Tonight the House Breathes

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On Sunday, I woke last and felt luxurious. Lying on my side, I opened my eyes to the cat sitting on all of her feet in the windowsill. The morning light had sharp edges, and something seemed peculiar. I raised my head and greeted the cat. Her eyes squinted happily at me. Then I realized: She was sitting in the sill of a half-open window.

“Whoa! Sam and Stella!” I called, swinging my legs off the bed and arms towards the window simultaneously. I headed to find them, but detoured into another bedroom to close its wide-open window. They had tiptoed everywhere, opening windows.2015-01-08 21.40.50

The kids bounced around their bedroom like shiny-cheeked crickets, chirping about the fresh air and how they were Not Cold, in fact they were hot. Both windows in their room gaped, inviting winter indoors. I spoiled their fun and invited them to go outdoors instead, which, of course, they declined.  I can’t blame them; it really is cold out there.

All of the windows are closed tonight, though you can feel a slight breeze through the kitchen, where mud is drying on newly hung sheetrock. It isn’t the coldest night we’ve had—just zero degrees—but the wind is teaching me how porous an old house really is.

Tonight the house breathes. I can hear its inhalations with every gust of wind through the cedars that circle, hunched, beside it. The house inhales through outlets, stove vent, window edges, places behind the cupboards, the space between its chiseled grey stone foundation and our wooden floors. Like a salamander, it seems to breathe through its skin.

2015-01-06 23.41.16A cold cold night feels like a thunderstorm, beautiful and menacing. As we sleep, pipes freeze in the kitchen, despite a thermostat set at sixty degrees. Snow blows across the fields like steam. On our mudroom floor, mice killed in traps freeze solid so they must be pried free in the morning.

I am amazed that any animals are left alive outside after a night like this one, but we will see them tomorrow. Surviving with their small bodies in fur or feathers. Or we will see them in spring, if they endure winter by slowing their hearts towards death, just a few beats per minute, their temperatures guttered, their bodies nearly turned to stone.

We, the awake and naked species, require long underwear and heated rooms to make it through winter. We also make potato soups with mushrooms, flavored with marjoram, thyme, and a pinch of nutmeg, to spoon thickly into our mouths. We stack library books twenty high, and snuggle under blankets to read aloud Farmer Boy, transporting ourselves to Almanzo Wilder’s upstate New York farm with stolid barns warmed by horses and oxen. And our kids run circles around our small oak table in our big square kitchen, skipping and galloping, with Stella yelling, “I’m warming up my body!”

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How To Make a Big Hairy Mess

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Crowbar in hand, mask over nose and mouth, climb the stepladder. The ladder should straddle a combination of tarps and plastic sheets, which will scootch and fold over so that nails and plaster fill the baseboard heaters despite your best efforts. Take a hammer up the ladder, too.

Give the plaster wall a few experimental hammer whacks, because you can. Learn that this will not remove the plaster. Apply the crowbar to the wall edges, still testing to see what makes it come apart. Peer closely at the small hairs protruding from chalky grey plaster. Real horses grew those hairs. Wonder about the people harvesting horse hair from manes and tails of all those horses.

Consider the person who nailed up each lath, then mixed horse hair and plaster to spread so it oozed between the wooden strips, locking the other plaster layers to the vertical surface—keying it in place. In 1890, as someone plastered these cracks, early cars were emerging onto roads, traveling at about 5 mph, and telephones were beginning to arrive into homes. The Wright brothers were tinkering with bicycles and dreaming of flight. Women would not be able to vote for another 30 years, and black voting rights wouldn’t be a reality for another 75 years. The year ended with the Battle of Wounded Knee, and floral wallpaper was chosen to cover the imperfections in these walls.

Realize you are not getting the job done. If you have gorilla-strength arms, cram the crowbar into the wall and yank off the wooden lath strips and plaster all at once, with terrific crashing noises. If you are me, wiggle the crowbar under the plaster, peeling it off in chunks. Let the chunks fall and explode in loud billows of dark grey dust. Watch the dust dance in winter sunlight reflected brightly from the snow into the bay window.

