Sunday, November 11, 2012

Walls Are Merely a Suggestion

 Most of us live in houses we didn’t design. We rent or buy or inherit the places we inhabit and have a desire to make them feel like home, to somehow reflect our personalities.

When we’re first on our own in apartments furnished courtesy of parent’s basements and Goodwill, this personalization is limited to throw pillows, matted prints, potted plants—and if our landlords allow, a colorful coat of paint.

Later, if we’re fortunate enough to buy (or borrow with a mortgage) a home, we work within its walls. We house-hunt with graph paper and a tape measure, plotting room dimensions and gridding in our beds, couches, and dining sets. We make sure our things will fit, and if not, we decide what to sell and buy new.

We may replace linoleum with bamboo, laminate countertops with granite, strip wallpaper, repaint, and install new carpet, but almost always, we fit ourselves to the house, not the other way around. We are confined by the floor plan.

It’s been radically freeing to think of the walls in my new home as merely a suggestion. My husband and I decided that anything inside the existing footprint is subject to negotiation.

Just last week, we tore several walls in the basement down to the studs, and seeing things opened up, I got to thinking: What if we didn’t even try to repair the hideous shower? What if we moved the sink and installed a new tub/shower kit in the bathroom instead?

And the shower alcove, my husband said, could be turned into a storage closet. It wouldn’t even have to be part of the bathroom. It could open onto the hallway.  We’d have a coat closet.

And this summer, when we wanted to remove a necessary loadbearing wall that separated our kitchen from the dining room and our water view, he built temporary walls while he reinforced the support beam, and made our vision reality.

I always knew Kevin had this skill-set: After our wedding, he built a spice rack and kitchen shelves for the glass jars I stored our bulk foods in. He installed a skylight in our dark kitchen, and wired up a garbage disposal.

I painted rooms and sewed things I couldn’t afford to buy: tent-repair and seat covers for my car. I was proud of the results, but the activities were work and I wasn’t particularly skilled or fufilled undertaking them.

I appreciated the outcome of my husband’s projects—and so did his sisters, brothers, and mother as he made many repairs at their homes—but I didn’t understand that working this way for him was profoundly creative and joyful.

I didn’t understand when he arrived home two hours late from remodeling at a relative’s house apologizing that he’d lost complete track of time how that was even possible. Wasn’t he—like I would’ve been—counting the minutes until he finished and could pack up?

Now I get it. This last year has shown me. Building for my husband is what writing is for me: An act of creativity that can demand all your focus and attention, that can suck you in for hours as you configure and re-configure, arrange and rearrange, gladly examine minutia, revise, edit, tear up everything you’ve done, and start over repeatedly until you get it right, or at least closer to the vision in your mind’s eye.

Finally after years of reluctance, I’m entering this world he loves. And it’s only fair, since I’ve asked Kevin to read my rough drafts and attend poetry readings with me for years.

My husband is teaching me the names of tools and how to use them. I’m not strong, coordinated, or practiced, and it shows in my work, slow and amateurish—not unlike my first efforts at poetry and short stories.

Kevin, on the other hand learned to use a hammer when he was three, a lifetime of practice and dedication to this craft (even when it took a backseat to his career and family obligations) under his tool-belt.

Sharing crowbars, stepladders, and Pandora radio stations, we spend our days visioning and re-visioning this house and the life we are creating here, taking our two main characters, placing them in this setting, tearing down walls, building up others, job-hunting, waiting, and writing.

Anything can happen next, and when it does, it might—like our walls—merely be a suggestion accompanied by the tagline: Feel free to edit.  



  1. What a satisfying article. So personal yet provocative and full of permission. Brilliant invitation to consider what we assume to be lead-bearning certainties as mere suggestions. (On a comical note, a Berkeley City bus driver once mused that traffic laws were "merely suggestions" as evidenced by Berkeley drivers.)

  2. love this- thanks for writing and sharing!