Monday, January 27, 2014

Working Out the Answers

Nothing fills me with quite the same level of discomfort as telling people what I do. 

And the answers are always different. 

Some days, I'm a novelist. Some days, a poet. On other days I'm a crafter, a small business woman, an entrepreneur. But the number one thing I am - it's a loaded title, groaning with gender norm nostalgia and modern feminist rejection, and it's a bit awkward to share. I never know what kind of reaction I'll get, because sometimes it's accepted, even lauded, and other times people turn their eyes away and I know they've formed some level of judgement because of one simple word. 

I've met women - strong, independent, professional women - who've told me that they'd love to do what I do. And I've met men who seemed delighted by the thought that they, too, could have someone to do the ironing. I've also met people my own age who are absolutely puzzled, like my situation is a problem to solve, a stopgap measure before life really begins. One compound word - a dozen different faces, a handful of assumptions, a glimmer of confusion. 

Housewife. Right now, I'm a housewife. 

When I was a teenager, it was my father who was the king of household pleasures - the cooking, the gardening, the opera on Saturdays and the martinis on Sundays. I remember him expressing how that was the life he really wanted, the life he actually enjoyed. And his romantic interpretation of the realities of scrubbing and dusting and scouring sounded quite pleasant. It seemed like the role of the homebound adult was to sit quietly in a garden with a good book, a stack of CDs, and an endless supply of coffee. Gosh, that sounded nice. Nice for my father, and nice for me, a kid who hated going to school and being anywhere but there, music and drinks and shaded peacefulness surrounded by mint and the smells of the city. 

Now, my father has a job he really loves, and while he still enjoys doing things around the house, I think there's less incentive to escape from any work-related unpleasantness. He has what we're all supposed to have, a career. And I - I'm no longer in high school, and everything inside my head is much better, and I had a career, and I sit on my porch with coffee and music and my writing. 

And I clean. I cook. I fold the laundry. Sometimes I think about that image that I had, that my father talked about, and sometimes it seems like that is my life, and other times I admit that there are a lot more toilet scrubbings than pleasant afternoons in a garden.

I'm not complaining, not at all. Toilet scrubbings and laundry foldings are a necessary part of life, and honestly, I love being able to do them without the mountain of fatigue and stress which accompanied my previous work in education. I do mourn, every once in a while, the loss of friends, coworkers, and kids - but I do not regret my current life. In fact, I am grateful for it. 

Very, very grateful. 

So when I say, even though I intensely appreciate my life, that there's some discomfort when I disclose my "job title," I think the discomfort is mostly mine. Every once in a while I feel like I need to justify what I'm going through - maybe that's because of how I ended up here. I don't know how to talk about being a housewife without excusing it in some way, and my excuse, as it were, is my experience with mental illness. I can't think about being a housewife without thinking because I couldn't continue to work. While I know that my role in the home is very important, I feel that sliver of discomfort when I can't explain to other people - or to myself - that this really is my life. 

But, aside from all of that, I think it's important to note the commonalities between my father's daydreams and my current situation. I've got music, all the time, and I've got cooking. I'm planning to garden in the spring and use fresh herbs in the kitchen. I'm researching projects that I can do around the house - not just painting or decorating, but cleaning gutters, changing locks, caulking siding, refinishing floors. Being a handy housewife sounds awesome, and it's that kind of anticipatory joy which links my housewifery with my father's afternoon musings. 

Recently, I was talking with a new acquaintance. He asked what kind of work my husband does, and a bit later he asked the same of me. And instead of opening with a list of all the "worthwhile" things I do - the writing, the craft shows - out popped an immediate and accurate answer: I'm a housewife.

And some day, just like my father, I might have a career that I love. I have no doubt that I will continue to find work or works which give me joy. But I have to come to terms with the fact that being a housewife is also something I love, I enjoy, and that there is no reason for me to shy away from answering a simple question about who I am and what I do. It doesn't matter what other people connote when they hear me talk about my life. 

I've been writing for an hour. Next up is unloading and reloading the dishwasher. Then, laundry. After that, organizing and packing away my craft materials until I need them next. And in my afternoon I'll be researching the proper way to strip, seal, and paint windows. 

I am a writer, a crafter, and a housewife. And all of those answers are just fine. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014


We found the cutest little house. 

Last year marked our first attempts at home buying. We had a lot of fun looking at many of the models Columbia has to offer - actually, we saw ten million different versions of the split level, three bed, two bath. We saw renovated properties and houses groaning with the need for love and attention. We saw houses in Oakland Mills, in Owen Brown, in villages we'd never really been to, and in the dreaded "out parcels." The first house we loved was snatched up immediately, setting the tone for a year which was full of fast-paced realty and a bit of clothes-rending frustration. We put an offer down on a huge house which needed a bit of TLC - a reasonable offer, considering the scope of work - and within two days, it was gone. 

