When a debilitating illness forces him to give up the home he built by hand, Lin Jensen realizes he must let go of his ideas about who he is and what he can do.
These words are being written from a room in a house that has recently become for me a temporary residence. The walls and ceiling of the room are covered in rare and beautiful vertical-grained Douglas fir, all heartwood, rescued from a fire-burned ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains of northern California. The windows and doors are framed of clear, kiln-dried redwood. The floor is laid with Spanish-red paving bricks underlain by an inch of mortar, small-mesh wire, thirty-pound felt, and a tight sub floor. Each brick, 3460 of them, was lifted by hand and grouted in place by Karen and me. Every wall and ceiling board, every inch of trim, was milled and cut and nailed in place by the two of us. From the first spadeful of rocky earth torn loose to allow for its concrete footing, to its cabinets and bookshelves that now hold all the personal possessions either of us owns, this house was built by we who were to live in it and who would come in time to know it as “home.”
But now, only seven years since the Plumas County building inspector signified that our work was finished and that Karen and I could move in, a sign has been posted at the entrance to our drive declaring to all who travel Plumas County Road A-23 that the house we built is for sale. I can see the sign from our kitchen window. It is about four-feet square, tacked to a post and cross arm and, though it faces away from me toward the road, I know its message by heart: Lynn Welch Realty, 20 acres, custom solar home.
When Karen and I retired, she from a hospital pharmacy and I from teaching and carpentry, we had thought to live out the remainder of our lives on these twenty acres, in this house, within walls grown as familiar to us as our own aging images in the mirror. But now, whenever I return from some outing with a load of groceries or gas for the snow blower or anything else, Lynn Welch Realty is there to remind me that I am once more a person in transition.
When buyers come to look at our home, we point out everything good about it: the yard that Karen landscaped so beautifully, the vegetable plot with raised beds, the compost bins, the garden shed, the woodshed where cords of firewood are stacked. We fairly glow with enthusiasm, so naturally we are sometimes asked why we are leaving. When confronted with this question, I offer up the obvious and plausible response that a recent injury to my spine prevents me from continuing the heavy work of maintaining the place.
What I don’t tell the questioner is how much I regret not doing the things that need doing and that Karen and I have always done together. I don’t tell how the demands of our mountain life measure with distressing accuracy the exact extent of my daily inadequacies, and of the loss that this evokes in me. I tell of it now because I want to show how loss itself cancels the source of its own distress.
My knowledge of the self-healing qualities of misfortune came with a shocking injury to my spine that left me lying helplessly in bed with legs so useless I was reduced to crawling to the bathroom in order to reach the toilet. Throughout those days, I could hear Karen moving about in the other rooms, hauling in armloads of firewood, shoveling snow away from the outside doors, and digging her way to the woodshed so that she might haul in wood again, and then mopping her own muddy tracks off the floor. I could hear her cooking and washing and carrying kitchen waste to the compost bin and doing these things over and over again. Beyond all this, I had no option but to watch her care for my needs as well, bringing me water and food and tablets of codeine and Vicodin, endlessly bringing me these things day after day, night after night, week after week. And still, in the early morning, when she herself was hopelessly exhausted, she would try just this once more to rub the pain away.
I could do nothing to ease the burden on her. And I knew (for I had been explicitly told) that when the surgery I was awaiting had restored me to my feet, much that I had always done I would never do again: “No weights over twenty-five pounds, no repetitive movement of an extended duration, no twisting, compacting, or sudden bending of the spine.” I would never again do any sustained carpentry or turn clover under in the garden or drag up a few bales of hay for mulching or split wood. I would never backpack or turn a somersault or jump to the ground from even the most modest height or run the length of half a block. I lay in bed looking up at the ceiling Karen and I had nailed in place, and I felt once again the familiar fear of losing myself, of not knowing who I was or how and where I might ever be found again. Nailing ceilings, one nails a wood tongued-and-grooved board in place while standing on planks laid across sawhorses. A partner helps secure the board while the nailer bends backward pushing the groove hard onto the tongue with one hand and driving the nail in with the other. I would never nail another ceiling. The life I had lived for all these years was impossible now and I had no option but to let it go. And in that yielding I saw more clearly than ever before what sorts of ceilings and walls I’d been building all these years.
I saw that I had tried to construct my life as I had built this house, with some fixed and lasting sense of myself nailed securely in place. I saw that no life so constructed could be held secure against the exigencies of time and circumstance, that I must inevitably exhaust myself in futile maintenance of such a structure. A lifetime of certainties fell about me in disrepair. I could no longer conceptualize who I was, and in that very loss the healing was found.
Knowing we must move on, Karen and I recently drove over the mountains to see if Chico, California, might be a place for us to live. The town has a state university, and Karen thinks she would like to go back to school for a while. Of course, there’s much adventure in an excursion like this, yet at times we both felt a little forlorn. The motel room was unfamiliar, its papered walls not those of our own making. The toilet was sealed sanitary with a strip of paper, a precaution some stranger had taken on our behalf. The towels smelled of detergent we were unaccustomed to. And when we sought out the weather channel on a TV so awkwardly hung as to be viewable only while lying on the bed, the meteorologist bore a face we didn’t recognize.
But we persisted in our intent and were able to join a small group of local residents on a wildflower outing to nearby Table Mountain. On the mountain we walked with the others on a windswept plateau where tiny flowers of yellow and blue hugged the rocky earth. Karen and the other women talked among themselves, and when they turned down along a little stream toward a falls, I was drawn uphill to see what species of sparrow it was that moved so low among the grasses. The birds turned out to be lark sparrows. In my trailing after them, I found myself on a prominence that lay an unobstructed horizon about me on all sides. I turned slowly, 360 degrees. In all that space there was nothing, not even a trace of the very steps that had brought me there, to suggest where one might go next. I understood that I could, at that moment, walk in any of all possible directions.
We invent ourselves that we might know who we are and what we are to be. But the consistency we seek in these inventions can’t be maintained against the fabulous inconsistency of actuality. Sensing this, we clutch at cherished constants ever more urgently. The builder of the house of ego can never rest, for he is ever at work to control outcome and limit alternatives. His structure makes its appeal to our longing for the familiar and the safe, but in the end, he delivers only diminishment. I am weary of maintenance.