I started to hate my house for a lot of reasons.
Two and a half years ago I watched my cat gasp her last breath and die in the middle of the hallway in front of me. It was hard to walk down that hallway afterwards, and hard not to walk down that hallway.
For the next two years I watched her brother die by degrees until there were no cats left in my house.
No cats sprawled in front of the fireplace or curled up on my pillow. No cats drinking out of my dinner glass or eating my unattended pumpkin cupcake.
There was just a house. And it’s hard to love just a house.
There were other reasons I started to hate my house, like the years when business was hard and paying the mortgage was harder. When life felt as if it was defined by a single purpose: save the house.
We missed baptisms and birthdays. We gave up vacations and movies. The house was a debtor’s prison, the thing that kept me at my desk and had to be fed in large quantities every month. The thing I called “mine” but that wasn’t really. It was just a bunch of walls owned by a bank where my pictures happened to hang.
In the beginning we loved the house. We loved stepping into the world of Home Ownership. We loved things like Hanging Curtains and Picking Tile. We loved being Grown Up and Inviting Company Over.
For years after the house first bought us, we held summer parties with our old friends from our old home towns, and our new friends from the new neighborhood. We grilled and drank and played music too loud for a townhouse. Sometimes people danced on the furniture. Sometimes people spilled things on the carpets. Every time people asked us if we were having another party.
I don’t remember purposely stopping having parties but sometimes being Grown Up means you Get Serious and then you laugh about the furniture you danced on but you don’t imagine doing it again.
I didn’t start to hate the house all at once, but once I started, it became easier. I started to hate the tree in front that blocked the sun from coming into the kitchen. I started to hate the dark hardwood floors that magnified every footprint and bread crumb.
I started to hate that I didn’t have a room where I could go to sit or play or be. There were only rooms with a purpose. Office. Kitchen. Bedroom.
Another person might have been grateful for so many years of cats and parties. I just hated every space where there Used To Be but Wasn’t Anymore.
For a long enough time that I don’t remember how long, I was depressed. For a long enough time, I thought there was something wrong with me. Emotion and logic would argue.
I’m miserable. I don’t want to be here.
You have a great life. A beautiful house. You’re so fortunate to have so much.
I’m depressed. I don’t want to be here.
Where could you possibly go? Will another floor make you happy? Be grateful.
For a long time, I considered getting medical attention, counseling, a drug. Always I would stop, because a person with a caring family, a loving marriage, a beautiful house, a successful business, wasn’t miserable and depressed unless she chose to be. Unless she was ungrateful.
I shut up. I smiled. I kept going.
This past May, just six months ago, I left the house for the first time in the two years it took for my last cat to die. And by “left the house” I mean “did more than went to the grocery store or to see another vaguely disappointing X-Men movie.”
This past May, Ralph and I got in the car and drove to Nashville to attend a trade show for one of our businesses. As I drove for the 14th straight hour without feeling the slightest bit fatigued, I was struck by a thought: there’s a world.
There’s a world, and it’s outside my house.
There were roads, and people. There were things to eat, and trees to look at besides the one blocking my view to the sun in the kitchen. There were places. There were cows.
The day after we arrived home from our Nashville trip, Ralph and I were sitting at a table in a restaurant we’d dubbed The Center of the Universe because somehow we always ended up there, and we were looking at each other over coffee and tea and pancakes, and there was this big slice of staring, followed by a spatter of conversation, followed by another chunk of staring.
I think, if I had to say how I remember what happened next, it was that Ralph and I had the exact same thought in the exact same instant, or maybe the universe had it for us and then infused it into our collective brains at the exact same moment, and we both simultaneously asked and answered the exact same question.
do you want to sell the house yes
I never told anyone we were moving. I only said, “We’re selling our house.”
That was the part that started to sound like hope.
We’re selling our house, and then… we’re going.
We’ll go somewhere. We’ll go here or there. We’ll stay with this or that person. We’ll get a hotel room or an apartment somewhere in a town that we pick off the map and decide how we like it there. We’ll do that for a while and see where we land. We’ll drive and go and see and be in the world.
We made a two year plan to visit all the people we miss, and all the people we’ve never met. To travel across the country and back. Owning A House doesn’t figure into the plan. There’s a world, and it’s outside the house.
At the end of two years we’ll start another year. Years are funny like that. They just keep going, even if you put an arbitrary stop point on them.
