Before and After: DIY, Spiritual Edition

Here's what I love about DIY shows: the before and after. It's such a hopeful metaphor for transformation, the scarred kitchen cabinets and curling linoleum giving way to gleaming cherry wood and natural stone tiles, the tired vanities and leaky showers ripped out and replaced with shiny, sleek home spas.

They make it look so easy, these ready-for-primetime contractors in their designer jeans and chic work boots. Of course, it helps that they bring a swarm of electricians, carpenters, and plumbers with them. There's no waiting around for the right guy, no two-week delay while a part is shipped from Sheboygan. It's instant gratification, the American way.

But as streamlined as these TV renovations are, there's no getting around my least favorite part: the tear-out. Something in me quails at the sound of a sledgehammer crashing through wallboard. Rationally, I know there's a great room with a massive fireplace and cozy window seats on the other side of the wreckage. Still, the demo feels destructive. I want the expanded space, the clean, bright interiors. I shrink from the process. There comes a moment when everything appears to be in ruins, when the old is gone and the new is not yet in place. In life, as in home improvement, it is this moment I dread.

With a kitchen remodel, there's a picture. There are paint chips, and fabric swatches, and samples of granite countertops. You can imagine away your vintage harvest-gold appliances and 1970s breakfast nook and see just how perfect the end result will be. Then you don't mind so much about the plaster dust and exposed pipes and wires sticking out of the ceiling.

There's no way of knowing what a new spiritual landscape will look like, or at least no way of knowing for certain. And certainty is what I seek, to my eternal discontent. The sledgehammer of change is fearsome to me. The stark shell left behind looks bleak and unpromising. I want a neat, detailed architectural rendering of the finished product. It's not happening.

I've had my share of real-life befores and afters: cross country moves, career changes, the empty nest. The befores all look pretty much the same—me, holding back the sledgehammer, negotiating with unseen forces about how to move forward while clinging desperately to the status quo. Each after has its own set of images, some striking in their clarity, others blurred, as though still developing. None of them look the way I imagined they would, surveying the stark shell once I let the hammer swing. I moved to Chicago from New York, and thought it was the end of the world. Instead, it was a series of opening doors. I moved from Chicago to Knoxville for two years and stayed for 30, watching in amazement as the walls came down and the room took shape. I moved from journalism to academe to work at a homeless shelter and saw the space expand, the colors deepen. I waved my children off to seek their fortunes, then turned to find my own had been there all the time.

In us, the good is something under construction, wrote Flannery O'Connor. In me, it is a permanent work zone. There are no DIY shortcuts, no able crews of craftsmen at the ready. There are days when I'm back to that bare room full of plaster dust and the chorus in my head: this will never be finished, this has gone on forever, there is no sign of progress. I leaf through my catalogue of afters, remember the befores. Ancora imparo, said Michelangelo at 87. I'm still learning.