Built for Survival Andrle H. Ward Essay

person_pin Built for Survival

by Andrle H. Ward

Published in Issue No. 290 ~ July, 2021

You move across country, trading East Coast city for West Coast suburbs. You rent an apartment. You move into a house. In the city you longed for the ease of the suburbs. Life should be calmer, slower, simpler. But in the suburbs you long for the beauty of the city. Your young son asks you to play LEGO with him nearly every day. You start making a habit of building apartments and townhouses out of LEGO.

Your builds vary from chunky tiny houses on wheels to intricate multi-level apartments in the sky. Sometimes two levels, sometimes one main level with a loft where you put your large LEGO brick bed. You configure thick stairs under which you fit a built-in desk. White LEGO squares represent kitchen cabinets and counters, while black bricks become appliances. Outside space is a patch of LEGO green on a balcony with two-by-twos representing a raised flower bed. A space shuttle seat sits on the grass for relaxing and breathing fresh air. You are imaginarily situated several stories up. Your views are other tall buildings and water in the distance. The sound of a trolley echoes against the hard plastic of your LEGO walls.

When you were younger, you built with LEGO that was your brother’s. In his small collection the sets mingled together, instructions long gone. Without the limitation of rules, you built whatever your imagination desired. The pile of LEGO dumped on the floor became the scraps the Minifigures scavenged for, living a post-apocalyptic future where their structures were more shelters than comfortable homes. Built for survival. You mixed and matched to make a Minifig that became yourself – the least worn-off face, a white shirt with a rocket ship logo, bright red pants.

Most of the LEGO in your life now is from your spouse’s collection. Their primary gift for years as a child and teenager, they amassed quite the assortment of LEGO: Space, Star Wars, Technic, Submarine, Town. What you delight in discovering: new plastic molded hairstyles, extensive neon transparent pieces, bicycles, so many Minifigs.

After two years building LEGO homes, you move to Seattle. You have found your own LEGO mini apartment in the sky. Your first night there, you lay on your bed and stare out the window, marveling at how much you love watching the people walking by, spying cars at stoplights, the glow of the cafés and shops. Your apartment is fourth floor, half the square footage you’d had in your house, and you love every part of it.

Except – directly outside your bedroom and living room windows becomes the building site of a future twenty-story office building. During the day the world outside you is a giant pile of LEGO being continuously sorted through, the mix a cacophony of plastic bricks clanking against one another. An all-nighter of cement trucks and drills and excavators tells you it is time again to pack your belongings.

The housing market in Seattle is competitive. You stress-eat barbecue flavored chips. You put an offer on a condo but are not chosen. You find a different condo and are the only offer. It is not perfect, but you consider yourself lucky to have gotten the second place you tried for. You discuss future renovations, lamenting that rearranging walls is not as simple as taking apart pieces and reattaching them two studs over.

Your neighbors are loud at night, but your partner’s commute to work is short. A neighbor runs laundry above your bedroom at one in the morning, but Seattle Center is just a fifteen-minute walk away.

In the same year: you and your spouse lose three grandparents to age, you lose your dog to failing kidneys, you lose half of your home to water. Your living room, dining room, and kitchen are flooded – three different times – by a recurring fault in pipes in units above you. Do you want to play with your LEGO® bricks in water? No problem! Standard LEGO® bricks are not harmed by water. The same is not true for your drywall and laminate wood flooring.

The water has flooded in from the outside, pushing you into the back of your condo. Water-logged items you had tried to save are hauled to dumpsters. Plastic sheeting is installed. Several large heat fans run twenty-four hours a day for nearly a week each time the flooding occurs. For over five months, you and your spouse live with your four-year-old in just your two small bedrooms. You unzip the plastic sheeting and hurriedly grab what you need from the refrigerator. You prep food for as long as you can stand in your ninety-nine-degree kitchen. You eat meals with your son seated at his tiny craft table in his bedroom, you and your spouse sitting next to him on the floor. You are thankful your dog did not have to live through the confusion of this.

The summer is hot. You spend the days your son is not in preschool under the low ceilings of the master bedroom where the noise from a large air conditioning unit vibrates the space with a deep resonance. The bed takes up most of the floorspace; you dump LEGO bricks out on the bedspread. Your son asks if you want to build a Tiny House. Together, you make a small, stacked structure and give it wheels, and you dream of being able to drive away and leave this place.

Your son starts drawing floor plans. Both you and his father did the same as children. His first several have beds and couches the size of rooms, and bathrooms too small to use: a child’s scale. But before long, he is drawing realistic complex spaces. You love both versions.

Repairs finally start to be made but then stall. You would not admit it but you sometimes wish fire had consumed everything so you could just start again, as if destruction all at once instead of something this partial and painfully slow would somehow be better. You reprimand yourself for even thinking it; you don’t want the devastation, but you want the escape. You wonder what you would miss: a book of poetry you have thoroughly underlined, a favorite bookshelf, your six-year-old snake plant. It seems pointless to think about. Everything seems replaceable except for the things you have already lost.

When it’s resolved, you tell someone what happened, and they say it doesn’t sound that bad. You suddenly feel guilty for feeling miserable. You are assured the cause of the flooding is resolved. Yet, half a year later, when your neighbor overwaters their plants on the balcony above and sends water tapping on your railings, your heart rate goes up and you frantically scan the room for things to move out of water’s way should it once again rush into your home.

You decide to cut your losses and move. You will try again with another home. You build multi-floored LEGO houses with no neighbors or pipes above your ceilings and dream of a townhouse you can call your own. You look at your budget and feel uncomfortable. You pass homeless bodies sleeping against sides of buildings just feet from speeding cars. You wonder how you can be so consumed with housing when there are so many going without.

You push onward. Homes are either old and need repairs or they are brand new and out of budget. And then you find it: a townhouse with windows so large you never had enough clear LEGO pieces to dream them. A kitchen island that would easily be eight LEGO studs wide. The rooms are modest, but your beds fit easily. No grass, but a deck with a view of the water, and in the distance, the snowy caps of the Olympics. You move forward with hesitancy, but what you feel when you move in is an embrace. Your spouse talks about living here for the next ten to fifteen years. You volunteer maybe even twenty. You wonder if perhaps you’re not a restless nomad, but someone who was simply searching for the right place.

You trade a bulky sofa for an airy one, heavy dark wood for light and bright pieces. A pandemic hits and you have never been more grateful for comfortable shelter. Your spouse works from home and your son’s school closes. You hunker down. You get a puppy. You sit on your deck on warm days and don’t take for granted your ability to breathe in the sunny air.

Your son wants to be an architect. He says he will design your dream house. He asks you to describe what you want. As you list elements, you realize they’re what you already have. Even in the imperfection of this home there is joy. Your son brings out his LEGO and asks if you want to play with him. Inside the bin he has brought upstairs are the remnants of one of your builds: part of a townhouse half-buried, almost blending in with the yellows and blues and reds and whites of all the other bricks. You smile and finish taking it apart, freeing pieces for something else.

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Andrle Ward lives in Seattle, Washington with her husband, son, and small dog. A poet since childhood, she now enjoys writing across genres, including poetry, speculative fiction, and personal essays. She loves spending time with her family, reading about minimalism and home design, and caring for her numerous houseplants.