All of this is to say two things. First, properties in Columbia are intensely sought after. Second, a lot of properties in Columbia look exactly the same. 

Even some of the renovations have been along the same themes - open concept living spaces, hard wood floors, granite counters, teeny master bathrooms with a glamorous yet cramped shower stall. All of the houses had clean, impersonal electric ranges. The back yards had decks - but you could see right through the properties into your neighbor's pool or or dinette or trampoline. 

Searching for a house in Columbia, I could imagine how a city dweller might say, yes, even the houses are mundane altars to ticky-tacky. I can't deny that these houses were built as models, and even in renovation there can be a conformity - HGTV come alive, the Property Brothers present in every staging detail. I have heard, as have we all, the slight tone of superiority which carries words of condescension regarding Columbia, and I have no doubt, should the owners of those voices go house hunting here, that they would come away with the same reaction - ah, Columbia. There's no there, there. 

And, to be perfectly honest, I'm guilty of a little bit of that urban snark. After seeing the umpteenth split level I felt like I was missing out on some great secret - everyone wants to live here, but everything is the same. Why are these properties in such demand? They're nothing like the houses of my youth, the Victorians crammed together on tree lined streets, the carefully tended gardens out back, the smell of rain and the harbor water in side alleys and basements. 

I told my grandmother about this concept of sameness today, about all of the houses lined up like mono-form soldiers, and she said, it's just like Bolton Hill. These houses are all the same. 

Sometimes I need my Grandmere to set me straight. 

And, more often than not, I need my Grandmere's wisdom and my experiences with her to guide me as I do grown-up things. I need the memories of her house in Bolton Hill, and they are absolutely a part of me and of the way I view properties in Columbia. Grandmere has taught me so many wonderful things, and she has taught me about home and about beauty. She's told me about my grandfather, sick with worry after buying that beloved row house, and she's shown me the kind of incredible joy which comes from home and hearth and tradition and simplicity. She's given me a love for antiques, finding calm in the flowing lines of transfer ware, and she's shown me that beauty can be quiet and still - light through blue glass, the warm eyes of a beloved pet, pictures of people she loves. 

That's what I'm looking for in Columbia. Even if all of the houses are built the same. 

My husband and I have found a house we like - not the split level, this time, but a rancher with a garden out back. A house which is dated in the most delicious way but which is filled with light. It's a completely different aesthetic; it's all angles and skylights, no gleaming floors, little bedrooms, a courtyard instead of a lawn. I don't know if we are ready to get this house - it is the biggest decision we have ever attempted to make as a couple - but I'm finding that the journey, the process, the steps we take are perhaps more important than the destination. We might not get this house. 

And that's okay. Because I have learned something - sameness isn't the end of happiness. In Columbia, a sameness can be the beginning. 

A beginning - like Grandpere and his worrying and a house he filled with family. 

I can freely state that, quite unexpectedly, I love this house. I put it on a home tour for a lark, actually - I just wanted to see it, this model, this odd little amalgam of angles and light. I never thought that it was a real contender. But it's in the neighborhood we like. And it's different. And I can walk to the grocery. 

And my Grandmere likes it. 

Grandmere gave me a bit of advice last year - advice which I, committed to the house hunting process, did not want to hear. She said, what will happen is meant to happen. And, in her own way, chill out. It was fantastic advice, echoed this year by my dad and my closest friend. It's a difficult bit of wisdom to follow when you fall in love with a house. But it's so true - even if this house slips through our fingers as did the houses before, I have to remember that what will be, will be. 

I feel like I need to return to my first point above - houses in Columbia go like hot cakes. And it's true! There must be five thousand families lined up at the county border sniffing around for a good deal. And, while a former Baltimorean like me took some convincing as regards the value of suburban living, I can totally understand the appeal. At this stage of my life I have a significant interest in the school system - perhaps Howard County's biggest draw. I adore the idea of this particular house, in part because (as my helpful sister pointed out) it's a seven minute walk to the elementary school. I've reached an age and position when I can imagine a little Alice or G, tiny hand in mine, swinging along the sidewalk for the first day of kindergarten. Or that day when he or she can walk to school alone, when I sit out in the courtyard with my phone in my hand, wracked with nerves as I realize my kid is growing up. Columbia is the perfect place for that. 

And that's a tradition. That's my Grandmere and father, walking down the tree lined sidewalks to the local school on the corner. And it doesn't matter if all of the houses are all the same, it only matters that they are home. 

And that's what's important, in the end. Even if this house isn't meant to happen, even if we end up with the oft-seen split level, even if we stay in our apartment another year - it's all home. 

Home, a still beauty, a place of family, an archive of the self. 

That's all I've ever wanted.