Is Ruin Really the Road to Transformation?

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The department store below my New York apartment has been under construction for a year and a half. Seven days a week, from 7:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m., they jack-hammer the foundation until stuff falls off the shelves, rivet things into the ceiling under my floor, bang, power-sand, and run their what-have-yous. They’ve cut the gas, burst water pipes—it’s your general nightmare.

How loud does it get? Give a listen. 

It wouldn’t be such a big deal, because I’m fortunate enough to have my little Paris place—except that apartment is also under construction, thanks to a leak from my neighbor’s apartment above, which, for reasons that only make sense to a Frenchman, would not be repaired until I hired an attorney. Now, my apartment is gutted, walls scraped right down to the brick and beams.

“What do you think the universe is trying to tell me?” I asked a friend as I complained about my eternal search for a temporary place to live in Paris.

“That you’re in a period of transformation,” he replied.

The parquet being removed, exposing the water-logged floor below.

The damaged parquet being removed, exposing the water-logged floor underneath.

Ruin is the road to transformation, wrote Elizabeth Gilbert in her now epic memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. She, herself, has become some kind of guru of change, a thing that probably surprises her more than anyone. She was just writing about her life in upheaval. Like me. Hers was divorce; mine, my mother’s death. Both events made us do crazy, desperate—and wonderfully brave—acts, as we searched for ourselves, and the happy ending we’d been promised since we were little girls reading fairy tales.

Three-and-a-half years ago, I created my fairy tale: I bought a sweet piece of Paris—my tiny apartment that changed my life and brought me joy in a dark time after the death of my mother. That one bold move begat others, and in 2014, I left a cushy job, went to Paris, got a book deal. Happy ending.

Except that dream apartment in Paris, the one I spend half my retirement money on, is indeed in ruins.

Our lives aren’t like our books, and that happy ending doesn’t exist. As long as we keep living, nothing ends. We continue on that roller coaster. Good things happen; bad things happen. It’s called life.

The court case for the leak that I thought would easily go my way, doesn’t seem such a sure thing now. Even though the leak was finally repaired, the humidity levels aren’t low enough for the court expert to conclude the leak definitively came from the neighbor’s shower, even though it did. What does that mean for me? If I can’t get the humidity down, the case could go unresolved—and Lisa could be out €26,000 in legal fees, repair costs, and alternative housing expenses.

“It’s so unfair,” my friend said about my leaky woes. “That apartment was your dream. Those people are robbing you of your happiness.”

Walls being scraped to the brick, to allow them to dry out.

Walls being scraped to the brick, to allow them to dry out. The green is residue from old lead paint, I’ve been told. 

A month before my friend Lisa Taylor Huff succumbed to cancer, she wrote on her blog, The Bold Soul, about the curveballs life throws you. I reread it recently because I needed one of her sisterly pep talks. In the post, she talks about realizing when things are out of your control, and letting go when you just can’t deal with everything coming your way. “Curve with it,” she advised.

This used to be the shower.

This used to be the ceiling over my shower.

Lisa was right; there’s nothing I can do about the apartment. Yes, I’m angry. Yes, I’m disgusted. And I’m definitely worried about losing all that money. But one thing that still seems intact, even as my apartment is falling apart, is my happiness. Unlike what my friend suggested, I don’t feel robbed of it. I’ve come to know that my happiness is not in the hands of others; it’s deeply rooted within me, unaffected by the events of my life—the constant in this roller coaster life.

A year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to say the same thing. Maybe the leak has been around so long I’m finally learning to curve with it. Or maybe, living with a ruin is transforming me into someone who is more resilient, who can find gratitude in any situation. Whatever it is, I’m walking through this with arms outstretched. Let it be what it will be; it doesn’t define me.

I’ve come to know that my happiness is not in the hands of others; it’s deeply rooted within me

We brace ourselves through the tough times, try to deny them, dodge them, forget them. We figure once we get through the crap we’re wading in, real life will begin, and we’ll finally be happy. But the universe is going to throw you curve balls until the end comes. And if you spend your days waiting for things to get better, you’re missing your life.

You can pretty much count on bad stuff happening; it just will. How you deal with it is what decides your happiness. You can stay rigid and let it beat you up, or you can curve with it. That thing that’s turning your life upside down could also transform it for the better. Embrace it.

Water-logged wall had to be scraped to allow it to dry out. We're hoping it will dry enough to convince the court expert to resolve the case.

The water-logged wall in my entryway had to be scraped to allow it to dry out.

This used to be where the water tank was. The hole is helping draw out the humidity.

This used to be where the water tank was. The hole is helping draw out the humidity.

This used to be a functioning bathroom. The sink is sitting out in the living room with the water tank.

This used to be a functioning bathroom. The sink is sitting out in the living room with the water tank.

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Water-stained bathroom wall about to be scraped down.

23 responses to “Is Ruin Really the Road to Transformation?

  1. A good way to look at it, dear friend. May both of us find the positive transformation that awaits beyond the ruins!

  2. wow…just.wow.

    I guess the only way to deal with this now is to imagine you are doing a reno..at least you will have a newish bathroom and new walls…but it’s money you didn’t need to spend on that for sure.

