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The house where I live is around 130 years old. It has loads of character from bygone days. In size, it started small, then grew like a family over time. Its exterior is covered with traditional stucco, painted brown. The stucco’s rough texture looks like heavy spattered mud. Together with the bittersweet vines climbing the walls, it gives the house an earthy feel.

You don’t see much traditional stucco here in South Dakota. It doesn’t hold up well in our extremes of hot and cold weather. The older it gets, the more brittle it becomes. It cracks and crumbles. Jihong and I didn’t know this when we bought the house, moving here from the more moderate climes of Ohio in 2000.

We’ve been patching ever since. And whatever we patch, we must paint. That was our family project, last weekend. Next time, we’ll invite you to help!

Painting such rugged stucco requires special long-nap rollers, more paint than you thought would be plenty, and your favorite remedy for sore muscles. (Not to mention sunblock and bugspray.)

Even if you’re a meticulous painter, on this stucco you won’t manage to coat every bit of the surface. It’s too pitted. That’s one reason why you’ll notice surviving flecks of the cornflower blue paint that preceded the last layer of brown, and freckles of the bubblegum pink that predated the blue. (I’ve always wondered who picked those colors, and why.)

Settling on which shade of brown to paint the latest patch job is always an adventure. Each part of the house weathers differently. The brown stucco here isn’t the same brown as there, let alone over there. Or there.

You’ll pull your hair out, trying to match any of the browns. A gallon will look great while you’re rolling it on, but once it dries, it will turn out too red or too gray, several shades too light or too dark.

This used to drive me crazy. (Just ask Jihong.) But last weekend, instead of getting frustrated by our latest mismatch, I decided that I’m just fine, living in a house of dappled brown. Whatever its color, our house will always still be what it is—our homeplace. A blessed place, in which we dwell and thrive. We’ll keep it in good repair, until it’s somebody else’s turn to patch and paint it.

At one point last weekend, after I’d poured still more paint into my tray, I stood up and walked a ways off, stretching my back and legs. Suddenly I found myself in a magical spot. Brilliant sunlight was falling onto the side of the house just so, causing all the various shades of brown to disappear into one another. Together they formed a single new color that I couldn’t see from anywhere else—

The house looked grand. All because of where I was standing. All because of my line of vision; a shift in my perspective. All because of the light.

* * *

Today, in the U.S., we’re celebrating Independence Day. The Fourth of July. A traditional day of flag-waving and picnics and ice cream and fireworks and, if we’re thoughtful, reflection upon the state of our nation.

Most countries, I suppose, have such a day. It’s only human to love the “house” in which we were born, or to which we’ve come to live.

America’s house has some age on it. Here and there, it’s brittle. It crumbles and cracks in extreme conditions. It’s in constant need of repair.

If we expect this house to be perfect, it’s our mistake. But it’s also our mistake if we don’t work together to perfect it.

So we patch. We paint. When we must, we tear out what’s weak and rotten and replace it with what’s sturdy and fine. All the way down to the foundation, we make sure that this dappled house is a place in which everyone can thrive.

Sometimes, amidst this hard and necessary labor, we suddenly find ourselves standing where a certain slant of light hits the house just so. And, for a moment, all its shades seem to meld to one another. Together they form something brilliant and new. The sight of it brings us up short. We have no words for it. We can’t see it from any other spot.

Then the light moves, or we move, and we’re back to dappled again—

But how beautiful “dappled” is, where the vision of unity lives.


Phyllis Cole-Dai

Phyllis Cole-Dai has authored or edited eleven books in multiple genres, including historical fiction, spiritual nonfiction and poetry. She lives in Brookings, South Dakota, USA.