Resting and Nesting

Book Shelf

It is amazing how books on a book shelf can induce a feeling of home.  After a pretty busy few weeks (or shall I say–months?), I had this weekend off, and filled it with resting and nesting. I was able to figure out an arrangement for bookcases in the living room, and then unpack some boxes of books–I brought my best old favorites for this spot.  We also have bookcases in the basement, in the area that eventually will be a guest nook, and I arranged those bookcases and put some of my other books there.  That space is still filled with boxes though–but my fantasy is that it will be ready for summer guests.

CD ShelvesI also helped Margy get started in her office, which doubles as the music room–unpacking and shelving all the CDs and LPs.  She has quite a few recordings from all stages of music history, including a Victrola from her grandmother (in our living room), vinyl albums, cassette tapes, and CDs. I’ve moved on to digital mp3s, but she preserves our music history!

In between my frenzies of unpacking, I fell into long naps, or binged on Parenthood on Netflix.  I cooked curried chicken one night, and mowed the front lawn with our push mower one morning. It has felt so restorative to be focused on domesticity for these few days.

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Papers & Promises

67 Birchwood Drive

Our new home

Today we signed the papers that say we are now the owners of this house and land in Portland. But we think of it more like a promise in a marriage–we have entered into a relationship with this land to care for it as it cares for us, to get to know it as it gets to know us, to build a partnership of mutual respect and love, as we seek to grow into deeper harmony with the Earth and all beings who share this planet with us.

I feel so thankful that our search for greener housing has come this far. And looking forward to the next steps in making this home a greener home, to live more simply, to walk with smaller footprints. It seems fitting that this part of our journey was completed as the world leaders are convening in Paris asking those hard questions. How can we shift our world away from carbon emissions? How can we live more gently on our planet? How can we ensure a future for the world’s children?  Each of us can do our part, but we all need to join together for this great hope.

the not so big house

One of my friends (thanks, Deb!) pointed me in the direction of a great book to add my search for beauty to our search for greener housing. Sarah Susanka’s the not so big house: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live is not a new book, but it is new to me. (By the way, I bought the book with credits from turning in used books to my local independent bookstore, Longfellow Books. Isn’t that great!)

Susanka also has a website–the book and the website are both on the theme of how to reimagine our homes so that they feel like home–with comfort and usefulness and beauty–without being as big as we might think they need to be. (Her website also has resources and links to green housing as well. The two ideas share a lot of resonance.)

She is responding to the tendency in American culture to expand the sizes of our houses so that they have turned into almost mansions. Now, her not so big house is a little bigger than the one we are looking for–in fact our current house would fit her definition, too. But what I liked most is that she talks about particular strategies that can contribute to a feeling of homeyness.

Simple things, like creating a sense of containment around certain spaces by lowering a ceiling, or putting in some sort of molding around an area that gives it a focus.  She also suggests most of us would do well with a more open living plan, where our public spaces are joined together–in a living, cooking and eating area. We then also can create private spaces. Something I had never thought about was the importance of the entryway for making a home feel hospitable and a joy to enter. It all makes sense to me.

It is the details that make a home beautiful. I find I like the details I have seen in Craftsman Style homes, like in this picture below–the simple wood molding around the upper part of the wall ties the room together. Poring over Susanka’s photos and ideas, gives me a better sense of how to imagine renovating houses that we might see that don’t seem to be what we are looking for, but have the potential to be turned into what we want. My imagination has been lit up!

Craftsman Style Interior Photo by Emack2020JPEG Via Creative Commons.

Craftsman Style Interior
Photo by Emack2020JPEG Via Creative Commons.

Prayers at Dawn for our Housing Search

I wake today about 5 a.m. and feel called to come outside to pray in the dawn light. It rained during the night and the morning is misty and golden. I am visited by a cardinal, whose silhouette on a branch is dark against the eastern sky. I hear it chirping as another cardinal a bit further away trills their evocative songs. I am visited by a tiny toad or frog (I am not sure which), who moves quietly along the edge of the screen tent where I am sitting. I am visited by a golden slug my old teacher of slowness. A pileated woodpecker pounds away on some dead branches looking for breakfast. I hear the familiar songs of many tiny birds as they wake the sun, which is starting to appear through the branches of the spruce. Later, in the light, the chipmunks and squirrels dash about.

I feel so grateful for this place of trees and birds and critters. In our search for greener housing, I pray that we can find a home where I am called outside in the morning by the songs of cardinals, where Margy can find frogs and toads where they hide in the damp. I pray for this journey we are walking, hoping to move closer into harmony with all beings. I call on the magic of the dawn and the magic of all these beings to help us find our way. And, I open my heart to change, to what is hidden and cannot yet be seen.Morning Photo on 8-4-15 at 7.02 AM

The Search for Greener Housing, Part Three

House Search #1 DSC09847Following our dream of finding greener and accessible housing, we have now looked at six houses. The first was in a great location (halfway between the houses of two friends!) and had an amazingly private back yard, despite being right in town, though it was hard to get to the yard from the house. It had an almost south facing roof, but narrow hallways, and we couldn’t imagine how we could make it accessible without major reconstruction. Plus, there was a tenant in the basement who had lived there over 25 years, and the house wouldn’t have worked for us without the basement space. Bad karma?

The second house had such great character–it was a house we would love to live in. There were blueberries and raspberries in the yard, which we were told we could pick, and so we did. House Search 2 DSC09736There were gardens and a hoop house for extending the growing season. Lots of windows, sunny, and though it was a bit out of town, it was close to a lake, which was a nice bonus. There was not quite as much work to make it accessible, (though still some) but it was a very old house, and there was water along the edges of the basement–along with a mildew smell. And because of the unique shape of the house, it might be hard to insulate and put up solar. Regretfully, we decided it was too much to take on.

