Home ownership: either/or?
For a few months now, my inner hamster wheel has been squeaking madly about home ownership. This morning, Dave Booda’s thoughtful essay on why selling his home was so freaking liberating finally got me writing about my own wanderings.
My personal journey to making a home of my own began with tree forts and pine bough lean-tos in the woods, sacred little home spaces where I could begin to make sense of the great big world. After kicking around Europe at seventeen, though, the question was seriously up. I discovered that traveling to a new place where nobody knew me freed me from who I’d been – the kid who could never sit still, the dark broody misfit who kept rats, the one who’d pulled the gun on the babysitter at age ten. The sitter was the principal’s daughter – I was asked to leave that school *very* shortly thereafter.
My first apartment after college was in an industrial little town just north of the Tokyo River. I kept it neat, and filled it with Japanese antiques, black carpet (don’t buy black carpet ever) and an oversized stereo system. When I moved back to Europe two years later, I put in months of work turning a crappy boulevard apartment in rural Belgium into a cool split-level loft with a tree trunk in the middle and a massive banana plant that towered over the room. My garbage collector neighbor stayed up nights dreaming about moving into it when I left and how a well-cared for apartment would change his life – he did, and it did.
I married and divorced, then gave up almost all of my stuff, later regretting it massively. The stuff was my first attempt at feathering my little nest, making a space in the world that reflected who I was becoming. For a while, I made home in a little sailboat, then my grandma’s old Taurus, then a tricked-out veggie oil powered camper van, and wondered why I couldn’t get the “home” thing right. I bounced through a handful of relationships, moving in then moving out. “Hey, what do you call a musician without a girlfriend?” “Homeless!”
In the Fall of 2008, I was sitting on the balcony of a cheap hotel next door to a nightclub in downtown San Juan, scared at the blood in my urine from kidney stone number two, on the phone telling my best friend that I was ready to get a place of my own. I moved to be near her in Ohio, just a few miles from where I’d grown up, and cried on my couch in between weekends of traveling for gigs. The place was bitterly lonely. Somehow I’d thought that I was immune to the critical introspection step in the home-making process.
A year later, Lisa and I bought an 1850s in-town farmhouse in Maine. I swore I was ready. I was, actually. We painted and scraped and stacked firewood. We cooked and played music and hung laundry. Well, she hung laundry. She made the place cozy in ways I didn’t know how. I mowed and shoveled and put a trampoline in the front yard that was a bad idea – the neighbor kids went nutzo and all the parents held their breath waiting for the screaming that comes with life-altering injury. We bought furniture. We tried for a year to get pregnant. We broke up, neither of us wanting it to be over.
I bought her out and kept the place. And cried a bunch. I’d moved there with only what fit in my van, she’d brought her whole life from California in a moving truck. It was miserably empty. The former owners made a pitch and I almost sold it back to them. I bought some stuff, and slowly started making it mine. For some reason, I’d had a tough time making a space just for me – I could do it with somebody else, but alone was almost impossibly difficult.
I shared my home with lovers, dreaming of making a go at things for real again, trying to fight through the self-loathing voices proclaiming that I’d never get it right, or fit in to the neighborhood at all. I rented part of the house to other people. I kept traveling. I came home. I hosted block parties. Yoga. Concerts. I tore off the rotting porch and built an extension. I moved into the sailboat a few months ago.
It turns out that you can’t separate your financial life from the rest of you. And this is where my emotional hamster really takes off on his wheel. I’m inches from paying my house off – like, I can taste it. It’s not the best financial decision I could make, by far. The market is doing way better than the 3.99% that I’m paying in mortgage interest. And to top it off, the IRS deduction on that interest is actually making money. I’m getting paid to have debt! (USA! USA! USA!)
But I have a burning – though possibly financially myopic – n e e d to pay the sucker off, ay-sap. But before it’s even paid, I’m already picking out carpet and wall covering to finish out the extra room in the attic. I’m living on my sailboat in the Bahamas during the worst winter in recent history, emailing with two renters who are paying the mortgage for me (very kind of them!) and I can’t wait to get home in two months and de-clutter the garage.
It’s a financial decision, but it turns out that it’s an emotional decision, too – and you can’t really divide the two. In this case, I’ve managed to have a home AND travel to my heart’s content. Which, it turns out, is the thing I’ve been learning since I was a teenager trying to make sense of things sleeping on night trains and learning my first words in Italian.
So maybe home isn’t either/or, but it can also be both/and. Whew. That’s a relief.