Originally published at Substack, 12/6/2020
I spend a lot of time thinking about home.
My driving ambition all through my 20s and 30s was to find a way to buy a house. Not just any house, but a house I could stay in. A house I could live in. I was the kid who went to six grammar schools, who switched custodial parents, whose brother died of cancer. Every time we got settled in, every time I made friends, some crisis arose and we had to go. As an adult, neither of my parents were much good at keeping themselves consistently or appropriately housed. I spent a lot of time in my 40s trying to keep a roof over my elderly mother’s head, trying to find someplace she could afford to live when she only had social security. That’ll scare you into keeping your day job, putting your money away, paying off the mortgage.
I moved to Montana in 2002 because I wanted a house I could afford in an artsy community, but also because I did not trust the Bay Area as a sustainable place to live. There were too many people and too few resources. The seas were rising and the last of the arable land was being covered with housing developments. It was already terrifyingly hot and dry and windy for several months of the year. I was in grad school at UC Davis when the Oakland Hills burned up, and Maxine Hong Kingston’s stories about the lived experience of losing everything to a fire, seemed a warning one should heed. In my two years in the Hayward Hills, I had to call Patrick at least three times when there were grass fires, ask him what I should grab if I had to run, what he wanted from his room.
I bought this little house because it had space for a garden, and good light in the main rooms in winter (also, a clawfoot tub small enough to fit me). I bought this house because it was cheap enough I could see paying it off. I bought this house planning to work at home, to live here. And over the past 18 years I’ve fixed it up, and painted, and organized and now it’s the place I most like to be in the world. It’s paid off. I’m here for the duration.
If the pandemic has shown me anything, it’s how rare this is. So many people are stuck in spaces that don’t work when they can’t go out. So many people had homes that were really more of landing pads, places where they slept and showered, ate sometimes, but primarily used as the space between spaces. And now they’re stuck, and don’t quite know what to do or how to keep their house, how to make it a home, a place they want to be.
That New Yorker cover has had me so upset all week. The chaos. The stuff all over the floor. That so many people I know shared it as though, chuckle chuckle, of course we’re all living in chaos. I feel the same about the discourse around “adulting.”
I grew up with a depressed parent who often could not organize our world, and so I learned early how to write a grocery list, how to make food last for the week, how to keep things tidy. All I wanted was not to be a child anymore, not to be helpless and at the mercy of these adults who couldn’t, or wouldn’t step up. I saw learning the skills of adulthood — keeping myself housed and fed — as liberatory. Even during those decades when I was so broke, figuring out my money and how to mostly live within my means, even if I had to juggle bills sometimes, that all felt better than those years of helplessness.
Granted, I’m not great at house cleaning — I’d almost rather do anything else than wash the kitchen floor or scrub the bathroom. I’m perfectly capable of those things, but as long as I’m employed and have money, I’m happy to pay Kate her considerable hourly wage to clean for me. She’s great at it. I like her. She’s the kind of useful, cheerful person we want to keep in the community. And she has my heart for life after she scrubbed the hard water stains off all the windows in my greenhouse room.
What I’m talking about is a little different than that, and it’s not even about keeping things tidy. I’m tidy. I can’t think if there’s too much mess or clutter, but I know other folks for whom mess is their natural creative habitat. What I think I’m trying to get at is the way so many seem back footed by the experience of having to live in their homes. That we’ve come to a place as a society where the very notion of cooking all your meals, every day, is sending people into a sort of despair. Where people are so deeply uncomfortable in their homes that they’re willing to risk their own lives, and the lives of everyone else, just to go to a bar. As a culture it seems, we’re none of us any good at living in our own skins, or homes, or places.
The way we treat our homes is the way we treat the world, and one of the biggest challenges we’re facing is the one that drove me here all those years ago. The climate is heating up. We’ve left trash all over the place. We’ve used more than our share. We have not left the campsite in better shape than when we found it. We have a vacation rental cabin, and let’s just say that we’ve had more groups than usual this summer who have left the place a wreck. Garbage on the floor. Grease and sticky soda pop on every surface of the kitchen. Bathrooms that we’ll never speak of again.
I know everyone is at the end of their ropes. We’re going into lockdown again. People are stuck in tiny apartments, sometimes with the wrong people. But I do hope when we come out of it, we can start rethinking how we are living. What kind of spaces would make urban life better? What kind of spaces could accommodate people when the next pandemic hits? What kinds of housing do we need — what about cohousing? Spaces where tasks like cooking and cleaning can be shared — this won’t just lighten the chores, but I think we’re seeing that people need more robust social systems too.
I hope we’ll get a chance to think through some of these issues, although the bad behavior we’ve seen in response to this global call for people to care about the collective at the expense of their immediate and individual urges is not very encouraging. But after teaching for a couple of years, I have huge faith in the kids coming up behind us. My students were kinder to one another than we were when I was in school, and they’re acutely aware of the global crisis we’re living through.
And so, as we’re all going back into lockdown, and into the darkest part of the winter, I don’t know? Maybe entertain ourselves with utopian ideas. What would be your dream living space? Your dream community? How might that change from when you’re young and social, to when you’ve got a family, to when you’re old? The dark is a good time for dreaming.