Permanently Changing

Classifying the world of thought into “eastern” and “western” is a gross oversimplification.  Nevertheless we require some handles by which to grip this unwieldy beast of mental life.  One of the first distinctions that we’re taught is that western thinking tends towards the default of permanency while eastern thought emphasizes change.  Change, of course, is the lack of permanence.  The older I get the more I see the wisdom in accepting change as the only thing that’s really permanent.  It’s a lesson you learn as a homeowner.  In my typical western way of thinking, I assume things will pretty much stay the same, but the myriad of small, external forces work constantly toward change.  The only way to keep a house well is with constant upkeep.

The other day I found a rotted windowsill that our inspector somehow missed.  That it hadn’t happened on our watch was clear by the fact that the previous owners had slapped a thick layer of paint over what was clearly a broken and decaying sill, in essence ignoring the problem.  Change, you see, is constant.  Things really get interesting when you start to apply this to religion.  Although the Bible only hints at it (for the view isn’t entirely consistent) God is considered unchanging.  The same yesterday, today, and forever.  Meanwhile everything down here is constantly in flux—changing, evolving, decaying, reproducing.  Religions of eastern Asia tend to embrace this change as a given.  Our frustration in life, as Buddhism recognizes, has its roots in attachment to permanence.  Things inevitably change.

On the one hand this is so obvious that it might appear simplistic.  But then think how we live our lives here in the western hemisphere.  Our employers hire “change management” teams.  We suppose things will return “back to normal” after this pandemic is over.  We’ve been living the cloistered life for nearly six months now and things have been changing.  Especially in the early days people could be heard lamenting how quickly information and circumstances shifted.  Change is permanent.  For the homeowner anxious about the ability to keep up with upkeep, the constant growth of the lawn and the aggression of weeds can be their own kind of trial.  At times it feels like you need to be paid just to take care of your home since it’s a full-time job.  It is overly simplistic to draw an arbitrary line from pole to pole, but it does seem that some cultures, tending toward the east of the birthplace of monotheism, have some basic insights from which we might learn.

Jacob’s Ladder

Jacob, it is said, was quite a dreamer.  While fleeing from his brother Esau he had a dream of a ladder, or stairway, to heaven.  Well, “Heaven” as we recognize it didn’t exist then, but you get the idea.  Angels were climbing up and down on it, I’m guessing to do roof repairs.  You see, neither my wife nor I are what you might call tall.  In fact, I’m a bit shorter than the average guy and we can’t reach the top shelf in our kitchen, let alone the ceiling.  Or, God forbid, the roof.  So when tropical storm Isaias (not to be confused with the prophet) dropped upwards of five inches of rain on us, some of it got inside.  Our roofer, vexed as I was, promised to get over the next week but there’s more rain in the forecast.  I had to get up there to do some temporary patching.  I needed a ladder.

Ours is an older house.  The roof is way higher than any ladder we have.  I have one that allows me to get as high as the ceiling, but being acrophobic I don’t use it much.  It doesn’t come halfway to the lowest roof.  The hardware stores have ladders, but delivery’s a problem.  A ladder twice as long as our car seems like a road hazard, strapped to the top.  I asked about delivery at the local Lowe’s.  It would cost a third of the price again of the ladder itself, and that’s only be if they could deliver it.  Their truck was, ironically, broken down.  Wasn’t this a DIY store?  Could nobody there fix a truck?  I put a face-mask and rubber gloves on for this?  The world isn’t easy for the vertically challenged.  I really don’t want to climb that high, but with the ceiling below already coming down I’ve got to do something.

I wonder if Jacob’s ladder is still lying about somewhere, unused.  We don’t live far from Bethlehem.  Maybe I can scoot over the Bethel and pick it up.  Then again, maybe angels deliver.  I hear they can be quite accommodating.  Of course, if they’d keep the rain off in the first place that would’ve been helpful.  I’m pretty sure that Plant and/or Page had a leaky roof.  When they went to get up there they’d found somebody had already purchased the ladder (I think they call it a stairway in England).  So I find myself with a leaky roof and no way to get to heaven.

