Jessica Helfand | The Self-Reliance Project


Girl playing with dollhouse. From an advertisement, about 1940. The Strong Museum of Play, Rochester.

A decade ago, I bought a house that desperately needed repair. Designed without an architect some thirty years earlier, its defects were significant. That it had exquisite bones seemed meaningless, especially since it wasn’t clear there was even a front door. Friends, including my architects, thought I had lost my mind. It was a wreck.

And I was in love.

It was with that love that I ran, headfirst, into renovation. I was a quick study, gaining fast fluency with roofers and plumbers, arguing with contractors, approving budgets. Managing construction became my daily practice. Sourcing materials became my second language. I even had my own tool belt—a Mother’s Day gift—which I wore with immense pride as I set out, day after day, to transform a grim concrete bunker into a light-filled oasis for a family of four.

Then came an illness, and a terminal diagnosis. Priorities shifted, and life slowed down.

Seventeen months later, we were a family of three.

I kept going. I dug my heels in and worked even harder. I was now a single parent on a crusade of reconstruction, vowing to finish what I’d started. Somehow in my tool-belted determination, I equated completing this project with some kind of magical admission to the next phase of my life—of all of our lives. At the same time, I couldn’t quite admit to myself that this life-changing event was also a death-changing event. This work gave me focus as a maker, purpose as a parent, direction in my waking hours, and enough nighttime preoccupation to keep the cycle in constant rotation. The house became my crucible, and because I could not admit defeat, I kept going. 

Admission is a kind of permission that follows the pursuit and path of external validation. It’s demonstrative, quantifiable, and visible: admitting in the form of granting access. (An attorney is admitted to the bar. Tickets admit you to a performance.) But invert the model and now that validation is internalized. It’s emotional, remote, and invisible: admitting in the form of giving in. (You admit to yourself that you love someone, or something—a defective house, for instance.)

Easier to externalize than to admit. Easier to work than to want. To want and not to have—to want and want, writes Virginia Woolf, how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again

Productivity is a tonic for loss—not a replacement for it—and the work of reconstruction is always brutal. Moments of prolonged adversity, like that one was (and in other ways, like this one is) means admitting many things to yourself, including the fact that there are no quick fixes, that there are more questions than answers, and that heart wringing will definitely be involved.

One more thing: work will probably not set you free.

But it can help.

Today, that house is my co-parent, sheltering my young adult children while I am sheltering solo, some 3,000 miles away. It’s defects have mostly been addressed—at least the ones you can see—though it has taken quite a bit longer to recognize the internal cracks, the kind that require an entirely different set of tools. (I’m still working on those.) Foundations, I have learned, take little time to pour, but quite a bit of time to set. It is only now, a decade after falling in love with a wreck, that I realize the wreck was actually me. It took work, and patience, and an extraordinary amount of love, but I think that now—just maybe—the house loves me right back. 

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