Where is my home?

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, APR 19, 2006

I’ve uprooted myself over and over again in a short time. Now I don’t know where I belong.


Dear Cary,

Two and a half years ago, I left New York to move to Chicago to be close to my family. I was burnt out from working too hard and my mother had breast cancer. I telecommuted from home and attended a seminary at night on weekends. I was happy.

My mother’s cancer went into remission and my company decided to rein in the telecommuters. I was offered the choice of returning to New York, going to California or going to Dallas. I chose California. It had its ups and downs and I wasn’t always happy, but I really grew there. But after a painful breakup and an increase in layoffs at my company, I chose to respond to a job offer in the Netherlands. I got the job and moved here last summer. I was not prepared for the increase in racism, ethnocentrism, and the general anti-immigrant climate that is sweeping much of Europe. The more I got over my loneliness here, the more I realized that I had no long-term future here (due to extremely restrictive government policies) and there wasn’t much joy in the day-to-day. On several occasions, I was told that this was not the country for me and that I should return to the States. After one time too many, I quit my job, and am now packing up for my return.

But I know you can’t go home again. Yet, that is what I am trying to do. I am trying to figure out how I’m going to rebuild my life after having started over so many times in such a short time. And what am I going to think of the Midwest or East Coast after my experiences in California and Europe? Can I really stand yet another trip to Ikea to furnish my entire flat in one go for under $1,000? Can I keep investing in places and lives not knowing if I or they are going to come or stay? Nothing feels permanent anymore. I feel like a perpetual transient, yet that is never what I intended to be. What I want is a place to call home, but I don’t know where that is anymore.

I admire people who go away and always have a place to go back to. I am in awe of those who are constantly on the move and never return, yet never seem to break. But I seem to be neither of those kinds of people.

So here I am in Europe trying to force myself to pack to return, but not really wanting to. Unfortunately, it’s not legally possible for me to stay. What do I do? How do I orient my thinking so that I can move on and value the experiences I had?

The Wanderer

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Dear Wanderer,

It makes sense that you feel the way you do. You have been a transient. Nothing has been permanent. So nothing feels permanent. You feel like a perpetual transient. You don’t know where home is anymore. And you feel caught between a committed state of nomadism and some kind of rooted existence.

So how do you orient your thinking? I think that first you just acknowledge that what you are feeling is appropriate. It is a reflection of reality. It would be strange if you didn’t feel this way. And it is natural that when you look to the future and imagine more of the same, you say, I can’t do this forever. Of course not.

Sometimes when we are in a situation that seems intolerable we forget that it is a story and it does have an ending. Stories begin with disruption. In your case your mother got breast cancer and that uprooted you, started you on your journey.

Then there are ripples of that original disruption, and complications and revelations. You went to the Netherlands and found the natives unfriendly. You went to California and ate delicious fruit. You had a breakup that you learned from. But always you were trying to find your home.

You haven’t just been wandering. You’ve been responding to trouble — first your mother’s trouble, then the needs of work. You’ve made choices, but in a narrow realm defined by powerful forces beyond your control. So it would make sense not only to feel homeless, but powerless too.

But here is something key to remember: The fact that powerful forces have narrowed your choices doesn’t mean that if you had the freedom to choose to live in Maui or Santa Barbara or anywhere you wanted, that you would feel at home. Rather what seems to affect your happiness is the kind of limits you are dealing with, and their source. Where the job has limited your choices, it has led to this chaos and isolation. But where it was your mother’s condition that limited your choices, somehow that led to happiness. While caring for your mother, you found a life that worked for you. You felt at home. Interesting.

Many things make up a home. If we are accustomed to thinking of home as an ideal environment, freely chosen, a place that reflects our dreams and aspirations, there is one element that might seem surprising or counterintuitive: Home is often a place we do not choose. Rather, home is the place we have to be. Our very first home we do not choose. And after we emerge from the womb it is still many years before we will live in a home of our own choosing. When we finally exercise our choices, we often think that what will make us happy is a home that suits our aesthetics, or reflects our values, or is in the image of what a home should look like. And so we move into this idea of home and start rearranging furniture. But we are unhappy in this idea of a home. We are unhappy in this place we have chosen for ourselves. Why is that?
I think it is because of the overlooked element of necessity and service. To be a home, a place must choose us. It must require something of us. It must need us.

In what sense is this true?

Well, home is where we give up our separateness, and we do not give that up easily. It must sometimes be taken from us by force. We cannot will ourselves to merge with the landscape. We are pulled out of ourselves not by the beauty of the landscape but by the fact that it requires us to dig a drainage ditch or fell some aging trees. That is why one can move to a beautiful place and be beautifully unhappy. Beauty alone does not suffice. What we need is what needs us, something that requires our presence, something that will bleed us of our insularity. It can be a landscape; it can be a community; it can be both.

I see in California many pretty houses. I see people go in and out. I wonder whether the landscape has invaded their dreams. I wonder if their mothers live there.

I hope your mother is OK now.

So we do not choose our home is what I mean. It chooses us.

It sounds to me like your home is in Chicago. That is the place that chose you. That’s where your home was the last time you were at home. I would start there.

