Friday, May 28, 2021

The soul of a house

 I don't know where I got the idea of the lifelong family home. It certainly wasn't from my family. My father and three out of four of my grandparents were in the military, so although we didn't move that often, I always understood a house is a base of operations where you live for a while before moving to the next place. When I was a kid, I always wanted to move.

Maybe it was It's a Wonderful Life. You know how Mary wishes on a broken window that she could someday live in that drafty old house, and then she does? She makes a home of it, somehow, painting while the kids are in their playpen and putting up with the banister end coming off all the time. Which gives the impression that it is affordable and possible to buy a big house and fill it with children if you're just not picky about banister ends. We got awfully close to buying one of those for our first home, till the inspector said "no, the back of the house is literally sliding off, you cannot possibly." What a buzzkill, that guy.

Anyway, here's the dream. You buy a house when your first child is a baby, or before. (Already the millennials in the room are shaking their heads at me.) It's in a good neighborhood, with a nice yard. Or maybe it's out in the country, but still close to work.

It's not a perfect house. It's probably inconveniently laid out and the paint is a little chipped. And that's when you start. Over the years you build onto it or knock out that inconvenient wall, probably by yourself. The gardens develop thick soil from years of planting. You put in an apple seedling, and by the time your kids are teenagers they're harvesting apples.

You know how the Velveteen Rabbit becomes real when all his fur gets loved off? That's what happens to houses. There's a doorway somewhere with marks showing all your kids' heights at different ages. There's a door that doesn't close right because a kid swung on it too much. Your kids have names for the different faces you can see in the paint chips. There's been a heap o' living there.

Most importantly, you stay there the entire time your kids are growing up. They never have to leave. You look at old photo albums and everyone knows the house, because they're sitting in it while they look at the album. The neighbor's baby grows up alongside your baby, and 18 years later they have their first kiss in that apple tree you planted when they were toddlers. Of course you couldn't leave that house. That house is family.

You stay in that house when all the kids are gone, and fix it up a bit the way you never could when they were underfoot. But you keep a couple boxes of their toys under the stairs, and when your grandkids come over, they sleep in their dad's old bed. With luck, you die in that house, peacefully in your bed.

I don't know how often that ever happened. People have always had to move, for one reason or another. But it feels even less possible now. Nobody stays at one job their whole career anymore; they carefully hop diagonally through the job market, accepting big changes to go slightly upward because they're never getting a raise where they are. Nobody has money enough, early on in their career, to buy a house big enough for the family they'll have later. We could never have bought this house when Marko was a toddler, but we also could never have fit four kids into the house we did buy. And nobody can be certain their kids will stay in the area; people of my generation and class very commonly live across the country from their families. When we were young, flying to visit seemed easy. Now that we're older, moving closer seems impossible.

Houses these days seem like commodities more than homes. You have to be doing improvements all the time. Mark your children's heights on the wall? Heck no. You need to be updating the kitchen for when you sell it. Don't make it too individual, too yours.

Selling a house feels like ripping the soul from its body. You tone down your presence in the home, you clean it to make it look like you don't even live there. And soon you won't. The house you filled with your laughter is a set of bare floors by the time you say goodbye to it. You'll miss it all your life, but your last memory of it is just echoing rooms.

Sometimes I think I like houses more than I like people, because I cry when they're sold and I don't always cry when I say goodbye to people. Then again, often a person's house is a symbol, in my mind, of the person. I miss my great-grandpa's house because it was his, because a big part of what I ever knew of him was his house. He talked to the grownups, but we kids were downstairs investigating his knickknacks, discovering what kind of a person he was from the things he left lying around.

The house I loved the most was my grandparent's lake cabin. My grandpa built so much of it himself, and I remember the process from bare beach to the polished, hand-carved towel hooks. It was in such a special place, where we made so many important memories. But most of all, it was his house. It meant Grampy to me, in a lot of ways, while their town house held more of Grandma's soul.

