dickinson magazine

In an essay called “Making House” in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Rachel Cusk admits to be driven to the “brink of mental and physical collapse” by the renovation of the London flat where she lives with her daughters. “I caused walls to be knocked down and floors to be ripped up and rooms to be gutted … with what at times seemed like magic and at others sheer violence.”

Magic and violence. It’s a combination of conditions that resonates right now. The magic and violence of a dismantling. The magic and violence of having the way you’ve understood things get altered, of someone coming in and shifting things so they are, for a time, unrecognizable, altered, messy, stirred up, all upside-downed.

We’re at work on two big projects – taking down walls, ripping up floors, gutting, gutting. It is a trauma, I think, for the house, for the inhabitants. The physical and psychic disruption is acute. In Somerville, we’ve destroyed a room to rebuild it into an enormous kitchen. The young couple and their daughter, five years old, have no kitchen right now. A fridge is tucked into a hall; there are mugs on the rim of the tub. The home becomes something else, surrendered, for a time, to chaos, to dust, to horrific noise, to strangers clomping up the back stairs with tools hanging from their waists.

This winter, we worked extending a small house in Cambridge. The couple joked the experience nearly ended in divorce. They laughed when they said it, but there was desperation in the air when we stood in front of the sink and asked them, which side do you want the dishwasher on. Not another decision. Not another compromise, pro and con list, weighing of preferences. Exhaustion was written all over their faces.

“To all except anguish, the mind soon adjusts,” Emily Dickinson wrote in a letter. And so maybe one gets used to washing the mugs in the tub, to the deafening screech of the saws. In between the hammerbangs last week, in between the ear-pierce of the saw screaming through another plank of two-by-eight, I could hear, on the other side of the plastic we’d hung from the door, the mother teaching her five year old the alphabet.

The magic and the violence hold the promise, or, at very least, the possibility, the potential, that it will, in time, come to feel like home.