Home has always been more question than answer for me. Even when I was a kid, I had my home with my mom and dad and brother on Cape Cod, and then there was my biological father, Nana, my aunt, cousins in Roxbury. I spent more time on the Cape, went to school there, that’s where most of my friends were, but I also had access to a world separate from them, from the island mentality of Cape Codders. There were two homes and three families to which I belonged. Since I was eighteen, I’ve lived in a variety of places, never with fewer than two roommates. I make a point to create space that is exclusively mine, and I’ve often treated the rooms I’ve lived in as art installations of sorts—fake birds hanging from fake phone lines, dresses stapled to ceilings and walls, etc. Making the Brave New Home mine has been no different. I’ve said as much previously, but beyond the aesthetic aspects of decorating, there is a way in which it is essential for me to make my home a sanctum.
Throughout my life, I haven’t considered every place I’ve lived home, but when I have, it’s because of the other people populating the space. In Detroit, it’s just me and my cat, like some spinster stereotype, and there are benefits and downsides to living alone. I won’t detail all of them here, but one thing that I find fascinating is the reactions I get when I tell people that I am the only woman living on my street. There is often wincing when I tell people that I live alone, but this added fact seems to push other people’s danger-o-meters off the charts. The reality is, I know all of my immediate neighbors, not well, but I’ve had conversations with all of them, never feeling threatened. During the winter, one neighbor in particular would always borrow the snow shovel on my front porch to clear his walkway, also often clearing mine. I can’t quite place what it is that makes other people fear for (fearful of?) a woman living alone, other than the run of the mill (and warranted) fears women have about their safety and security.
I am cautious, typically, about who I let enter my space, and this has always been the case. When my close friend Gianna first started dating her husband, I wanted to meet him. He told her that I already had. He had stayed at my house in Boston when he and about 20 other musicians were crashing there during their tour. He said I had given them a kind of death glare as they filed into the house. In retrospect this is funny, because over the eight years that house has been known as an artist’s collective, hundreds of touring musicians have spent the night there. And beyond that, I officiated Rob and Gianna’s wedding two years ago. For a long time, the doors to that house, the Whitehaus, were never locked until, a few years ago, it was robbed multiple times. In living there, there was always a sense of security—strength in numbers. This past weekend, I returned to Boston to perform at the Whitehaus’ yearly festival, known as Blastfest. It was a lovely weekend, but strange because for the first time coming back to that place felt like a visit away from home instead of a return to it.
The Whitehaus looked the same as it has for some time in many ways—odd detritus hanging from the walls and chandeliers, show posters and artwork in every corner. There are items of mine that were easily recognizable to me—a print of a clipper ship I hung in the downstairs bathroom, books I left, mattresses that used to belong to me, but the residents were mostly new. Being back was strange and familiar all at once—same surroundings, new faces, but a place that didn’t feel alienating or uncomfortable. It was a kind of relief to see a space for artists that had always preached openness and accessibility actually hold up to its promise. And still, it wasn’t my home.
When I returned Monday night, I was the sickest I’ve been in some time. My friend, who’d been looking after my cat, picked me up from the airport and noted that it was as if I had half of my normal voice. After she dropped me off, I went about the slow process of settling back in and trying to do what I could to turn my health around. This had been my first trip leaving Detroit, and coming back in the state I was in was far from ideal. I tend to think of my independence and self-reliance as points of pride, but on this occasion, I felt stubborn and like I was making myself miserable. I was well enough to teach Wednesday, although it left me exhausted and my voice was still not quite there. I was prepping for bed, and the next day of teaching when someone knocked on my door at 11pm. Scared it might be some polite intruder, I slipped scissors into my back pocket. I don’t know why. I don’t think it would have helped. When I lifted the curtain it was my neighbor’s brother, who I’ve met. He was ostensibly inviting me over for a drink, but also wanted to express his attraction towards me. I was not trying to be at the proverbial club going up on a Wednesday, and it was awkward at best.
In the moment, I didn’t feel any sense of danger or fear, after a few minutes, he insisted that I take his phone number and left. By the time I closed the door, I was angry. It’s one thing when this kind of interaction happens out somewhere—at a bar or coffee shop, even on the street, but to be sitting at home, suddenly having male desire show up on my literal doorstep was offensive. I’ve thought a lot in the last year about the death of Mary Spears in Detroit, killed for rejecting a man’s advances at a funeral. In that moment it was an old negotiation with myself— stating up front that I’m dating a man even if I’m not, softening my voice, delicately smiling even when I feel like screaming, accepting a phone number, but not giving my real number out. I got so used to doing this sort of thing while walking around in New York that I had my fake number memorized. I’ve grown unaccustomed to having to do it, because it’s happened so rarely over the course of a Detroit winter. And it wasn’t that he was menacing or threatening or vulgar, it was just that he did it in the first place—it was a violation of the sanctum of my home.
When I lived in Boston, I worked at several group home facilities for teenage girls, and there were instances of strange men attempting to enter the space. Those were clear and dangerous threats. I’ve heard stories, too from students at DIAYW about men who lurk around the premises. I’ve threatened strange men in subway stations for getting lecherously close to my students. I’ve threatened strange men who’ve attempted to corner me on well lit streets. And the reality is, I’m not the threat. I haven’t ever told someone I would hurt them, just simply stated that I would make a scene in public and be vocal about their transgressions. All I can do is chose not to be quiet and defend myself.
I am very aware of my privilege in being able to live where I live, in having a home at all, and with that comes a sense of responsibility I’ve never felt in the same way. When I lived in Boston, I worked with youth all over the city, fostered an artistic community, and felt responsible towards my neighborhoods. In Detroit, I operate with the same intentions, but a heightened sense of duty because of how I got here. I want to do all that I can to help those around me if they’re struggling, because I chose to make this my home. A month ago, I helped the same man who appeared on my doorstep late this week get his car unstuck from an icy snow bank. That’s not a hero’s feat, just a basic gesture of goodwill I would have extended to any of my neighbors.
There’s a newfound sense I have of calling a city home, but also seeing my home as an extension of myself in an unexpected way. I get as upset about unwanted visitors in the same way I do when strangers bump into me on the street without apologizing, like the house and I are one complete entity. This means re-defining home for myself; it means that going back to Boston, a city more familiar to me than any other, is a place that I visit and not where I belong. I’ve just started growing accustomed to this feeling, this burgeoning appreciation for having a space that reflects upon me alone. In return, my home impacts me, gives me quietude and joy, a place to create order and allow chaos. Above all else, I’ve grown accustomed to feeling entitled to the space. Five months in, it doesn’t make sense to still feel like I don’t deserve it, because I’m here—cold fact. So I’m doing everything I can to make the most of what I have, and extend my skills and resources to those around me in whatever ways I can, as basic goodwill. It doesn’t elude me that this is also the end of Women’s History Month, and I’m writing about what it means to be a woman living alone. As a gesture, or maybe a wish, I’ll say this: all I want is a sanctum, in my self, my body, and my home. It’s something I’m entitled to, and now that I have it, it’s more precious than I ever could have known.