Staying Put

admin September 23rd, 2010

I wrote this piece in 2006, and it is interesting for me to revisit it now, after our flirtation with moving. In the end we stayed for all the reasons I write about here - I think I hit on something true, but I don’t know if I really understood how hard it is to simply accept the limitations of one place until I actually did it.  Yeah, I know, physician, heal thyself ;-) .

It really doesn’t matter what you believe is the central crisis of our present society, whether you are focused on economic instability, peak oil, climate change, poverty and inequity or all of them together. When you filter out the details and get down to brass tacks, the answers to all of the above problems are the same.

Go home. Stay there. Cook your dinner instead of getting it out. Donate what you save. Talk to your neighbors. Buy local. Grow your own. Go to your town meeting, neighborhood council, or other public forum, and try and improve things. Vote.  Show up.  Make things instead of buying them. Share. Help those in need in your own neighborhood. Walk instead of driving. Play with you kids instead of buying them stuff. Turn down the heat and put on a sweater. Chase your kids or play soccer with your neighbors instead of going to the gym. Talk instead of watching tv. Plant trees. Learn permaculture. Barter. Raise some money for a good cause. Pare down. Live simply. Garden. Go home. Stay there.

Now the first and the last clauses here represent something of a problem for a lot of Americans - because you cannot build community, or develop a local society, or have an orchard, or depend on others for the things that you need, unless you actually stop moving around and stay somewhere. And most of us are not very good at that last - the average American moves every 5 years.

That’s not enough time to pay off the mortgage, or see that standard apple tree grow to fruition, or get to know the local issues well enough to have an impact on your town. In five years, you can get a carpool together, and get some bartering going, but you’ll have to leave just as things get good. It gives you just enough time to begin acquiring that wonderful quality, “known-ness” in which you know your neighbors, and you understand how they are connected to other people (that the postman is the BIL of the woman in the third house down, and that the woman in the green house is worried about her mother, whose health is failing), and how you fit in (you are the weird one who composts and has chickens, right?). 

Then, most likely, you move - for the best of reasons - because this was a starter house and you need something bigger, or to get closer to your dream house, or to build your own passive solar place, to be closer to your elderly parents, or so the kids can walk to school, to be nearer a new job or in a safer neighborhood, or to downsize now that the kids are gone. And you start again with a new garden, and new soil, new trees and new neighbors, new friends for the kids and new everything.

Now I have a lot of natural sympathy for people who move a lot. I would be one of them, but I can’t be. My husband, Eric, feels about moving much the way I feel about toxic chemicals, only not so positively. If it were left to him, we would probably still be living in an apartment in Somerville. But now that he’s here, it has taken him the better part of nine years to get used to being here, and he’s happy, so he’s never, ever moving. Add to that that this is the house we lived in with his beloved grandparents, and we’re here forever.

On the other hand, if three months have passed since we moved here that I haven’t looked over the local real estate listings, I’d be shocked. Me, I’m a grass-is-greener kind of person. I’ve never been anywhere that I didn’t think (however briefly) “could I live here?” And often, when I’m most frustrated with my life, my first reaction is “we should move to where we could be carfree/have more land/be nearer X relative/be further away from other people/have a smaller house/build green/etc…”

It has been a long, long struggle for me to realize that I am staying here forever, if possible. I still fight against that reality sometimes. I do love my house, but like many of the people I love, I’m not always sure that I actually want to live with it. If you were to describe the ideal post-peak house, I suspect you would not choose a 3000+ square foot rambly, under-insulated farmhouse with a bat collector (er, cupola space). It is a pain in the ass to keep clean (and we’re not the tidiest people in the world), drafty, too big even for our four kids (we had hoped Eric’s grandparents would be with us much longer), because of its size, the taxes run high, and has a host of other things that make it much more difficult and annoying to make efficient than would a new, green-built home. It doesn’t come with an ocean (I grew up near the sea, and that bugs me), and it is in every way imperfect, even when I like it.

And in that sense, it is perfect, isn’t it? Because I’m going to bet that most of you live in the wrong house too. And in fact, no matter how hard we try, we’re not going to replace our 90 million dwellings with brand new, perfectly designed ones. We can’t, and think of what we’d waste in doing so.

