I had been separated for about two years, just getting my feet wet and settling in to being the main caretaker for the farm, when it happened.
My daughter, Eva, and I were opening the little farm cottage for the season. It was spring, and it always feels fresh and hopeful to turn on the water, and give the house a solid cleaning.
We were making the bed in my bedroom when Eva, who was barefoot, asked, “Mom, did you pour water on the carpet?”
When I bent down to check, sure enough, the carpet was wet. No, I had not poured water on the carpet. Shit. I looked up. The ceiling looked fine, no water marks. But, when I stood on a chair and felt, the ceiling was definitely soft, and there was a soft bow to the shape. This explained the musty smell we had noticed, and dismissed. It was easy to see that the melting snows and spring rains had been gathering in the ceiling.
The next week I called around to schedule roofers to come on the weekend to look at the situation and give quotes. I dreaded this; being separated, this expense was going to fall 100% on me. Because we were heavy in negotiations, I didn’t want to try to access joint funds. I only really had the small month-to-month account that was maintaining me. A big expense was going to hurt.
I was asleep the next weekend in the spare room; my bedroom stunk. In the middle of the night, a huge crash woke me up. I laid in bed, still, and didn’t move. I didn’t even want to get up and look. I knew that my ceiling had caved in.
The next morning I saw that a huge part of the ceiling had, indeed, fallen right on the bed. Sleeping in the spare room that night ended up being the best luck I had had in awhile (sad). The ceiling dragged some portion of the walls down with it. The ceiling, walls and carpet would have to be replaced. And, of course, the roof.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Several years earlier, as I debated merits of maintaining a difficult marriage, I worried about a future I couldn’t see at all. I was self-employed, making not nearly enough money running a small startup yoga studio so the flexibility would keep me available to raise our three kids. I had a large farm property that required solid handyman skills and knowledge of tools and equipment to keep in repair. I relied on my soon-to-be ex-husband for these skills, as well as, of course, financial support.
I had taken a leap of faith and now found myself in the midst of a long, difficult divorce, without a solid income. And now I had a leaky roof and collapsed bedroom. Pinch me.
Everything was crashing. This situation with the house? Simply a mirror of everything in my life at the moment. So many times I would tell myself, you have to hit bottom before you can bounce back up. Without a doubt, 2017 was the year I hit bottom.
Hitting bottom is painful. You don’t fall hard without a few bruises. But, as I looked at the damage to the interior of the house, I realized that there was more to this situation than, “Hey, darlin’, you’ve crashed. You really can’t handle this. You don’t have time, money or skills. This is bad, and you deserve this mess you’re in.”
I started to look around at the rest of the cottage, the parts untouched by devastation. Actually, they weren’t all that good, either. The last update to the cottage had been in the ‘70s, and the walls were covered with dark paneling, the floors with shag carpet, and yard art and collectors plates covered the walls. The farm cottage was beloved to us, as it was my parent’s creativity at work when they owned the farm, but it was way outdated. When I was at the farm, my life was outside, in the gardens and fields and woods. We simply didn’t care that the inside hadn’t seen a touch of lovin’ for 40 years.
The house was crying to me. It was saying, “It’s time to make me yours. I need attention. You’re going through a big change. So must I.”
The next weekend, I was on the roof with four generous and hardy friends tearing down the old shingles, repairing rot, and re-installing new. Doing it ourselves saved money that I put toward getting a drywaller in to repair the ceiling. I emptied the house completely and while he was there, I asked him to repair cracked plaster and bad drywall throughout the entire house.
Next, I found an angel named Dick. Dick was a chain smoker on hospice. He could not drive due to medication, but he was willing to come out if I picked him up, and paint the entire interior of the cottage for a super reasonable day rate. I told him that to save money, I would be helping him on my days off work. He looked suspicious that that would work out to anyone’s advantage. But, on all my days off, I’d pick him up, drive him to the cottage, and we’d pick up our brushes and start caulking and painting. We’d chat some, and sometimes not. We never played the radio. It was companionable silence, or talking about family, business, life.
One day I looked at the kitchen cabinets in the original 1040s kitchen that my mother had, 50 years prior, stripped and stained a dark brown. I had always had a thing for robins-egg blue cabinets, since I had seen them in England years earlier. I asked Dick how much it would cost for him to paint those as well, and when he named another reasonable price, I jumped at it as a chance to treat myself, to fulfill a dream while I was at it.
As Dick and I were cleaning out the last paintbrushes, preparing to drop him at his home in town for the last time, he said to me, “When you said you were going to help, I really wondered how that was going to work. Well, it worked out just fine.” To me, that was high praise.
Finally, it came time to tackle the floors. The old vinyl tile in the kitchen had been floating up for years, and the carpet needed to go. Weekend after weekend, another good friend, Gene, and I spent measuring, cutting and installing a new wood floor. We struggled with my father’s ancient table saw. We problem-solved uneven floors. We had never done this before, and it was rough on our amateur backs.
I am so grateful for the enthusiasm he showed as I started to wilt. The house was nearly gutted, and I was sleeping in the old bunkhouse that my children used to sleep with their friends. While it was actually far more comfortable than I had thought it would be, it was dingy and rough; unfinished plywood, no electricity and holes in the screens.
One afternoon I was cutting boards on the table saw when I realized that by refinishing the entire house, I really had taken a big step toward another dream that was bigger than blue cabinets. Shortly after my separation, brainstorming my sad financial situation, I thought about hosting yoga retreats at the farm. By updating the cottage, I wouldn’t feel so sheepish about having guests.
I thought a little more. The floor we were putting in the cottage would actually look nice in the bunkhouse. Maybe with some TLC, the bunkhouse could be cute. Now I had some skills, too. It felt like I had made a big leap toward making the retreats a reality.
One of the nicest things about the experience was that, after the paint dried and the floors were in, I became deliberate about what came back in. Time I wasn’t spending hammering and sawing was spent searching out furniture that fit in to this new, fresh space. Every hand towel was carefully curated. It was important that this new interior fit with where I was going next.
Sometime in everyone’s life there comes a moment when things fall apart. Studying yoga philosophy for as long as I have has taught me that while these fall-outs are painful, and looking around at endless devastation can feel hopeless, after the clean up, there is an opportunity for a new beginning. We can look around and maybe see some other things that weren’t working for us either, and begin to carefully pick and choose what we wish to keep in our life as we rebuild.
It would be several more years before the opportunity to rebuild presented itself in the rest of my life. It would be another two years before the ink dried on my divorce papers and I could survey my new situation, and begin to deliberately curate what I let into my new, empty landscape.
But this time I’d have some skills.