July 14, 2009:
A few weeks ago, I was up at my home in Sonoma and retrieved a book to bring home and read. A few days later, I opened the book and out fell the finalized floor plan that I hoped to use for remodeling that same home. Since then, I've kept the plans on my desk here in the City. I haven't opened them until this evening. It has felt too painful to look at those carefully evolved blueprints that will never happen.
For a variety of reasons, some of them family legacy and some more personal, I've never owned property until the last four years. Then, when I went into land partnership with Ann, I suddenly had a new creative venture in my life. It was a scruffy in-law apartment tacked onto a horse barn, a fixer-upper crying out for help. In the beginning the two halves of the building were separated by solid walls. To get from one side to the other, you had to literally go outside and into the door at the other end of the building. Particularly inconvenient when I woke up on one side on a wet, cold winter morning and wanted to get breakfast in the kitchen located on the other side. Inconvenient, but it's what I started with.
The dialog that ensued began in my living room, warmed by oak flames in the Franklin stove. I'd sit in a chair, close my eyes and ask the house, "What do you want to become?" What walls go? What new rooms are waiting to be framed? How many bedrooms? It took many months of sifting and playing with architectural software to configure the plans that are open in front of me this evening. One of the things I learned was that I not only have the decorator gene of a gay man--that was already common knowledge--but also an interest in shaping room spaces. A feature of this house was that it sat flat on flat ground. When you looked out the french doors and windows you didn't see into a panorama of countryside, rather you looked right out at the meadow at ground level. You faced into the big trunks of the old oak trees as they rose out of the soil. I'd always lived up high and looked out over a view. This house was different, it was about being literally grounded.
As the house started to answer my questions about it's hopes for becoming, I discovered things both unexpected and revealing in myself. While staying within the footprint of the foundation, I wanted to create spaces that held a surprising amount of Chinese furniture. There was even a wall devoted to a Chinese lattice window that let in a patterned amount of light and background. This was in homage to a wonderful courtyard-based home where I remembered living during the Southern Song dynasty. Hey, why not? The floor plan retrieved a memory of a very happy time. I could create a home for my feelings by arranging walls. I had never known this before.
Some of the excitement of being a homeowner was about reconfiguring rooms for the future. Other gifts were available immediately. In Sonoma, I returned to my childhood in the country. I grew up splitting firewood, doing heavy maintenance gardening and knowing about native plants. From college forward almost forty years, I moved further away from soil and the seasonal efforts of cultivating. Now, in Sonoma, I was back on a complex piece of property that varied from hard pack earth in the meadow to deep loam in the upper garden. There were open spaces and sequestered zones inside old hedges. Really the variety was astonishing.
My approach to the property was slow, even tentative. It took me a year to rearrange my schedule so that I had most weekends available to drive up to Sonoma. Then, two years of settling in with my evolving plans for the house and a learning curve of how the weather would define how time was spent. If rain, forget gardening. If Spring, get busy. If Fall, the oak leaves don't really cascade en masse until late November. So many interesting lessons worth learning from the here and now.
The center of the property was not only the house and the land, but also my friendship with Ann which was a key part of my connection to the place. We discovered early that we meshed well. She had formal training as a landscape designer, and my background was in heavy lifting. Both were needed. But my favorite times were when we simply visited and enjoyed out time together. At my house we sat in front of the fire place and enjoyed the warmth from the stove. At her house up the hill, we sat on the deck for hours in the afternoon and into long summer evenings. Talking, talking, talking. What fun!
When the plans for remodeling my house fell out of the book, I realized how much I have retreated from Sonoma during the past year. Even before my cancer diagnosis when I thought my only problem was a hip that needed to be replaced, it was harder for me to work in the yard so I did less. After the cancer gave rise to the chemo, my visits dramatically dropped to once every six weeks, once every two months. I was no longer on the property. And by renting my home, I gave up my home. It's true that I have always been welcome to stay in the extra bedroom or at Ann's. The truth is that it was too painful for me to be on the land. Another of my excuses was that it physically hurt to drive in the car up to Sonoma. True, true. The deeper truth is that is was too painful for me to be on the land.
So, this weekend, I'm going up to Sonoma to divide up my remaining goods. Some pieces will stay with the house. Some family furniture will be shipped to my sister. It's been good this evening to look at the house plans and to write this farewell. Curiously, it's much less painful to face the loss of the property than I feared. It has been a wonderful vision to live in for the past four years. The land in Sonoma has built new rooms inside of me and restored my connection to the earth. For a long time, I have known that not everything that gets planned gets built.