most eloquent analyses and cases for hope I’ve ever encountered, so if you’re wondering what it means to find hope in a moment like this, then check it out!
Ben is co-hosting a new podcast, “Climate Changed”, about finding faith, life, and love in a climate-changed world, with in-depth interviews with activists, poets, philosophers, and others about how we can make sense of the climate-changed moment we’re in.
Subscribe to the new podcast here: https://climatechanged.podbean.com/
Check out the first two episodes when they’re released at the end of June and make sure to rate and review on Apple Podcasts!
Climate Changed in a project of the BTS Center in beautiful Portland, ME.
Spontaneous Naps Taken While Kids Play Loudly Around Me: Many
Scenes of Muppet Christmas Carol Slept Through: Three
Times My Children Have Imitated Dad By Pretending to Spontaneously Fall Asleep In A Chair: Several
Number of People Helping With House: One Crowd’s Worth (See below)
Fall Stressed Saved By One Crowd’s Worth of Helpers: Considerable
House Status: Mostly Cleaned, Partially Wired, Moderately Sheetrocked
Home Owner/Renovator Status: Tired and Grateful
We are now very officially in the grind portion of the renovation experience. After having practiced the art of fifty hour weeks for the better part of the fall, I’ve discovered that my body has reached the very early parts of the “Not As Young As It Used To Be” stage of life. I am now perfecting the technique generally reserved only for the aged uncles among us: the ability to fall asleep in my chair almost at the drop of a hat. In the past month, I have fallen asleep at the dinner table, while ensconced in an arm chair (the traditional location of all people who practice this wonderful dark art) in three separate living rooms, while surrounded by two to four exuberantly playing children, while watching a movie (what did happened with the Ghost of Christmas Past say to Michael Caine and a horde of puppets? I honestly couldn’t tell you,) and, in my coup de grace, while sitting on the top of a set of bulkhead basement steps in between handing tools to the person who was installing a basement door at the bottom of said steps.
Needless to say, life right now is sustained by a lot of caffeine and 8:00PM bedtimes.
But, rather than telling you about my exhaustion, a state which will no doubt deepen and develop new complexities, like a fine wine, until we move in; let me tell you about the friends, without whom, even my spontaneous micro-naps would not be possible.
Every project needs its angels and that’s especially true in a year when one loses two and a half months work of work time due to bad reactions to vaccines and losing internal organs. In a spirit of post-holiday gratitude; here are a few people I’m more than a little thankful for as we officially enter the Final Stretch this year.
Shelby Campbell and Celia Whitehead – Dear friends, Islanders-in-Spirit, and nascent geeks who I have slowly been converting to the Cult of Tabletop Role Playing Games. They’re the only people I know who would say, “You know, we can just come out and help you with your house this weekend, rather than play Dungeons and Dragons”, and moreover, would genuinely mean it, and then, when asked, would give up a full weekend-and-a –half to do so, and moreover, would do so when the primary task was installing bats of mineral wool insulation, a substance so itchily pestilent that it will cause all your exposed skin to break out in rashes and your lungs to sound like they’re breathing through a cheese grater, and moreover, will do so with such shocking speed and efficiency that you’re pretty sure that having each of them on your job is roughly the equivalent of having a team of about twelve well-trained professionals, rather than two people who decided that they were “excited to learn how to install insulation”, a phrase which has never been uttered before by any human on the face of the planet.
The Indigenous Peoples’ Day Weekend Crew – My brother Matt (who boated out to the island only to spend his entire day alone in a room installing a tricky plaster patch on a ceiling), along with sister-in law Patsy and two kids,, to the Short’s (Emily, Dalton, and their kids, Ari and Zooe), my wife, John the Wizard (who also spent a day in a basement installing foamboard panels on the wall), who helped us make up some of the lost ground from my year of health excitement.
The Chebeague Island Tool Bank: Jay Corson, Joe Ballard, Specs Eaton, Kim Boehm (see: Electrical Sensei) Chip and Jen Corson, Dick and Stephanie (our future next door neighbors), all of whom are willing to lend fasteners and tools at the drop of a hat, with seemingly no concern about when they would be returned. (I’m proud to announce that I’m ALMOST at tool-zero right now, but for one rogue hammer drill.)
