“Chimney Flashing: How I Got Back into Writing”

I felt the need to accomplish something, so I climbed onto the roof and measured the chimney. I would build a flashing. I only recently learned about flashing. A friend of my wife’s family came over and poked around our homestead in the Lithuanian forest. He’d take in his immediate area, note all the flaws and dangers, and say, in careful mentor-like English, “No, I would not let that stay in that condition for so long. The damage will be very soon and costly.” He said that about the chimney. He said that about the roof. All the fruit and nut trees wanted major pruning. My handsaws needed sharpening. Since I happened to have the correct file for sharpening the saws, Algimantas decided to give me a lesson. He showed me how to hone the points, and then he had me try. Then he tested my work on a piece of wood. Then he had me try again. This is how the sausages ended up burning. We were having a summer barbecue. My in-laws and some of their close friends were over. Children played on the roof of the root cellar. My brother in-law pushed his daughter on a chain-and-board swing with questionable integrity that I had built in a nearby maple tree. I blocked out all this activity, focusing on the point of a rusty tooth until it glinted to my mentor’s high standard.

Before he left, Algimantas told me how to fix the problem with the roof. He’d heard of roofs like mine collapsing in a gust of wind. It lacked battens, which would prevent the rafters from leaning. All I had to do was nail a long board from the top-left corner to the bottom-right corner of each side of the attic ceiling.  No problem. As for the trees, I had an excellent book on pruning that only needed reading. But the chimney was a puzzle. Algimantas didn’t know the word for the metal thing that seals the roof to the chimney. He couldn’t really explain what I needed to do. He either didn’t have the words in English or was feeling some pressure from his family to finish delivering his inspection report. The barbecue had been packed away, the dishes stacked by the well, and his family congregated near the car.

 

I already knew the chimney was a problem. We would get waterfalls in the front room ceiling near the chimney in heavy rains. I would worry about structural damage to the house as it was happening, but then the weather would turn sunny, and I’d put it aside as a minor annoyance. I have the same flawed attitude when it comes to toothaches. But putting it off for too long, as Algimantas warned, would result in costly damage. There had already been a leak in the guest room before we bought the house, and I was still trying to rebuild the ceiling that had rotted through.

The problem of the chimney occupied me for a few days. When we went to town on Sunday, I got online to research. The chimney needed flashing. Flashing had components called step flashing, back flashing, front base flashing, front cap flashing, and a piece called a saddle, which required the skill of a professional to custom-make per the chimney specifications. I would need skills and tools I did not have. The YouTube videos each confirmed this for me. Even the tutorials performed by professionals had comment sections rife with derision for the finished work. It seemed proper chimney flashing was a contentious topic in the realm of home improvement.

“We need to hire someone,” I told my wife, Simona. “We need to do it before the weather turns.” Over the last few months, our to-do list had become increasingly organized by season. At breakfast, one of us would mention a necessity on the homestead: root cellar ventilation, sauna rock collection, window repair, mulching, fence building, seed sowing, draft plugging. We’d discuss the issues, propose solutions, and then pin the task to the mental calendar. As it stood, Spring was overbooked, and Autumn dates were filling up with things to do before the frost, before the first snow, before the sun nearly disappeared from the sky for the Winter.

We agreed the chimney job was too much for me. I would need more tools—both hand and power. And there was the danger of the roof tiles: a composite of concrete and asbestos. Sources online claim the tiles are harmless if they remain unbroken. Ours are weathered and chipped. Also, we do not possess an appropriate roof ladder. A roof ladder lays over the tiles to distribute the weight of the person climbing around up there. The end of the ladder hooks over the peak. We do have two of these ladders, but as I said, they are inappropriate. The one that is actually a roof ladder no longer has the part that hooks over the roof’s peak. That part had rusted off. The other ladder – the homemade one – Algimantas had advised me to never use. He had looked at it and shook his head, saying in his sage-like way: “No, no, no. I wouldn’t. This is a big danger.” The problem wasn’t so much that the ladder was made from repurposed wood, but the part that hooked over the peak was made from two metal shelf holders, the kind you can buy at the hardware store for 3 euros apiece. When Algimantas saw this ladder, he must have imagined me using it on the roof. The weak metal, meant for supporting perhaps a few books, would bend back, and I’d slide down the tiles with the ladder as one would on a snowboard, and I’d land on a rock in the garden, breaking my tailbone. I could tell he was thinking of something like this happening by the look in his eyes and the shake of his head. “Not good at all.”