I did take my kids to that town house, showing them the couch with lemon upholstery and the elephant statue and the trees. It felt like a link I had to forge, connecting my children with at least one place I had been as a child. The house I grew up in was sold when I was fourteen. Now my parents don't even live in the same state. It feels disconcerting, wrong. That a place I felt was my home no longer has a place I can stay.

I feel like I am taking something away from my kids by moving, even though they are mostly on board with the move now. I wanted them to have roots. I wanted a place that connected them to their memories, so the past doesn't seem like it happened to somebody else. I wanted them to feel more grounded in a place than I have been able to be.

I didn't want them to feel homesick their entire lives, like me.

I've stopped being agrarian because I no longer feel like it explains anything or has any of the answers. But, even though I don't have an alternative, I still object to modern society. Maybe the things that were traded away were for good reasons. But sometimes I feel it was because nobody felt they were worth anything at all. I don't think people get what I mean when I say a house has a soul, when I say it has to be more than an asset and a way to save on rent.

But, if I linger in this house when the movers are gone and hide in the closet to whisper goodbye to its bare bones, I hope you understand why.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

The city mouse and the country mouse

I grew up at the edge of a city, but I always dreamed of being a farmer or living way out in the country. Living here in a small town has been the closest I've ever gotten to that.

In many ways, living in a small town is the best of both worlds: there's plenty of nature around, but it's still five minutes to the grocery store. And our town isn't so small as to limit what we can access very much. There might be fewer options, but we have doctors, dentists, restaurants, even a (rather minimal) hospital.

Despite that, though, we're moving 45 minutes closer to the big city, to a suburb I'm just going to call Bigger Town. Because what we don't have are jobs that pay a one-income living for a family of six. John's been commuting over 90 minutes a day for about two years now, and that's really sapped his spirit. He's tried and tried, but librarians in this area tend to make under $40,000 a year--it's a job for married ladies whose husbands also work, or perhaps older people who don't want to retire.

I'm sad about it, but I'm also trying to find the bright side in moving closer to the city. Tons of people would love to live near a city, and many would never dream of living anywhere else.


Cities are full of things to do. Museums, restaurants, concerts, big libraries, water parks, community theaters, classes for kids. The libraries have more books. The shopping district has more shops.

In the city, there are more people to hang out with. That means a better chance of finding people who share your interests. I could find a writing group near me. I hear there's even a children's Magic: The Gathering club.

Downside of all this is that there are people when you don't want to be with people. Your yard is small if you have any, and you might share walls with noisy people. The streets are never quiet. More people means less starlight and birdsong.

My relationships with humans have always been fraught. The worst thing nature has ever done to me has been a bee sting. So it's no wonder I tend to pick nature every time.

But, you know, I'm looking to relearn how to interact with people, so maybe having a lot of opportunities to do that will be Good For Me.


The tradeoff for more people is less nature. I live next to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River. It's absolutely gorgeous here, especially if you go two minutes or so out of town. Even from our upstairs windows we can see the Blue Ridge. 

Seattle has a giant mountain and two large bodies of water going for it--you still get to look at some nature, even in the middle of the city. Bigger Town isn't like that. It has parks, but you have to go to them. It's flat, and I don't like flat.

Here, we have woods in our actual yard. Okay, a strip of trees, but you can climb them. We have lots of birds. We have redbuds and dogwoods and holly. When I'm feeling depressed, it's hard for me to get in the car and go somewhere. But I can sit at the window or go out in the yard and get some nature therapy. I really feel it feeds my soul.

High population density, I am told, is much better for the environment. Living closer to work means less energy use and emissions. Townhouses and apartments mean less land is taken up with housing and more can be left for animal habitats. Our yard is populated by deer and bears, but that's because their proper wild habitat is shrinking. As roads encroach into the forest, more animals are killed in road accidents. So love of nature should encourage me not to live smack in the middle of it.

And it does, but it's tough.


