Stone by stone

Photo: Daniel Case/Wikimedia Commons

“When you’re building a house from the foundation up,” my friend said, “each stone has to go in the right place.”

I loved my friend’s image of the way I’m trying to rebuild myself. Even more, I loved the empathy: the way my friend understood why this work is so hard, why it’s going so slowly, why it takes so much of my energy.

I am rebuilding my foundation, stone by stone. Sometimes the work is backbreaking. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking. Sometimes it’s mind-bending, and sometimes it just plain makes my brain hurt. Other people can help me find the stones, or help me figure out where to place them. But the actual rebuilding is my job.

I think of an old Harry Belafonte song: “House built on a weak foundation will not stand, oh no (oh no, oh no, oh no). Story’s told through all creation: will not stand, oh no.”

Four years ago, as I turned 50, I felt I was on top of my game. I was strong, active, fit, busy. I was accomplishing all kinds of good things. I felt mature, even wise: I had learned so much in my life and was putting that experience to good use.

All that was true. But.

I had built my house on a weak foundation. The house consisted of actions, deeds, accomplishments. The foundation—my sense of myself— should have supported those deeds. Instead, it was the other way around. I relied on what I did to prop up my sense of who I am. When I could no longer maintain those deeds, the house collapsed. The foundation crumbled. If I couldn’t do the things I felt I was supposed to do, how could I be the person I was supposed to be?

I once wrote about a woman doing what she called a “gentle demolition” of a historic house: no wrecking balls, no giant mechanical claws. She took everything apart by hand so that she could reuse as much of the material as possible. The joists and timbers and decorative moldings that made up the 139-year-old home were unique and valuable. But the structure could not stand.

I have been carrying out a similar demolition of my House of Deeds. It has not always been gentle, but that’s my goal. I hope to reuse much of what has collapsed or been painstakingly dismantled. But some of it is damaged and has finished its useful life. And some of it never belonged in my house at all.

House built on a rock foundation, it will stand. Oh yes!
Story’s told through all creation: it will stand. Oh yes!
Rain come wash on it.
Sun come shine on it.
Storm can’t blow it down. (Oh no!)
This house will always be.
This house will always be.
It will be strong, you see.
Hosanna! I build a house.

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked. You can read about it here.

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