A few people will build new, green houses, but most of us will make do with what we’ve got, or, as most of us do, buy another house and another house, trying always to get to the point at which our house will fulfill its dream functions for us. But we never quite succeed. I once read that people who build their dream houses only live in them an average of 7 years. Because in 7 years, dreams change, I guess, and we get frustrated by the fact that houses, no matter how wonderful, are in the end, only houses, and go looking for the magic house that will be more.

And all that moving around exacts a price. First of all, there’s the economic price - the cost of realtors fees, and advertising, moving costs and buying new things at the other end - we lose an average of between 6 and 8% of the purchase price on each house. In a bubble market like the one we once had, that’s no big deal - we get it back. But that’s not the norm, and we all know those days are over. So moving costs us economically. 

It also sets us back on every goal we have in creating local economies, local communities, local cultures. Every time we pick up and move, we lose a year or two of high quality work - because while we’re adapting to a new place, meeting people, finding out about local resources, getting used the new job, seeing where the sun falls in the yard and testing the soil, we’re spending time that could be gardening and working at the shelter and bartering with the neighbors. It also costs energy - moving our crap, buying new stuff, flying on airplanes, renting trucks, these are not low energy input activities. They raise our personal energy footprint.

Now sometimes we’re going to have to move - and not every home has a future, particularly given climate change.. But over the coming decades, a lot more of us are
going to have to stay put. We are going to have to change to a foot economy, and relocalize.

 You cannot fully relocalize if you are dreaming of the day you will move to your perfect house, that you will find the perfect community of people just like you. We can’t wait until we can all afford the perfect place. And some, perhaps many, of the places we’re in are going to have to become perfect because they are ours. With the crash of the housing market, it isn’t going to be economically feasible to trade up all the time. No matter how good your R value, the building materials in your perfect house come with a big energy footprint. No matter how annoying your neighbors, maybe it is time to share with them, rather than dreaming of the perfect community. Even if the house is too small, or too big, doesn’t have the garden space you dream of or is down the street from weird people, it might be the best place for you.

So I’m trying. When we invest in our house, we do it in ways that will serve us for a lifetime. Last night I looked out at the stars and I tried to imagine that this, with its benefits and limitations, is our permanent world, the place where we will always live. The only home my children will know. We are renovating the house to make ourselves more self-sufficient, and to set things up so that we can live comfortably without electricity or other fossil fuel inputs. I am trying to make it more beautiful, to pare down what we don’t need, and to make things prettier. And I am trying to believe that here is where I am supposed to be.   I’m not always successful - but I’m trying.


8 Responses to “Staying Put”

  1. Gardenatrix says:

    This is eerily timely for me right now. I don’t know that this solves my inner debate, but it definitely introduces new and better questions.

    I’m pointing my readers this way - it’s definitely a must-read post. Thanks for sharing it again!

  2. The Mom says:

    I’ve been struggling with this for a while also. We own a half duplex with a decent yard. We have awesome neighbors who don’t care that I dug up my whole yard to put in a garden. The people who own the other half of our house share chickens with us. Still, I dream of just a smidge more space, a fireplace and much more land to expand the gardens and add more animals. It’s such a struggle, especially when so many look at my modest house and tell me it’s just a ‘starter home’. In the end we can easily afford it, and I feel safe with neighbors who have my back. The rest can be sorted out.

  3. Devin says:

    We just went through this with our house in MN and now we are back in CO which turned out to be more dreamy than MN was. Now we are working on building community here.

  4. cornish_k8 says:

    Looking at the stars - I need to more of that.
    We can see lots of stars here as long as we don’t trigger the PIRs - just need to make sure to make the time!

  5. Colette O'Neill says:

    What a breath-taking piece of writing… it has made me think again about the reasons why I decided to return to Ireland after many years in the diaspora. To try to encapsulate this in writing would be to re-write your own piece, so I will try to condense it into one small statement of fact, for me… I was born and educated in Omagh, in poverty, went to University in London and stayed there to make my fortune… consumerism failed to make me complete, there was something missing…living…I now enjoy a life!

  6. Andrea Holman says:

    Yes, I’m thinking along new lines after reading Independent Days: network network network replaces the old location location location.
    Network home family church other;
    network locally;
    network online
    Food Security is the new wealth. Don’t go through the establishment; go around them.

    Andrea Holman

  7. rhonda jean says:

    Of all the things I’ve read of yours, this absolutely hits the mark for me. That first paragraph should be tattooed onto everyones’ forehead.

  8. rhonda jean says:

    Correction: first and second paragraphs.

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