Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: A Simple, Safe Dwelling in the World

Shelter: home. It informs my dreams, attracts my eye everywhere I roam, and pulls me to books, websites and magazines that focus on architecture and design. Then add surprises of outdoor spaces, no matter how humble. Between my interest in public green space and city buildings, tall or small apartment complexes or different types of houses–I am frequently awash in dreamy, impassioned (if casual) learning. It’s all about various living spaces for humans (and their critters). Habitats matter to everyone, and for different reasons, the first of which is basic shelter.

I feature them in my fiction writing; a character’s surroundings can be powerful at most, or help provide story impetus. The lifestyles often reflected by his or her dwelling and territory, their choice to be inside or out, to be in one room or another or to leave familiar spaces altogether–all this helps move the story, flesh it out.

It is likely I was born into this area of interest, as I grew up in a small city where architecture was important. Midland, Michigan gave us several illustrious citizens, not the least of which was Alden B. Dow, a well-known architect. The son of Herbert H. Dow, founder of Dow Chemical Company based in that city, became an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright. He designed 600 projects of many types throughout the US. and 130 were built in Midland. His ideas were considered progressive, even daring–the buildings were glass, stone and wood-informed in newer ways at the time, to fine effect. He sometimes brought nature indoors with water features and trees. There was a strong respect for surrounding land, how the whole integrated when this was not commonplace. His philosophy was “A Way of Life CYcle” and based on his belief that every individual is creative, and that making a structure that is harmonious within and without it is paramount.

I had ample opportunities to enjoy these buildings–civic centers, libraries, business offices, churches and temples and schools, as well as houses–each day. Some of my friends lived in them; I attended events in others. They drew me in. They were beautiful in their organic simplicity, their integration into nature and simple functionality. Alden B. Dow’s own home and surrounding gardens and other acreage is idyllic (which may be accessed on line–check out https://dowgardens.org/). I often visited; you will see why if you choose. So, perhaps the seed was sown for an abiding curiosity about architectural/landscape design as a youngster–my eye observed deeply, my heart and mind followed.

This morning I perused photos of a lake house with flat rooftops on which grow wildflowers and grasses, and felt happy to study them. I sent the images with my daughter, Naomi, who has a great eye. The contemporary one-story has an interior filled with natural textures and there is so much glass a nearness of trees and water is seen at every turn. My sort of house–well, one type, since I have several favorites. Clean lines, brightened by sunlight and muted by shade; nature in evidence; environmentally sound. The patio seemed higher, and the stone of floor and fire pit was substantial. I can imagine meals there, wind ruffling my hair. What a handsome design it is.

As I was looking it over I told Naomi, an artist, that she’d make a very good architect, and she went along with that. She’s a working sculptor, and utilizes many modalities. (She’s also an art professor working hard to figure out best ways to teach 3D art online at a university now.). Like her father, also a sculptor, and her brother, a “maker of things”–even both sets of grandparents, in a few ways–she possesses that innate grasp of visual art. And has an extra sense regarding a material’s potential. Naomi possesses a scientific mind and a highly developed aesthetic view, in my (motherly) opinion. Add a wide ranging curiosity and persistence that seems crucial to being an artist. Passionate about layers of meanings, yet dispassionate in execution of ideas–I get that, too, as a writer.

So, then…I can see her building houses and other structures–the scale would suit her well. But she is doing what she does. For example, she has been making fascinating cyanotypes (a photographic printing process); she also has been working with with indigo dye on various fabrics. Additionally, she and her brother also grew up learning some construction trades, as their father had his own business. (To get an idea of her work, check out Naomi J Falk@invisible sculpture)

It excites me to see what my children are creating-they become the teachers, I am the learner. Josh recently mined fire opals with his wife in Southern Oregon; they make jewelry. He never is idle, always making new things. And I, too, want to create more, while being a wordsmith remains my primary method of giving substance to ideas. I sometimes wish it was more, or different.

People like Naomi or Josh possess some of the wherewithal to cast a net further for more building/designing possibilities. Of course, to become a working architect usually requires a degree. (Myself—not so much. Though I have the love of visual arts and architecture, but not training–does studying painting 3 years in university count?) Yet I wonder if we might come up with a plan that’d translate into a reality.

