nest

blue nest
(…this post is continued from here…)

Finding a place that really looks and feels like home doesn’t always happen. Most of us make do with the place we’re in but I imagine everyone must have a dream home, a perfect place they’ve built in their head, the ideal space for an ideal self. I like to pretend I’ll live there one day but it’s never going to happen. Even if a person had endless money to spend, this ideal home could never get built because it is, by definition, a dream. Its features change according to my mood. It has amorphous edges, moveable walls, and adjustable proportions. It’s not a blueprint, it’s a patchwork collage of impressions and desires.

My imaginary home has two tall stories and extremely spare modern lines. It’s made of recycled materials, wood beams, concrete, and lots of glass. It has a library with built-in bookshelves, an herb garden, and an enormous claw-footed bath tub. There are no neighbors and it’s always 78 degrees so I can walk around naked if I want. It’s surrounded by beautiful land, oak trees, maybe a river, but also magically within walking distance to my mother’s house, a library, and a grocery store. When I open my eyes in the morning, I can look out the window at a vast expanse, including Mt. Tam and the bay and the city in the distance. I often see things that would be perfect for my dream house (huge paintings, a white sofa, a cashmere blanket, the perfect shade of grey or green or even pink, an enormous dining table that could fit the whole party, cacti in architectural planters, a collection of old Mexican animal pottery, etc., etc.,) objects I will never own because they don’t fit my real life. I used to lech after these things but now, I just take a mental picture and put it in the house in my head.

It’s always clean in my head-house and our kids live with us forever because they never grow up (except when they do, at which point they will move to the beautiful house across the street so the grandkids can come over to play). There are so many rooms I can’t remember them all so I sometimes open a door and find one I’d completely forgotten–a Turkish bath, a fully stocked pantry, a windowless womb-room lined floor to ceiling with furry pillows, a tiny space that looks exactly like a train compartment with a moving picture window and fitted with seats that rock as if the room is running along a rail–you get the picture. The more I dream, the dreamier it gets.

Although I’ve never lived in a dream house, I have felt like I’ve found home. Regardless of my ideal, the homiest places I’ve found had specific qualities in common: good light, good neighbors, modest proportions, and a distinct funk factor. As an undergrad at UC Berkeley, I inherited a studio apartment from a friend at 2320 Haste Street, on the top floor in back, next to the infamous Barrington Hall, a student housing co-operative (in this case, a euphemism for a commune), the last bastion of sixties counterculture. When I looked out my window to the right I could see Barringtonians on the roof, doc Martins dangling over the edge and a fog of smoke and punk rock music hanging in the air between us. In the building behind mine lived a man who liked to expose himself, but only if I was looking. If I forgot to draw my curtains at night I’d awake to the sight of him pulling down his pants to give me a quick look before I shut the curtain. On October 17th, 1989, at 5:04 pm I was standing in the middle of my room when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit and for 10 or 15 seconds as I surfed the bucking hardwood floor while the sash windows rattled like castanets and my books cascaded to the floor, I was astonished and grateful for the limberness of that old building’s bones.

After graduation, I moved to a houseboat on an illegal dock in Sausalito. The Gates Cooperative was (and still is) a floating commune, a bunch of homemade houses built from various pieces of flotsam and jetsam. I lived in an old 22 foot tugboat set on a rectangular cement basin and topped with a mildewed canvas tarp. It had windows all the way around, a tiny galley kitchen with a stove that ran off a propane tank strapped outside the window, a captain’s quarters astern where I slept surrounded by windows, rocked to sleep by the tides and the constant comforting sounds of water lapping against my walls, the hum of the sump-pump, seals barking, screeching seagulls, and neighbors hammering their houses back together. Never before or since have I lived in such a wonderful place.