“I didn’t make that ladder,” I said. “It was here when we bought the place.”

“Yes, you shouldn’t use it.”

So, before I could hire someone to do the job, I needed a working roof ladder. I tried the second-hand Saturday market in Panevezys, a small city about an hour and a half away by car. Panevezys market usually has at least one of everything you could ever imagine needing for a homestead, and all the things you can’t imagine, too. It did not have a roof ladder. I’d never seen anything like it in the hardware store, either. The one I had, the one that had once actually functioned as a proper roof ladder some decades ago, seemed to have been custom made in a metal shop.

And even if we had a roof ladder, hiring someone for the job would mean finding someone who truly knew how to build a flashing and not just claim to know. Only Simona could do this scouting work. I wouldn’t know where to begin.  Simona usually doesn’t know how to find such a person either, so inevitably she would have to ask her mother. Her mother had, in the past decade, renovated half a dozen apartments. She knew how to find a handyman. But asking her mother for information would be inviting her opinion, and that would result in a fight. Simona avoids asking her mother anything. If I pressure her too much to ask, she would rightfully get frustrated for being saddled with the chore simply because I don’t speak the language well enough to find someone myself. Days passed. I collected apples, repaired the sauna window, patched a section of fence. Whenever it rained, whenever I looked at the house from across the yard, I would be reminded of the chimney. In town I’d go online again, look at pictures and diagrams and instructions. I downloaded pdfs, skim read, and bookmarked some pages. Every few days at dinner, I’d tell Simona we really should find someone to do the flashing. Then I’d remember the need for roof ladders and add, “Sometime before the cold sets in.”

Most of the houses in Anyksciai had these ladders I needed just sitting on their roofs. All of their chimneys had flashing. The newer houses, and the newly renovated houses, all had the standard of flashing featured in those videos and documents I had perused. But the older houses were different. The chimneys just had pieces of bent sheet metal attached to them according to the homeowner’s aptitude level. All the flashing literature said this was the worst approach, but seeing so many examples of the wrong way put into practice was encouraging. Maybe I could do this after all. But I would need sheet metal, and at least a few of the basic tools, like tin snips. I also still needed a roof ladder. I hadn’t even been on the roof yet.

 

All the time I was trying to figure out the chimney problem, I also wasn’t writing. I hadn’t written much in the past ten years. That’s what getting this house had really been about—secluding ourselves in the woods, away from the distractions of work and society, to get back down to writing. It was no coincidence that my son was going on ten years when we bought the house. He was part of my excuse why I hadn’t been writing. Simona and I had purposely conceived Oskar when we were in the middle of our graduate programs, mine in writing at Michigan, and hers in International Relations at Nottingham. It was the middle of my second year and I was about to workshop my final thesis after the winter break spent in Lithuania, Simona’s home country. I was feeling confident when we conceived that winter. I had struggled all my first year in this prestigious graduate program I hadn’t really thought I would get into in the first place. Then I worked on one story the summer between terms, had a reading at the university that September, was well received, and I invested that high into a strong finishing stride in my penultimate semester, the final workshop before the thesis. I was happy with my stories. They felt complete. They felt like they fit together. They felt like the stories I wanted to write. Though I didn’t win any of the bigger writing contests the program put on for the graduate students, my thesis would go on to win a newly created, unofficial thesis prize. Shortly after, I would secure an agent in New York. Then I won an essay contest for a month-long, expenses paid residency on the west coast of Ireland, which would commence around the time I had planned to meet up with Simona in Nottingham as she finished her last term. We would spend that first post-graduation month in a cottage on the Irish coast, the second home of an essayist and teacher I admired, and it was all due to my growing skill as a writer. I had good reason to feel confident about the future.

