What's a home?
And what makes it more than a house.
In 2015, an idiot asked me to move in with him before ever saying he loved me. Despite desperately wanting to split rent, I had my limits. I said no. He said why. I said because. That was in June. I did the practical thing and moved in when my lease was up. In October. But also, after he said he loved me.
Pre-Ben, I lived in a 200 square foot guest suite attached to the back of an old Polish woman’s house. My entrance was on her back deck. Once, I found a note on the door that said, “ONLY YOUR LAUNDRY” after she found a pair of Ben’s shorts in the washer. I say found, but that’s a bit generous considering the load was still going. She’d stopped it and plucked through the pieces til she found her bounty. She once asked me to pay for part of the cable package to the house, despite not having a TV in my room.
Honestly, I found her charming. Here was a woman who refused to flip her old home for the millions it was worth and, instead, rented out every spare cranny to dimwits like me. Every person on that lot was either a furiously studious grad student or a binge-drinking workaholic. And none of us ever spoke to each other. My door got full sun and I would sit in the door frame with Finn on the deck while he chattered at squirrels. It was walking distance to work, to the grocery, to the beach, and for the first two years I lived in the city of cars, I didn’t have one. But — sharing a wall with the old gal’s bedroom — it was not a great place to take suitors. I dated an actual famous person before Ben and he laughed at me when he saw it. I thought, well of course he laughs. He has millions of dollars. But then Ben also laughed when he saw it and he was a dirtbag. I was paying 1300 a month for this. It was time to leave.
So I moved into this.
As they say, the joke was on me.
On a one-lane, mountain road with a 27% grade, I moved into Ben’s rental shack. It was like an amalgamation of all the horror stories you hear about men’s homes when they’re young and alone. A futon cushion on the floor as a mattress, one room completely monopolized by misshapen cardboard boxes long overdue to be unpacked, and of course, the lone gray towel. But he was a hot bike racer and I had finally met someone who was charmed by my idiosyncrasies instead of wholly unnerved by them.
And what a place to be idiosyncratic.
I named it the Spider Box. Mildew on the carpet, an eerie breeze through the floorboards, and a tapestry of webs in all the places I couldn’t reach. Spiders up from the sink, spiders building trip wires across the doors, and even once, brushing my teeth in the mirror, a spider crawled down from my hairline onto my forehead. They hung, they dangled, they tormented, they lived. It was their house.
Only love could find Hell this charming, and I did.
Uninsulated with a 1950s refrigerator half-buried under the house accessed by a door it couldn’t have fit through, this was not a house but a collection of scraps nailed together over decades. When it seemed like Ben was going to continue to tolerate the worst of me and I the worst of him, I planned a trip to Ikea. This house needed a bed, a dresser, actual plates, and more than one towel. I drove my old Frontier to the other side of LA, went shopping, refused help from multiple people as I struggled to load every size box into the back of my truck, and headed home toward the mountains absolutely smug with homemaking. When I pulled in, my phone rang.
“Kelton, this is a friend of Ben’s. I’m at the race. Ben was in a crash. He’s awake but he’s screaming.”
He’s awake, but he’s screaming. Who raised this asshole?
I knew where the race was — three hours on the other side of Los Angeles.
“They’re putting him in the ambulance. I’m so sorry.”
I looked at the truck full of Ikea and I did some calculations.
If he’s screaming, he’s either going to die before I can get there, or he’s going to be there awhile.
If I drive to this hospital, and he doesn’t die, I will also be there for awhile.
If I am there for awhile, someone will steal this Ikea.
If I leave now, I will be there in three hours.
If I unload the Ikea, I will be there in three and a half hours.
What are the odds of someone living for another three hours but not for another three and a half?
So I unloaded the Ikea.
You may have noticed Ben didn’t die. He’d broken his femur, ripped off some skin, and the cat scan revealed he’d also broken his back two weeks earlier, which I told him he had, and he had refused to believe. They released him five days later so he could sleep on his old couch in his dark hovel with his teeth-baring “I’m his fucking advocate” girlfriend. And while he laid there, I built a home around him.
If you ask the internet what makes a house a home, you’ll get an SEO war saying everything from “a place you can be yourself” to “family photos so people know you live there”. But for me, the list is this:
You need to walk in and feel relief. (Awe and gratitude are great additions, but without relief, you’re either in a hotel or you need a therapist.)
