How to build a house (part 1)

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, July 10, 2016

At eight years of age, my best friend is a little girl named Minnie who lives not too far from our house on the shores of Lake Washington, in Seattle, a friend with whom I spend the majority of my days, outside, making stuff up.

We make up a language and we make up a club, of which we are the only members. We create a clubhouse in Minnie’s backyard among the Northwestern azaleas and rhododendrons and we sit there, squatting, serving things on leaf plates and pretending we understand our language, which consists of only two words put together in different ways. It is deliciously cozy and consumes our days. We feel sheltered not only by trees and shrubs but by the insular, hermetically sealed world of best friendship.

In contrast, the house I live in with my family — that speaks the normal language of dysfunction with too many words put together in too many ways — is vast and contains rooms that each have their own particular vibe. The dining room rings of precision and order, the kitchen of Mozart (my mother’s single obsession), the TV room of my father’s uninhibited laughter (heard only late at night with each one of Johnny Carson’s jokes). The living room has a stiff shirt-and-shoes-only feel, and the cellar, of course, off-gasses fear.

My room, which is covered in red and gold Chinese wallpaper (dad’s choice and I am not allowed to tack up or move things), is, at least, a smallish room, and it is carpeted. I hide coins under the corners of the carpet and sleep with my two stuffed snakes, each one flanking me snuggly like a sentry. I don’t feel particularly safe in this house, as big as it is; this being said, though, I still dream about it, and visit it occasionally, as if, really, it has always inhabited me.

Aside from the crucible of my eighth year are all the other houses and homes I live in during my life, from the last of the antique-filled dorm rooms in a small So-Cal college to the last hippie house off Dupont Circle in D.C. to one of the last of the sweeeeeet ski-bum houses in Telluride (right across from the current library), which rents for $250 a month in 1990.

In 1993, we buy a house at Lawson Hill when the development is still young, and we stay put, feeling it fill out with life, our child’s life. I construct a tree in her room, up to the ceiling, and plop a freezer-sized playhouse down beside it. The actual trees on the property get bigger and so does she, and when I finally sell the house, her loss is large enough that I know we have been successful in creating a home, and not just one that will stalk her in her dreams.

I am remembering, too, a tiny, impeccable woodsie home we stumble upon some eight or nine years ago while tromping through the aspens in summer. Lock and key, doormat and door. Clad windows. We find the key and trespass, slowly peeking in then stepping in completely. There is barely room for the three of us who stand there, dumb and in wonder, at the care and completeness of the surroundings. Sink, tiny bookshelves, bed, closet, windows with a view. Everything is in its place. What more could be needed in life than this? Silently, we compare it to our relatively very large house, and then, one click up, compare it to the mega-homes higher on the hill. What is shelter? To sleep, eat, read, stay warm, all in the company of trees, while mosses grow on the shingled roof?

Now, on a brand new day, I am in yet another house, one that we have helped build with our own hands, one that we have, with some help, designed and laid out. One that saw every cliché of house building come true despite our cavalier dismissal of generalizations and of pitfalls only others would encounter.

I am standing here on a floor I helped lay, humbled in every way by the process. I ask myself what it is I want to feel here — the deliciousness of my Minnie-days Diggity-dog club, the coziness of the woodsie, a delight in waking up and seeing the sun pour in, the peace and security of a cherished space. I want to cultivate gratitude for the daily miracles of comfort, beauty and light.

Already, I can tell you there is one thing I feel an enormous appreciation for — uninhibited joy and a profound sense of well-being, even — and that is that after over 30 years at altitude, I now have enough BTUs on the range to boil water well every time. I will never, ever take this for granted — which is a feeling I hope will spread in contagion to all the rooms of my life.

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