I loved the sleepy nights of childhood spent in the back seat of the car, cheek pressed against the door, marking the rhythm of lights as they'd lean in through the window one by one. The drone of the same conversation resumed in the front seat, lulling in its familiar cadence. The press of too many of us crammed in back, but liking that too, because I'd have it that way forever, if I could. The whole family in a pile and me secure under the weight of it all. Those were times I liked being alone with my thoughts, they could roam safely there with my entire world in an enclosed space and all of it in my father's capable hands. Nothing to do but doze. Perfect.
Which brings me to the hole in my ceiling. I go into the new dining room addition we're building, in which we have taken great pains to preserve the original ceiling, which was that of our old porch, and I look up to see what progress the builder has made today, and there's a gaping hole, front and center. Right next to where they're going to hang the uncharacteristically, irresponsibly expensive chandelier I splurged on to be the centerpiece of the entire effort. I've been imagining its glorious glow for months, bathing my entire world in the warm light of everything finally being exactly the way I would like it to be. Because I designed it, and chose it all. For myself. Perfect.
We've owned a lot of houses, and every one of them has had its selling points but also those things that made me wonder what kind of idiot built the place--light switches in wrong spots, thermostats on walls obviously better suited to art, gold bathroom fixtures that should never have happened, lights and wallpaper outdated long before the house was even built. And that Formica that tried to look like wood? Oh dear.
This is the first time I've ever been in the driver's seat, so to speak. This is my chance.
And now I have this big hole in my old wood ceiling. He explained to me in the planning stages how the vents would need to be toward the middle of the room, and how I wasn't going to like it but he would try to minimize it as much as possible, and I'd agreed that I could live with it, if he promised to do his best to tuck them out of the immediate sight line and behind a beam. He agreed. But then on the day they cut the holes, my contractor, with whom I'd had that conversation, wasn't on site. And I was in my studio typing or out for a run or in the shower or somewhere, and instead of any of those more discreet places, they cut that hole right in front, as the first thing you see when you walk in the room. Right before you notice the chandelier. Even 18 inches could have made an appreciable difference.
It violates all common sense. It's the kind of mistake that would be in a house I'd buy, but not in one I'd build. I was not happy.
My contractor said, "I wish we could fix it. I really do. Things aren't perfect. We're human. We live in imperfect houses. I can tell you 16 things I'd like to change in my own, and I built it." A shrug, as if that should make it easier for me to accept.
I've built a world I loved in each of my imperfect houses, truth be told. It's one of the things I enjoy most. I build nests, and I've cushioned the many moves for our family by recreating our familiar brand, new-and-improved variations on a comfortable old theme, everywhere we've gone. It's something I've tried at as a parent. It hasn't mattered so much where we've moved, because our distinctive home has moved with us.
Even so, I've always wanted the chance to build one for myself, from the first twig up.
So it's been funny to me that I've felt paralyzed from the moment we started this project. Can't decide on tile. Can't choose flooring. Dread picking fixtures. Can't decide whether I want to do the project at all. And even though I have a pretty good eye, and I've chosen things I love, I am positively haunted by the fear that I'll not be happy with the end result, and then I'll have no one to blame but myself.
But I've learned something useful from my resistance to the whole experience.
I've learned that I'm quite at home in the realm of arranging the pieces that I'm given into something I can live with. Obviously much less at home going out and getting my own pieces. There's less risk involved in just making the best of what you have. If you don't like how it turns out, you can always blame what you started with. It explains a lot about my life, actually.
It's much easier to just relax and enjoy the ride snuggled up in the back seat than it is when you're driving the car. My father probably could have told me that from the front seat. I wouldn't have been paying attention, of course. I was busy doing things like closing one eye, then the other, noticing how whatever I was looking at jumped back and forth and thinking I'd invented something big.
The problem is, part of the work of growing up is figuring out what pieces you want and having the gumption to go out and get them for yourself. You can't be a passenger forever, eventually you have to drive the car if you want to get to the real destination of your choice. And yes, you might get lost or stuck or encounter mechanical difficulties or even crash and burn. All the possibilities exist, and if you're the one driving, you'd better be prepared to deal with whatever comes up on the road.
In some ways, I believe I've been dozing in the back seat of my own life.
I'm deciding to make friends with the hole in my ceiling. We're human beings. We live in imperfect houses. And at last I'm going to have the opportunity to live in one where I understand the unsightly, imperfect, unfortunate hole and exactly how it came to be there, knowing that I was right in the next room the day they cut it but still wasn't able to prevent a visible flaw from popping up exactly where I didn't want it no matter how much I stressed about it beforehand.
But I'm still going to end up with a really beautiful room, anchored by a truly lovely chandelier. Perhaps giving up control in small ways could actually mean taking control in larger ones. Putting down the million tiny things I've been trying to carry in order to pick up the bigger thing with both arms. It's not the only thing I've been a little slow figuring out.
Are we there yet?