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Unfinished houses

Life as a work in progress.
By Philip Simmons
November/December 2001 11.1.01

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Even as a child I shared my mother's fascination with houses. Driving around town on errands or taking me and my brothers to the beach, she would comment on old houses we drove past. Sometimes she and I would go out just to look at some house that had recently been put up for sale. I remember once turning up a dirt drive into a yard gone to foot-high grass and weeds. It was summer, with the smell of summer dust and heat, katydids fluttering up at each step, and behind the house, crickets chorusing in a neglected field that was filling with juniper and birch. We worked our way around the old white clapboard farmhouse, peering through windows, our shoes crunching the stubbled remains of flower beds. Hands cupped against my forehead, nose to the glass, I gazed through the glare into a succession of empty rooms, sensing in those worn floorboards, skewed doorframes, and faded floral wallpapers the possibilities for another life from the one I knew.

My mother had no intention of buying. We were already settled into an old white clapboard farmhouse of our own. I say we were settled, but perhaps this was not entirely so. Our house, like most in these parts, was a work in progress. Already my parents had reshingled the back wall, installed a large kitchen window to give us a view of the Ossipee mountains, reclaimed an ancient fireplace hidden behind wallboard, torn down the two-hole privy leaning off the back of the ell and replaced it with a set of steps, and made enough plans for future changes to keep them busy for years. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that "people wish to be settled; only so far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them." I suppose that with her restless interest in other houses, her continued improvement of our own, her ceaseless imagining of other possibilities for herself and her family, there was, and still is, hope for my mother. And I want to consider what hope there might be for all of us who in some way or other remain unsettled.

I am writing this in January, and if ever there was a time of year to be settled, this is it. Here in New Hampshire preparing for winter is a year-round occupation, and by now we've long ago gotten the wood in, staked the driveway for the plow, and watched the first snows bury our summer's work in garden, yard, and field. Here in winter's deep, dark time, a season that finds us denned, burrowed, and hunkered through long nights and brief days, it may seem foolish to search for some virtue in being unsettled in our houses. But let me do my best, in the spirit of Emerson when he wrote, "I unsettle all things."


My mother's interest in houses is part of a larger history. When my parents came up from Massachusetts looking for a country house, they were part of a wave of such people that lasted through the 1950s and 1960s. Our town's population had reached a low of around 600 people, lower than it had been since soon after the town's founding in the late 1700s. My parents' cohort bought and renovated old houses all over town, employing a growing number of younger tradesmen and craftsmen who in turn bought and built houses of their own, and now with their families have doubled the town's year-round population and made Sandwich the happy small place it is today. So it's no wonder that we're interested in houses, and that everyone I know is happy to talk at length about them. Ours is not the bland talk of real estate prices and interest rates that you hear in suburban communities. In my town you're expected to know your girts from your beams, your headers from your ledgers, your rafters from your collar ties. At church suppers, at our children's birthday parties, on the sidelines at soccer practice, or during intermission at the Christmas concert, we talk stud walls and stress-skin panels and Typar and hurricane bracing; we talk vapor barriers and blueboard and polyisocyanurate insulation; we talk shallow wells and drilled wells, septic tanks and leaching fields. You have never witnessed passion until you've heard your neighbors discourse on the virtues of full-dimension lumber or "low-e glass." The words themselves are charged, erotic, tasted in the mouth like delicacies: shiplap, splined boards, tongue and groove.

Maybe it's because we so enjoy talking about our houses that we never finish them. After all, if we finished them, what would we have to talk about? So we leave drywall unpainted, closets without doors, windows without trim. We live for years with plywood subfloors over which someday we fully intend to install the wide-board oak of our dreams. Fact is, almost no one I know here lives in an entirely finished house, and those few who do are embarrassed to admit it. And whether our houses are finished or not, most of us have a drawer somewhere with sketches of various rooms and outbuildings yet to be constructed. I know that in some places people live differently. I know there are places, lying south of Concord, I suppose, where people move into finished houses, where everything is spic and span, the windows washed and the hinges oiled and even the clock on the stove set to the right time. But this is the country, and we live differently.

