I have been buying a home. It may seem strange to not write about something so ingrained and cherished in the American psyche. I have wondered about that too, and what home means, and why some are more legitimate than others.
In Hawaii, home was ephemeral and open. In that eternal sunshine present, I was home and never home. I had a place to go that was not my place but borrowed with money. That my landlady and I became friends gave the place that psychic center of home, but at the same time made me aware I was taking up someone else’s cherished place. It was a great place to go home to, to recognize as safe with a good bed and solid internet. (How our ideas of necessity seem ridiculous in hindsight.) She wanted more cash than check, which worried me a little: why do you want cash around? But cash is a thing of the present, too. Cash is not so much about now but being fluid. You aren’t tied down with cash, and you can buy a different home every night. It was a different way to live I had forgotten or never tried.
I went to Hawaii deliberately, to upend ideas of home, safety, place. It was there I thought I might remember things, forget more, clean out to new places. What does it mean to have a home in a place you’ve never been? What does it mean in a place where family and community are important, and you have shortchanged these things during your growing up, so now that you need them they are harder to build? What can home mean when you know not to make too much of one, since you will be leaving in a few months anyway? I didn’t have answers or solutions and did not expect any. I meant to live the questions and be quiet. Something might be clear if only I was quiet enough.
Temporary homes have a great aura of safety. I never went to camp but remember the recounting of others after their return, school sniffing around in summer’s last shadows. We spent more time hanging out on patio furniture and talking than running around, me asking questions and them delivering descriptions of food of a species like school cafeteria food, rooms rustic and crumbling (for Boy Scouts or their ilk) or sterile white corporate (for megachurch Bible camps), and the instantaneous establishment of cliques, thugs, no-go turfs. A common arc emerged: their palpable dread when still in the neighborhood, for me the odd but not uncomfortable hole realizing the person was gone for weeks or months, the person’s return on a changed plane: either transformed with a new locus of heightened experiences, or slightly less with the same thing they already knew, the details and characters different but otherwise the same as school. I knew things were different for them, that they had been somewhere else. Even elementary school kids can be quiet as they try to think; most kids started wiggling and abandoned the work, but a few, even then, had thousand yard stares thinking about the different worlds. It was too different to convert back into suburbia.
Living in a friend’s house before Hawaii was a test run and a firm landing. You can’t leave a place if you have nowhere to go; even if you have nowhere to go, when you arrive, there you are. The walls were steady there, unbreathing. I could lie on the bed and wonder what I was doing with naked perception: here is not there, is not where I was. I was not quite going anywhere and that was understood by everyone. It was fine, and everyone knew I was an emotional charity case, keeping up my humor. Just please use a plate.
On my return I took up with a different friend, using his spare room with the rocking chair, file cabinet and firm futon. The bed is the best I’ve had so far, a long soft cotton plank underneath a window looking out on forest. Walls are muted Seventies yell0w like when it was new, and the cat is happy to peek out the catwalk or open closet doors. The washer and dryer are the same Eighties Whirlpools my parents had: I remembered how to turn the water knob to fill the tub with extra water. It is engulfed in green, trees all around and a wild park behind, the driveway smooth and black to a single slice of open fence. It is close, near nothing in particular but not all that far, if you have a car. The kitchen table is broad and bright, the fixture with three incandescent bulbs. I have been writing this from there, sitting on a kitchen chair with an attentive back.
These two waystations have very different feels and moods. Neither is unwelcoming but part of me feels like an interloper. It seems too gracious a thing for such hospitality, almost a plot by the capital overlords. I hope I do not fall down in keeping things clean.
I started thinking about buying a place in Hawaii: rent would be as much or more, so little sense in that. All the great website deals turned into short sales or some other come-on of the Second Great Depression, but there were many good straight deals. Aloha was something I knew would fade as I paid bills, filed paperwork, did all those grade-school sorts of binary tasks I had always done so well at and pointedly ignored while on the Hawaiian planet. I made a mistake: looking without thinking and without sitting still, questioning and listening why I wanted my own place, the American Dream that I never really wanted before. I am still not entirely convinced I know, but it seems like a good idea aside from everyone else doing it.
