Sunday, December 22, 2013

Year One

My last post was January 26, 2013. I guess it's time for an update. Or twenty. Hey, even God had a silent period - from Malachi to Matthew. And that was 400 years. I'm not sure what his reason was, but mine seems to have been a combination of a shortage of time, motivation and inspiration. Time has been short due in large part to working full-time again since late February for the first time in about a year (a huge relief, of course); working on many "small" projects to finish up this house; and still (still! STILL.) researching and seeing doctors and testing and logging and dieting in an attempt to find a solution to my stomach problems. For the past six months the latter has included logging every single ingredient I put into my body, along with my stomach's reaction, in hopes of seeing some sort of pattern. So far the pattern boils down to: "Ate a meal; felt nauseous for three hours. Ate a meal, felt nauseous for 30 minutes. Ate a meal, felt a little queasy for 20 minutes. Ate a meal, felt nauseous for five hours." After the nausea subsides, I'm typically either enraged or depressed that I'm still (for a year and a half now) feeling this sick this often for no apparent reason. So there's plenty of emotional variety! But not a lot of time or energy left over to blog.

Motivation has been short partly because of this recurring physical problem, of course. When I'm not at the office, or incapacitated by nausea (or both), or building another shelving unit for the house, I tend to want to relax and watch a movie rather than work on a blog post. But another motivation killer was revealed late last year, when a lab test showed that I had been operating on about a tenth of the testosterone that a male is supposed to have. This brings with it one benefit, which I had noticed: the sex drive was no longer a distraction. But it also means a dearth of physical energy and strength and general motivation to accomplish much of anything - right when I was trying to finish building a house, move out of my apartment, move into the house, and apply for jobs. If you then throw on top of all this my inability to ingest, short of intravenously (hm, I might have to look into this..), any substance containing caffeine, you can see why I might have let a few responsibilities slide. It's like God was saying, "You're going to do all this with no physical help, and actually with plenty of physical agony." WHY, God? An answer has yet to come, and may not till I ask him face to face, when I will no longer need to. I hope I will be at peace with unknowing before then.

So it's been a rough first year in the house. I have wondered if, in addition to my physical issues, I've been experiencing something like postpartum depression. The comparison between bearing and raising a child and the production of other kinds of work is a familiar one. We often hear of someone's personal project referred to as their "baby," be it a building or novel or even a business. It seems to be an accurate and useful comparison (and in my case strengthened by the fact that this house has been spoiled mightily by his grandmother). First there's the conception - the (yes, I'll say it - orgasmic) flash of insight or revelation or epiphany that gives the basic idea for the project. Then there's the pregnancy, or gestation period - the planning and drawing and other detailed preparations that allow the project to take shape in the real world. Finally there's the birth - the actual building of the house, or publication of the novel, or opening of the business.

Oh, but as any parent will tell you, that's only the beginning. This could be the primary source of my version of postpartum depression, as perhaps it is for some parents. There's a tremendous amount of hopeful excitement during design and construction (pregnancy) leading up to the completion (birth). But when it finally arrives you realize that it's just the beginning of a whole new set of challenges, for which you are woefully unprepared. A lot of this for me is due to the many significant portions of the design that are still either unfinished or flawed, and I focus on these aspects way more than all the (downright miraculous) successes that have occurred over the course of this project. I heard an interview with an actor recently who said he never watches his own movies because he tends to focus on all the wrong things: the five percent of his performance he could have done better instead of the 95 percent that was brilliant. Unfortunately for me, when you're living inside your own work, you don't have the option of averting your eyes from that five percent.

I've imagined having an "open house," or several, where everyone involved in the project would be invited, as well as friends and family. I'd give a little talk and a tour, some Bible readings, there'd be music, food, wine, etc. But after giving lots of less formal tours of the place this year to small groups of friends and family, I realized that it might not be time for that yet - because of all the design features not in place. Lately I've become more aware of how the addition of even a small feature can completely change the experience of a space. I think this would happen dramatically in the Great Room with the addition of the rose window (which I haven't even begun to build). When I've given these tours I've found myself starting every other sentence with "And here I plan to..." or "Here I'd like to..." or "Eventually this will be..." And that's frustrating. Why show the house when the house isn't fully here yet? Give me a few more years and then, maybe, it will be ready. That's okay, right? What's the rush? Maybe that's a source of my psycho-physiological problems - feeling pressured by an assumption that the place has to be "complete" at a certain time. But, I don't want anyone to take this as a discouragement to come visit. Do come! Just know that what you're seeing is not the whole vision.