My Dad – (Whose name is Michael, in case you’re wondering where my son’s name came from); also known as the Best Dad Ever, who has been out for the better part of half a month since September, and has patiently performed his half of our Keystone Cops Do Home Renovation Routine that the two of us have been perfecting for the last decade or so. (Pro Tip: whenever anyone says, “Can I come out to your island? I’d love to just do some work on your house on my own.” You response should always be “Yes”, followed by lots of surreptitious celebratory dancing.)
Hugh Kellam – A Canadian of such incredible kindness and humility that he makes me want to become Canadian myself. Coming from a place of generosity that is still more or less inaccessible to me, he offered to spend a couple days of his hard-earned island vacation helping me install plumbing in John (Best Friend Ever/Island Wizard)’s unheated, dirt-floored, definitely-smelly basement. And sure enough (more stories to come in a later post!), we pulled it off in two days flat, even with multiple island supply disruptions, with Hugh patiently teaching me how to install drains as I slowly got high off of solvent fumes.
There’s more to be said. Stay tuned for the epic of the Missing Shower Drain, a six hour ordeal that involved a memorable encounter with the embodied stereotype of mustached 80’s masculinity; the next Memoriam for Small but Important Things That Were Lost; and a couple Actually Unmitigated Triumphs and more; but for now, I begin this year with gratitude (and end with sheetrocking. I always seem to end with sheetrocking.)
Solastalgia: The homesickness you have when you are still at home – when your home environment is changing in ways you find distressing. Coined by Glenn Albrecht, this term is most often used to describe the grief caused when one’s place is forever altered due to environmental degradation or climate change.
I think about Solastalgia as a lifelong mainline Protestant when I brush my son’s teeth.
Michael is five years old, and every night, after we read a book for a continually-renegotiated amount of time, he sits down on top of the toilet seat, cranes his face up at me, and smiles cooperatively while I go about the work of avoiding future dentist bills.
I also use this forty-five or so seconds as an opportunity to give lessons in applied hymnology, as I sing him the beloved songs of my youth in a United Methodist Church.
He’s learned “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing”, or at least as many of the seventeen verses as I can easily remember. (Incidentally, this was my eight-year-old-self’s favorite hymn, much to the chagrin of the adults who always assumed that “Jesus Loves Me” must be the favorite song of every person under twenty years old.) He’s learned “Lord I Want to Be A Christian” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer”. He’s learned “Amazing Grace” and the even more amazing fact that it can be sung in settings other than funerals. Sometimes he even hums along, as well as a five-year-old can do with his mouth half-open and his father busily doing amateur dental work.
About a month ago, we were performing our normal nighttime ritual, when I suddenly realized, while singing “Holy, Holy, Holy”, that he will never learn to love these hymns which are part of my spiritual bedrock. These songs, which provided the soundtrack for my youth and young adult years, will be forgotten by him and his peers and pass into the mists of curiosity and history. His memories of the songbook of my life, so far as he ever remembers it, will be linked with images of staring up at a bathroom ceiling or with the sleepy dustiness of an almost-empty sanctuary on Sunday morning. The impervious stability which is ostensibly part of the promise of a millenia-old religious tradition, was simply…. not; and I found myself swallowing down the grief that surprised me during one of the most prosaic nighttime routines.
I wonder if you’ve ever experienced such a moment of dislocation in the faith community that you belong to. We go to the place that we call our spiritual home, indeed that many of us have probably called home for much of our lives; and while the sanctuary looks the same as it always has (perhaps eerily so) there’s a sense of weariness. The pews are still lined up in rows, but there are fewer faces in them, and those faces are older than they used to be. The same hymns are sung, but with quieter voices. The traditions: the choirs, the Easter flowers, the Christmas Eve services continue in ever-shrunken capacities; as if slowly returning to the ground from which they came.
In those moments, perhaps you have experienced this intense homesickness for the home of days long gone by: of beloved saints who have passed away, of full sanctuaries and full voices, of a community filled with energy and hope, rather than determined exhaustion. It sometimes feels like we sit amongst the ghosts, who press in on us in those places where once there was life and now there is dust.
It reminds me of the story from Nehemiah, when the exiles return to Israel, and the temple begins to be rebuilt. It says, “All the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise.” (Nehemiah 12:11-13)
Perhaps those weeping people were experiencing spiritual solastalgia. They were home but yet not home: recalling what was long past and never coming back; coming to terms with all that was precious that had been lost forever.