Subsequent moves to an icebox in Wellsley, Mass, my first dorm room (111 square feet in Childs Hall, part of Harvard’s graduate student housing), a tacky surf shack at the end of 41st Avenue in Santa Cruz, and a tiny studio in the Berkeley hills did not measure up but finally, John and I had saved enough to buy a cedar shingled home in the flats of Berkeley that had partially burned down in the 70‘s and been fixed up by a boozy contractor who’d invite his carpenter friends over and for forties and games with power tools. He sold it to a woman who lived in the half-finished house with her aging mother and 17 indoor cats which had been “trained to use the toilet.” When we took the tour, the house had been on the market for over a year. We found unpainted walls sprayed with texture, no floor (just subfloor patched with vinyl), a kitchen without cabinets or appliances, and a bathroom saturated in cat piss. The entire length of one wall was lined with empty wine-in-a-boxes stacked floor to ceiling.

I, having had years of experience of squinting through the funk, accustomed to small spaces, with blind faith in the value of good light and bones, somehow convinced John that this was the house for us, although he was also persuaded by the fact that it was what we could afford. I have a photograph of him on moving day. The previous owner left her mess so there’s a ton of garbage heaped on the sidewalk behind him and he’s clutching his checkbook as if it might fly away. If you didn’t know better, you might think that for some reason this sad man has just purchased a pile of trash. The circles around his eyes are so dark it looks like his eyeballs have retreated from the horror, leaving two gaping sockets. His smile is a flat line. His smile wants someone to explain what the hell he got himself into.

Of course, we fixed it up quickly and yes, it was a very smart investment. We’ve called it home for fifteen years, the longest I’ve lived in one place. When I think it’s probably the last place I’Il live, I’m simultaneously sad and relieved: sad because if you don’t move, it’s harder to change and happy because if you don’t have to move you can hunker down and fully experience the life you’re living. All the yearning and waiting and worrying and searching and comparing and moving and buying and fixing and dwelling on the surface of things is over. It’s time to live.

Do you want to move or are you planning on staying?  Where is the best place you’ve ever lived? What’s the softest feather in your nest?

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About Anna Fonté

Girl in the Hat, aka Anna Fonté, is an author who writes about invisibility, outsider status, everyday monsters, and her attempts to befriend the neighborhood crows. The things she writes want you to look at them.

20 comments

  1. I love the description of your dream house, Anna, especially the part with surprise rooms (a Turkish bath!) and grandkids that will eventually live across the street and where it’s 78 degrees all day everyday. I don’t know that I could do better than that.

    I’m living in my dream house and town …. except that I don’t have a yard, or a porch, or a porch swing, or a barn for my rescue horses, or a private lake where a pontoon boat (that never stalls or needs gas) waits for me and some friends to take it out on sunny days with some beers and sunscreen and music from the 1970s.

  2. Todd

    Oh wow, I have so much to say about this one (sorry, I know my blurbs are too long), but I can’t now. Just wondering if everyone from Mill Valley has a special attachment to Mt. Tam. I have an ancient photo of Mt. Tam on the bathroom wall. My sister Kim took it for a photo class at MVMS. I made a Redwood frame for it in the wood shop and we gave it to my dad for a birthday present. That photo has been on the wall of every place I ever lived since I left MV.

    • Mt. Tam is magical. I’d never want to live in Marin as it is today but I’d lie, cheat, and steal if I could live on the mountain again. My mom paints on the mountain (landscapes) and she lets me have any paintings I want so that is second best. In my mind, Mt. Tam is an actual woman, a big lovely woman sleeping there. In my first novel, she was more like a character than a setting. She has a face and a personality.

      • Todd

        I’ve been collecting oil painting of mountains since forever… yard sales, thrift stores, places I can afford. But I don’t have one of Mt. Tam. Do you have one you’d part with? The one with the big tear that fell in the toilet? Name your price. A fist full o’ ducats, doubloons, drachmas, dinars or dollars. I’ll make you co-ruler when I win the lotto. My first born (please) or at least his right arm. Just name it.

        • I have one I love but don’t have room for. It’s a beautiful abstract, gestural look at the mtn. You can have it until I get my dream home. But how do I get it to you? Shipping is expensive.

