The House You Build

The House You Build

A few weeks ago, as a hurricane churned off the coast and storm preparations were at a fever pitch, I discovered that the artesian well that provides water to my entire house had been damaged. It was late, and I was getting ready for bed, doing all the things you do on autopilot: putting toothpaste on my toothbrush, turning on the water and wetting the brush, sticking the toothbrush in my mouth, and brushing my teeth with … minty fresh sand.

Sand? I’m not sure I see the problem.

But I was tired, and in my nightgown. So I did what I always do when I’m too exhausted to deal with something: I engaged in some magical thinking.

“Surely,” I told myself as I slathered on face cream, “this is an anomaly. In the morning, there will be no sand.”

But in the morning, there was sand. And furthermore, the water had taken on an odd odor, and was the color of weak coffee.

Still, I was busy with other, more pressing tasks. There was furniture to drag to safety, boats to stow, cars to move, gas to purchase. It was a hot and humid day, and by the time I finally came inside, the sun was setting, and I was filthy. So much so that my dogs, who love nothing more than a rotting fish carcass, looked at me askance.

Have you, umm, got any plans to, umm, bathe?

I dumped kibble in their bowls and went upstairs to crank the hot water in the shower on full blast.

But nothing happened. There was no hot water. Not even a trickle.

Sniffling pitifully, I turned off the shower and picked up my phone.

I left a message for the guy who’d put in the irrigation well — which was thankfully intact, since obviously the thing you really need to do when a hurricane is coming your way is run the sprinklers — and then I called some friends who, I was reasonably sure, had hot water, good wine, and enough grace not to mention the way I smelled. Those are the very best kind of friends.

So you don’t want to use my tub?

The next morning, I stood next to the repairman as he lifted the cover off the well and discovered that the well pipe had been sheared off at ground level, probably by a large piece of equipment backing into it.

Because we’d had flooding rains two days earlier, the ground around the well was saturated with brackish water that had overflowed from the river, and there was mud caked inside the pipe.

“This is a mess,” the well guy said, peering into the pipe. “It’s contaminated, full of bacteria, probably all the way through.” He wrinkled his nose and looked up at me. “Don’t ingest any of this. Don’t drink it, don’t bathe in it, don’t brush your teeth with it, don’t make coffee. It’s completely toxic.”

I nodded, my mind running back over the past few days, and the numerous times I’d bathed, brushed my teeth, and made coffee.

But — the hurricane stayed south, the well was repaired and shocked with bleach, and the hot water heaters (which had become clogged with sand) were repaired in only three costly visits from the plumber. Yay!

And so, in the calm aftermath of the Storm That Wasn’t, I lay on the couch clutching my stomach — which felt like it was being eaten from the inside out by fire ants dipped in acid — and wondered what other poisons I’d allowed into my life. What other bad-for-me stuff had I ingested when I was too tired, or too distracted, or too focused on the possibility of some larger disaster to recognize it as toxic?

Up the mountain in Umbria.

This summer, I met a man in Italy who became a pal. Not two days into our nascent friendship, he said to me, in response to a comment I’d tossed off carelessly, “You talk very bad to yourself. Why you do this?”

Che dici?” I said, sure I’d misheard him. “What do you mean?”

“You talk bad to yourself. Why? Do not say, I cannot, I am old, I am ugly, I don’t matter. This is very bad! Why you do this? Talk good to yourself!”

My hackles went up immediately. I was pretty sure I hadn’t said most of those things, and if I had, surely I hadn’t really meant them. Duh. And besides, where did this guy get off, analyzing me and offering me life advice after knowing me for five minutes? I don’t think so, ragazzo.

Ciao, dude. I’m out.

But as the summer wore on, and my new amico delighted in bringing it to my attention every time I degraded myself, the absolute correctness of what he’d said so early on in our friendship became readily, painfully, annoyingly obvious.

And I was surprised, because I’d learned a long time ago to limit the amount of external toxicity, from the news and social media and idle gossip, that I allowed into my brain. But my own voice — the one that kept up a relentless commentary about me, to me — had become thoroughly, depressingly, unwaveringly negative.

How did this happen? I love reminding my friends how whip-smart and kind and witty and gorgeous they are — and they really are; it’s astonishing — but I was hard-pressed to think of anything good to say about myself!

Forget the contaminated well water. My real problem was that I’d been poisoning myself all along, swallowing little toxic marshmallows of self-loathing without a second thought.

Marshmallows? But the cat just fell asleep!

Of course, a negative internal soundtrack is not particular to me.
It’s a common enough plight, particularly in middle age, which is when you realize that the shiny jewel you used to be has taken on some tarnish.
Middle age is when it suddenly becomes very apparent that while you meant to do great things, somewhere along the way you forgot where you put your ambition…and your car keys.

Remember that old cumulative kids’ rhyme, The House that Jack Built? It starts with something small and seemingly unimportant, but by the end of the tale, all those small things have created something much, much bigger — an actual house.

That’s how it is with that negative internal voice, too. You have a small, seemingly inconsequential thought — I’ll never get this right — and then another — I’m too old to start again — and before you know it, those small thoughts have built the psychological “house” you’re living in.

You have one toxic marshmallow, then two, and suddenly…*screams*

Luckily, The House that Jack Built can also work in your favor — seemingly inconsequential things can add up to something much bigger, and better.

In my case, for instance,
that trip to Italy
led to a chance meeting
that turned into a friendship
that resulted in an off-hand comment,
and the broken well
led to a call
that summoned a repairman
who also made an off-hand comment.
When those two things came together, they made something much bigger: They made a difference in the way I think.

Those comments — made by people who don’t know me — opened my ears to the internal dirge I’d been performing in remembrance of who I used to be, a requiem for the shiny me.

And as soon as I knew that, as soon as I recognized the music of my life as a dirge, I realized how incredibly wrong that was, because God calls us to make our lives a joyful noise — not a funeral lament!

Head up, eyes up when singing the song of your life!

So, take a second to hear — really hear — how you’re talking to yourself. Because that Italian guy knew a couple of really useful things, besides where to go for the best Sagrantino.

He knew that the way you think and talk about yourself tells the world how to think and talk about you.

He knew that it’s important to take care of yourself, to value yourself, and to honor yourself, so that you can do these same things for the people who need you.

He knew that the negative soundtrack has a way of worming its way back in, so you better be vigilant and stand guard against the small incursions.

He also knew where to find the best Sagrantino, did I mention that?

Why yes, a second bottle would be nice…

So here’s to you! And while we’re at it, here’s to me. And here’s to that Italian guy, to the well repairman, to the friends with the hot shower, and to everyone who needs to be reminded that a dirge can become a song of praise if the singer is willing to commit to a new song!

Make a joyful shout to the Lord, all you lands!
Serve the Lord with gladness;
Come before His presence with singing.
(Psalm 100:1-2, KJV)