Rachel Simon on homes and hearts
The author sees parallels between remodeling and relationships, laying out the blueprints in "Building a Home With My Husband."
Among the rewards of seeing her best-selling 2002 memoir, Riding the Bus With My Sister, turned into a Hallmark Hall of Fame television movie, Rachel Simon found herself with a stash of cash.
Not a sizable stash. Certainly not major movie money. But enough to make Simon, 49, and her architect husband, Hal Dean, 57, think about turning their drafty, cramped Wilmington home into an airy, more energy-efficient version of its dear, sweet self.
They hesitated - the television money would at best cover down payments for loans - then plunged into an overhaul of home and hearth that would become a study in the fractures and fissures of the heart.
Somewhere between a packing-induced anxiety attack and a gas explosion that blew out walls and windows in the nearly complete kitchen, Simon's inner writer began seeing the renovation as both a stimulus and a metaphor for some much-needed repairs to her most intimate relationships.
Her decision to repair her splintered relationship with her disabled sister had become Riding the Bus With My Sister. And now the home remodeling project became the just-released Building a Home With My Husband: A Journey Through the Renovation of Love (Dutton).
A happy coincidence indeed, Jane Austen would say.
A Newark, N.J., native with a bachelor's degree in anthropology from Bryn Mawr, Simon began writing at 7. Her first book, a short-story collection, was published in 1990, and she's been writing, publishing, and teaching ever since.
Lately, she's replaced her university-level teaching responsibilities with small-group or one-on-one classes. She still travels often for public-speaking engagements. And she's arranging to meet readers on their turf, in person with local book groups whose members have read Building a Home . . ., and on the Web (via Skype) with farther-flung groups.
Simon's relationship with her husband, which featured a 19-year courtship, provides the foundation for Building a Home.
Fans of her work, of course, know Simon is given to facing situations head-on, well before they swell into conflicts. Her husband's behavior is quite the opposite. When working together as husband-and-wife and architect-and-client brought out the best and worst in each of them, Simon found herself wondering whether home renovations affect all families in the same way.
But she waited until she'd finished writing to consult with Rachel Cox, a California-based therapist who married a building contractor and then decided to work with clients in the throes of home improvement. Simon was pleased to learn that her own experiences mirrored Cox's findings.
People who decide to renovate their homes are often already in a period of transition in their lives, Cox found. They may be getting divorced or remarried, having a child or emptying the nest, accommodating an aging parent, or taking stock after a death in the family. That's why they're renovating.
So it's already an intense time for the individual or couple - and then they commit to a venture that's expensive and scary, with an uncertain outcome.
"For some people the renovation escalates family dynamics that are already in motion; for others it unleashes creativity," Simon discovered. "And the project almost always causes you to confront the need to let something go."
The stress can strengthen a marriage or destroy it. The outcome depends on whether the individuals use the experience as an opportunity to get to know each other better, or simply hunker down in the basements of their minds, wearing blinders.
Simon happily reports that, but for occasional forays into the basement, she and Dean emerged a stronger couple.
She found, too, that lots of contractors are hip to the hearth/heart connection.
"They talked to me about how a house is a metaphor for love and life. When we talk about relationships we use construction terms. We speak of putting up walls between ourselves and others, of having a solid foundation, of people being wired differently."
Houses and humans are also alike in that neither can attain perfection, Simon says.
"No matter what you do, you're going to get an imperfect house, because it's built by humans. . . . And every loving relationship is different. Few are what you want them to be.
"Still, you can be very happy with an imperfect house or an imperfect relationship. You almost have to be, because there ain't no other. That's it."