Our friends were delighted to hear it. Our families were delighted to hear it. They were excited for us and our new adventures. They used words like “jealous” and “wish I could”.
I realized, at some point, that it was the exact opposite reaction I had expected. I had expected, more or less, to be told that I was doing a dangerous thing. An ungrateful thing. That giving up Home Ownership was not only dangerous and ungrateful but pretty UnAmerican.
I expected people to be shocked or appalled. I expected Buts and What Ifs. I waited to be questioned about Security. Or asked about Work.
I expected, at some point, to feel something about selling my house and leaving everything I had known for sixteen years behind. I waited to feel sad or nostalgic, sentimental or maybe even a little guilty about my ungrateful unamericanism.
I felt nothing.
Not excited, not scared. Not happy, not melancholy.
We put our house on the market in July. We moved out in August. It was a summer of whirlwind, of having to redo the master bathroom to get it saleable. Of being acutely grateful to family for helping us – from the brother who spent two weeks making that bathroom into one I might have regretted leaving if I had cared, to the brother who helped us stage the house to Extreme Makeover perfection. Of racing against the calendar to pack sixteen years’ worth of life into a ten-by-ten storage unit. Of running a business. Of running three businesses.
I kept going, because I had to. I felt nothing, because I had no time to. Life narrowed down to lists and tasks, action items and schedules. It’s harder than one might think to pack an entire refrigerator of items into a cooler that fits in the trunk of the car. I threw out a whole jar of mayo and didn’t even feel guilty.
The first thing I felt – after the house was sold, after we’d packed every square inch of the storage unit, after we put the cooler with the bacon but not the mayo into the car, after we locked the door behind us with no key to get back in, after we drove down to the family beach house where we’re home-basing in between our travels, after we found the teapot and the socks – was not happy or sad, expectant or anxious, regretful or thankful.
The first thing I felt was
It feels stupid to say that I wasn’t grateful for a roof over my head, but I wasn’t. I was logically grateful, in the way that I logically knew I wasn’t homeless or living alone on a cold street. But I wasn’t actually grateful in the way that makes you want to cry because it fills your heart up so much that it hurts.
Once I felt untethered, though, I started to find real gratitude again. I saw the sun shining in through the vast wall of windows in my family’s beach house and felt grateful. I felt grateful for my family. For my family who has a beach house. For my family who has a beach house and is willing to let us crash there in between Chicago and Anaheim and Salem.
I felt grateful for the store where I could buy bright green and red vegetables for dinner. I felt grateful for the slug winding its way down the driveway at night. I felt grateful for our clients who are more like friends than I had given myself time to realize when I had been ungrateful – who were just as excited for us in our new adventures, who showed up at our house to help us move furniture into storage.
I felt grateful for the opportunity to feel grateful.
A few weeks after we left, we were sitting at dinner with my parents, and half a bottle of wine in, I began to expound on the feeling of untethered. Words are inadequate enough, let alone half a bottle of wine in, but I remember saying that I didn’t realize how depressed I was in that house, until I wasn’t.
My father said, “It wasn’t the house.”
I don’t know if he was trying to be profound.
But even half a bottle of wine in, I knew he was right. It wasn’t the house. It was all the things it represented. All the expectations I had assumed, the things I thought I had to do and be and want. Everything I absorbed as what I should and what I couldn’t. Every have to and every can’t.
It extended well beyond the walls of the house.
I would imagine, sometimes, driving home from the grocery store or a haircut, that instead of turning left onto my block, I just keep going straight. I would imagine that I kept going, until I ran out of gas or money or both, until I was somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the country. I would imagine that I’d be free then, that I’d leave can’t and should behind. I’d find some nice people who would let me have dinner with them, and I’d find a way to work for food or make sure I went somewhere warm enough that I could sleep in my car. I’d be somewhere that I could do anything and be anyone.
After those brief forays into fantasy I’d go home.
The closest I ever came to describing the feeling was comparing it to a kid’s toy, the one that’s a wooden paddle with a string like a rubber band stapled into the center. The other end of the string is strung through a ball. The idea is that you can hit the ball and thanks to the rubber band it will always snap back to the paddle so you can hit it again.
That’s what I felt like. A ball tethered to my house by a rubber band that kept snapping me back no matter what I did. As a kid, I would get mad when the string finally broke and I couldn’t paddle anymore. As a grown up I would lie in bed with that imagery floating on the ceiling and dream of cutting the string and flying off into the sky.
