How To Feel At Home

Searching for a house in 2019 meant confronting my lifelong alienation from this country. Buying one felt like betting on this country, and me.

Surrounded by trees, a dark wooden cylinder of a house rising three stories out of the ground.
The house that got away, but began the dream of owning a house.

Four years ago, I moved north from New York City to Bradford, VT. I’d taken a job at Dartmouth College, and I needed to travel back and forth from New York to wherever I was teaching writing less than I had been — working outside of New York to be able to afford your life in New York had become an untenable, unhappy-making proposition. So I took an apartment in Bradford while I searched and got to know the surrounding towns.

I soon found a dream house, a house that will most likely turn into a story one day, as I spent so much time imagining a life inside of it.

The wooden cylinder house with the studio over the garage now visible also, clouds rising above them, and more of the trees.
It was not so much a dream house as a dream compound.

The real estate you find in Vermont is a mix of homes built sometime over the last 300 years that have either been well-maintained or not, either as vacation homes, or farm houses, or suburban homes, and there’s a little too much of that sort of bland new home with the architectural idiom of a Holiday Inn Express in Phoenix. But there’s also a certain kind of home you find with some regularity, built by dreamers who don’t care about what normal looks like, and these are the ones I might love best: in this case, an 1800 square foot one-bedroom built in the 1980s, with 300 acres, a 900 square foot studio apartment over the garage that looked like a dance studio, and then a third separate writing cabin, very tiny , at probably 200 square feet. I joked with my husband that it was a home built for fights — if we got mad at each other, we could each go into a different building.

The main house was rounded in the back, had what we might call “custom windows” that all needed to be replaced, and when we saw it, mud wasps had moved in. It reminded me of the Goddard College library, a building I love dearly. The house stayed on the market for 3 years unsold. It wasn’t anything like the family homes that went quickly as it wasn’t family friendly, a true one-bedroom with a spiral staircase, dangerous to children and seniors both. We set ourselves to saving the down payment, and the very week we had our money together to begin, we discovered an offer had been placed and accepted just days earlier.

We were crushed, but we started over. What was I going to do with 300 acres? What was I not going to do? In the two years of dreaming about that home, I imagined an arts colony, or a commune, like so many before me. Only after it was snatched away did I remember meeting someone in Amherst, MA ten years ago who identified himself as the last surviving member of his commune.

A cathedral-height barn made of wood, in disrepair, shot through with sunbeams,
The ruined barn I dreamed of turning into a writing center and karaoke barn.

I still have in my head a parade of the homes we didn’t buy: the farm house in Orford with a huge ruined barn that I fantasized refitting as a karaoke theater. The former colonial tavern in Plainfield with an elaborate garden and a barn that I preferred to the main house, but so haunted I nearly ran out to the car. The converted barn in Hartland, complete with a ghostly second cabin in the woods nearby — a part of the property, un-renovated, almost a ruin. You may sense a theme.

My husband, standing by a field plain, mountains in the distance.
My husband, in a view I could have died looking at. I just hated the house, but loved the garage.

I developed a criteria: could I die happy, looking at the view? I’m not a young man, and while I’m not yet prepared to buy a home based on aging in place, I don’t actually imagine doing this a great deal.

We used the lost dream as a lesson plan of a kind: we identified needs for ourselves like privacy, specifically the ability to stand naked outdoors at home, unobserved, and the desire for a library and a writing cabin. I became an able user of Zillow, the Tinder of real estate, as well as Trulia, which I appreciated as Trulia told me about the laws in place that might affect me as a gay man in any given town. We became obsessed with flood plains, acreage for possible farming, out buildings. I found, too often, I loved the garage but hated the house.

I ran out of the main house, a former tavern, because it felt cursed, but fell in love with this barn garage.

