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What makes a home?
reflections on belonging
Wild Letters is a weekly newsletter about self-exploration and building a right-fit life. Thank you for being here with me!
I live in a house that was built in 1850.
Under this one roof there have been 173 years of love and meals and fighting and sex and birth and death. How many stories do these walls hold?
The first occupant was a 30-year-old bootmaker, a man who bought the original one-acre plot of land for $50 and built a house for his second wife and their growing family.
His first wife, Mary, died at age 29. The historical records do not tell us how she died, nor do they tell us anything at all about this woman other than who she was married to — just another in the countless line of women who have been known only as a footnote to their husbands, all information about them outside of their role of “wife” floating away on whispers and wind.
Would she have liked this house, that mysterious first wife?
For more than 30 years the bootmaker lived in his home, until he died at age 66. His second wife, Maria, survived him by 32 years, a fact I only know from looking at the dates on their tombstones in the local cemetery because of course there is no other information to be found about her, either. What did she do for those 32 husband-free years? Was she lonely? Was she happy? We will never know.
In 1920 the house was sold, to a man who worked for the railroad express. This man had four children, one of whom married my partner’s great grandfather, which is how it came to be that on March 31st of last year, under the dark sky of a new moon, Gent and I moved into this house ourselves. He is now the 3rd generation in his family to live here; I do not have generations of family history in any house, anywhere in the world.
This house is the 26th place that I have lived in 37 years. Only it does not yet feel like home to me because what is home if you have never stayed still, never stayed put, never allowed yourself to become grounded and tethered to one small corner of the earth?
We moved here because we couldn’t not move here — that is what I told myself. The chance to live in a house that is owned by Gent’s family, a house that has no mortgage and therefore no rent for us to pay, a house where we could live indefinitely as long as we kept paying the utility bills, that felt like an un-turndownable offer. This is exactly what I thought to myself when Gent first proposed the idea: I can not turn down this offer.
Except I did not want to live in the suburbs of Boston. I did not want to move to a town where the only people I knew were Gent and his family. Starting over again just sounded so efforty — an arduous slog of all the tiny steps it takes over many years to build entirely new friendships and right-fit local community, only this time it would need to happen during a pandemic. I did not want to do it. I did not, I did not, I did not.
But: free housing. Free. Housing. The blinding glare of the un-turndownable offer.
And so I moved. I did all the paperwork to become an official Massachusetts resident. This is the smartest choice, I assured myself. Who turns down an un-turndownable offer?
Moving here made me lonely, as I knew it would. And as the lonely weeks stretched into lonely months I soon began to do the one thing I had always promised myself I would never do: I allowed my partner to become my sole source of socialization and in-person companionship, watching the clock until I knew he would be headed home from work, latching onto him the moment he walked in the door, pouring all of my neediness and my desperately unmet cravings for connection into our relationship and our relationship only. This worked exactly as well as you might imagine.
Gent is an introvert, more so than most anyone I have ever met. His job requires him to be around lots of people, many of whom he doesn’t like, for eight to ten hours at a time. When he comes home he wants to be alone, at least for a little while, before he can truly be with me. I understand this. I understood it back then too, during those first few months after we moved into our house, but understanding it did not make me less irrationally resentful. I had moved here! And moving here made me so lonely. Didn’t he see how lonely I was? Didn’t he know that unless I went to the grocery store or ran some other small errand he was the only person I interacted with all day?
My loneliness and my feelings of detachment from this new, unfamiliar place were not Gent’s problem to solve. Even in the spiky depths of my resentment I knew that I was being unfair. It is not Gent’s responsibility to be the center of my social life. I do not even want a relationship like that. And yet I still couldn’t shake the feeling that in moving to the place he wanted to be, the place his family lived, the place were he grew up, I was essentially stepping off my own path and walking down his path instead.
The fact of the un-turndownable housing offer only exacerbated this feeling for me, of walking down someone else’s path. This was not my house; it would never be my house; me living here was contingent upon staying in this one relationship. And yet as soon as the option became a possibility I knew I was not going to turn down a rent-free house. I felt (and still feel) deeply grateful to his dad for even making this a reality for us. But the un-turndownable nature of the offer somehow made moving here feel like even less of a choice for me. If something is the only option that makes any sense is it really a choice at all?
For months I felt trapped. Trapped in this town, trapped in my loneliness, and trapped most of all by my shame over not properly appreciating the wild privilege of this housing situation. I got to live in a free house. A free house! What the fuck was wrong with me that I couldn’t feel happy about it?
Here is the thing about un-turndownable offers: they almost never exist.
Unless it is truly a matter of life and death (and sometimes even then), nothing is un-turndownable.
I did not have to move to Massachusetts. I did not need to agree to live in this house. There were other options.
I could have continued living in my van. I could have moved out of the van, kept my current income the same, cut back on hiking and travel, and started paying rent by no longer saving and investing for my future. Or I could have found a way to increase my income, keep saving and traveling, and simply add rent into my budget the same way I have done since I was 18 years old.
Which means that I could, in fact, have turned down this offer.
Realizing this, that I was not actually backed into any kind of corner last winter, realizing that I did not need to choose this and yet I chose it anyway has helped me to start changing my language and my perspective. I am trying to stop referring to it as an un-turndownable offer because that feels disempowering. You could have turned it down, I remind myself. And yet you didn’t.
Last fall I took a three month break from Instagram.
Mostly I wanted to regain some measure of creative attention. I wanted to strengthen my ability to do deep and focused work. But I was also curious about how leaving the alluring digital (and global) playground of Instagram might help me to root down more fully in my actual, tangible surroundings. If I spent fewer hours on my phone would I finally make time for the local food bank? Would I drive to the next town over and get a day pass to the women’s coworking space? Would I learn the names of all the trees that stand tall and quiet across the four acres of land that I am now a steward of?
I want to have a local love affair, I wrote in my journal. I want to date this place. Romance this town. Get to know my house until it is as familiar and beloved to me as everything else I hold dear.
Part of me feels like this should be easy. I already live here! I’ve been trying! What’s taking so long! This is the part of me that believes everyone else knows something I don’t about how to make a home, how to make a life.
This part of me can be mean. This part of me says: If you had not moved around so often, not been so flighty, then you wouldn’t be feeling so rootless and unstable right now. What is wrong with you that you have made it to almost-middle-aged adulthood without having any proper kind of home?
I am so tired of this mean self. She is such a bully. She bullies me without any nuance, without compassion nor empathy for the fact that I lived in three different houses by the time I was three years old, that moving itself is my foundation. Move move move move move.
Home is something I have only ever known how to make within myself — I see that now.
My body is where I live, it is the only thing I always take with me wherever I go, whenever I leave. My mind is my home, my heart is my home, and for many years now the quiet work of my life has been to cultivate this inner home into one where I can truly cozy up, where I feel like I belong.
I don’t need an actual home, I have always told myself.
But what if I want one anyway?