The necessary folly of rebuilding a home in a world on fire

Maybe demolitions are actually renovations, which has me thinking that this world is being rebuilt big time—although, sure, right now it feels awfully torn apart. I say: Let’s wait and see?

Or that’s what I tell myself as the mandatory evacuation area creeps closer to my home and acre of land in the foothills of Colorado. The nearby mountains are on fire, and so is most of the West. Demolished forests near and far land on my house in the form of ash. As I turn on the sprinklers to prevent dry-grass fires, and stare at the milky sky and red sun, I wonder: Is this what renovation feels like? Fires bring renewal, sure, and these forests needed to burn. Their tinderbox status, like our society’s, is real. But this misery could lead to new growth, no? Wildflowers and baby aspen. And perhaps, if we do it right, the equivalent in society: new, green, and necessary regrowth. 

The view is grim. The misery factor is high. The mood is bad. Other homes burn. I’m at the dumbest, foggiest place I’ve ever been as I watch people evacuate who are probably at the dumbest, foggiest place they have ever been. This becomes the biggest fire in Colorado’s history, and evacuees stream by my window with their stock trailers loaded with horses and goats. In the mornings, the valley is socked in with smoke, and waking creates a despair in my chest I’ve never quite felt before. I thought I’d be more resilient, lifelong Coloradoan and all, but I sometimes feel close to having a true breakdown, whatever that means. I repeat my mantra: Breakdown times are breakthrough times! But still, my lungs and eyes and head all ache, my nose bleeds, my brain is fog as I stare at the fog, and my cells, my very biology, urge me to flee. This does not feel like a breakthrough at all. 

But I stay put, in part because there’s nowhere to go, and in part because I’ve spent the entirety of the Great Isolation renovating two things: my psyche and my house. They are both long-haul repairs. Their renovation is important, demands focus, is a coming-of-age. Sure, ultimately both will be demolished—I will die, the house will crumble into the earth—but for now, I want to hang in there. I’m making such progress! 

I’ve spent the entirety of the Great Isolation renovating two things: my psyche and my house.

This wooden house in the foothills of northern Colorado is a house I’ve bought twice and lost once. My husband and I bought it as a young couple; a decade later, he got it in the divorce; a few years later, I bought it back from him. The first time we moved in, when the kids were toddlers, it was eighties-weird but clean, as houses sold on the market tend to be. The second time I moved in, a few months before the Great Pause, it was trashed, inside and out. When I closed on the house, it had been left as-was: pots and pans and expired food and broken skis and boxes of junk and dead mice were everywhere. No one had gone around with a baseball bat smashing stuff, to be sure, but it was wrecked, nevertheless—not on purpose, but via benign neglect, which feels similar to what destroyed the marriage, and that kind of slow decay is sad. Tiles falling off bathroom walls and wood rotted underneath, windows broken, dead skunks and pack rats decaying in the floorboards. The acre of land, too, was hurting—chewed up by deer, dead and dangerous cottonwoods, fruit trees unpruned and looking like wild medusas. 

I began the work of redesign. Walls were demolished, then rebuilt. 

My interior, my very self, well, that I’ve fixed up millions of micro-times, and done a few big overhauls too. I had a tough childhood, and it took me a while to learn how to treat people, how to exist comfortably and kindly in the world. An abusive approach to religion led me to mindfulness trainings and a whole new belief system. Parenting changed me to the very core, as it does everyone. All this fixing-upping has been real and tangible and solid. But there are more changes to come, especially now, back in this house that triggers memories. Even if the divorce needed to happen, I miss the ease of a family unit, a place for the kids to return to on college breaks. It brings me to my knees, the pang of what the divorce did to them, the way they never have one simple home to return to. It’s the little moments that do it, such as a text like Should I send you or Dad my birthday wish list? or Will Dad be sad if I spend Thanksgiving with you? Moving back into the house forces me to sit with that hurt, makes me sit with the ways I can regrow, healthier, and help them regrow, healthier. 

Illustration by Anna Hall

Joy can be built. It stuns me, how different my life is now, in this house. Even in a pandemic, even with our bifurcated country, even with this wildfire, I suppose there is basic happiness, basic contentedness, basic playfulness—at the same time as the sorrow. It’s the same house and same me, but this version of life is more artsy, colorful, experimental, and I’m not just talking about aesthetics or mood. Case in point: A contractor shared psilocybin tea, knowing I wanted mindful journeys for reconstructing my middle-age brain. One day, exhausted from cleaning, I took some and went outside and lay in the grass and watched cottonwoods clapping at life, reminding me of the interconnectedness of it all, including viruses and humans, the pain of human suffering and this quieter time for the planet, and hell yeah, I felt myself truly renovated.

The kids love this house—have the coordinates tattooed on their bodies, in fact—and are delighted by this renovation. They come by this under-construction house nearly every day, often to help out, and to watch the progress of the wildfire with me. They live in the condo I bought at the start of the divorce, right down the road, which makes it strange because I am the one who launched back into their childhood home, and they stayed in our temporary housing. I flew the nest, they stayed, and we all agree this living arrangement is pretty ideal during a pandemic. They’re in college, with a roommate, coming of age in their own way, but they still want to come over for walks or work or “café time,” now that all their study places don’t feel safe, and their way of life is under reconstruction. Jobs lost, internships gone, relationships impossible, and the fear of what is to come. To them, it feels like a demolition before it was time. They have the look of tired contractors trying to figure out the craziest project of their life.

The house, my self, the family. Deconstruction, reconstruction. I believe people can change, but usually only when presented with a crisis that is real, immersive, tangible. Here is our time. 

The wildfire rages. Small aspen will spring up. 

The pandemic rages. We’ve learned flexibility and endurance. 

Perhaps the house will burn, perhaps I’ll die from a virus. We’ll both crumple. 

But in the meantime: The house is complete—framing, drywall, paint, floorboards, fixtures, windows, lighting. The yard is healthy—old trees trimmed, new trees planted, flower beds for birds and butterflies. My soul feels fixed too, for real change like this reconfigures the brain. It’s been exhausting. 

The Great Stay has meant fixing these fixer-uppers. Which is why I think the work of further reconstruction might now begin, and we can sweep the ash off the planks of the porches and find a cleaner way overall. Demolitions are the start of renovations. I say to myself: Hang in there, let’s wait and see.

About the Author

Laura Pritchett

Laura Pritchett is the author of five literary novels. Her first book, Hell’s Bottom, Colorado, won the Pen Center USA Literary Award for Fiction and the Milkweed National Fiction Prize.

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One thought on “Renovations

  1. I also renovated a house during the Pandemic. Different circumstances but many similar feelings. Thanks for your intimate portrait of “renovation “.

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