The house I built

What's valuable and what's not.

By Diomedes | Robert O'Reilly | 3 Jan 2022


School in 1912.

In every village marked with little spire,
Embowered in trees, and hardly known to fame,

There dwells, in lowly shed and mean attire,
A matron old, whom we schoolmistress name.

William Shenstone

Many things have changed over the last hundred years. Technology has expanded exponentially and invaded every facet of our lives, around the world, the way we think and live, the way we use it as an extension of our minds and hands, a shortcut in so many ways, delivering us freedom and comforts and ease, a wealth unimaginable to our great grandparents and far from the plodding and tiresome drudgery of their existence.

But I wonder if the quality of our lives has improved, in feelings and deep emotions and satisfactions. I wonder and sometimes doubt. I’ll agree that life is now far more comfortable, that the average human has the encyclopedia of knowledge at his fingertips, far more acquaintances, far more choices of career, of pursuits and pleasures, and a kind of superiority in attitude, feeling more the master of this world in his understanding and control. Whereas our ancestors felt more a sense of piety and awe at the mysteries of earthly existence, which, as with all ignorance, also involved a large spoonful of fear, uncertainty and frailty in their lives, delivered nightly as they lay down to sleep.

So the world is a better place now. But there are a few things we’ve lost, in our hearts and feelings, some strong, often overpowering sentiments to die for, which we no longer feel, as they are now irrelevant.

The first is the notion of possession. Our homes are filled with so many items, to lose one or have one stolen means next to nothing to us, unless it's a watch your grandfather gave you or some heirloom from the distant past, which means a great deal to you, which belongs to you and you alone.

In the past possessions were acquired with great sweat and toil and valued for the personal expense put into acquiring them. Nowadays we replace our furniture, our computers, our cars and houses, by a few searches on Amazon, insurance covering the price. I don’t want to seem too cynical, but this even applies in some degree to our spouses, jobs and careers. We live in a disposable, replaceable, material world, planned obsolescence of everything, an expiry date on each item and Walmart just down the street. So no strong connection develops between us and what we surround ourselves with.

The exception of course, is the few of us who still create from our own hands and minds. There are few craftsmen left, lovingly and skillfully carving wood pieces over weeks with old tools. And for us writers and musicians and artists there are some laws protecting our unique mental efforts. But that's no loss. We share these works for the pleasure of sharing and pride ourselves for having made them, just as I share with you now.

But long ago it was different and many people, even the poor made with their toil much of what they owned and it was theirs, their possession, and in a heartfelt way, a part of them.

I’m going to quote a few stanza’s from the 1750’s, from William Shenstone, the poem of ‘“The Village Schoolmistress” to prove my point.

This is a eulogy to kindergarten teachers, so often overlooked for their contribution to society, told in two hundred year old Spencerian language and stanzas even back then, humorous in parts, and in others containing the deepest pathos.

A russet stole was o’er her shoulders thrown;
A russet kirtle fenced the nipping air:
’T was simple russet, but it was her own;
’T was her own country bred the flock so fair,
’T was her own labor did the fleece prepare;
And, sooth to say, her pupils, ranged around,
Through pious awe, did term it passing rare;
For they in gaping wonderment abound,
And think, no doubt, she been the greatest wight on ground.

W. Shenstone

Now think what a possession that would be to her, making it from fleecing the wool, spinning it, dying it and then knitting it over many days and hours with her own hands, a pride to her. But if it was stolen, what a heartfelt grief would ensue, like a piece of her flesh or life cut away. What do we own, the lose of which would cause such deep emotion? Nothing.

I can’t help but add one other stanza, not to the point, but so fine it doesn’t need a reason to be quoted. It deserves a place on any page of poetry:

One ancient hen she took delight to feed,
The plodding pattern of the busy dame;
Which, ever and anon, impell’d by need,
Into her school, begirt with chickens, came;
Such favor did her past deportment claim:
And, if neglect had lavished on the ground
Fragment of bread, she would collect the same;
For well she knew, and quaintly could expound,
What sin it were to waste the smallest crumb she found.

W. Shenstone

We live in a world of disposable objects, most of them plastic, none of them of our own making, built in a far off place and with planned obsolescence, so we buy a newer, better, shinier one next year.

Only a few rings or pieces of jewelry or pictures or heirlooms have sentimental value to us, whose lose we would deeply feel. And they were given to us not made by us. The bottom line is that we have less sentimental feelings, less sentiments than our ancestors and less feelings, because they need a solid object to exist, to dote upon. No one has feelings for cheap, replaceable commodities.

I consider myself fortunate, as a writer and because I once built a my own house from the ground up with the help of just one friend. It was on a hillside in Puerto Rico, a few hundred yards from the sea, such a steep hillside the property was cheap. Some would call it little better than a shack. My kitchen was a roofed deck. My shower was also a deck, the showerhead tied to a tree but my privacy was such that I took my warm shower each morning with a panoramic view of the west coast of the island, and no one could see me. My son and his many friends and I spent five years of delightful weekends there. We had a T.V., rented movies at night and hiked the hills all around by day. It was idyllic, and it was my own.

my shower view My own Casa


We live in an ever-more plastic and cynical world. I hope we don't reflect it and become more plastic ourselves, more detached, heartless, more disposable, or treated that way by others. But there is this possibility of facelessness and living through life having made or contributed nothing we could attach our name to and nothing anyone will remember us for.


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B.A. in Latin and Greek from U.C. Berkley. Writer, Blogger and retired Electrician.

Robert O'Reilly
Robert O'Reilly

I am educated in the Western Classical Tradition, B.A. from U.C. Berkeley in Latin and Greek, English major, one year at U. of Toronto, studied under Alain Renoir and Northrop Frye, read most classics full time for many years after university in French, English, Latin and Greek to the modern day. I am interested in the near future of technology, what changes it imposes upon our heritage and character as humans. Short stories and Essays are my medium.

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