I wonder the last time any of us have wept for all that we have lost in our spiritual homes, any more than we have wept for all that we have lost in our planetary home. We live in a culture that denies death and shies from the practice of grief. We live in a culture that is addicted to the solution: that believes that it is our birthright to be the heroes of our own story, that there is always a rabbit ready to be pulled out of the proverbial hat.
It’s easy to see this in climate conversations. We assume ever more frantic can-do attitudes. We invest our faith in increasingly fantastic technological solutions, all of which are either utterly unfeasible or, taken on their own, utterly insufficient for the challenge at hand. We throw ourselves into advocacy work, that, while deeply important, sometimes ignores the fact that the moment that we could have “solved” the climate crisis is past, and the question now is not whether things will get worse, but how much worse they will get. We cannot get our imaginations around the hard fact that this home, which has always been our greatest constant as a species, is now unreliable and will only become more unreliable, no matter what we do at this point; that much of what we love will be lost and already has been lost.
We are not exempt from this dynamic in our faith communities. We often hold up our increasingly tattered pictures of the forever-gone yesterdays like shields against the reality of a changed world: talking only in terms of budgets and volunteers, decrying the spiritual perils of Sunday morning sports rather than wrestling with our own complicated complicity in our communities’ spiritual and institutional decline; shouting “Sunday is coming!” while forgetting that the path to Easter treads through the cross at Friday and the tomb at Saturday.
However, grief is the first step towards hopeful engagement with reality. When we can acknowledge what has already gone into the arms of God, when we can release our frantic desire to return to our imagined yesterdays, when we can stop building ever more fantastic ecclesial castles in the sky, then we are also able to notice the new things that God is already growing out of the green earth. Wherever our suffering is, that’s where God is waiting to meet us: to guide us through shadowed valleys that we have long avoided and to bring us to new homes, made from God’s own body.
About a month ago, before I gave this talk at a public event, we were sitting at the dinner table and Michael asked why I would not be able to perform our nightly hymnological exercise that evening. I explained to him that I was working in my office on an event about helping people grieve for all the places in the world that have been hurt. He paused and asked,
“Did we hurt them?”
I took a deep breath.
“Yes. Not you personally. It’s just really hard to live in the country that we do and not hurt the planet.”
He paused again.
“I want to stop people from hurting them.”
“Even if they hurt me when I do it.”
In this moment is all my rage and grief and hope: rage at the broken planet and broken church that were now his birthright through no fault of his own, grief at the undeniable reality that his life would be harder than my own, and hope at this very young determination to keep trying anyway: a determination that might not change the world on its own, but was still something incalculably precious.
Just because I miss it, doesn’t mean that it needs to come back and even if its ending truly is a tragedy, then that also does not preclude possibility or hope. My son’s spiritual life is a site of hope for me as well as grief. I see him captured by the idea of turning guns into garden tools; and going outside to break his bubble gun in half because he knows that Christians don’t kill. I see the group of kids, nearly half of our small school, who gather in our front yard every week for hot cocoa and muffins before biking to school together. I marvel at the incredible interactions I have almost daily with people who are hungry to wade into deeper spiritual waters than they’ve ever waded into before; even if they’d never dream of calling themselves religious. And in all of this, I see new things I can celebrate, even as I mourn all that is passing away.
What solastalgic ghosts are you sitting with right now? In your spiritual community, what are you mourning that was once cherished but is now lost and perhaps has gone as-yet-unnamed?
May all that springs from the soil of your lament offer you hope and challenge for the good futures that you can help birth for your communities and for our planet.
A version of this talk was given as part of an event entitled, “Solastalgia: Homesick in A Climate-Changed World” hosted by the BTS Center. If you would like a space to grieve with others, make sure to register for “Lament With Earth“, an evening with original music, poetry, and ritual with the Many on Thursday, December 9th, from 7:30-9:30PMEST.
Wires Run: Two Full Room!
Nervousness About Inspection for Wires Run: High
Inspections For Said Wires Passed?: Yes!
