I prefer living in houses older than I am. They demand creativity, adaptability, real freedom – not doing what you want but rather what you ought, doing what makes sense. Old houses foster the wisdom of practical intelligence, the art of putting a chair in the corner where the ceiling is too low to stand or using a few pillows and a candle to make the odd space by the attic window what it most naturally is – a place to read, a place to watch the leaves change, a prayer space.
I think of the old house, home to a L’Arche community, where I lived in a converted attic. The ceiling pitched in such a way that the room gave me one place to stand, another to sleep, a third to sit; it was space enough. I recall an old convent turned retreat house where I prayed with homeless addicts on their way to recovery. It had a thickly lacquered wooden staircase that creaked like the salt-seasoned galley of a tall ship. I remember the rotten veranda of my Jesuit Volunteer community in Belize. I’d end my days there resting in a hammock strung up beneath our clotheslines, watching the moon rise out of the Caribbean while the twisted boards of the house pried its own nails loose.
These were old places, inherited places, shared places. Not new. Not just for me. They stood more in the spirit of all-are-welcome than one-size-fits-all. I loved the people who lived in those places, but mostly, I think I loved who I became in them.
An old house is not thinly vintage, like a threadbare T-shirt, or vaguely old in a way you’d rather it not be, like sour milk. A good house is old in a way that invites your appropriation of its character. Living well in an old house requires the artistry of a good DJ – mixing, sampling, mashing – taking the beat of some old song and using it’s hook to hang up something new. In houses, as in hip-hop, the young redeem the old as they practice the art of living within a given place, within a tradition or a family. A new suffering or triumph is rapped over the top of an old chorus and the young voice mixes with the soulful depths of the old and the dead.
Living in an old house, like listening to old music, reminds me that I’m part of something greater than I am, something broader. It’s a reminder that the world was around before I was, that someone did something for my benefit, that they made a place for me. They left something behind because they knew that the world was bigger than they were and that life would go on longer than they would.
New houses – even the nice ones – seem cheap to me. They’re missing something. You can feel their manufacture. Most of my generation grew up in something fabricated, in tract-homes that abused words like “luxury” or “deluxe” or “modern.” Those new houses were none of these. They were built in bulldozed places with senseless names like “Rolling Oaks” or “Fountain Meadows” – half-truths at best; they were named to sell more than to signify. These homes may age, but sometimes I wonder if they’re crafted well enough to ever really grow old.
The house I grew up in was just about exactly as old as I was and had many of the same flaws – an overgrown yard and a garage cluttered with junk, old boxes of meaningless trinkets and dusty memories. It backed onto an old citrus grove which my family called the “orange grove” even though I’m pretty sure all that grew there was lemons. In any case, the developers mercifully left this block of trees alone and my parents sensibly refused to put a fence between our yard and the grove behind.
An old farmhouse sat in the middle of it, mysteriously distant through the rows of trees. As kids we would sometimes walk under the shade of those trees on our way to the local schoolyard to play basketball, but we’d never wander too far into the heart of that grove; the rumor was that the farmer in that old house would chase you off with a few shots from his pellet gun. True or not, it was enough of a rumor to give my childhood an imagination. Between that (sub)urban legend and the raccoons, possums, and coyotes that would come out of the foothills to stalk the neighborhood at night, my childhood was given a sufficient touch of something natural, of something old and wild.
That grove of trees was leveled several years ago in inevitable surrender to the ongoing march of Los Angeles’ eastward sprawl. It held out just long enough. Just long enough for me to grow up in its company and move out into older homes in other places. The old farmhouse still stands, now in the middle of the new “luxury” ones they built when they cleared the trees. Someone concerned for history rolled it out toward the edge of the block and gave it a new paint job. It now looks oddly out of place even though this was its place long before the others.
New homes, like new people, aren’t beyond the possibility of redemption. But this requires hard work and time. Every day any house is a day older than it was the day before. We must make the homes we live in. Whether carpenters or companions, plumbers or parents, we must grow old in them. And with them. We will settle and fall. We will twist and rot. We will die one day but in the meantime we must live. And, like any old house, we’ll stand until we can’t stand any more.
My parents are working on their house this summer – tearing out old trees and the tumbled brick paths that their roots have since ruined. My brothers and I laid those bricks years ago in an afternoon of hard work and laughter. We tried to lighten the load of endless wheelbarrows of bricks by pretending that we were competitors in the Worlds Strongest Man competition – Ben, Justin and Brendan became Magnus, Lars, and Bjorn and all our weights were measured in stones. Foolish? Yes. Fun? Most definitely.
We long to live creatively. The craft of life is realized as we tear down a few walls, rip up a few roofs, maybe even install some new windows. Real joy is found when we introduce a young child to the careful messiness of a paint job. Yeah… that’s right… mom has paint on her pants… and, oops, now you’ve got some on your nose! We come alive in lightness and laughter. This is the home becoming and I like living in this old house. I like living in the one older than I am.
The cover image of the old red house by Arnar Valdimarsson at Flickr and can be viewed here.