From our second-floor Glasgow tenement flat, I am in a perfect position to survey the comings and goings of the various tradesmen involved in the extensive renovation of our new ground floor flat in the next house along the road. Eddie’s van is blue, with white and red writing: MARYHILL BUILDERS. When I see it parked outside, I feel reassured. He is our main builder, and he coordinates joiner, plumber, electrician, glazier, kitchen fitter, tiler, stove installer, and painter. Most of them know each other, some of them are each other’s in-laws, and they all talk in fast, broad Glaswegian. I, the German client and supervisor of the project, understand about half of what they say, which, together with the fact that I don’t know much about building work is a challenge for all of us. However, in my early thirties I spent a couple of years as part of a women’s team converting a farm into a retreat center (Taraloka Retreat Centre for Women), and while this seems a long time ago there is still some residue of confidence lodged in my bones; an understanding of masonry and timber and how they respond to tools; a sense of how a project evolves organically from plans, unexpected findings, and circumstances; and mistakes—many of them.
There are also accidents and deaths: just as we were returning to work after three months of COVID-19 lockdown, the plumber’s dad died of an unexpected heart attack after a fall. So he took another week off, understandably. The glazier had recently suffered a stroke and had forgotten everything that had been agreed upon about the replacement of window panels. The electrician hurt his back falling off a ladder and needed to rest. I pray that Eddie, who is probably in his late sixties, will take good care of himself. He sometimes doesn’t eat anything until mid afternoon and smokes cigarettes.
Eddie is the kind of person you’d want for your grandfather: calm and courteous even under trying circumstances, a twinkle in his eye when he greets you, a wink when you leave, and in charge without seeming to be. He is wiry and strong, despite arthritic joints, with dry skin toughened by decades of exposure to dust and fumes from all kinds of noxious substances. We are of similar height, our heads leaning toward each other as we try to decipher our accents while preserving social distancing. “Say that again?” “Do ye want a facin’ tae cover that joint?” “What’s a facin’?”
Awareness of possible infection from the coronavirus is ubiquitous. I wash my hands when returning from my daily check-ins with the builders, and remind myself that life is not a rehearsal for a future moving-in date. After all this time spent researching the “best buy” washing machine, fridge freezer, and dishwasher, the most fitting bathroom tiles and engineered wood floor boards to cover our underfloor heating, there is no guarantee that my husband and I will actually be there to enjoy it, or to do so for very long. Whatever enjoyment life, or our own hearts, might offer us, it better be happening now. No point in getting all tense about missed deadlines or deliveries of items that I never ordered. Like a large shower basin and glass door panels that are cluttering the space and seem to be impossible to have picked up for return, despite dozens of phone calls, emails, and text messages with employees of Better Bathrooms and Palletways. Being left hanging on the phone with some tinny muzak that grinds away at my emotional resilience, despite my best intentions to remain grounded and calm.
My daily practice of mindful movement and meditation is absolutely essential, but even so, there have been some fraught and sleepless nights. “I spent a couple of hours imagining worst-case scenarios,” I tell Eddie in our mid-morning check-in. He smiles encouragingly at me. “I was wondering whether rats and mice might build nests from the mineral wool we put in between the joists.” Eddie tells me he’s had problems with mice in his own house and put down some concrete with embedded glass splinters to deter them. Or something like that; I don’t understand all of the story and am not too sure how it relates to my question. But never mind. I decided right at the beginning to basically trust him, while keeping an eye on things; a sensitive and delicate balance. For example, the tiler was just about to attach tiles on a section of the bathroom wall when I noticed that a waste pipe had been boxed in a way that would not allow enough space for the cabinet I had already bought. “Eddie, do you have a minute to have a look at something in the bathroom? And bring your tape measure?” He is easy about admitting and correcting mistakes that he or his men have made, and maybe my practice of non-blaming helps. Or maybe it’s the profiteroles I offer them occasionally.
After a few weeks of being on call in this way, I decide to partake in an online meditation retreat. I would still need to be involved with the building work, and part of the intention is to gain more insight into the dynamics of being and doing—how to enable more of a continuity of awareness. The retreat is structured around this excerpt from a famous poem by Rumi:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I will meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to speak of.
Ideas, language, even the notion “one another”
make no sense.
The retreat leader, Paramananda, is skilled at establishing a felt sense of connection between the 60 of us joining through our screens from all over the world. “Imagine we are all sitting in the same room together,” he says in his deep, mumbling growl, which I also struggle to entirely understand. “Soften your face, and imagine the faces of everyone else softening.” In my meditations I bring to mind Eddie, who has never meditated, but didn’t bat an eyelid when I explained to him that I wanted him to build a meditation platform above my bed. Paramananda likens the current pandemic to a bardo, a gap or interruption of normal consciousness. The conditions that have led to the outbreak of COVID-19 show up the hubris of humankind, the way we have become intoxicated with our power to dominate and exploit the natural world. What can we make of this interruption? “What needs to happen is a simple change of heart,” he suggests. “We need to become comfortable with our own vulnerability and weave feelings of love between us.”
When I check my mobile phone after the morning session, there is a message from Eddie: “Can you come down? I have run into a problem.” I descend the stairs feeling calm and curious. Eddie points to a section of the continuous underfloor heating coil that loops warm water through a large part of the flat. He had fixed foam underlay onto it the day before, in preparation for the floorboards being laid. “Ah pit a staple intae the coil. Ah wis bumpin’ ma gums tae the stove-fitters, no payin’ attention. Took ma eye aff the ball. Ah’m a right eejit.”
Eddie looks crestfallen. He raises his hands, palms facing me, as if to say: “I’m guilty.” What to do now? Do I want the whole section replaced, which would mean several days’ delay as we wait for new materials to arrive and undoing the floor coverings already put in place, or would I accept a joint repair? I don’t want to decide on my own, so I ask my husband Larry to come down and have the situation explained to him as well. I’m aware that this is a decision that will affect not only us, but also future inhabitants of this flat, who may not be aware of a possible weak spot in the system. After some discussion, we decide to put in a joint and make sure that it can easily be monitored, with removable floor boards and an explanatory label.
Predictably, the situation replays itself in my mind during the next meditation and I notice that I don’t feel any anger or blame toward Eddie, just compassion for him feeling bad about what happened. And I enjoy a rich and subtle sense of connection with him, Paramananda, and the other retreatants, a connection that doesn’t depend at all on understanding every word that is spoken.