You say Missouri
out West. Urban prairie bound,
I say Missourah.

This is Not My Beautiful House

Home is where the heart is.

While I don’t deny the verity in this common saying, I favor a slightly  more expansive definition of home. For me,  “Home is where the heart resides in privacy”.  Home is where I go to leave the world behind, to drop off the weight of appearances, to allow the petty complaints of insignificant relationships to fade into the background.  Home is where I can walk barefoot, barefaced without makeup, free of the concern for how I appear in favor of simply being who I am.  Home is where the garden is, my favorite blank canvas, a work of creation that both is and is not under my control.  But it is an easy give and take…plants grow if they are given what they need, there are no hurt feelings or judgement if in initial placement doesn’t work.  You simply move them and a new dialogue begins.  Home is where cooking manifests, that personal alchemy of comfort and nourishment.  Home is where my husband walks in his own unadorned splendor, where I get to have a singularly unique relationship with him full of private jokes and comedic expletive calls to action against all those who thwarted us that day.  And home is where my dog is, sweet, stalwart, and constant equally in his affections and his habits.

Only by this time, my dog isn’t there and my heart is already struggling.  And the feeling of home, or even of having a home, is rapidly deteriorating under the insidiously invasive process of trying to sell a house.

The seed of this process really starts with the realtors, although when you interview realtors it is really just a matter of getting the house a little cleaner than it normally is.  And I suppose for some people, the effort stops there.  We had already seen countless interior photos of homes for sale choked with knick-knacks, dated furniture, bizarre paint colors, and questionable cleanliness.  At the time, it seemed ludicrous that someone would not do everything possible to prepare their home to sell at the highest price no matter what the inconvenience of the process.  But after experiencing myself  the sinking and unsettling sense of losing my home while still residing in the house it used to exist in, I better understand.  Moving itself generates enough change to manage in the future new house, no need to turn the existing house upside down in the process.  Put off that feeling of being uprooted as long as possible until the moving trucks arrive and the boxes are taped shut for loading.

In direct opposition to this approach, we had decided to have our home professionally staged.  The walk through with the staging designer resulted in a long list of changes, mostly eliminations to the home.  Pre-packing of personal items, removing certain furnishings, taking down the window coverings.  We were going to give him a semi-blank canvas to work with.  In the midst of this stripping away process, we had scheduled the one major remodel project in the house to refinish the wood floors for the day after my husband returned from KC…and inadvertently three days after I put Shotzee to sleep.  Refinishing these floors quite literally pulled the ground out from under us when a “misunderstanding” between us and the contractor resulted in a house reeking like someone had dumped ten gallons in paint thinner into our small house as the mineral spirits in the finish cured and dissipated sluggishly in the cold damp Portland spring.  The house was unlivable.  We were homeless and the selling process had hardly begun.

After two weeks in a hotel, we were able to return home and finish our preparations for staging.  But the feeling of exile lingered.  The brilliance of our staging designer had  transformed our house into a chic showroom quality bungalow.  All its tiny flaws hidden or de-emphasized.   New furnishings added and our existing furnishings re-arranged.  A strange hodge-podge of us and the staging…it was our house but it was far, far from being our home.  And the entire front of the house had no window coverings and lighting on timers that remained on well into the night.  It was like living in a beautiful fishbowl and we hid in the little castle comprised of the back of the house where we could have some privacy and respite from the public exposure.  If that weren’t surreal enough, there were a large number of strangers walking through it those first few days.  You could feel it in the air.  Items would be moved out of place.  The bed looked like it had been sat on.  You wondered what else they had looked at, touched, commented on, evaluated and judged.  And while the home sold in just a few days, we had to maintain it in the strange staged existence through the inspection period.   To add insult to injury, the buyer asked to view the house again twice after the inspection period to show members of her family…as though it really was just a showroom existing only for her and waiting patiently for her arrival.  Needless to say, both requests were declined.

Even after all the staging was removed, our home never returned.  More things were packed, given away or sold.  Shotzee remained painfully and heartrendingly absent.  Because of the rapid proximity of the events, my mind had generated a strange and twisted logic that his absence was only temporary in order to facilitate the sale and  if I could just restore the sense of  “home” to our house he would return.  But neither was really possible…no Shotzee and no home.  Just a house that soon would belong to someone else to pack up and leave behind.