This essay was inspired by a friend of mine, recently returned to town after a year away, who planned on renting a house for the winter. The house was unfinished, with exposed insulation in the walls. No matter: My friend, the single mother of a ten-year-old boy, whose family has been in this town for 150 years, said that she would "just throw up some Sheetrock." What struck me was not only her resilience and good spirit in the face of challenge, but that she could assume, correctly, that I would think "throwing up some Sheetrock" to make a house livable for the winter not at all an unusual thing to do. This is a place where respectable people staple plastic over their windows and stack hay bales against their foundations. If our town were a country, its national flag would be the blue tarp. Thrown over leaky roofs, old cars, and unfinished outbuildings, it's a fitting symbol of a nation dedicated to the provisional and the temporary. Its cheerful presence outside our houses proclaims the frugality and craftiness with which we cheat time and our own limits.

What else keeps us from finishing our houses? Reasons are not hard to find: We lack the money, or choose to spend it otherwise; those of us who insist on doing the work ourselves are too busy with other chores, including the eternal chore of making a living. In most cases we simply get used to things as they are, and the pain of unfinished tasks diminishes to a dull and manageable ache. Still, a certain shame remains, and we show visitors the unfinished features of our houses with a look of hangdog guilt at our own inefficiency and sloth. This guilt, however, barely conceals a deeper pride. Those of us who are non-natives have come here, we know, for therapy, as part of a lifelong project of getting in touch with our inner Yankee. A degree of make-do shabbiness is required to show we are making progress. Yankees, whether by birth or adoption, have always found ways to let their neighbors know the extent of their thrift and stoicism, and native and newcomer alike find a too-finished house as out of place as a mink coat worn to the post office.

But when we push even deeper we discover yet another level of feeling: not guilt, not pride, but despair. For on our bad days, in our dark moments, we see in our unfinished houses the surest sign of calamity. That unpainted drywall, that missing piece of trim remind us that the world is too much with us, that we have lost our grip, that life hurls more at us than we can handle. At such times we find ourselves aboard time's driverless train, rushing toward doom. For we know, don't we, that we will never get it all done, that we are never good enough, and that surely it will all get away from us, that our fields will fill with brush, our stone walls topple, our houses collapse and sink into the earth to become more of the cellar holes scattered through these woods and hills like so many monuments to failure.

Such dark days have their flip side, of course, when in manic rebound we indulge our fantasies: For we also know, don't we, that someday when our kids are grown, when our ex-husbands finally pony up with child support, when we sell that screenplay, when we get that new job selling condo time-shares, when we have really figured out the World Wide Web, when we finally learn to balance our checkbooks, when all our ships come sailing in, all our cows are cashed, when maple trees grow money, when at last our lives take that stunning upswing and we ascend into the glittering hoo-hah of a destiny we knew all along was ours, then, then we'll put cedar shingles on that wall that has been wrapped in Typar since our children were born, then we will drill a deep well so that our teenage daughters can take endless hot showers and we can water our tomatoes until they grow fat, then we will install a radiant floor heating system so that we can walk cozily barefoot in February, then we will add on that master bedroom suite with the indoor Jacuzzi and the outdoor hot tub, thenwe'll build that cupola with the hammock hanging in it from which we can gaze at stars. And then will all the scattered pieces of ourselves be gathered up, all that has been lost returned to us, all our wounds healed, all our griefs assuaged, and all our days will pass in happiness, our nights in bliss.

But that hasn't happened yet, has it? Fact is, most of us make do with our duct tape and blue tarps, our patched and cobbled houses giving physical form to all that remains unfinished and imperfect in our own cramped and needful selves. Don't get me wrong: I love my house. Sitting with a cup of coffee at the table, basking in the low January sun that fills our house with light while outside spindrift whips over the fields, I am the luckiest man on God's frozen earth. Still, most of us most of the time, and all of us some of the time, live in houses that remind us of the many ways in which life has turned out to be not quite what we had in mind.