It has to be peppered with moments of things that delight you, whether that be the way the morning light dances with the steam from your coffee, or the song the floorboards sing when you walk across them
It’s gotta be comfortable. There’s room for discomfort, but if you can’t curl up, climb around, drape on, or lounge in, what is the point my friend.
The house should be your companion, someone you love, that loves you.
Alright, of course that last one is a little Joanna Gaines, but I've written about this before and I really believe it. The Spider Box started as an adversary. It was Ben’s best friend, and I was a threat in its space using up its resources and wearing it down. Until I wasn’t. Until Ben was laid up and I became its caretaker, its tender, its friend.
I did a photo series of that Spider Box, as a way to tell it I understood. I saw that the spiders in my hair were its way of saying it needed help. And what a way to get my attention. This week, I want to share with you that series: how I felt then, in December of 2016, not yet married, and how it feels now, looking back. Our apartments, our houses, our secret little spaces are often the most ingrained set pieces in our lives. Looking back at them is without question looking back at ourselves. So as I close in on one year of Shangrilogs, I wanted to look at the cabins that proceeded it. This week, the Spider Box and next week, the Tree House.
1 of 8:
Then: This time of year always makes me obsess about what kind of person I want to become, as if I become a new one every year. But this past year brought a new sort of clarity to who I was, at least for those twelve months. Nesting coaxed to the surface some things that lay dormant for years, that I love, but it also created a need to scrape clean the parts of me that no longer feel relevant or necessary. As it turns out, sharing a small shack with another person has a way of bringing the urgency that only “but we don’t have room for another bike” can bring to this need to cleanse. Living in this house is the most tangible way I’ve experienced to understand what’s important to me and what, really, isn’t. This, above, is important to me: a made bed, with layers of quilts and too many pillows, deeply covered in fur, that is firm enough to not really keep you in bed, and with so much light to remind you every time you’ve missed the sunrise. Normally, I’d like a bed open on either side. I like to know my exits. But for now, I’ll let that slide.
Now: What photos easily lie about is scent. Do you smell the mountain breeze? The old wool? When I look at this, I can smell the mildew from the ruined carpet beneath. I can smell damp in a dry climate. But like any set piece, it was also the backdrop to scenes ingrained in my memory. Like when I told Ben I loved him for the first time while he was still sleeping. And then he rolled over and said “what did you say?” like a person who was very much pretending to be sleeping. I can still see smoke from the window, fire in the distance. I’m happy to have exits on both sides now.
2 of 8:
Then: The smallest part of our small house is the kitchen. It’s smaller than the bathroom. This nook highlighted to me how much I miss sitting on the kitchen counter, ruining my appetite eating junk while someone else cooks dinner and I attempt to distract them. Food isn’t very important to me. Food to me is the show you put on in the background—I’m absorbing it, but I’m not really paying attention to it. What is important to me, though, is my health. And food has led to the biggest improvement in my health I’ve ever seen entirely because Ben cooks great food. As long as the kitchen works for Ben, countertops can wait.
Now: What strikes me as incredible now is how well Ben made food in this kitchen. My relationship with Ben entirely transformed my relationship with food. These old words feel like they were written by someone else, and I suppose in some ways they were. But what a gift to now have countertops I can dangle my legs off of while I drink wine and Ben does his nightly dance with butter and heat. But what I really learned in this house is that a good chef doesn’t need a million dollar kitchen — just fresh ingredients and good pans. And maybe a hungry chorus watching from the couch.
3 of 8:
Then: My bikes make their home next to the bathroom, trying to make use of a dead corner. That’s a towel folded up over the window, masquerading as a curtain. It bothers me every time I go in there. I’ve measured the frame, and I will learn to sew in 2017 just to find a solution to this. I did not know true curtains were important to me, but I always did know that order and beauty were priorities. The shower drips, no matter how many times we get it fixed. Sometimes it sounds like horse hooves clopping in rhythm, and it stirs the need to write. There are always jerusalem crickets and wolf spiders lurking in the shower and walls. I will rescue a cricket, because that’s important to Ben, but I will bring the wrath of God down on a spider. We don’t have any Bibles here, so I use The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy because that seems close enough.
Now: I never learned to sew. Instead, I learned to love spiders.
