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Unfinished House

How I quit seeing my land as a piece of real estate, and committed to seeing it as a home. (by Christina Ammon)

While I invest in making the house better and better, I also tell myself to love this place more lightly

Halfway through painting this image of my house in Ruch, I found myself reluctant to finish it. Not out of laziness or lack of inspiration, but simply because I like the way it looked half done: the unexpected areas of color, the black-and-white swaths of suspense for what will come next. It makes me think of a building proverb I heard somewhere: Man finishes house; man dies. This simple little line felt cryptic at first, but with time the meaning of it has ripened in my mind. Although the goal of home projects is ostensibly to eventually lie back and enjoy the finished product—the new porch, the shiny tub, slick the wood flooring--there is something to the day-to-day project of working on one’s house that is enlivening. And there is a certain death in finishing. This has been on my mind as I pursue the classic-pandemic project of renovating parts of my house. I’ve added French doors, repainted walls, and installed a new tin panel roof. I’ve moved ahead on the firming up the garden fence, covering the side deck and planting more bulbs in the yard, I’ve always been reluctant to sink money into this place— for several different reasons. First, it’s a 45-year old double wide mobile home whose value will always depreciate. Money put into it is money lost, at least from an investment standpoint. My reluctance to invest has recently been layered by a second concern: What if it all burns down? With nearly 3,000 structures in the nearby towns of Phoenix and Talent in ashes, it’s hard not to wonder if it will eventually happen to my house too, nestled as it is in a flammable oak savannah and forested habitat. And lastly, I often look around and wonder: Are the real estate values in the valley going to go up, or go down? Will hemp boom help, or harm? What about the August smoke? The flourishing wineries? The California migration? The pandemic? I continually calculate my financial prospects. Will it all lead to my prosperity—or my ruin? And yet more lately I’ve come to a new feeling about my house. I used to think I loved it because of the paragliding mountain nearby. Then I thought I loved it because of all the people from around the world who came to visit. Then, during the lockdown, when there were no gliders in the sky, or friends dropping by, I realized I just loved this place for itself—for the roses that grow wild over its railings, for the old granddaddy oak, for its crooked porch, and for its wide breezy rooms. And even when I was there alone, I felt held by the energies of the many people who have left their mark: Dave ,who spent a couple hot August days laying kitchen tiles; my friend Jane who put in granite counter tops using scrap pieces from her house; Wendy who hammered the porch together; Richard who set the light posts; and Tim who spent a whole sunny day with me adjusting the screen door until we achieved the perfect summertime slam. And then there is all the art that speaks from the walls: the voices of Anna, Jen, Scott, Michelle and Dot. In many ways, it is a crowd sourced house. I guess when you finally fall in love with a place, it doesn’t matter if there’s too much rain, or not enough rain, if it’s too hot or cold, or if there are fires or floods. It doesn’t matter if your investment is going to pay off or not. At some point, the love is about something that is not connected to real estate gyrations or even the materiality of the place. It’s knit into the fabric of memories and friendships—things that cannot burn down in a fire, or plummet when the real estate market falls. As fires burn all around me, I am reminded that it is all precarious. While I invest in making the house better and better, I also tell myself to love this place more lightly. I have meditated at length on the possibilities--seen in my mind the timber frame alight and purlins collapse. I’ve seen the wild roses wither to ash, and rehearsed what I’d take with me (the dog, the guitar and the Simbari painting) and mourned what I’d leave (everything else). It’s a possibility worth preparing for. But until that happens, I’ve settled on this: to quit seeing my land as a piece of real estate and commit to seeing it as home. I plan to stay and to keep it alive, to keep on “finishing” it and to keep on loving it, even though someday it all may just burn to the ground.

*originally published in The Applegater.

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Christina, your writing has been brightening my life for years now. This piece is yet another example.

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Bruce! That's the nicest thing to hear--especially from an accomplished fellow writer! Thank you! Christina

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