I don’t know when I fell in love with old things, but it must have been a long time ago. My dad had his tenure as the president of the Tennessee Archeology Society during my formative years. So, it was typical during my early teens, I would spend my Saturdays with my dad, “in the village.” It wasn’t any village, but a Cherokee settlement that carbondated around the time of Christ. While I was scraping around in the floor of someone’s private home with a trowel, looking for bones, pots, arrowheads, and beads, I felt like I was trespassing. I would look up at the surrounding dogwoods now and then, thinking I was seeing pairs of ancient eyes watching me plunder their personal space.
It was in college when I first started living in older homes. In America, that meant a house built at the start of the twentieth century, or perhaps at the end of the nineteenth. I did look at one rental that was built in the eighteenth century and it had two slave quarters beneath the front porch, no more than caves in the stone foundation. A bad reminder of my own people’s history, a history I wish I could forget. I didn’t rent that house, not because of the ugly reminder beneath our feet, but that fact the floors sloped from years of that stone foundation settling, and campus was too far to ride a bike.
During my years as a student, my friends and I preferred old houses. It wasn’t the oldness we desired but the largeness. Before contraceptives were invented in 1950, homes—for some odd reason—were much larger. If I looked in the Catholic side of town, the older homes were enormous, seven, eight or ten bedrooms. We desired these homes, not because we were wealthy, but because we were poor. You could stack a lot of college students in a big old wood-framed house from the 1920s. I think the largest number we achieved was thirteen guys in an old house in Lexington, Kentucky for one summer, making our individual rent obligations less than 80 bucks/month.
My real love of history and oldness came after I began to travel and work in Europe and Asia and when I wanted to understand my own culture better. Certainly, after I moved to Cairo, Egypt oldness took on a whole new meaning. One of the few things I like about that mega city, was taking a ride on a beat-up old bus—I wondered some days if it too was a relic from the pharaonic days—from the burbs, down to the center of the city and methodically walking toward the heart of “Old Egypt.” That journey was like a trip through time, penetrating the layers as if were an ancient onion. I would pass the affluent, but worn-out buildings from the 1920s, then the nineteenth century stone buildings would come into view. Eventually, I would walk under Roman aqueducts and into a two-thousand-year-old neighborhood. There was a church ( Abu Serga ) in that neighborhood that claimed to be built over the lcave where Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus lived while fleeing King Herod. If it weren’t so far, I could have walked farther and onto the Giza plateau and the Pyramids for yet another two-thousand-year leap into Egypt’s past.
I discovered that history contains all the answers to the “whys’ of our present culture. But during this process, not only did I fall in love with history, but old buildings, including old houses.
I discovered that history contains all the answers to the “whys’ of our present culture.J. Michael Jones
I had also fell in love living abroad to the point that I started to dream of retiring overseas, to an very old house. As I was contemplating where to move to, I took a month trip to Malta to finish writing my book, Butterflies in the Belfry. I considered Malta a good candidate for retirement because it collates the European and Arab cultures in a beautiful way. Don’t tell anyone, but the Maltese language is actually a Libyan dialect of Arabic written in Latin script. I could understand some simple conversations due to my Arabic background. When I looked for an Airbnb there, I wanted the oldest possible house, and I found it.
While most of Valletta (Malta’s capital) was built in the sixteenth century by The Knights Hospitaller, as the last line of defense against the Turks, residents of Malta date back to the stone age. My flat (and Denise later joined me) was in the basement of an old building, a building constructed by The Knights Hospitaller, then rebuilt as modern apartments, then bombed to ruble during World War II, and then rebuilt once again. But my flat preceded all of those lives, or at least that’s what the owner–an Italian architect from Florence–told me. It had been a stable (evidence of a manger carved into its limestone walls) and may have been dated from the Roman period. I loved staying there, although it was cold being in Malta’s winter and no central heat. But I could spit from my window into the Mediterranean. Bliss.
