Sunday, February 20, 2011

Equity Isn't Everything: On Daffodils, Cardinals, Bankers and the Ongoing Pleasures of Owning a Home

From my March column for East Village Magazine.

I’m sitting at my kitchen table irrationally exuberant about the morning’s sunlight. I think the word is basking. It’s been a long dark winter already, with more to go.

It’s mid-February as I write this and yesterday, in the lengthening daylight happily remaining when I got home from work, after three or four days of promiscuous melting, spears of daffodils appeared from under the disappearing foot of snow at the side of the house.

When did that happen? When did they decide to start their lovely engines while the rest of us crabbed and scratched and fidgeted in February crankiness?

And briefly, startlingly, I find myself saying as I take it in, “This is mine.” I have always needed something to call “my own,” not for the heft of consumption but for the details. This is the poet’s life -- the same redwood fence every morning, with its criss-cross top and gradual seasoning to gray, the same green bird feeder swaying slightly in the breeze, the same mulberry tree, with that particular bend of its burly five-part trunk, the same red cardinals supplying flashes of color.

Of course, nothing stays the same. The sky changes, the trees slough off dead branches after midnight gusts and ice storms, the birds mate and pass on their territory to the fledglings, the roof tiles crack and curl. That’s the beauty of it – those changes, the way my back yard looks different every single day. In fact, that’s part of what I see as “mine.” I get to watch it all.

When my husband and I were looking for a house to buy in 2003, it was a day like this – late winter, bright 43rd parallel sunshine, not a bud yet on the trees but something about spring suggestive in the air. We stepped out onto the flagstone back porch and took in gulps of the place, surveying the yard. Just as we did so, a big male cardinal swooped overhead and landed in the little maple tree. It belted out that chip-chip cardinal sound and the female fluttered onto another branch. He fed her a seed.

I took it as an omen, and we bought the place.

Cardinals mate for life and live up to 15 years – meaning, if you read my January column, that their broods all through these years have probably been more cooperative than the less monogamous species. Since Ted and I bought the house as an act of commitment to what we hoped would be a lifelong love, it all seemed right. It’s very possible the fat male cardinal I saw on the feeder this morning is the same one that convinced us to sign all those reams of nerve-wracking agreements seven years ago.

That’s the way I decide to do things sometimes. Obviously, owning a house in Flint or anywhere!) is counterintuitive these days, as my California brother often warns me. But even with our house now “worth half of what we paid for it,” and the mortgage amount slightly “underwater,” when we recently refinanced, this house offers comfort, solace even, through every season, through storm, heat, ice, even in the face of last year’s arsons, the copper bandits, the homicides, the city’s deficits and struggling mayor. I don’t care. I love the place. It has good light, wood floors, crown molding, Faience tile in the upstairs shower, and the solid, square, no-nonsense rooms that go with its colonial bones.

I enjoy my “investment” – ah, sweet anachronistic notion – every day. I can’t say the same for any of my other “investments,” which appear in abstract quarterly statements as rows of san serif numerals under columns like “Value one year ago,” “value one month ago,” “current value.” Spare me that agitating obsession.

Value is a relative concept. On credit reports, mortgage applications and tax forms it’s a banker’s word, determined by the hard and unimaginative contours of lucre, by a bunch of philistines who couldn’t care less about my cardinals.

While as a homeowner I’m clearly part of the mortgage world, shelling out my monthly payments gives me some rights to hang on to my own notion of worth – so to speak. I have the illusion of exclusivity, a sensory claim on a little patch of ground and the upright architecture of a satisfying shelter.

I couldn’t have it without bankers, of course, but I didn’t want to say that here. I want to pretend I’m above all that, or outside it all, warmly cohabiting with the other lucky denizens of Maxine.

In fact, we’ve just decided to buy again. We successfully bid on a short sale across the street, and this time, it’s to keep the neighborhood together. We love the little family renting there and didn’t like the thought of their potential uprooting.

My brother shook his head when I told him, but after I explained everything, he came around.

“Sometimes the counterintuitive moves are the right ones after all,” he said.

I’m glad he sees it my way. Exploring that house, I haven’t yet spied an auspicious cardinal – just worrisome wiring, 1930s asbestos, and a hole in the garage roof. But unlike the boring numbers on my TIAA-CREF report, these are provocations for the spirit, as satisfying in their concrete meaning for my life in the neighborhood as the sunlight on the windowsill.

For more from East Village Magazine, go here.