My unsettling suggestion is that perhaps this is a good thing.

Our houses, like our lives, will never be finished, never be settled. The only thing that will settle the affairs of this life is death itself. To be too settled in this life is, in Emerson's sense, to die while still living, to live a sort of death-in-life. Only so far as we are unsettled is there any hope for us. Let us remain unsettled, therefore, in order that we may truly live.


But to follow this line of inquiry further, I need to tell you now about Orrin Tilton, and how he lived and died. That old clapboard farmhouse we lived in when I was a child was on Tilton Hill Road, and when we moved there the last Tiltons still living on the road were our next door neighbors. When I first knew him, Orrin Tilton was a man in his 50s, living with his disabled father in a house that hadn't seen paint in decades and was heated by the monstrous Glenwood cookstove in a kitchen lit by a single bare bulb. Orrin's father, I remember, used to sit in a chair in the kitchen, or in the yard when it was warm, and try to sell us wood scraps from a bucket he kept at his feet.

Orrin, like many New Hampshire folk who had seen an entire agricultural world vanish around them, made his living as a carpenter and handyman, occasionally firing up his old tractor to hay the field he still owned across from our house. He was not given to idle talk; about the most flamboyant thing he ever did was on one Fourth of July, when he fired off his antique brass cannon using the supply of black powder that he stored under his bed. But in those first years he helped us flatlanders get settled in, steering my father patiently over the shoals of cranky plumbing, shallow wells, and rotting sills. He refinished our pine floors and put a new roof on our barn, and sometimes my mother had him over for a spaghetti supper. I remember him most clearly as he sat at our table, a wiry man with strongly muscled arms, thin, close-cropped gray hair, ears that stood well out from his head, gray eyes that swam behind thick lenses, and a drop of spaghetti sauce on his chin.

Years later, when as a teenager I lay in bed late at night memorizing Robert Frost's poem "An Old Man's Winter Night," it was Orrin Tilton I imagined clomping through his empty house, going about the humble and ordinary business of putting himself and all the countryside he cared for to bed, while outside, ominously, "all out of doors looked darkly in at him." So many nights in that drafty old farmhouse next door to Orrin's on Tilton Hill Road, nestled into my pocket of warmth beneath several hundred pounds of blankets, I listened to the same "roar of trees and crack of branches" the poem describes and puzzled over its final lines:

One aged man--one man--can't keep a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It's thus he does it of a winter night.

Some time after his father died, Orrin sold his house and most of his lands to a neighbor who, like us, had come up from Massachusetts. He kept one small field and a few acres of woods for himself but moved to a trailer park in Laconia. We didn't hear any more from him until several years later, when he began to return to our road--to his road--to build himself a new house. He worked alone, on weekends and at odd hours, by now a man well into his 70s with a heart condition, building with his own hands the house in which he planned to live out his retirement. I saw him finish the house. I was home for Thanksgiving from college in Massachusetts, and Orrin Tilton was there every day that week, getting the roofing on before the first snow. By Sunday, he had got the roof on, and that afternoon in the early dusk, as I was driving away from our house, back to school, he had just finished splitting the winter's firewood. Actually, Orrin was leaving, too, headed back down to Laconia. His car stood in the road, blocking my way. As I waited for him to move, a neighbor came out of the nearby house (the daughter of the man who had bought Orrin's old house and land) and told me she had already called the police. By the time I got out and looked into his car, he was already gone: head sunk forward against the steering wheel, his face the color of parchment.

He had finished his house.

