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Navigating These Times

The way of self-renovation.

As I put the final touches on this manuscript, my stepson Gabe and his wife Michelle are in the process of renovating a 100-year-old home in Berkeley. Built in 1920 by architect Julia Morgan, the house is magnificent — plenty of square footage, spacious rooms with high ceilings, and a fabulous yard with dynamite views of the bay. Concrete walls keep the structure earthquake solid and there’s more than enough room to house and grow a family of five. So why renovate?

Though the house has many important elements of a suitable home by most standards, it isn’t everything Gabe and his family need and want in order to thrive.

One could argue that the house is fine as it is and, given the cost, implore them to live with it — to accommodate themselves to the space. It’s good enough, after all. In fact, my husband and I lived perfectly well in that house for nearly three years before the demolition for the renovation started.

But during those years, the fireplaces no longer functioned well and were a fire hazard, the windows leaked air and wasted energy, the attic was dark and the space not utilized well, and the kitchen was tiny, cold, and utilitarian — built for a servant, not for someone like Michelle who loves to cook with her friends and family around her as she does.

The times have changed since that house was built and the needs of individuals, families, and communities are different from what they were one hundred years ago. This is a very important consideration. The essential components of Gabe and Michelle’s house are being kept because they still work — along with many of the elements that simply make it beautiful. But the recognition of their personal needs and their keen discernments on what might be beneficial to the entire family, neighborhood and community helped them identify where it makes sense to change, upgrade, or recycle.

Similarly, when it comes to what’s no longer working or beneficial in our lives, there’s a case to be made for the renovation of ourselves.

We do not have to tear ourselves down and start from scratch. After all, Gabe and Michelle are not demolishing the entire house. They are preserving the essential and timeless components of their home. Similarly, we must use our discernment to keep what is essential and beautiful within us, as we upgrade the rest to suit our needs in these times.

In Selfistry, personal renovation is considered an art. By taking an inventory of our beliefs and behaviors, assessing the foundation of our worldview, and overhauling our capacity to dispassionately self-reflect, we can determine which elements within ourselves no longer serve not only our own personal fulfillment, but the legitimate needs of others as well.

Just as Gabe and Michelle are considering the immediate future of their young family, they are also considering the lives that will outlive them. In deciding it is better to invest in upgrading now, rather than leaving things the way they are, they are considering a broad and complex interplay of influences — seen and unseen — in a web that both includes them and transcends them.

Similarly, it makes perfect sense that in order to engage the present challenges and future opportunities we face as a species, we would be wise to consider the value of renovating ourselves immediately.

Life as we have known it is unraveling and reshaping at an unpredictable pace and the future is perfectly uncertain. Everywhere people are wondering what’s happening or what they should do. Everywhere experts are claiming they know what’s happening and what we should do. However, the reality is, nobody really knows for sure what’s happening or what we should do.

However, one thing we might all agree upon is that finding our way to becoming the person who can remain calm in the midst of crisis, present in the face of chaos, and capable of remaining steady in any circumstance, is probably not a bad idea.

This reminds me of some good advice I received a few years ago from a Native American Grandmother, Agnes Emma Baker Pilgrim, from the Takelma tribe in Southern Oregon. She said that the river of life would be getting wild and fast in our lifetime. She foreshadowed that the impulse might be to grab onto old roots sticking out at the shoreline in order to stop the ride or at least take a break.

“But don’t do it,” Grandmother warned. “Better to push off from shore than seek it. Get right in the middle of the current. Surface to take a breath, and then see who else is there with you. Bind together and then trust the river. It knows where it’s going.”

She was right. Life is wild and getting wilder.

Though it can feel terrifying to trust in a strong, wild, and unpredictable current, I suspect Grandmother Aggie’s counsel is sensible. Rather than grasp for an elusive stability or try to predict or control the future, I suspect we are well advised to strengthen our ability to survive in wild waters, so that we may relax into the current without drowning. I say this not because stability or control are bad things to strive for. Rather, they do not appear to be readily available for us collectively right now. If we tell the truth, there are no roots sticking out at the shoreline that can hold us.

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