Trusting the Way Forward

What is reliable formula for trust?  What variables comprise this critical equation in which we entrust another person, another place, another process with our safety and comfort?  Trust implies something certain and reliable, and yet a peek beneath it seemingly solid surface reveals not a stationary foundation, but a shifting one.  Trust can land you firmly planted on solid ground or trust can lure you out onto thin ice, creaking and threatening to break beneath your feet for an unsuspecting plunge into treacherous waters.

Where to start with trust?  and where to go from there?  So much of trust is implied…

I trust what I know.

We tend to trust most easily that which is familiar to us:  looks, thinks, and acts most like us.  Our families, neighborhoods and social circles, all carefully selected and cultivated to reflect ourselves.  And yet, to what extent can you trust something that has never been challenged by an unusual (and potentially adverse)  situation or condition?  How often do we hear the sound of surprised betrayal in someone’s voice when they recount how someone they knew and thought the could rely on has let them down when the unfamiliar circumstances arrived?

I trust a proven track record.

Some would say that they only trust those who have proven themselves worthy and have displayed the stalwart loyalty necessary to earn trust.  Trust is not so much implied by familiarity, but is validated by experience and observation.  But what about those situations that arise suddenly when you have to trust someone with whom you have no history and who comes without adequate information?  How do you make a decision whether or not to trust?

Moving across the country brought up key moments when trust was necessary and upon reflecting on those, I propose that a combination of faith, empirical observation, and pure situational chance wind up influencing our decisions around trust.  Because in the end, my husband and I found ourselves throwing away a major piece of our moving strategy and trusting ourselves and one complete stranger to help us make a pivotal decision for our move.

It is safe to say that we had a fair amount of naivete in going about what we were trying to do.  We had picked our city and knew we wanted to live in its urban core.  And we had decided we wanted to buy a house under 50K.  Looking on the Internet, that great engine of information, we found many possibilities.  But the algorithms of the Internet rarely deliver information with the context of culture and history.  The city’s long history of institutional red-lining and racial segregation were not apparent on, but the effects of it were.  Realtors we spoke with expressed reluctance, resistance and even refusal to show houses past certain dividing lines in the city, thus making these effects even more explicit.  It became increasingly and disconcertingly clear that we were uncomfortable trusting an agent who wanted to ensure we only looked in neighborhoods with “like minded” people.  We began to feel anxious around this lack of trust and became aware of how necessary trust is to feel able to move forward, make changes, and make decisions.  To remedy this, my husband started reaching out to people he was connected with on social media that he knew were invested in the urban core and from there it was a shorter, albeit still precarious, leap to an agent willing to show us homes that would enable us to fulfill our goals.

Hardly had we established ourselves back on firmer ground, when uncertainty inserted itself in our path once again.  Shotzee, our lovely old schnauzer, got sick the night before we were scheduled to fly to Kansas City and look at houses.  And we knew we couldn’t leave him with anyone. It had to be us to care for him.  We had to decide:  do we cancel the trip entirely?  does one of us go? and which one?  We didn’t like any of the options…we wanted to go at that time and we wanted to go together.  But we had no choice.  We had to make a decision and there were multiple outcomes of the decision which required a lot of trust.  Trust to work with a realtor we didn’t actually know, to confirm KC was where we wanted to move, to pick out a suitable house (no easy feat in the urban core of a complicated city), to ensure Shotzee got the care he needed, and for one of us to face having Shotzee put to sleep in our absence and the other to put him to sleep while home alone.   Thinking of all these decisions now, I see how we could have drawn a very complex diagram with corresponding risk analysis weighing all of the options.  But in the end, it was relatively straightforward.  My husband had never been to Kansas City and he had been in contact with our realtor up until that point so he was most familiar with her.  It really didn’t make sense for him not to go.  And while it wasn’t really discussed in conversation, if I had to choose between picking out the house I was going to live in and deciding what medical care my dog was going to receive, I would choose the dog.  No contest.

So our strategic plan to go to KC together was out the window.  All three of us went to the airport:  myself, my husband, and Shotzee.  My husband went on to KC by himself to look at houses with our completely unfamiliar realtor.  And I stayed home to care for Shotzee…and put him to sleep three days later while my husband was gone.  The day after my husband returned to Portland, we put an offer in on a foreclosed home in Kansas City made possible and facilitated by our outstanding realtor.  I never saw the home or the neighborhood before we bought it other than in photos.

