The Summer Prequel, Part Two: the Gordian Knot

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The state of things at the Cabin last summer.

Children and lunatics cut the Gordian knot which the poet spends his life patiently trying to untie.

— Jean Cocteau

I got an email from my caretaker yesterday. He couldn’t figure out how to activate the electricity in the Anchorage, which I had turned off for the winter. Emera, the service provider, told me that all he needed to do was press a button underneath the meter. In the end, this turned out to be true, but it caused Dave to make several trips out to the house as we both puzzled over what it could mean — Had they activated power to the wrong house? Had they even bothered to turn on the power in the first place? Are you sure they said “a button”?

This feels like a metaphor somehow.

Restoring a historic Maine homestead is more difficult than I thought it would be.

There, I said it.

When I first walked around the place, I realized that both foundations needed work. The Anchorage needed a new roof and some paint. There was water damage on the west wall of both buildings from ridiculous gutter systems that leaked storm run off directly down the outer walls. I soon learned that no one could even locate the septic tank for the main house.

On the whole, this was not discouraging. My ex and I had basically disassembled our Austin home and put it back together. I had sanded floors and stripped acres of wallpaper on my own in various rental properties to make them more appealing. Besides, my Realtor showed me six other houses, and all of them had flaws that would require extensive remodeling. They also had impediments to water access or no way to tap into passive income once I moved up there. I didn’t want to cash out my retirement funds without having a property that paid for its own taxes and maintenance, at the very least, because then all the cash would be tied up in the house, and the only way to liquidize the equity would be to sell or refinance. I wanted a property that I could rent in the summer — and still live on. And with my budget, that meant renovation and restoration was in the cards.

The inspector’s report contained mostly good news, especially considering the age of the Anchorage. Thanks to conscientious attempts to counteract the forces of gravity, there was remarkably little structural damage. For all practical purposes, the Anchorage was move in ready.

Nevertheless, as the previous owner wryly remarked once the closing papers had been signed, the place “has a lot of moving parts.”

IMG_0274The first sign of systematic trouble came in the form of the water testing report, which showed high concentrations of arsenic and heavy metals in one spring, the one that feeds the Cabin, and lower concentrations of arsenic (but no heavy metals) in the Anchorage spring. The springs themselves are enormous; one has a cistern that is thirty feet long. Falling down “houses” in the woods cover them both, and plastic tubes run through the boggy woods to the property. These springs once fed a property up the road as well, through a system of pipes that run hundreds of feet east to what must have been a pump house.

There is no shortage of water. It flows all the way down Caterpillar Hill, through my woods and into the marshy foot of my meadow, where it inundates my neighbor Pat’s careful landscaping in the spring. The dampness below is what’s kept the wood of both houses in pristine condition all these years.IMG_0293

Thus, it was a bit ironic that the well guy, a taciturn Yankee who looked for all the world like a sea captain, had to bring in special equipment to fracture the bedrock once he got down to 400 feet and still was coming up dry. That cost a pretty penny. The well, now full, sits amidst a glorious expanse of sand that Ben Webb, the excavator, trucked in to support the weight of the concrete mixer that poured the foundation last summer. I’m set to tap it this summer when the plumbers reconnect the Cabin’s plumbing. If it contains arsenic, I’m going to cry.

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Last summer was all about the Cabin foundation. The house was sinking into a bog at the northwest corner; in another decade, the support beams would have snapped. Since this is the house I’m going to live in, I needed to act fast.

The house was in the air for almost two months, while Ben built roads and moved dirt around to create new pathways for the water to go, and the very handsome — sorry folks, no pictures of that crew — family of Joel Wilson built forms and poured the concrete in stages. Finally, it was carefully lowered back on to the new foundation with system of many hydraulic jacks jerry rigged into a control board.

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This summer is all — or mostly — about plumbing and water. Ben dug the leach field in my front yard last fall before the first frost, and sometime soon — ahem — he is going to put in the tanks and lay the connecting sewer pipes. The plumbers need to

  • divert some pipes.
  • install a pump beneath the foundation on the west wing to help the water flow.
  • install a pump in the well itself.
  • reconnect the plumbing in the Cabin.
  • insulate the pipes so that I can have water year round in the Cabin.
  • connect water to the Anchorage, either from its spring or from the new well.

Meanwhile, putting a solid foundation beneath the Cabin has led to problems of its own. The carpentry crew needed to cut around and stabilize what were then two Cabin chimneys in order to do the lift. Sadly, I lost the chimney in my bedroom in that maneuver; it had been poorly built and was cracked. No romantic fires in there for me. The silver lining will be a larger master bath, complete with skylight.

Creating clearance around the stone chimney and hearth in the Cabin’s great room cost thousands of dollars and has left structure damage that still needs to be repaired. Moreover, stabilizing the foundation, which settled all the windows down into their sashes for the first time in many years, has caused damage to the roof, last shingled when the house was crooked. A mason needs to come in and re-flash the chimney, and the whole building has to be re-roofed.

Move one thing, and two others break. It’s a Gordian knot, all right.

Fortunately, I am a poet.

How Did I Get There from Here?

I just did what most people would consider an incredibly foolish thing. I took the entire 403b account I was awarded as part of my divorce settlement, refinanced my home in Texas, and used the money to purchase a 27-acre family compound on the Blue Hill Peninsula.

