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    a collapsing house

    When Our Walls Fall

    We hide our true selves from the world. But sometimes the façade collapses.

    By Dwight Lindley

    May 13, 2024
    • Gerald Grosskopf

      An excellent remimder of truly why we are here. Thanks.

    • Amy Nolan

      This was a magnificent piece and gave me much to think about. Thank you.

    • Michael Nacrelli

      I'm not sure what Lindley thinks he should have done. Knock on the door and offer help to a total stranger who never requested it?

    Two weeks later, it was only a vacant lot, the dirt graded smooth. A backhoe stood at the far end, resting its heavy shovel on the ground. Walking past, I felt – I still feel – the absence of the spectacle I had seen there: a house with its face torn off, its innards pushed out through the gaping front wall for all to see.

    It happened in the wee hours of Good Friday morning. On a residential street I pass down daily on my walk to work, the house had stood there on the left, its yard a shambles, its hundred-year-old walls, unwisely stuccoed at some point in the seventies, now peeling paint and embarrassingly unkempt. A fallen tree limb leaned against the sagging roof in one place, easily puncturing the soft shingles and letting who knows what into the attic below. I never saw anyone enter or exit that house, but most mornings there would be a relatively recent model pickup parked in back, surprisingly well maintained, given the location. Who would live in such a place? The college students who populate that neighborhood would see a middle-aged male entering or exiting from time to time, but no one ever talked to him. Of course, they would speculate, saying he was a squatter, or was cooking meth, but who really knew?

    Now, as Melville would say, reality outran apprehension. From afar you could already sense it: the house as we knew it was missing its face. The wall behind the front porch, formerly so bland and inscrutable, was now completely down, as if violently blown out from within. The second story stood intact, and the sides and back of the house looked the same as ever, but the first-floor wall facing the street had somehow belched out its contents onto the front lawn. The porch and grass were layered thick with detritus. Coming closer, I saw piles of Coke bottles, empty pizza boxes, flimsy commercial packaging, old plastic bags, all heaped with much else amid the rubble of the plaster walls. Through the mounds of trash, you could also see a broken line of framing across the rupture: apparently, the second story had collapsed into the first. Had the man who lived there never thrown out his garbage? It looked like the daily waste of many years, all stored up within but gradually gathering weight, oppressing the weakened floor and leaning into the moldering outer wall. The ribs of the house could only contain that growing pressure for so long.

    a collapsing house

    Photograph courtesy of the author.

    I stood there, transfixed. On beholding the ghost of old King Hamlet, Shakespeare’s Horatio declares that “this bodes some strange eruption to our state.” Well and good, but what (if anything) does it mean when the strange eruption stands right before you? It felt like staring into a dark allegory. In Dickens’s Little Dorrit, when Mrs. Clennam’s house falls to pieces at the end, it is a transparent symbol of her own ruination, the result of many years of self-destruction. It was tempting now to read this fresh collapse the same way, as the just punishment for a life badly lived. Justice is so simple in the abstract – getting what you deserve – and it feels good to fall back on it, but our general blindness to one another’s conditions, and especially my blindness to the real life of this neighbor, make it impossible to say what he might deserve. Who was I to judge this man? On reflection, I also realized that my fascination was rooted in an unspoken relief: well, at least my own house is nowhere close to collapsing under the weight of my habits. I stood there with my old friend, schadenfreude.

    But there is more. Seeing into this person’s broken life also felt strange because such an unveiling is so uncommon – even illicit. It violated the tacit agreement we all have with one another, to avoid revealing ourselves without sufficient reason. There is a delightful short story of Virginia Woolf, “An Unwritten Novel,” in which her protagonist rides in a railway carriage, watching her fellow passengers: “five faces opposite – five mature faces – and the knowledge in each face. Strange, though, how people want to conceal it! Marks of reticence are on all those faces: lips shut, eyes shaded, each one of the five doing something to hide or stultify his knowledge.” Except for the fifth, the woman just opposite the narrator: “The terrible thing about the fifth is that she does nothing at all. She looks at life. Ah, but my poor, unfortunate woman, do play the game – do, for all our sakes, conceal it!” What Woolf understands is the implicit contract we keep with one another: you stay shut in, and so will I. We all have our internal rooms with their unmentionable contents, boxed in by what Sir Thomas Browne called “these walls of flesh.”

    And so, we stand or walk or ride the railways of the world, mysteries to one another. As Browne put it, “I am in the dark to all the world, and my nearest friends behold me but in a cloud.” We’re all, most of the time, like the old house before its strange eruption, walled off from one another, playing the game of concealment in real earnest.

