Sleeping Around

As published in ASJA Magazine, the publication of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

A year and a half ago I sold my home and lived for 14 months as a nomad, housesitting all over the country to explore the question: If you can live anywhere, how do you choose?

Along the way I made cheese with a Pennsylvania dairy farmer, told a story live without notes in front of 500 strangers, ate cheese curds, worked out at Muscle Beach, and visited a legal marijuana store in Seattle where they greet customers a la Moe’s Southwest Grill with a hearty “Welcome to Stash!”

I had been staggering under the weight of my empty four-bedroom house. My youngest had moved out and I was spending my days in cut-off sweats shuffling from bedroom to office to kitchen, office to kitchen to bedroom, worrying about the mortgage, taking work that made me miserable, grumbling that I was bored, that I had already dated all of the good men in the town, and I was already friends with all of the witty women, that the town was deficient in parks and music and things to do.

“So move,” my friend Jack said. “I mean, if you can live anywhere, why stay?”

That’s a truth about our work: We can do it from anywhere.

So I put my house on the market and set my GPS for a neighborhood in Philadelphia where I had people. There were electric cars, big trees, bumper stickers I agreed with, and great food.

But then Jack pointed out that most of my peers are empty nesters, too, and as such have guest bedrooms. Why not visit my way around the country, trying on communities until I found the one that felt right?

Being a guest is work. You have to pay attention to others’ schedules, be cheery when you’d rather mutter into your coffee, possibly even wear a bra. So instead I decided to housesit. Two weeks here, six weeks there, starting over again and again and again. Always arriving and always leaving. Rolling my clothes into a suitcase, waking up in the middle of the night with no idea how to find the bathroom, using my GPS to navigate to the grocery store and the bank.

The idea was both exhilarating and terrifying, and impossible for me if not for Google maps and Facebook, the former to get me around, the latter to keep me from feeling too crushingly isolated. I was moving away from great friends, into places where no one would stop to chat in the produce aisle, where I would know no one unless I got myself out and about and tried what was there for the trying.

I gave away half of my possessions and Jenga’d the rest into a storage unit, then arranged with a friend to use her spare bedroom as a base camp, a mailing address, a place to flop if the jigsaw of my schedule had a hole. Then I loaded a year’s worth of possessions into a Prius, not knowing whether I would land in the mountains or on a beach, in snowy climates or tropical. First in was my stand-up desk, which wedged nicely against my biggest suitcase, leaving room between for my beach towel-wrapped extra computer monitor. There was a Rubbermaid bin of shampoo and soap, mouthwash and the charger for my electric toothbrush; another with my coffee grinder and cone, my favorite knives, my power cords and books and mini-bottles of rum. A third held files—medical records, taxes, contracts for current projects. Stashed around the bins were gym bags of shoes and coats and canned goods, and always my two beach chairs. In the spare tire compartment I stored a tent that would make it possible to sleep in my car—which I never did—and tucked in my glove box was a card from my family, saying they were proud of me for coloring outside the lines (even though my mother was secretly terrified). Inside was my just-in-case 20-dollar bill.

A friend took a photo. Then I slammed the trunk and headed out.

I had posted a “wish me luck” message to a group of fellow journalists and immediately got invitations to three homes—in Atlanta, Madison, and the Hudson Valley of New York—their owners leaving for story assignments or family vacations. One had a bungalow with a big front porch, within walking distance of a great farmers’ market and surrounded by neighbors who all camped together once a year and who stopped by offering extension cords, directions, and invitations to happy hours. Another house was on the main route of the bike path of the city, so I sat on the porch
and watched the parade as I worked, then joined the homeowners’ friends for the city’s many music festivals. e third lived within miles of historic Hyde Park, so I spent hours reading and writing on the lawn of the Roosevelts’ estate. Along the way I took endless notes—in tiny print on index cards and typed hastily into my ipad— chronicling the people I met, the things I saw, the billboards and church signs, the quirks and things to be celebrated.

The rest of my houses came through word of mouth or off of and, websites that are just like dating websites: You put up a profile saying you’re responsible and friendly (my screenname is CheerfulNomad), they put up a notice that they need someone for, say, two weeks in the south of France or a month in downtown Seattle. You exchange a few emails, talk via Skype, then both parties make a decision and you perform the virtual version of a handshake. In my case no money changed hands, even though I once cared for two malodorous basset hounds who slept on the bed, snoring and farting, reminding me why I’m single. I gave insulin shots to a cat, soothed a jittery dog during thunderstorms, carried a geriatric cat on its heated bed down to the basement at night and up every morning, feeling a bit like an ancient Egyptian carrying the litter of a queen. I brought in mail, watered plants, mowed lawns and made houses look lived in. I once noticed a new water stain on the ceiling, texted a photo of it to the homeowner and got it repaired before it became a real problem.

That’s what they got out of it. What I got was a year with no mortgage, no utility bills, no need to even buy toilet paper or paper towels—money I used to take my daughter to London and Paris. More important, I got the opportunity to explore. Does the air smell right to me here? Are the people friendly? Will I be able to indulge in my hobbies, meet smart people, create a network? Is there an excellent airport?

The logistics ate into my writing time. I never knew where I’d be three or four weeks down the road, never knew which airport to book business travel into or out of. I learned not to commit too far in advance lest I create an unfillable hole.

In central Pennsylvania I stood in a stream in someone else’s waders, trying to cast with someone else’s pole as ducks announced their arrival and Amish families clip-clopped past in their buggies. In Madison I walked out onto the ice and asked a 9-year-old boy to teach me how to ice fish. He handed me the auger and I started drilling through the 11-inch-thick ice. My hat came off, then my jacket. I tried to hand the tool back to him but he only backed away. “Sorry, ma’am, but if you’re going to fish you have to drill your own hole.” I got a secret tour of the House of the 7 Gables because of a swarthy-looking man at a bar who knew the director, kayaked on the northern edge of the Chesapeake Bay as booms went off at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, and interviewed the director of the University of Tennessee’s body farm.

Settling down was hard, but eventually my need for community won out over my need for change. Yesterday I made it to the hardware store and back without my GPS, and this morning I reached into the closet and found a shirt I hadn’t seen since before my move. Home is happening. Still, no place is ever going to be as good as the possibility of every place.

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