In spring of this year, I went to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, as part of an interfaith service team led by the four chaplains at the college where I serve. We spent our days working with Habitat for Humanity, and our evenings studying texts and teachings from our various religious traditions about brokenness and repair.
We did two kinds of work during our time with Habitat. On the first day of our trip, we built things from scratch. We broke into two groups at a new construction site. One group built a shed, while the other group built a “safe room” on the concrete slab, to protect the house’s inhabitants in case another tornado devastates the city. On the subsequent days, we divided into two teams and each team was dispatched to a rehab site — a home in urgent need of repair.
New building work has an allure. At first there is nothing: only a plan, a set of instructions, a pile of materials. Over the course of laborious hours, something begins to take shape. At the end of the day, maybe a room exists where there wasn’t a room before! It’s incredibly compelling.
But most of the work we did in Tuscaloosa was re-building: rehabilitation and restoration of houses that were falling apart and needed repair. In many ways, that’s harder than starting from scratch. You have to work around what’s already there. Maybe you’ve gutted the kitchen, and you get to make that room shine — but it will still be attached to the rest of the house, with its scuffed linoleum and uneven floorboards. Rebuilding is less glamorous than building something new. But, for people whose homes are in disrepair, rebuilding is the most necessary work in the world.
I’ve been dreaming lately about being back on the job site with the carpenter who mentored us both in our building work and in our rebuilding work. In my dreams, Peter’s reminding me at what angle to drive nails into beams, or telling me what task to take on next, now that the last thing on my list is complete. In my dreams, I’m not on the new site with the concrete slab. I’m in a rehab house like the one where I spent most of that week.
I think I’m dreaming about rebuilding and repair because that’s the work of this time in my life. When my marriage ended and I moved out on my own, I thought I was building a new life, like a new room being constructed ex nihilo on a concrete slab. I thought I was starting from scratch. That wasn’t wrong, but it wasn’t the whole truth, either. As I approach the anniversary of my departure from my old life, I’ve come to recognize that what I’m doing is more akin to rebuilding than to building something completely new.
From the matrix of community relationships into which I remain woven, to the reality of the child my ex and I are still committed to co-parenting, I haven’t completely left my old life behind. To be sure, large parts of that life have been gutted and await restoration. (Parts of my heart occasionally still feel gutted and in need of restoration.) But the structures I’m building in this new chapter have to dovetail with the old ones. This is a new beginning, but it’s part of the same life story; a new addition, but it’s cobbled on to the same house.
I’m using rebuilding and renovation as a metaphor, though of course I have literally packed and moved in the last year. That was a visible change, a clear new beginning. But after the physical move, the internal work continued. And most of the work I’m doing now is interior rehabilitation, invisible to those outside. My spiritual director and my therapist and my most intimate friends get to see the slow reconstruction work from the inside, but most people don’t see the inner work of rebuilding.
And, like the homeowners for whom we helped with rehab work in Tuscaloosa, I’m rebuilding my life while I’m also living it. I don’t get to hit the pause button, withdraw from my life, and take six months or a year to make repairs before I move back in. The only available choice is to repair as I go.
Of course, this has always been true. The divorce is just giving me extra opportunity to notice. This is always the work of spiritual life: noticing what’s broken and in need of repair, and then rebuilding myself day by day. Discerning what structures I need to build in order for holiness to flow in and through me, and then building them, and then keeping them in good repair. Inviting God (if that word doesn’t work for you, try “love” or “meaning” or “truth”) to establish the work of my hands, so that the work of my hands can establish God in return.
Since 2003, Rachel Barenblat has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi. Ordained as a rabbi and spiritual director, she serves Congregation Beth Israel and is a founding builder at Bayit: Your Jewish Home. Her books of poetry include 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia, 2011) and Texts to the Holy (Ben Yehuda, 2018).