A few years ago, my husband and I began exploring the possibility of moving into a new home. Having done a bit of research, we identified neighborhoods and entered our preferences into an online search bar, along with our price limits. We were disappointed by how few homes met our qualifications, but were excited to find a single, promising, slightly suspicious possibility: a spacious home, in a top-notch school district, priced inexplicably lower than comparable properties.
We planned a visit and considered all the possible explanations for this anomaly, but could not have anticipated what we found. The house was lovely: nice curb appeal, modern updates, and convenient amenities. Yet it took only 30 seconds and a walk across the front room for me to see it…or rather, feel it. The house was crooked.
“The Magical Leaning House,” I quickly named it as I began to observe how everything in the house was, not so subtly, pitched to one side. Now, having been familiar with the “settling” that can occur in older homes, it was not the leaning phenomenon that fascinated me most. Rather, I was baffled by how intentionally the previous owner had embraced this problematic characteristic. The window frames were custom made rhombuses, made to perfectly fit the off-kilter openings. The wood trim and molding was custom-cut at precise angles to adjust for the tricky way the corners came together. Everything was modified to embrace the imbalance.
Yet a visit to the lower level revealed evidence of numerous attempts to seal and fill cracks in the basement floor. It was simultaneously impressive and troubling. I could not imagine why someone would go to such great lengths to aesthetically and superficially accommodate what was quite obviously a foundational issue.
Clearly, the owner did not tune in to home improvement reality television. There is something about making old things new and wrong things right that scratches a primal itch for viewers, including me. We can also all agree that there is no worse discovery for a new homeowner than learning there’s a problem with the foundation. How badly we want for the renovation budget to be used for a beautiful new front porch, a clawfoot tub, or a custom kitchen island. But no matter the sacrifice, there is never a question—at least for the professionals—about what is actually the priority.
Whether the house needs to be hoisted up, reinforced, or even torn down, foundation work is backbreaking. It’s time-consuming and often looks and feel destructive; torn up landscaping, broken tiles, sledge-hammered concrete. It seems to halt all other progress. It costs.
But what is the alternative to foundation repair? I suppose it’s “The Magical Leaning House”. How problematic could it be to live in a house that leans? A rolling baseball and an uneven freshly-baked cake seem like small inconveniences in comparison to the colossal cost of breaking up and relaying a new foundation. Not so, say the experts. To the contrary, the longer a home-owner delays fixing the foundation, the more uneven it gets, the more damaged the structure of the house becomes, and the more will be required to repair it.
Many, at least publicly, agree that our United States was built on an uneven foundation. The land and everything on it was created to benefit some inhabitants more than others. Despite this history, and perhaps due to the great sacrifices and perseverance of individuals and groups, many attempts have been made to correct the injustices and assuage the legacy of our broken beginnings. But repairing broken foundations is colossal work, and it’s become apparent to some (and remained painfully obvious to others) that the work that’s been done is much like that in “The Magical Leaning House”—several crack repairs, but mostly aesthetic and superficial modifications to distract us from a structure that actually continues to be unstable and imbalanced.
For a great many, the unwillingness to deal with the foundational work has been intentional and self-serving. Their lives have been spent ordering custom rhombus windows and cutting precise angles so that all appears tidy and purposeful. It may seem that they benefit from this particular pitch, but they fail to realize that our collective dwelling is still rapidly sinking.
For others, “The Magical Leaning House” has become home. These residents have lived so long on an incline that it now feels mostly comfortable as their bodies and gaits have redistributed and modified to adjust to this constant state. For them, it no longer feels like a lean, but feels normal—even right. Not only would foundation repair be loud and disruptive to their environment, but it would create discomfort for their own physical bodies. So without clear knowledge of impending structural failure, foundation work feels not only unnecessary but detrimental.
Yet there are still others who, through personal investigation or the intervention of a visiting neighbor, have begun see the tilt and identify it as destructive. They lean closer, even as they wince at the reality that it is, indeed, worse than they thought. They seek input, get opinions, ask questions, do research. The closer they look, the more problems they find. The renovation budget seems to climb to insurmountable heights. They are regularly tempted to simply deal with the superficial, order custom windows, and get back to the joy of picking accent colors. But they have seen the truth and cannot unsee it, and the only lasting satisfaction they can now have is in pushing up their sleeves, grabbing a hard hat and a sledgehammer, and asking the foreman how they can help demo.
The institutions of our time are the houses we live in and the structures we build upon. May we not settle for the cheap praise that comes with fresh coats of paint and new wall art, but look closer and dig deeper to identify the brokenness that has kept us perpetually off-kilter. Let us lean into the discomfort of dismantling the systems that compromise our collective ability to flourish. The work will be far from easy, but there is no doubt that it will be worth it. The greatest peace and satisfaction will be most palpably experienced by those who have seen the foundation’s crumbling condition, recognized the past and potential harm, but sacrificed control and comfort to ensure lasting security to all who pass through its doors.
Join in. There’s enough work for all of us.
This post reflects the views of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on racial division from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.