9: House-Whispering in Tucson

9: House-Whispering in Tucson

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Home Sweet Home

House-Whispering in Tucson

A house is not a home.

~Polly Adler

Sun flows through the living room like the tide, washing slowly over my bare toes. It warms the back of Einstein, a wirehaired Dachshund, who is hovering around me. He looks like an escapee from a fairy tale. A scientist some temperamental sprite cast a spell on. Instead of concocting chemicals in a lab — poof! — he is a dog with bushy eyebrows and a big banana nose playing with squeaky toys.

For the next three months, I will be living in his home, acting as an emissary of goodwill for his moms, who are adapting to a prolonged stay in Hong Kong. Their home is my equivalent of their Hong Kong adventure. As a professional housesitter, it’s my job to decipher and adjust to new cultures.

On day one, I typically wander from room to room, like the dogs I also care for, circling around and around until I find it. The sweet spot. The space that makes me feel at home within someone else’s home. It could be a patio swing, a study ripe with books, the company of a rose garden, or a surprise shaft of sunlight flowing onto my bare toes.

Because housesitting is a delicate art. You don’t squat inside a house like a fat hen filling up all the spaces with your feathers. You don’t startle it by jumping in belly-flop style, your presence, and all your belongings erupting in giant waves, displacing all else.

You sense the life already lived there, emanating through photographs of loved ones on the walls, couches that face enormous TVs rather than panoramic sunset views, windows naked, or lost in gauzy curtains, mirrors where you’d least expect them. You listen to the house’s voice. Is it soothing? Agitating? Birdsong, traffic, floors creaking like old bones, a refrigerator’s quiet hum, fans clicking on and off, fountains sweetening the air, clock alarms calling for their absent owners.

Some houses feel marshmallowy, with bed pillows that seem to multiply and overstuffed couches like great-aunts who won’t let you go without one more hug. Some houses have bad breath. The scent of incense or garlicky meals clinging to the walls, not a drop of fresh air anywhere. One house was Architectural Digest immaculate, but its glow was checkbook-induced rather than from the heart.

It doesn’t matter. You meet each house on its own terms. This is the space where people let their guards down. Take off their masks. How do you best protect such a place? Honor it? Harmonize with it while still being yourself?

You can’t always. My most challenging house was coated with animal hair from the eleven rescued cats and three dogs that lived there. At the last minute the owners decided to board up all the kitty doors so the cats would not be tempted to flee.

I spent all week sneezing and praying I’d keep the countless cats inside while ushering the dogs out safely. Especially since one pup had a phobia about crossing thresholds. Once he was inside or outside, he was calm, but that in-between space terrified him into viciousness. The cats would swarm by the door while he hesitated, leering from the tops of filing cabinets, their tales swaying and curling, as if they could hypnotize me into doing their bidding.

In such moments I long for a traditional home all to myself. The truth is I haven’t turned the key in a home I’ve owned since my first marriage, twenty-five years ago. In subsequent years, I’ve shared homes with another husband and a couple of boyfriends, rented a guest house on five acres of a wildlife sanctuary, rented a room from a midwife, finally falling into housesitting as a favor to a friend.

It made sense. As a writer, my laptop and I could travel anywhere. Did I need one building to house my emotions, my memories, my relationships? “Portable” became my mantra, inspired by the strong, creative women I befriended.

Like Leslee, who valued home as a launching-off point for her adventures. She’d worked with rescued wolves in the suburbs of Detroit, lived alone in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, snowshoeing in and out of her cabin for groceries while seven months pregnant, swam with the whales in Baja, survived shamanic journeying in Peru. She was one of the most centered, intuitive people I knew.

And Sandy, a native New Yorker who followed an irresistible yearning to explore the Gila National Forest in New Mexico — by foot. She ended up living off that land for four years with nothing but pack burros to carry all her belongings. She walked the paths the Apaches once walked, soaked in the same hot springs that once allegedly soothed Geronimo’s spirit. Every cell in her body told her this was home.

What joy, inhabiting the earth in such playful, earnest ways. I couldn’t believe that anyone could dream such a large dream and literally walk right into it. I admired that sense of curiosity. The ability to expand the boundaries of home.

I expand my definition of home with every new house I inhabit. Sometimes I feel house-full. Sometimes it feels like I’m on a twenty-city bus tour, and I just want to stop packing.

“I could live here,” I think about the adobe ranch house where Einstein and his buddy, Gracie, a rescued Greyhound, live. “I could move right in.”

“You’ll be out soon,” I imagine telling my belongings, which are in storage. “We’ll all be together soon.”

I walk around, throwing Einstein a rubber chicken. I splash in the whimsical artwork and doors signed by the woman who painted them. I listen to the house humming with the good morning and good night lullabies sung to Einstein by his moms. I hear echoes of the coaxing cheers they give Gracie when she is slow of appetite. “Eat Gracie, eat!”

I can feel it all. The pathways of love created through this family’s daily intimacies are as solid as their rooms and as easy to step into. Who needs pet and house care instructions?

For the next ninety days, this house will tell me all I need to know. We’ll co-create a sanctuary that honors all inhabitants, present and absent, two-legged and four-legged. I’ll thank the desert-tan walls, the hummingbirds in the gazebo, the kiva fireplace, the furry family. And I’ll let the inevitable questions rise up under each footstep. Where will you live next? What do you want? Why aren’t you settled? Surely my life has opened pathways of love, too. What are they creating? Something solid? A dream large enough for me to walk right into? Will my boyfriend and I be able to live together? Or will I, at last, step through the door into my own home?

“What do you think?” I ask Einstein. He runs toward me, rubber chicken in his mouth, short legs traversing the carpet like the cavalry coming to save the day.

~Jan Henrikson

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