Now maybe you will go back to Chicago and find your home is gone. Perhaps your mother does not need you there. What then? Then I think you have to search for the elements of home somewhere else: service, commitment, family, spirituality. Where are you needed? Choose the place that chooses you. That will be your home.

Is our relationship a tear-down, or can it be repaired?

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, NOV 10, 2004

We bought a house together and it’s tearing us apart.


Dear Cary,

My ex-boyfriend and I met three years ago, fell madly in love, and six months later bought a fixer-upper in a transitioning neighborhood in an inner-city neighborhood. Things spiraled out of control, and we spent the past two-plus years vacillating between some of the highest highs and, alternately, the lowest depths of hellish fighting. At the beginning of this month, we spent a week apart, and on coming back I had decided that I, for my part, had taken him for granted over the past few years and wanted to do what I could to turn things around. But he dumped me.

We still own this house together, and it’s not in a salable condition. So we’re not in a position to just terminate things entirely and have been trying to be friends and working to get the house to a point where we can sell it. We’ve been getting along extremely well, although we don’t see much of each other.

I have spent this month doing a wholesale reevaluation of what it is that makes me happy and have been really embracing that. And, coming off two years of a relationship that left me very unhappy, I’m enjoying myself immensely and am so glad our relationship is over. The thing is, in the process, I have decided that what I really want is a happy relationship with him. I’ve dropped all of my baggage — the things I’ve hated about him, the things he did to me, and the things I thought he did to me. And I think we have the tools to make a good relationship possible, and an unprecedented opportunity to make a fresh start.

We just had a discussion, and he said: “Even though we’ve been getting along so well, every advice columnist I’ve ever read has said that people don’t change,” and so he doesn’t believe that things can be different. And since I know he respects your advice very much (when you ran your series on home ownership, he went so far as to say that you were the same person), I wanted to ask an advice columnist: Can people change? I think he’s misconstruing things — I don’t think you can force someone to change, but people are infinitely capable of change on their own.

Our problem was one of letting all of the little things build on one another, so that we were essentially sweating all the small stuff — a poor choice of words could set off a daylong argument. And I think a lot of this was based on the stresses of buying a house that needed a lot of work (and still does) six months into a relationship and being thrown into each other’s finances and lifestyles and everything else so quickly.

What I’m really looking for from you is insight as to whether what I’m doing seems misguided or naive — and do you believe a relationship can be remade?

K

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Dear K,

Your story is a charming one. You met and fell in love, and within six months you’d bought a metaphor. The metaphor, situated in an inner-city neighborhood, had a lot of possibilities but needed work.

Working on the metaphor was difficult emotionally; it would have been easier if it had simply been a house. But, like me, you are an optimist. You believe that metaphors can be improved and brought to market for a significant profit; you believe, as I do, that improving a metaphor improves its surroundings, and everybody, metaphorically speaking, profits from your labor.

Well, you’re in a tough spot now. While working on the metaphor, your relationship was damaged. People in relationships, like old walls, conceal ancient failures and burn spots, places where the circuits blew and almost caused a fire. People, like old houses, reveal their weaknesses reluctantly and sometimes only after a few blows with a sledge hammer. There might be a break that you can’t see somewhere beneath the floor. You can go a long time pretending it’s not really broken, that it’s just sagging a little. You come up with things to say. You say the joists are fine — it’s just an old floor.

But then the inspector comes and rips things up. Look at this! he says. It’s completely gone! There’s nothing holding it up! Lucky we found it in time! It’s amazing you survived!

Your ex-boyfriend says that all advice columnists say that people don’t change. I dare say in this perhaps unintentional distortion he’s attempting to conceal his own personal fracture, that he himself has reached a point of no return, that he himself feels he can no longer change. Perhaps what he can’t say outright is that he’d rather rip it up and build somewhere new, that your relationship is a tear-down. But he can’t say it directly because you still have a lot of work to do together. So he’s talking in the abstract, hoping to avoid a confrontation. Your partnership has been so volatile, he may feel he can’t take any more stress, any more violent shaking. Once you’re done with the house, that might change; he might simply be unable to see past the dust; he might need some finished drawings to help him visualize the future.

So what I would do if I were you, and I say this with all the compassion I can muster, is I would concentrate on getting the actual house on the market. I would work with him as a business partner. I would concentrate on paint, plumbing and plasterboard. If he is going to change in his feelings toward you, he will. But you have no control over what he feels. That is probably the one thing advice columnists do agree on.

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My son is almost 30 and won’t leave home

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, SEP 4, 2007

I know I can’t support him anymore — I need to save for retirement. What do I do?


Dear Cary,

I’m a single mother with a grown son. I love him more than I can say. He’s a good person, a great guy in so many ways — smart, creative, kind to animals, etc. We get along well, have common interests and enjoy each other’s company. The rest of my immediate family is dead, and he is literally all the family I have.

The problem is that he’s turning 30 and shows no signs of wanting to leave home. He did move out and try the roommate route twice, but both times it did not turn out well and he moved back in with me. This wouldn’t be so bad — we do get along and all — but he doesn’t pay half the expenses, or even a quarter. In fact, he doesn’t pay me anything at all. My frequent requests for him to contribute to the rent and utilities often result in his losing his temper and yelling at me that all I care about is money. He spends his salary on himself: clothes, movies, computer accessories, you get the drift. It’s as if he still sees himself as a teenager with an allowance.

