Thom and I lived in the same town for years, and attended the Festival of Faith and Writing, without managing to meet one another. This past summer, we met at a clam bake at his home, and he asked me to read a couple of essays with a visiting poet the following week. It's been a delight to get to know him (and his writing) in the months that have come between, and I'm honored to share his wonderful de(tale) with you today. I hope that you will be moved, as I was.
We’ve been looking at houses again. My wife and I do this from time to time. Mostly in the early years of our marriage, and usually, the searches involved the dream of buying land outside of town, or some sprawling five-bedroom monstrosity in a quiet part of town. Sometimes, those dreams have included altruistic ideas about artist retreats. But really, they were exercises in escape. Lani is a hermit at heart, and I have periods where I want isolation. Not too much. I’m a much more social creature, but still, a life in the country, away from noise and cars, where we could raise chickens, goats, and maybe a pig or something: this has appeal.
Those searches were always fanciful. Through the twelve years of our marriage thus far, I’ve either been in grad school or working as a lecturer (full-time teaching load, minimum-wage pay). I’ve made more than $30,000 a year twice. Lani has been unable to work more than a part-time job, and the last two years, she’s been unable to do that (chronic pain and fatigue, a whole other story). To make ends meet, we sublet an apartment in our garage and every spare room in our house. There have been housemates who were unable to pay rent or buy their own food. It’s always tight, and we are frequently overdrawn. Our kids pick one sport or activity each year, because we can’t afford them all. We have help. People send us gift cards to grocery stores. Grandparents take us all out to dinner, or short weekend vacations to Silverwood or camping. Despite Lani’s hermetic tendencies, we mostly enjoy living in community, and doing so is an important part of our call to mission. Still, it can be difficult. Walking through the house naked is definitely out.
But the house-seeking is a bit more urgent now. I’ve recently been hired by the school I’ve taught at for the last seven years to teach the same classes I’ve been teaching, only for double the pay. We won’t be living below the poverty line, for the first time ever, and buying a house is a realistic option. We’ve started to think about concepts like “disposable income” (what an awful phrase), about where we want to live, rather than where we can afford to live.
Looking at houses in Spokane provides some interesting historical insights. You can essentially track the expansion of the city through the decades based on the homes that occupy the various neighborhoods radiating out from downtown. The city center, including downtown, the lower South Hill, Browne’s Addition, and West Central (our neighborhood the last eight years) are packed with homes built between 1900 and 1920. Old Victorians carved into four-plexes, big Colonials, sporadic farmhouses, lots of Craftsmans, Cape Cods, and brick bungalows (only realtor’s know what a bungalow is, but West Central is full of them). Between 1920 and 1940, Spokane spread outward. Corbin Park up to Garland, Audubon and Emerson-Garfield. East toward Market and north toward Wellesley. Little box houses. After that, you find the introduction of the rancher. In the twenty blocks between Wellesley and Francis, you can see the rancher begin to take over, and by the time you get to Five Mile, there’s little else. The last forty years have pretty much been split-levels and McMansions, the bland cookie-cutters of the suburbs leaking north toward Nine Mile and Deer Park, old rural villages gradually being absorbed into city growth-management areas.
When you’re too poor to make choices, living simply is unavoidable. When we first got the official news of the new job appointment (they can’t call it a promotion, because adjuncts and lecturers can’t be promoted. There is no institutional mechanism for such an event. If you’re detecting seven years of frustration with academic hiring practices, buy me a beer and I’ll tell you all about it), we looked around our house and started mentally upgrading. Second-hand chairs and bedroom furniture: replaced. Our couch and bed, bought new fifteen years ago: gone. Yard sale area rugs and end tables: history. No more lamps we pulled out of dumpsters and bought new shades for. I even fantasized about replacing all the bookcases in the house, which I’d built years ago. We worked our way up the chain of stuff. After we’d fantasized about the furniture and appliances, it was our cars, as second-hand and run down as our chairs. Finally we landed on the house. We could replace our house. We could move somewhere that wasn’t filled with the sound of sirens and barking dogs, where every tenth house wasn’t boarded up, condemned as a meth lab, or burned to the ground. Where people just threw away or recycled their old appliances rather than putting them on the front porch, or in the alley for scavengers to pick over. We could finally afford to get away from everything, from everyone.
It took a couple weeks of this before I finally thought about what we were doing. We’d constructed our lives in a way we’d felt called by God to live. Community, simplicity. We didn’t value stuff; it was starting to feel like we’d just never had the money to value stuff. I closed all my search windows, open to $1500 refrigerators and $1000 rugs. I think Lani reached the same conclusion, because she stopped sending me pictures of couches and dining room tables. We never even discussed it. We just stopped.