Josh and I talk of it as well as Naomi. He lives in a pleasant house with a big yard that has a crazy mix of a trampoline, small pool, huge vegetable garden, projects of all sorts (new skate ramp being built of cement and wood, furniture refinishing, cutting/smoothing rocks/crystals, starting seedlings, painting/drawing, designing skateboards, making small Buddhas out of plastic or wax, plus he often is fixing something broken–I can’t keep track of the heaps or ideas.) But he wants to buy land in the country, build his own house, then one for Marc and me. We’ve discussed tiny houses, dome houses, yurts–more manageable. I once showed him a sketch of rambling, connected pods that made a sort of “compound.’ It seems practical.

We appreciate a variety of spaces; the many we’ve experienced help inform a future plan. We may well never live together as some cultures do encourage. It is all shared with love. My family knows I miss living in a house, at least some days, though the townhouse apartment is lovely, in the woods as I long desired.

Habitats…one’s personal domain in an often too-cramped world. We all want one. Need something no matter how humble. And in these times, that often a dire need carries more weigh emotionally. I consider where I live…and where others live right now. And the fact that scores have lost or are about to lose housing due to COVID-19 and the financial cataclysm it has caused. Oregon has put a moratorium on evictions for another several months. But eventually they will have to pay back rent. Or may lose houses for good due to to missed mortgage payments.

I was headed to another part of our metropolitan area when I came upon block after block lined with makeshift dwellings. Temporary–i.e., easily movable–dwellings made of cardboard, tarps, plastic bags cut apart and taped together, odd bricks or wood scraps crisscrossed by fabric or towels. There were not that many there just three months ago. The conditions appear miserable, barely tolerable. Those who seek help have increased. As I waited at a light, I saw a man in the middle of a four lane road with his dog on a tight leash; he was feeding his pet companion bits of croissants–sharing his scarce food. His cardboard sign pleaded for money. How much can I give? I look, nod, smile, give what I have on me, later to another charitable organization. But it’s never enough. I can’t give a safe home, or meal after meal. Every person should have a spot to claim as one’s own, and not along noisy, often dangerous, fume-filled streets.

Homeless needs have been a concern in our city for decades. My mental health and addiction-impacted clients were frequently living on the streets, so I came to understand hardships faced–and the hearty resilience it takes to survive extraordinary stresses daily. Navigating the social services system was often fraught with frustration that could plunge them into despair–or a return to cynical resignation. Now how many unsuspecting folks are forced to evacuate homes and take up a tent or sleep on an abandoned couch at roadside, or find an empty business doorway? Underneath highway overpasses becomes a place to live, or an empty parking lot as more businesses are closed. A vacant lot, under a bridge, along side highways. And we have forests surrounding our city, within which people do manage to live awhile.

It is a huge crisis, though Oregon has done a lot to help, building pockets of very affordable micro housing units and tiny houses, more subsidized apartment buildings. But the people they house often have mental health problems. There are also many women fleeing domestic violence, often with children–this violence is on the rise since the virus showed up. Much of this I can empathize with, having had brushes with similar issues once upon a time. More than you might believe, there isn’t such a great distance separating one from security and safety, ending up poor, homeless.

And this has remained a fear of mine, I admit, even at age 70. I do not know–nor does anyone–what the future may hold. I live my life smack in the middle of the present but am not foolish enough to ignore any possibility since Marc was one who became unemployed due to his company downsizing due to lost business resultant of the roaring virus. This, despite a great career, despite planning on retirement in a few years. As has happened all over the country, the world.

One of the reasons (though not the primary one) I consider the beauty and function of a good house is other than just a fascination with design of structures, uses of land space and a sensitivity to environment. I have moved more times than I care to count; I recall telling someone 18 times, but that was decades ago. Between raising a large family–first I had two, then three children, then welcomed two non-biological additions–and costs for various basics as well as unexpected medical needs–and more job transfers for Marc and my lack of a completed college education (when it still meant something), financial downturns in the US economy with attendant losses…well, not easy to afford a house, then. We put it on the back burner. Time flew by. My life–my life, perhaps–could be encapsulated via its history of houses/ other dwellings. I left my parents’ stable two-story home at 18, the age many do.

I do not expect to buy a house now. I still considered the idea but with all that is happening in my country, no. Not everyone in the USA can manage to buy a house much less continue to buy others. In fact, millions do not.

I have to backtrack to say we did purchase an attractive, big-family-sized, A-frame house (with a few leaky windows) on an acre in in Tennessee when I was in my early thirties. It was not our plan, as Marc worked at that plant for about two years. But we got it for a good price in a seller’s market, then sold it later in a buyer’s market–so about broke even. I loved that house, was loathe to leave it. We discovered that a decent family home in our new area of transfer was not affordable. “Riskier than usual” is not a way to live when you have a family of seven. Years passed; we found houses that worked well enough, if not for keeping.

