Drywall & Dreams

It was this: a rusty U-Haul truck smelling of dog breath and vinyl. Six, seven years ago, maybe more? Ken and I were somewhere near Arizona, moving our hearts and our dish towels from Los Angeles to his Midwestern hometown. My father-in-law was sick, we’d learned two weeks prior. We’d need to come home soon.

Over pretzels and Coke, with Teitur on repeat, we chatted about our years on the west coast. The people we met, the jobs we loved, the jobs we hated. We recapped the adventures behind and the ones ahead, mountainous and pink on the horizon.

We should buy a fixer-upper, Ken mused, mostly to himself. I’d wrongly assumed he was envisioning a mild renovation, the kind where you tile a backsplash and switch out shag carpet for hardwood floors. Design stuff, I’d thought. Easy peasy.

We dropped the conversation and then picked it up a few more times over the years, a wet towel on the floor. But we were busy, and preoccupied. His father was dying, and we could do nothing but eat cheese souffles.

But one day, in the fall, we hung the towel. We bought a house that had been foreclosed, neglected, left behind. The first memory I have of that home was the state of the kitchen. It had been left untouched for three years, but there were still remnants of daily life: open checkbooks on the counter, a rusted pan on the stove. Vitamins in an open cabinet to the left of the missing fridge.

Where had they gone? Where were they living? How long had they been without their vitamins?

Ken researched mold remediation methods, donned a Hazmat suit and re-leveled floors. I brought burgers in the evenings and we’d sit on the subfloor surrounded by ketchup packets and plastic forks as we surveyed our lilting feelings. This is amazing, we’d say, only on most days, we’d meant to use a word more like terrifying, or overwhelming, or never going to be finished.

It was this for nearly a year. The calloused hands, the burgers, the wood shavings.

And then, a business trip. We’d sold the renovation project to HGTV.com and I flew to New York for a few meetings. Landing in JFK, a message from Ken. “We’re going to have to take out some walls. Are you OK with that?”

Here is a break in the story, for context. I am impatient. I ruin breakfast weekly from keeping the burner too high, wrongly assuming more heat will deliver a quicker meal. It never works. The eggs always burn.

And so, I call him back, and I say as gently as possible, some version of yes, yes, do what you need to do to finish this renovation, and fast.

The eggs always burn.

Two weeks later, I pull into our rickety driveway, the one with the dumpster that towers outside, a lawn ornament we were forever apologizing to the neighbors for. And I see this: the front window open, and wall studs from one end of the home, through the kitchen, past the sunroom and to the backyard. I am standing in the front window and I can see the backyard.

There are no walls.

The eggs always burn.

I cry, of course. I cry because I am impatient, and because my father-in-law is dying, and because New York was lovely and glistened in the hot July sun, and because we have no walls.

And Ken met me at the door, and he is incredible, you must know, and he says some version of this:

Walls come down for a reason. Sometimes they’re damaged; other times they’re just unnecessary because they don’t fit into the bigger plan. So we get to put the walls wherever we want now. We get to build our space around ourselves and our dreams. We get to make it a home, just for us.

And it was the right thing to hear in that moment, and it was the right thing to hear again at his father’s funeral later that year, or when I became pregnant with Bee, or when I’d need to turn down more glistening hot July sun opportunities to make space for a home, just for us.

My entire life – our entire lives – were lived around boundaries, built around walls. And they have come down for a reason. We have removed them, or they have removed themselves, or a higher power has removed them for us and we’re left staring into the front window, and we can see the backyard, and we cry at the space, the emptiness, the void.

But today, as I write this, we have walls. They’re where they belong, in different places, defining new areas. Professionally and personally, I’ve torn down a few existing walls that didn’t quite fit and have constructed new ones.

We have walls.

There are open checkbooks on the counter, a rusted pan on the stove. Vitamins in an open cabinet to the left of the fridge.

The eggs always burn.

And all is just as it should be.

  • Erin, this is beautiful. I am a very impatient person as well and at this stage in my family’s life have felt very overwhelmed and stressed to the max (just had a baby 6 months ago, need a bigger place, need a new job, etc.) and was just thinking the other day how I’m ready for everything to be settled and done, AS IT SHOULD BE. Thank you for this!!

  • Gosh,I love you Erin. I love your tender heart, and your perserverence. I love what God has done through- and for- your family. xo

  • Dear Erin, You are such a talented writer. Your metaphor to me describes quite accurately all my feelings after the loss of my mother. And made me think, how hard it was and still is for me to adjust to my new walls… Almost all walls came down and so many new ones coming up, how to move within an entirely new and often alien space. Thank you ( and you’re wise husband) for the inspiring new string of thoughts! mimi

  • I’m better at tearing down my own walls (even if I do it slowly and reluctantly) than allowing and accepting when others tear them down for me. But everything happens for a reason, right? And acceptance is usually better for me than beating my head against a non-existent wall…

  • Walls ….mmmh….this particular child of mine – who finds beauty when no one else sees it – diagnosed with a learning disability – grieving, sad, disappointment – wall……banging on it, staring at it, sliding down it when I fall onto my knees….”my heart beating, my soul breathing, I find my life when I lay it down, upward falling, spirit soaring, I touch the sky when my knees hit the ground” (hill song united touch the sky) wall beginning to melt away….it’s done it’s work in me….everything I am …reaching out…I surrender.

    Thank you Erin, Ginny

  • It was through your reno project on HGTV.com that I first found your blog. I’m still in the middle of my own renovation and I’ve burnt the eggs many times, and shed a few tears over it all. Now my husband has moved in and I’m subjecting him to “living” amidst the craziness! We’re making it through.

    I have a question about that first photo since I’m dreaming of taking down my ceiling and opening it up… did you guys do that yourself?!?! Can I search the HGTV posts for it?

    thank you, as always, for such beautiful writing :)

  • It is beautiful and inviting and just as I imagine your home would be…bright and cheerful and thoughtful and not cluttered with unnecessary “stuff” so looks like the right walls have come down. :)

  • I left 4 walls behind this week – 4 walls I was used to, had gotten used to, since living between them for the past (over) 2 1/2 years – and set up room between 4 new ones with my boy across town. And it makes me feel uneasy because everything is uncertain. I’m not yet used to the new sounds, the smells, the mess that comes with downsizing from a two bed duplex to one room, during the last term of our time at university. I’m scared of these 4 walls, I don’t like that they make me feel claustrophobic. I don’t like that they make me angry. But, after reading this, I’m determined to come to terms with the fact this is my now, for the shortest of whiles (4 months) and that I will pull through. That 17 weeks will come and go, and new walls will find me (now just as uncertain, but hopeful). Your words, as always, marked my soul – I can’t ever imagine producing something so beautiful, Erin. I’m so in awe of your great talent.

    • Oh Tori, I love your comments. They’re thoughtful and uplifting, and I can’t thank you enough for your encouragement. Best wishes in these new four walls; I know you’ll find comfort in them someday. ;)

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