What’s the value of a home? What’s the value of a body?
It all starts when a real estate agent sees me naked. It’s 8:30 a.m. and I am emerging from my bathroom, where I’d been blow-drying my hair, into my bedroom where I am about to get dressed. He is standing there, in my hallway, looking completely flummoxed.
My real estate agent (not the one standing in my hallway), had told me that the first viewing by a potential buyer was happening at 9 a.m., and I’d planned to be dressed and gone from the premises before then. Due to some mixup, this agent had booked an 8:30 showing that hadn’t been communicated to me (a pattern that repeats itself later in the week, though not with such dramatic results).
I dress quickly and hurry out of the house. At the doorway, I see a large pair of men’s dress shoes – an unusual sight in a house that has housed only women for the past seven years. Outside, in my driveway, stands the young, flustered agent, in his socked feet. I suppress a giggle when I consider the mad dash he’s made from the house. Trying to save face (but not looking at mine), he swears to me he’d booked the appointment and swears he’d called out when he’d let himself into the house. I brush it off, climb into my car, and drive away.
Throughout the remainder of the day, as I juggle the chaos of running a home-based business while multiple showings disrupt my day, I burst out laughing whenever I remember the man in my driveway without his shoes.
Only later – perhaps the next day – I surprise myself with the realization that the encounter did not trigger me. A strange man intruded on my private space and saw me naked, and… I laughed!
I have spent years healing from the trauma of what has happened to me in bedrooms, and years creating a sanctuary where my body can finally release its hypervigilance and feel safe. Many times, I have despaired at how long it takes for my body to learn a new story. But now, thirty-four years after a man climbed through my bedroom window and raped me in my bed, and seven years after I ended the marriage that compounded (in smaller increments) the trauma of that rape, my body didn’t respond with fight, flight, or freeze when a strange man burst through the boundary I’d so carefully constructed. My only response was laughter.
By the next day, my sense of humour has dwindled. The chaos of having my life so frequently disrupted starts to take its toll. Though no other agents see me naked, they want to come at all hours of the day, they change their appointments at the last minute, and I am left juggling the many Zoom calls my work requires with their expectations that I be out of the house so that their clients can snoop through my bedrooms and poke around in my kitchen. Ten minutes before teaching a class, after learning of a last minute scheduling change, I rush to my sister’s house to borrow her internet and kitchen table.
Surprisingly, the agent’s gaze on my naked body seems to impact me less than the parade of people whose gaze falls on my naked house. I don’t know what to make of it. Despite my efforts to distract myself, including a short road trip out of town with my sister-in-law over the weekend when the greatest number of showings are happening, I can’t ignore the churning in my stomach when I think of all of those people in my private space, looking through my closets, intruding on the sanctuary of my lovely backyard, judging my stained furniture, and casting a critical eye on the cracks in the walls and peeling paint on the kitchen cupboards.
There are moments when I want nothing more than to chase them all away, change the locks on the doors, and hunker down in my own house, protecting it from intruders as though it were a city under siege. There are moments when I want to yank the For Sale sign out of the front lawn and commit to the house that I will never, ever leave it.
This house and I have been through so much together. Twenty-four years ago, with a toddler and a new baby, my former husband and I moved in, our hearts full of dreams of the home this house would become. Perhaps I should have known, at the end of that long day of moving, when my body was completely spent but I still had to find a few more drops of strength and kindness with which to feed my babies and help them feel safe in the midst of monumental disruption, that a pattern had been set that would repeat itself again and again in this house. “The way you start your day determines how well you will live your day,” some motivational speaker once said, and perhaps the way you move into a house determines how you will live in that house.
I spent many, many days exhausted, trying to muster up those last drops of strength, courage, and kindness in this house. There were all of those years of mothering small children while working a full-time job. There were the years of my former husband’s depression and there was his second suicide attempt. There were the many times I tried to convince myself I was happy in a marriage that didn’t nourish me. There was the way that my body kept telling me that my bed was not as safe as my brain pretended it was. There were fights and heartbreaks and disappointments and there was that moment, every day, when my body tuned in to the sound of the door opening, trying to anticipate the mood that I’d need to decipher, manage, soothe, support, or deflect in order to help my children feel safe.
Despite what the motivational speakers say, a pattern can only hold for so long before something shatters, before you choose to end a day differently than it began. Seven years ago, it was time for that shattering, time to rearrange what had so long ago been set into motion.
