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

Living in Disaster

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.

Displaced, again.

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.


Movement : Chaos/Inertia

People like to measure the value their possessions have by what they would grab in case of a fire.

Question:  What would you take if you had only one minute to leave your house in case of fire?

Answer:  dog

Question:  What would you take if you had only five minutes to leave your house in case of fire?

Answer: dog, leash, dog cookies

Not surprisingly, this tough love prioritization changes dramatically when time measurement increases.

Question:  What would you take if you had six weeks to leave your house in case of selling it and moving across country?

Answer:  everything in the house I touch

Packing to move is somewhat of an oxymoron in that packing instills a sense of a movement only in the beginning.  High value items ease into boxes and wrappings selected just for them.  Large items like my mother’s cedar chest and the bed dominate the logistics of space and placement. Even the books, which when disturbed from their resting places on the shelf always seem to proliferate during the process of moving,  tuck themselves neatly into boxes stacked unobtrusively in the corner.  Each day a new milestone of packing is reached with ease.  At this rate, your possessions feel like they will practically walk themselves out onto the truck in a spontaneous gesture of cooperative effort with you.

And then some silent and unseen measure is passed and the packing slows down.


Suddenly the value of your remaining possessions are less clear.  You struggle to define their meaning and importance:  utility (I need this), sentimentality (I love this), obligation (I don’t need or love this but feel I should pack it).  Questions turn into discussions turn into debates.   Decisions are delayed for more reflection and evaluation.  Certain possessions awkwardly defy standard packing materials.  Items are sorted and shuffled repeatedly, but organization and prioritization appear lost to you as your environment grows increasingly more chaotic.  And each attempt to bring a sense of order contributes to an increasing sense of inertia as less and less is packed.  You keep expecting your growing frustration to be a catalyst to simply discard that which clearly is not of critical importance, but there is some sticky residue of holding on that thwarts these efforts…every time you touch something.

It is insidious.  You can look at that pile of stuff in the corner and in your mind think, “just give it away”.  Then you pick something up and hold it and remember something about it…when it came in handy or even when you simply imagine it might be useful.  And you move it from the “give away” pile to the “pack eventually” pile.  And at the end of the day it is like a cruel joke to look at the piles you started with and realize how much you still have left to pack.

It is very hard to resist not simply setting it all on fire.

The Pareto principle states that 80% of effects come from 20% of causes.  When you are moving, 80% of the chaos/inertia will invariably come from only 20% of your possessions.  And they won’t be the ones you like or need the most.  In fact, they will most likely be things you are ambivalent about and might not have even seen in years.  Things that can be purchased cheaply and replaced easily.  Their charms do not appear evident, but do not be fooled of their power.  Do not touch them.  Leave them be until you are ready to move them into a donation bin.  And then, do not think about them.  Just move them out.

Otherwise, as the Borg say, resistance is futile.

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.

Leaving Portlandia

There have been two universal reactions to my announcement that I was going to move from Portland to the Mid-West:  surprise and disbelief.  But I also found a number of people who, if given a few moments to find clear and honest footing in the conversation, could see through the self-absorbed mental fog that covers the city in equal measure to the grey rain clouds and tells its inhabitants every day that Portland is the most amazing possible place in this country to live.  The amount of media devoted to reinforcing this idea is overwhelming in the sense that I believe it has overwhelmed people’s ability to have their own thoughts and identity in Portland.  Instead they have a Portland identity…because they live in Portland and that is what  defines them.

On the surface, Portland has many progressive aspects.  Sustainability and the “greening of the city” stand front and foremost as two easily recognized.  Curbside recycling and composting, increasing investment in bicycle transportation, native gardening, and urban farming.  There is an intense concentration of a wide range of alternative health practitioners. Artisan craftspeople abound, creating specialty foods and other handcrafted products.  “Shop local” is the resounding cry to support small businesses, and farmers markets adorn every neighborhood in the summertime.

Idyllic as this sounds, there is a less appealing aspect to this picture.  As Portland concentrates is cultural practices into a few baskets, the proliferation of other ideas diminishes.  Ten years ago I would have characterized Portland as a place that had progressive perspectives.  Now I would characterize Portland as a place with few ideas, all perpetually reinforced and more deeply ingrained everyday.  People regurgitate a handful of versions of the same thoughts in ever narrowing expressions.  Everywhere you look it is repetition of the same ideas, whether it be on politics, design, or social culture. People strive to look the same, to dress the same, and to have the same lifestyle.  It is so pervasive, that women within a 30 to 40 year age range may display similar choices in hair, dress, and accessories.  What began as a city with progressive and forward looking ideas to develop a new urban course has become a closed container of cultural conformity.  There is a new cookie cutter in Portland, and it is young, alterna-hip, and white.

I grew up in a place like this…it is called Orange County.

Sweeping shocked gasps aside, this comparison is worth a long pause to consider.  Stripping away the key difference between Multnomah and Orange County of political affiliation, with Orange County being a historic Republican stronghold and Portland staunchly Democrat, these two counties have some key cultural similarities all hinging on a pivotal word used above:  conformity.  Conformity of dress, thought, and mannerisms, shared ideas and ideals, and a strong attitudinal belief that their is a “right” or “correct” way to be and to appear to others.  There is also limited interest or investment in the arts, creative, innovative, or intellectual development.  Just because the surface ideals these two places seem extremely different from each other, does not mean that they don’t breed the same obedience to a self-referencing norm within themselves.  And by perpetuating their particular cultures and tailoring their environments to fit with a narrow range of ideals, the inhabitants of these areas increasingly live on the margins of reality and instead inhabit a fabricated cocoon of their own self-rewarding design.

What disturbed me most about Portland in the months leading up to my decision to leave was the increasingly strong social culture of invisibility.  I am referring to the tendency of people in Portland to not acknowledge the physical presence of other people around them in close proximity.  This can easily be seen by the increasing tendency of people to brush past you without making eye contact or saying “excuse me” and instead being intensely focused on some spot just beyond your left shoulder.  But it manifests in countless other ways:  letting dogs off leash (and not picking up after them), ignoring red lights and stop signs, allowing children license to act out without discipline in the presence of other adults.  In this city where conformity to a particular identity is so strong, people no longer see each other as people.  People come in and out of your field of vision as an object to be ranked according to usefulness to you, and invariably avoided, ignored and dismissed the majority of the time. It is unpleasant, unsettling and dehumanizing.  The countless tiny social interactions we have with other people throughout the day are the glue that hold us together as a community and keep us from being automatons randomly bumping into one another like the balls in a pinball machine.  And this critical stickiness in Portland is dissolving rapidly.  As people lose the ability to engage and connect with one another, there appears to be an increasingly growing level of resentment, frustration and anger brewing under the surface of social interactions.  Not just ones where overt conflict is involved, but all of them.  Because it feels like they all contain some level of conflict just by the occurrence of people being together in a place, time and circumstance.

There is little likelihood that I would ever have been physically assaulted in Portland.  But I think there is a pretty strong likelihood that if I were physically assaulted that no one around me would react or get involved or help.  Because chances are, I wouldn’t even be seen.

When confronted with difficult situations or challenging environments, often it is heard “it’s the people that keep me here…keep me working, living, etc. in this place despite its shortcomings”.  In Portland, the situation is reversed….the environment is being made increasingly pleasant and comfortable, but it is the people that make it so difficult to live there.

Moving Away, Moving Towards

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.