I heard the UPS driver’s voice without recognizing that a truck had approached the house, so it took me by surprise.
(Another surprise came when I realized it wasn’t our regular UPS guy, because, if you are like me, in today’s world, the familiarity of the UPS driver has taken the place of mailmen of old.)
We live in the country; our mailbox is a half-mile away on the main road, but the embarrassing frequency of the UPS driver's visits — as he pulls right up to our house — offers a break from the mundanity of these long, strange days.
Like most of the world, we’ve been in quarantine for nearly ten weeks, so the sight of a familiar face feels like oxygen right now. I was a little startled when I turned the corner to see someone new and unfamiliar.
“Are you renovating?” he asked, already knowing the answer to his question from the stacks of drywall, boxes and tools stealing peace and precious real estate from our beloved front porch.
“Yes,” I replied, adding, “but we did not plan on renovating through a pandemic...”
He interrupted me saying, “How long have you lived here? I remember a big renovation here years ago—that can’t be you, can it?”
Sighing, I simply responded with a shrug and a smile exclaiming that this was our last, big lift — "A labor of love,” I replied.
I often wonder who thought up that phrase and I’m convinced that whomever it was definitely fell in love with, bought, and renovated an old red farmhouse.
I remember the first time I came here, driving up the long, curvy driveway through the fresh spring fields. It felt like a little slice of heaven as I approached the bright yellow forsythia and turned through the towering pines. Everywhere you looked were wise, old, beautiful trees, birds, fresh air, and all of the dreams and promises that the first glimpse of your forever home offers.
Tucked under four mighty pines was what my husband now lovingly refers to as our “money pit.”
At the time it felt romantic and bold and it fit in nicely with all of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are or who we long to be. I remember walking through the dark, narrow hallways, dreaming of our family bringing light and love in and imagining how we would transform these walls.
It was a stretch for us — financially and logistically — caring for a large property and an old house that needed so much work, but we naively decided it was meant to be and that we would figure it out, take our time, and embrace the quirkiness and challenges that living in a 120-year-old house brings. Things like not having a garage, one small closet in the master bedroom, and a washer and dryer in a damp stone basement were brushed off as “first-world problems.” We would lovingly pick up where others had left off and make this space a refuge for our family and generations to come.
Daydreams about our kids getting married here under the old grapevines and apple trees and grandchildren someday chasing butterflies and catching fireflies won over the logical, practical advice that was coming in from just about everyone. Even though there is not a handy bone in my or my husband’s body, we laughed off the critique from concerned family and friends. I can still taproot all of that sweetness, though it sometimes feels out of reach, buried under the sawdust and musky fog of feelings that come with the relentless projects that only an old house brings.
Eight years ago this June, we closed on our dream home and moved in.
Within the first three weeks, we had our first major plumbing event from the second-floor master bathroom, which nearly destroyed the old charming built-ins in the dining room. That would be the first of too many major leaks to count. In fact, just three weeks ago — yes, in the middle of the pandemic, in the midst of our last big unfinished mess — we had a major flood in our finished basement: the second major flood in that space in what should (in theory) be the last major flooding event.
At this point, we have replaced nearly 100% of the old copper plumbing in the house, which feels like a giant win. Extensive electrical rewiring, a major kitchen renovation, and now this crazy second floor renovation — our “final big lift” in the middle of a global shutdown.
We’ve now officially invested more money on renovation than on the total purchase price of our home and all 40 acres of property.
Everything needed tending to — so much more than we could ever have dreamed. Our ignorance and imaginings, hopes and dreams clouded every spec of logic in the mind. Our hearts full of hope, courage, resilience, and stubborn grit kept us going as we rolled up our sleeves and dug in our heels to finish.
And that’s not to say that we haven’t come close to giving up — OHH, we have! But the Universe had other plans for us. There were too many lessons right here, offering giant heaps of growth for each of us to keep learning, to keep leaning into these old bones; to keep breathing life and love into her as she graciously slapped us around a little bit more.
So we were chugging right along.
Things were going exceptionally well.
The project was “ahead of schedule” through January and February. (Our contractor kept reminding us to bite our tongues.) The first week of March we started planning for the end of the first phase when the kids’ rooms and bathrooms would be finished and they could move back into their spaces.
But our red farmhouse and this damn pandemic had other plans for us.
We all have our own stories now. That moment when you realized everything had instantly changed; seemingly overnight.
With the ghosts of 9/11 lurking, this great pause hovered over us like a thick, black cloud.
At first we resisted or played mind trickery predicting the timeline and outcomes, but every day the news worsened. Before we knew it, we found ourselves in the midst of a full stay-at-home order, quarantined with half of our house uninhabitable and no end in sight.
