I realized earlier this week that if it’s August 2022, then it’s 20 years since I managed to fool the bank into lending me money to buy this house.
I never thought I’d have a house. Houses were what my parents lost. Once the baby got sick and they split up, once Dad went bankrupt the first time, then it was a steady slide down the economic ladder. First to go was the fifteen acre horse farm, then the house in Lake Forest, then the condo in Madison, then even after we moved in with Dad it was one house, then a smaller house, then a series of apartments in Chicago until finally he fled to Prague and was gone. There was no home. We were always moving out of one place we couldn’t afford and into another, smaller, more precarious one.
By the time I finished my PhD and moved to California to live with my surviving brother Patrick, we were both in our 30s, both still reeling from the chaos of our childhoods, but we were both determined to figure out why we were having such a hard time getting launched in life. And so we teamed up, with that as our goal, and after rooming together for four years, we felt like we’d made huge progress. We figured out how to live in a house with someone you love. We figured out how to discuss things that needed discussing without waiting until there was a crisis, then screaming and crying and throwing accusations around. We hosted holidays. We paid our bills. We each made real progress in our careers.
But I wanted a house. I wanted a house the way other women my age wanted babies. There’s an image from my childhood, one of those summer weeks we’d been sent to our grandmother’s farm, and it was hot out, and she’d sent us off to play in the barn. I came in to get something, and found her upstairs in the library at the top of the landing, in a chair, with her shoes kicked off and her feet on a little footstool, reading a book. It was probably a mystery novel. She loved them.
It seemed like the ultimate luxury. Your own house, where you could, if you wanted, go sit in a chair by a window and read a book in the middle of the afternoon. By yourself. It lodged in my head as the thing I wanted above all others. A place of my own, where I could put up bookshelves, and start a garden, and read a book in the middle of the afternoon.
It was pretty wrenching to leave Patrick to move here, especially when he lost his job 2 weeks before I moved. And while I was a little bit conflicted when he wound up here, once I got him out of my basement and into his own apartment, it was ideal. I loved him. He loved me. It was time to split up if we ever wanted a chance of meeting actual romantic partners, but I was so relieved to have him around. For one thing, he was way more social than I am, and so I could draft along behind as he made friends all over town. I always had someone to meet up with at Happy Hour. We settled into a routine – he’d come walk the dogs in the morning, then we’d have coffee, and most afternoons we’d meet up for a drink on the porch. We did dinner together a few times a week.
If it’s been 20 years since I moved here then it’s 19 years this fall that Patrick died, driving drunk, late one night after an Art Walk, when he was coming out of a bad depressive episode. His death is the defining event of my adult life, no matter how much I wanted to believe that it was something I could get over. You get used to it. You move forward. But it’s always there.
I bought this house myself. There was no family help to be had. This is the house my little novel bought. I got a second job as a visiting writer at St. Mary’s college, and put that money aside. Livingston wasn’t chic yet, and I found this house, put 5% down, put a new roof on so the bank would give me a mortgage, rewired it, and took what felt like a gigantic risk putting the moving truck money on my credit card. I got here with my noisy calico cat, and spent three days sleeping on an air mattress in my empty house, sure someone was going to burst in and tell me to get out! what was I doing here! go!
No one threw me out, and I dug in, and built a home. I have bookshelves. I have actual furniture (I didn’t have a bed that wasn’t on the floor until my very late 30s, so this too feels like a real accomplishment). I have a lovely garden shed room where I write, and yes, have a comfy chair with a footrest where I can read a book any time I want to (well, I also have a full time day job). I have a garden, and a dog and two cats and at the moment, two chickens. I have a lovely man to share my life with, and a pack of children who are subject to my very active Auntie-ing. I have a community here, even if pandemic and my own dislike of small talk means we haven’t seen as much of one another the past couple of years as we might have liked.
I did it. I built the life I wanted. How many of us get to say that?
That it’s been twenty years seems weird to me. Maybe it’s the garden, maybe it’s the cabin and living with someone who is very much a creature of the seasons, but it all just seems like the same time. Circular more than linear. Milestones come back around, and we pass them one more time. Here I am again, starting seeds, harvesting tomatoes, putting up plum jam. It’s a good life on my tiny plot in the middle of town.
My house is the center of a set of concentric circles. The house, the garden, the town — the Paradise Valley, the Absaroka range, the Gallatin range, Emigrant peak at the base of which is the cabin Himself built, and where we spend so much time in winter.
I’m not a lifestyle writer, and I’m deeply suspicious of the internet genre where well off white people show off their houses/gardens/cooking in a way that implies that everything is basically okay. We’re in the early stages of a catastrophic planetary climate change, with the political and economic chaos that comes along with that. Previously unimaginable floods, fires and droughts are reconfiguring where and how we live. Pandemics are going to continue. Hot and cold wars are exacerbating the effects of these unnatural disasters. And people in power are using all of this to convince us all to fear The Other. There have been a few small glimmers of political hope in recent weeks, but as for all those calls to “go back to normal” that’s impossible. There is no more normal. Normal is a country none of us live in any longer.
However, I think it behooves us all to carve out our little place, whether it’s a physical space or a place within our artistic and literary and online communities. For me, having a tiny spot where I can live on the earth, with my hands in the dirt, is probably what has saved me. But I’m lucky that my patch of dirt is embedded in this community of people, folks I know I can rely on because I’ve seen \ over and over again, how everyone rallies when there’s trouble. There was my disaster when people walked into my house that first night, refused to leave me on my own, and stayed for years. We’ve done it over and over again for so many here. Twenty years means I’ve cooked for ailing elders, for funerals, and have made the frosting for so many little-kid birthday cakes. I’m not as good as I should be about showing up for readings, but that we have so many is a blessing. And when that big flood hit this spring, the neighbors all gathered on the street to make a plan, and pitched in afterwards to help out those who’d lost their houses and their businesses.
I love my house more than is probably seemly. I’m trying to push back against the creeping agoraphobia that is a family trait, especially in older family members, because I know that as much as I love my house, and as happy as I am within these walls and this garden, if anything’s going to see us through this disaster that’s unfolding, it’s mutual aid, it’s community. What turned this building into a home is not the decor, it’s not paying off the mortgage, it’s not even the garden — it’s the people and the animals and the landscapes in which this house is situated. That’s what makes it my center, the place that grounds me at the bullseye of all those concentric circles. It’s not the building it’s the relationships, relationships with plants, and with animals, and with my fellow travelers in this odd little corner of the world.
May we all be so lucky. May we all find ourselves homes.