Monday, November 2, 2015

This Old House

This piece was originally written in March 2012.

I don't know why I did it. It was a long, exhausting day. Nothing went smoothly. All seemed a battle--with kids, with myself. I was tired. The kids were FINALLY sleeping. I thought I would just relax and watch some TV. In an attempt to find a program we both enjoy, my husband switched from basketball to a home improvement show. It was one of those kitchen makeover shows where the couple shows the contractor everything they hate about their current kitchen. Together, they look at plans for a new one, and then--voila--15 minutes later their "outdated, bland, horrible, unbelievable, gotta-go" kitchen is transformed into the kitchen of their dreams. After final clips of the smiling couple sipping coffee over crushed glass counter tops, they live happily ever after.

"Are you kidding me?" I say. "I would love to have their kitchen!" And I am talking about the BEFORE version, not the AFTER. You see, we live in an old house. Not only does the kitchen give me daily cause for sighs of disgruntled angst, the rest of the house does, too. The toilets run and wake us up at night. The hardwood floors have lost their finish, leaving exposed wood that is hard to clean and has provided plenty of splinters in my kids' feet. The paint is chipping all over the place. All. Over. The. Place. Did I mention the mold I found in the back of the closets last year? It's not like we have slumlords, either. There's no one to blame. We have fabulous landlords who have problems fixed promptly when we can't do it, and who keep the rent affordable. They even have our patch of grass mowed each week by their landscapers. But who would want to pour money into a rental property to refinish floors or buy new appliances? I understand that. The house is livable. It's actually really cute and in a fabulous location. But what we don't pay in rent, we pay in energy bills. This 100 year old house has no insolation. The windows, although permanently stuck shut in several places, are as old as the house and leak air. Your jaw would drop if I showed you our winter energy bills--and this is just to keep our house tolerably warm!

But my discontent simmers mostly in the kitchen. The refrigerator hums louder than a fighter jet taking off. I have actually witnessed visitors jump and ask, "What's that noise?" The fridge is so small, it only holds about 4-5 days worth of groceries. I have three hungry, growing boys. I'm afraid I will have to do a supermarket run every 3 days in a year or two! The old tile floor, no matter how much I scrub it, never looks clean. When I set the oven, I can count on it to heat somewhere within 50 degrees of my desired temperature, which makes baking a perpetual experiment. Two burners on the stove don't light without some special tricks (which, I should add, I am pretty darn good at with my magic lighter wand.) The old tile countertops are cracked and chipped. The grout is stained black, although up the backsplash I can see it used to be a pleasant shade of light blue. I kinda wish I didn't know that. Gross.

My husband has skills. Sweet home improvement skills. He even had a small business going for a while when we needed extra money. He never lacked for work because he actually showed up and did the work when he said he would. Everyone told their friends. But sometimes when you have knowledge of what you are really seeing, you can't live in the ignorance-is-bliss state. He sees the need for repair or renovation nearly everywhere he looks in our home, but he admits it is just not worth the time or money to put into a rental. He has already given the bathroom a facelift, painted 2 rooms, fixed countless toilet and sink problems, repaired plaster walls (which is no small task), fixed jammed doorknobs and doors, sealed ductwork to increase efficiency, plugged every possible entry point for mice, nailed down loose floor boards, rewired some electric (which I sincerely think he looses sleep over because it's so old and potentially dangerous), and replaced rotting wood. Yes, he definitely has skills.

During my little episode fuming over DIY network & HGTV, I abruptly decide to go to bed instead of watch the rest of the show. It is not long, somewhere between brushing my teeth and falling asleep, I have to admit the biggest thing in disrepair in our whole house is really my own heart. The TV networks are not to blame. Although my kitchen could use a renovation, my heart needs a make-over first.

In her book, One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp tells her story of transformation. From the tragedies and sadness in her youth, she struggles to experience God's goodness and love. All her doubts and questions come from a heart which is alive but not really living. While she exists under this dark cloud, her friend dares her to list 1000 things for which she is thankful. She accepts the dare and begins to jot down, in a notebook, those moments in the day that might otherwise pass her by. Over time, with this practice, she begins to see the beautiful (and even the ugly and hard) are really displays of God's love for her. Her eyes are being trained to see it. She begins to see how she is loved more than she can imagine. She begins to experience the truth that God is always good. I find her poetic, raw, introspective writing captivating.

So, I start my own journal. One thousand gifts. It is easy to notice God in the blooming wonder of spring, the laughter of my children, the food provided in our daily feasts, a sweet hour with a friend. But in my running toilet at 3 am? In my tiny refrigerator? In the chipping paint?