Though I was restless and ready to leave this house and all of the memories it held when the marriage was dismantled, I knew that, more now than ever, I had to muster those last ounces of strength, courage, and kindness in order to give my daughters the home and stability they needed for the tumultuous teen years. With resolve, and much trembling, I pushed through all the paperwork, stress and worry of buying the house all over again so that it would only be my name on the land title. I didn’t know if I could afford it alone, since my business was still in the early days of making enough money to survive on, but for my daughters’ sake, I knew I had to try.
Not only did I succeed in keeping the only home they’d ever known, I worked hard to make it better and more safe. Even before the marriage ended, knowing that they’d each need their own tender space to hold them through the disruption, I redecorated each of the girls’ bedrooms. Then, when the master bedroom was finally mine alone, I did the same for me. From there I moved on to the living room and kitchen, and finally the backyard, tearing out old flooring, painting old cupboards, hiring people to redo the floors and backyard, and learning to use power tools so that I could build shelving units, desks, and tables. I did the best I could with what I had.
A week after the naked encounter with the agent, the date arrives when my agent will accept offers. There have been about 30 showings in a week, so she expects there to be a bidding war that will land far above the asking price, but it doesn’t turn out that way. The repairs needed on the foundation, the cracked basement walls and cracked living room ceiling have scared people off more than we expected. We’ve priced it much lower than comparable homes in the neighbourhood, knowing that it will require repairs, but even that low price doesn’t convince people it’s a good investment. Add to that the interest rate increase and talk of recession, and buyers have become more reluctant than they were a month ago.
The only offer I receive is below my asking price, and there are conditions that include a full inspection. I decline their offer and make a counteroffer. They decline that with another counteroffer, just a bit higher than they offered in the first place. I am devastated, but I give in, knowing that there’s very little chance anything better will surface.
I consider declining it and taking the house off the market. I consider staying here and pouring more money into the house to increase its value. I consider whether I’m willing to give up my plans to relocate to another city and whether I can be happy living here alone with all of my children moved away and only the memories for company.
I spend a lot of time crying in the next few days as I wait for the house inspection to happen and the deal to be finalized. I cry about the fact that people don’t love my home as much as I love it. I cry about the 29 people who looked and then turned away. I cry about the fact that all of the work I’ve put into the house in the last seven years feels like a financial waste. I cry about the fact that I will leave this home less financially stable than I’d hoped to be at the beginning of the next phase of my life. I cry because it’s so easy to turn “they don’t value my house” into “they don’t value me”.
I cry especially on the day that the house inspection happens. For three hours, I have to be away from the house while a stranger pokes even deeper than all of the people who came before. This time, they will evaluate every square inch of the house, critiquing the windows, the furnace, the appliances, the walls, and the foundation. This time, they will open every closet and look for leaks under every sink.
I wake up that morning suddenly remembering that there are some old mildew stains I hadn’t managed to clean off the trap door at the top of my closet that opens up into the attic. It’s one of the only spots I forgot to clean in the two-month frenzy to prepare the house for sale. I worry that the inspector will take the mildew too seriously and warn the buyers to back away from the deal. I cover the clothes hanging in my closet with an old blanket, climb onto a chair, spray bleach onto the ceiling and scrub.
A few hours later, when it’s nearly time for the inspection to be over and for me to be allowed back in, my agent calls. The inspector wants to know if he can move the clothes in my closet to access the trap door into the attic. I say yes, both relieved that I took the time to clean the mildew and annoyed to know that someone is currently rummaging in my closet.
When I get home, there are far too many signs that someone has been in my home and the frustration boils into rage. I feel disrespected and somewhat violated when I see how many items have been moved away from walls and not returned to their rightful places. On one of the hottest days of the year, all of the curtains have been pulled open and the furnace has been left on.
What is the value of a home? As I wait through the evening for my agent to give me the final word, I ask myself that question. Can the value of this home, that has held so many of my heartaches and born witness to so many of my traumas, really be measured by a dollar figure on the piece of paper my agent passes across the table to me? Can any amount of money tell of the worthiness of this house, when it has been a refuge through so many storms?
It’s the lie of capitalism, I realize, that tells us that worth can be measured. It’s the lie we’ve been told again and again – the lie that has taught us to commodify our lives, our bodies, our stories, our talents, our land, and all of our possessions, placing the value of one above another, diminishing it all to a dollar sign on a piece of paper.
