In 2013, my husband and I purchased a one story, mid-century ranch with a pool that rivaled Lake Michigan and a fourth bedroom because a place for guests to lay their heads is a duty of hospitality. Presumptuously, we called it, “Our Last House.” “We’re going out in body bags,” I told friends. Less than 18 months later we sold it.
The sale our Arizona house was an ugly transaction. The buyers, bless their hearts—well, just bless their hearts. Perhaps it was a matter of the nuances lost between realtors and clients, communication diluted, like a childhood game of telephone. From our perspective, it was a less than civil affair. I complained to whomever would listen, and routinely heard real estate boilerplate in reply: “customary practice” and “legal” and “business is business”, phrases used to relativize a multitude of sins—insensitivity, greed, miserliness, deceit.
Journalist David Brooks on the Diane Rehm show said, “If you look at our language, it’s changed. We’ve become a much more economically minded culture and a much less morally minded culture. . . Over the last 50 years, the amount of economic words have risen in use, whereas moral words have declined radically. So the word “courage” is down 50 percent, the word “humility” is down 50 percent, the word “virtue” or “honor” or “kindness” is down 50 or 60 percent. So you see people’s minds shift towards a more economic way of thinking and a less moral way of thinking, and I think that has to do with some loss of humility.”
It is relevant, at least to me, that when we bought our first house in Scottsdale as a young couple, we leased it back to the sellers, original owners with a lifetime of accumulated possessions, on a handshake. When we sold that house after 14 years, the new buyers leased it back to us, ’til we found a new home, on a handshake. We left our rent checks on the window sill.
To lease back a house without a $1500 security deposit and $300 cleaning fee is to risk the sellers will start cooking meth in the kitchen, disembowel the walls of the copper plumbing or start hoarding stray cats. A big, fat security deposit and cleaning fee is just “good business.”
Kindness in business transactions is considered naive. But to be kind is to make a charitable assumption about the character, the virtue, the honor of another—of us, actually. Sophia Orne Johnson wrote, “a well-bred lady is one who . . . adds a scrupulous attention to the rights and feelings of those with whom she associates, whether they are rich or poor, and who is the same both in the kitchen or parlor.”
And the gentleman? “Whoever is true, loyal and sincere; whoever is of a humane and affable demeanor, and courteous to all; whoever is honorable in himself, and in his judgment of others, and requires no law but his word to hold him to his engagements; such a man is a gentleman. . . .”
Now settled in upstate New York, stories about the people who lived in our house before us are unravelling in little thready bits from various neighbors: the original owners first owned the farmhouse next door; they moved the structure in which I now sit, a 250-year-old barn, on rollers to its current lot—an all-day spectacle observed by neighbors who set up lawn chairs across the street (according to neighbors opposite); the original owners did not have a warm relationship with their children (neighbor to the east); they were athletic (obituary), rich (neighbor to the north), and highly intelligent (neighbor to the south.)
The couple from whom we bought, the second owners, had planned to dig a pond, thought the $6/week for garbage service was a bit high, and removed trees to make room for a vegetable garden they were never able to plant. Discretion forbids revealing more, but like any home, this house is haunted by aspiration and disappointment.
The house is lovely and we are grateful; I have posted beautiful photos on social media that veil the realities common to us all: the first owners both died in the house within a year of each other, the second owners had planned to stay, and, inherent in a move across a great distance, the third owners are grappling with displacement and grief.
The Hindu Ritual Hymn book, the Arthava Veda, reads, “The building of a house, or even any transaction concerning it, is not just a matter of masonry or of business. It is in both instances a liturgical act, in which human lives as well as the powers above and below are involved. A house is not real estate, but a human dwelling place, the prolongation, in a sense, of a Man’s body; it is the first extension of Man’s real world.” IX, 3
The buying and selling and renting of our dwelling places is liturgy. Let us perform these rituals with kindness and charity. To think only of our interest rate or remodeling budget is to be myopic and self-important. A house encases human fragility, provides the landscape of childhood, shelters the living and witnesses the last breaths of the dead. This is holy ground.