Then wedge the crowbar under each lath, prying them one by one from the uneven wall studs. The nails will be square and irregular, and you will later pluck a handful of the straightest ones from the wreckage to keep because they seem to tell a story. The lath boards will sproing from the wall in your hands. Yank and twist them free. Remember how to use your gross motor skills, developed in childhood and ignored by us adults who rarely get to use our whole bodies for a task. Let your arms be strong; release your inner gorilla.

Now the air will become thick with dust. Warm to the work, finding your rhythm up and down the ladder. Watching your feet to avoid nails, move the ladder without removing from it your hammer, which slips and bounces off your surprisingly strong glasses, and for a moment, think the ceiling has fallen. Recover, unharmed, and, crowbar in hand, mask over nose and mouth, climb the stepladder again.

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Guts of the Farmhouse

At 5 am, I am standing with my hands inside the tangled abdomen of a black Labrador, wishing things looked less messy.

Four days earlier, this dog had surgery to remove a long wad of sock and dishtowel, which was causing his intestines to accordion into dangerous folds. Now, one of the incisions into his intestines is leaking treacherous juices into his abdomen, and most of his digestive organs are inflamed and adhered to each other. My job, as the emergency veterinarian on duty: Fix it.

I wonder if this is how my father-in-law felt upon discovering our farmhouse’s disastrous electrical wiring. We laid bare the skeleton of walls and ceiling, revealing the potentially fatal pathology of the electrical wiring system.

Actually, it wasn’t a system, which implies a plan and organization. This electrical wiring situation, like a mystery novel, held intrigue and plot twists that repeatedly surprised the readers. Reading this story took Andrew, his brother, and, primarily, his dad nearly two days of following each thread, each wire, from the rat’s nest of a main electrical panel, to switches and outlets all over the house.

The stove, they discovered, received a wire half as thick as what it needed for safety. Poking up in one corner of the kitchen floor, they found a live wire, uncapped, under a duct tape band-aid, just waiting for a curious child. From behind a wall, they pulled a disturbing bouquet of bare wires, spliced into an innocent-looking newer wire that crossed the entire kitchen.

A giant spider lurked above the dropped ceiling in the kitchen. When we tore out that ceiling, this spider hung with its metal-encased wire legs reaching mysteriously in all directions from its junction box body. Real cobwebs filled the space around this electrical spider. As it turned out, wires from upstairs and downstairs ran through this junction.  Circuits seemed to clump together and loop incoherently like a bundle of angry intestines.

Disentangling my patient’s innards in surgery, I locate the problem. I trim the leaky suture line out of the intestine and close the fresh edges, placing each knot like beads on a rosary, each one a prayer for healing.

It seems to be a time of opening damaged surfaces, tearing things apart, and facing what lies, ugly, underneath. Sometimes this is a terrible idea, with painful results. In these situations, at least, this approach has been rewarding. Both house and dog have improved slowly but surely.

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Trailblazing the Perimeter

2014-12-30 23.58.04Our Southern-born kids have been quick converts to hats, mittens, puffy coats, and long underwear. Despite temperatures in the low 20’s, we layer on clothes and head out to explore our little woods and wetland.

We crunch across a grassy field in front of the barns, then angle down towards the water. Weeds that towered above our heads this fall now lie flattened by snow, which then melted over the warm, mushy Christmas. We beeline for the beaver lodge.

Beaver-chewed trees edge the wetland, and a neatly arranged dam of branches connects to the lodge. The kids love perching atop the lodge, hollering to any beavers that they imagine sleeping inside, but that have probably abandoned the lodge. It looks old, covered with vegetation and likely uninhabited.

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From the beaver lodge, we duck into the scrubby woods. We pause to watch chickadees sipping from one fist-sized patch of open water. Two large rocks at the wetland’s edge make perfect sitting and viewing spots, but we’re too chilly and sparkling to sit down.

Instead, we test the ice. It holds all of our weight and captures all of our imaginations. Sam leads, stepping across the mostly clear water, frozen into a matrix of bubbles and duckweed and branches. He discovers that when cattails are whacked together, they make a blizzard of seed puffs. Soon both kids are making it snow.

