The never ending project

The last house we lived in was what is politely called a “fixer-upper”. Before we could move into it, we had to rip out all the carpet, put in new floors, renovate the kitchen and get all new (or at least, new to us) appliances.

But that was just the starting point.

It had been a low-income rental for more than a decade, and while the house itself was structurally sound, no one had loved it in a very, very long time. The yard was dismal. Hard, compacted soil, with desire paths across the yard where the neighbors would shortcut through it. A backyard that was filled with privet and briars and fallen trees.

Then there was the leaky roof, the sunken front porch, the rotten bathroom floor… It required a lot of vision to see what could be.

We lived in that house for five years. I ripped out the bathroom floor and tiled it. Renovated the studio apartment in the basement and rented it out. Put fencing and flower beds in the front yard. Built a porch across the front of the house. Built a chicken coop in the backyard. Put in a rose hedge along the road. Ripped out the privet and cleaned up the backyard. Pulled the aluminum siding off the front of the house, discovering shiplap siding in perfect condition underneath, which we painted. Replaced the leaky roof with a metal one. And lots of other, smaller things I am forgetting.

And along the way we hosted friends, had celebrations, had a niece live with us for 6 months or so, and my wife had a heart transplant. That house treated us very well. We loved it, and it kept us safe. And when we had to leave it, we were fortunate enough to sell it to a friend, who would love it too.

I have to confess: I didn’t have any vision. I just knew that this is what we could afford, and that if we loved the house and took care of it, it would take care of us. This is sort of my way of working – I don’t invest heavily in long-term plans. I usually just have a long-term broadly defined goal – in this case, a happy, safe, home that would serve as a sanctuary for us. And then, after setting that goal, I ask myself, what can I do now to move me toward it?

These days, we are in a different house, in a different state. This house was more or less move in ready when we bought it, barring some minor updates in the kitchen and a lot of painting. But this house has a ½ acre of yard, and it was a rental before we bought it. Again – structurally sound, but unloved for a long time.

And again, I don’t have a grand vision. I just want it to be welcoming. To be safe, and to keep us safe. To be a place of rest, of sanctuary, for both us and the birds and the pollinators and the other wildlife that share this place with us. So the question isn’t, “What is the next thing to do on this long list” but, “What can I do, in this moment, to move me closer to that vision?”

I find that empowering in many ways. The first is that I don’t always have $3,000 to build the workshop I needed in the backyard, but maybe I do have the $20 to buy a rosebush or native vine. Maybe it’s been raining for weeks, like it does in the spring here, and so I can’t till the new flower bed, but I can paint the hallway. And living in a place changes how you interact with it, which means that your first year in a house, you don’t know enough about the place to make a list of what you want to change about it.

It also helps me avoid the temptation to believe the false idea that I will only be happy when it’s finished. After all, if it has to be finished for me to be happy – well, that could take years. And science tells us that the anticipation of a trip brings more satisfaction than does the actual trip itself.

So, I don’t have a set date for completion. Instead, I choose to see my house and yard as works in progress, a never ending project, and thus, a never ending source of joy.

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