Lessons in Shiplap

I know my tendency to procrastinate is out of control, and maybe binge-watching all the episodes of Fixer Upper on Netflix is a problem. Let's face it: it could be worse. I promise that despite my chronic procrastinating by watching Chip and Joanna Gaines hour after hour while my list of “things to do” languishes on the desktop has not completely unraveled the fabric of my household . . . yet. 

My husband can't understand what it is about these house rehab shows, particularly Fixer Upper, that I find so interesting. For me, it's simple; they take something that seems ugly to the casual observer, and they make it beautiful again. In the case of Fixer Upper, though, it's more than that. While I'll gladly watch any of the house rehab shows available to me when I'm working hard to avoid doing whatever else I'm supposed to be doing, I'll take Chip and Joanna over all the rest any old time. Their enthusiasm is contagious. Their care for one another, for their family, for their clients, is apparent; plus, their design sense is nice. I like that.

Now, I've been around the television watching block long enough to know that what one sees on screen isn't always the way things really are in person. I'm a natural skeptic when it comes to trusting what I see with my eyes on the TV. I'm prone to sink into deep internet searches on the shows, the houses I've seen rehabbed, the fallout from the various and sundry so-called "experts" on HGTV, so I'm not deluded. Sometimes that lily is quite gilded. 

I know the Gaineses are just humans like me who make mistakes and sometimes do it wrong. And yet, I believe them. They find the beauty in the ugly, and they bring it forward from the rubble. When the reveal comes, I believe them — and that's important.

Photograph by Angela Doll CarlsonWhile walking my dog one week, I stumbled on a house renovation in my neighborhood, there at the corner of my street and Washtenaw Avenue. It had been emptied of its tenants complete with trash in the front yard and constantly barking, smelly dogs in the back, months ago. Then, a sign was tacked to the side of the house, small and tarp-like, advertising a siding company. The sign weathered in the winter; the house showed no signs of life. Dark and quiet, the house seemed to sink into the rising weeds with each passing day.

At first glance, this house was what I’d expect was a “teardown.” It had sold quietly perhaps a year earlier. I had not even known it was for sale. Then suddenly one day, moving trucks appeared, boxes, tenants and dogs were moved out, and that small plastic sign appeared tacked to the gray, flaky, shingles that plastered the sides of the house.

I thought it would simply be torn down and replaced, as is the custom of builders in my slowly gentrifying neighborhood, with what my husband and I always used to refer to as “yuppie prisons.” We can’t poke too hard at those yuppies anymore. The house we own now is hidden behind cinderblock and wrought iron fencing. We’re part of the problem, I think to myself when I walk by the new construction around me now.

But the ailing neighborhood house in question was not torn down and replaced with a yuppie prison. It was stripped down to the bones, first inside and then out. For weeks, we watched dumpsters fill with broken drywall, electrical wiring, torn carpeting. The following weeks, the dumpsters were emptied and then refilled with siding and shingles until at last all that remained was aged framing with a rough covering of browned and blackened boards as cover. My husband and I were walking back from the Tastee Freeze when we saw it, and I shouted, "Shiplap!" He didn't know what that meant, and no matter how I explained it he just didn't see the connection.

For the Fixer Upper uninitiated, “shiplap” is a kind of interlocking wood wall used in many homes in the United States. It shows up a lot in Waco, Texas, where Chip and Joanna Gaines live and work. They seem to find this sort of boarded wall behind every drywall surface they tear out. Over the course of the first season of Fixer Upper, “Shiplap!” became a sort of victory shout, an unexpected treasure they would stumble upon when the walls came down. Joanna is maybe a little obsessed with shiplap, but it’s all right, no judgment here. I may be a little obsessed with the metaphorical implications of shiplap. It reminds me of therapy. 

I remember when therapy was something no one discussed in polite company. If rich people went to therapy, it was because they were rich and eccentric. If normal people went to therapy, it was because they were broken and unable to function like everybody else. As if everybody else was holding it all together beautifully. What you saw on the outside of those beautifully functioning humans was obviously a good match for the inside and vice versa, or at least that was the illusion.

