October 15th, 2012
“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again;
we had longer ways to go.
But no matter, the road is life.”
– Jack Kerouac
I’ve been home for a couple of months now, and whenever anyone asks me how it feels to be home, I tell them, “It’s strange. And wonderful. And strange.”
The final push to get home was intense, of course. Jerry the Contractor and I were here every day, all day, doing Homebuilding Triage, asking ourselves, “What HAS to be done for me to actually live here? What HAS to be done to pass inspection?”
The most unlikely things are required by building code in order to move in (handrails on the deck – yes; doorknobs inside the house- no.) So I moved in, without cabinets, or closet doors, or doorknobs, and we declared it Good Enough For Now.
Apparently, this is how it is when you build a house. You get to the end of the project and everyone is exhausted, the money is pretty much gone, and the lease on the rental is up or the goodwill of your friends has expired. It’s time to move on, so off you go, to live in a construction zone and try to figure out exactly how you can afford to finish this house.
Jerry and I sat down at the cardboard countertop that was my temporary kitchen island, and we started to write the final To Do list, which is called, oddly, the “Punch List.” I said, “Jerry, is this called a Punch List because by this time we’re both ready to punch each other?” He smiled, and, being the essence of tact, said, “Okay, let’s start. Item number one…”
We came up with eighty-seven things on the Punch List. Yep, eighty-seven. And that did not include anything outside the house (like finishing the deck, the dog pen, the garage…) And of course, being Neurotically Organized, I had to organize it by categories, with an estimated budget for each item, and an estimated date of completion for each task.
By the time we were done with the first draft and I saw how much we still had to do, I put my head down on the cardboard. “God, Jerry,” I said. “I’m just so, so tired.” He looked out the window and said, “It’s okay, We’ll just take it one thing at a time.” “Yep,” I said, “One thing at a time.”
And so began what I call the Siege of the Subcontractors. Each day I woke up to a new fleet of trucks outside the house, and a new gang of guys unloading “stuff” onto my front porch – electricians, plumbers, carpenters, cabinet makers, and of course, Jerry, holding it all together. And you know, these guys like to start EARLY in the morning, and I am not exactly a morning person, so this whole thing has been rather a challenge to my sanity.
One morning I walked out of the bedroom with a cup of coffee to find three carpenters, the tile guy, the cabinet guy, the glass shelf-installing guys, the appliance guy, plus Jerry and the construction supervisor, in the living room. I looked around and said, “Oh my god, it’s RAINING MEN!” The older guys laughed out loud, the young guys just blushed and went back to work.
And of course, construction is NOISY. Saws, hammers, and the endless drone and whine of machines filled the air nearly every day. People would email me – readers, well-wishers, friends – and say, “Oh, I hope you’re enjoying the lovely peace and quiet of your new mountain home,” as someone would be drilling a hole in my bedroom wall.
What could I say? I wanted to give my friends a break, and not bother them with the noisy, gory details of finishing a house. “When is the housewarming?” they would ask. I’d look at them through a haze of exhaustion and say, “Oh I don’t know. In October? Spring? Never?”
On the weekends, Nellie and I slept. We slept for hours, days, only getting up to eat a little, take a short walk, and then crawl back into bed. I filled my giant bathtub, turned on the jets, and soaked, and then climbed back into bed. I took two, sometimes three baths a day, being a Bad Earth Citizen and using too much water and electricity, but I didn’t care. I had been to Hell and back, and now I needed to rest. I let the machine answer the phone, didn’t go to town at all, and just slept. For weeks.
And then one night, I started to feel better, and I decided to start the clean-up on my land. For you see, my land is not doing that well. The fire has left me with three acres of sticky, gnarly, invasive weeds, where there once was a beautiful tall-grass meadow. To the casual observer, it looks green and lush, but if you look closely, it is a tangle of sticker-filled plants that shouldn’t be there.
So I started pulling weeds. In the long, end-of-summer evenings, I’d put on my leather gloves, and Nellie would follow me out into the meadow, and I would pull bushy, two-foot weeds out of the ground, one at a time, over and over, hundreds and hundreds of them. I made piles of weeds, and bagged them up so the seeds wouldn’t spread. Inch by inch, foot by foot, over the course of weeks, I cleared my land.
For the first two days, every muscle in my hands and arms ached, but I stood taller, knowing that my land needed me, and I was heeding the call. And when I would come back, a day or so later, to a place I had weeded, I saw native wildflowers starting to come in. Lupine, harebells, red and yellow blanket flowers – they sprang up and began to blossom. My land, like me, was coming back to life. It was glorious, healing, miraculous.
