As the contactor stripped the plaster from my upstairs bathroom and I put in another call to the exterminator to come deal with the carpenter ants we'd found under the floor, the plumbers spent two expensive hours trying to figure out how the heck hot water got from the water heater to the bathroom, two stories up. The cold water line was fine--no problems ther. But they could not trace the hot water line, which they had to cap in order to turn water on to the rest of the house.

Eventually they gave up and capped the lines where they came out, in the bathroom itself and, at almost the same moment, they figured out the hot-supply layout. I do not wish to cast nasturtiums upon the intelligence of my plumbers. I have the highest regard for their plumberly smarts. The problem is the plumbing, which is bizarre. My house is like this.

The old hot water line starts at the water heater, branches off to kitchen and laundry (new and fairly rational), hares back to the original rear wall of the house, climbs a storey, and careens northward under a bedroom and closet to the upstairs bathroom. It then continues northward to the front stairs before descending to the downstairs loo, which is right over the water heater. Effectively, it does a near-circuit of the entire house in order to travel a distance of about 18 feet. Go figger.

If you think that's nuts, you should see all the other plumbing stuff in the basement: disused lead piping, galvanized steel, copper - lines leading nowhere, valves that make no sense. We used to have two separate water systems, well and cistern, and the cistern plumbing is still there, although it hasn't been used for years. I find that my office must have had a sink at one point (was it a pantry?) I asked the plumbers how much it would cost to rip out all the old stuff, and they shook their heads and said, if you have to ask, you can't afford.

It's a times like these that I stare at the pictures in the New Homes section of the Saturday paper with envy. Nothing's wrong with these suckers. Their corners are square, their finishes are silky, their wiring is impeccable, not one foundation is cracked (yet). Their owners don't have to shove old towels up against the outside doors to keep out drafts. Their owners don't have floors that slope 4 inches over 15 feet, so that you can actually feel the gravitational pull if you stand sideways.. Nosirree, nothing wrong with these houses at all.

Maybe it's defensiveness, but then I think, yeah, and these houses don't have 4-by-12 oak rafters in the attic or pure hemlock roof sheeting, wood so dense you can hardly nail the shingles to it, wood incapable of rotting, it seems. Those houses don't have doors and mouldings of clear pine, not a knothole in them, because you can't get wood like that any more. More importantly, those houses don't have a clear, warm spirit, as this house does, even with some of the dark memories it contains. If there are things wrong with my house, there are things right with it as well, and they're big, important things.

The plumbing mess results from age and use. This house is over 100 years old, and successive owners have decided to put a sink in here, move a toilet there - and it was always easier just to abandon the old piping than to take it out. All a matter of small, sometimes off-the-cuff decisions: "it seemed like a reasonable idea at the time"--a phrase I intend to have engraved upon my tombstone, if I have one.

Our lives are like this. We start out blankly fresh, and then it gets interesting. Of course our personalities differ, as do our gifts and circumstances, the type of parents we have, the opportunities we possess or lack. It's neither nature nor nurture that determines where we fetch up, but a complex and highly detailed dance between the two.

But still, we start out all new and unmarked, and almost from that moment we inflate our new wet lungs and bawl out at this cold confusing world, it's one damn thing after another. By the time we're adults (well, grownups, anyway), we've had to make God alone knows how many choices--and some of them haven't really been choices at all, in that choice implies freedom, and sometimes we only get to choose between one blind alley and another.

By middle age, most of our personal cellars are filled with the detritus of decisions that seemed like a reasonable idea at the time. Some of them in fact were reasonable decisions. Others were dumb as a sack of hammers--but how could we know that at the time?

We would very much rather not look at, nor have others see, the mess that's down there. I still cringe a little when my plumbers make jokes about the metal spaghetti in the basement, even though I'm not in the least personally responsible for any of the mess. What plumbing I have had done has been perfectly sensible and reasonable. But it's still a mess, and we feel somehow that we shouldn't be messed up. We should be like those nice, new, unmarked houses. Or so we think.

But the Fall came a long, long time ago. All of us have made reasonable decisions that turned out to be wrong. Not one person's basement is not full of superfluous plumbing. Not one person's life can bear much close examination, simply because we are human and to be human is to be imperfect and messed up--a matter of degree, only. Some of us are high-functioning failures; others of us are less high-functioning, but not one of us is an unqualified success.

Does that sound harsh? Just keep in mind that God knows the history. God knows why that valve went here or that line went there. Maybe it was a mistake to send my house's hot-water supply pipe chasing all round hell's half acre, but God knows why it happened. And that goes for our personal messes too. Some of whatever happened is certainly our own responsibility, and some of it is equally certainly not. And God--God alone--knows which is which.

I have to accept that God really does know me--knows how I fetched up where I now am, with all those messes in the basement, true, but also with the good traits and talents I have hung onto and even maybe developed at bit. God knows how it all happened, how well and poorly I did with what God gave me. And I can trust God's love and insight to see who and why I am as I am, and to set it all right in the end.

The new plumbing is in; it is wholly rational, and we now have more water pressure than I've seen in 12 years in this house. The bathroom should be finished next week, almost certainly, and it will be a great improvement.

Now, about the wiring....

Copyright © 2000 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 22 Jan 2000
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