It wasn’t the house.
For a long time, I thought I’d die in that house. Not in a bad way. In a way that meant I had lived out a long and happy life there. We spent a lot of time and money making the house comfortable and fun for us. We ripped out walls and moved doors and changed bannisters and turned the closet in our office into a TARDIS complete with custom hardware. People would tell us not to do certain things because it would affect the resale value of our house. We didn’t care. We didn’t plan to sell our house.
When we first moved in, we decorated in an explosion of color. We had a blue couch and a pink couch and a yellow couch. We had a red wall and a white carpet and a purple bathroom. We covered every shelf and counter and flat surface with things people had given us for our wedding, for our housewarming, for our birthdays. We stuck magnets on the refrigerator because it was magnetic and put up wallpaper because there were walls. We felt vibrant and alive. We were excited and creative.
After a while we decided we needed something Zen. So we deleted the colorful sofas and painted in beige and took down the wallpaper and put up natural stone facades. We bought candles and stainless appliances. We hung paintings of lotus leaves and sometimes we hung nothing at all. We felt renewed and refreshed. We were peaceful and productive.
After another while we decided we needed something to make us feel alive again. So we painted the wall red and covered surfaces with things that had been in boxes during our Zen phase. We bought new artwork and found old toys. We embraced clutter and started stacking books up in corners and on tables and letting them overflow into piles on the floor instead of aligning them neatly by size on their shelves. We felt invigorated and inspired. We were enthusiastic and animated.
The hating part happened slowly, over time. It happened because of the growing feeling of have to and can’t. I have to be here. I can’t leave.
I have to pay the mortgage. I can’t take a vacation. I have to go back after my haircut. I can’t keep driving into the horizon.
But mostly it happened when I started to ask, why? And, why not?
It happened because the more I questioned my path, the more stuck on it I felt. The more I imagined the possibility that I didn’t have to, the more impossible it felt to do anything about it. Things were Too Big. You don’t just sell a house. What about Security? What about Work? What about Responsibility and being Grown Up and the American Dream?
Selling the house felt like losing. It felt like not knowing.
Things could have been different. If it had been easier to pay the mortgage, if my cats were still alive, if we never drove to Nashville, if we had painted one more wall red, maybe we would have died in that house. In a good way.
This is the part where you say, well, things happen for a reason. But I don’t think things happen for a reason. I think things happen and then we give them a reason. Like how I sold the house because I hated it. But really, what I hated was the feeling of tethered, for no other reason than because I had made it so.
It wasn’t until I asked why that I started to feel hopeful again. Until I realized that just because I had wanted something sixteen years ago, didn’t mean I had to want it now.
The point is not that I didn’t want to own a house or didn’t want to live there. The point is that I didn’t want to anymore.
The point is that when painting the walls red stopped working, I never gave myself a chance to figure out what would.
I wanted to own a home. I wanted to paint it and pick tile and live there and have parties. We did have fun and cats and good times. But something, over time, started to sap the me out of me. I sat there and watched it happen. I didn’t know what to do about it. After a while it didn’t occur to me to do anything at all.
After we left I bought a new jar of mayo and life settled into routine. We worked. We ate dinner. We binge watched Narcos. Once I felt untethered I started to feel other things. First, gratitude. Then peace. Then little spurts of joy. Moments when I could smile at the grass for no reason than because it was there, in front of me, being green. I started to think I can.
It’s been so long since that thought crossed my mind that I didn’t know what to do with it. I did nothing.
A few weeks after we had set up our home base in the family beach house, Ralph said something shocking. He said, It doesn’t seem like you want to do anything. It seems like you’re doing the same thing you did in the house, only now we’re in a different house.
In a way, he was right. I was still working, still making meatloaf, still folding clothes.
We hadn’t gone on any grand adventures yet. But the shocking thing was that in my brain everything felt so completely different that I couldn’t understand how he could think it was the same. So different that I didn’t even know what to do with it except smile at grass and marvel at the feeling of untethered.
One day, not long after that conversation, I put on my sneakers and walked out the front door, into a neighborhood with very round and winding streets. If you know me, you may also know that my sense of direction is not very good. My sense of direction is, to be fair, horrible. The first time I walked out the front door I got so turned around that I had to put the GPS on my phone to get back. The second time, I walked a few blocks and kept turning right until I ended up back where I started. But one day, on that last recent day, I found the beach.