Hours Spent in Delightful Tedium: Twenty
Essential Home Depot Supplies Arrived On Time: NONE
Additional Trash Bags Filled: Seventeen
Hours Lost to One Dumb Mistake With Recessed Light Installation: Two
Heating Vents Demolished While Bellowing Like A Beserk Norse Warrior: All Of Them
Catharsis Derived From Demolition: Extreme
New Roof Installed: One
Time In Which Roof Was Installed: One Terrifyingly Fast Day
Work: Ongoing and Eternal
This house has officially turned from an Adventure to a Job.
Not surprisingly, this revelation came to me while running the incredibly tedious one-man relay race that is sticking electrical cable through a hole in the first floor bedroom into the basement, going to the opposite end of the house, going down the stairs, and then running (my knees would like me to inform you that I use the word “running” only in the most metaphorical sense) to the opposite end of the basement to pull it through, straighten it out, stick it up through a small hole in the basement rafters, and running back upstairs. Wash, rinse, repeat, six to infinity more times, with associated pauses to drill through very thick joists with a small, not-really-made-for-this drill which would valiantly grind out a hole in about the time it would take me to read War and Peace.
That was the better part of a full day this last week, with work of similar excitement on the horizon. I haven’t found a dead cat, fallen through a poorly secured well cover, discovered an amazing old-time treasure, or shoveled a pile of fossilized excrement in months now, and while my back, nose, and sanity certainly appreciate it, it has taken the wild contours of a renovation roller coaster ride that was filled to the brim with both excitement and nausea, and turned into the sort of kiddy-in-the-small-train-car sort of ride that is a perfect soporific on a late Saturday afternoon at any respectable amusement park.
Combine this with a very definite change in deadline from “Eh, in the next few years, isn’t this just a lot of fun?” to “Next Summer or Bust”; and this has gone from that Fun Hobby I Do On Weekends to a “Pack Your Lunch Pail and You’re Going to Work, No I Don’t Care How Tired You Are” project that has made realize that I am very definitively working two jobs instead of one.
There are still pleasures in this work, but they’re slower ones.
There’s the pleasant burn as your body first protests, and then contentedly settles into a day of physical activity.
There’s the satisfaction of every small benchmark hit (I passed by first inspection by the code officer!) and competency demonstrated.
There’s the spacious joy of solitude (a rare commodity when one is the father of two small children) uncomplicated by mental demands.
There’s the more prosaic joy of audio books and listening to entire albums beginning to end.
There are the fleeting moments where you hear birdsong, catch the smell of flowers on the breeze, or look around and see what this project will feel like when it has gone from gutted walls to a living reality.
These are the sort of pleasures that are lost to today’s attentionally spastic world. Many of us run on the energy of novelty. Whether it be in relationships, in work, in hobby, or in community; there is always a seismic burst of enthusiasm and engagement at the beginning; followed by a very quick drop off when the Exciting Thing loses its new car smell, and the experience becomes harder and more tedious. Before long, the job or relationship is changed, the hobby dropped for a new one, the community left, ostensibly to find something that is a better fit for their soul or because Life Got Too Busy; but really because they’re off to seek the energy of the New someplace else.
However, the best parts always happen after the energy of novelty has been expended. The deepest friendship (and most enduring romance) always come when the relational fizzies die off and you are left simply with each other, in all your enduring quirks and imperfections. Competence comes only after the initial excitement dies off and you engage with often-tedious practice and incremental improvement. Community is only transformative when you spend time together after the social chemistry has subsided to a more sedate level, people’s rough edges come out, and the trust emerges that always predates deep soul work.
So it is with the house. The bud is off the rose. The most exciting discoveries have been made. The vast expanse of the New is shrinking daily, ceding its territory to the Old But the Necessary.
All of this was entirely inevitable. Every project, be they human or house related, involves this sort of transition. Now it’s time for me to pick up lunch pail and let the real work begin.
I had the second best meal of my life yesterday.
It was the highly unexpected end to an arduous quest for Melissa (my wife) and I, as we attempted to go on our first date in eighteen months and also belatedly celebrate our fourteenth wedding anniversary, which had been rudely curtailed by a household stomach flu; which led to us trading our plans for Glorious Piles of Small Plates At Fancy Restaurants for Cleaning Up Vomit and Stress Eating Mozzarella Sticks At 8 PM at Night.
Two weeks later, we set out again, sponsored this time by vacation and the generosity of an island friend (thank you Jenny!) who graciously agreed to pick up our children, feed them, and put them to bed so that we could go out and adult together.