The third house had a great open living/dining/kitchen area, a lovely back deck, and also a great yard–though the very back of it fronted onto an in-use railroad track. It looked like we could put solar on the garage. But the bedrooms were dark and felt small, and there were two very tiny bathrooms that would have to be remodeled into one. We talked about whether we could put in more windows. Also there were a lot of steps to the front door.

The fourth house was on a busy street, too small, and not really worth looking at.

The fifth house was fully accessible! It had a lovely open kitchen/living area, a great deck, and nice bedrooms and bathroom. BUT–it was larger than our current house, and so that didn’t fit our goal of downsizing and having fewer expenses. They said it had been insulated, but it had used quite a bit more gallons of oil over the season than where we are now. However, it was great to see what someone else had done for accessibility and beauty.

The sixth house inspired a long conversation with our green-building savvy real estate agent. (That was one of our practical steps–to find an environmentally experienced agent!) The house was in great shape, with a lovely living room with a fireplace, a big mud room, two nice sized bedrooms on the first floor and extra finished space in the basement. It had a one car garage that probably could have been expanded to two ($), we’d need to remodel the bathroom for access, widen a doorway–and once again, it was an odd-shaped roof, so solar might be more expensive. Plus it had these great old cast iron radiators along the baseboards, but if we went electric they would all have to come out with much ado. And even with a lot of work, we probably couldn’t get to zero-carbon in this house, would have to keep using oil.

Our agent suggested that with all of these houses we’d seen so far, we were trying to squeeze ourselves into a house that wasn’t really quite right for what we wanted. Each one would require a lot of renovations in addition to solar and air-source heat pumps and insulation. It is an emotional up and down–excitement over houses that seem worth seeing, and in some ways are so close to what we want, or have such nice qualities, but then the disappoint that they don’t quite work. AND tomorrow could mean another house comes on the market that could be just right.

The Search for Greener Housing, Part Two

After deciding it is the right time to start searching for a more ecologically friendly house, my partner and I sit down together and make a list of what we hope for in a home.

  • One-level living that can be made wheelchair accessible (because my partner can’t do a lot of steps, and we have friends who use wheelchairs, and universal design makes sense for a house we want to get older in.)
  • South facing roof that is solar energy suitable
  • Able to be retrofitted with more insulation and air-source heat pumps
  • Location closer to Portland and public transportation, near some sort of village center
  • Quiet street
  • An area safe for lesbians and people of color
  • Privacy in the back yard
  • About a quarter-acre lot, smaller than where we are now, but still room for permaculture gardening. Some parts shady with trees, some parts sunny, and flat enough for easy access. We want to get rid of lawn to mow, and have other kinds of plantings instead.
  • And, perhaps counter to our village center idea, a location close to woods and critters?
  • About 1200 square feet of house (this number to be adapted as we actually look at houses and see what the spaces feel like.)
  • Two bedrooms plus some office space and guest space
  • Living area that can hold ten people or so for gathering together
  • Some extra space, like a basement
  • Wood floors or equivalent–no carpet, no mold, no smokers. (We have allergies. If there is carpet, plan to replace with wood floors.)
  • Big windows, lots of light
  • Two-car garage (because of Maine winters, and for now we need two cars)
  • Laundry on first floor
  • Mudroom area
  • Fireplace or wood stove, more for the feeling of a hearth than for heat
  • Deck
  • No vinyl siding (That stuff is really bad for the environment! Watch the documentary Blue Vinyl!)
  • Electric appliances

Okay, that’s our list, that’s our desire. And of course, we want a sound, well-built house that will last. The other part of the equation is that we want the price to be enough less than our current house so we can afford to do the retrofits and add solar energy without taking on more debt. Our goal is to own it debt-free before we come to retirement, and to have the ongoing taxes and utilities and maintenance costs affordable to us on a low retirement income.

There is a strange magic to finding a new home. There are practical steps we need to take, but then, it all depends on what is out there. And what will emerge in the next day or week or month. I have moved dozens of times in my life, and it always brings up a lot of anxiety for me. Will we find a home that works for us? Will we recognize it when we see it? What is essential on our list, and where can we compromise? It took us four months to find our current home when we moved here to Maine. Will it take that long for this process? If we find a house we like, will we be able to bid for it successfully? My partner has her own list of fears.

In this magic of finding a new home, we are placing our desires up against our fears. That is why it feels important to me to name our very specific desires for a new home, and also to acknowledge and honor our fears. I know that magic works that way. But there is another deeper movement going on as well. It comes to mind again as I look at houses-for-sale online. In the listings, they don’t mention the orientation of the house, so I try to figure it out by looking closely at the maps. It is discouraging how few houses have a south-facing roof.

Then I remember that we are trying to do something new with this move–we are trying to re-orient our home environment into harmony with all life on earth. The current built environment is oriented around cheap oil and other fossil fuels. It can’t last. We are trying to take our own small steps closer to a whole new way of living that is about beauty and sustainability and a future for the generations yet to be born. There is a great Earth energy that is beneath our feet guiding our way down this path.

It says to me, “Remember to embrace the process. Enjoy the whole journey, right now! You don’t have to wait until everything is ‘settled.’ Keep taking small steps until you are ready to leap. Until the time comes when it is clear. You do not have to rush. Keep holding hands with the ones you love.”

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer