Last Monday, I got up early to do three-weeks-neglected laundry, and that was when I noticed the mold on the wall. After days of sleuthing and worrying, of calling parents and plumbers and furiously googling, we got to the heart of the problem: a pipe leading from our water heater sprung a leak in the attic and had been dripping a steady stream of water down the drywall and we don’t rent anymore so this is our problem to fix. Huzzah.
Honestly, I was relieved. This was like a pretest of homeownership, really; every piece of the story could have been much worse and we lucked out, landing ourselves with a good sized reno project that would break neither us nor our bank.
Throughout the detective process, however, my husband was obviously upset. At some point it came to a head and I asked him lamely, “Are you okay?” He said, “I’m a little angry. This is our house. Our house is messed up, and I don’t like it.”
In that moment, I remembered Marie Kondo, kneeling on the carpet in the Friends’ living room and encouraging everyone to start their tidying process with a heartfelt “Thank You” prayer to the house. It is an action rooted in Shinto beliefs, but as I stood holding my husband, dejected in our musty kitchen, I deeply felt the need to thank our house, too. “Our house needs us to take care of it, the way it has taken care of us.”
The act of saying that out loud changed everything over the next week. When we turned off the hot water to stop the leak and I couldn’t shower for a few days, I wasn’t frustrated: I was doing it for our house. When I clambered up into the attic and was sore for two days afterwards, I felt the house’s appreciation. When I developed a hacking cough after trying my damndest not to inhale all the moldy insulation, I told the house not to worry about me; it needed to focus on getting better.
I felt like I was taking care of a sick family member: mildly inconvenienced but more concerned that my beloved patient was able to get back to their everyday self. All good things come from God, and the past ten months living in the house have been nothing but good, so I was merely a steward of this house, given it to take care of and to cherish as a gift from God. A gift that came with responsibility, in the same way a child is a gift, or a talent is a gift. Tidying up is a way of treating your belongings with the respect they deserve, which is very Shinto. Similarly, care and maintenance of our belongings, relationships, and opportunities is a way of acknowledging everything’s inherent importance, which felt very Christian.
This past weekend, my husband and I spent a day tearing out crumbling drywall, trashing ruined insulation, and cleaning up mold and mildew. In that process, I noticed the ways in which some previous owners of our home did not see themselves as stewards, and did not thank our home with their care for it. We found straight-up trash in the ceiling, evidence of past mice nests that had never been cleaned, pipes that had been left to rust and rattle after having been disconnected from the system. All this was covered up by a wall and some cabinets, and life had just gone on as if that made it better. And the house had functioned as perfectly as a house could. I wondered though how it could have been better if they had been more careful. Maybe the heating bills could have been lower. Maybe this leak wouldn’t have happened. Maybe my house wouldn’t be sick.
There was an odd moment, up in the attic, when I was pulling out blackened insulation and stuffing it into a garbage bag, and I came across an old roll of painter’s tape. The end of the strand had separated from the cardboard and gotten stuck to some clean pink fiberglass. As I shifted things around, I realized that the tape was also connected to the useless, disconnected pipe, and together they were holding up a panel of the dropped ceiling. If I removed either one, or separated them from each other, the ceiling would fall. It had been precariously held up for decades by absentmindedness, by two things that should not have even been there in the first place.
The ceiling panel was a small thing: we were actually taking it out anyway due to water damage. But after days of treating my house like family, this roll of tape stung like an insult. Whoever left this debris here was so unconcerned with the welfare of the house that they were content to rest the ceiling on an unstable, slap-dash framework that thankfully had held out much longer than it should have had to.
That tape reminded me of the American public school system. The justice system. The healthcare system. Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare. All of these things had been given patches over the years, patches meant to be temporary or to fix temporary problems, only to have to hold the whole structure together for decades. The reasons both for the patches and their insufficiency are complex and not easily addressed head-on, so we’ve covered them up with drywall and gone on living, knowing the precarious situation we’ve left inside, and just assuming it will hold.
What would Marie Kondo have to say about the way we’ve cared for these precious belongings? How could we possibly consider our treatment of them to be the respect they deserve? When we came in, all hustle and bustle to make new deals and revolutionize this or that, did we start by thanking everything for getting us this far? Did we apologize for forcing it to make do for so long? When we made changes, did we do them for the good of the systems, or did we get them over with and move on?
My husband and I are learning to take care of our home because a leak told us something was wrong. The leak was small, the damage was contained, it all could have been so much worse. If only everything could break so kindly.
Mary Margaret is a 2013 English, history, and secondary education grad who went rogue and became a Social Worker in Pennsylvania’s Child Welfare system. Specifically, she works as a caseworker in the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network finding families for children and educating the masses about foster care, adoption, and permanency planning. She made it over the grad-school hurdle with gold stars and warm fuzzies and is on to the next big adventure: the unknown of adulthood. Her major writing dream right now is to finish her science fiction novel that explores the concurrent futures of child welfare and artificial intelligence.