But without workshops, without the deadline, with life outside academia opening before me, my tendency to put off writing resurfaced. There was the issue of which country to live in, where to have the baby, what to do for money. Luckily, we managed to stockpile a tidy bundle – me from my stipends and award money, Simona from her previous job as caretaker of the pill addicted, wheelchair-bound heiress of an airline fortune in East Hampton.  Simona had worked around the clock 6 days a week as companion, nurse, and cook, for which she was paid tremendously. Three months of work covered Simona’s graduate school, a year of living in Nottingham, and travel. She had enough left over to get by unemployed for some time.

After settling on Lithuania as our immediate home, I got a part-time job as a language teacher, and that autumn Simona had the baby. In all those months, though I was thinking about it a lot, I hadn’t done any writing. I had an idea for a novel, but only because my agent wanted me to have one. She wanted me to send my stories out. She gave me a few leads, a few introductions. I followed up on each one, and the rejections started coming in. The shine on my thesis was coming off for me by now, so I started tinkering with the stories while jotting down meager notes for the novel. That was the level of my commitment to writing when I became a father. At the same time, I was working full time. I was aware that these things were becoming excuses not to push ahead with the writing. I could feel the trap I was setting for myself. So finally, I made myself write a new story. It was a miserable two weeks for my wife in our tiny apartment, or maybe I’m just projecting my feelings onto her. It was a struggle to write. Writing put me in a grouchy mood, starting from two hours before I planned to sit down, ending sometime late in the evening, long after I had wrestled a few sentences onto the page.

The story turned out to be the best I had written yet. The personal rejections coming in were testament to that. Then the story was almost accepted by one of my top tier journals. They first wrote asking if they could hold onto it longer to consider it for an upcoming issue, and a month later they sent me a very kind and encouraging rejection. The issue that my story would have been in had a story by one of my favorite writers. I could only be on my way up. I took the advice from the rejection and applied it to the story. I trimmed the word count. I sharpened the imagery. I sent it out again.

By this time, I had gone from teaching English at a language school to being a full time international high school English teacher. Now I was writing lesson plans. Oskar was two years old, and my own writing had trickled down to tinkering with sentences in my thesis whenever a kind rejection came along to boost my confidence. I was starting to think that giving kind and encouraging rejections had become standard practice at most journals. Their magic was wearing thin.

Then I received an acceptance notice through Submittable, a new online submission platform all the journals were starting to use. It was an acceptance from a fledgling but ambitious journal I had been following with interest. It was not just a journal; the founder also organized author readings staged as wrestling matches. It was all very cool. The acceptance thrilled me. My newest and best story had landed a home. I’d broken the rejection barrier.

Status: Accepted!

I took a screenshot of the page for posterity.

That screenshot, plus a few back and forth emails between me and the editor, is the only evidence that a story of mine had ever been accepted for print. It turns out that the acceptance was a mistake, which is why I had not heard from the editor, and why my story wasn’t in the issue when it came out. I then wrote to the editor and included an attachment of the acceptance screenshot. He explained that an eager intern who really liked my story hit the acceptance button without having the authority. I wasn’t the only victim. He was sorry. They had since got rid of the intern. He was kind enough to give me a long critique of the now rejected story, but I was too bitter to agree with anything he had to say about it.

Only my wife knew about the mistaken acceptance, so I didn’t have to go around apologizing to anyone who might have bought the issue, had I told them. But based on this acceptance, I had included the fact that I was a published writer on a resume I sent out to a few international schools.  One of them, the Green School in Bali, offered me a job. I took it. In a bio they wrote up on me for their website, they called me a published writer. For the next few years, I’d have to come up with ways to deflect interest in this claim from new parents and colleagues at school orientation parties (I read your bio. So where did you publish? What did you write?)

