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The House as Dream

In my dreams, there is always The House.

Like this: I discover a door in my closet's rear wall that leads to a staircase, at the top of which I find an entire wing decorated in ornate Louis Quatorze furniture. Big gilded mirrors stare back at me from beneath their thin film of dust, reflecting pastel scenes of amorous encounters painted on the ceiling. Or this: a basement tunnel leads to an indoor amusement park, complete with Ferris wheels and costumed merchants loudly hawking souvenirs. Or this one: I discover, on the second story of a Victorian house, an Alaskan log cabin which I move away using cranes and pulleys until it nestles in a nice glade behind the house. When I look up at the hole left in the house, my mother is standing there, wringing her hands, her hair softly lifting in the sudden wind.

I have read that women dream of houses more often than men do. That makes sense, because we are socialized to think of houses as our responsibilities. Making beds, washing dishes, mopping floors, we become intimate with life's interior spaces. It doesn't surprise me that our dreams reflect that.

But my dreams are not only femme fantasies. In my dreams I tear out walls and put up sheetrock, I dig ditches for wiring and plumbing, I sand and paint and putty. Maybe I dream this way because my real life is filled with building projects. Blame it on my Alaskan upbringing: there, young people expect to build a house and live in the bush. ("The bush" is Alaskan jargon for "off the highway system.") If you can do both at once — build a house in the bush — you've got your rites de passage covered.

I separated the requirements. I lived a year on a ramshackle homestead near Big Delta with no running water or electricity and only wood for heat. Then, a few years, later, I built a house near Fairbanks, on an acre of spruce forest with spotty permafrost. Sheetrock and 2x's and rolls of insulation, T-1-11 and PVC; those were the years of building supply stores and work-parties. Just about the time that my house was done, the state economy collapsed and I lost my teaching job. So I headed to "The States" to look for work. I never went back to live in Alaska, but I still live a lot like an Alaskan out here in the Midwest. I can jams and jellies, freeze vegetables, dry mushrooms. I knit and sew (though I haven't made parkas or mukluks in recent years). I have parties where I expect people to tell stories to pass the dark nights joyfully.

And I still hang out at building supply stores. I like the small ones, like Middleton Coop in Wisconsin or Fox's Lumber in Chicago. Places where the guys who work behind the counter actually know what each tool is used for and whether you're wasting your money buying a higher-grade product. Since moving Outside I have made major renovations in every room of my home. So I don't just know my floors from sweeping them. I know them from sanding and finishing them too.

But there has been one big difference since I moved. In Alaska, I built my home knowing that the weather outside could get truly frightful. All my windows were triple-paned; over them, window quilts snapped with magnets to the frames. My walls were 2x8's with a tight-sealed vapor barrier, and on top of that an inch of blue foam was firmly nailed. My three-bedroom Fairbanks house was heated by a single wood stove. At sixty below, it was cozy as could be.

Somehow, though, I forgot all I knew about insulation when I moved to the Midwest. I have an old Victorian that I have lovingly restored, tearing out avocado shag carpet to reveal the oak flooring, ripping out exterior siding used as paneling and replacing it with antique-looking beadboard, installing period light fixtures. But I have the same windows that were here when I moved in more than fifteen years back. They are tall and let in lovely light on wan winter mornings. But they're single-paned — or, as we used to say in Alaska, holes in the walls. And I have done nothing about it. I do not know what kind of insulation there is in these walls, or whether there is any at all. I did insulate the attic the first winter I was here, but then I became adapted to my new terrain, paying more attention to the way the house looked than the way it functioned.

All that is about to change. My "budget plan " gas bill has just been reset to $301, up from $150 a year ago. I don't know what I'd do if I were a single mom or an elderly woman on a fixed income. I'm comfortable enough economically that I could cut back here and there, and get by. But every cubic foot of natural gas I use to heat my house adds to global warming. And every cubic foot I save means I've lessened my "footprint on the earth" so that others, human and animal and plant and microbe, have a greater chance of survival and comfort.

So I've set myself the project of applying what I know from my Alaskan hand-built home to my current Midwestern residence. I will be documenting that process here in MatriFocus, hoping to bring you ideas on how you, too, can save energy and money at the same time. This will be a different project from my Alaskan house, because I'm not going to be building every wall. I will have to live with what I have, to some extent. And I don't have unlimited resources. Some things that seem like good ideas will be too costly for my budget. But this work does not have to be done perfectly to make a difference.

As chaos theory tells us, even the flap of a butterfly's wings can change the weather. I am hereby enlisting in the Butterfly Brigade. This is no dream but scientific fact: what we do can make a difference.

Patricia Monaghan teaches literature and environment at DePaul University in Chicago. She is currently at work on an expanded scholarly edition of her classic encyclopedia, The Book of Goddesses and Heroines, as well as learning about northern-tier wine grapes.

Graphics Credits

  • house, windows, images courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.
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