CW: Domestic violence
In my few and precious windows of down time, when I’m not reading memoir, I’m watching HGTV.
Tiny House Hunters. Fixer Upper. Property Brothers. Love It or List It. I love me some Love It or List It.
I’m saving for a house, see, and I know I won’t be buying a turn-key, move-in ready, ultra-modern sanctuary. There’s gonna be demo. Mudding. Sanding. Scraping. Replacing. Upgrading.
This TV viewing is research. If I’m having a bad day, I turn it into a drinking game: one sip of red wine every time someone says “open concept,” asks for a large kitchen island, or muses “this space has a lot of potential.” Two sips for every mention of shiplap or subway tile. Three sips if they find asbestos or want a wall blown out but can’t understand that it’s load-bearing and they’ll need to pay out the ass to install a steel beam.
I first heard about Cara Brookins’ memoir Rise from TV, in fact. In January, Brookins was on The Today Show after her book was released, filmed in her 3,500-square-foot labor of love.
The amazing thing to me is that she did the grueling, round-the-clock, self-directed work of building a house based solely on watching youTube videos and then pulled off writing a great book about it.
Reading Rise made me feel like I can do anything. It made me seriously and strongly consider borrowing money to build a house instead of taking out a mortgage. Brookins, a single mom who survived domestic violence and wanted nothing more in the world than to provide a safe place to raise her kids and write, was an easy narrator for me to relate to. While anyone can learn to build a house if they really want to, I’m going to argue right now that maybe only a writer could conceive of this massive DIY project after being compelled to pull off the road and examine and mentally revise a house decimated by a tornado:
The frame looked simple, with Sheetrock on the inside and a flat board under the brick outside. In fact, the kids and I could fix the entire place, make it a home again, hang a bird feeder over the dining-room window and matching house for Hershey [the family dog] under the big hickory tree.
Maybe only a writer could justify such an undertaking by saying, “Broken two-by-fours hung from the upper floor like teeth, but I had the idea they were yawning lazily rather than flexing to clamp down like a guillotine.”
Maybe only a domestic violence survivor would think, “Even with the holes, [the delapidated house] felt safer than my own.”
Brookins enlisted her kids, who were at the start of the project at various points on the emotional trauma spectrum. Her oldest son was barely talking to her when they started. All of the kids, though, loved the idea of building their own home. Brookins capitalized on their enthusiasm and her own stubborn resolve and quickly scored a construction loan that imposed a nine-month timeline on her wild idea.
And then, as you’ve perhaps imagined already, and as I was anticipating while I read, the house and the family itself began to rise. Surly, inactive teenagers began to talk, laugh, dance, and grow muscles as they heaved concrete blocks and bags of cement. Laying the house’s foundation took up so much of the book’s real estate (pun intended) that by the time they finally finished, I was celebrating until I remembered, oh wow, now they have to actually build the house!
Do I really wanna build my own house, or do I just wanna, like, remodel a bathroom or something? Put it this way: I still check realtor.com every day, but I don’t filter out the lot listings anymore. Look at that little patch of land up against those pine trees, I sometimes think. Flat enough for a slab or a foundation without excavation expenses. Not a bad price and pretty close to work, too. Hmmm.
There was an addictive element to this memoir and I have to wonder if that wouldn’t be the case with house construction, too. Brick by brick, page by page, so close to finished and yet so far, I was cheering on this ambitious woman and her charming kiddos. At least as the book tells it, Brookins never despaired. When you’ve survived what she survived, why would an aching back or a couple of procrastinating stoner electricians be cause for despair?
The night I finished Rise, there was a single woman on one of my HGTV obsessions who I felt must have been a survivor of some kind of interpersonal violence or trauma. Sometimes we can spot each other from a proverbial mile away, even through a TV screen. Something about the way she stuck her chin out and said, “It’s my time now. I’m ready for my house, my way.” Something about her tears when she saw her new bedroom, kitchen, and front porch for the first time. And she wanted a big library, too.
Brookins said in the Today Show story that her library was her favorite part of her five-bedroom, two-bath home.
Maybe I could at least design and hammer out some kickass, floor to ceiling built-in bookshelves someday…