It’s true that he doesn’t make enough money to live on his own. We live in Los Angeles, and the cost of living is pretty high. He would have more options if he had a better job, and this keeps almost happening. And then it’s as if he sabotages the situation. Why? When I was his age, I was supporting myself and raising him, all by myself.

I saw a movie called “Failure to Launch” about this very situation. It was a comedy. But this isn’t funny. I keep thinking that this situation could be a lot worse, but it still just grates on me. The fact that he seems to feel it’s all right to sponge off me hurts; it shows a serious lack of love and respect for me. And yet, he does seem to love and respect me. I don’t get it. My retirement is approaching on little cat feet; I should be socking away any extra cash for myself, not using it to support him. I keep seeing my future self, living on Social Security and my small retirement account, and still supporting him. Or even worse, still working because I can’t afford to retire. I can’t stand it.

Where did I go wrong? What can I do? I can’t throw him out on the street; I just can’t. But not leaving the nest and learning to fend for himself in the world aren’t good for him. I know he wants to find the right woman and get married, too, but he rarely dates. Who wants a man who is still sponging off his mother?

Please give me some advice. I honestly don’t know what to do.

Forever Mom

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Dear Forever Mom,

There really is only one thing you can do. You have to kick him out. That is, in more gentle terms, you have to tell him firmly that he has to find another place to live.

It may be difficult emotionally. So take some time to prepare. Preparation is not the same thing as delay. It doesn’t mean putting it off until you feel ready. It means setting a date, making a commitment and then planning fully and well.

I suggest you begin by writing him a letter, explaining the situation much as you have explained it to me. You will want to tell him face to face about your decision. But writing it out will give you a chance to explore the issues; giving him a copy of it will ensure that you are both clear on exactly what the future arrangements will be.

Take a couple of weeks with the letter. Make a couple of drafts. Delete parts where you find yourself overjustifying, or attacking, or bringing up old hurts and slights. Avoid emotional pleas. Just tell him, as you have told me, that you cannot support him any longer, that you have to be socking away your cash for retirement and that you have set a date by which he must move out. Tell him the date. Make it stick.

You must be definite about the date by which he is to leave. You must be clear about the fact that he cannot return even if the roommate situation isn’t to his liking. You have to stick to your guns. His inability to make a roommate situation work in the past is a concern, but it is his concern, not yours. If he has to live with roommates, he will have to find a situation that works.

You are not just kicking him out on the street. If you want to assure yourself that adequate housing is available in your area, consult ads for roommate situations and do the math. Give him the figures if you like. If his income is not going to be sufficient, tell him that he is going to have to find some way to increase his income. If he needs a loan to make it through the first six months, suggest a way that he can get a loan. But do not make him a loan yourself. You must stop supporting him if you are to meet your own financial goals.

Do not forget to review the laws that cover tenants in your area. Even though this is a personal arrangement between you and your son, it is possible that in the eyes of the law you are considered a landlord and may have responsibilities in that regard. I don’t know about that, myself. I suggest you consult with an expert — either a landlord-tenant attorney or a legal aid agency qualified to advise you.

This is a tough situation. There is no reason for you to kid yourself. It could be one of the hardest things you have ever done. And you will miss him. It would be wonderful if he were to find self-sufficiency, form a family of his own and bring you into it, so that you have a place in a new family. That would be great for everyone. But whatever happens, know this: You are doing the right thing.

As you write your letter and think this through, other small details of the arrangement may occur to you. That is good. No detail is too small to consider and agree about. I suggest, for instance, that you explicitly insist that he perform the physical move himself, or enlist moving help on his own. If he needs furniture and you have some pieces you wish to let go of, offer him those specific pieces of furniture. If he needs dishes and cookware and you have some extra, set some aside for him. But make it clear that once he has moved out, what remains in the house is your property, not his. Tell him that he should not just come around whenever he feels like it and remove random objects.

These are small things, but they are important. Making all these conditions is a way of creating your new independent relations. It will be difficult but it will accomplish the necessary thing: Your son has to separate from you. He has to become independent so that later in life, when the conditions of dependency change, he can offer support to you.

Write your letter. Cook him some dinner. Tell him he has to move out. Give him the letter. Tell him you love him.

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How do you kick out a disorderly roommate?

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 15, 2005

We all like to party, but she takes it way too far.


Dear Cary,

I’m a 24-year-old female living with two roommates in a rental house. Being in our 20s, drinking, etc., is not exactly frowned upon. Hell, we love it. My one roommate, whom I’ll call “Blondie” (age 26), and I both know when enough is enough; however, “Red,” at the age of 28, does not have a handle on herself. She frequently drinks to excess and fights with her equally dysfunctional boyfriend. None of this is relegated to the weekends, but just whenever she feels like getting pissed.