We went into the city in the early afternoon (Portland, Maine. Population, 75,000, which boasts both the highest level of hipster-pretension and amazing small restaurants per capita in the country), had a couple drinks, and wandered around blissfully until suddenly discovering that the restaurant we had based our dinner plans around was closed unexpectedly. This necessitated some frantic googling, a very quick text exchange with my incredibly knowledgeable foodie sister-in-law (thank you Patsy!), and a lot of rapid COVID risk evaluation of our short list of alternate candidates. This process ended us up at Little Giant, a small bistro in the West End of Portland, a good mile’s walk from where we were, and one of the few places in town that unapologetically requires vaccines for its diners.
[Quick review: Go to this restaurant before they become famous. They have a short menu of small plates and main courses that changes frequently. Their food is sourced seasonally and locally, which they use to great effect, and if you’ve ever wondered “Why fine dining?”, you’ll see why here, where their careful attention turns good ingredients into glorious masterpieces. The highlights: buratta with pickled watermelon rind, scallop ceviche in chive oil, hangar steak with bok choy, and crab with black rice and horseradish. Their waitstaff clearly cares about their food and is also sneaky good at pairing wine from their well-curated list with whatever amazing food they’re bringing to you next. One good step down in $ from the most famous places in town, with small plates at $8-$17 and main courses at $25-$30.]
My wife and I are foodies and have a running list of of the best meals we’ve ever had since we’ve been married [Our top five, in ascending order: dinner at the Samoset in Rockport during our honeymoon, our first meal at Keon’s Bistro in Haverhill, a five course wine dinner at Michael and Gretchen Arntz’s house with great company, our meal at Little Giants, and at the very top, the chef’s tasting menu at Evo in Portland five years ago, where they brought us piles of delicious things until we had to get the boat home.] Making this list is not just about the food, although good food (and drink) is essential. It’s also about the moment, about the company, the conversation, the weather even. I’ve had great meals on otherwise forgettable nights that have already faded from memory. I’ve had meals that were less-than-perfect that will stay with me forever because of the moment when they happened. A Best Meal is an ineffable alchemy; and when all those ingredients come together, the whole experience will feed your soul for months.
We sat and we drank and we ate. I successfully fought off the urge to say grace at every new course and unsuccessfully tried to stop making slightly-embarrassing guttural exclamations of delight with each new dish. We talked about our last year, about our dreams for our future and our family, about our hopes for our new house and the shapes of the next season of our lives, which we are are so close to entering into. We counted moments in bites rather than seconds and slipped gently out of the stream of time; only to return, with the check, nearly three hours later, wondering where all the time had passed.
We tipped our way back to our car, the rain falling lightly on us, feeling like we had compressed a week’s worth of rest into one glorious evening. As we headed back exhausted, on the last ferry, ready to thank our sitter and fall into bed; I reflected that this, I’m pretty sure, is what we’re supposed to mean when we say Holy: not the fussy dustiness of dead words and stained glass windows, not the defensively mathematical precision of doctrine or morals, not the intimidating contemptuous grandeur of a Being that has somehow deigned to put up with us because it didn’t have any better choices; but rather the promiscuously overflowing exuberance that makes souls out of dust, grows hope out of cold concrete, and which turns even the plainest encounter into communion with the love that birthed the cosmos.
We tend to think of the life of the Spirit as a reward for assiduous practice, or as something done on our behalf by religious professionals, or that thing that’s supposed to happen when we gather with others at long-proscribed times and places. However, it is in fact a gift; one that comes often unasked-for and unexpected, and turns words and silence into wisdom; turns food into sacrament, and turns time into eternity. I’ve encountered those moments more than once in explicitly spiritual settings; but often I’ve found that the most memorable ones tend to ambush me when I’m hardly looking for them.
Frederick Buechner says
Some moment happens in your life that you say yes right up to the roots of your hair, that makes it worth having been born just to have happen. laughing with somebody till the tears run down your cheeks. waking up to the first snow. being in bed with somebody you love… whether you thank God for such a moment or thank your lucky stars, it is a moment that is trying to open up your whole life. If you turn your back on such a moment and hurry along to business as usual, it may lose you the ball game. if you throw your arms around such a moment and hug it like crazy, it may save your soul.
