With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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“Home improvement” always entails physically fixing up one’s house. But what about the emotional work of homeownership? One way to improve your home is through gratitude and acceptance. Does everything constantly need to be “fixed”?
If the paint job on one of your walls isn’t perfect, look at another wall.
If one of your bookcases leans to the side, lean to the side yourself. It will look fine.
If your house is too small, go outside. The circumference of the earth is 24,901 miles.
Suppose you have a leaky faucet. Buy a cello and use the drip as a metronome while you play. As the leak worsens, you’ll learn to play faster and faster. Thanks to your broken faucet, you’ll become a virtuoso.
If your air conditioner breaks, just carry around two ice cubes in your hands. Air-conditioning is not healthy anyway. It can cause asthma, migraines, dehydration, dry skin, and lethargy — and also spread infectious diseases. Ice cubes have no side effects.
If the tools in your garage are worn and rusted, find a book about wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic theory that honors the beauty and dignity of aged objects. The same way an old man’s face shows the accumulated suffering and wisdom of a lifetime, a rusty trowel wears its own history.
Suppose your refrigerator hums. Hum along with it! Find a Tibetan chant that harmonizes with your appliance.
The front door to my double-wide trailer doesn’t shut very well. It has, I must admit, swung open on a winter night, forcing the furnace to attempt to heat all of Phoenicia, New York. A couple of handymen have looked at it, without success. So I just remember to latch it every night.
And why shouldn’t the “mouth” of my house fly open erratically? I myself open my mouth when I shouldn’t. Once I said to my mother-in-law: “It’s easy to get married; just lower your standards.”
I keep a pen and paper under my pillow. Once in a while my pen rolls under the bed, and I have to fish it out with the broom. As I do so, I sweep out clods of dust, which I throw away. I’m cleaning under my bed without even trying!
My wife has a scar on her back from a drunken episode involving a barbed-wire fence in high school. I have a lot of affection for her scar. If I can appreciate that imperfection, why can’t I cherish the scar some mischievous five-year-old made in the bamboo floor of our guest room? With a little effort, I suspect I can.
Yesterday I came upon a snake on my lawn. Noticing me, the snake became immobile. Then I became immobile, too. But the immobility of a snake is far superior to that of a human. You can’t even see them breathe. Though I meditate twice a day, I am no match for a legless reptile when it comes to stillness. Nonetheless I tried. The snake became my teacher. How much better to study motionlessness with a serpent than to seek out a snake exterminator! (I looked online, and it turns out such businesses actually exist, under the euphemistic heading “Snake Removal Services.”)
Envy is one of the seven deadly sins — and house envy is expressly forbidden by the Tenth Commandment. Learn to appreciate the beauty of other people’s houses without coveting them. Try this exercise: Buy a copy of Better Homes & Gardens and practice compassion for the people pictured inside posing next to massive fireplaces. Tell yourself, “I’m so happy they have so much space! And such rare Asiatic carpets!” Then look at your home and feel grateful that you don’t have to walk to an outhouse in a blizzard like a nineteenth-century pioneer on the South Dakota prairie.
I recognize that carrying this philosophy to an extreme will allow one’s home to degenerate into ruin, but what about the opposite extreme: constant anxiety over imaginary flaws?
“The universe is perfect,” we used to say in the seventies, before we all bought houses and taught ourselves to worry about dandelions in the lawn.
A different version of this essay appeared in Hudson Valley One.