Small Town is more diverse than you'd think, but it's very segregated. The Justice Map shows our current neighborhood as 100% white. Just down the hill there's a little block that's allegedly 100% Black. I'm sure that's at least somewhat inaccurate, but not by a lot. 

They say what you see growing up is what you expect, what you assume is normal and right. I grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood, and I think that was good for me. I knew racist garbage for racist garbage early on, because it wasn't accurate to what I'd experienced. I'd like the same for my kids.

Bigger towns and cities are almost always much more diverse. And the town we're moving to is much more shaded and speckly on the Justice Map. Feels . . . I dunno . . . more American. More representative of what this country is actually like.


Cities are more liberal. It's a reason I wanted out of the city to begin with, back when I was ten million times more conservative than I am now. Small Town is red as red can be. Trump and Thin Blue Line flags everywhere. Racist comments said openly. People lining the street to pray the rosary against gay marriage. Awkwardly, a lot of those people know me and don't know I think differently now, so I find myself constantly being assumed much more conservative than I am. I don't want to start fights, but I also don't want to smile and nod through a rant about how trans people are ruining society.

I find it ironic in the extreme that I was so conservative when I lived in Seattle and am so liberal now that I live here. Maybe I'm a little contrary. Maybe I just didn't understand just how much further right the right wing went.

Anyway, Bigger Town is about 60% Democrat, meaning it's liberal, but shouldn't be a bubble either. I would like to meet some more like-minded people.


A thing they don't tell you, when you're considering a life path, is that most college-track jobs are in cities. College specializes you, and the more specialized the thing you do, the less likely you'll be able to find an opening for it in a town of 10,000. Small towns have openings for doctors, lawyers, dentists, real estate agents, and optometrists. Teachers and librarians too, but the pay will be low. If you have student loans, you might not be able to pay them on a small-town salary.

Plumbers, cashiers, mechanics, barbers, and factory workers are needed everywhere. You can pick a town and live there; there will probably be a job for you. Though if you want to move from a small town to a larger city, you may find cost of living is a barrier.


You know all that fun stuff available in cities? The vast majority of it costs money. Whereas the entertainment available here in Small Town is largely cheap or free: hiking, wading, swimming in the creek. If we want to pay money, we can swim in the pool or rent a canoe. It's not terribly expensive.

In the city, everything costs so much more. The houses, the groceries, the activities. Making the switch is going to be tough. In Small Town, we've been living (relatively) like kings the past few years. Large house, large yard, cheap groceries. To move to Bigger Town, we will have to downsize by about 500 square feet of house and almost all the yard. We certainly can't keep up the suburban lifestyle some people manage close to the big city. Those houses are like a million dollars.


I never wanted to be rich, I just wanted to be surrounded by beauty. It took me years of adulthood to realize that beauty costs money.

The country is beautiful, right? My dream was something like this:

It turns out this costs a bundle. If you are poor and live in the country, what you can afford is more like this:

Likewise, there are beautiful, picturesque city neighborhoods, like this one:

But if you're of reasonable means, you're just as likely to live here:

So the short answer is, if you want beauty, try being upper-middle class. Or at least don't try to raise four kids on one income. The first street we lived on in this town wasn't aesthetic at all. Where we live now is much nicer, but it costs an amount that hardly anybody pays out here.

That said, there are more free beautiful things in the country. The spur of the mountains that sticks out over Small Town is one of my favorite things, and I see it any time I drive anywhere. There are lovely drives all over this area. Even just taking the kids to school means driving past people's beautifully landscaped yards, with tulips and flowering trees . . . and yes, some number of crumbling buildings and cars on cinderblocks.

I've had ten years of practice finding the beauty here. I know where it is, and I am familiar enough with the ugly bits that my eye skips over them. Whereas when I go to Bigger Town, I mostly see this: 

The main drag is just one long soul-destroying succession of strip malls interspersed with used car lots. I hate it.