And I grew stronger, with all that pulling and hauling and shoveling. I set up my laptop and a small speaker out in the meadow and listened to Frank Sinatra sing, “I’ve Got the World on a String,” and “My Way” as I pulled weeds. Frank would make me smile, and Nellie would sit under a tree and wag, as if to say, “Good job Mom!” (Or perhaps, “Thank God I do not have opposable thumbs and am therefore exempt from such labor…”)
I didn’t have the money for professional construction clean-up of the property, so I did it mostly myself. I sorted and hauled the leftover lumber, shoveled a literal ton of leftover gravel and distributed it around my foundation, and hauled dozens of hay bales and got them ready for re-seeding in the Spring.
My friend Matthew came out from Chicago and stayed for a week, and we spent most of the time sorting an entire dumpster full of scrap lumber into piles. We jokingly called it “disaggregating data,” since Matthew and I did our graduate degrees together at CU, and are both academics by trade. “How many domains do we have in this analysis?” he asked, looking at the various piles I was making as we sorted lumber in the hot August sun. “Let’s see, ” I said, “This pile is trash, this one is burnable wood for the wood stove, this stuff has too many nails, this is laminate and won’t burn safely, this is too heavy for me to split, this is good construction lumber, and this is extra decking material, so, seven different piles, each with a different destiny.” He said, “Doctor O,” (one of his many nicknames for me) “You are a force of nature.” “No, ” I said, “I am just neurotically organized.” And we laughed, and sorted more wood.
My old boyfriend Greg also came out for a visit, and helped me haul wood and hay bales and giant landscape rocks, and we jokingly started calling my house “The Sugarloaf Gym.” “Free workouts!” I would yell as we shoveled gravel into piles, “Try the Wheelbarrow Machine – no membership fee!” At night we’d fall on the couch, exhausted, but with a feeling of accomplishment. It was looking better every day.
When everything was organized, I put a note on our local list serve, saying that I had free landscape rock, lumber, firewood – yours for the hauling. And then another amazing thing happened – I started meeting my neighbors.
When I moved to the mountains twenty years ago, it was to get away from people, not to connect with them. My life in town was busy and noisy, with students and colleagues and friends and too much traffic in our growing city of Boulder. My “community” was in town; at home I just wanted to be left alone. Yet after the fire, people came out of the woodwork – neighbors whose homes had burned, and those whose hadn’t. People wanted to help, to meet me, to talk about the fire and life in the mountains. And to my astonishment, I found new friends, in a place where I had just wanted to be left alone.
One neighbor e-mailed me and said, “I’m reframing my big picture window with your leftover wood. Thanks SO much!” Instead of my stuff going into the dumpster or to recycling, it was going out, all over the mountain, helping other Fire People and neighbors take care of their own land, their own homes.
Each time someone drove away with a load of stuff, I grinned, my heart overflowing with gratitude. Another step, I thought, in this Long Road Home; the road home to my own heart, the road that Fire started me down, first at twelve, and then again forty years later. For this is the real road we all travel; the road to love, to connection, to community, to deeper meaning. As Kerouac said, “The road is life,” and you never know just where that road will lead.
Case in point – a while back, a neighbor I had never met called about picking up some of the landscape rock. I had house guests, and the timing was bad, but I said, “Sure, come over and pick some up,” and when he stepped out of his truck and onto my driveway I stopped in my tracks and thought, “Whoa! Cute. Neighbor. Guy…” And so we shoveled gravel together, and then a week later, he called and asked me to dinner, and then we went to lunch, and then on a hike, and to a show, and these days we are enjoying each other’s company.
So I guess I’m “dating” again. Me, the woman who has been single for years – happily single, fiercely single, guarding her singlehood like a mother bear protecting her cubs – is now dating. Who could have seen that coming?
The house and the meadow are blossoming, as am I. As of this week, I am declaring an end to the Siege of the Subs, and calling it good. The house is as done as it can be, and I have to really, finally, move on.
Because, you see, it’s time for another new chapter in my life. I’ve been approached by a literary agent about turning Burning Down the House into a book, so that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to sit down and tell you the rest of the story – about how my house burned down, first when I was twelve, and then again forty years later, and about everything in between.
And of course, I’ll keep you posted.
Sending You Wishes for New Adventures, and So Much Love,
[Special thanks to all the friends and neighbors who helped with the Great Clean Up Effort, including Matthew Goldwasser, Greg Wright, Greg Kyde, Susan Hofer, Karen Rosga, CB, and the many neighbors who hauled away lumber, rocks, and wood. You are my Army of Angels. And of course, my endless gratitude goes out to Jerry Long of JA Long Construction, the most decent and gracious contractor in the Known Universe.]