Thursday, February 12, 2009

This Old House

When Jeff and I were very young newlyweds, we used to love watching "This Old House" on weekends. In the days before cable was widespread and new channels, like "HGTV" and "The Travel Channel" sprung up, we'd live vicariously through these occasional glimpses of historic restoration work on PBS. We would see, week by agonizingly slow week, the painful renovation of an old barn into a beautiful home, and imagine that we, ourselves, could undertake that wonderful journey ourselves. I fancied myself an amateur conservator, if we could find an old barn to restore ourselves, and to create a magical sanctuary, from what was once forgotten and decay.

In addition to an unrealistic and ill-advised passion for old houses, I've also always loved Scotland. The idea of it, the "William Wallace" soul of bravery, and the sheer beauty of the place have forever ignited a passion and a connection to this special country. One of my father's dream trips, that he was never able to take, was to go to see the Scottish Sheep Dog (Border Collie) trials. A lifelong love for this breed, and what these amazing dogs could do instinctively, led him to own two Border Collies over the years. But, he always wanted to see their amazing displays of prowess in Scotland. I just loved the romance of the land...even if I do have a long standing fear of Haggis. (Google it...not so appealing as adorable dogs and castles).

These two loves in the abstract sense, that of restoring an old house and that of Scotland, came together in Belinda Rathbone's memoir, "The Guynd". In this very readable story, Ms. Rathbone recounts her transformation from single New York City writer to life married to a Scottish laird. In her story, she writes "I knew that the house came with the man...or the man with the house." The Guynd (pronounced to rhyme with wind, especially fitting since it never stopped blowing) was a decripted, sprawling, mausoleum of a manor house, with 300 acres of former gardens and all gone to seed, both the house and the land itself. Ms. Rathbone's discoveries in long forgotten rooms, outbuildings, basements and attics lead to her own passion for the estate, and for its restoration. She learns the vast history of being part of such a long lineage of homeowners, but more importantly, she learns that the history is more important than the present to her husband. Her painstaking care of restoring the gardens, and creating liveable family spaces in the house itself, are meticulously, and hilariously, described. In the end, neither her marriage, nor her never-ending 'to do' list survive, and yet, Ms. Rathbone's journey and adventure seem to have been an end in themselves. I admired her story. However, it also made me appreciate not having to live it myself.

While I still have my admiration intact for Scotland and historic preservation and renovation, I have come to realize that I may not have the chutzpah for a major overhaul on a property. Whenever I point out a great old house for sale, Jeff kindly reminds me of the 1980's movie, "The Money Pit". Still, when we're at Home Depot, he drools over tools he'll never need in our 1992 contemporary. I have grand dreams of a breathtaking restoration on a home that had historical significance in the Revolutionary War. Jeff has grand dreams of sheetrocking without any visible seams or being able to reroof our entire house himself.

Somewhere in the middle, I'm sure, lies our next great project. Maybe it will be historic. Maybe it will just need a fresh coat of paint. Maybe the universe just wants us to take care of what we have now. No matter what, sometimes it's a great deal more fun to dream of the next "big thing" than to actually live it.

"It's when you're safe at home that you wish you were having an adventure. When you're having an adventure you wish you were safe at home." ~~ Thornton Wilder

Monday, February 9, 2009


Anita Shreve has long been on of my favorite authors. Her insightful, poetic style has brought tears to my eyes because her writing is extraordinarily beautiful. Yet, she doesn't shy away from controversial subjects. Ms. Shreve, if anything, gravitates towards them, and makes art out of chaos and complexity. Her latest book, "Testimony", simply blew me away. As the mother of teens in New England schools, I was slightly hestitant to read this book, about a 'crime' in a New England prep school. Still, like Jodi Picoult's "Nineteen Minutes", the writing drew me into a story that might ordinarily frighten my sensibilities as a mother. "Testimony" takes a hard look at the boarding school culture, as well as the intricately woven tapestry of stories that, when viewed together, create an entire picture of what happened in a controversial event. Each character has his, or her, own perspective, and individually, the stories vary greatly because each character is in possession of his own 'truth'. And, yet, do any of us ever truly understand any situation, when we look exclusively at our own place in the story?

Every culture believes itself to be in possession of the Truth. We each have our own beliefs in how our own civilizations came to be and we believe that we possess our own stories. Not only that, but our version of the stories, we believe are the reality of the history of who we are. In pre-Colombian Mexico, the Aztecs believed themselves to be directly related to the Sun God. This wasn't just an opinion. This was the very basis of their belief system, and so ingrained in their thought processes, that it never occurred to them that there could be another way of viewing the world. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Central America, the Aztecs did not believe the Spanish could mean them any harm. In fact, they welcomed the conquering Spanish as gods and fellow descendents of the the same belief system. Because the Spanish belief system regarding themselves as the superior culture, they believed that the Aztecs were were inferior, and that their history was meaningless, compared with the expanding empire, in the name of Christianity. The Aztecs, to the Spanish, possessed nothing of value culturally, and their worth---their stories--were meaningless. Once the Aztecs realized that the Spanish were not only 'not' gods, but meant them great harm, they did everything they could to protect themselves against the 'savage' Spanish army. Both sides, the Aztecs and the Spanish, had incredible points of their cultural history. The Aztecs were master builders, astronomers, artists and created a safe roadway system that was non-existant at the time in Europe. The Spanish were great explorers, scholars and educators. And yet, each side was engaged in a bloody battle over superiorty of a land that would ulimately become a blended culture. Neither culture, initially, saw validity in the other sides' stories, traditions and ideals. Both were accused (and guilty of) terrible atrocities. And yet, both were capable of enormous beauty.

Too often, in life, we forget that there is more than one side to a story...even to the stories of our own lives. There are the impressions of our parents, our grandparents and our cousins. There are the images of our friends and our teachers. There are our own faulty memories, and even the perspectives of those with whom we don't get along. When we begin to take honest stock of our own lives, it's deeply important to remember that our own point of view is not the only one available. When we can begin to look at the way others see us, even if it's not in the most flattering light, we can also begin to form more accurate impressions of who we are. By listening, rather than speaking, and by hearing, rather than glossing over, we can allow ourselves to take a deeper glimpse into the stories of who we truly, and authentically, are. In doing so, we can help direct our lives to the course we wish to steer towards.

When you look in the mirror, ask yourself who you see. Do you see a mother, a wife, or a friend? Do you see the girl you used to be, or the woman you wish you were? We are, none of us, an island. There are many people who can give testimony to our lives. What would they say? Would you be proud of their comments? Or, would you, shrink away, thinking, "That's what people really think of me?". Ask those who know you best for their honest impressions of you. Ask what you do do very well, and what you need to work. Use other people's perceptions to help you gain a well balanced insight into where you are right now. You can't move forward, metaphorically or literally, until you know where you are right now, at this very moment. But, by being willing, and open, to constructive criticism, you can gain a much richer picture of your 'true' life story...not just the one you create for yourself in your daydreams. By having an authentic picture, you can take stock, weigh your own pro's and con's, and then progress.

Most of all, this exercise will give a truly well rounded impression of the person who is most critical to your well being: you.

We do not deal much in facts when we are contemplating ourselves. But, we must learn to excavate. ~Mark Twain