I was finished with writing. In the grand scheme of life, was writing really important? My desire to write had only ever come from an egotistical urge. I only wanted acceptance, and once I realized how shallow this pursuit had really been, I felt fine giving it up. I didn’t need to write. I was fortunate to have a good job and a happy family.  I should focus on that.

That’s another version of why I stopped writing. I had a choice between a happy stable family life or the life of a self-interested writer, and I chose the happy family. One of my cohort in graduate school actually posed the question as though life could only be one way or the other, and I had chosen the family then, too. I started to believe that these were really the only options. I started to believe I had cursed myself.

The other, more accurate version is that I was both scared and lazy. Getting ideas was difficult. Writing was hard. Nothing had really happened to me, I never did anything interesting, and most of my thoughts revolved around work anxiety, sex, the next cigarette I’d sneak, and my flaws as a father and husband. Only sometimes I’d take the stories out again. I couldn’t relate to them anymore. I’d tinker with the sentences. If the urge to take up writing again hit me, which it did every few months, I would tell myself that I would get to it one day. If I had the time and money to just focus on writing, I would jump at the opportunity.

After five years living in Bali I was beginning to burn out from teaching, as I knew I eventually would. This was around the time Simona started having panic attacks. I figured that at the root of the problem was that the magazine she wrote for stopped publication. She wasn’t pursuing any kind of meaningful purpose anymore. She always made up stories for Oskar at bedtime, so I suggested she write one. She proposed we work on one together. Soon we were deep into a draft of a heavily researched Young Adult fantasy based on Finnish mythology and the work of Carl Jung, set in the Karelian forest on the Russian / Finnish boarder. Simona lost herself in primary sources while I worked, and when I came home we’d write the story together. I started writing scenes during my planning periods. She’d wake up in the middle of the night to jot down plot notes.

Writing about the forest got us longing for the northern woods. We spent our next summer break in Lithuania foraging and talking the story. We started inquiring about houses we came across – old homesteads and decaying cabins. When we went back to Bali, we knew it would be our last year. We finished a draft of our book by Christmas, moved back to Lithuania the following summer, and that winter found our homestead in the forest, the place where we would revise our novel while embarking on personal writing projects.

 

We went to Mexico instead. Summer ended and I had spent much of the time at the homestead cutting grass, building giant permaculture garden beds, fixing the well, rehanging the barn door that fell off in a gust of wind, restoring furniture, and thinking long and hard about what to do with the fence.  Keep the wire and post fence that was there already there? Take the fence down? Put another fence in its place? Which kind? Then, with summer over, there was more to do: collect the meager harvest from our lame attempt at self-sufficiency; figure out how to wash ourselves inside on cold days without plumbing; finish renovating the floor and ceiling and walls of the bedroom that would be Oskar’s. Do the normal daily chores of filling water buckets and bringing firewood. Set writing projects for Oskar and check his progress on Khan Academy. On paper, it seems like a lot, but I had no job to go to and minimal internet access to distract me. I had time on my hands. I had time to write.

My mood soured. Anxiety kicked in. Then a former Green School colleague, who was now directing a small school in Mexico, announced on Facebook that he needed an English Teacher. His current English teacher had quit. He was in a bind. Simona and I always wanted to go to Mexico, and we needed to enroll Oskar in school anyway. We had been illegally homeschooling him for a year, and the risk of being found out was weighing on Simona’s mind, taking up as much mental space as her concern over our winter personal hygiene situation due to lack of running water. Two weeks later we were in Mexico, and our biggest worry instead was whether our rental on an ocean-facing hillside, less than 400 meters inland, would withstand the category five winds of Patricia, the most powerful hurricane in recorded history to make landfall. Thus, we began to reassess our hasty decision. The hurricane hit south of us, but its impact stayed. Our joyful days in Mexico were tinged with a longing to be back in the woods. We needed to get back to writing.

We came home June 18 and madly went to work preparing our place to host that fateful midsummer barbecue. After the barbecue, I revised my to-do list, adding all the items Algimantis was kind enough to point out, putting some of them at the top of the list, which now looked like this: chimney; roof; pruning; renovate the guest room; build fort for Oskar; collect wood for fence building; gather firewood for winter; start writing every morning.