    At the same time, the desire is constantly there to come out and meet the world. To draw others out, to meet them, to be invited in – is not this somehow the point? In her novel Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf dramatizes this realization in the thoughts of a character, Peter Walsh. “This is the truth about our soul,” Peter thinks, “our self, who fish-like inhabits deep seas and plies among obscurities … inscrutable; suddenly she shoots to the surface and sports on the wind-wrinkled waves; that is, has a positive need to brush, scrape, kindle herself, gossiping.” We cannot simply remain indoors, or underwater, can we? The excitement of the encounter is surely something we live for, and yet intimacy is exhausting, and it would be overwhelming to live this way, on the wind-wrinkled surface, for much of the time. In Woolf’s novel, the main character, Clarissa, is content to keep her distance, even from those closest to her, for “there is a dignity in people; a solitude; even between husband and wife a gulf; and that one must respect … for one would not part with it oneself, or take it, against his will, from one’s husband, without losing one’s independence, one’s self-respect – something, after all, priceless.” She has her finger on a real truth, the essential solitude of each person, and yet Peter is right about the equally fundamental need for encounter. When life is going well, we all oscillate between venturing out and receding back in, both of which we need in order to live. The good life is respiratory.

    When the disarray of inner habits breaks through the front wall of life, we have no choice but to admit how fragile we are.

    The life of the unknown man in the blown-out house was not, perhaps, going well. The disrepair of the place, even before the collapse, stood in marked distinction to the off-campus housing of my college students round about. It is a social fact in a Rust Belt college town: poor locals, children and grandchildren of laid-off factory workers, lead radically different lives from the inheritors of privilege at the college. My students drive sleek Japanese and European SUVs out of the suburbs, through the cornfields, to my little town, where they park them next to the rust-corroded American cars of the locals. These students, well schooled and carefully brought up, are an Apollonian set, with five-year plans, high-quality toothpaste, and more than one nice outfit. They live cheek by jowl with people who sometimes wear garish fleece pajama pants all day long, drink massive quantities of Mountain Dew, and do not know how to hide the brokenness of their families. The two streams flow past one another daily, generally without making significant contact.

    As a college professor, I put substantial pressure on my students. We read Homer, Augustine, Milton, and Joyce and recite sonnets about love discovered, sustained, or lost. It’s all good, but as the course builds momentum, the beautiful suburban undergrads start to get desperate. Expectations converge, deadlines impend, and the sheer volume of the semester’s reading, along with the hopes of parents and the five-year plans, starts to bear down on the students. The most intense among them double down, practicing a Cal Newport religion of the planner and dressing even more professionally, but others become more like the locals, wearing pajama pants to class and falling asleep in the front row as I lecture. Strange eruptions occur at this time: couples break up in fury and tears, people say the most surprising things in office hours, and a sad few are so oppressed that they cannot get out of bed, cannot even open the door of the bedroom to come out into our shared world. The walls tremble, and sometimes give way.

    At these moments, a person knows who he or she really is. When the disarray of inner habits breaks through the front wall of life, we have no choice but to admit how fragile we are, that success or failure depends on a profoundly delicate balance. No matter how tidy and well-planned our appearance and trajectory are, these moments of collapse show that we are in fact unable to do what we need to do. The first of the Twelve Steps puts it quite clearly: “We admitted we were powerless … that our lives had become unmanageable.” And as anyone who has really hit bottom knows, we are all in need of that same admission. None of us really has what it takes.

    We like to think that greatness will follow if we live a life of consummate mastery and poise, but these walls of flesh are never quite strong enough to allow for that. The closeness of the Creator, our true Beginning and End, is most easily felt when we are made to know our smallness and inadequacy. This is the open secret of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting, The Monk by the Sea, where a paltry human figure sways, dwarfed by a vast cloudscape and ocean. More clearly than my strongest word, my failure and neediness get at the truth at the heart of being.

    This does not mean I should just lie there broken, inside out, waiting to die. To bind up my wounds and to bind up others’: this is the work of mercy I am reminded of every time I am faced with one of my students’ personal breakdowns. Through mercy we lift the sufferer up to God.

    Of course, this is easy for me to say now, comfortably, in the abstract – or to narrate in the past tense. It may be that my neighbor’s blown-out house symbolizes my own life and that of my wealthy, stressed-out students, but what of the man buried beneath the allegory? He has not lacked my prayers since the implosion and removal of his home, but what did I ever do before the structure gave way? I failed to perform the works of mercy earlier, while the man was still struggling and present. Here was a real man who needed me, not an idea to be contemplated. I am sorry, neighbor, that I crossed to the other side of the road so many times, rather than stop to meet you, there where and when you needed me. I hope to be a better Samaritan than I have been.

    When they tore down the rest of that old house and buried its remains, they did not bury the memory of its collapse. Though the fill dirt was seeded and became a grassy lot, a strange thing happened: the strip of earth where the front walk once lay will take no grass. It stands, to this day, an uncanny reminder of the path I failed to walk into my neighbor’s life. Just so, every masked soul, every one of our suffering, finite lives, lies hidden in plain sight, waiting for someone to break the spell.

    Contributed By DwightLindley Dwight Lindley

    Dwight Lindley is associate professor and the Barbara Longway Briggs Chair in English Literature at Hillsdale College.

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