4 of 8:
Then: We really don’t have room for another bike, as you can see by one frame holstered to the wall on the staircase, because really, what are the chances you’re walking up the stairs in an earthquake. This is the nook next to the bed, and it highlights, for me, much of what no longer feels like relevant to who I am. The Jenny Holzer truism print, “Turn soft and lovely any time you have a chance”, remains a prized possession … that I printed from the internet. The earrings, though, come from a different era. A time of dress-up and discovery that ended with a pair of studs Claire gave me at her wedding that I have not taken out since 2014. The sticks I painted and twined, though, those sticks are important. The earrings, this year, go to Goodwill. I don’t know yet what the sticks will hold in their place.
Now: I made that earring holder in 2009 out of sticks, twine, and spray paint. I made that earring holder while I fell asleep every night checking my pulse, scared of what was growing in my neck. Those sticks were there through the tumor in DC, the mental breakdown in New York, loss in Boulder, and revery in LA. It was only last year that I said goodbye. The studs broke and the other earrings are in a box, waiting patiently for when I remember I love them.
5 of 8:
Then: The medicine ball beneath the table, the suitcases under the chair, the beach towel blocking the wind from the open slot below the door., the indigo laundry bag, these things all frustrate me here. How do you display a medicine ball? Do you? Are those sorts of things always meant for a closet? for a basement? Is the answer to not have them or to have closets? Why is it so important to me for everything in a room to match, or to be beautiful? This need for control, for curation, is something I’d like less of. Instead of scraping this room, this room seems to be scraping me.
Now: You can’t have stuff and loathe stuff. If you’re bringing things into your home, you are responsible for them. Resenting them for existing is nothing more than resenting yourself. I still have that towel, that table, that chair, those pillows, the medicine ball, the license plate, the wheels. And I still have me, wondering how to make them beautiful. I get closer all the time.
6 of 8:
Then: The pièce de résistance, our staircase. Here you will find helmets, caps, hats, jackets, shoes, sunglasses, backpacks, purses, totes, the vacuum, all the tools, bike pumps, cat grass, sleeping bags, cat toys, bookcase including books, video games, cameras, paint, canvases, puzzles, cat food, DVDs, dominoes, weed paraphernalia, and more. No matter how many times we reorganize, it explodes. And it doesn’t bother me. It turns out I am OK with a certain amount of explosion so long as it is contained in one space. Controlled chaos. Maybe when I realize control is an illusion, I’ll enjoy chaos a little more. After all, if everything in this corner burned, I would only truly miss two pairs of shoes, both tan. I would not miss that painting.
Now: This painting, when unwrapped in our new home, revealed itself to be growing its own mold. I thank this house for that. I thank this house for what it forced us to consider. Do we need this? Is this worth keeping? Do we love this? These are the yeses, and they still are. Cats, bikes, art, and everything we need inside to be outside.
7 of 8:
Then: We really don’t have room for 30 something water bottles, but if you told Ben to “Marie Kondo” these bottles, he would hold each one and beam like a child with a puppy, saying that every black mold ridden piece of plastic was simply too valuable to get rid of. They’re important to him. I don’t care what sits in our window, as long as it includes a cat, so this row of unsmellable junk remains. Plus, Finn loves knocking these bottles down.
Now: The bottles are in a box. There’s an additional cat. Some battles are won with just time.
8 of 8:
Then: Space needs to multitask. With one pantry and no true closets, everything in this house is on display. This is essentially how I feel about my personality. I only came with one pantry. And like this house, it feels easier to just be obvious about my leaks and spiders than finding a crafty way to hide them. Instead, I’d like to find a crafty way to use them. Controlling, anxious, impatient, I’ve always been this way. But I’m hoping in this new year I can find a way to use those things so they highlight the shiplap, the utility, and the views more than they focus on the towel curtains, medicine balls, and the lack of kitchen counters. Maybe, just maybe, I can even make towel curtains a thing. Until then, my resolutions for the new year are pretty simple: relax a little, do stuff that makes you happy, and if there’s junk in your house that bothers you, go outside.
Now: I would say if there was ever a way to make use of my leaks and spiders, it’s this, here with you. Like a chrysalis, I needed this little shack to develop, to discern, to decipher who I would be outside of it. We married in 2017, and a month later, left this house emerging from it knowing ourselves better. We knew we loved the smell of wood, we knew we loved a view, and we knew we loved a home that was hard to love.
And when we left, with the garden happy, the spiders busy, and towels for curtains, we knew it loved us too.
Then, we moved next door.