The most recent incident was this Saturday, at a friend’s birthday party in our local haunt. She and her boyfriend got into a huge argument (drunken, of course). He left the bar (Blondie’s boyfriend prevented Red’s boyfriend from driving drunk, thank God), and she was sobbing. Apparently, she forgot that during the festivities, she flirted with some random guy not with our group, which her boyfriend saw.

Without getting too far into it, I’m basically sick of the two of them — and her especially. What it all adds up to is she is making living peacefully in that house almost impossible. The next morning Red and her boyfriend behave as though nothing happened the night prior, and the rest of us are left to feel as though we are walking on eggshells. It’s completely uncomfortable and wholly strange. I last confronted her when the two of them came home drunk and had a loud fight at 2 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. She seemed to understand it was totally unacceptable, but only because it was late and I wake up early for work.

Cary, what do I say to her? Blondie and I are at the end of our collective rope. We both want her out, but I don’t think it would be fair to ask her to pack it up without confronting her first. I’m not sure how to be tactful and not come off as though I’m judging her. Please help.

End of Tether

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Dear End of Tether,

I was slithering around in the weeds trying to get the words right in my typically pseudo-therapeutic nonjudgmental California style when I began to feel a curious outrage. Yes, you could sit her down and explain that the energy isn’t right, that it’s not a harmonious mix, that the vibes are wrong. You could say that your lifestyles are different, that you don’t feel comfortable the way things are and you think it’s time to make some changes. You could say she’d probably be happier living somewhere else, all of which would be sort of true.

But on the occasion of Saul Bellow’s death, in the memory of his thunderous prose, his intellectual passion, his moral clarity, I find myself questioning the drained, vapid language of California compassion, wondering if we ought not to stop hiding behind our subjectivity and be a little more straightforward in our judgments of others, to say outright that we have a code of conduct and we expect others to abide by it, that some behavior is better than other behavior. What’s wrong with telling her to get the hell out? Do you really want to help her or do you just want to get a good night’s sleep? The truth of it is that she’s behaved abominably.

What is your responsibility in this matter? Are you her therapist, her sister, or just a citizen who entered into an implicit social contract that she appears to have blithely broken time and again?

Yes, I may sound ill-tempered this morning. Perhaps I am. I hope it doesn’t appear I’m taking it out on your roommate. It’s just been bugging me for a while now: This whole pseudo-therapeutic cliché of dealing with conflict by concentrating only on your own feelings — how did that work its way into our culture? It may be fine in therapy, but not all life is therapy. Life is also open conflict. There’s this other thing that’s bugging me, too, our creeping Orwellian debasement of language. As the dominant culture lies to us, we have to be careful not to lie to ourselves and to each other in our daily lives. We need to learn how to say what we mean.

Why is it better to say, “I just don’t feel comfortable with some of your actions”? What is wrong with saying, “I think your behavior is wrong and it ought to stop”? Is it really being more truthful to talk only about our own feelings, as if our feelings were all that is knowable?

There’s this logical flaw as well: Saying you’re “uncomfortable” assumes that your antagonist gives a damn about your comfort. Isn’t that assuming rather a lot? It requests compassion from someone whom you are actually chastising with veiled judgment. There’s something kind of perverse and dishonest about that. We’re in conflict. Why should they care whether we’re comfortable or not? Isn’t that the problem right there? She doesn’t care if you’re comfortable. That’s why you’re uncomfortable!

The very word “uncomfortable” makes me uncomfortable — intellectually. What is “uncomfortable”? Is it pain? Is it outrage? Is it anger? Is it rational disapproval? Is it any idea or emotion at all? It’s merely the absence of comfort! Is comfort our highest social value? Do we aspire to nothing greater than the sensation of reclining in a Barcalounger? What about progress through struggle, what about impulse control, what about consequences, what about learning in a painful fashion, when her roommate descends the stairs with an ax, just what murderous thoughts are aroused at 2 a.m. by her drunken voice in the kitchen?

If you’re conflicted about resolving this conflict in a nice way, I can see why. But I’m not sure you’re required to be all that nice and understanding. Maybe you just need to be direct. Picture Donald Trump in the boardroom: No hard feelings, but you screwed up and you’re fired.

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My 8-year-old misses his old life — should we move back to the suburbs?

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, OCT 19, 2006

It was good to separate from their alcoholic dad — but I feel bad about bringing my kids to the city.


Dear Cary,

My husband and I are recently separated. To make a long story short, he developed a serious drinking habit over the course of our nine-year marriage and refused to seek treatment. He became violent, mismanaged his business, squandered an inheritance and was terribly irresponsible with money, so much so that when we sold our house a few months ago we narrowly escaped foreclosure.

I could not afford to purchase another home in the idyllic suburban town in which we lived, so I moved with my two children, ages 4 and 8, to the city. I love it here, as I am a 15-minute walk away from the university where I am a graduate student in a very demanding biomedical research program. I am sharing a house with my sister, who is helping me immensely. She watches my children so I can run to the grocery store and is home when I have to stay late in the lab.
Five months into our move, my 4-year-old has adjusted, but my 8-year-old is miserable. He misses his friends and his old lifestyle, and his best friend who lived next door. There were 18 children on the block where we lived and they were always outside playing together. There are few children where we live now (unless you count the rowdy undergrads), and even if I allowed him to go outside by himself there would be no one to play with. Though we go to the park on weekends, he is not spending nearly as much time outside or with friends as he used to. Yes, there are great cultural opportunities here and it is more diverse, but that matters little to my son.

