This Ruined House

They say it is in the struggle that the deepest parts of our soul are unearthed. This has definitely been true during the renovation – and not always for the better. I had forgotten about my shadows, the dark spots that lurk in the corner, trying to hide from sight. But it is in the shadow that we remember how vivid and striking the light can be. The contrast gives us definition. Purpose.

Jungian analyst Robert Johnson points this out in his book, Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche:

The message is unmistakable; our own healing proceeds from that overlap of what we call… light and dark. It is not that the light element alone does the healing; the place where light and dark begin to touch is where miracles arise.

Beauty and Decay

And similarly, it is in the contrast of beauty and decay that Joyce Kornblatt has recently inspired me through her essay, This Ruined House: A Meditation on Beauty, from the winter 2010 issue of Parabola. At first she angered me. I felt condemned and guilty when I read her words. She “just didn’t understand” about the beauty of old things. But then I realized that she very much understood them. She embraced them. Their wear, their cracks, and their awkward existence in a world that wants them to be new. She writes about this contrast:

Foundation - White Plains
A foundation of the old barns at White Plains
Sunsets transfix us, seem to soothe us with their undeniable evening truth: finished, over, changing into something else. These fadings can’t be doctored, and this “defeat” awakens us to the inherent beauty of what cannot be fixed in time. So what might happen if we stepped more fully beyond the bounds of conventional aesthetics? We would see the loveliness of a cracked china teapot, a pile of rusty keys, a rocking chair—like the one I have—whose broken rocker resists the glue with which I keep trying to repair it.

What if we left the flowers to shrivel in the vase, allowed the peeling paint of a front door to reveal its layers of color, right down to bare wood? What if we looked in the mirror and appreciated the scar, the asymmetry, the wrinkles and gray hair, the age spots and the sagging skin? What if we lived with a wilderness mind, in which change is the only constant, and the process of decay is recognized as beautiful? . . . It is this turning toward, rather than away from, impermanence that relieves us of the burden of our futile attachments and makes a humbled love possible. We become available to the beauty of the moment as it is, and available to one another as we are.

I’m not sure that I can claim arrival at embracing impermanence. Although I find loveliness in the cracks, rust, and broken pieces, I always want to fix them – to make them whole again. And it isn’t always possible. It is defeat. But in this defeat, there is another path. Joyce shares a poem by Izumi Shikibu, written more than a thousand years ago:

Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roofplanks
of this ruined house.

In those evocative lines, the conventional distinctions between ruin and beauty blur. One can read the poem as metaphor for how to find consolation in the world of devastation, but looking again, one finds a more challenging suggestion: it is because of the house’s disrepair that the moonlight can enter.

… Most of us have grown up in a culture devoted to the habits that blind us. We resist, replace, disguise, crave, acquire, hoard, defend against, and throw away. We lionize the new and discard the outmoded. We believe that “more is better,” whatever the cost. We yield our obsession with novelty only when we turn what ages and decays into a status-conferring commodity—antique furniture, heirloom clothes, vintage cars, historical preservation districts—but it is not a yielding that brings us peace. We collect and remodel, via carpentry and surgery, in order to prop up the illusory sense of a separate and enduring ego. Yet all around us, the evidence of the Buddha’s teaching asserts itself: nothing lasts, life brings suffering, there is no solid, separate self. We flee these truths in terror, but a life of meditation and inquiry can transform our denial into freedom.

It is because of the house’s disrepair that the moonlight can enter. It is this acceptance of the shadow and comfort in the impermanence that we find freedom. And so it is at White Plains, the cracks in the plaster, the chipped masonry, and the decaying wood are all opportunities to see beauty and to be as we are.

Trim - White Plains
Reclaimed wood trim from White Plains