Photos courtesy of Dean Liscum

Ovoid: A Meditation

A sign blocks the steps to the porch—plywood with orange spray paint bearing a three-digit address. You step around it and onto the screened porch. Two bright orange stickers from the city’s Code Enforcement Group pasted to the window announce the obvious—you should not be here. This building is condemned and slated for demolition. You hold your hands to the glass and look through your reflection into a house with no roof, no floor, no inside. Beyond your reflection, open to the elements, lies an ovoid hole.

* * *

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being
but non-being is what we use.

from Chapter Eleven
Tao Te Ching
translated by Stephen Mitchell

* * *
I walk into a museum and before me, a great, floating mass mocks gravity. The shingled ridge of a roof is suspended from the ceiling and, below that, apparently on invisible wires, the egg-shaped innards of a home—half-open doors at either end of a hallway along with portions of the floor and ceiling. A red robe is pinned on a hook. Mounted beside it, the wooden notch for a closet rod faces the sterile museum space, rent from its mate.

I read the title card on the Contemporaries Art Museum Houston wall:

Dan Havel and Dean Ruck
Give and Take, 2009
Reclaimed sections from condemned bungalow at 931 Cottage Street, Houston
Sculpture: 20 x 30 x 15 feet
Courtesy the artists and Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery, Houston

I imagine it printed on orange sticker paper and affixed to a window.

* * *
You enter. It smells of dust and mold; stagnant water. A picture hangs on the wall to the right, just above the light switch. It depicts a child—a happy child. The lower-right corner broadcasts a logo—the photographer’s? No, the crown logo is for Regal Picture Frames.

Behind you, on the mantel above the fireplace sits a clock. You watch your step—there are holes in the floor that are bigger than your foot. It is 7:43. Forever 7:43. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Beside it, a tableau consisting of a gold plastic trophy cup mounted on a white plastic base, a soft pack of menthol Swisher Sweets, an angel figurine candle holder, and a white plastic reindeer about two inches high.

You step around the big hole in the house to enter the next room. Without hallways—those empty spaces that connect the useful spaces—this house is almost unnavigable. A double-negative.

* * *

I walk the perimeter. The house, this piece of a house, rather, is raised on cinderblocks. Like a stage, except real people lived here. An old man and his sick niece. I crane my neck and imagine them pacing the worn boards of the hallway. A can opener is mounted to the kitchen wall. A gas pipe and a relatively lighter patch of wall indicate where the stove must have stood.

* * *

You step around the gaping void and pass through the next room, where gossamer strips hang from the remains of the ceiling and a broken, dusty mirror reflects the image of a window. Vines shoot through the holes in the floor.

A door leads into the kitchen. You see piles of dishes and utensils. You are happy to note a bright orange ice cream scoop among the utensils. You hope the wretched people who lived in these crumbling walls enjoyed at least that. The kitchen window is busted and a page from an old Houston Chronicle stretches over the gap. It’s from November 18, 1990, page 16G. “Soviets Want to Strike Up Friendship Through Mail,” reads the headline. The story is about a non-profit in Florida that tries to match Americans with Soviet pen pals in an effort to promote peace and understanding. This organization, called Letters for Peace, has been overwhelmed by the flood of letters in the wake of “Glasnost.”

This is the room where the troubles began—the house’s troubles, at least. The roof sprung a leak which was never fixed; the leaky roof let in water, and water brought the ceiling, then the floor, down.

* * *

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

- from Chapter Eight
Tao Te Ching
translated by Stephen Mitchell

* * *

Cross-sections compress time. Fell a redwood and bear witness to 2,000 years at once. Here Jesus; there Gutenberg. That year, drought; this year here, forest fire. Set your gaze upon a canyon wall and behold two billion years at once. This place was the sea floor, then a mountain, now it’s a plain. Trilobites, then dinosaurs, then mammoths. Shale. Granite. Limestone.

Slice open a house and see what happens. See a calendar from April 2004 hung on wallpaper from 1973…hung on gypsum board from 1936…hung on wood panels from 1915…

But a cross-section is also a dissection. It splays open the innards to serve up a snapshot of the eternal present, but the present, now open, cannot be put back inside the box. The house, the canyon walls, the redwood–the insides which once held their secrets are now open to the elements. Decay has already set in. The act of slicing open time to behold all of time in one, static moment has not frozen time–it has accelerated time. Snap a photo while you can.

* * *

There are two rooms you will not enter–the back two. Even the old man and his niece never ventured back there–just gave them over to the massive pile of junk and the rats and roaches. Ironically, they are now the most intact rooms in the whole home.

You step over the sloping remnant of a wall and peer through the conical intersect where the saw met the juncture of several walls and a door. Floral print wall paper hangs clings to cracked drywall which clings to termite-eaten wood paneling which cling to rotten wall studs. Festive paper plates sit atop the desk, and a stack of papers on the windowsill reveal a property tax receipt from Harris County in 1974 for $15.39; a receipt book from 1975 containing carbon copies of rental receipts for two different properties–a garage apartment that cost $24/mo and another unspecified place which went for $15/mo; and a check made out to Walgreen’s on September 15, 1965 in the amount of $3.65. You wonder what $3.65 could have bought you from Walgreen’s in 1965 if rent, ten years later, would equal just four times that. One quarter of your own current rent would go a long way at Walgreen’s.