But, of course, there's more to the town than that. There are some lovely parks. There are cute, picturesque neighborhoods. The house we're hoping to buy is surrounded by some patches of trees, so I won't be starved for nature. And the art museum isn't very far.

And perhaps I can see beauty in some unexpected things. I always need to learn to do that more. People, for instance. That's a place beauty can always be found, but fear keeps me from looking.

* * *

I cried today, driving back from the grocery store. I will definitely miss living here. And it feels deeply unfair the way life conspires to push me away from things I want, the way none of the choices are simple and easy, the way decisions made long ago tie us down into consequences nobody wanted. I get so deeply attached to places. I'm sometimes struck with homesickness for a place I visited one time, for one week.

Small Town is going on the huge mantlepiece in my mind of Places I'll Miss Forever. And I'm going to a place that feels terrifying and strange, though I have lived there before. I worry my soul will be flattened out, stomped, suffocated.

But a line of a poem came to me, And for all this, nature is never spent. Flowers grow in crannied walls and sunsets happen everywhere. I need the Earth, but I won't be leaving her. So maybe that's going to be enough.

Friday, May 7, 2021

The old Babysitters Club and the new show

 Next up on my "reread and ruin classics from my childhood" is The Babysitters Club. I devoured those books as a kid. There must have been a million. And they were a quick read, perfect for winning library reading challenges. Sometimes I'd read several in a single day.

I remember being really jealous of these girls, with their independence and their babysitting jobs and their tight friend group. I had none of those things. Of course, I was about nine and ten when I read them. My dream was to be like them when I was a bit older (I was not).

With that vaguely in my memory, I sat down to watch the show by myself, and within moments was swarmed by kids who also wanted to watch it. They picked it for their shows most nights, especially Miriam and Michael (6 and 9).

You guys, I loved it. That feel of girls living their best lives and being responsible and solving friendship problems was just how I remembered. The characters looked and acted how I imagined, though the ones in the show are a bit more diverse (Mary Anne is biracial and Dawn is Hispanic). Their personal styles are updated (no leg warmers or giant ponytails) but their vibes are the same. Claudia is my fashion icon, personally. Kristy remains totally "square, don't care." Stacey, I assume, is still cool. I wouldn't know what the cool kids wear these days.

They stuck closer than most reboots to the original plots: Kristy not wanting her mom to get remarried, Claudia's grandmother Mimi having a stroke, Dawn moving into the area, Mary Anne shyly crushing on Logan. Like the books, each show is narrated by a different girl but includes what's going on in the lives of the other girls. And like the books, each episode contains some actual babysitting.

A few new issues are introduced: Janine explains internment to Claudia; Mary Ann babysits a trans girl (and stands up for her bravely). Some stuff went over my kids' heads. In one episode, Kristy gets her period, and I had to explain that to my kids. Which is fine, they were due for it. It makes me wonder: what age is BSC really for? The girls are about 12 or 13, but I know I read them much younger, and here my kids are watching the show that young too. I think the appeal could be pretty wide: my kids certainly enjoyed it, but there are nods to things only adults would really catch (Handmaid's Tale and Hunger Games references). 

Most of all, I loved watching the girls face their demons (Mary Ann's shyness, Kristy's bossiness, Claudia's grades, Stacy's fear of bullying) and come out on top. I honestly felt a little teary at times rooting for "my girls." It's just such a preteen show, where (for instance) learning to say no to a pushy adult is a serious Triumph. You feel the full weight of everything the way the girls do, that is, deeply.

Anyway, after watching it I had to go back and read at least one of the books. I hadn't realized just how easy they are to read--really, more like a second-grade reading level than a seventh-grade one. That's actually a benefit, meaning they can work both for younger kids dreaming of being older and for actual preteens who aren't strong readers. The style is very breezy and light. No wonder I plowed through them so fast.

But the depth in the show is definitely there in the books. There's a lot of babysitting; honestly I probably learned most of what I used in my early babysitting work from them.

Verdict? They hold up, and the show is every bit as good.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...