I found the beach, and there was the world, being a world.
I leaned against the wood rail of the walkway and absorbed. I snapped a picture. An elderly man sitting with his legs hooked over a rung of the rail asked, How do you develop those? And for a few minutes we talked about smart phones and photos and the beautiful day. It was the first moment of being that I could remember in a long time. I walked back home and wanted to cry, because the gratitude was so much to hold all at once that it hurt.
In the first month that we were at the beach house, I walked to the beach. I spoke with an elderly man. I watched a slug. I listened to the wind in the sea grass. I threw out a pair of pants I didn’t like and bought a shirt I did. I opened the windows even on the stormiest day so I could hear the world. I lighted scented candles every morning because there’s no reason to save them for Company or an Occasion. I wrote these words.
That probably doesn’t sound very adventurous. I’m sure it doesn’t sound remotely different and none of it depends on being in one house or another or having one hardwood floor or another.
And unless you’ve ever felt stuck or been convinced of can’t, then you’ll probably walk away with a little shake of your head and maybe half a grin about what a nut case I am. But I’m not so sure I’m alone. As I was writing this, a friend of mine shared similar feelings. Something she said rang particularly true. She’ll forgive me for using her words. She said, The aroma from the crock pot dinner I’ve prepared is a comfort, so why am I not comforted?
For thousands of words I’ve tried to capture the essence of that question.
I like comfort. But I need possibility.
That moment on the beach, it was a perfect moment in a perfect day. But even if I go back to the beach a thousand billion times, I’ll never be able to recreate that moment. I’ll only end up with a thousand billion imperfect moments.
The important thing, the comforting thing, is that I don’t need to live another perfect moment but explore another possibility.
Being in my house, it started to feel like a graveyard of imperfect moments. There were a lot of reasons for that, and a lot of them were me. But a lot of them were the house. Remember how I said it wasn’t the house? Well, it wasn’t. But also it was. It was a space that started to feel less possible. It was a place where I started to believe this is the way it is.
Since cutting the rubber band and flying off into the sky, nothing has changed. I’m still me. I still work. I still fold laundry. I still binge watch Supergirl. There are fun moments and not fun moments. There are things to laugh about and things to argue about. I still have to pay the bills. I still need to get on the treadmill.
But I’m remembering what it feels like to want. I’m remembering can. I’m processing the idea that sometimes you need to cut the rubber band.
Maybe I’ll bounce. Maybe I’ll crash though a window and end up bruised and bloody and think about how Safe and Simple things were in the house. But that’s ok, because I’m not looking for a perfect life. I’m looking for a possible life.
I want to say I learned a lot throughout this process, but that isn’t completely true. Mostly, I already knew and just needed to remember.
Things like, being grateful isn’t about having things, or even having things worth being grateful for. It’s about understanding what you’re grateful for and giving yourself permission to seek it.
Things like, the only thing that can really tether you is you. Your own expectations of what you should be doing and have to do, and convincing yourself of can’t.
Things like, sometimes whether or not the wall is red matters.
Living a possible life is about figuring out what matters and finding and doing and being that. Even if it’s scary or risky or hard or unknown like selling a house. Even if it’s ordinary and simple and mundane like watching a slug.
Since I started writing this, we’ve left the family beach house for our next adventure. We’ve been in the Boston area, staying in my brother’s guest room, working at coffee shops and eating cheese pastries. We had fun times and not so fun times. I still folded laundry, sometimes I cooked and sometimes we went out for sushi. I opened the windows to listen to the train pass by. I had a conversation with a waitress at a diner. I went for a five mile walk along the beach and collected seashells.
Since I started writing this, we’ve been to Washington, D.C. We had the best tapas dinner I’ve ever eaten in my life. We had amazing service at the hotel. We met new people and enjoyed every one of them. I forgot, for a few days, that there was anything wrong in the world at all.
Since I started writing this, we’ve spent time at one of our newly favorite hotels in Asbury Park, eating meatballs and drinking wine. I have many pockets full of seashells to prove it.
For this, I am grateful.
Most of two months have passed since I started writing this but it’s taken that long for me to feel like I’ve gotten close to what I wanted to say. Still, it isn’t quite there. I can only hope that somewhere between the words and in the spaces is the truth.
I don’t know exactly what we’re going to do or where we’ll go next.
I do know there are possibilities.