The house has been empty for a while. More than just days…more like weeks, months.
When you enter the home, you are struck by the intermingling of cold and the musty odor. It gives the air a tangible quality you must push through as you enter so it doesn’t force you back onto the porch. It seems colder than outside as cold has sunk into every corner and cranny. The brief wafting of fresh air into the house as you enter dissipates as soon as the front door shuts behind you and the air closes upon itself again. Still, leaden, and unmoving. There is no water and no power. It has been like this a long time: without pulse and without breath. It feels abandoned.
We didn’t anticipate buying a house in this state of un-livability. We knew it was vacant, a foreclosed property in the hands of Fannie Mae. But it hadn’t been on the market long and the house was fully intact when we made the offer. The first piece of bad news came the day Fannie Mae accepted our offer: someone had cut through the screened back porch, broken the glass pane on the back door, gone down into the basement and removed all of the copper plumbing. The second piece came on the day the house closed: someone had entered the same way (turns out the property manager didn’t secure the back door) and had cut all of the lines to the electrical panel and taken part of the furnace.
No water, no power, no heat.
You walk through this cold, musty home and there is no welcoming. No warmth or vibrancy. The day is gray and cold despite it being spring. And the house agrees. No signs of life here. Inertia is beginning to come with a feeling of deja-vu. Back to the hotel and long list of phone calls to find contractors in an unfamiliar city.
Walking through the house, I think, “this must be a glimpse into what it is like returning to your home after a disaster.” Grateful to be home, but not really home. Grateful for plumbing, but not able to shower because there is no hot water. Not able to cook or keep perishables because there is no power. Then the power is on, but there is still no heat. The unseasonably cold spring is more salient to you as you put on another sweater and sleep under every blanket with socks on. Seems like it takes an hour for the bed to warm up. It is too cold to unpack and too cold to clean. You drift from room to room rubbing your hands like a distraught ghost, haunting your own house.
Then the day comes that there is water, hot water, power and heat all together.
The house begins to hum, only you hear a symphony.
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.
Based on my numerous conversations with people prior to moving halfway across the country, it appears that the degree to which people comfortably assimilate notions of change is deeply influenced by the magnitude of movement embedded in that change. It is as though there is a “movement spectrum of magnitude” and the extent to which you can easily grasp and accept the need, or even simply the desire, to move (or change) depends on where and how broad a band of this spectrum your own personal comfort range covers.
At one end of this spectrum there is spontaneous, intuitive movement, action based on instinct and motivated by emotion, catalyzed by the collision of outer circumstance and one’s inner landscape. Perception plus emotion equals movement. And the potential for dramatic movement is inherent in this dynamic. At the opposite end of the spectrum is strategic movement, action based on analysis and motivated by perceived benefit, with all the competing stakeholders being taken into consideration. Reason plus justification equals movement. The potential here is for increasingly incremental movement as competing interests, complicated histories, and oftentimes simple inertia create narrow constraints in which to act.
Where any of us falls on this spectrum is an intersection of numerous variables: personality, age, life experience, and so on. But I think we can all agree on a recognizable pattern of starting at the end of intuition and impulse in our youth and gradually drifting down the spectrum to the responsible realm of planned, thought out, and carefully considered movement and change.
While I love the neat and clear dichotomy of this logical construct, I find myself asking the question, how can strategic thinking paradoxically result in dramatic and spontaneous change? How can perceptual observations colored by emotional reactions insinuate themselves into the methodical planning process and drive a revision of strategy, perhaps even altering it dramatically through immediate and significant change? Perhaps instead of being at two opposing ends of a spectrum, these seeming opposites actually sit side by side and continuously influence one another through this contiguous proximity?
After answering repeated variations of the same questions people had regarding my decision to move (nearly all of them beginning with the word “why”), I started joking that I should have put together a PowerPoint presentation which would present a logical construct and progression of ideas that eventually led to the decision to move. Perhaps something with some flowchart diagrams and a cost/benefit analysis. And while there is a logical narrative of sorts behind my choice to move, the actual experience of moving has proven to be more complex and full of serendipitous events than such summarized version could explain. And not only would the above questions remain unanswered, but other questions around how do we justify why we move, how we move, when we choose to trigger a move, and where we move to would also be left unexamined. There is no good twenty word or less explanation…at least not for me.