The feminist rage boils up in me as I realize the grief and shame that I’ve been feeling about people devaluing my home is the same old grief and shame I’ve felt about people devaluing my body. “The basement is cracked and the house is showing its age,” they say, casually, as if this home is only a commodity. “Take $50,000 off its value.”
“Your body is fat, female and showing its age,” they say, casually, as if this body is only a commodity. “Take $50,000 off your value.”
My agent finally arrives, and the evening drags on with multiple back and forth phone calls while the buyer’s agent points out what the inspector has revealed. He tries repeatedly to bring the price down even more. Fed up, I say a firm “NO” when my agent is on the phone with him. “He heard your no,” she says when she gets off the phone and I’m not sure if she’s admonishing me or cheering me on for being so clear. Either way, I don’t regret it. I know that I have the power to walk away rather than let this agent chip away any more of my value, and I know that I will carry my head high whatever the outcome.
Finally, the sale goes through and my agent leaves. I crawl into bed, unsure of how I feel.
The next morning, it begins to settle in that I have sold my house. The remnants of grief still cling to me, but I become resolved to pick myself up and carry on. “It’s only money,” I tell myself. “It says nothing about the value of my home and nothing about the value of me.”
I look around my home and see it through the eyes of love. I peer out my bedroom window and watch the birds land in the branches of my sturdy maple tree and the squirrels scamper along my fence. I touch the walls with tenderness, like I used to touch my children’s skin when they were little. I soften my gaze as I peer at my naked body in the mirror. Home and body – both priceless, both loved.
I remember the words of Sonya Renee Taylor in The Body is Not an Apology. “Living in a female body, a Black body, an aging body, a fat body, a body with mental illness is to awaken daily to a planet that expects a certain set of apologies to already live on our tongues. There is a level of ‘not enough’ or ‘too much’ sewn into these strands of difference.” I feel that in my body and I feel it in my home.
Our systems – capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy – are structured to profit from our self-hatred, Taylor says, convincing us to buy more and more things to try to cover up our shame and prove to each other and ourselves that we are worthy of love. We are measured with yardsticks that teach us whose bodies have more worth, whose lives should be protected, and who should be shamed for taking up space. And when the walls of our homes are similarly measured, it feels personal.
“Think of body shame like the layers of an onion. For decades in our own lives and for centuries in civilization, we have been taught to judge and shame our bodies and to consequently judge and shame others. Getting to our inherent state of radical self-love means peeling away those ancient, toxic messages about bodies. It is like returning the world’s ugliest shame sweater back to the store where it was purchased and coming out wearing nothing but a birthday suit of radical self-love.”
The only way to disrupt a system that oppresses people by measuring their worthiness is to stop complying, stop measuring.
It’s now a few weeks since a strange man saw me naked in my bedroom. It’s a few weeks since I burst out laughing at the thought of him standing in his socked feet in my driveway. I notice now, as I think of all of the people who have passed through these rooms since then, measuring the worth of what I love, that I am able to laugh at that too. I see them all in my mind’s eye – buyers, agents, and inspectors – lined up in their socked feet in my driveway, unable to look me in the eye as I walk by. But my head is held high and I am dressed not in a shame sweater, but in my “birthday suit of radical self-love”.
That young real estate agent can know nothing of the value of an aging, saggy female body. He can know nothing of what this body has carried, how this body has triumphed, and how many times this body has nurtured and protected those who are scared or lonely. If there is shame to be had in that moment when this body was seen naked, then he can carry it. I refuse.
Similarly, nobody who walked through these rooms can know anything about the value of this home. They can peer into the closets and peek into the attic, but nothing they see with their untrained eyes will tell them of the stories this house has held or the way it has sheltered my family through the storms.
If there is shame to be had in the cracked walls or mildew stains, I refuse to carry it. Two months from now, when I walk away from this home that I have loved so dearly, ready to start the next chapter in my story, I will do so with my head held high. There may be fewer dollars in my bank account, but the value of what this house has given me will never be measured by that.
In the middle of the house sale, I decide it’s time to finally book the tattoo appointment I’ve been considering for several years. A few days after the sale is finalized, I visit the tattoo parlour and have the words of Mary Oliver inked on my forearm where I can see them easily: “…let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
I will wear those words as a promise to myself to the end of my days. This body cannot be measured. And neither can my home.
p.s. I have several in-person workshops and retreats planned for Europe in the Fall. Plus registration is open for the next offering of the Holding Space Foundation Program which starts in October.