* * *

The Artist is a man with two full names and four arms. The Artist says that the holy house and its dismembered insides are not two separate pieces but two parts of one whole. And not just that—The Artist considers even the space between the two parts—the space that you, the viewer, must traverse to behold the two parts of the whole—to be part of that whole.

* * *

“I am a designer, specializing in interior design,” writes Marina Kamin, who lives in Kishinev, in the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. “I love to do other crafts, like embroidery, knitting, sewing. I have a daughter, Christina, she is 9. She is fond of drawing, playing piano. We are great friends. We both love animals. At home we have a cat, a dog, a parrot and fish. I like to travel; it is important for me as an artist.
“I have many friends and I value them very much. Life is full of stress, tension. Friends are important in time of hardship and joy. I hope to meet a good friend in your country.”

(Kirschenmann, Jay. “Soviets Want to Strike Up Friendships Through Mail.” The Houston Chronicle 18 Nov. 1990, Star ed.: G16.)

* * *
You step down into the void to avoid the bathroom. Though generations lived and died—played out the dramas of their lives—merely two feet above it, this patch of ground that you now stand upon did not see human eyes for the decades that the house stood whole.

You are eager to return to the world of normal smells, but you pause to make note of one lone wooden notch mounted on a wall that must have held up one side of a closet rod. Finally, you survey the last room—the front room. The room where your reflection in the window glass stood before you entered this hole. Laid out on a hutch, beside an ashtray and a corroded 9-volt battery, are ribbons: Fifth Place (pink) in the 2nd Annual Junior All-Breed Horse Show at the Pin Oak Stables, 1965; Second Prize (red) from the Houston Chihuahua Club, April 21, 1951; First Prize (black) from the Houston Kennel Club on March 29, 1953. Beside the ribbons, four photos are splayed on top of an empty photo album: a young boy, seven or eight, wears a plaid shirt and kneels on a lawn (black and white); an infant in hospital incubator (black & white); an old couple stands beside train cars—she looks warm and friendly with her hand on his arm, he wears a hat and looks grumpy with his hands in his pockets (sepia toned); and a magazine photo of Jane Withers all done up, a press photo from 20th Century Fox (colorized).

* * *

Return is the movement of the Tao.
Yielding is the way of the Tao.

All things are born of being.
Being is born of non-being.

Chapter 40
The Tao Te Ching
translated by Stephen Mitchell

* * *
You walk the perimeter. You peer in all the windows. You survey the exit wounds. You note the 2×4 buttresses holding this empty shell of a house together. Without the insides, the centre cannot hold. Things fall apart.

* * *

You return, but instead of the shell of a house, you find a backhoe towering over a pile of debris.

* * *

You return yet again, with a camera to document the pile of debris, only it’s been excavated–the ground leveled with white clay. All that remains is a plywood sign–the address spray painted on in with construction site orange.

You gaze at the empty lot. You cannot resist walking its length, where hallways and closets once floated on piers and beams. You are glad you wore old shoes, because you immediately sink into the mud. You pace where others, before you, paced. You inhabit the void–what was once enclosed space is now open space–but it bears the same coordinates and you inhabit it, now, nonetheless.

You hear voices—there is a porch sale next door. You rub your shoes in the grass–dragging, scraping, left, right, bottoms, sides. The mud clings. You stomp in the puddle beside the curb. The mud loosens and dissolves.

On the porch next door this Sunday morning a woman sells assorted trinkets and talismans. You consider purchasing a Beck CD that you once owned and lost. You admire a brass bird cage and a silver and ivory belt buckle. You notice three empty picture frames, never used, still wrapped in plastic—they hold no photos of strangers, only the Pottery Barn logo. You admire the font and smile when you see stacked, also for sale, a set of three white canvases. Blank. Empty.

You notice, when you arrive home, that you are still trailing mud. You have collapsed the space between “Give and Take” and your own home.
* * *

You Google the address and click on street view. The house still stands intact.

Harbeer Sandhu is a graduate of the Creative Writing MFA Program at the University of San Francisco and New York University.

Be Sociable, Share!
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • email
  • StumbleUpon
  • Delicious
  • LinkedIn
  • Digg
  • Reddit


    1. 1

      lovely meditation, harbeer

    2. 2

      Thanks Miah. I got help and input from a lot of nice people including Dean Ruck and Dan Havel, the homeowner, my neighbor Michael, Dean Liscum (who took the photos), and Raj.

    3. 3

      An excellent meditation on ideas of time, progress vs. decay, history, and space. Your tone is poetic, while details such as the newspaper article and ribbons from dog shows lend a historic and journalistic touch. Excerpts from the Tao Te Ching complement the theme of the utility of space. Nicely done!

    4. 4

      I agree. This is a great piece. I feel like I just walked through the house and then saw it destroyed. Eerie and sad and profound.

    5. 5

      I thought the cut out section at the CAMH was hard to appreciate as an art object and as the center of a whole exhibit. It felt like it was dispersing everything else in the room. Like all the photographs and other pieces flew off of it as it spun to a stop after falling from outer space. After reading his essay, I am thinking of the NoZoning CAMH exhibit as an expression of the house that remained at Cottage Street.

    6. 6

      Wonderful intimate archeology – places all layers and artifacts in their human origins and context. Sentences flow. Second-person an interesting choice.

    7. 7

      You look at the pictures and read the text and it is like you really went there before it got munched. You drive by the place with your wife and all it is is some dirt. Then you promise to keep better track of dates and times. Things fall apart then its deja vu all over again.