When I tell this story, people are stunned that I bought a house I had never seen.  The wonder at how I could put so much of the weight of this decision in my husband’s hands.  And the answer is pretty simple…

I trusted him.

Letting Go

In this world of proliferating spiritual self-help material, there is always a lot of spaced dedicated to letting go.  Whether one is trying to learn how to let go of a bad relationship or delve deep into mystical waters of Buddhism, the destination point is inevitably this place of willing acceptance, of relinquishing control, and of recognizing that our ability to move forward hinges on this ability to ceasing grasping.  “Let go or be dragged” the Zen proverb goes, and we all nod knowingly with the understanding of our higher selves.  Letting go is an awakening to the potential of the moment:  we recognize that we are suspended in this stream of experience and allow ourselves to move with its current.  No more treading water, frantic, scared or frustrated.  We float peacefully, feeling the respite from clinging.  Letting go is both produced from and manifests as a sense of ease.

What is rarely addressed, at least not explicitly, is what you do when confronted with that thick gnarled  root of the resistance to letting go.  That white knuckled, fingers interlocked grip that finally gives way, not from an awakening realization but from exhaustion.  Or when each finger has to be peeled back, one by one, until the strength of the hold is compromised enough to release.  No sense of peaceful floating as your heart opens in acceptance…just the thump when you hit the ground and the breath is knocked out of you.  Stunned and numb at first, and then filled with regret and sorrow at the loss of not holding on for just one more moment longer.

When the time came to make the decision to put Shotzee to sleep, I had for all intents and purposes arrived at a place of letting go.  I was lucky…I had a lot of rational justifications for coming to this decision.  And I had an amazing veterinarian to help me make sense and validate my perceptions.  While his true age was not known, we knew from the clouding in his eyes that Shotzee was over 12.  He fur had not only started going white around the eyes, but the fur across his whole body had whitened.  Dark gun metal gray when we first adopted him, his last trip to the groomer revealed him to be a pale silver, a little ghostly version of himself as he aged.  Shotzee had been in heart failure for 18 months, 12 months longer than his original life expectancy with heart failure of 6 months.  He was old and he was fragile.  He was highly susceptible to the negative effects of stress and he couldn’t be hospitalized.  And I had promised him that I would not let him suffer at the end of his life.  I was lucky…his vet and I knew that Shotzee had become sick with something he couldn’t recover from (pancreatitis) and that he would only get worse.  While I hoped for the best in the few days leading up to his death (after all, he had rallied so many times before), when I took him in on that final day I knew that I needed to make the hard decision.  Despite a good morning, Shotzee was clearly waning and beginning to struggle to maintain his place in the world.  It was time to let go.

It was too hectic in the hospital to put him down during his visit, so I took Shotzee home for a few final hours and returned after the hospital had closed.  I paid for his euthanisia in advance and told the vet to let the vet techs and other staff know they could feel comfortable coming in the room to say good-bye while we waited.  I held Shotzee in my lap as he received his final visitors, and relinquished him only for a moment to receive the first sedative injection. Then I held him while  the vet feed him treats until he fell asleep under the sedative.  He remained in my lap to receive the final injection.  For a few moments after the vet had confirmed his heart stopped, I held Shotzee knowing it would be the last time. Time to let go.   I got up and handed him over to the vet who laid him gently on the table. We talked about how peaceful he looked and what a handsome boy he had been.

And then I felt the thump as I metaphorically hit the ground and the ensuing stunned paralysis.

I couldn’t leave the room.

Shotzee was gone, but I couldn’t make myself turn around and leave him behind.

And I knew that this was the moment to really let him go.

Suddenly, the series of evaluations and decisions and actions that had led me to this point over the previous few days, from when Shotzee first appeared to be sick to this moment in the hospital standing by his still body, revealed themselves to be the illusory.  Illusory in the sense that all this time I thought I had been letting go, accepting that his life had come to its end.  After all, for the past 18 months Shotzee’s like had been far from guaranteed.  At any time he could suddenly become terminal from his heart, so I had been preparing for this moment for a long time.  Or so I thought.  But now I feel this  type of “preparation” is also an illusion.  Because despite all of this, I felt how tight that grip was up until the last moment and how much effort it took to loosen it enough to turn away and walk out the door. To let go, and to feel those now open hands filling with the grief of loss.