These moments are invitations:
Life is far more wild than you dream.
Do not spend all your time splashing in the shallows.
Swim to the Deep, whose waves lap up on your shore, and dive into the arms of Love instead.
Days on Injured Reserve: About Fifty
Carpenter Ants Discovered: One Teeming Horde
Carpenter Ants Murdered with Sociopathic Glee: One Teeming Horde (I hope)
Timeline Changes for Mandatory Roof Work: Next Year to Next Month to Right Now to Yesterday to Many Yesterdays Ago
Moldy Sheetrock Exported: Three Truckloads Full
Rafters Raised: Seventeen
Roofs Successfully Tarped: One Half
Roof Tarpers Injured In the Process: None
Long Weekends Spent in Demi-Drudgerous Labor: Four and Counting Ad Infinitum
No home renovation process is complete without a few surprises.
By surprises, I don’t mean the inevitable discovery of, say, a stash of stamped gold bars behind the mantelpiece or a nondescript wooden table which is in fact an Antique of Great Rarity which avaricious collectors will pay you obscene amounts of money for; but rather the sort of surprise that takes your carefully prepared timeline, shreds it into a million tiny pieces, and then gleefully dances in the resultant confetti.
We have hit the Season of Surprises at the house, which has left this amateur renovator more than a little haggard.
Please permit me to enumerate:
1) I had an extremely unexpected trip to the Injured Reserve, when my body had a violent disagreement with Pfizer Vaccine Shot #1. Considering my medical history, this shouldn’t have come as entire shock; but it sent me into what was my worst flare up in over two years. As it turns out, if I can barely manage to wrench myself into sitting position for a day to write emails, then swinging a hammer was about as feasible as flying to the moon. Thanks to a barrage of supplements recommended to me by my doctor, I got back on my feet and sailed through shot #2 without a problem; but I lost about fifty days in the process, all of which turned the summer from Busy But Quite Doable to Utter Batshit Insanity.
[“But Ben!” a few of you may ask, “Don’t you regret getting that horrible vaccine now?” The answer, of course, is no; for three reasons. First, because while my illness does tend to interact poorly with vaccines, it also makes me a prime candidate for Long COVID, which would have put me on my back likely for a year or more. Secondly, because it’s my duty as a citizen and a decent human being to help our country beat back the virus which has claimed so many lives (including several people I knew.) And third, because when so many other people have decided to treat vaccines as a personal or political choice rather than as their civic duty, not getting vaccinated and trusting your community is just not an option.]
2) On the Fourth of July weekend, I discovered a sizable puddle of water on the first floor of our house; which provided incontrovertible evidence that the roof we needed to get replaced in the next year or so needed to be replaced now, in fact, probably needed to be replaced many yesterdays ago. This necessitated ten or so phone calls to local area roofers, as I went from “I want a standing seam roof at a decent price” to “I will take any mostly non-drunk handyperson who can put up shingles in a straight line.”
While the most-failed part of the roof has now been tarped up, thanks to My Amazing Father, who, now that he is vaccinated, has put on his cape and swooped in to do an incredible amount of work over the last month; the leaky roof means that I cannot finish the room under said leaky roof where one heat pump is supposed to be installed, nor the room under the room of said leaky roof, leading to the equivalent of a seventeen car pileup on the Highway to Ben’s Family Moving Into His House; involving almost an equivalent amount of bad feelings and profanity.
3) One weekend ago, I discovered the corollary to a leaky roof, which is the particular sort of creature which finds damp wood a delicious delectation: namely, a happy tribe of carpenter ants, who were cheerfully excavating quite a happy village when I rudely horned in on their domestic bliss while removing sheet rock. I was perhaps more surprised than they were and ended up flailing at them passionately and ineffectively with my crowbar while turning the air blue, before rushing out on the next boat to buy bait and poison; after which I bombarded them with malicious glee; feeling in the darkest part of my soul a profound satisfaction every time I saw one wither up and die.
They appear to be mostly gone; but then again, so is a good three foot section of the back part of my house, which now needs dried out and rebuilt so that they do not think to take up residence again.
All of this is part of the game. You’re not a home renovator until you’ve been punched in the face multiple times, only sometimes metaphorically. Through the dint of some very long weekends; I’m starting to make up ground, while anxious waiting for a contractor to come do his work, the code inspector to call about wiring, and for Someone/Anyone to give me a decently reasonable bid on the roof.