People always tell us that we’re difficult to shop for at Christmas. One might call our tastes “eclectic.” A friend recently said, “I love your house. Nothing matches. You could put anything in here and it would fit.” This year, Lani’s grandmother got me a metal lobster. I’m sure she just looked for the weirdest, tackiest thing she could find. It went right on the wall, at home amongst some of my other favorite things: a blue plastic horned cow piggy bank I’ve had since grade school, an old typewriter, a weird ladybug thing. We decorate with copper measuring cups and fancy cutting boards. As we’ve looked seriously at buying a home, it’s hard to imagine some of these things in, say, a 1960s rancher or a 1995 California split.
There’s something very settled about West Central. Aside from the crime and poverty, it’s a neighborhood we love. And really, not even aside from those things. Because of them. It’s a real community. We know our neighbors, we look after each other. We all need help. There’s no pretension. Some people take care of their yards; most don’t have the time, energy, or resources. The need to keep up appearances has long since been revealed as ridiculous. A new housing development has been going up across the street for the three years we’ve lived in our present house. The contrast is striking. Kendall Yards residents have contract landscapers, lawn mowers, and sprinkler systems. Our side of the street is mud and dirt, hundred year old maple and walnut trees. We’ve got chickens and piles of old tires. They’ve got Pottery Barn and flagstones. But part of us wants to be on that side. We want green sod and outdoor kitchens, new cars in functional garages. The allure is strong. How nice would it be to live in a house that doesn’t leak heat out hundred-year old windows, that doesn’t have four or five different configurations of plumbing and electrical?
The old plan was to buy the house we live in when we could afford it. Some day. We know the owners and have been friends with them for years. They were staunch neighborhood advocates and activists who fought for economic justice, against gangs and drug dealers for decades. Then they picked up and moved to Whitefish, Montana. That was disconcerting, and a whole other story as well. They’d built community the way we want to. They’d helped for as long as they could. West Central activism has a pretty high burnout rate, even among the most dedicated. Idealistic Christians and other well-intentioned activists have moved here hoping to make a difference, but fled quickly. Business owners have had enough and moved north or south, away. Young couples leave as soon as they can, hoping to raise their kids in safer places. We try not to, but we judge them, smug and self-righteous. To some extent, we also envy them their unbarred windows, their undamaged door locks (most of ours have been jimmied at some point, and bear the scars of the screw drivers and pry bars of past burglaries). We take pride in our lives of seeming deprivation. It’s an on-going problem.
Our house contains us perfectly, just as the neighborhood does. In my carport is a broken dryer. I put the oldest of our couches in the alley last fall. Scavengers have taken the cushions, the hide-a-bed mattress and frame. Part of me admires those scavengers, their resourcefulness. Nothing goes to waste. But I’m also chagrined by my privilege, saddened at the necessity of someone dragging a sodden, stinking, crummy mattress down the alley because it’s better than nothing. When I think about moving to a “nicer” neighborhood, I think about the busted freezer on the back porch, our homemade chicken coop and compost bin. The complaints “nice” neighbors would have about the noise and chicken-shit smell when it rains. About the shabbiness of our things. I like shabby things. I am a shabby thing.
I don’t know what God wants. I have no gift of discernment. But when we were broke, God brought us to West Central. He brought us into contact with the broken and lost, people who have lived with us after fleeing drug abuse and abusive relationships or when they were on the brink of homelessness. Or when they were (or are) just broken. As we are broken. Nothing about living here is easy. Evangelicals love to use the word ‘intentional,’ and that’s what this kind of living requires. But when you live in the middle of it, it isn’t intentional, it’s just hanging on, just life. There’s no getting away, only various forms of running from it, ignoring it. I have no gift, but I can’t imagine hiding from conflict, from trouble or difficulty, is what God wants. In fact, it seems to be the exact opposite of what He wants.
I think about my metal lobster in the entry way of some carpeted rancher, someplace already remodeled or restored. I don’t know if that lobster would work anywhere but in our beautiful old clunker. Scuffed floors and narrow doorways, turquoise bathroom tile and close-in neighbors. It looks pretty good right where it is.
Thom Caraway lives in Spokane with his family. He is a professor in the English department at Whitworth University, where he is also the editor of Rock & Sling. In 2013, he was selected as Spokane's first poet laureate. His poetry has appeared in numerous magazines, including Ascent, Theopoetics, Ruminate, and Smartish Pace. He is the author of A Visitor's Guide to North Dakota and served as editor for Railtown Almanac, a Spokane poetry anthology.
You can check out the other de(tales) (so far) here.