The charm of changes: thoughts on house-sitting at the end of summer

House Silhouette Clip Art

Despite the fact that it’s a month before summer officially gives way to fall, human activities do not always follow that pattern. We are having a late-August heat wave with temperatures in the 90s both yesterday and today, but by the end of the week, almost everyone from pre-school to college in the area will be back in school. I, too, will be heading back to full-time on Monday, and so am enjoying my own end-of-the-summer extravaganza for the rest of the week: an evening of solo Blue Moon dancing in the dark somewhere, a couple of last swims in the neighborhood pool, a visit to the farmers’ market for veggies and fruits that taste of the singing summer sunshine, a lunch and much-needed catch-up with an old friend, a dinner of only watermelon, late night reading and writing adventures, a last day where a schedule is mostly nonexistent, and the time to relish in crickets’ leg songs. All of that fun and unfettered time, coupled with more weeknights of classes and three summer work projects to finish by my oft-procrastinating-last-minute-flurry, and I’m like a pig delighting in delicious mud. 

I like the feeling of the arrival of a new time, particularly fall and the back-to-school-rush. Even if the weather doesn’t reflect it, the rituals and routines move around somewhat with the seasons. To go along with my seasonal changes, I am house-sitting for a good friend from work. If you need a change in scenery and can’t afford a big vacation, it’s amazing what six days in someone else’s house can do. It’s been almost 10 years since my last house-sitting gig, back when I lived and worked in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I used to house-sit for my supervisor who felt more like a good friend and older sister. I was feeling a bit isolated at the time and not pleased with the predicament of living with an ex-boyfriend-turned-roommate-and-friend; I always thought she was doing me more of a favor, compared to the little bit of care her cat and house and garden required. The week or weekend stints at her home were like pilgrimages for me, planted in her cute and quaint abode with a front porch perfect for curling up with a book. A different bus-ride home made for a refreshing change from the same-old-same-old routine.  I was also a frequent house-sitter in college for a professor and beloved mentor, but even those weekend stretches seemed like a way for him to give me some space from my roommates and a reprieve when my rock-band-upstairs-neighbors wanted to practice loud 90s grunge at 11 o’clock at night. He and his partner would flutter off for the weekend, first picking up me up and planting me in their house, the fruit bowl and crisper suspiciously full of good produce that I was asked to enjoy so that it “wouldn’t go bad.”

House-sitting for a friend is an adventure in getting to know someone in their absence. I don’t mean that I’m pawing through medicine cabinets and dresser drawers. Although the thought might be tempting, nosing around isn’t much fun. Looking at books on shelves and noting where friends have hung artwork, though, can be a glimpse into what that person thinks about and admires. Sleeping in a different place, I notice inconsistent nocturnal noises. Water heaters hum differently, floorboards squeak to a stranger’s footsteps. Different neighborhoods within the same city show a shade that contrasts with the paths I walk daily. In college, house-sitting gave me ideas into how I might live and how I might make a home. Now it lets me examine my decisions and take stock. Usually, a home ready for a house-sitter is clean and uncluttered, allowing the sitter a fresh slate for new thoughts and enjoyment.

These past few days have been a treasure of time at the end of summer, on the outskirts of Boulder. My friend calls her home, an old rented farmhouse that hasn’t been torn down to make room for a slab of efficient condos, the “Prairie Mansion” and it is, indeed, a masterpiece. I don’t know anyone who names their houses, outside of books, and that only makes my friend’s southern-charm-hippy-vibe-somewhat-world-weary humor all the more of a delight. I talk to her cat Mooch, a charmingly vocal representative of the feline species, about the day as I give her specially prepared meals. I wander through the house and find it cozy and casual and comfortable, which speaks to my friend’s ability at making friends with even the most distant stranger. She owns beautiful Asian rugs which brighten the warm wide-plank floors. Glossy wood antiques like end tables and desks are functional and placed in the just-so spots. She has an overstuffed couch and chair which are perfect reading and resting nooks. The prairie that surrounds her place seems wild and unruly and messily unkept, but she’s been quietly restoring it for at least three years. She has artwork from around the world: paintings from Nepal, pictures from Mongolia, posters from Boulder. The house is cozy and spacious, with the curious balance of abundance and restraint. It’s a home created by a woman who lives well, who is curious about the world around her, and who is anxious to share her time, her space, her abilities.

I find new rhythms and take inspiration from my friend. I remove myself from daily baggage, with only a bag of school books, my laptop, a fat book of travel essays, a notebook, the September issue of Vogue, and a laundry hamper. It serves as both suitcase and the reminder that I’m taking advantage of my friend’s offer of free laundry while I reside in her home. I stuff a load of clothes in the washer, without scraping for quarters under the couch cushions. I dry the garments on her outside line, draped between the eaves of her “Prairie Mansion” and the branch of a delicious old cottonwood. I take pleasure in the chore, not having to crowd my clothing on my dry rack tucked in the corner of my bedroom, since my apartment landlords won’t allow a clothesline or even let laundry see the light of day on my patio. I walk around the edge of the prairie restoration finding respite from the heat in the shade of the house with a glass of iced tea. I reach for plates and forks in unfamiliar spots and wash dishes by hand, backward to me, with her dish rack on the left. I luxuriate in a cross-breeze, with windows open on all sides, not hemmed in by apartments and breezeways from buildings on both sides. I sweep the dust from the yard and the fur of a charming cat from the kithen floor into a dustpan, adding to the compost bin. I turn around to find the sun setting in a different spot, compared to my daily routine.

I have a few more precious hours in the prairie mansion before I return to rituals in my own space. I’ll take inspiration, maybe move some pictures around and revel in my own corner of the world. Maybe, intead of seeing the cracks and what’s missing, I can instead see the beauty of the home I’m making and the life I’m building. Sometimes, it helps to walk in someone else’s shoes or live in someone else’s house for a bit. It helps to see the world from a different angle, to borrow a book from a friend’s bookshelf, to drink iced tea from a separate corner, to see that the life and corner I occupy is quite grand and lovely indeed.

Here’s to the changes in season and changes in routine. If you have the means to get away for a weekend or longer, do so. Find a friend who might delight in  your house in your absence, even if you don’t “need” a house-sitter. Call up that friend and when you return, catch up over a cup of tea, and see if your housesitter is even more refreshed than you are, fresh from vacation.

In the midst of the start of school, if house-sitting and vacationing don’t seem possible, try to change up just one thing in your routine. Swap pictures on the wall. Get to work or school by a different route. Change it up and relish the feeling. See that where you are is quite beautiful and welcoming.


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