          • Todd

            Oh wow, are you for real? I expected “Bah, dream on sucker!” I couldn’t borrow it indefinitely from you and surely couldn’t pay what it’s worth. What do you think of this: You put it on loan to me for a year and I loan you one of mine. We’re always up for Christmas or the Dipsea and we could exchange the goods, in a well-lighted public place, in brown paper, so we can’t look first… since art is subjective and we might not like what we got. If you hate mine then stuff it in a closet and next year lie about how it was over the mantle. If you’re just being nice then don’t respond and I’ll forget about it.

  3. I’m not in my dream house by a long stretch, but I’m definitely in a dreamy part of the world. And that’s okay because we’re only renting the place, and over the next few years we’ll save up for a down payment and find our last home. In the meantime, there are pine trees all around and rain almost every day, so I’m happy as can be even if the house itself leaves something to be desired.

  4. Hi Anna,
    My dream home faces the white sand beach of the Gulf of Mexico to the south, on the east is a woodland forest, to the west lay the spine of the Rocky Mountains, and to the north is an open prairie. I know it doesn’t exist (except in my mind), but there it is. I’ve had some of each of those environments in different places we’ve lived. As for houses – tooooo many. My job required a move for each promotion. I think my favorite of all though was a beautiful little villa on the Gulf. If not for grandkids, I’d go back in a heartbeat. Your post, though, does provoke some really interesting thought.
    Paul

    • Kids and grandkids trump all other concerns for sure, Paul. As long as the kids are in the house, all kinds of imperfections can be overlooked. (The Gulf house does sound lovely, though.)

  5. I would have liked to live in your boat, simply from your description. This is a timely post (as yours always seem to be). We are getting ready to list our acreage, where I have lived rustic, off and on, since 1988. I lived in the woods alone with no electricity, moved to a home nearby when I married, and then brought my family back five years ago intending to build. And then cancer took the building fund. So we have lived in a garage, driving to the city for showers, using a porta-potty even in the winter when the seat is frozen. And now friends have offered to sell us their house. Still in the mountains and close, but…a house. A real house. A stove to cook in. A flushing toilet. A hot shower whenever I want. Lights that come on by a switch instead of a flame to a wick. I want these comforts for my husband and son, but I’m torn. Will I become soft when I don’t have to weather the weather? The past five years though, I have put a lot of thought into what makes a house, house-pride, and so on. I’ll actually have a table that friends can sit around. Odd concept.

    • Todd

      Lisa, I don’t think you will let those comforts make you soft and tables are good. Please do stay in the mountains though. You live in a world many of us urban people dream of a lot. We need to know you are there, that it’s possible.

    • I get the worry about getting soft but hey, just think of all the headspace you’ll free up with these small comforts. More time and ease for reading and writing. Your woods sound magical. I wish I could come visit you and sit at your table and walk in those woods. There’s definitely something to be said about living close to nature. Inside it, I mean. I agree with Todd– your setting inspires me.

  6. Yeah, I’ve had the “dream” house and it became a ball and chain dragging down my freedom. I escaped that life and bought a smallish 2-story very close to the campus, therefore I have students for neighbors. The neighborhood, while close to downtown__ just as I wanted, will never improve because the campus continues to spread like a plague, pushing students further and further out. I like to say this is the last place I will live, but with the bedrooms all on the second floor, I know I’m kidding myself. A day will come when I can no longer negotiate the stairs, and at that time it will no longer be smart for me to be living alone anyway. For now, I watch the students come and go and walk to town and love my solitude. My house is my home.

  7. Reading this, I have no doubt you could make a home cosy out of anything. (BTW, true story, I also dreamt you lived in a house where there were chickens, crows, a rambling garden, an outdoor wood heater and preserved bottles of fruit!). Me? No house I’ve ever lived in has been the best, though they’ve all been good for different reasons. My challenge is learning to be happy with the limitations of the moment so, for now, I’m trying to grow a herb garden in my too sunny / too shady / too sandy excuse of a rental backyard. For some reason, herbs speak home to me.

  8. I love that first line. We’ve moved and fixed up houses, landscaped/attempted to fit in best we could – each place fine – for a while, but reasons came up and moves happened – just not “home” yet – no longer wanting the perfect dream house – just solidly put together and able to manage on it’s own, so we have time to go do and explore and then have a warm safe place to return to.

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