I am happy every day now for the house we bought. Move-in ready as the expression goes, 3 bedrooms, 3 acres, privately wooded on all sides. 35 minutes from my work, not that it matters so much right now. No garage, but we will build one, and it will be beautiful. We bought at the bottom of our budget, partly because I could with this house we found, but also because Elizabeth Warren had predicted a Trump recession and that turned out to be underselling the danger we all face now. Our home has the writing cabin I’ve dreamed of since college, out in the back yard, as yet un-insulated, but we’re getting there — my husband, Dustin, is, as the expression goes, handy — good with tools, and able to fix or fix up many things. That writing cabin was a surprise — it was not in the house listing, strangely, but when I saw it while touring the house, the house became, right away, a sought-after prize. But even so, there was a fear.

Buying a home last fall felt like a placing a bet on America. This country is not a country I would ever choose to live in if I didn’t grow up here. I remember a Bosnian friend who spoke of living in several different countries while never leaving his house and I have felt that a bit — this country has changed so much in some ways, so little in others. After a life of always wondering why I was working so hard to stay in a place that had treated me like maybe I’d gotten lost on my way to somewhere else, it felt strange to think of owning a home in it now. But a life of answering the question “What are you?” in this country has made me, in part, the writer I am. Whether or not I feel like I belong here, America made me, and whether or not I feel like I can live here, I felt like I could live in this house. And as my down payment was made with money saved from my writing and teaching, buying a house last fall felt like placing a bet on me, too.

At first I had to use Google Maps each time I tried to go home so I wouldn’t drive by my road. Some part of me, I think, was still afraid to have a home here. We live in a Vermont town so small it doesn’t have a traffic light, a café, or even a gas station. No one really comes here if they don’t live here. I had finally learned where the turn was when the shutdown began, and the first time I ran an errand after a few weeks at home, I drove past my road again, all my lessons lost. Now Google Maps tries to say my road extends through the woods I know are still there, to a road on the other side, and I wonder sometimes if it is worth fixing with them. I don’t want lost strangers on my road. But I like that there are things Google is wrong about.

At night the moths come to each of the windows in this house like it is a giant lamp in the woods. And I suppose, for them, that is all this is. That very first night, I came home to find the house entirely dark, as if for a surprise party. Inside, Dustin had set a fire in the wood stove and was hustling our candles out of our moving boxes in the basement. As I opened the door, he told me we’d lost power. We drank champagne, ate take out pizza I’d brought home, and then I read to him from a book I was reading, and the power returned in time for us to go to bed. We stepped outside briefly, and stared up in awe, overhead, the uncountable stars visible in the dark, glittering.

Since that first night, the house has, during this first year, felt like a mostly gentle trickster. I suppose I am a mostly gentle trickster too.

I am happy the election is over, though I am convinced having a president at all is a design flaw for this country. The Senate too. It is too soon to know if the bet on America is going to pay off. I am not someone who thinks electing a new president solves all our problems. Biden is picking his cabinet as I write this, but there’s so much to do it staggers the imagination. 40% of Americans are living in food insecurity, for example, in part because the Senate is holding up COVID relief, as McConnell will not compromise on his demand that companies should get immunity from liability, even as we learn that Tyson managers were placing bets on how many of their employees would get ill, and that retail food workers have died after not being allowed to wear masks at work because companies feared ‘scaring’ their customers. It means a lot to me that Vermont’s COVID cases, now famously low by comparison, are low in large part because the state decided to commit to protecting the most vulnerable, and while the state needs to do more, especially for the incarcerated, that commitment made me feel I’d chosen a place where I could fight and have it mean something.

I still envy my friends who left for Germany in the 1980s and 1990s, or my friends who left for Spain and Portugal in the 00s, or my friends who left for Korea and Mexico in the 2010s. I look down the barrel of what’s left of my life and I have to ask if I want to keep trying to dodge the myriad scams this country serves up to every generation alive now. I spent half my salary the last two years on my teeth and my knees — money I would not have had to spend in Germany, Spain, Portugal, Korea or Mexico. Whatever your age, America is prepared to steal everything from you, through climate destruction, college loans, “health insurance,” surprise emergency room bills, “retirement accounts.” In some ways I would leave just to stop arguing about all of this with people convinced they deserve the freedom to pay into all of those scams. But for now, I’m still here.

Author of the novels THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT and EDINBURGH, and the essay collection HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL.

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