I feel so guilty for having removed my son from such a wonderful environment that I am considering moving back. Although I could not afford to purchase a house in that town, I could rent something small there. However, this would mean a longer commute for me, getting home later in the evening and the loss of my sister as a housemate, as she wants to remain in the city.

My dilemma is this: The city is better for me, but Mayberry is better for my son. Should I move yet again (an exhausting prospect) or make him tough it out?

Even if we did move back we would not be on the same block. I am aware that on the scale of possible human tragedies this one ranks pretty low, and though I remind him of this and offer him Lemony Snicket books, it does not comfort him. I know I had to leave the marriage, but did I have to leave the town too? I’m starting to think that in the turmoil of a dying marriage, I put my own needs before those of my children.

Sincerely,

Guilty in the City

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Dear Guilty,

I can relate to what your son is going through. When I was 12 my family moved to a world I did not recognize.

I did not know what to do to feel the way I used to feel. I did not know what I needed or how to get it. I did not know what I was feeling or what I had lost.

Knowledgeable adults could have helped this sensitive kid adjust. But such people were not available, and the adults who were available were overburdened with challenges of their own. So I was left to my own devices.

I did not do well in that situation. I did not develop the coping skills I needed. I now know that to adjust and grow in my new surroundings I needed to do two things: to maintain ties with my old world and to forge ties with my new world. But I did not know that then. I was just a kid.

So I had some troubles.

Therefore, my heart goes out to your son, who is much younger than I was when we moved. His connection to his home has been torn. He is doing his best to adjust. But he does not know how to adjust, nor does he have the powers to create a new world in which he can feel comfortable and confident.

Luckily, he has you. You are going to have to create that world for him. I suggest that rather than moving back to the suburbs or suggesting that your son just “tough it out” you consciously set about to create structures for your child that maintain some ties with his old world and help him cope with his new world.

Drive back to your old neighborhood and let your 8-year-old hang around, breathing in the air of the old place. Let him go play with his friends for a while in the old neighborhood. Have his best friend come and spend the night. Let him spend the night at his best friend’s house and then pick him up. Maintain the connection to the old neighborhood without having to move back there.

At the same time, create structures in his new world so he can develop new ties. I don’t know what organizations are available or what his interests are. Nor do I think this is going to be easy. I remember what it was like to live in a neighborhood where all a kid had to do was walk out of the house and his playmates and friends were all right there. In such a setting, there was no need for formal activity programs such as the Boy Scouts or what have you. But that world is gone. Your son is going to have to do things differently now. He is going to have to participate in more formal social structures. Pick some fun activities that will put him in regular contact with others.

He may resist. I certainly did. But I suggest that you be firm. You know what is necessary. He does not. He may think he knows what he needs, but he is just a kid. You are the mother. You know best. If he finds it hard to get to know new kids, help him. Keep at it. Do not let him fail.

You have a chance here not only to help your son adjust to his new surroundings but to counteract the lesson that an alcoholic father imparts to his children: that when stressful change arises, one responds by collapsing inwardly and drinking. You can demonstrate a more positive pattern — that one responds to stressful change by creatively adapting, by coming up with new ways to interact with the world.

You don’t have to explain all this to your son. Instead, teach by example. You can simply say, “We’re adapting to change.”

I do suggest that for the sake of maintaining a positive attitude you think of it as “adapting” rather than as “toughing it out.” Try being grateful for the opportunity you have gained — that you don’t have to spend the rest of your life watching the father of your children kill himself in front of you, fearing that he will crash his car into the neighbor’s garage or collapse on the front porch with his pants down around his ankles. You have escaped that danger. You and your children are safe. You may find, when you consider your good fortune, that you feel some measure of gratitude to the wrinkle of fate or cosmic force or God that brought you this far unharmed.

Your kids are going to find this hard. They are going to miss their dad. And they’re going to be sad and upset sometimes. But I think, all in all, that you have a very lucky 8-year-old.

Breaking up with San Francisco: How we decided

The way this whole thing started was my wife and I were sitting at the dining room table and I had my head in my hands and at this point I can’t remember but I think it was she who first said, Well, we could sell the house and move to Italy and yes, now that I think about it I’m sure it was she who said that first, not me, because if it had been me saying it then it would have been just another of those frequent outbursts I’m known for, when I want to throw everything over and move to the woods or New York or go camping or start a band or become a lawyer, or move into a tiny apartment or raise llamas except for that last bit I would never want to raise llamas especially in a tiny apartment.

Whereas because it was she who was saying We could sell the house and move to Italy all of a sudden it was a real and serious proposition and I sensed its possibilities immediately as I am the kind who becomes keenly interested all of a sudden if there’s any change or escape in the offing as I am in my heart a desperate soul always looking for a way out of whatever I have gotten myself into, and so I said with I think guardedly less enthusiasm than I was actually feeling, lest she be testing me, Yes, I think we probably could do that. If you are serious.

