Last year, in an attempt to re-hab my life, I bought a cottage in New Jersey. It had sat empty for a couple of years, and there had been an undiscovered leak in the basement that had allowed mold to grow all over the basement, the electricity would short out if you plugged in two things at once anywhere in the house, and the pipes were all galvanized and disintegrating . . .
But I loved it. Loved it when I saw the picture on the internet, loved it when I visited it for the first time, loved it when I went back a second time with Krissie. “Talk me out of this,” I told her before we went in, and then when we were leaving, I said, “So I shouldn’t buy it, right?”
She talked for a long time about what a disaster it would be to rehab, about how the grounds were going to be a nightmare to tame, about how it needed a new paint job, a new electrical system, all new plumbing, a new septic system . . . she went on at length.
“So I shouldn’t buy it, right?” I said.
“No, I love it,” she said. “Buy it.”
There’s a reason we’re best friends.
Then while I was still waffling, somebody else put in an offer and it was accepted. Well, that’s that, I thought, and kept looking, but my heart was in that little, beat-up, abandoned cottage.
Then the deal fell through and I cashed in my Ohio State Teacher’s Retirement and bought it at thirty per cent less than the asking price. Needless to say my financial advisers were universally annoyed, but I wanted that cottage and it was a great price. Even so, I really expected to walk into the place after we’d closed on the sale and think, What have I done? But I walked in and thought, I’m home. That cottage is mine, it was meant to be mine, and I can’t wait to move in. For once, I really did listen to myself.
Except what I thought was going to be gutting the basement with a good scrubbing to get rid of all the mold in the rest of the house turned into a full-house gut. Which is good because it’s going to make it so much easier to put in the new plumbing and electricity. And the roof that the home inspector assured me was good for another year or so turned out to be not good for another week or so, but that was good news, too, because the guy who painted the house (Pete McCann) is an artist and now it glows pound-cake yellow on its little half acre with a beautiful new blue roof, but inside . . . uh, no walls.
This is the living room and beyond that the 9’x9′ bedroom that’s going to be a bathroom:
The second picture is the dining room that’s going to be a kitchen. The old kitchen was 8’x7′. Not really big enough. The new kitchen will be 9’x9′. Perfect.
Even gutted I still love it. In fact, I think I love it more. There’s something about stripping something down to its essentials and then rebuilding that is really empowering. Except, as you will have noticed, its still full of Stuff. Some of it is Stuff I moved in early, but a lot of it Stuff from the previous owner (I bought the house and contents). Even stripped down, it’s still full of Stuff.
The more acute of you will sense a metaphor coming.
There’s something about taking an existing thing and breaking it down to find its most basic structure and then building it up again . . . you’d think it would be more exciting to just start something new, but there’s something about reclaiming something you thought was hopeless, or had grown tired of, or had just given up. Something about not slapping band-aids on problems but really taking whatever it is down to the studs so you can see the bare bones that just makes everything suddenly clear. It’s true of the cottage, it’s true of the years-old, failed book I’m working on again (You Again), it’s true of the new book I’ve been struggling with for three years (Lavender’s Blue), and certainly true of my body and my outlook. A coat of paint is not going to do it on any of those things, any more than it was going to stop the mold in the cottage.
But it’s not enough to strip it down to its structure. You also have to get rid of Stuff. Which means that even though I’ve restructured both books, I have to get rid of the Stuff that’s still obscuring the structure, the banter that goes nowhere, the conversations that have no conflict, the odd tchotchke that’s sticking out like a sore plot point. And it also means that no matter how successful I am at restructuring my eating, my exercise, my life, I’m still going to have to get rid of the Stuff that’s clogging my head:
You’re 62. You’re too old to change.
You’ve been overweight since 1991. You’ve been fat too long to change.
You’re a horrible housekeeper and always have been. You’re disgusting. You’re too disorganized and sloppy to change.
You’re weak. You always make these plans and then you wander off because you have no will power. You’re too weak to change.
You’re stupid. You make dumb decisions. You’re too dumb to change.
This is mind mold, the Stuff I have to get out of my life. I know most of those messages are wrong. I’m still younger than springtime, I’m strong as hell, and I’m smart. I am a horrible housekeeper, though. Never mind, the point is that I have to get that poisonous Stuff out of my head. My life may have a leaky roof and a faulty electrical system, but all that is fixable. It’s the Stuff that has to go.
Now I just have to figure out how.