Sunday, January 10, 2010

Empty Houses

Like so many others, this recession hit us really hard. Both Joe and I are self-employed, so when the work dried up, we didn't even have unemployment benefits to tide us over. Recently the unthinkable became our best option--we sublet our Brooklyn apartment and moved in with extended family.

And do you know what? It's kind of fun. Olivia's G-ma is great to live with and has plenty of space to share. Aunts and uncles and cousins drop by, bring breakfast, loan us their baby furniture, recommend yoga studios. Joe fixes their electrical wiring, I share recipes. There's always someone to talk to.

All around the country, people are losing their houses--their big, big, empty houses. They're filling dumpsters with the stuff they bought to fill those houses up. I wonder how many of them bought houses to fulfill some vague dream of 'home,' derived from movies and children's books, full of laughter and games and roaring fireplaces? And I wonder how many people rattle around in them, wondering when the fun is going to start?

I think too many Americans have used their wealth to isolate themselves. They put up gates around their communities, shop online, live in suburbs and drive alone in SUVs built for eight. The more money you have, the more you don't have to interact with anyone you don't want to deal with. And ultimately, even your friends are too busy and far away to visit.

A number of years ago, I leased out my house, put my stuff in storage and floated around the world for a few years. I got good at being a houseguest. I kept my possessions to a minimum, cooked for people, listened, gave massages, and moved on when it was time to go. Since I am relatively introverted and like to control my own space, this was a challenge. But I was fine, my friends were happy to have me, and sorry to see me go. (They're still my friends, so I'm pretty sure they were telling the truth.)

This recession was a long time in the making, and our culture as a whole has a lot of hard lessons to learn. One of those lessons might be that relationships take more effort than possessions, but they give you more in return.


Spatula said...

I so much relate to what you are saying. I moved in with my mother, sister and step-father in 2008 with this very idea - that what I needed was community and connection, not a condo I struggled to pay for on my own.

Unfortunately, that didn't work out so well because my mother is, present tense, an abuser, and I can't have what you are describing, a family to share my life with.

But in general, assuming no such predicament, I think North America's habit of splitting up into nuclear families is an expensive mistake. All immigrants prosper by pooling resources and living together, and benefit both emotionally and materially from having each other.

I am planning to live with roommates in a short while. It feels weird on one level, because I am 35, and It's Just Not Done At My Age. But if all goes well, I will be moving in with a friend. We are both lonely. We both struggle with depression on top of present-day financial issues. We could both be very good sources of companionship and support for each other. And we are both mature enough that hopefully whatever living-together issues and annoyances arise, we can resolve them peacefully and in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

I much prefer this option to living alone right now, while I am struggling with loss of family and unemployment, even though my culture tells me that I shouldn't.

Pretty Lady said...

That sounds like a great plan, Spatch. Unfortunately a lot of people have abuse issues in their nuclear families--I'm wondering if that isn't partly because of our isolating culture as well. But that's another conversation.

I'm sort of hoping we see a cultural shift toward more people doing co-housing, having roommates, living with extended families, etc. It improves everybody's social skills, as well as being economically, environmentally and socially more sustainable.

Mark Poling said...

I'm incredibly happy that the move is working for you. I totally relate to the empty space in my own nuclear family's blueprint that would have been filled by extended family.

OTOH: Moving in with my Dad was an option for us when we were without corporate income; part of me thinks that might actually have been best for the kids over the next ten years or so of their lives, but honestly the thought still gives me the screaming heebie jeebies. We dandelion fluff take off for our own reasons.

I'm sure Joe will have a harder time with this than you will, at least in the short term. But on the other other hand, if you're massively de-stressed (as this post makes it sound) that's going to relieve pressure on him, too. So maybe this is one of those happy worst-case scenarios.

Good to see you writing again. (BTW, do you want a Google Voice account? I've got an invitation to give.)

Pretty Lady said...

It is true that if we were staying with MY family, I might not be sounding so smug. That's why roommates might be ideal--no baggage.

What's Google Voice? I've gotten some Google Wave invites, but haven't had time to explore what it's about.

Mark said...

Google voice gives you your own new phone number that you can "attach" to an existing phone. Free phone calls to any domestic number (you have to call your own Google number, press "2" and dial the other number.)

Includes voicemail and a surprising good text transcription of messages.

The nice thing is you can attach more than one number, or change the attached number. In your situation where you don't necessarily want to be tied to a specific (land line or cell provider) number in the near future it might be useful. I'll send you the invite.

Mark said...

By the way, Google Wave is about the most confusing thing I've ever tried to find a use for, and this comes from someone who used Lotus Notes.

Anonymous said...

Congrats to you and Joe on the move. I am unfortunately an ALWAYS fan of change and trying things new from time to time. I have been wondering about you guys daily for the last week but did not want to intrude.
A lot of good points about living with others. I have been living with others for about 5 years and what I found out is that sometimess it works and sometimes it doesn't. Everyone has baggage but when people keep most of their suitcases to themselves, everyone has the opportunity to be supportive and yet leave some boundaries in tact. Sometimes that works, sometimes it pays to relocate, neither a good thing nor a bad thing, just a smart thing to do.

Pretty Lady said...

Thanks, Danny! I have an email in draft to you that didn't get sent in all the chaos. I'll be in touch soon.

Oriane Stender said...

Danny, I don't have your email, and I don't think Steph will mind me commandeering her space for a minute - I love my spoon (or fork?) ring! You have an amazingly generous spirit. Thanks,