Ha ha me saying “If you are serious” was a ridiculous role reversal, which I rather enjoyed, getting to play the responsible one for once. Bravo.

And so the dialog continued not much longer in fact along the lines of, Yes, we actually could. Yes. It would make sense. It would be a little crazy but not all that crazy because this house we bought for nothing is worth crazy gazillions now and you have your European passport and we have people in Italy who will guide us and welcome us and make us part of their family and we have business there to support us and rents are reasonable in Castiglion Fiorentino and so is the excellent incredible food and plus we love it there and I think I said it already but you have your European passport and I am married to you. Along those lines.

So you know how things start happening when they seem like “right”? Right? Like it’s almost superstition? So we found by chance the same real estate agent who sold Joan Walsh her house and David Talbot his house and we said OK, we’re on.

Then she, Carren, our agent, whom we love, told us to get rid of everything we own.

Now that bit right there alone could be a whole chapter in a book called How To Turn Your Life Upside Down And Shake It So Everything Falls Out Into a Dumpster. Or how to find a guy named Javier to pick up huge things and carry them out on his head by himself, or how to give your big old Fischer bar piano to Linda Kelly who will put it in her bedroom and sell three of her Grateful Dead books to the movers two of whom were huge mountain men and one regular sized one. It could be.

But here is one interesting thing  along the lines of personal transformation etc. that happened then.

Because we had approximately 1,350 books, I could not decide which ones to keep and which ones to give away until I completely redefined myself as someone who does not keep books. I just did it right on the spot. I said, henceforth, be it known: I am no longer a person who keeps books!

Done! Amazing! So easy!

I do however like books. So the floor refinishers came with their giant sanders and hammers and the real estate agent said here, go up to our place on the Russian River and stay there until it’s over. Which we did, which is why we are there now. And what did I bring with me but the Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry edited by Paul Hoover and I am reading Alice Notley.

So things work out. I mean, I’m reading Alice Notley.

Enough for now. More to come. (I think.)

I bought a house and now I’m crying every day

Write for Advice
 Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JAN 26, 2007

I think I made a big mistake. Home ownership isn’t what I thought it would be.


Dear Cary:

I am 35 years old, and we recently bought our first house. I have cried every day since. Our house is an older fixer-upper. All I could see when we looked at it was lots of potential. Most of my TV time is spent watching shows like “Flip This House” or “Designed to Sell.” They make it look so easy. There were so many red flags, but for some reason I persisted. I was determined I could do it, and now I am consumed by guilt and regret. My fiancé did not want to buy this house but agreed to because he wanted to make me happy.

We were able to get a mortgage, with no money down, that covered the closing costs. We have no savings and love to spend money. I had it in my mind that this would be a good way for us to get our finances in order, as we would have to start saving money. I know this sounds ridiculous, but I was so consumed with the American dream of owning a house to raise my son in and having the dog, garage, etc., that I lost sight of the true picture.

This dream has turned into a nightmare. I think too much emphasis is put on the ultimate dream of being a homeowner. Along with being a homeowner comes great, great responsibility, and this is a very scary thing. I now feel that maybe I am not cut out to be a homeowner. I doubted myself along the way, but everyone kept saying, “You will be so happy,” and, “It is the best investment you will ever make.”

We have the finances to make the payments and start saving, but I still cannot get past the sadness I feel. Looking back, I never had a great feeling about this, but I blamed it on the amount of work we needed to do on the house and the overwhelming task of moving.

I think we could sell and make what we have put into the house so far, and at this point, I am even willing to take a loss. This is a heavy, heavy burden that has left me feeling so empty. Is this something that will pass, or should I try to get out now so I can get my sanity back? I know I used poor judgment and made a mistake that will not be easily fixed, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in this lonely, sad place that I am at right now. Please help.

Sincerely,
Melissa

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Dear Melissa,

If you are crying every day and you feel much guilt and remorse, I would suggest getting checked out to see if you are having more than just the usual “I just bought a house” jitters. Do you have someone you can go to — a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist? It might be nothing, but it might be biochemical in nature. It’s always best to find out.

I’m no doctor. That’s why I’m suggesting you see one.

I’m no paragon of emotional stability, either, and I do recall feeling Oh My God What Have We Done after my wife and I purchased our first — and only — house in 1997. There was some feeling also of letdown after intense drama. Houses act powerfully on the psyche, that’s for sure.

So check in with somebody, a psychotherapist or psychiatrist. It may be something as simple as a hormonal letdown after months of anxiety and adrenaline-fueled highs; you may just need to spend a month eating three square meals a day, exercising and getting eight hours sleep.

Barring anything biochemical, perhaps things in your psyche have come together in this house-buying experience in a kind of perfect storm. Houses can bring all our insanities together within four walls, consolidating all our emotional debt into one huge monthly freakout. And maybe that’s what it is. The house could also be a metaphor for your ambivalence about commitment versus staying free, and all your fear about being tied down and not having choices — and you have a son and a fiancé, which indicates you may also be teetering on the brink of marriage/not marriage. Perhaps you’ve avoided this kind of panic before by not pulling the trigger.

