Tearing down a wall and discovering oneself

January 13, 2002|By Susan Reimer

In the library of home maintenance books, one of which is more blandly labeled than the next, never has there been a title more apt, more revelatory, more inviting than that of Allegra Bennett's new book: When a Woman Takes an Ax to a Wall, Where is She Really Trying to Go?

The Baltimore journalist and author, who was once my co-worker at this newspaper, has found the perfect idiom for women and household repairs and, with this book, her third, she tells the stories of women and what happens to them when they find the nerve to tackle a broken disposal or a leaky toilet.

"It is about pushing past the fear of the unknown," says Bennett. "When you do that, some kind of self-discovery is inevitable."

For Bennett, it was the garbage disposal. When her marriage ended, she had to face the stubborn appliance by herself. "That's how it often happens for women. You get into a situation where there isn't anyone else to do it."

She figured out what was wrong and fixed it, and her sense of triumph went far beyond the solution to a regularly backed-up kitchen sink.

"The solution was right there at eye level. I couldn't believe how easy it was. I couldn't believe I did it myself," she says now, 10 years later, and her words echo with metaphors.

The result was her first book: Renovating Woman: A Guide to Home Repair, Maintenance and Real Men. She was an editorial writer for The Washington Times at the time, but her adventures in home repair demanded an audience so she wrote 90-second commentaries for WBAL radio. Her first book was born in those radio reports.

"I discovered the workings of my house, the ME that was in it and this enormously satisfying path in my writing life," Bennett says in her introduction.

While touring the country promoting that book, and the one that followed, How to Hire a Contractor, she heard the stories of other women for whom a house, or home ownership, had been about so much more than shelter.

"In each [story], a house played a key role in moving a woman forward in her life," she writes.

The stories validated Bennett's instinct about "the vitality of a house and its ability to nurture." In the anecdotes about the frustrations of home renovation, Bennett also heard women describe how they had "reinvented" themselves, often without even realizing it.

In writing this third book, Bennett has taken an ax to a wall and she is beginning to see where she is really going. Though her first two books were published by a division of Simon and Schuster, this one is self-published. Bennett has moved from renovating houses to printing and distributing books, in part through her own Web site (www.renovatingwoman.com), and with this has come another kind of self-discovery.

She has learned to return every phone call, ask every question and follow every string to its end and do it with the kind of optimism and certainty that so many of us lack.

One of those strings has led to a serendipitous relationship with Habitat for Humanity, which builds homes for the poor, almost half of whom are single-women heads of household.

The intended homeowner is required by Habitat to put sweat equity into the project, but too often the women for whom the houses are being rehabbed believe they can't do more than paint trim or serve coffee to the other workers.

Bennett is just the woman to prove otherwise, and Habitat projects are just the place to prove it.

Bennett and Habitat for Humanity are about to join hands - in ways still not completely clear - and begin a multi-city tour promoting this new book. What projects, Bennett is asked, will go begging while she is on the road?

"Dusting!" she says triumphantly.

Bennett lives in a condominium now, and though there is always a project in any home, she has moved beyond the personal revelations the rewiring of a 50-year-old house can provide.

She has taken an ax to that wall, and she is looking for a new place to go.

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