More than forty years ago I built a little house on a mountain. It had no electricity, so I used a carpenter’s saw and a hammer, a bow saw and a draw knife. It had no driveway, so I carried windows and lumber up the hill on my back.
I loved my little house in the woods, the one I raised my son in, the one for which, piece by piece, I had to figure out how to do things: hang shelves on chains, notch poles for roof rafters, hinge counters to allow more space in the room. I loved its bedroom loft,
its kerosene lamplight, its outdoor shower, its bookshelves in all corners and in every available nook, its wood-burning heat stove that I also cooked on, its tiny antique propane stove with the temperamental oven that nonetheless made so many pies, cakes, and cookies. Peonies blossomed in the front yard. A grape vine shaded the pantry roof. A trail curved through the woods and up the hill to the house.
On dark nights, stars sparkled like distant candles through the skylights in my bedroom loft. When I found a scorpion in the house, I would carry it outside. When the bear came after apples from the apple tree hanging over the deck, I slept on the deck. When I saw the cougar amble nonchalantly towards the house and then, two feet from the back door, turn into the woods, I was thrilled. I loved everything about my unique little house. It was so charming.
Five years ago I moved into a new house on the same piece of land. My son designed it, and it has electricity. Everything works. Lights turn on with the flick of a switch, food stays cold in a refrigerator, and clothes get washed at home instead of at the laundromat. Living is easier in this beautiful house. I love my new house.
But the old house has stayed part of my heart. When I moved out of it, I let an acquaintance live in it, but every time I stopped by, I cringed at the change. The house looked like any old shack in the woods now. All the charm had seeped away. The yard was hard dirt, and there wasn’t a small amount of dirt in the house, too. The bedroom loft, unused, was hung with dirty cobwebs. The outdoor shower was let to ruin. When this man moved out several months ago, he left a lot of junk behind.
My friend John offered to help clean it up. For two days he and I picked up soda cans and plastic water jugs, took out-of-date canned and packaged food from the pantry, stuffed ragged old shirts and pieces of foam and broken flower pots and a hundred other useless items into garbage bags.
At first I was angry: how dare this man treat my beautiful home like a dump? How dare he be so disrespectful, so careless of what had been so close to my heart? Then I let it all go, and just dug into the clean-up.
It took two very dirty days to pick up all the junk and haul it to the dump and then another day to haul off the overstuffed chairs and other large items. The Metal Man took the non-functioning RV propane refrigerator, the water heater, the metal table, the old batteries left on the doorstep, and many smaller items.
The house had dusty cobwebs in all the corners and was filthy dirty, but it was mine again. Old, decrepit, creeping out from under neglect and disregard, it nevertheless began to exude a memory of its youthful self, to regain an echo of its former charm. Now I could take a look and determine what to do with it. Fix it up as a guest house? Rent it out? Or tear it down? Renting it was problematic because living in that house was difficult – no electricity, erratic water, foot-only access. Besides, I didn’t trust its safety any more and didn’t want the liability of having someone rent it. Even to use it as a guest house would mean constant upkeep. Houses need to be lived in. Maybe it was time to admit that it was the end of an era. Maybe it was time to let go of my little house in the woods. Maybe I would tear it down.