But you wanted to see if you could do it and you did it. Good for you. I do that too. I want to see if I can do it because I’ve never done it before and always wondered. Like doing a remodel: Wonder what that’s like. Now I know. It makes your house pretty. But you go insane.

We adults do these things. We move big sums of money around. We make debt. We have kids. We do big adult things that that are hard to reverse. It’s not play. Maybe that’s what makes it scary: Play is reversible; you can start the game over again; you can knock down a Lego house and build it right back up again. But a real house is a house is a house is a house.

Up to a point. You do have a choice. The house is the house is the house — but only if you let the house be the house be the house. You can always sell the house sell the house sell the house. (Is there an editor in the house? Will somebody please stop me stop me stop me?)

The house can go away is what I’m saying, and you will still be the same person. You may be right that home ownership is not all it’s cracked up to be. You can say, You know what, I’d rather rent. Who needs all this responsibility? (Personally, I give serious thought to the joys of carefree apartment living about once a day.)

So take a deep breath and say out loud, I can always sell the house. I don’t have to do this if I don’t want to.

Say out loud: Either way I will be OK.

The house is not going to kill you. It’s just a place to sleep at night.

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I’m still grieving over my childhood home

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Dear Cary,

It’s been over a year since I moved from my childhood home. It’s been sold–the only home I knew for 20 years.

Before I left, I read your advice column on letting go of your childhood home. It helped, and I did sit on my porch, and I wrote a letter and placed in a box and buried it under my old swing set.

The excitement of moving into the city has surely passed and every few months I find myself taking a drive out to see my old home. I just can’t seem to wrap my mind around the idea that it’s not really my family’s anymore. Every time I drive by and see the gate shut,  the thought that some other strange family lives in there saddens and confuses me terribly. The fact that I can’t drive in and run up my stairs into my bedroom anymore haunts me. I thought that by now I’d hardly think of my home and be over it and have moved on, but I still miss it so much. I just don’t know how to officially move past this grieving process and truly let it go.

Missing My Home

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Dear Missing My Home,

The last line of that column you mention was, “And then let it go.” I think that’s the part you’re stuck on now. In that column from August of 2010 (only 8 months after my cancer surgery, which means my brain was still a little scrambled) I invented some clever rituals, and that was nice and poetic. But I also meant to say that there is a moment at the end where one truly lets go of the house. Continuing to drive by it and think about it is not letting it go. Every time you drive by you bring to mind all those feelings and make them fresh and new and vivid. It’s time to stop driving by it every few months.

But driving by it is a bittersweet pleasure, too, isn’t it? So it’s not easy to stop doing that. It means accepting the absence.

I wish I could fix this but I can’t. All I can do is say Yes, I know how gut-wrenching it can be. I know how thoughts of what has been lost can obliterate everything else. All I can do is seek peace within myself, and that means searching for ways to stop obsessing about things that I have lost. How I do that is by reading poetry and sitting still. How I do that is by asking other people, How do you do it? How do you get through a day? How do you live with loss? How do you not break down and fall to your knees? How, when you are filled with grief and rage, do you resist the impulse to do something rash and stupid and destructive but very satisfying and attractive?

I keep asking and I keep getting answers from poets, from therapists, from addicts, from novelists, from my wife, from people who write to me. And the one lesson that stands out is this: The task of being fully human is our major task. It is more important than earning money and maintaining a reputation and giving proper greetings and being on time and polite and staying in our lane when we drive and waving to neighbors and thanking cashiers.

FranceAd2015Our major task is the simple task of being fully human. That means accepting that in this moment, right here, right now, we are not the suffering and the anguish, we are not the loss of a house, we are not the memories of family, we are not the unfortunate real estate transactions and lost investments and bungled business ideas and erratic moves that characterize our lives. We are just specks of light illuminating a small section of darkness. We are just points of awareness in a vast and majestic universe.

If I can hold that thought even for a second or two I can be OK. I am not my pajamas. I am not my trench coat. I am not my hands or my computer or my losses or wishes or the airplane flying overhead or my feelings or my former drunkenness or my rage at not getting what I think I deserve, or my sadness at the things my father wanted and never got, or the tragically shortened lives of my dogs, or my vast need for recognition and acknowledgment. If I can know for just an instant that I am not any of that, that I am not my sadness at the loss of a family home or my worries about how my family will live in the future or my anticipated grief at the coming death of a dear friend, then I can get up and keep living, and I can make my appointments and I can comfort my wife and I can see my friend for lunch and I can keep working on the novel and I can even ignore the maddening thunk of a child practicing a barely-in-tune piano next door.

And that — especially the last part — is a miracle.

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I let a homeless man move in with me and now I can’t get rid of him

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, APR 8, 2008

It’s not like I picked him up off the street. I’ve known him for 20 years. Once he was my boyfriend.


Cary,

I made the mistake of letting a homeless man move in with me. Now I can’t get rid of him.

I’ve known this man for over 20 years. At one time, he was my boyfriend, but we broke up years ago as a result of his excessive drinking. Since I’ve known him, he has been in detox at least five times and rehab twice. He’s been hospitalized twice because of a bleeding stomach and he’s contracted hepatitis C.

