Restoration as a Calling

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I've been home a month as of yesterday, a span of time that seems both impossibly short and un-countably long. Short when I think about everything we've gotten done on this house-project, and forever when I realize how familiar it is to be back. 

(Yesterday was also Molly's birthday. Happy Birthday, Sweetie!)

I walk almost the same route to the Post Office every afternoon that I took daily when I lived in Cody thirty-plus years ago, climbing the steep sidewalk up the sagebrush-clothed hillside above my neighborhood, and passing houses whose occupants I can name. (The photo at the top of the post is the view from the top of the hill.) In fact, I live in the same neighborhood I did back then. 

Of course, much has changed in my life and in the town. I am sixty, now, widowed with a "kid" who is an adult; when I left Cody for Laramie and grad school, I was newly divorced and hadn't met either Richard or Molly. Much less moved with them to West Virginia, Washington State, Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico, and then back to Colorado.

I've lived a whole life away from this place: I step-mothered Molly, wrote twelve books and hundreds of articles, essays and stories for magazines and newspapers around the country; I nursed my mother and the love of my life through their deaths in the same year. I finished and sold the house Richard built for us and his studio too, and built a snug house and guest studio of my own.

All of that away from the place that has called me home for as long as I remember. Which may explain why I am so happy here in the midst of a house-project I never imagined taking on, with a yard that needs even more work than the house. 

My bedroom, still in progress... That green spot on the wall is a sample of the color it will be eventually; the floors are in such bad shape they can't be refinished, so they'll be covered with reproduction plank flooring.  

I wake every morning in my bedroom with the unfinished floors and walls that need painting, and am ridiculously happy. I am home, I think. I have found my refuge, one I needed more than I realized. I also have found my calling. 

I need the place itself, the landscape that smells like sagebrush, the views bounded by mountains I know intimately because I have walked their slopes and ridges in the days I did fieldwork here. 

And I need this house, both because its beautiful bones speak to me of care, craftsmanship, and comfort; and because it has been so neglected. The house needs me and my vision (and savings!). The restoration project it represents is something positive I can do when the world is so full of negativity, a way to work forward in a time seemingly stalled by divisiveness and fear. 

Restoration as I am practicing it here is both hard physical work and metaphor. It is also my calling in life, especially now. 

Ripping the horrible and filthy carpet off the basement stairs yesterday morning, for instance, not only satisfied my inner Tool Girl--using that little pry bar to remove that which I cannot restore is amazingly satisfying!--it also gave me the kind of workout that makes my muscles sing and sends me to bed early, to sleep well and long. 

Having my hands on tools and the work of bringing this beautiful but badly treated house back to life satisfies my need to heal, to reweave the fabric of the human community, if just in this small way, in a time when we have split along bitter political/religious/tribal lines.

The work I am doing along with my contractor and his trades-colleagues isn't about red or blue or who voted which way (or didn't vote at all); it's not some kind of litmus test for who is good or who is evil.

It is simply positive work. We find common ground in tools and design, and in working hard and smart, in teasing each other, in sympathizing about kids making bad choices or aging parents slipping away. We ask each other's advice, appreciate the craft we practice, and the drive to do it well.

We talk about mundane stuff and also about more esoteric things, like what it means to be a good, caring person, and how "community" comes from "common" and means remembering that we share our humanity, that we are stronger together.  

I am reminded of the deeper meanings of restoration each time we make the decision about whether some aspect of the house is in good enough shape that it can be fixed up, or it is too far gone and must go, like that truly nasty carpet on the basement stairs.

When I finished removing that carpet and its accumulated grime. I set to pulling out the staples, tacks, and even three-penny nails (who nails down carpet?) that had held it and at least one previous iteration in place.

My trusty nail-pulling pliers, which in a previous life trimmed the hooves on my horses, and served to pry out loose horseshoe nails too...

What I found underneath was a set of well-built if battered wood stairs, which when patched and re-painted, will look inviting (instead of scary) and be sturdy and comfortable underfoot. Not art, but good workmanship. 

Imagine these stairs with the holes filled and a fresh coat of paint that brightens up the space.

To restore is to rebuild (literally as well as figuratively: restore comes from the Latin word that means "to rebuild"); in that rebuilding, we evaluate what we have, save what we can, and start over on what we can't. We work with the now, knowing it's not perfect. 

Sometimes restoration brings welcome surprises, uncovering beauty hidden beneath the surface. As with the handles on the original sunshine-yellow metal cabinets in my vintage kitchen. They are gray, and I assumed until I recently took a closer look that they were metal dulled by 60 years of use. 

Not so: The gray chipped off under my fingernail, revealing bright copper beneath. Oh my!

Last night I surfed the internet, looking for non-toxic ways to remove paint from metal door hardware. On This Old House, I found this one: "Simmer" the hardware overnight in hot, not boiling water, with a tablespoon or two of dish soap.

A handle in the process of simmering away the gray paint... 

Then simply scrape off the paint with a stiff plastic bristle brush (I didn't have a brush, so I used my fingernails), and polish. It worked! 

Two handles cleaned, polished, and reattached. Forty-one more to go... 

It seems to me that what we need right now is a lot more energy aimed at restoration--restoring our lives and communities, and a lot less polarization, anger and fear. What we have is what we have. We can't go back. 

But we can go forward with an aim to restore, to thoughtfully evaluate what we find, and then work hard and smart--together--to save and shine up what we can, and rebuild what we can't. 

We may find beauty we didn't imagine in the doing. We'll surely rediscover our commonality, what unites us as caring human beings, and that is a gift we truly need. 

Can you spot those three copper handles? They match the original copper-clad range hood. 

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