All of this is to say: if you need me to find me quickly this summer, don’t come to my front porch or search for me at the nearest beach, just come to the house; where I will probably be grumpily swinging a hammer trying to convince myself that, after all, all this extra work is just good cardio.
Successfully Burned: Multitudes of Waste
Contractor Trash Bags Purchased (And Used): 250
Contractor Trash Bags Needed (In Total) To Complete House: 253
Saints Who Deliver Three Needed Trash Bags: One, Named Kathy. Thank You.
The other day we set off the Pyre of the Ages down at the house: a burn pile of almost-epic proportions which had accumulated over the course of a year and a half of work. It was a cool-ish morning, the snow was on the ground, and we had gathered, with almost liturgical reverence, around the ominous hulk.
“Did you bring the diesel?” I was asked. “Yes,” I said, until it became clear that, in fact, I had brought the propane, which would most likely have incinerated the burn pile, house, and fire-setter together. Diesel retrieved and applied, I was asked, “Did you bring matches?” When I shamefacedly shook my head in the negative, my overly patient mentor grinned widely and threw me a box from his coat. After a year, apparently he knows me.
You would think that for someone smart enough to write in multiple complete sentences, this sort of dumb mistake might be a rather uncommon occurrence: the unfortunate byproduct of under-caffeination and over-scheduling. In fact, this level of “You Forgot the What?” stupidity has been perhaps the second-most reliable feature of this last year, running close second to my increasing tolerance for huge piles of reeking garbage. In the past year, I’ve forgotten my tool belt more times than I can count, destroyed pieces of flashing, de-shingled a roof in the precisely opposite-to-optimum way, resulting in a full extra day of work, installed sheet rock with similar efficiency and expertise, and so on.
More than once in the past few months, I’ve stopped, generally while covered in dust and humiliation, and thought, I’m not good at this.”
To be clear, I’m certainly better at this than I was a year ago. Just this last weekend, I walked into my Tenant/Best Friend Ever’s/Island Wizard’s cabin and successfully repaired THREE electrical outlets in the course of 90 minutes, after which I verbally high fived myself to the point of obnoxiousness.
I can now look at physical objects and see them as part of interacting systems that I too am capable of interacting with, rather than as Vast Unreachable Mysteries That Make Me Panic. I actually enjoy settling into the grind of a day’s worth of work, able to pace myself so I’m not utterly spent after ninety overenthusiastic minutes. When it comes to electrical work and some forms of extremely basic carpentry, I now know how to learn what I don’t know (although the inner mysteries of framing, leveling, and other such topics still lie utterly beyond my grasp.)
That’s certainly progress, but none of it comes easy to me. I’ll never be the person you look to for top-grade finish work or to ingeniously troubleshoot a knotty problem. I simply don’t possess the genius of so many of my neighbors on the island, who can read a book about boat building, for instance, and then go build a boat; or can read a book on installing a septic system and then go out to confidently rent an excavator. My road up this hill is far steeper, filled with a thousand genuinely dumb mistakes and precious few leaps of insights, as I struggle to get my brain to think in a way that it hasn’t had to do before. In short, I’m not pushing my way to the front of the class anytime soon.
This is not exactly a common experience for me. I was one of those “gifted” kids; able to get good grades without having to develop a lot of discipline (lots of energy, yes; but always with the scattered enthusiasm of a person who has not quite learned how to keep up with his brain yet) and I learned to stay in that lane as much as possible. I knew what I was good at (writing, reading, ideating, for instance) and what I wasn’t good at (athletics, where I was exceptionally competitive and exceptionally average) and social situations (which I viewed with the same excitement as a gopher who’s been invited as a special guest to the Annual Hawk Convention) and most certainly the Trades, where I viewed anything more than changing a tire or mowing the lawn with reverent terror.
When my health and my career fell apart simultaneously (hyperlink); my sense of narrowly cultivated competence collapsed with it. After spending a fair amount of time stuck in the muck of my failure, I realized that I was going to have start doing things that I wasn’t good at (or at least not practiced at) if my life was going to get better. It meant exploring alternative medical treatments for my illness so I could get better rather than just sucking it up. It meant getting into therapy and spiritual direction (both of which one must approach as a beginner if one is to accomplish anything.) It meant laboriously reworking my career down different lines: as a choral director, as a worship leader, and as a consultant, always at higher degrees of pressure and complexity than I ever had before. It also meant buying this house, both for the opportunity and from a sense of calling, but where I really lacked the basic competencies to do the work without significant help.
