Soooo…. last year on Valentine’s Day, I posted a rant on my Facebook page about how I’d never, ever, ever, ever, never had a good Valentine’s Day. I can’t say that any more.
This year, my good friend, Elisabeth, invited me to go along with members of her church to Rocky Point, Mexico, February 14-17, to help build a house. It was in conjunction with an organization called Amor (www.amor.org). The family for whom we’d be building the house, Jose, Cynthia, and their three children age ten to three, had barely escaped with their lives when their trailer had caught on fire. Their car and a shed containing paint thinners Jose used in his work were nearby and had exploded, sending up huge fireballs.
Jose, Cynthia, and their children.
Building would involve using hand tools (no electric ones so that others in underdeveloped areas could mimic what we’d build), either freezing cold or blazing sun (we ended up having both), camping in tents (which is where I got the title for this post; Elisabeth’s husband had bought her a new tent for us to take so they were calling it the Valentent’s Day present), Port-A-Potties, and no showers. There was cause for celebration that actual Port-A-Potties would be on site since the previous bathroom facility was a wooden enclosure over a ditch.
I did not know how to use building tools. Oh, I’ve pounded a nail into the wall to hang a picture but that hardly qualifies me to help build anything. I really dislike being cold. I hate camping. I REALLY HATE getting dirty and having to use a Port-A-Potty. So, naturally, I said yes.
In the year since I moved out from an ending marriage, I’ve needed, and wanted, to challenge myself to do things I’ve never done before. I’d lost a significant amount of weight, learned to cycle clipped into the pedals, committed myself to CrossFit, and started a blog. Now, apparently, it was time to learn to build a house. And, unbeknownst to me, it was time to resolve some very old, deep hurts.
I was a bit nervous. Elisabeth reassured me that I would be fine. There was a lot of work to do, but everyone would do what they can.
Late morning on Valentine’s Day found me at the Rocky Point campsite, helping Elisabeth put up our tent. Somehow, I had secretly thought we’d be ten feet from the beach, softly lulled to sleep each night by the calming whoosh of waves. Instead, we were plopped in the middle of hardpan desert, miles from the beach, choosing whether to put the tent nearer to the camp dining area, which would ensure we’d be awakened long before necessary each morning by pots and pans being banged around, or nearer to the Port-A-Potties, which would ensure shorter journeys in the middle of the night. We chose to be nearer the Port-A-Potties. Ironically, we were awakened long before necessary each morning by a symphony of banging Port-A-Potty doors, courtesy of very early risers. This was not the issue we thought we’d have to deal with in this particular location.
Early afternoon on Valentine’s Day found me on the job site wearing my-so-fresh-from-the-package-it-had-crisp-fold-marks-in-it Ace Hardware canvas nail pouch. My shiny new tools, also procured from Ace through the hand-the-Ace-guy-the-list-of-things-I-need method, were at the ready.
Elisabeth had said to just go up to someone and ask what to do, so that’s what I did. He told me to go over and nail some boards in the house frame. I walked up to one of the guys who was already hammering and said I’d been sent over to help. Without looking up, he said, “Have you?” then proceeded to ignore me. I stood there, frozen, as memories washed over me.
I did not grow up in a Hallmark family. My father is obsessive-compulsive, and has very fixed ideas of how things should be. There was only one right way to do things – his way. I’m not sure where it stems from. Maybe because his father was raised Amish, a closed society known for hard work and fixed ideas. My father worked my sisters and me hard, but no matter how much we worked, or how well we tried to do things, it was never enough nor anywhere near the perfection he demanded. I’d just ended a marriage with a man a lot like him.
As a result, I’d never had any interest in anything mechanical or building related. I’m good with my hands – I’m a massage therapist and can do all kinds of crafts. But the overriding feeling of “You can’t possibly do it right” from the past, coupled with the big sighs and pressed together lips from my now ex-husband had prevented me from attempting even the simplest home improvement project, like painting a wall.
Somehow, I managed to shake myself back to reality. I went back to the first guy, David, and told him I was ignored so I guess I wasn’t needed nailing boards. David then did something remarkable. He showed me how to snap a chalk line, measure and cut boards for fire blocks (boards within the frame that don’t have to be done perfectly), and how to nail them in, including how to toenail (hammer a nail in at an angle to secure boards at right angles to each other). He was calm, nonjudgmental, and encouraging. I ended up spending most of the rest of the day nailing in the fire blocks. Another guy said that he could tell I’d spent some time hammering before. I said that this was my first day.
After the fire blocks, I helped mix cement in wheelbarrows, using a hoe. If you have never done this, it’s a full body workout. Trust me. The next day I helped sift sand through a screen so it would be nice and smooth for the stucco we made the third day by again mixing cement in wheelbarrows. Once the wooden frame of the house was up, it was covered with tarpaper, which was then covered by chicken wire. I helped nail the chicken wire on. This had to be done carefully because it needs to be flush in order for the stucco to be applied smoothly. At one point, there was a separation in an area where the chicken wire needed to overlap. I asked David what we could do about it, and he said it could be stitched together using baling wire. Stitch? Did he say stitch?! Oh, man! I was the gal for that job! When David said it looked good, I was as proud of that as I am of the Tiffany stained glass cross stitch design that took me four years to complete. After the chicken wire, we troweled stucco on the house.
Nailing chicken wire up.
Tiffany stained glass cross stitch, Oyster Bay
Everyday everyone got up at dawn, moving stiffly in freezing cold. We ate a hearty breakfast made by the excellent camp cooks, rode to the work site, and worked hard all day long in intense heat. Cynthia and Jose worked right along with us. We came back just before dusk, and had another hearty meal. Around the campfire was some singing and prayers led by the church minister. Then everyone stumbled off to bed, usually asleep before their heads hit their pillows.
You know what, though? It wasn’t that bad. Bone-penetrating cold before dawn? For months I’d ridden my bike to CrossFit before the sun came up, fingers aching and the air slicing my face like icy blades. Hard work all day long? CrossFit is functional fitness so my body was used to all the movements required to do all the different tasks. Scorching heat? I ride my bike in Tucson in the summer. Need to keep working until the job is done, and done right? Have I mentioned my father and my Amish roots?
The only breaks were for lunch, or the children’s outreach and church services most of the other members of the group went to. I elected to stay at the work site during those excursions. I was the only woman to stay when the church services were held, and continued working along side the men who had also stayed. We mixed cement for a step in front of the front and side doors. One of the guys told me to make the form for the side door step. Me? He said, “Sure. Take the measurements, cut the boards, then nail them together.” So I cut the boards to the proper lengths and brought them over to nail them together. As I hammered, I looked up and all six guys were watching me. And the look on every single one of their faces was encouragement. Not a single one doubted that I could do it. All those years of thinking I can’t do anything mechanical or build anything, of poisoned words and actions from people who were supposed to love me and help me, were undone by six people who had known me for three days and simply trusted me to do it right.
Elisabeth and me. Elisabeth is in the dark purple shirt and I’m in the light green shirt.
By the last day, I had gotten to know everyone, and was even laughing and joking with the guy who had ignored me the first day. We were exhausted, filthy, and ready to come home. Fortunately, some of the members had condos right on the beach and generously let us use their showers. It’s amazing how such a simple thing can be so pleasurable. We all met for dinner in a nearby restaurant, relishing the chance to relax before spending one more night in our tents, then packing up in the morning.
So, after all was said and done, would I do it again?
In a heartbeat.
Job well done!