I now own a farmhouse built in 1812, an Adirondack style cabin, a blueberry field, a hillside of mixed forest (spruce, beech, and ash), a boggy pasture, two decrepit spring houses that protect a stash of arsenic-laden water, and a rather nice shingled barn. The raccoon that nests beneath the kitchen floorboards and the ghost of little Otie are not technically mine, but they come with the place as well.

I still can’t believe I did this.

Outside, some day laborers are picking away at the packed clay in my front yard, digging a ditch for the French drain that needs to be installed along the front of the third house I own, the one here in Texas. I felt I could no longer postpone the job after this spring’s heavy rain sent rivers of water down my driveway and into the carport. It’s 100 degrees outside. In the weeks I was off closing on the property in Maine, the sun has done its work. The dirt beneath the two red oaks in my front yard has shrunk back from the rims of the curb and driveway; everything is shrouded by the gloom of heat. Only the men outside are uncomplaining. They sing snatches of songs and joke together, unaffected by the dreadful weather.

In the past two months, I’ve said yes to a number of expensive repairs like this one. I am overseeing no less than nine workmen engaged in four different restoration projects. They are propping foundations, diverting a stream, knocking down a chimney, repairing clapboards and sill damage, roofing the main building, and drilling a well.

I have to admit it was tremendous fun to walk around telling workmen what to do. I wish they would return my phone calls rather than sending ambiguous texts while out lobstering, but that’s another matter.

Meanwhile, I set out to answer a very specific question: How did I come to do this splendid thing?

Another Bosque Sunrise

“Another Bosque Sunrise,” John Fowler

At the end of last winter, I met my ex to have a discussion. I chose the location, a Starbucks in the development closest to my house. Starbucks has the kind of ersatz respectability suitable for meetings of this sort. When I taught early college start classes at a high school 30 miles from Austin, it was the only place in town with wifi; I spent a lot of time writing copy in a comfortable chair beside the utensil stand. There, I witnessed a number of tense meetings between lawyers and clients, estranged spouses, and caffeinated salesmen. One time, a man berated his partner openly on his cell phone while his son tore a cup and a paperboard cosy to shreds at the table next to him.

This particular Starbucks has the flash of a rhinestone tiara; it’s that new. The whole development is new. It used to be the airport. Once they decided how best to profit from the land, the city trucked in giant mounds of topsoil and lay them on the abandoned tarmac. One by one, these earthworks have given way to upscale track housing, featureless retail stores, and second generation fast food restaurants. The whole thing looks like this:

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I was nervous, going into the meeting with my ex. He had recently told me he was being considered for a prestigious job in Los Angeles, and I wanted to discuss how we might arrange the visitation schedule if he moved out of state. Despite the fact that we don’t get along, his suggestion was that I move to California. Seated across from me at a tippy cafe table, he tried to convince me that I was being foolish for rejecting this proposal; I’d never liked Austin, so why not move to Los Angeles? And if I wouldn’t move to Los Angeles, surely I would stay in Austin so that he could visit his girlfriend and our daughter at the same time?

He stormed out of the meeting when I pointed out that I had given up enough of my life already to accommodate him and was neither moving to LA nor sticking around in Austin if he moved. Once he left Texas, the geographical restriction on our divorce degree would be null and void, and I was free to go where I pleased.

The whole thing got me thinking.

I had lived for years without asserting myself. In fact, I had lived without having autonomy of any kind. To some extent, I did it to preserve my marriage. But if I’m truly honest with myself, it had been a whole lot easier to kick back, avoid confrontation, and help other people to fulfill their goals.

You know how it is when you have friends you like to go out drinking with? These guys are so much fun. Then one evening you’re getting over the flu, or you’re taking a course of antibiotics, and you can’t drink a thing. You sip at a glass of Pellegrino and watch your companions get louder, uglier, and more stupid by the minute. Why did you ever like these people? What’s wrong with you?

After watching my ex storm out of Starbucks because he could no longer successfully manipulate me, my whole way of looking at the world changed. I was like the only sober person in a crowd of drunkards.

All of a sudden, pursuing my own dreams seemed not only possible — it was unavoidable. And that’s when things started falling into place.

I’d been looking at real estate online for years, a late night hobby I indulged in while eating Blue Bell mint chip ice cream bars (requiescat in pace). I dreamed of moving to Central Portugal or the Limousin province of France, where a ruined quinta or falling down barn could be had for around $50,000. My plan was to purchase now, renovate, rent the property to Europeans on holiday, and move there once I retired. I contacted agencies and joined online communities to discuss zoning laws, construction permits, dog noise, potable water, and the feasibility of living off grid. I even went so far as to journey to Portugal a couple summers ago, where I stood talking real estate with some expats from Holland and Indonesia at the christening party of their Portuguese neighbors.

But how would I get my dog to Portugal each year? What would happen when my parents’ health failed, and I was four thousand miles away?

It wasn’t very practical. But if I bought a place in Maine. . . well, I would be close to my parents, my alma mater, and old family friends. It was a place my daughter could visit during college breaks. I didn’t start with the intention of draining my qualified domestic relations order, mind you. I thought I would save some money to retire on. Then I fell in love with one house in particular, the Parsonage.