For the Squirrels

Our garage came with a house.  That’s one of the reasons we bought it.  You see, the one thing we don’t have is time.  (Well, that and money.)  When we were contemplating moving, we had no time off.  Vacation days for the remainder of the year had been allocated, and employers don’t like to encourage personal improvement.  Not on company time, anyway.  Which, of course, is as it should be.  We had to find a house with space enough to sort through things after we moved.  Ha!  As if there would be more time!  Still, the sorting would have to wait.  Our house has a detached garage with a second story.  It’s a converted barn, but I doubt its conversion story.  It still seems pretty heathen to me.  The neighborhood squirrels love it.

We store our unsorted stuff upstairs.  Shortly after we moved in, the squirrels had chewed through the stop-gap remediation the previous owners had put in place to satisfy our post-inspection demands.  It was pretty clear their solution wouldn’t keep out rodents, but our lease was about to expire and the market favored sellers, so we closed anyway.  Shortly after moving in I noticed styrofoam poking through the ceiling boards of the garage.  Then I began to find styrofoam chips in the yard nearly every morning.  I soon figured it out.  Squirrels raid the trash receptacles behind restaurants in town, and bring their carryout here.  No, seriously!  They haul styrofoam between the roof and ceiling, presumably licking off the scraps before tossing out the remaining foam.  I figure it’s a form of insulation, if nothing else.

Squirrel remediation is on our list of projects.  I’ve seen the squirrels run up the side when they spy me stepping outdoors.  When I reach the garage, they’ll stick their little heads out the hole they chewed and scold me.  This is their place, the garage.  They’ve insulated it, and the inside is a mess where the birds also get in and there are little animal parties every night.  I don’t have time to clean up after the squirrels.  It occurs to me that if we didn’t have a throw-away culture we wouldn’t have styrofoam containers for the poor beasts to plunder.  The food’s probably not healthy—the squirrels I see look plump and sassy.  They like the convenience of living in a shelter someone else built and on which someone else pays the taxes.  Perhaps I should start a zoo.  But first I’ve got some stuff to sort through, when I find the time.  If only I could teach the squirrels some other tricks beyond dining out. 

Cool Cash

The seller’s market is the place to be in a capitalist society.  Last year, when we were looking for a house, it was a seller’s market.  Our realtor said he’d never seen inventory so low and staying so low.  We found a domicile we liked, but it was older and had obviously (only after moving in) been neglected.  The previous owners, it was clear, had simply let things go (and they were younger than us, and had no excuse).  When we asked for a new roof they had flat-out refused.  With no other options (our lease was about to expire) we agreed to take it on anyway.  We’ve been having the roof done in installments—and if you’ve been getting the record levels of rain that Pennsylvania has, you know our decision was, in a literal way, short-sighted.  Ah, capitalism!

So, just after I noticed the piles of sawdust that the web tells me are carpenter ants, the refrigerator died.  Of course.  I tried to keep cool.  We don’t have what the overlords call “liquidity.”  Our cashflow is dammed at the source, as it were.  A new major appliance was not a welcome addition to the fixer-ups that appear nearly every day.  The first warning was that my soy milk was room temperature when it splashed on the cereal yesterday.  All of this made me reflect on how much we rely on our appliances, our modern conveniences.  When talking to my mother later in the day, I realized that as recently as her generation not everyone had a refrigerator.  You could live without one.  You could also live without a dishwasher, believe it or not!  

The whole episode of packing the food in ice sent me on a Calvino-esque reverie of what we keep in the refrigerator.  There are foods that must be kept cool or they’ll spoil, foods that are better if they’re kept cool but can be left at room temperature, foods that you prefer to drink cold but can be kept anywhere, and items which are technically not food.  Considering the state of our kitchen, there are also foods that you keep on top of the refrigerator because no amount of cupboard space is ever enough.  As the carpenter ants make their free lunch of our porch, we have to throw away food for which we paid because an appliance has come to the end of its life cycle.  And since it’s a holiday weekend we’ll pay for a more expensive replacement unit because it’s on a holiday sale.  For unlike my soy ice cream, I lack liquidity.