I am learning it starts with gratitude. A thankful heart is the door to joy. It is impossible to have joy with a thankless, complaining heart. The feelings might not be there to start. But I make a decision. Instead of muttering when the toilet begins to run like Niagara Falls, early the next morning, I say, "Thank you, God, that we have a toilet." It is not some grand spiritual moment. It is just simple words. But alongside these words, images begin forming in my mind: homes that don't have toilets. Places in the world that don't have toilets. PEOPLE in the world who don't have toilets. I think about living in the Caribbean during our first year of marriage and daily viewing the windowless shack down the hill from us, swarming with chickens and children. I think about my mission trip to Mexico during high school: the dusty village where, from their poverty, women fed us tortillas cooked over their open fires. Beyond the crumbling adobe church, where we acted out Bible stories to wide-eyed children, was with the neighborhood outhouse. Flies buzzed the dilapidated wooden box. The door hung on but barley closed. A stench overwhelmed. I came back home feeling MOST thankful for two things: showers and toilets. I've seen life without toilets. So I say it again, but I mean it more. "Thank you, God, that we have a toilet, even if it may run loudly and annoy me. I am so thankful we have one."

Another day begins. In the quiet of the morning, I read in the living room, and the refrigerator begins to take off. The inclination, the default of my heart, is to inwardly roll my eyes. "Here we go again." On a good day, I might sarcastically sing, "Off we go, into the wild blue yonder...." There may be laughter. But I want joy. "Thank you, God for my refrigerator." And a series of photo-like images dance through my mind: beautiful bronze-toned people who live in a desperately cracked land, thirsty for rain. Their hands hold grain. The man I saw in the city sleeping curled up under the tree, plastic bags and newspapers for warmth. His nutrition is handed to him from strangers. He will find tomorrow's food from garbage cans. The aisles of three grocery stores within two miles of me, overflowing, abundant, full. The refrigerator on the front porch, half-covered with ripped tarp, doors falling off, in the unfamiliar neighborhood we drove through yesterday. Was it the only one they had? And I mean it more, "Thank you, Father, for this refrigerator, old and small as it is. Thank you for filling it. You provide our daily bread. We are never in want. We are satisfied. You have been so good."

Later, in the middle of switching the clothes from the washer to the dryer, I notice the chipping paint. I am in the laundry room where baseboards and windowsills are chipped and speckled, where wood and layers of years show though. Sometimes the complaint becomes comfortable. Do I really want joy? Before I say it, I doubt it. "Thank you, God...for chipping paint?" I feel my insincerity. I say it out loud. "I'm stuck. I'm not really thankful for chipping paint. I don't see any good in it." The dryer door slams shut. I clutch a pile of clean colored clothes and hit a switch to start the hum. He doesn't leave me there. What mercy. He speaks. "Look beyond the paint." I do. And I am undone. Broken. My overactive tears ducts strike again. I lean over the dryer, clutching clothes, crying. "The walls! Thank you, God, for these WALLS!" I really mean it. The memories overwhelm me. The last eight years, the only home my children can remember. In the doorway of the dining room, we have added to the chipping speckles a ladder of pencil marks to show how they've grown. These walls have been our shelter. The place where we have fought, made love, wept over losses and confusion, laughed at surprises, and celebrated the marks of the journey with candles, cupcakes, Christmas trees, and clicking cameras. We have lived out God's gift of life in these walls. Imperfect, but strong, secure, walls. I feel foolish. But He knows all things. "Thank you, God, for these walls. For this home." The circumstances of finding and moving to THIS house were so clearly His doing. "Thank you for picking this home for us. For letting our family grow in this safe place. We are so, SO blessed."

The running toilet, the old refrigerator, and the chipping paint have not changed. But I am changing.

He reminds me that all are shadows of Him. "Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God" (Psalm 90:1-3.) I just need eyes to see it. The things of this world are passing away, but I have a home, a God, who endures forever. This old house can lead me to Him. Through the simple act of thanksgiving, I can open the door to dismantle the dissatisfaction. I want joy. More than granite countertops, a guest room, or energy efficient windows, I want joy. And I want Him.

The Lord, He is God;
It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves;
We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.
Enter into His gates with thanksgiving,
And into His courts with praise.
Be thankful to Him, and bless His name.
For the Lord is good; His mercy is everlasting,
And His truth endures to all generations.
Psalm 100:3-5

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