There comes a point where rebuilding is no longer an option. When things are so broken, so torn down that what was is beyond reclaiming. What is left is in ruins. Pieces are missing, taken by others, or simply rotted beyond repair.
It is true of buildings. It is true of ourselves.
I grew up thinking anything could be salvaged. My father was a master restorer of things. As a child and a young man, I saw him restore thing after thing. Old cars. A wooden sailboat. Once I remember him bringing in a box of wood that I thought was for kindling for the fireplace. As it turned out, it was an antique cherry Grandfather’s clock, and when he was done, it was magnificent. Today it lives in my sister’s house, one of those things you notice the moment you walk in the room.
Just before I went off to college, my dad bought a business, finally fulfilling a lifelong dream.
A dream that went badly. It turned out the man he bought the business from had been cooking the books for ages, cooking them in a way so clever it caused the state legislature to rewrite laws to prevent what he had done. Not that all that lawmaking helped my dad – he came close to losing everything.
For my father, that was a turning point. He was never the same, according to my mother. What he saw as his failure haunted him the rest of his life. It colored the way he saw himself.
The irony of that is that while he was beating himself up, I was getting a different lesson. What I saw was how he picked himself up in mid-life. How he entered a whole new industry and succeded. I watched him recover financially, and not just stabilize his financial life, but thrive. He did good work, built great relationships with his clients, who often became his friends as well. He and my mom were able to travel extensively – something he likely would never have been able to do had he run his own business, even successfully.
I saw resilience and rebuilding. I saw the courage to plow through the dark times and, not rebuild, but recreate a life. I saw how hard it was.
It was probably the most important lesson I have learned in my life. That not everything can be fixed. That somethings are so broken they cannot be recovered. But that even when it is all broken, you can still build. You can take the rubble of life and build something new. And that new may be different, but it can be wonderful. It might even be better.
Decades later, as I neared fifty, my own life came apart. I lost everything. My marriage. My children. My work unraveled. My financial state went from solid to fragile. I sank into a black depressive place where I barely functioned. For years.
What I had, what I was, was gone.
But there was a tiny little sliver of hope gleaned from that lesson I had learned while I was in college, watching my father slowly build a new life.
That’s the key I think. When life comes undone, there’s a tendency to want to restore the old life. It’s natural, I think. There were parts of my old life that I loved. Part of the “before the crash” time that was a delight to me, that I was proud of. I wanted that back.
The problem was, of course, is that too many parts were missing. There’s a reason things come undone in our lives and at times it is a cumulation of many many pieces that one by one, go missing, Like a Jenga game.
Unlike Jenga, though, where you can rebuild because all the blocks are there, in real life when things come undone, too many parts are missing. The tower can’t be rebuilt.
But something else can be built.
Going back to my father, when I was ten, he and my mom built a new house. He found an old 1700’s parsonage back in the woods of Surry County, Virginia that was falling apart. There was no restoring this house. It was too far gone.
But there were parts that were still useful. The floors in particular, beautiful heart of pine floors, hand-hewn, tongue and groove floors. We (OK, mostly he. I was only ten, after all.) pulled out those floors, had them planed down, and put them in the new house he was building. They were, and remain breathtaking.
The house could not be rebuilt. Something new could be built from it. My dad’s life could not be rebuilt. Something new could be built from it. My own life could not be rebuilt. Something new could be built from it.
But to get to that place of building something new, we have to stop trying to rebuild the old thing. And that is hard. Some of us never get there. Our lives come undone and we spend the rest of our precious time here trying to rebuild the tower, without the pieces and parts we need.
Not everything can be restored. But something can be built anew.
In my office is a small hanging corner cupboard. It is an 18th-century corner cupboard that is fifty some odd years old. How can that be? It is made from the shutters of that same old house my dad pulled the floors out of. Nearly every piece of wood in the cupboard came from that house. Beautiful as it is, nothing there is what it was originally made to be. It is not a restoration. It is a new thing my dad made from the pieces and parts of the old house, and it’s beautiful. But it is not a restoration. It is something new.
My life now is something new. And it’s pretty wonderful. Not what I had planned 35 years ago, or even 15 years ago. I’ll never be able to restore that life. It’s gone. Too many pieces missing.
But it’s pretty wonderful. I would not trade it for the life I once had. And the beginnings of this wonderful life came when I realized, and accepted, that I’d never have my old life back again, and set about, not restoring, but building.
It’s hard building anew. There are no blueprints. We still have that old stuff to figure out what to do with. Call it baggage if you like. Or call it building blocks. Something to build on a giant puzzle where some of the pieces seem to be of one puzzle, (the old one) and some seem to be of another (the new one). A giant collage, with about a million mismatched pieces.
But that is where art comes from. And that’s where amazing new lives come from. The adventure of discovery, along with the adventure of salvaging the stuff from our past that is useful and good, and merging it with the new things.
The sad part is that my dad never fully embraced the wonder and power of what he managed to do. His failure haunted him till the end. Somehow he never took the lesson that saved my life to heart for himself.
But I am grateful for that lesson. I do love restoration. Like him, I like to restore old things. And the things that can’t be restored, like the life I once had? Ah, that’s when the magic starts.
If we let it.
Be well. Travel wisely,
PS: The picture was taken in Turner’s Falls, Mass. It was a wonderful old abandoned factory until a fire destroyed it for good.