Just when I thought I had learned so much, the infinite spectrum of all of the possible lessons opened up; and as it turns out, this old red farmhouse had a little more subtle wisdom tucked under her sleeve:
- Do the laundry, sweep your floors. One of my teachers, Jack Kornfield, reminds us, “We all know that after the honeymoon comes the marriage. In spiritual life it is the same: After the ecstasy comes the laundry.” In other words, do your practice — yes, tap into the boundless nature of our humanity but find solace in the mundane, make peace with and embrace the opportunities right here in ordinary life. Don’t get swept away in the overwhelm of it all, just sweep the damn floors with full loving awareness and notice how the mind settles and the heart swells with love.
- Surrender to the uncertainty; make friends with groundlessness and invite her in for tea. The overwhelm and uncertainty of the Covid-19 crisis coupled with the global impact and suffering of this virus has been very overwhelming. Never before have we experienced such an impactful collective experience of fear, grief and loss. The sheer magnitude of this health and economic crisis is spiraling many people into fear. I’m not pointing fingers here or pronouncing that I have it all figured out, as it’s something I’ve also personally been grappling with. So much so that I’ve increased time with my mentor, my therapist, and most importantly, my practices. My teacher, Ty Powers, gave me such helpful advice when he said, “Make friends with the 'I don’t know' mind.” That little mantra has become a lighthearted reminder for me during this time. When I notice myself feeling entangled in ruminating thoughts, when my body grows rigid with lingering stress, or when I pause in the heart space with #allthefeels, I imagine myself as humble as the maple branches heavy with their new green leaves and as light and wobbly on my feet as the newborn baby fawn frolicking through our fields. I simply shrug my shoulders, take a breath, smile to the sky, and whisper my mantra, “I don’t know.” And I’ve learned that I can be with this, too.
- Life is messy and gorgeous. Stay open to all of it. My house is a freaking mess, I mean literally filthy. I have exactly zero privacy, no quiet space to work, and every square inch is covered with a light layer of sawdust and dog hair which appears no matter how many times a day I sweep the floors. Juggling homeschool, work commitments, and life in general on this wild rollercoaster ride of our cluttered reality is extraordinary and somewhat surreal. But right here in the muck of it all, I can pause and look out my temporary bedroom window — a space that used to be my office — noticing the finches gather, perched on my favorite pine tree. I can open my ears and listen to the sweetness of my 16-year-old belting out random melodies, which she hasn't done in years. I can take delight in my oldest, whipping up his fancy meals, bursting with wild textures and exotic flavors, out of anything he finds in our pantry and refrigerator. In the middle of the day, I have quiet time to snuggle with my youngest for movies, books, and learning like we used to when she was a toddler. My husband and I have more time to just be together. We’ve been experimenting with cooking and cutting each other’s hair, hiking with our dogs, and planning the ultimate garden. I’ve made peace with the fact that the only open space in the house has become a temporary workspace for my 21-year-old who had to begrudgingly return home from his inspiring coastline project promoting ocean conservation; so I practice holding space for him to grieve, rethink and reorganize his plans.
- It’s all messy and chaotic and so gorgeously, heart-achingly impermanent. We long for some kind of return to "normal" and know this great pause will, in fact, come to an end. At that laborious finish, we'll tiptoe back into our very busy lives, navigating a new quiet, clean, organized, productive existence…yes. And yet, there is something about writing those words down even now that makes me feel melancholy. I often wonder how we will look back on these days; what will we remember, what will most stand out? I’m determined to focus on and cultivate the beauty. We are all here…together. We are all softening to this strange, new normal and figuring it out. My hope is that when this ends, when we transition into the next phase of life as we know it, we land somewhere between the much-too-busy lives of our pre-Covid reality and this mundane quarantined thickness of a global crisis into a more balanced rhythm, laced with enough spaciousness to wonder and connect, rest and stay inspired.
As I walk through our home, among these half-renovated walls, I realize that this is the transformation I longed for.
This IS the dream imagined and it’s so achingly beautiful.
Jennifer Ciarimboli is studio BE’s founder and CEO. Jennifer began her career in corporate sales in 1999 in the telecommunications industry. After nearly a decade of success in that industry she suffered from burnout, trained to be a yoga teacher and transformed her life.
Jennifer embraced her entrepreneurial spirit in December 2008 when she opened NE Pennsylvania’s premier yoga studio, Balance Yoga & Wellness. During her six years of owning, instructing, and managing Balance, Jennifer continued to advance her training, global network, and inner growth. In 2014 she enrolled in the Insight Yoga Institute.
Wanting to spend more time on deep studies in yoga, the teachings of the Buddha, spiritual inquiry, and mindfulness meditation, Jennifer sold Balance in 2015. Reflecting on her long career in corporate sales, she recognized that if she had learned some of the methods and techniques of mindfulness meditation years ago, she might have been better able to manage her stress in a healthier way. From this insight, studio BE was born.
Feature image by Feferoni/Adobe Stock