Sermon for Small Houses

I grew up in a small house.  In the mornings, before school, my father, mother, brother and I all took showers in the same shower, so we had a line-up: first my mother, then my dad, then Ben, then me.  Sometimes I showered before Ben, but I took a long time back then what with shaving and conditioning and exfoliating my vain skin, so if I went first he got a lukewarm shower, if not a cold one.  We had two bathrooms, but the shower in my parents’ bathroom boasted better water pressure.  We were always in each other’s way.  I secretly raged at my mother for four years because she’d come into my bedroom early in the morning to grab earrings or a hair brush (why were they in my room?  I don’t know) and then fail to close the door behind her when she left, so I’d have to hear her morning routine, all the clangs and bangs of getting ready, thereby losing 45 minutes of sleep.  My bedroom shared a wall with the living room, and to this day, I cannot stand the sound of Sunday: football commentators and boisterous mid-game commercials.  We mostly ate in front of the television, not because we were avoiding each other’s conversation, but because it was too cramped at the kitchen table in its tiny nook.

But I loved that house.  It bred in the four of us an intimacy.  I never could have avoided my parents or hid much from them without great trouble: not a late night make-out session, a drug habit, or even a bad mood.  Nor could they have hid much from Ben and I, and while closeness can inflame irritation, we all knew each other so well.  And we didn’t lack for anything.  We weren’t poor by any stretch of the imagination–I’m steeped in all kinds of privilege; if not in my childhood home, in the educational legacy and wealth of my family (my ancestors are all college-educated going back five generations) –and our house would not be considered small anywhere in the world but a sprawling city like Houston where land was cheap and construction booming.  It’s such a logical fallacy, the idea that people with small homes have no wealth.  Maybe they have a better sense of community, or a keener aesthetic sensibility, or an environmental consciousness.  Or maybe they just don’t like to clean.

Now I live in an “urban” neighborhood (read: inside the Loop) in Houston where the tendency lately is for new homeowners to gut the small bungalows that have dotted the landscape for 100 years and add on “giant butts”–that’s what my husband and I call them; they’re really called “camel backs” as one architect explained to us.  After all the gutting and sawing and painting and landscaping, the house is no longer small, but deceivingly huge.  There are three houses on my block listed for sale at over $1 million dollars.  Still, people complain.  After a prenatal yoga class the other night, I heard a woman say she’s moving to the Woodlands, because “I would never buy a home in the Heights with these prices: you don’t get a yard, the traffic is bad.”  Good, I wanted to say, move out.  Clearly you don’t understand the definition of urban.  It’s like Houstonians want to prove their urbanity without understanding the requirements to achieve it: homes close together or shared, public transportation, parks instead of yards, restaurants and coffee shops and small grocery stores within walking distance, people that don’t look like you walking down the street.  Take your giant SUV and your $200 yoga mat with you, I thought.  People like you moved here because it was “cool” without understanding what made it cool.  Here’s a clue: cool is not an A&M flag waving above your porch when you’ve been out of college for 20 years. Cool is neither your desperate need to conform nor your patriot-like dedication to banality. And cool is not asking for a grande frappuccino at the local coffee shop. 

I sound nastier than I mean to sound.  I apologize.  The handsaw that grinds every day on the re-purposed bungalow across the street has been wracking my pregnant nerves.  I benefit from these people: my property value is up and our home is zoned to schools that improve every year.  New businesses pop up weekly.  There’s money around to support my artist friends who, like me, have stuck it out here.  But my husband and I struggle with these changes.  We’re both teachers; we don’t belong in a neighborhood of millionaires.  We worry about raising our child with any sense of scale and gratitude.  On the other hand, we also have lived in this neighborhood–at least I have–for a long time, long before the scourge of big butts on the backs of small bungalows.  Our lives together began in this neighborhood.  In it, we met, got married, bought a home together.  It makes some natural sense that we might root ourselves to this spot.

And we own a small home.  I love it.  Last night, around 10:45, we finally finished a months-long, DIY remodeling on our second bedroom in preparation for the little guy.  With the lights dimmed and curtains drawn, I walked through the house and felt a deep satisfaction in its cohesiveness, the soft transition from one little space to another, the containment like a snug embrace.  I could hear the dog chewing his bone on our bed upstairs, and the shower water humming over my husband’s head, and when I stood in the center of the living room, I could almost see into every corner of our home: I felt at the epicenter of something true and rich.  I thought, I don’t need anything bigger than this, or more honestly, what did I do to deserve this enormity?

Of course I could make fun of myself here.  I can’t help but think of Stuff White People Like:

“All white people are born with a singular mission in life in order to pass from regular whitehood into ultra-whitehood. Just as Muslims have to visit Mecca, all white people must eventually renovate a house before they can be complete.”

Or I could be too serious.  There’s a moral imperative here: we should live more simply so that others may live.  Some houses are obscene given…well, the real poverty in our world.

But I don’t mean to make fun of anyone or take a moral high ground.  I mean to celebrate the beauty and peacefulness that smallness inflates for me and for whole communities.  I mean to remind myself of Alain de Botton:

We need a home in the psychological sense as much as we need one in the physical…We need a refuge to shore up our states of mind, because so much of the world is opposed to our allegiances. We need our rooms to align us to desirable versions of ourselves and to keep alive the important, evanescent sides of us… We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be the inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced. We owe it to the worms and the trees that the building we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness.


5 thoughts on “Sermon for Small Houses”

  1. I can’t believe you were able to sleep late enough to be bothered by the football, Sis…not that it isn’t earth-shatteringly inane and too loud by any measure of sound, but how on earth did you sleep through the fucking McLaughlin Group?

  2. I love our bungalow, although we might have to build a camel back on it soon to give the little boy and the little girl their own private spaces. This, too, is a luxury of the first world — privacy.

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