    Hang in there Lisa….good to go back to “other” Lisa’s thoughts on most things…her common sense is greatly missed.

  3. Lisa, you are getting through this beautifully! I admire your courage and your patience! I’m glad to to hear your happiness and spirit are still in place. Take good care.

    Gretchen

  4. whoa, that was some leak…..so much of your place was messed up….I certainly hope the neighbor has to pay for it, after all……it will be all nice & newly painted in any case…..I hope Lisa Taylor Huff’s family is doing OK, I think of Georges often

  5. I was a lawyer. Every case has an expert, one on each side. The expert that says the humidity may not be from your neighbor can be countered by your expert that says it does. Why is the opinion of one expert being accepted as fact? No counter opinion? No looking at it skeptically? Is there any possibility that you are being hoodwinked because you are a foreigner? protectionism at its best? A lawyer’s expertise includes some creative ways of presenting the claims, finding causes of action that can at least in good faith result in at least a settlement.Why not have your lawyer try to settle the case by having some if not all your out of pocket expenses reimbursed in consideration for your dropping your case at this point without pursuing other causes of action you might have? Just some things to think of, rather than just accepting what is said at first. Of course, French law is not American law but the strategies in litigation may be more similar than one thinks.

    • The process is different in France. In my case, the owner above me and the building’s managing agent were fighting over who was responsible to fix the leak in the owner’s apartment. I hired an attorney to engage the French court to settle the dispute so repairs could be made. This is not a lawsuit. The expert is the court’s expert, unbiased; his job is to discover who is responsible. His word is law, and the parties must abide. He found the owner responsible; it got repaired. But because my place is still humid after repair, the expert can’t close the case. He feels it should be drier by now, so maybe there is another leak. (There is not.) It’s just some bad luck I’m having. I pay all court fees up front. I can’t get a lick of that money until the case is closed. Then I submit all expenses and negotiate with the owner above for reimbursement. Or it can go to court if he won’t pay enough. Legal fees must be reimbursed 100%; damages (only as supported by estimates and actual invoices vs emotional) are negotiable, but the expert advises they be covered. That’s how it works here. The legal process here seems quite unfair, because unless you can afford the fees, you have no legal recourse. By the way, lawyers here are not creative like US attorneys; they follow process as laid down by the law. Believe me, I’ve pushed. Napoleonic code does not allow for loopholes of any kind. But that’s a post for another time. That’s the short answer, anyway. Thank you for your advice; I wish it were simpler to follow it.

  6. How much longer will the department store under your New York City apartment be under construction? Do you own that apartment too? These are the challenges of living in a very crowded or very old city, and they are what used to be called first-world problems. Still, they must be very difficult to deal with, particularly since you work from your home. I admire your resilience and trust that at least one of your homes will become habitable soon.

    • Yes, I own that place, too. The owners don’t have nay leverage since the floors the store is on are owned by a separate entity. Very dysfunctional situation. Supposedly, the store opens next month. I’ll be back in Paris by then. Last night, they worked until 9pm, after starting at 7am. (That may be outside their permit so I reported them. I do call it First World problems, and that’s how I put it in perspective. Still, I feel the way it affects me; home is home.

  7. Lisa, you’re right. I should have remembered that France’s judicial system is not based on the adversarial one but on the investigative judge. But it does sound maybe a bit hopeful i.e. you have a chance to get your money back once the case is closed?
    I wish you bon courage. But you’ve already won in my estimation with your fantastic attitude!

  8. Wonderful post. It really rang true for me. You can wish for things to be better all the time, or enjoy what you have now. I am always trying to do more to make things better, and it keeps me busy too. Instead, I’m working on appreciating the here and now and slowing down more. I’m so glad you are appreciating what you have instead of dwelling on the bad stuff! Having an apartments in Paris and New York is pretty awesome! Be well, R.

  9. That recording of the construction noise just about sent me over the edge. I recently moved to Paris and am renting an apartment short-term while I try to find work that will allow me to stay long-term, and renovation just began in an apartment 3 floors below, but it’s so noisy that it sounds like the work is being done in my apartment. You’re right, there is always something to deal with and you can’t fight it or you’ll just be miserable. Still, noise that disturbs the right to the quiet enjoyment of one’s home drives me batty! Hang in there.

    • They take noise really seriously in Paris, so check the ordinances. Make sure they are not working on days/hours they shouldn’t. Your building may have a say, too. I left my noisy NYC place then rented an apartment in Paris with construction underneath—thought I would die. I mean what bad luck! But I had more leverage in Paris regarding noise than I did in NYC.

  10. Pingback: The (Re)Renovation | My (Parttime) Paris Life·

  11. You are a shining example of class, strength and intelligence through this. Many would have just had a bottle of wine then curled up in the corner and cried – but the New Yorker in you is too smart for that. This too shall pass, and then you will have a new carer as the renovation queen.

    • Oh you are so sweet! Don’t think I haven’t drunk many a bottle over this! I think I’m waiting for it to be over before I curl up and cry—when my little home is restored and I’m safely installed in it once again. MAN, we’re gonna have a big party when this is over!

  12. Pingback: My Paris Apartment—4 Years Later | My (Parttime) Paris Life·

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