Zen and construction dust

Like many flood victims in Oakland County, we’ll soon have a dumpster in our driveway and a construction crew in the basement. Watching our contractor haul rolls of soggy carpeting to the curb this morning, I recalled the following column, which I wrote in 2003. The full version is reprinted in Writing Home.

Zen and Remodeling

We are always in transition. If you can just relax with that, youll have no problem. – Pema Chodron, Buddhist nun

The construction crew hasnt even started yet, but Im already bracing myself for several weeks of chaos and plaster dust. Half of our clothes and most of our toiletries have been temporarily stashed in other regions of the house. With the exception of our master bedroom, in fact, everything upstairs is in a state of minor upheaval. I hate living like this.

Its all in preparation for our next remodeling project, which includes new plumbing, tile, and fixtures for our circa 1926 bathroom, plus expanded closet space and a paint job for the spare bedroom. The crew is scheduled to begin this week, but thats just what they tell me. Until I see trucks in the driveway, I know better than to count on anything. Being married to an architect and having survived several remodeling projects, I now have a grasp of what I call “building trade ethics.”

Even in the most professional situations, building trade ethics bear little resemblance to the Protestant work ethic. For starters, people in the building trades do not follow a nine-to-five schedule. These guys have their own system, and its up to you to figure out what that is.

They also speak a different language. For example, if the plumber whos installing your new toilet says hell be back to finish at noon on Friday, its possible that he really means maybe sometime on a Friday next month.

With few exceptions, though, the results are worth it. If you love your old house as much as we love ours, you realize that a disrupted schedule is a small price to pay for the lifestyle improvements youll get eventually.

And if you really want to feel smug, you can tell yourself that your renovation project is also for posterity. Fixing up an old house is a gift to the community – which is why I cringe every time someone tears down a perfectly decent old home, only to replace it with a brand-new Big Foot palace. But thats a topic for another time.

Right now, Im trying to focus on the positive. Compared to one of our last projects – a kitchen makeover and a sun room that took nine months to complete — this next effort should be … less of an effort.

Still, every time our walls give way to a sledge hammer, Im reminded that change is messy. More often than not, you must tear something apart and disrupt your routine to make things better. You cant install a new shower, for instance, without uprooting the old one. You cant hang new wallpaper over old wallpaper and expect to end up with a smooth, bubble-free finish. And you must never varnish a hardwood floor before sanding away its stained or splintered imperfections.

Likewise, you cant sugarcoat the rigors of self-improvement.

Come January, everyone wants to be thinner, healthier, wiser, smoke-free, and less wrinkly. And wed like to achieve these goals as quickly as possible, preferably with a single-dose pill that works while were asleep.

But self-improvement takes time and willpower, which is why some of us give up before weve hit the target. As every dieter knows, the “in between sizes” stage – the first plateau — is the trickiest. The process is ongoing, arduous, and more than an act of faith.

My dear old house is also a work in progress. It has taught me how to be patient and how to make sense of the chaos that precedes any kind of transformation. With a little luck, I think we can survive another month of plaster dust together.

So, bring on the building crew. Whenever.