It wasn’t until late September when I finally got down to doing the thing I’d been putting off with increasing anxiety: getting on the roof. I took out my two examples of roof ladders. I lay the end of the metal ladder over a thick log cut from a tree I’d pruned too soon. I took a hammer and banged the end of the ladder until it bent at ninety degrees and could hook over the peak. I picked up the ladder and attempted to slide it up the asbestos tiles. It was too heavy a job for one person. I needed a few more inches to get the ladder over the peak, and a few more pounds of strength to flip it the right way. I tried the wooden ladder, just to see. It was super light, but as Algimantis had said, too dangerous to use on the roof. It was also too short to reach from the low edge of the roof to the peak. I left the ladders on the lawn in front of the house where the grass needed cutting again. I had other work to get to. The guestroom we’d started renovating before leaving for Mexico still hadn’t been completed. I had to hurry. Our Mexican guest was arriving in the morning to stay for three months.

“Chido,” Arlene said when I explained what the roll of sheet metal was for. She was sharing her seat in the car with it. It was leftover roofing from my mother-in-law’s latest building project, gifted to me with minimal reluctance.

“¿Quieres que te ayude?” Arlene said. After a short game of charades and some head scratching, I figured out she was offering to help me with the flashing. She was eager to pitch in any way she could. It was her first time out of Mexico and wanted to experience everything on offer. Most of what was on offer had to do with running the homestead. We were in the middle of the forest. We were the only full-time residents in a village of five scattered houses, a wooden church and a cemetery. We had warned her. But Arlene didn’t seem to mind. For her, it was all exotic. I let her lend a hand in pretty much everything so far, with the exception of servicing the composting toilet. I didn’t want to subject my guest to handling shit.

And I didn’t want her falling off the roof, either. The ladders I planned to use were not appropriate. Our friends Victoras and Mintaras had come by and hoisted the metal one up for me. I would drag the wooden one up as I climbed the metal rungs and lay it on the other side of the chimney. I had a rough idea of how the parts of the flashing overlapped. I had a rough idea of how I’d piece them together from the downloaded instruction manuals and videos, and from what I’d glimpsed on the houses in Anyksciai.

Then rain set in for a week. We spent more time indoors. We read, we cooked, we swept the floor. Simona talked about working on the book again. We hadn’t worked on the book in over a year. I wanted to get back to the book too, and I wanted to start my own projects. I wanted to write. So why didn’t I just get down to it already?

I went out in the rain. I climbed my ladder up to the roof. Then I climbed onto the metal roof ladder and crawled up a few rungs. The rain had lightened, but the wind still blew in gusts.

“Hand me the other ladder now.”

Simona hesitated. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

“No,” I said. “I’m going to try anyway.”

“Puedo ayudarte en el tejado?” Arlene said.

“No Gracias,” I said. “Too dangerous.”

I had realized by now that I had never dealt with the other roof problem, the crossbeams necessary to keep the attic from collapsing. Still, the roof felt strong enough to me. I was more worried about the ladders failing.

“If it’s too dangerous, why are you up there?” Oskar said.

“I have to fix the chimney.” I said.

I measured the width. I cut and shaped a front flashing. I made two long pieces of side flashing and bent them under the existing sheet that sealed the back of the chimney to the peak. I drilled through metal and made holes in brick to attach the flashing to the chimney, using the correct kind of screw. I sealed the seams with silicone goop.  When I came down to look up at my work, I felt accomplished. That was the feeling I was looking for, the sensation that I had seen something through to completion, something I thought I couldn’t do because I didn’t have all the right tools or the right experience, or the right conditions to begin. Something I thought would require too much risk and exposure to harm. The result of my effort was far from perfect, but it was the best flashing done the wrong way I had ever seen.

About Joel Mowdy

Joel B Mowdy is a graduate of University of Michigan's Hellen Zell Writers' Program. He has been an international high school English teacher for a decade. Currently, he is homesteading in the forest in Lithuania with his wife and son.