As I was approaching retirement, still four or five years aways, Denise was seeing the seriousness in my dreams. We had candid conversations about retiring abroad, and she was set against it, for good reason. It is our five kids and three grandkids in the states. While I reasoned that we could see them almost as often as we do now, she was right, that living on the other side of the world from them would have an impact. In a good marriage, there is not always agreement, but times of compromised or a permissive agreement.
I came up with a plan B, meaning a part-time residence abroad. To financially manage such an arrangement, I knew I would have to down-size my dreams to an simple old stone house in need of repair. My candidates for location were Malta, Morocco, Italy, or Scotland. I began to look for such a house, and found many, especially in Italy.
Multiple Myeloma Bites
On January 11th, 2019, at the draw of the phlebotomist’s needle, my life took a drastic detour. Without belaboring a story you well know, in that blink of a moment, my career ended, my future became guarded, and my dreams died. We knew that the days I had left, whether it was months or even decades, this unholy battle against Multiple Myeloma would have to take center stage.
About two years ago, as I had some “hope of living” returning but a life that was now devoid of an occupation, I began to dream again. While the idea of buying an old cottage overseas was still not reasonable, considering my cancer care, I started to think how I could realize that dream here. There are no old stone cottages to restore, not here on the West Coast. I started to dream how I could build an authentic old stone cottage here, that would have the same appearance as those I had looked at in Scotland. We had the space and the beautiful location. It would give me something to keep me sane, as the only other things I have are thinking and writing. You can only look into a lake and consider the big questions of life for so long. You can only write so many hours per day on your books before going cross-eyed. If idleness is the Devil’s workshop, then a life devoid of meaning and dreams is Oizys’s workshop. Oizys is the Greek goddess of depression, which became Miseria in Latin, from where we get our English word “Misery.”
The first hurdle was convincing Denise to let me do it. While my giving up moving overseas was via my permissive agreement, this time around, it was via Denise’s permissive agreement to allow me to pursue building a stone cottage, which she opposed.
Two and a half years ago I met with an architect and began the process. We quickly ran into a roadblock over potable water. Our house is on a community well, and the rest of the community voted against allowing me to use their water for the cottage. Without potable water, we would not be able to get permits.
My architect suggested rainwater catchment as an alternative, since our own well wasn’t a viable option. I wasted almost two years working with the best rainwater catchment company in Western Washington, but they dropped the ball and they never got the proper permits. It was about this time in May that my cancer returned and I put the whole project on hold. Would I be here to finish it? Once I started my summer chemo program, I didn’t have the strength to lift a hammer. But my architect then suggested I go back to the community and ask for a re-vote. I did, and this time, it was approved. We applied for permits in May and they should be approved this week.
Building this cottage is so valuable to me and my cancer journey. It gives me something to think about and to plan, besides cancer or the big questions of life. Physically, it gives me a motivation to go into training so I can lift boards once again and carry a hammer. Most of us are creative on some level, and besides my writing, it is a creative outlet. Denise is right that building anything can be stressful and with cost overruns. But for me, when I put into the balance of these risks, with the risks of being in a dark place once again, building the cottage, or at least dreaming of building the cottage, could be truly life-saving.
For the last two weeks, while I’m waiting on permits, I’ve been hand-digging trenches trying to find the buried plastic water pipe. With the help of an old resident, who was in the area when the pipe was laid, and with the help of LIDAR, I think I’ve located the general area. But the archeologist in me forces me to sift the dirt I take out of the ground. Being beside an old lake is a great place for an prehistoric settlement from the end of the last ice age (See Orcas Island’s Ayer Pond , see also Triquet Island, BC ). So far, I’ve found several white-man artifacts and possibly a small piece of a stone bowl (hard to tell) that was from sediments at the end of the ice age. Never send an archeologist to excavate a site for new construction.
I plan on writing updates now and then, as I make progress. This should be the longest article by far.
Builder of the Cottage at Loch Eyre, (at least the Dreamer of Building a Cottage at Loch Eyre).