He called me one night last December to tell me he was evicted from his apartment. He’s in construction and has been working sporadically as a result of the housing downturn. He was in detox, but they threw him out after five days because of lack of insurance. I begged him not to come here and to stay with his brother. His brother is a recovering alcoholic (has not had a drink in 40 years) and is fed up with him. So he showed up on my doorstep and I made the mistake of letting him in. I told him that he could stay with me under one condition: no drinking.

Although he has been helpful with housework, he has made no financial contributions and has not saved any money to move out. Two weeks ago, I found evidence that he is drinking again. When I confronted him, he denied it. Twice since then I’ve found more evidence. The other day I contacted him while he was working and told him not to come back and to find someplace else to stay. He came home anyway, telling me that he had no place else to go.

Cary, we are having the exact same fights that we had when we lived together years ago. It’s like déjà vu. One night last week I fell asleep on the couch and when I woke up, there was an empty pot on the stove and the flame was on high. Also, I’ve walked in on him while he’s on Craigslist looking for “casual encounters.” At this point I am afraid to go away because I can’t trust him. I’m afraid of coming home to a burning house or getting ripped off by a “casual encounter.” Although he has been told that he is not allowed guests while I’m not home, it is obvious that I can’t trust him.

I just want to go back to my old simple life of living alone with no worries. He has destroyed my carefree lifestyle and invaded my home. I worked hard to get to where I am in life and he is sucking me dry.

When we were living together years ago, I had to get a restraining order to get him out. At that time he was destructive, so I was able to convince a judge that I feared for my life because he was constantly breaking my things, punching holes in the walls, breaking my car windshield, etc., out of anger. He hasn’t shown any signs of violence yet, but I don’t want to have to wait for my home to be trashed before I can do anything about it. I don’t think I could get another one because he has never hurt me physically.

I’ve tried discussing it with him and had no luck. He sees the fact that we don’t get along as being my fault and asks me why I’m doing this to myself (?!). I’ve told him that I want him to start saving money and find a room to rent, but it doesn’t seem to sink in. How can I get rid of him?

Housing the Homeless

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Dear Housing the Homeless,

First, contact your local police and explain that you have a man living in your house against whom you once had a legal restraining order, and you are planning to evict him. Tell them he has been homeless, he has a history of violence and he has a drinking problem. Ask if they provide civil standby for such instances. Ask how you would get a second restraining order if it should be needed. Ask for their advice. They may or may not give you advice. If they advise you to see a lawyer, see a lawyer. You might want to see a lawyer regardless; lawyers who specialize in landlord-tenant law have experience in similar situations.

This is all by way of covering your bases. You want to have a plan and you want to have physical protection, either from police or from volunteers.

Then, once you have your bases covered, you need to give him clear, unequivocal, concrete instructions, on the order of: “You and all your belongings must be out of this house by 3 p.m. tomorrow. You may not come back.” If you think he may have copied your key, have the locks changed.

I sense that you are in anguish about this. You may be confused about how it happened: You acted in a sensible, compassionate way, and now you are in a mess. You asked him to do certain things and he has not done what you wish. So it may be that, being a kind person, you have not really accepted the hard, brutal facts about him. He may be a kind person in certain ways; you may see much good in him. But if he is drinking alcoholically, he is not capable of acting right. You must accept that. He is not capable of keeping agreements. Bad things will keep happening to him.

He will make it appear that he is the victim of uncaring authorities and heartless circumstances. It sounds like he has been doing this in his conversations with you. For instance, you say, “He’s in construction and has been working sporadically as a result of the housing downturn. He was in detox, but they threw him out after five days because of lack of insurance.” What if we were to recast those sentences like this: “He’s an alcoholic so he’s been working sporadically. He was in detox but detox is temporary.”

Rather than casting him as the victim, let’s stick closer to the observable facts, and see if that lets us get some distance on him. In my experience, alcoholics tend to work sporadically regardless of the economic climate. They work sporadically because they do not have the stamina and energy of nonalcoholic workers. They require more rest, and often are not available five days a week. They also tend to have poor social skills. They alienate fellow workers and, if their coordination is impaired, they can endanger other workers. So there are many reasons why practicing alcoholics work sporadically. As to detox, well, detox is a temporary measure. If a person genuinely wants to recover from alcoholism, after detox he or she can take steps to remain sober. Insurance is not required to stay sober. People who genuinely want to stay sober find a way. Ample free help is available. Insurance is not the problem. Alcoholism is the problem.

So it sounds like he has been able to twist your heartstrings a little by casting himself as a victim. It might be said that in truth he is a victim, but not a victim of other people. He is a victim of alcoholism.

In accepting this difficult truth, you may find it useful to attend some meetings of Al-Anon, where you will meet many other people who have been in relationships with alcoholics, and who have identified the patterns of behavior. You will be able to say, Aha!

Good luck with this. It’s very hard, emotionally, to cut someone out of your life. But if it’s any consolation, I have heard many men say that being cut out of someone’s life was the best thing that ever happened to them. It takes something like that to realize just how hopeless the situation is. Only then will many people seek help with the desperate energy that is required.

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