I used to take pride in the places I lived, rundown as they were: the small room in a garage, just big enough for a bed and a desk, where I typed up the first issues of The Sun; the dilapidated old house in the country, with high ceilings and no heat, which I shared with six friends and uncounted dogs and cats; a mattress in the back of the office, when I couldn’t afford a place of my own. Having once lived for a year in a van, I knew what the real luxuries were: a bed to sleep on, a light to read by, a roof to keep me dry. I liked beautiful things, but I understood the difference between living elegantly and living expensively. I could create a mood with hand-me-downs and thrift-shop finds, draping a scarf over a window, watching sunlight decorate a room as it moved from the chair to the bed to my loved one’s sleeping face.
Like my shoulder-length hair, my frayed jeans, my beat-up car, these ramshackle surroundings said something about me. Perhaps I romanticized my small sacrifices, wore my “voluntary simplicity” as a badge of distinction. But since I had chosen this way of life, I didn’t think of myself as a victim. I didn’t really mind the drafty rooms, the chipped and peeling paint, the pipes that froze in winter. Forgoing middle-class luxuries was, I believed, as political an act as pulling the lever in a voting booth or marching in a demonstration.
Even after I got a different car, bought new jeans, trimmed my hair (I had vowed never to become a balding hippie with a ponytail), I didn’t give up my allegiance to unpretentious surroundings. Not until three years ago, when I moved to a split-level house in the suburbs.
N. and I didn’t want to leave our cabin deep in the woods, at the end of a dirt road, far from cars and neighbors. But after years of being separated from my children, I was about to become a full-time parent again; my daughters, both of them nearly teenagers, were coming to live with me, and we needed a bigger place, closer to town. Unfortunately, the only affordable houses in the Chapel Hill school district were staid and unimaginative. I didn’t want to live in a neighborhood where the developer had cut down all the trees, then named the neighborhood after them; where the houses weren’t just homes but temples to the idea of home, places of worship where material success could be endlessly revered. Frank Lloyd Wright said he could design a house that would make a married couple get a divorce; to my mind, most houses already kept us divorced from our bodies, from the world around us, from the invisible bonds that make community real.
We ended up in a subdevelopment where they left the trees, but named the streets after Revolutionary War battles. Lurking behind the neat lawns and mock colonial facades were, I was sure, enough votes to put George Bush in the White House that year. I’d be about as welcome here as crab grass. Still, in a world where home can be anything — a refugee tent, an abandoned car — I hated to complain. I wanted the inward and outward parts of my life to reflect each other, to say something about my integrity, my commitment to social change. But I also wanted my daughters to be safe and comfortable. I used to think that living somewhere “for the kids” was hypocritical. “When children appear,” Chekhov wrote, “we justify all our weaknesses, compromises, snobberies, by saying, ‘It’s for the children’s sake.’ ” Yet was it right to insist that my children see the world as I did — actively resisting a culture they barely understood, living out my version of an authentic life? After all, so many of my ideas seemed quaint to them, less an expression of my vaulted integrity than of my idiosyncratic personality. They knew my disdain for middle-class respectability was riddled with contradictions; that I’d always been an outsider; that I’d probably feel estranged even in the most politically correct part of town.
It took a long time to get used to being here. On our first night, I lay awake, listening to the unfamiliar sounds of the house settling back on its haunches. Outside, the tall pines swayed and whispered. Downstairs, the refrigerator hummed. I closed my eyes and started to drift off when, suddenly, the ice-maker coughed and I jumped: I’d never had a refrigerator with an ice-maker.
We got rid of the shiny fixtures and fancy drapes, unpacked our books and albums and Indian fabrics. I wanted to transform the place immediately, make it more authentic — but the house stubbornly resisted our efforts. We argued endlessly about how to make the rooms more inviting, but no matter what we tried it was still a split-level house in the suburbs. N. said it would take months, maybe years, for the house to feel like home. I sulked in a corner, staring dolefully at the phony paneling.
The paneling is still there, but I don’t notice it. (Does a house become home when you accept its imperfections?) These days, I’ll even admit to liking the neighborhood. People walk a great deal — before going to work, after getting home from work, as if walking itself were their work, so assiduously do they walk. Cars drive slowly. Children ride their bikes. The people who live here, I’ve found out, aren’t all Republicans, and they certainly aren’t my enemies. If their struggle to raise families and make ends meet seems more banal than heroic, if their fears and dreams seem less vivid than my own, perhaps that’s because they’re still fictions to me, not real people; not my enemies, but not my friends.
Will I ever make friends here? There’s barely enough time for the friends I have, and there are so many other things I want to do: write more; spend more time with my children; work an afternoon a week at the shelter for the homeless. But I don’t. I’m too busy. I barely have time to read the newspaper. So it was by chance that I came across a story a few weeks ago about one of my neighbors. I discovered he grew up in New York City, which may explain the affinity I felt when I first saw him. Or maybe it was the graying beard, the wire-rimmed glasses. Or something about the eyes. He looked like a kindred spirit, I thought, my kind of guy. Then, immediately, I corrected myself. Who was I kidding? In this neighborhood? He smiled and I smiled back. In the three years since, we’ve never spoken a word to each other.
According to the story, my neighbor, an engineer who retired after twenty years in the military, had been given an award for public service. He devotes more than forty hours a week to volunteer work. He helps construct houses for low-income people through Habitat for Humanity. This year, he’s president of the local organization that provides for Chapel Hill’s hungry and homeless, but he prefers building bunk beds to attending meetings. He often shows up before dawn at the community kitchen to make sure everything is ready for the day’s meals. Described by friends as a shy man, he was quoted as saying he likes to “do something” with his time, besides working on his house in the suburbs.