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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?