The House on Teacher's Lane FAQs
What inspired you to write this second memoir?
I hadn't intended to write this book at all. The first hint of it arose in the summer of 2005. My career took a leap forward when Riding the Bus With My Sister was adapted for a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie and after the fanfare died down, I felt at a loss about what to do next with my life. I began contemplating what I call in the book my “Search for Life Purpose 2.0”, the kind of introspective journey many people undertake when faced with life changes.
Unfortunately, I didn't get to make Search 2.0 my priority. My husband Hal, who is an architect, had convinced me to undertake a major renovation on our house and that summer, as we were preparing to move out so the contractor could start the work, I found myself overwhelmed by the prospect of packing. I say overwhelmed because the house was bursting with stuff that we didn't have the room to keep—but since most of my possessions were mementoes of friendships, some of which had ended but still mattered to me, I couldn't bring myself to throw them away.
Shortly before our move-out date, I went see a friend in Washington, DC, and spent the two hour train ride writing. The moment my pen touched the page, I found myself examining my struggles with the packing process. To my surprise, I found I wasn't writing about packing as much as my internal conflict; I'd had a hard time sorting and parting with possessions because these things were more than photo albums or bits of stained glass or old containers; they were pieces of my internal world. I came to a new understanding about friendship, and this essay wrote itself.
So you decided to turn that essay into a memoir?
No, I actually thought that the piece would be an isolated essay. But when we moved a few days later, I had another experience that twined together the inner and outer worlds. I wrote about that, though this time I focused on family more than friends. A few days later, I had another bump in the renovation road, and it forced me to focus on myself and examine some of my personal issues.
Suddenly I realized that our renovation had put me on a journey that was both physical and emotional. My concrete world was intimately tying into my thoughts and feelings about all the relationships that really matter in life: family, friends, and self. I also began to see the renovation process as a metaphor for love. When you think about it, love is always in a phase of construction, demolition, or repair.
At that point I just had to keep writing about this double journey. I chronicled the whole story as I lived it, having no idea where it would go or how it would end. Amazingly, the day the renovation finished and we moved back in, I figured out my Life Purpose 2.0. In a moment of clarity, I knew the end of my memoir and my life's purpose.
This book is about home renovation, but it's also a deeply personal story. Do you think that the renovation process is an emotional undertaking for a lot of people?
I kept wondering about that as I was living through and writing about the experience. Then, just before we finished the house, I saw an article in Newsweek about a family therapist in California named Rachel Cox who, incredibly, specialized in people going through renovation. I contacted her and asked if we could meet and she generously agreed.
What did you learn about the emotional side of renovation?
“With a lot of people,” Rachel Cox told me, “all this deep psychological stuff starts happening during renovation but they don't realize why they're so stirred up. They just think it's about property value or a growing family, not their dynamics and fears and family histories. And most homeowners think of building going more smoothly than it does anyway. So when they come to me I see overwhelming anger or grief or depression. But then many of them come to see that it's also a paradigm-shifting time, when they can come to terms with loss, or find hidden creativity and strength. That it's a life-changing event.”
“But why,” I asked, “doesn't anyone ever talk about the deeper side of this experience?”
“People in the industry,” she answered—and she is married to a contractor—“notice clients' emotional rises and falls, but since they work with the tangibles of wood and hammers and nails, they rarely know how to deal with psychology. Psychologists notice the occasional patient's struggle, but since renovation isn't their area of concentration, and they're rarely married to people who know the building industry, like you and me, they're less likely to possess knowledge of the construction process.”
“Therefore I'm not off the wall?” I asked her.
“Not at all,” she said. “It's a melding of two worlds that needs to happen.”
Is your house completely done?
Everything that was within the scope of the job was indeed completed, but there are many little projects outside the scope that are works in progress. This includes the new cabinetry and shelving that Hal has begun to build, and the staircase railing and fireplace surround he'll eventually design. There are also many details we haven't begun to tackle, such as selecting window treatments, or the art we want on our walls. Eventually we'll get everything done, but for now we're taking our time. The fact is that we went from a house that was frustratingly dark, cramped, ugly, broken down, and energy-inefficient to one that's bright, spacious, attractive, operational, and environmentally friendly. We live in the kind of home I only could have dared to imagine before this, so it's easy to be patient with the rest.
You mention in the book that you were going to refinance the house to help cover the cost of renovation. Please tell me you didn't get sucked into one of those bad mortgage deals that have caused so much trouble.
Not to worry. We refinanced the house with a traditional mortgage at a reasonable rate.
In the book, you talk about a few close relationships that you hadn't yet repaired, and when the book ends, I wasn't sure whether you had.
I'm happy to report that little miracles have happened that have brought me a few steps closer to mending ties. Like the house, there is still more work to be done, but I'm feeling very hopeful about the ultimate outcome.
There is a line in the book that's paraphrases Emmanuel Swedenborg: “There is nothing that happens out of which good cannot occur.” What is the exact quote, and where can I find it?
In his book Secrets of Heaven, translated by my friend Lisa Hyatt Cooper, the sentence reads: "Nothing is therefore allowed to happen except to the end that something good may come out of it." This can be found in Arcana Caelestia (Secrets of Heaven) §6489.
How is your mother doing? Has her dementia gotten worse?
She seems to have stabilized. That is a great relief.
How is Hal? Does music continue to be a big part of his life?
Hal is very well. After I finished the book, he completed a CD which he shared with friends, and has since been composing new work.