Looking at places to live is worse than looking at colleges: any thrill evaporates during the first tour and they all blend together with the choice’s enormity. There is always something wrong: too small, too old, too smelly, too badly designed. Real estate is the object lesson in capitalism and the market being motivated by fear and greed. What is it really worth? How can I get them to come down? What are all these fees and charges, why do I have to sign so many things? The difficulty comes not from intrinsic challenge but because middlemen make it that way. Looking for a place to live drains you because you know you will be nickeled and dimed. Worse is buyer’s remorse, really facing your own limited perception: you know there is a better place if you only waited, or if you had acted sooner; if your criteria were different, if you could make better choices.
I wanted something smallish, in the city, near the bus or even light rail, with no lawn: condo, townhouse, or some other dense arrangement where my never having learned to play loud music would be an asset. I have never learned to fret about the schools, having no need to send my cat to one; nor have I learned the white suburban fear of dark skin, shuffling youth, or women with wrapped heads. Wanting a deal some selections are a little shakier than others. For example, one condo is nice inside, though a little soiled and worn; the location is ideal. The exterior shows its early 80’s vintage and reminds me of the sagging, insta-built apartments that cover Texas like a fungus. Things get crossed off.
Here is where the distraction is. Comparing space and bedrooms, how many trees there are, your neighbors, what a place feels like, how hard it would be to get to work, the higher purpose is lost. I could find as much home, or more, in a shipping container or under a bridge. The house is a market thing needing improvements and insurance and worry and all the fretful devotion of a hollowed-out economy. Home is what endures in spite of that. With all our culture’s noise it is easy for forget.
The interim looking, thinking, churning you all must know. In the end there is a brand new townhouse, a little more south and a little smaller than I wanted, but the price and no association dues make it too good to pass up. My anxiety at seeing it indicates my subconscious figures this out before I do. There is rigmarole with financing: the banks, nervous about actually lending money to anyone, don’t like that my employer changed. My parents agree to cosign and end up FedExing hundreds of pages of financial dirty laundry to someone at a desk in Everett, Washington. I sign papers the same day I am home sick, burning up the freeway to sit in a little room and sign the same things I’ve seen for a month, but with my parents’ signatures. Somebody calls Friday to say they have recording numbers. I get a pen to write them down and the person is confused–no, it just means the title was transferred to you. Congratulations.
This was September 23rd. Getting the keys the next day was surreal: the woman had them at a house she was fixing up near the UW, and the bright early fall light, warm air, and blocks of staid, scholarly houses lifted me out of time back to TCU and Fort Worth, where during college I was often in those blocks of square, gently regal houses resting under live oak shade. I stood in the street holding them in my hands with as much attention as the giant down payment cashier’s check. Oh, I am doing this now, whatever this is. I went down and opened what was now my door and walked the space that seemed far too small, now that it was mine.
I still don’t live there, but all my things are moved in. I have been in a run to work, to class, to here, there. What was the rush? I am not about to be on the street. I have no one else to be responsible for. Why have I tied myself down with a house, with a job? It’s not even so much the money but the coming and going, the doing laundry, brushing teeth: so much of life is overhead. Is this what I am supposed to be doing?
My father had no problem signing on. “It’s not like you’re not going to pay it,” he said. Like everyone else, he said reasonable things. It’s a good investment. You need someplace to live. It will be good for you.
I have been slowing down. My parents are nothing if not smart with money. My friends are curious why I wanted a place so quickly, but reassure I’ve done a smart thing. Having a base is important to you, one says. It is important to have a home.
Full of boxes, it isn’t home yet, but the boxes are there. I stood in the storage space for the last time Saturday and marveled it was loaded so quickly in January, then emptied in an hour nine months later. Friends came and wrestled the washer up the stairs, lugged boxes of books out of the truck. The sun came out and the world felt like Saturday, bright and autumn with people walking down to where the cool things are.
These people who carried things brought their energy and their laughter. They filled the space and are still filling it, and I understood it is the people that make home and that extend it out into the world, making it all home. For a few hours their light was everywhere, and warm, and I felt the world was okay, and I would be too.