Jesus’ story about building houses and their foundations has recently been fleshed out in bricks and mortar, in earthen cellars and rotten wood thanks to a new old house our son bought the end of the summer.

Built in the early 1900s, the house is the kind that takes vision, perseverance and money. At this point, when the space is filled with construction debris and an overwhelming number of unfinished projects, we unskilled laborers agree this process isn’t nearly as fun as it once was.

Last weekend the main project was cleaning out under the house in preparation for shoring up parts of the foundation and reinsulating under the floors. For whatever reason, some earlier renovator had walled off the sturdy steps that led into the basement. This unfortunate choice, which probably seemed like a good idea at the time, means the only remaining access is through a small crawl space under a new addition.

The expansion has a roomy clearance of 36 inches or so, but after wiggling through the opening in the original exterior wall, you’re greeted with only 24 inches of vertical space that runs the length of the house. After several yards across this needle’s eye, you can thankfully drop into a large earthen room big enough to stand in comfortably.

Unfortunately, all the accumulated years’ worth of junk along the earth shelf next to the foundation and in the cellar had to be navigated through the low area. My job was to pull a rope hooked to the filled bags of trash from the edge of the pit across the wide, thin expanse and into the roomier space under the new addition. From there it was an army crawl out into the sunshine and then to the construction dumpster.

The trash we removed was mostly predictable. Leftover building material from the original construction and other projects, old insulation, and assorted containers and broken tools. There were a few surprises like one rusted crutch and a beaded, fringed purse that looked remarkably like one I had in the 1970s.

The biggest puzzle is the still-functioning water heater that is now encased underground. We knew it was there, but it was still odd to see it steadily heating away in its dirt prison. Who thought that was a good plan? When the appliance warms its last drop, there’s no possible way to replace it down there, but that’s a problem for another day.

From a writer’s standpoint, at least the restoration project is ripe with metaphors. For example, it’s often tempting to make momentarily convenient decisions that wind up walling off access to important parts of yourself. You can block the steps that lead into your core and thus make it nearly impossible to connect with critical things you need, like your heart. Even when it eventually becomes broken, you may have enclosed it in such a tight box that only the most persistent healer can gain entrance.

It’s equally easy to hang onto things that were once useful, but are no longer needed. When a crutch has outlived its purpose, this formerly vital aid can become corroded and even tarnish what it was intended to help.

When you’re tackling some critical work on your foundation, keep your focus on the mission at hand. If a problem is too much to address at the moment, attend to what’s clearly in front of you. The huge problems of life can’t be fixed in one fell swoop. Shovel one bag of dirt or trash at a time.

One of my sweetest takeaways from a long and dirty day was how helpful it is to have company when crawling into the cellar of life. Our son freely admitted he had put off this challenging, unpleasant job, and he was extremely grateful to have us tackle it alongside him. Most of the time you need someone else to shine the light for you when you descend into the abyss.

Just as we were about to haul out the last load, our son saw something in the dirt and excavated a lovely depression-glass flower vase he plans to give to his bride when they move into the house. Even among the rubbish there are often bright spots of joy waiting to be discovered.

Keep your eyes open.

Marnie C. FerreeĀ