No Place Like Somebody Else’s Home

One of the stories that I remember from childhood was “Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving. The story takes place at the foot of the Catskill Mountains in New York. It’s about a well-liked man who does all he can to avoid doing actual work. His wife is portrayed as a nagging woman who constantly chastises him for his laziness. His home and farm fall into disarray while he wanders happily about town playing with the kids and telling tall tales at the local bar.

Eventually he wanders off into the woods where, after a rousing bowling game and shared drink with some Dutch men he encounters (the ghosts of Henry Hudson’s crew), he falls asleep under a tree. The rest of the story is how he wakes up to discover that he’s been asleep for twenty years. He returns to his village. His now adult daughter takes him in and he continues life much as before, wandering about town being amiable. Henpecked husbands everywhere would daydream of falling asleep in the very same woods.

I fantasize about falling asleep for a week, only to wake up to contractors reporting that they’ve finished the kitchen, cleaned the gutters, painted the downstairs and snaked all of our drains. For free. When we first married, my husband and I were ambitious. The deck got stained regularly, new gardens were put in, rooms were painted. We were “do-it-yourself” people and proud of it. I’d spend all day hauling dirt and mulch and tracking down unique, native plants. He’d be out in the garage coming up with a plumbing solution or installing shelving.

Cut to eight years and one child later. Icicles hang from the eaves due to uncleaned gutters. Blueberry bushes have been nibbled to the ground by rabbits since the gardens weren’t fenced. Our kitchen remains unfinished after six years of starting the project. The garage is a mess due to hasty work for a guest room this summer – the flotsam of drywall, trim and the things removed, in order to lay carpet, are still lying about. Our deck badly needs to be stained. Rooms need to be patched and painted. We live in Rip Van Winkle’s house.

Working from home, writing, parenting, doing housework, gardening and grocery shopping take up most of my “free” time, while the big projects have been put off, renegotiated or forgotten. But I’m painfully aware of the neglected projects. Now we’re in a maintenance mode that I find slightly embarrassing. We’re beyond the superficial appearance mode and heading into the “things will start to break and shit will fall on our heads” mode.

One of the things I look forward to, when my paid work ends, is turning a new eye to our surroundings, to our shelter and sanctuary. We’ve pondered hiring out some of the work to be done, with the upside that we can spend the next thirty years bitching about someone else’s shoddy workmanship rather than our own. The downside is that we miss the satisfaction of solving problems and making things better through our own ingenuity and hard work. There is something immensely satisfying, almost bordering on spiritual, about taking care of your surroundings.

I’ll be the first to admit that working as a team has never been one of my strengths. My husband, I think, is disappointed by this fact. I imagine that for the first ten years that he lived in this house on his own, he daydreamed about a partner who would joyfully hand him tools and nod agreeably as he went on to the next phase of the project. What he got was someone as argumentative and set in her ways as he is in his. And nothing breaks a deadlock better than doing nothing.

I’ve attempted the “I’d rather apologize than get permission” mode to get a few things done on my own, but I think things have reached the point where we need to get our act together. I’ve started to make a list of small projects I can complete over the winter, in the hopes that we can take on some bigger projects in the spring. First, though, I’m going to take a nap. May it be a long one.

The Evolution of Home

My fantasy as a child was to have a house that was all mine, where I was safe and where all the other children and animals who needed homes would live as well (it was going to be a very, very big house). It would be a long time before I could claim that some part of my wishful thinking had become reality. It wasn’t until my early 30s that I lived in a house with a yard that I owned (with my much better half). Before that time, I lived in 7 rental properties, 9 barracks, an old school bus and a gas station undergoing a home conversion, with gas pumps as part of the landscaping.

During my elementary and middle school years, I lived in a converted office space above a main street tavern in a small town. I shared the irregular rooms with my 3 siblings and mother and stepfather. On any given night, we could look off the porch into the alley and see misdemeanors in the form of public urination.  The best place to be was wherever home wasn’t – at the park, at a friend’s house and my personal hideout, in the stacks at the public library. Whether it was the close quarters or the alcoholism or sheer dysfunction, home did not feel safe. I learned to pack light. I would compulsively do an inventory of the paltry, but sentimental items that were mine and I would always know where they were in case I had to leave on a moment’s notice – a practice put to the test in conjunction with calls to the police.

Resourceful kids are made, not born. I sought my own shelter. There were the friends’ homes with the parents that seemed too good to be true, work where the restaurant owners took me under their wing, a bike that kept me in motion and a zillion extra curricular school activities. If I look at my high school yearbook, I don’t look like the shy and awkward nobody that I imagined I was. I was in track, speech, band, choir, school plays and musicals, and editor on both the newspaper and the yearbook. I wasn’t a social butterfly or civic-minded. I was seeking places where I could feel at home and be safe.

The ability to create my own safe haven has served me well over the years. I am an expert at packing and unpacking. I can travel light, which served me well in the military. I knew how to let go of possessions that were not important. The 12 years I’ve lived in this house in suburbia is the longest period of time I’ve spent in one place. I feel very fortunate to be able to live in a house, but I still live as if I’m ready to run. My possessions are centralized in one room, with my necessities in another.  I still carry a shower bag, as if I’m living in a barracks. I’m territorial and defensive about the space I claim. My husband, who always had his own bedroom and spent his entire childhood in the same home, occasionally needs to remind me that certain rooms are “ours”.

I have had a lot of time to think about what having a home means and it has nothing to do with yards or ownership or age and everything to do with the feeling when you walk in the door – a sigh of relief, a deep exhale, a relaxing of tight shoulders, the dropping of bags, backpacks, luggage. It is sanctuary, an unburdening of the mind and body. I do not take it for granted, but I no longer lay awake at night, wondering if I’ll be living somewhere else tomorrow. While it is true that the only constant in life is change, I know what it means to be home and how to create that feeling anywhere I go. It’s the proverbial lemonade from living a life in motion.