Wondering what to do with your life? Feeling like you want something new? Well, why not start renovating? Go on, do it. The future will spill out like a cornucopia from a horn of plenty. What delight! What variety. And you haven’t had this much fun since childhood.
So let’s start there, childhood. In those days…and I didn’t even know they were days, let alone their numbered status…my family lived in the desert. Who would have thought that you needed a sandpile in the desert? Well, it turns out you did. Anyway, my sandpile was a substantial sandlot. A corner of the property reserved for, more or less, me. I never shared it, not really. For one thing, neither sibling showed any interest. Me, I showed plenty. Long introverted hours out there building. Wonderland. Fantasyland. I guess the 1950s were populated by various ‘lands.’ In any event, these had entered and lodged in my consciousness. And found expression in this, my sand expanse. Mountains, roadways, and of course, lakes. There was a problem with the latter. Their tendency to leak. Build a lake out of sand, and that’s what you get, a rapidly draining hole. Anyone with real engineering inclinations would have solved, or at least tackled, this problem. But it never occurred to me, not really. I turned on the garden hose in my small sandy depressions, watched them fill with water, and observed their drainage, which was almost as fast. Down, down into the sand. And then below the sand, down into the sandy clay. An exercise in futility, one might say. Or a lesson. Probably more of the latter, and apparently in keeping with my expectations for existence. Filling. Draining. Tomorrow and tomorrow.
Fast forward to the year 2000. Marlou was moving in with me. I was feeling half apologetic about my apartment and its cramped confines. But what could I do? After all, the place wasn’t mine, was it? We would have to make do. And indeed, we did. First, Marlou was most charming with our landlord, Tom. She wanted to make changes, and he wanted to make her happy. And among the latter, the patio. Tom seemed unperturbed by its condition. The concrete slab of a terrace had cracked and tilted its sections, providing a sort of hands-on demonstration of tectonic plates. As for human habitation, it was a sort of cement wasteland, bordered by plants. Marlou was undeterred. A handyman, a guy who had simply been doing some repairs around the place, got to talking with her and…. First thing you knew, a pile of bricks had appeared outside our door. A redwood frame sprouted around the edge of the cracked concrete. An inch or so of sand on top of the concrete, then the bricks. Then more sand, this time brushed in between the cracks with a broom. That was it for pavement. A brickscape devoid of mortar. The use of sand struck some deep chord within me. The whole thing was so simple, so natural. And built on top of a sort of ruin. The march of civilizations, one might say.
And now, almost one and a half decades later, it’s happening again. This time with the two adjoining apartments. Part of my newly acquired property. And there is more. Not only is the cracked concrete of both terraces being supplanted by brick and sand, but the old is going away. Goodbye to the dead hedges. Goodbye to the living hedges, too. And here the situation was much more ambiguous, my feelings more ambivalent. After all, it is hard to kill living things, to say goodbye to green plants. What to keep and what to destroy? My God-like decision. Spare this one. Smite that one.
Immensely satisfying, either way.
And risky. For the entranceway to my apartment has always been masked, botanically defined, by large shrubs. They are of tree height, these things. One is a sort of holly. Planted perhaps 60 years ago, it is now 15 feet high. In its immensity, it had acquired a sort of oval, almost spherical dimension. Gardeners kept trimming it, and the holly kept growing. There’s nothing wrong with this. But to my eye, it didn’t look right. The simple answer? Rip it out. The real answer…unknown. For 20 years this holly bush has guarded my entrance. For a few years I hobbled into the apartment and up a couple of brick steps. Soon a wheelchair ramp appeared. Either way, there was the holly. And the boards. The latter had so rotted into other shapes, that the original intent had been lost. The posts may once have been 4 x 4’s, but now they were lumps. There was a bit of rusty screen at one end. Some sort of fence, somehow incorporating mesh…. And the numbers of my house half obscured, their paint gone, all sinking into this strange aging neglect.
Or maybe a pleasantly decayed gentility. Oh, it’s all in the eye, isn’t it? Point is, I wanted to make a change. Thing about Fernando, my latest contractor, once an idea gets into his head, he’s off. As were the shrubs. Search and destroyed within a day of our discussion. Revealing all sorts of surprises, of course. The enormous holly ball turned out to be hollow, a dead mass of twigs surrounded by a bright green covering. Neither here nor there, just unexpected. It turned out to be a genuine tree, requiring, in the end, a chainsaw to deal with the trunk. It revealed a house wall in need of painting, along with cracked plaster and damaged foundation. A botanical timebomb, one might say. The right decision? Honestly, it is still too early to say. But it is the decision, that is clear. And there were some interesting decisions along the way. A small Japanese maple planted by Marlou’s cousin after my wife’s death had to be moved to make room for a new redwood fence. Where to move it? The contractor had the best idea. Put it right where the holly bush/tree had been. After all, the maple was badly crowded in its previous setting. Suddenly it had all the sun and air and room it needed. Liberated, it was. As was I. It was one of those happenstance things, a last-minute discovery, that seemed so fortuitous. It seemed right. It seemed as so life-affirming that whatever doubts I had about my aggressive landscaping entirely vanished.