The Case for Living in the House You’re Building

I have never been a nomad. I am actually a homebody through and through. In general, I collect so much joy from being in a space I find comfortable, safe, and predictable. Yet, at the same time, since adulthood, I have never stayed in one place for too long. One job. One house. One city. If I complete an entire two years of Peace Corps service, it will be the longest time I have stayed in one place in the last 10 years. When I first moved away from my small town and began making my own decisions as a young adult, I felt this sense of guilt that my motivations for leaving were anchored in a desire to run away from who I really am. 

I remember sitting in my first apartment, which was truly the made-for-tv-movie of apartments, a horribly-decorated, fully-furnished box for young college students. I was listening to the Avett Brothers’ lyrics below, and feeling personally called out by their message: 

 

The weight of lies will bring you down

And follow you to every town ’cause

Nothing happens here that doesn’t happen there

When you run make sure you run

To something and not away from ’cause

Lies don’t need an aeroplane to chase you anywhere.”

 

Now, to be fair, I wouldn’t really consider myself an avid “liar” as the Brothers sing, but in my melodramatic fashion, it just really spoke to me. 

Who did I think I was? Trying to meet new people and see new places, pretending to be a decent, likeable person. Surely, if they got to know me, they would realize how rotten I am, how much my “roses really smell like boo-boo-oo”. 

Man, I’m really good at making myself feel guilty regardless of the circumstance. Surely, part of that was true: There were things I was running from and there were negative aspects of my personality I wasn’t working to unravel and understand. However, in the grand scheme of things, I was just a girl who was exploring new things and getting myself out into a different world than the one I had known my whole life. 

 

This is something I continued to do throughout the years: 

-a present version of me would decide on a goal and large change for a future version of me

-I would work really hard to make that goal happen

-then, stepping into that terrifying and vulnerable new reality, a present version of me that was once a future version of me (who is supposed to be smarter, more confident, and better looking than all present versions combined) drags herself through said situation, kicking and screaming and wondering why the hell the past version of me seems to be so entitled as to make decisions with little regard to present version’s comfort zone and groundedness. (are you with me?)  

 

In theory, I am proud of myself for continuing to put myself through this same excruciating growth cycle. But as I work through the hard bits, the ones that keep me up at night feeling isolated or incapable, I wonder why do I keep running away from things, right as I am finally getting comfortable? People, places, skills? Sometimes it feels like I never let myself stay long enough to truly understand the ins and outs of where I am, both in a literal sense and a less tangible one. 

About two years ago, an episode from Rob Bell’s amazing podcast, The Robcast, came onto my queue when I was walking home on a chilly afternoon in Portland. Because of things that were happening in my personal life, the timing could not have been more synchronistic. He talked about the importance of knowing when to leave and when to set roots. It spoke to me so much, that I have brought it up countless times since to friends and family. He framed it in a very California Dreamin’-esque way that really emphasized knowing what season you are in and learning how to authentically honor each season as it comes: flight, settling, roots, flight, settling, roots. 

 

As I pass the one year mark on my Peace Corps service, I am thinking a lot about this topic that has become salient to me time and again throughout my adulthood. Within my personality, I have this strange mix of a grounding nester and a fleety flyer. I tell myself it would be easier if I could be purely one of those two extremes instead of walking the line back and forth between them, losing my balance. 

But I am, little by little, beginning to embody the age-old belief that process is more important than product. Of course, It is okay to have a product in mind. Nothing would get done if we didn’t. The power of intention is what fuels human advancement and leads to the creation of every human system and all its gadgets (a fact which still blows my mind daily).

Even so, there is a lot of buzz about the importance of process, and for good reason. I agree with the power behind this concept, and I want to add to it by saying that, not only is it important for us to focus on the process that it takes to build something, we should equally immerse ourselves in that process, take our shoes off and stay awhile if we can. I want to learn how to live in the house I am building. Let me tell you a little story to explain what I mean by that: 

 

Orange bricks, cement, and shaky wooden scaffolding are an everyday sight at the school where I work. The school is in the process of expanding its campus, so the construction has been ongoing all around us since before I even arrived almost a year ago. Construction is an inherently taxing job in any context, but it is an especially straining job in Cambodia. The pay is quite low, and the heat and humidity are truly fierce and surely challenge construction workers constantly. The laborers who are creating this new school from the ground up, work tirelessly, day in and day out, under the beating equatorial sun. 

 

But as that sun begins to set, the workers don’t leave the construction site with it. Darkness envelops the campus, and tiny lights appear in the unfinished rooms of the buildings. Bare-footed children show off their athletic abilities as they race across the sidewalk. A woman takes her laundry down from an exposed metal bar where it has been drying all day. They are not leaving the site and going home because, for the time being, the construction site of this campus is their home. It struck me when I first realized this. Partially because this is not something that you would see in America (construction workers and their families living on site, inside projects-in-progress while working). Additionally, it struck me to see the community they had built with their coworkers, and the way these buildings truly had become their safe haven.

 If I am on campus on the weekend or during lunch, I commonly see a mother bathing her child or scrubbing her laundry in water from a spout next to one of the buildings they are working on. In the dim evenings, when I am waiting near the basketball court for a scrimmage game to start, the families sometimes come over to join me and I run around the court with the toddlers. I often hear someone joyously singing as they cook their lunch in their temporary kitchen. Looking on, some might see only an unfinished site of broken boards and piles of unwanted bricks. But for these families, it is a job, a home, and a community. When the project is finished, they will most likely transition to another project at another place in another time. When they arrive, they will have to work very hard to build the foundations of the new buildings. Once those foundations  are in place, they can continue using the fruits of their labor as an opportunity to nourish and rest themselves and their family, all the while creating something that will stand for years to come. 

 

I am trying to remind myself: 

I don’t have to feel guilty for change. Equally, I don’t have to feel guilty for wanting stability. I’m allowed to live in the house I am building. In fact, why the hell shouldn’t I? It may not be finished, but I can find ways to make it liveable. It doesn’t have to be perfect. And when that house is “finished”, it’s ok to move onto building something else. A present version of me may always be peeved with a past version, for insisting I need to move on to a new site and begin construction again. But the present version of me doesn’t have to be miserable the entire time. I can try to appreciate the process. In the space I am building, I can set up a hammock, swing through the evenings, splash my face with cool water from an unfinished PVC pipe, and laugh at the fact that I have no idea what I’m doing. 

 

I am allowed to live in the house I am building.

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