Despite all these drags on my body and soul, I did actually try to write a post back in May. But the words just didn't come. There have been lots of developments around the house this year that I wanted to share, but I was never quite happy with the way I was presenting them. So that's the lack of inspiration I've experienced: good ideas for writing just didn't come to mind like they have before.

Recently, however, the right words and the right organization have begun to show themselves. A few phrases here, a few sentences there, a flash of insight into an order, and bones start to take on flesh. I hope this little writing is evidence of that, and marks a transition back to writing and sharing my experience of this project with a wider audience. Naturally the focus will be a bit different from here on; it's not about construction anymore, but rather small development and improvement projects, and, perhaps most importantly, the building of a family of people to live, work and worship with me here. To briefly update on the latter: this year has brought me together with one like-minded person who visited for a weekend and subsequently committed to moving in, currently slated for this spring. This is the most significant and exciting development of the year.

More on that as the time gets closer. What I'd like to do in the next series of posts is share the physical developments of the house that have happened since the last post. I'm thinking these will be very short - one project per post - mainly to make it easier for me to complete. It's a daunting task to sum up a year of work, but I think I can handle it if I take it one small project at a time (just as I've had to learn to complete the projects themselves).

I'll open this series (and close this post) with one of these projects, one which curiously reflects my personal experiences lately: the planting of an azalea in the courtyard. This is the first and currently only addition of landscape material so far. The plant was gifted to me by the neighborhood homeowner's association for being a new resident. I had begun to realize the importance of plantings around this house, even within the forest that I kept. Ground covers, flowers, vines, low shrubs, and maybe a small tree here and there, will dramatically enhance the place. The existing forest is mostly devoid of flowering plants and trees that change color in the fall. So I'd like to add color, for one thing.

The landscape surrounding a building is like the setting for a gemstone; the gem is the most important thing, but the setting helps present the gem to our eyes. The setting can ennoble or debase the gem, regardless of the gem's brilliance. A landscape can do the same for a building. The remaining forest here is good (albeit somewhat colorless, as I said), but there are barren spaces all around the house, along the driveway, and especially in the courtyard. I feel that the courtyard ought to be verdant, colorful, bursting with life. It is the heart of the house. So I decided to make this azalea the first step of that goal. It's a "giant azalea" variety, so it will eventually completely fill the north-west corner of the courtyard, closest to the entry. The tag says the blossoms will be magenta, which I will see for the first time this spring.

The baby plant seemed to take to its new home quite well, thanks in large part to my former boss, a "master gardener," who showed me how to set it in the ground using bone meal and then "mud it in":

For the first few weeks, the plant was healthy and full. But one day I came home and noticed a couple of limbs stripped of leaves. Looking closer I saw clusters of small green caterpillars on a few stems. Not wanting to spray poison on the plant, I clipped off the three infested limbs. This cured the worm problem, but in the half a year since, the plant has not regained the fullness it had before. It still looks rather emaciated, and doesn't seem to have grown an inch:

But it is stable, holding on, surviving. I was healthy too, two years ago. Then something infected me, leaving me a bit weaker and thinner. It hasn't gotten worse, or better. I'm in a kind of suspended weakened state. But I am stable - not thriving, but surviving; crippled, but fighting. On bad days I feel that this is an immense achievement.

Here is the meaning I have wrenched from this experience so far. I read that farmers have a practice of causing a certain amount of hardship on their crops, such as delaying watering, because the plants will grow more hardy and productive as a result. The practice of pruning plants follows the same concept, and is one Jesus used to infuse meaning and hope into the hardship his disciples would experience: "every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more." (John 15:3) There are fleeting moments (oh, how fleeting!) when I actually get excited about the good that I trust God is birthing out of my weakness. My sickly, stunted, thinned out azalea has a certain destiny written in its name: "giant." And spring is coming. I hope and even expect that health will be restored for me and my azalea. But I also have to be open to God allowing the unexpected, the unhoped for. Sometimes the plant doesn't get better; sometimes the Jesus-following person is not cured. Does this mean God's promise to bring good from everything is not kept? No. It means the good comes with the illness, in the midst of the illness. Even so, I hope for spring. And magenta.

Saturday, January 26, 2013


This post will be mainly about the electric lighting, but I wanted to start with this shot of the sun shining through the porch in the afternoon. I get this view from the kitchen table, where I've often worked since moving in, so I see the sunlight move through the columns over the course of a whole day. Because the house faces due west, the porch works like a kind of three-dimensional sundial. At noon - when the sun shines from due south - the column shadows line up with each other:

Even with a clock on the stove, I've often found myself looking outside to get a general sense of the time. This is the most precise confirmation that the surveyor laid the house out exactly right. Prior to this the best I could tell is that it looked "pretty close."