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The next day—the first day of the new year—we blaze a trail. Taking trimmers, machetes, and a hacksaw, we choose our path, beginning beside the chickadee’s drinking hole. The trail crosses over our mossy wildlife watching rock and follows the tumbling stone wall along the wetland. Stella straddles a fallen log—her boat, she says—and yells encouragement. Sawing skinny trees and lopping off branches, we tunnel through an almost impenetrable thicket of dogwood.

As we veer uphill along an adjoining stone wall, Sam laughs, “It’s like we’re trimming the hair on a giant head.” We are almost finished with this strange haircut, a swerving path. It will fork soon, with one branch curving up like a reverse mohawk to the crest of the hill, passing the old apple orchard. The other branch will wrap our property’s perimeter, meeting a field and dipping down to the bottom corner.

We will walk this trail for years. Slow binocular-bearing walks, for seeing and listening. Walks together, making plans or sorting things out. Loud stop-and-start walks with kids who loop through the woods like dogs on a scent. Jogging walks to burn calories or burn off steam. Walks alone, looking inward the way you can while walking a familiar trail through the gently changing woods.

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Deck the Halls with Dust and Rubble

2014-12-16 23.42.12It’s official. We have taken full possession of the farmhouse, and it’ll never be the same. Within a few hours of the renters’ departure, we began vacuuming and scrubbing. Then we rented a dumpster. A few days later, the place was a complete mess.

Here it is, before:

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Everything you’ve ever (never) wanted to do with a crowbar, we did last week. We feasted on demolition in clouds of dark dust, plaster, and mouse turds. Our white respirator masks turned black on the outside. Our hair stiffened. When we walked, we billowed like the Peanuts character, Pig-Pen. It was great.

Andrew’s parents drove from Indiana with a carload of tools and food. His brother flew in from California to help wield those tools, filling his long dark curls with decades-old filth from above our ceiling. I love these people.

Things started innocently: 2014-12-16 05.53.28We peeked above the dropped ceiling panels, installed in the 1960’s, oppressively close to the top of our heads. Above those low panels, the original ceiling soared at 9 ½ feet from the floor. In the kitchen, it was made of lovely interlocking boards, still in good condition. In the living room and downstairs bedroom, it turned out to be plaster, also 9 ½ feet high.

Things proceeded quickly and energetically. We tore out dropped ceilings in the entire first floor except the bathroom, and ripped off a bunch of walls, too, revealing the studs. There. Deviant electrical wires (some of them live), absent insulation, wall studs that dangled at one end, a missing load-bearing wall, and red revolutionary war themed wallpaper—this house had it all.

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I’ll admit it: Five days before Christmas, I had a moment of pause. Was all of this Really Necessary, right now? The electrical wiring alone, though, convinced me. As the dust settled and new wires began coursing through the open walls, the house became much safer, much less likely to self-destruct.

This was important work for many reasons. Ripping the house apart alongside Andrew, his father, and his brother, I watched their flow together. They bent and turned and reached like ballet in dirty old pants, seeming almost choreographed. Similar in their speed and controlled movements, they were always aware of each other, yet focused on their task.

Their sawzall blade razed two-by-six boards from above our heads, and each one was carefully, quickly escorted outside, without bonking anyone or breaking windows. Dust coated their mugs during coffee breaks. They sleuthed out frustrating wiring together and constructed a support beam to replace the previously removed load-bearing wall. In the end, they were still friends.2014-12-16 22.17.012014-12-23 04.20.30

On their last supper here, December 23rd, Andrew’s mom crafted a table centerpiece using a chunk of wood from the ceiling, lit with candles. The refrigerator was installed and the stove worked, thus ending a week of cooking in the bathroom with the microwave. There was still no drywall, but the ceiling was lovely, so we looked at that, and at each other. We sat around our picnic table in the kitchen, since half our stuff hadn’t yet completed the move. We basked in a tired gratitude, a sense of coming home.