“It is perhaps impossible for a person living unhappily with a flush toilet to imagine a person living happily without one.”
~ Wendell Berry
Living in an affluent society such as ours, we don’t realize how connected our peace of mind is to our plumbing until the latter stops working, causing the former to also go belly-up. But it’s even more connected when you live, as Danielle and I do, with an intricate and self-contained sand mound septic system that has little documented paperwork and zero connection to local utility infrastructure.
Since we bought our house in 2015, I have shouldered the following wearying mental burden: I am cognizant of the fact that if our sand mound fails as an overall system, we will be on the hook for a nest-egg-crushing $20,000 to $30,000 repair. So each time our toilet has refused to flush — and this has happened more than our fair share of times — I’ve immediately, reflexively, neurotically leaped to that worst-case scenario. My mind reels. I picture a decade’s worth of methodical frugality utterly negated in one gut-wrenching fell swoop.
I think if I rewatched The Money Pit, that ‘80s movie with Tom Hanks and Shelley Long as a couple who buys a home in the countryside only to watch it quickly hollow out their life savings, I’d probably have a panic attack.
So you can imagine the churning of my stomach when on a lazy Sunday afternoon in February, something happened that was even worse than a non-flushing toilet: While the washing machine was draining, our plumbing backed up. Water came up out of the shower drain, rising almost to the top of the nearby 4-inch ledge. Water also seeped out of the bottom of the toilet onto the floor and dripped into our unfinished basement.
Oh, and then the toilets stopped flushing. So there was that too.
It’s hard to fully articulate the hollowed-out nausea and panic this created in my mind almost immediately. It’s well-documented that I am a fairly neurotic fellow, prone to anxiety at times and in possession of a hyperactive, hyper-vivid imagination. When there is a worst-case homeowner scenario that can be reasonably — or unreasonably — conjured up, my brain is more than up to the task. So rather than carefully thinking through the options at my disposal, assuming the best (or at least not the absolute worst), and taking one thing at a time, I did the next best thing: In the confines of my reeling mind, I braced myself for the utter desolation of our life savings. Even though outwardly I was tending to the problem at hand, cleaning up and making the requisite phone calls, inwardly an embittered mental paralysis quickly set in.
Danielle could see the panic in my eyes, but as has always been the case for the last 10 years, she remained calm and grounded, carefully helping me to think through our first steps. Once I realized that I had no skilled friend available to look at the plumbing that same day, and that we would have to pay a steep premium to have a septic company come out on a Sunday, we did the only sensible thing we could.
We moved in with my ever-loving, ever-accommodating, salt-of-the-earth parents.
For me, the move was daunting because my imagination was playing cruel tricks on me, telling me we might not be able to move back into our house for weeks, or months — or ever — pending the septic verdict. After all, my careening mind told me, a full-on sand mound failure would either hollow out our savings or fully render our house uninhabitable, if a viable alternate sand mound location couldn’t be found on our cozy 1/3-acre lot.
For Danielle, the move was a challenge; but in her steady and sturdy mind, worst-case scenarios are bridges to cross once you arrive at them. She is a wise woman, and possessed of stronger emotional stuff than her hubby.
And then there’s Greyson. For him, the move was cause for excitement — an unannounced visit to Grandma’s house! Ahh to be 2 years old again.
We packed up the minivan and drove 12 miles to our home away from home, the place where we spent the first 5 months of our Pennsylvania tenure, 5 years ago. As we settled in at Casa de Wingert I tried with mixed results to tether my mind to the ground, like a hot air balloon during a hurricane. After all, I couldn’t do anything until the next morning. Between the warmth of my parents, the whimsy of my children, and the wonderfulness of my wife, I managed to partly stave off my creeping panic for one night.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — owning a home is not for the faint of heart, or the jittery of mind. The thin of skin need not apply [for a home loan] either.
But if you are any or all of these things, as I decidedly am, it is still possible to stand up with confidence under the low ceiling of your neurosis and your fear. We are not each doomed to be the most fearful, anxiety-addled versions of ourselves.
I drifted to sleep that Sunday night with a mind that was restless — a mind that was not yet fully confident or convinced of these things.
But the week ahead would have a mind of its own.
To be continued as soon as possible… unless I’m waylaid with another pressing blog topic this week. But I’ll do my best to wrap up this saga by the end of March.
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I am grateful for your interest and your solidarity! And for the time you took to read this all the way to the italicized end.