Years later when they kids were grown I received an inheritance. I determined to buy another house. However, I had also just had a heart attack and was not working, though Marc was. The real estate people told me that since my health was not good at such a young age, I might never be able to work again. Read: perhaps I should seriously reconsider. I was flabbergasted by this. I had not thought of myself as being unable to to add to our joint income again. Everyone around me seemed to agree with this weird idea of “wait and see.” And since the first houses considered were not to my liking, anyway, I became discouraged. No one supported me with a “go for it” cheering on– I confess it was needed right then. I felt very low about my goal not being met. Still weakened and in cardiac rehab, I simply gave up, one of the few times I’ve caved spectacularly. That money went to more places than I expected over the next few years. And it did take me nearly three years to work full time again, though health never stopped me again. I simply retired after many more years.

I never imagined this dream would utterly fail. Do I regret it? Yes, I do. I think how much my mother would have loved me to purchase a place–with her generosity. Then, too, there was that niggling subterranean humiliation–how could I not own property when my siblings all had for eons? Didn’t everyone else I knew, also? I mostly ignored the sting of it, while admitting another spacious yard and house to bring over family and friends would be my big wish come true.

But I also know how to make a home out of any place: by being welcoming and positive, upping the cozy factor with love not necessarily things (or not expensive items). So if it has four walls, I can manage fine–and also count myself fortunate. If I’ve not owned great properties, I’ve had ways to make many work for us well. And I feel less attached to all material goods. You may have security one day but not the next. And if you don’t own something beloved and fantastic, the impending loss is much less vexing.

My sister, Allanya has bought and sold a dozen or more places and rehabbed as many (often for investment, including two century old homes to turn into commercial buildings). She now lives in a well appointed and staffed retirement community with her partner. It was a wrenching decision to give up their house on a corner lot overlooking Portland. It was peaceful, gazing towards distant mountains, all the lights twinkling below in city center. We had many family get-togethers with lots of food passed around in the colorfully-decorated rooms, or on the deck enveloped by tall trees. Not surprisingly, she doesn’t like her new digs much, though she’s adapting more or less. Nor the idea that since she has dementia and her partner has increased health problems, an assisted living unit decision is likely to occur soon.

I know her dearly and well–she’s always been spirited and adventurous, a woman living in the center of her power, a woman of faith and strength made for expansive living. Ultimately, she will be alright in a smaller apartment with more care. But I see how it hurts her, and I am sad for her.

So I don’t like to jog her memory about where we live, nor do I bring up the past houses, the fun she had renovating. I don’t want to unearth sorrow when she still laughs easily, and there is life to be lived as kindly as possible. But I hope to bring her to visit once more when our world is safer from this disease. How pleasurable to serve her iced mint tea from the blue butterfly-decorated, Swedish pitcher (that I bought for our mother decades ago, used daily), a plate of fresh maple pecan scones and a dark chocolate for each–favorite treats she now rarely gets. We’d pass the day on my balcony overlooking firs and maples, surrounded with plants and flowers. She once was a camper, told a tale about meeting a bear…But we’d speak of much and little, making snarky comments as we debated politics, sighing or laughing over nothing important.

That is my idea of a home–rather ordinary, really, similar to an experience shared by people everywhere. Marc and I share our current habitation with much appreciation. Even in rough times–or especially.

Meanwhile, my youngest daughter, Alex, is saving for her family’s first home…and we keep swapping ideas and pictures. A house for toddler twins and their parents–exciting prospect to look forward to again!

The (even modest or old) habitats I pour over–they will call to me always. Craftsman, ranches, bungalows, log cabins, saltbox, Federal, Georgian, Cape Cod colonial, Victorian, adobe, Mediterranean, contemporary and industrial–the list goes on. I like features of them all. When I read and observe them, I become transfixed, enlivened, investigative about the how/what/ where and, of course, try to imagine the “who” that dwells therein. I sink into those worlds, fill up with expansive inspiration, then tuck it all into my brain. For the joy of it.

And, too, revisit in slumberland as I wander strange hallways and floors, seeking a route to somewhere I am always looking for and perhaps oddly expect to find: an even better, more tantalizing place amid landscapes in this world. And beyond. Doorways to foreign and exquisite vistas; a sturdy stoop or grassy hilltop to sit upon, to think and dream, to gather wisdom and love. To offer a true welcome. And a window sash to lower when a storm stirs up, then to open when the wind sweetens and is tender again.

Though I did not become the architect I, in youthful exuberance, dreamed of being…I am not unhappy. Find me grateful once more.

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