The House We Live In: A Series on Building the Sustainable Home in Tucson, Arizona
What we speak becomes the house we live in. – Hafiz
It was the spring of 2013. I was working a bruising job as a law clerk for an overwhelmed judge, living in one of the busiest and most expensive areas in the country, and about to turn 30, and when I rounded the ramp from the second to the third level of the parking garage, I quite suddenly knew that I wanted to cut off all my hair. There was no obvious impetus; I was not running late having spent too much time with the blow dryer; I had not just passed a billboard displaying a perfect pixie cut. But the idea, wherever it had come from, demanded action. The first thing I did when I got to my desk was email a classmate who had an enviable short haircut for the name of her stylist, and within two weeks, I’d made the chop, shorter by a wide margin than any style I’d had since the age of eight.
This is not to say that I didn’t, in those days in between, run that decision through a series of reality checks. (More frequent haircuts but less daily styling; perhaps too trendy; a pain to grow out; that awkward first week where everyone who sees you displays some measure of shock). But I think we all know that it’s not hard to find confirmation for a decision that’s already made.
So it was that a month or so ago, an old idle fantasy that had never been tethered to real life gripped me all at once. It was a Wednesday morning, and I was drinking my coffee and catching up on email after a morning run when a couple of thoughts that had been rattling around in my head for months came together, and became urgent. I wrote to my dear friend Matthew, who is a Boston-based architect:
Hello my friend! When we were in New York and drinking whiskey we talked a little about, you know, houses, and buildings, and where I might one day live.
I’m now thinking about the future and wondering if it makes sense to at least explore the idea of spaces that are not right now fit for Amy-habitation but might be made so. Was that a pipe dream?
If you think it might be worth exploring, I don’t even know what I’d need to look for. I can certainly talk to a real estate agent but I wouldn’t know what to tell her. Do you have thoughts?
Also, how are you? Is it fall there yet? Xoxoxo
Three minutes of typing before work one morning, and it had begun. His response, within the hour, was enthusiastic, and after a long phone call with him the next night, I sent another flurry of emails. The idea was for a house that would be as efficient as possible, uniquely suited to its desert location and my needs. Things began to happen quickly; in two days I had real estate listings and the phone numbers of recommended contractors to consult. It had gone from a vague idea of something that might one day happen to a plan with a string of concrete steps within my reach.
I don’t know what brings these ideas to a boil so quickly, or why it happens mostly with major choices, especially when small choices (should I buy a new tea kettle?) can paralyze me for weeks. Perhaps these essential plans, the ones that implicate identity, incubate in my subconscious, such that it’s not sudden at all; they grow underground until they cross a threshold where they become visible, appearing as plans that cannot wait because they come from my core. They are not my choices; they are myself.
The exclamation Eureka! is attributed to the Greek scientist Archimedes on discovering a method for determining the purity of gold; we use it primarily to celebrate the sudden solution to a problem over which we have been laboring. That is decidedly not my experience here. I had not been ruminating over the problem of where to live; I’m set up in a small but sufficient rental in a good location. I could stay put. It is not a classic Eureka moment.
But the word comes from the Greek heuēka, meaning “I have found.” And in these moments, I have found something. I have found the problem and the solution simultaneously. This is my heart’s gift to my brain. It does not say, Something is wrong, we have a problem, please find a solution. It says, like the most loyal and competent henchman, I have found the solution to a problem you have not yet realized you have.
What controls the internal timer that says without warning, “Now!”? I don’t know. And of course I can’t listen to it blindly. There are realities to face: finances, availability of the right people and places, reflection on what I actually need. Not every choice I’ve made with such conviction has been a long-term success, a fact that lends the process a certain anxiety. If I’m honest, I don’t know that this is a good plan, that I will be happy. That’s not the sort of thing I can be certain about.
But this burst of enthusiasm has a life of its own and if the advice I’ve been getting is true, I’m going to need it.
Amy Knight is the fiction editor for Terrain.org. In this weekly blog series, she chronicles the process of designing and building an eco-friendly house in Tucson, Arizona. The series starts this week with an exploration of how she decided to undertake this crazy process and will explore both how it’s done and what it means, from the perspective of someone who wants to do the right thing but knows almost nothing about sustainable building. Look for new posts every Monday. You can email Amy at email@example.com or leave a comment here.