Mastering the Elements

First time home ownership is best left to younger people.  And perhaps younger houses.  The constant onslaught of things falling apart, or falling off (it has been an extreme weather year) has soured me on the idea.  You get set in your ways, you see.  The move from apartment to house didn’t come with a raise that would cover all the repairs invisible to a home inspector’s eye.  Although our house has stood for over 120 years, the last owners let lots of things go with a lick and a promise and we, the naive middle-aged first-time buyers in a seller’s market, bit.  I thought there would be repairs to make, but not all at once.  The royalties from books like Holy Horror don’t make even a small dent in the contractor’s fees.  We should maybe have bought a house in Jericho instead.  One right on the city wall.

The shake-down voyage of a ship reveals the problems, so the theory goes.  It stands to reason that people have to go through a shake-down year as well.  I’ve got the roofer on speed-dial, and I keep a wary eye on a garage that has more love than actual care poured into it.  All I want to do is read and write (which I could do just fine as a renter, thank you) in a place dry and not too cold.  The weather, however, has been unforgiving.  Rain and more rain.  There’s something primal about all this—an element of having to struggle against nature in order to survive.  In the modern world we’ve taken for granted our ability to keep the beasts and weather at bay.  Storm systems like the one that has just blown through serve to remind our species that there are things that will forever remain beyond our control.

The lament is the most numerous genre of psalm

Something like this was going through my mind as I wrote Weathering the Psalms.  (We didn’t own our house at Nashotah House, though.  Whose house?  Nashotah’s house.)  Living in the Midwest gave me a new appreciation for the weather.  Some of the storms we witnessed were nothing short of theophanic.  Global warming has a way of bringing the weather front and center.  Elements of this element, however, are within our control.  We understand at least the human-driven elements of global warming.  We deny they exist to scrape together a few more pennies at the end of the day.  Meanwhile those who buy houses need to do their homework.  If need a roofer too, I’ve got one on speed-dial.

Captive to Capitalism

Some people are born capitalists, while others are not.  I recall the old TIAA-CREF ads showing some famous thinker and stating that some of us don’t have time to think about money.  Since I’m an obscure private intellectual I feel hard pressed to put myself in such exalted company as university professors, but here I am anyway.  I just don’t think much about money, other than to panic over my lack thereof.  It doesn’t motivate me and as long as I can get along without too many worries, I seldom think about it.  Or so it used to be.  Then I bought a house.  Suddenly everything is about money.  This needs to be fixed, and that requires repair.  Instead of spending weekends writing (as I’m fond of doing), I now try my hand at skills like carpentry and masonry.  At least now the grass has started to turn brown.

I was never offered TIAA-CREF as a fiduciary option.  (I can’t believe I even know what fiduciary means!)   Having grown up poor I didn’t think much about things like retirement or dental care.  These were things middle class people did.  Now that I’m technically part of the club, I think back to being a poor kid working my summers away.  I had lots of time to write in those days.  It’s not that ideas for writing have stopped—they’re rather backed up—but the concerns and cares of this world have forced me to think about that thing I’d rather not face.  You see, capitalism takes no prisoners.  Once it starts the entire world has to play its game, otherwise the rich can’t keep getting richer.  Those of us who’d like to make a living by creativity take jobs that, in turn, take our time.  And more than just 8 hours a day of it.  Some people don’t realize that money doesn’t motivate everyone.

Accuse me of being a utopian; I promise I won’t take offense.  I can imagine a world where money would be an opt-in.  I’m careful to be discreet about it, but there are frankly some of us that would work for books, should our other basic needs be covered.  Secular monks, perhaps, unleashed from dogma and allowed to roam where the human mind can go.  Once you start thinking about money it’s difficult to stop.  You want to have a cushion that will soften unexpected eventualities—which seem to be coming somewhat more frequently these days—and every time you rub your back after a fall you think that pad should be a little thicker.  Getting paid for writing?  In your dreams!  I’d say more about it but I think Lowe’s is open now.