We stood with the blue lights of the police car flashing into the woods, a cold night coming on. I listened to branches crack and trunks creak, and the ground seemed to harden beneath my feet. I don't know what Orrin was feeling at the end, sitting in his car as the light failed. I suspect he had learned long before then what the poem tells us: that one man can't keep a house, a farm, a countryside, for as the psalm reminds us, "all things are transient, as insubstantial as dreams." And I suspect he also knew that if we can keep a house, it is through humble and ordinary acts such as hammering shingles and hauling wood, work performed not in a vain bid for immortality but out of plain reverence for the fact of being alive. His work was his worship, for such chores pay homage to the very impermanence of all we build. As Emerson wrote, "in nature every moment is new; the past is always swallowed up and forgotten; the coming only is sacred. Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit."


The old houses in our town were built to last, but the cellar holes in our woods remind us that houses, like bodies, don't endure forever. I don't know whether Orrin was religious or whether he would have been comforted by the apostle Paul's words: "We know that if the earthly house we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." Even those who don't believe in the afterlife described by Paul can share the feeling behind his words. On some level all religious feeling begins with the sense that our true home lies elsewhere, however we may choose to define elsewhere: as psychic wholeness; as life in the beloved community; as a place of justice; as a harmonious relation to the natural world; as union of our spirits with the divine. In the journey to the elsewhere of our fond imagining we wish ourselves far from here, far from the suffering of our lives, far from our unfinished houses and our unfinished selves.

The unsettling news is that we'll never reach that elsewhere of our longing as long as we remain in this life, as long as we remain human. Heaven has its place, and our desire for it may guide us, ethically and spiritually, to work for the good. But in our desire always to be elsewhere than here, we can lose what measure of heaven may be ours on earth. When our fantasies of a better life consume us, when our memories of past hurts bind us and fears of pending calamity drive us, we are robbed of the only gift--the greatest gift--we can be sure of possessing: the present moment. We cannot summon the future, we cannot remake the past. The present moment is the unfinished house in which we dwell.

I don't know what awaits me after death: reincarnation as a houseplant or, if I've really racked up the bad karma, as a plastic surgeon in San Diego. Maybe the afterlife really is wings and harps and Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel, singing "In the Upper Room." Maybe it's nothing, absolutely nothing. I try not to make too much of those moments when I've had what Wordsworth called "intimations of immortality," when I have sensed the presence of another order of existence flickering like orange flames at the edges of the one I now know. Maybe these perceptions, and all religious feelings, are just delusional constructs that give the human species some evolutionary adaptive advantage by keeping us from annihilating one another even more efficiently than we do now. But I do know that whatever communion with the divine I may have when this life is done will surely be prepared for by my seeking always to dwell in the divine as I find it here, in this life, in this very moment. In each unfinished and imperfect day I struggle to find myself at home in this body, however flawed and failing, in this breath, however labored, in this speech, however halting. Each day, I work to make my home among the people I find about me. I write these words to make a sort of house in which you and I may dwell together for a time. Only in such work, in building a house of peace in the present moment, a house of peace not only for ourselves but for all who may be in our presence or our hearts--only in such work can we be made whole. We are here, in the unfinished house of the now, for the duration. The joy is in the building.

My mother eventually looked through the windows of enough farmhouses to want to sell our old one on Tilton Hill Road and move into a bigger, even older farmhouse on the other side of town. And a few years ago, my parents gave my wife and me the several acres of land on which we have built a house near theirs and in which we have the pleasure of hunkering through these long winter nights. Back when we were just starting to think about building, I was standing at a window in their house, looking out across the field to the section of dense woods where I was planning to build. It was a sub-zero December night, and the wind was up, lashing pines and blowing snow, the whole forest howling. I said to my mother then, "I can't imagine that we're really going to live out there." I suppose I was asking for her reassurance, and she gave it, saying simply, "You'll be fine." And we built the house, and we are fine, and I keep a file full of sketches for the addition, with its master bedroom and outdoor hot tub, its Count Rumford fireplace and radiant floor heat, its oak floors and cherry trim. And on some cold winter nights with the woodstove stoked, I lie awake beside my wife and listen to "the roar of trees and crack of branches" that Frost described, and I'm thankful for the chance to be at home for this one night, for this one moment, in this unfinished house.

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