In the early 80s when I was a teenager, I suppose I still believed that hidden things were meant to stay hidden; sins and sicknesses exposed were signs of weakness, maladjustment, or disorder. We put wallpaper with fuzzy textures over uneven walls, we painted over blemishes, we put linoleum or shag carpeting over hardwood floors that were difficult to maintain. Linoleum was easy to clean; shag carpeting kept our feet warm. But we know better now. We tear down those old beams to put in support, to open up the room, to reveal the things that were long hidden, come what may.

Sometimes what is revealed leads to spending more time, more effort, more financial strain. That’s the risk with house and soul renovation. But sometimes we find exquisite flooring, stories contained in newspapers lining the walls and joists. Sometimes we find shiplap, and we don't even know what it means until the final reveal.

After I had explained to my husband the "shiplap" exclamation he said, "I don't think that's shiplap,” and after consulting Google, I realized he was right. My search showed pictures of shiplap, an explanation of where it came from, how it’s made, how it’s used, and it also hit an article about Fixer Upper called something like, "Sorry, Joanna, but that's not shiplap!" I read it grudgingly. I didn't want to harsh my shiplap mellow, but I couldn't help myself. And the bottom line was that sometimes the wood they found was shiplap, and sometimes it wasn't. This experienced woodworker took the time to explain how they got it wrong in one episode or another. He was kind about it. I was grateful for that.

More research told me that we might have it in houses here in Chicago, but there were cracks in this board so that I could see into the house. The cracks were wide between the boards, and they were exterior, rather than interior. It's not shiplap, but they kept it up there anyway. It was stained black—from tar or time, I don't know. The effect in the middle of the day was that this house, missing chunks of the roof now as well, was filled with light, peering out through the darkened wood of its sides. It's not shiplap, but it is beautiful, and someone must have seen that it was necessary or functional at least, worthy to be saved. 

For days I wandered past the house, and just tried to notice the way the light worked in that empty shell, filtered and leaky, but somehow safe. This house was stripped down to its barest point. It was in no danger of falling down; someone knew it had good bones. Someone could see that there was a treasure underneath, that it was worth saving, rebuilding, restoring. Maybe that is why I love to watch Fixer Upper, why I find myself grinning when Chip and Joanna Gaines talk about the finer points of the houses they're working with. Their excitement is palpable; they see something good there, and I believe them. There’s something profoundly hopeful about that. We all need people like that in our lives. 

So what if it isn’t really shiplap — because sometimes it isn’t, sometimes it's just old wood. But it's not as though what we're looking for to begin is 14-karat gold in the walls or diamond-encrusted joist beams; the market gives that sort of value, and the market is fickle and unpredictable. But shiplap, or the idea of shiplap, is assigned by us, or by a lover, a friend, a sister, a parent or most profoundly, the Creator. We are invested in one another, building up one another, supporting one another, seeing the good buried beneath years of mistreatment, abuse or just the heavy effects of time and bad weather.

But the structure underneath—the bones of the house—are good because someone we trust knows they’re good, sturdy, strong and able to be restored, and they can tell us this and we believe them. And maybe that’s what we’re after all along—someone who comes along to tell us that there is treasure here in our bones, someone who can see the intrinsic value in what others might consider a teardown. There is considerable effort involved to be willing to strip ourselves down to the bare minimum, and then, layer by layer, refurbish and renew and rebuild. There is no quick fix there, no easy route. I am that house left standing too long in the bad weather with a roof that leaks and furnace frozen. I don't always see the possibility, the firm foundation, and the good bones. It helps to have people who will be willing to shout, "Shiplap!" when they spot it. Even if it isn’t shiplap, it’s okay. We still know it’s beautiful, it's functional, it's valuable because the bones are good, and someone can see it, lay their hands upon it, tell us it's worthy of saving, we're worthy of saving. It's up to us to believe them.

Angela Doll Carlson is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist whose work has been published or is forthcoming in publications both online and offline, such as Thin Air Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, Apeiron Review, Relief Journal, St. Katherine Review, Rock & Sling, Bird's Thumb Magazine, Ruminate Magazine, and the Art House America Blog. 

Her memoir, Nearly Orthodox: On Being a Modern Woman in an Ancient Tradition (Ancient Faith Publishers), was released July 2014. Her latest book, Garden in the East: The Spiritual Life of the Body, is due out from Ancient Faith Publishers in 2016.

Angela currently lives in Chicago, IL, with her husband, David, and her four outrageously spirited yet remarkably likable children.

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