Being a beginner is an exhausting blessing. It the vulnerability of shedding one’s illusions of competence and trusting on others to guide you. It is an almost daily exercise in discovering why the words “humility” and “humiliation” share the same roots. It is the regular experience of reaching the ends of your understanding and having to keep at it anyway, trusting that your comprehension will grow in due time. It is learning the necessity of applying steady effort even when it’s not fun and never comes easy.
There is a definite energy cost to spending much of your time as a novice. I have a pile of small curiosities that I have had to set back on the shelf for the indefinite future. In my leisure time, I find myself settling back in the same un-adventuresome activities that made me happy when I was twelve, namely reading books and playing video games. After all, we are limited creatures, with only so much time and emotional fortitude to spend, and I’m already more than a little bit over-drawn.
You too can find something to learn that you’re bad at. It’ll be good for you; it’ll probably even be fun at times. Learn a musical instrument or a new language, even if you’ll never play in a concert or be able to do much more than say “Where is the bathroom?” without embarrassment. Maybe you don’t possess the necessary insanity to renovate a house, but perhaps building a chicken coop would be a good exercise in personal growth and profanity. Maybe you don’t need to rebuild your life from scratch as I did, but perhaps scheduling a session with a therapist or spiritual director could help you examine the unexamined assumptions about your life and start the journey towards personal and spiritual growth.
The house is now nearly clean (stay tuned for another post on the joys of emptying out a 450 square foot storage room!) which means that the renovation portion of our project is about to begin. This means I’ll be spending the year being really bad at carpentry. Who knows? Maybe next by March, I’ll know how to remove a load-bearing wall and frame out a room. One way or another, I’ll have another year of practice at not being good at what I do.
Once upon a time, there was a young monk renowned for his holiness who was living in the wilderness. It was said that the cause of this monk’s holiness was that everything could be his teacher: that he could learn as well from the moon at night or rocks on the ground as from prayer and the holy scriptures, that he could sit for days being taught by a speck of dust twirling lazily around him.
And so the demons got together and concocted a clever plan. They said, “If this monk has agreed to let a speck of dust teach him, then certainly he will let one of us teach him as well.”
They sent their wiliest demon to the young monk. And the demon appeared before him and said, “I have heard that you are renowned for your ability to let everything be your teacher, will you not let me teach you as well?”
The young monk, seeing who the demon was, stopped and considered. He said, “Yes, I will allow you to teach me.”
And so, for forty days and forty eights, he sat at the foot of this demon, who expounded, in its most seductive fashion, a diabolically clever discourse filled with evil and lies. And as the days wore on, much to the demon’s delight, its teaching seemed to be working. It noticed the monk gazing in rapt attention at its face while it spoke. It noticed the long periods of silence after its lessons, where the monk seemed to be pondering its words deeply. It noticed the monk called it “Rabbi” respectfully before every question he asked.
At the end of forty days, the demon knew that its work had been completed; it was time for the monk to become its disciple. It said, “Now you know the truth of this world, come with me and I will ensure that there is no more powerful person on all this planet than you.”
But the monk sadly shook his head, “Teacher, you know that I cannot do that.”
The demon was very confused and said, “But why not? Have you not listened to my lessons? Did I not expound to you in the most convincing and convicting ways about the true nature of this life?”
The monk said, “Yes, and I thank you for that. You see, when you came, I knew that every word out of your mouth would be a lie.
So, whenever I heard your teaching and thought, ‘This Demon speaks sense’, I had to learn the foolishness in your apparent wisdom
Whenever I received your words and thought ‘That is indeed good!’, I had to discern where your advice spoke evil.
Whenever I sat at your feet and my heart sang ‘Yes!’, I had to learn how my heart was still a liar.
My rabbi, you have advanced me further in holiness than all of these others ever have. So no, I will not go with you; but will you stay with me? For you are the best teacher I’ve ever had.”
And so, the demon, realizing that it had failed, vanished, never to return again.