The journey begins

2 September 2008, from Writings

The first of September. A cool night, a real turning of the seasons. Lloyd the cat keeps peering out the half-open door, wondering who might be out there, in the dark land he’d just been exploring.

My stomach is filled with butterflies, the sort that come out flitting in the lamplight on the eve of a big trip. But I have no ticket to a foreign land, my bags are unpacked, I have no itinerary, printed and folded and ready to go. I will not wake up tomorrow in an unfamiliar bed.

But still I feel like I have embarked on a journey – but a journey of a more subtle sort. I am moving away from the stability and rootedness of the last couple of years, and moving towards the glorious, portable uncertainty of the future. I’ve decided to move out of my house, to give up being a homeowner.

I’ve owned this little bungalow, on the edge of this little Willamette Valley town, for nearly two years. Now going on 90 years old, the house is a comfortable little place, aging well, not too big, not too fancy, yet classy in its homey way. I’ve fit myself into a few of its places: a sleeping perch upstairs, the main room downstairs, the spacious kitchen. I’ve utilized the extra rooms less well: the library has turned into a cluttered hall; the downstairs bedroom (always too gloomy anyway) is a mess of an art studio; the upstairs room that looks east contains the piles of stuff that is slowly finding new owners.

I have become a reluctant homeowner. While this house has fit me far better than most, I still feel completely overwhelmed when I look out my back door into my crazy-wild garden. It’s lovely, exploding with wildflowers and colorful weeds and little apple trees – but it’s also far more than I can easily comprehend, much less manage. My friend Jeff maintains this for me, taming the chaos, leveling the paths, transforming the tedious lawn first into mounds of earth, then into tiny lands each representing a small world of cooperating plants.

Last year, after I discovered I was allergic to dust mites, I ripped out the carpet both upstairs and down, finding a subfloor of dusty plywood and ancient linoleum. Faced with the expanse and too many choices of possible replacements, I made none: and so continue to live with a bedroom that looks half-constructed and a studio of grimy and dubious checkerboard. The windows, painted shut a long time ago, barely keep out the winter and the sounds of the neighborhood – replacing them is another raft of choices that overwhelm me. The rickety aluminum windows upstairs creak open, and I leave them that way most of the summer, along with flinging open the front and back doors. As the winter comes on, I reluctantly close up the house, flip the switch on the forced-air furnace, and listen to the noise and smell the dust that emanates from the vents.

By city standards, this is a quiet town. But the little neighborhood I live in is mixed – a eco-friendly strawbale house on one side, and diesel pickups on the other. Bicycles mix with tweaked Camaros. Dog walkers pass the kid who’s trying, badly, to learn how to flip his skateboard. The glorious grove of oaks to the west contrasts with the low boxes of the boxy metal buildings in the ‘industrial park’ to the north. I can hear the crickets and the frogs in the swampy fields, and just beyond them, the slow, constant growl of the machinery at the food-processing plant a thousand feet to the north of me.

For the first few months I lived here, the mixing of people and sound was intriguing to me: I appreciated the diversity. But gradually the noises began to wear on me. I covered my ears at the roar of the pickup truck racing up the street. I dreaded the kids returning home from school, to take up their screaming games on the street directly in front of my house. The folks across the street took up a habit of yelling conversations across their yards and down the street. I started noticing that even closing the windows could not keep out the incessant hum from the processing plant.

I’ve been noise sensitive my entire life, so detecting these sounds wasn’t a new experience for me. Motors, engines, and fans – those sounds of the modern world – drive me crazy.

But still I wondered whether it was really as intense as I thought. I asked friends when they visited whether they heard the hum: yes, they supposed if they concentrated, they could hear it. What about the kids in the street? Well, they’ll be off at school soon and it’ll be quiet. The trucks gunning their engines? Friends seemed to ignore them.

I drowned out the sounds by playing music, masked the hum with noise-cancelling headphones, convinced myself I’d ‘get used to it’ like everyone said I eventually would, distracted myself while programming and reading and writing, thought good thoughts about my annoying neighbors, and learned and remembered that the factory noise was worst when the wind was coming from the north, and that the wind always changes.

But I have a limit, and that limit has been reached. I am irritable, I cannot concentrate, and many nights I cannot sleep deeply, and wake up in a fog of grumpiness. As my friend Francis suggests, my house and surrounds have become toxic to me: my health is becoming affected. The only thing that reliably works is leaving: a trip to the countryside, an errand downtown, even a jaunt up to Portland feels like a relaxing break. I return, and am welcomed home by the damned hum.

Tonight I took a walk out in the industrial park. It’s a place of stark beauty: a wide space of wild grasses and blackberry bushes, a hidden parkland of wildlife. I took my sound meter with me, hoping to catch the growling factory in the act of emitting a decibel level over the regulations. But as I walked along, closer to the factory’s edge, my sound meter barely registered. At the driveway it finally gave me its loudest reading: about the level of an air conditioner, or a close conversation with a friend.

And there my epiphany came: I’m not going to be able to do anything about this. No one else seems bothered, and the processing plant is within the regulations of the city. The guy will continue to gun the motor in his Camaro; my neighbor will still leave his huge pickup idling while yapping with his cousin; the kid next door will probably continue to fall off his clattering skateboard.

So it’s me who will change. This neighborhood-living was always an experiment, like country-living and city-living have also been for me. All those contexts had their first few months of shiny newness, where everything was interesting and nothing was bad. But as the seasons progress, the details emerge, and eventually I find myself accidentally rooted, and encounter the pain of removing myself, of detaching from a place.

This journey now feels different. Instead of finding the next great place, I have the urge to dive more fully into the ever-moving stream of the world; not to find a rock to land on, but a limb to carry me along.

And so I will throw off these reluctant bands of homeownership, this role that has never seemed natural or comfortable, and get back on the road I feel I’ve fallen off of. I have a potential house-sitting job in January, and a city in Brazil that’s calling for me to visit later this fall. In the meantime, my journey will be one of disassembly, packing up, and letting go.