When I took this picture the time was about 12:10, and a sliver of sunlight had just appeared on the far column. O true surveyor! Thy stakes were right.

Now to the man-made lights. Of course I wanted my first experience of them to be at night. As it happened, the night I went out to turn the lights on for the first time, the darkness was intensified by a little rain and fog. All the better. I turned on every light in the house and walked back outside.

There is very little light on face of the stone wall, so the five small windows in it - illuminated by the lights in the Great Room - seem to float. I like that. To the right is the porch. I was especially interested to see how it would look at night. Here's the approach to the entry (west) side, along the stone wall:

From a little ways out, towards the street, the porch has the feel of a lantern in the woods, which is what I wanted.

There are four lights arranged symmetrically along each of the four sides of the porch. Each light is mounted up between two joists, so there's a bright glow from each joist bay that has a light.

Moving to the interior - I used the same organization of lights for the Great Room as for the porch (four per side). Except these are recessed in the wood panel ceiling:

Speaking of wood paneling, in my regular Bible readings I happen to be in Ezekiel now, and came across this verse recently, regarding Ezekiel's vision of the Temple: "The main sanctuary, the inner sanctuary, and the vestibule facing the courtyard were paneled with wood." (41:16) Oh yeah, that's why I did that.

These pictures were taken in the first week of December, before the walls or floor of this room had been completed. But the brick paving at this point was mostly done.

The kitchen also was in process, plastic still on the stainless counters and appliances. But I was excited to see the pendants and over-counter lights. This is easily the brightest room in the house (at night anyway), and I think that's appropriate.

Thankfully I was able to get a dining table (free - thanks to my boss) for the space under the pendants pretty quickly. I think everyone who visited the house before that bumped their head on a pendant at least once. Here's the "lived-in" kitchen with table shortly after I moved in:

Only recently did I realize I should climb up to the roof for some night shots. Here's the courtyard from above:

From my Ezekiel readings I also noticed a parallel with his Temple vision that I actually did not intend: the proportion between column and porch width. The Temple's porch is 12 feet wide, and the columns are three feet thick. My porch is four feet wide, and the columns are one foot thick. So the proportion is the same: 1 to 4.

Here are two bedroom skylights:

Mine is the clean one. Hey, you clean your own skylight in this house.

And the Great Room skylight:

...from which you can get a glimpse of the completed brick and stone flooring. Here's how it looked when the mason finished:

And here it is after being cleaned with an acid wash:

I think I got my money's worth out of that job.

The stone at the center is Pennsylvania bluestone, custom cut to form an enlarged version of the nine-square, space-in-the-center theme that is the generative pattern for the whole house.

The Great Room as a whole is a square in plan, the center stone area is a square, and the center-most stone is a square. The choice of this shape was inspired in large part by the square plan of the Holy of Holies in both the Tabernacle of Moses and the Temple of Solomon. But my recent reading of Ezekiel gave me yet another confirming example: Not only is his Temple's Holy of Holies a perfect square (35 x 35 feet), but the entire temple complex is enclosed by a square wall (875 x 875 feet).

I should probably clarify at this point, again: I'm not rebuilding the Temple. That particular structure was made obsolete by Christ's sacrifice. But holiness is not obsolete. Since this house is essentially about holiness, like the Temple in its time, I've been compelled by God's shape of choice for holy space. There just seems to be something holy about the square.

There's nothing particularly meaningful about the fact that this stone comes from Pennsylvania. I just wanted it to be blue or blue-gray, and this happened to be the least expensive and most readily available stone in that color.

In an earlier post I pointed out the unintended "crosses" I noticed in the pattern on the exterior brick walls. I used this same pattern for the floor in the Great Room. There are exactly three small crosses and four large crosses per side:

Seven is a special number. Just ask John the Revelator. My focus in the design of this pattern was the nine-square grid - the three in the lower half here, and the four in the middle portion that include 12-inch bricks. That was the "figure" for me, the focus; the "ground" was everything in between these grids. But for some reason in the translation from black-and-white line drawings to actual bricks and mortar, the figure and ground reverses. And the ground that was hidden from my eyes happens to be a bunch of crosses - each pointing toward the center, no less.

Oh, yeah, this post is about lights. So let's look at the Great Room floor at night!

I like that the lighting in this space reverses from day to night. During the day, the vast majority of light falls on the center (from the skylight). During the night, the perimeters are the brightest, lit by the electric lights above.

Here's a pair of shots showing the night-day contrast, including the skylight:

Looking straight up at the skylight at night, the stone floor and the glow from the ceiling lights can be seen reflected in the glass:

I'll finish with a few more of my favorite shots of the Great Room with its lights on: