Homing in on Home

I’m a fifth-generation East Bay resident. My family came here in 1900. My son makes six generations of my family in the beautiful East Bay. This is my home.

But lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about “home” and what that actually means. Recently, my husband and I received a letter evicting us from the house we’ve lived in for nine years– the place we had come to think of as “home.” It’s a typical Bay Area story: the owners want to sell. We had to scramble to find a new place in the same school district, and now we’re packing up nine years of our lives and two kids and vacating this space that has felt like home for so long. Renters can fool themselves that they have “homes,” but we don’t: we have housing. The rug can be pulled out from under you so quickly. In my parents’ generation, a teacher could afford a housewife and an East Bay house to put her in. In my generation, no two teachers combined can afford a house in the East Bay, the area in which my family has lived for over a hundred years. We’re priced out of the only area in the world I can call “home.” Unless something changes dramatically, we’ll never have a home, only housing. That was a startling, heartbreaking revelation.

The same can be said of our theatre space. We rent the space, like nearly every small company in the country. We overlook issues with the building out of fear of irritating the owner or calling attention to ourselves. We’ve put hundreds of hours into renovating the space over the years. We’ve overlooked the set pieces and audience seating ruined by workers the building owner sends in, unannounced, to, for example, open a wall onstage to access wiring. We don’t want to be evicted. We have no home, only housing. It’s a stressful way to live.

And the same could be said of my employment situation, one faced by millions of people. When my PhD was finally in hand, my plan was to run my little theatre company and teach. It was a simple enough, accessible dream, or so I thought. The bottom had just fallen out of the university teaching market and there were no jobs. I spent twenty years as an adjunct with no job security, being paid less than half what the tenured faculty made for the same work. When those tenured faculty couldn’t make enrollment quotas in their classes (a common occurrence), their classes would be cancelled and they would be given mine whether they were qualified to teach the subject or not, suddenly leaving me with no income, and often asking me to give them, free of charge, my notes and prep work so they could teach my class. I could be offered a full load and relative financial security, I could be offered nothing, or I could be offered something and have it yanked away from me, and everything, everything happened at the last minute. Eventually, like millions of people in every field, I was laid off. Finally, through a fluke, I landed a job teaching at a small private high school. It was something I had never planned on doing, but thank all the gods I did. The staff, students, and pedagogical approach are beyond my wildest expectations. I am in love. And every day, even after nearly two years there, I walk in that building in fear. Every day, I worry that this, too, will be yanked away from me. I would call this school “home.” But I’m not even sure such a thing exists anymore.

It once did, however. The right to “home” for everyone, something we used to call “The American Dream,” was last claimed by the Boomers, who quickly threw a fence around the idea, shutting everyone else out. The subsequent generations are dividing into two categories: the rich few who can still access that American Dream and everyone else. The idea that anyone who wished could land a Steady Job, which would be enough to buy a house and support a family– to create “home”– started with the Labor Movement and began its slow end with the Reagan Revolution. Now it’s over in most areas of the country.

And the idea that you can start a nonprofit theatre that uses grants and donations to grow continually, pay continually increasing rent and AEA wages while still supporting the staff who writes those grants and gets those donations, is over in most areas of the country. It had almost the same life span as The American Dream.

It’s a damaging thing, this denial of a Place to Belong. People are evicted from their “homes” and scramble to find a new place, a more expensive place, forced to shell out thousands of dollars in moving costs and deposits to pay for the privilege of being tossed out. Theatres are cutting budgets further and further and further, doing two-person shows, cutting salaries, postponing much-needed equipment upgrades, facing spiraling costs against dwindling grants, donations, and sales, and being told “I deserve money though” by everyone on all sides, all the while knowing that they could be the next closure, knowing they’re one big grant denial or missed sales goal from closing, and wondering, maybe we should just do a wheezy old standard guaranteed to sell instead of a new play that really deserves to be seen, or maybe we should do all public domain plays next season, saving thousands of dollars, so we can pay another grantwriter. Knowing that closure means yanking “home” away from everyone relying on us to keep the doors open.

The rising generation’s often chastised for their perceived lack of loyalty, but it’s a predictable response to a country that no longer has any loyalty to them, throwing up roadblock after roadblock (impossible tuition costs, impossible housing costs, lower and lower pay with fewer and fewer benefits) while scorning their inability to thrive. Older generations are constantly bragging, “At your age, I owned a house, had two kids, and was debt-free.” When you were her age, honey, you made 250% more in real dollars for the same job, the cost of living was half what it is now, and tuition was $300 a semester. That world is gone, and yet they blame the rising generation for living in the world they created for them.

But we do find “home,” we MAKE “home.” We have artistic homes in theatres that are nomadic or in nontraditional spaces, but rooted in unique, important voices. We have homes in friends and, yes, family. We go on living and try not to think about the instability of this new world, an America that’s become far, far more difficult and unforgiving than it’s ever been for any living generation. An America that’s focused primarily on personal gain rather than cultural benefit. An American as sharply divided between the rich and everyone else as we were in the days of the robber barons.

But I was at rehearsal last night, and my wickedly talented and brilliant and funny and warm theatre family felt like home. I came back to our soon-to-be-not-ours house, saw my sweet and loving and wonderful husband and son, and they felt like home. I’ll go to school soon, look at the inspiring and brilliant staff and students, and they will feel like home. And for that, for all of it, I am so, so thankful.

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9 thoughts on “Homing in on Home

  1. Deb Fink says:

    Melissa, this is an amazing statement. I am frequently moved by your writing, and this blog is shaking me to the core. Thank you and please submit this one to the Huffington Post!! xo, Deb

  2. You’re breaking my heart. Really.

  3. Nick jackson says:

    Heart breaking, but very inspiring. You aregiving a voice to many people.

  4. Maureen Brady Johnson says:

    This is the absolute truth…Life today is almost impossible. But the very end of this very disheartening piece shows that despite all that you face…you know what is true and what is really essential.

  5. I hear you. I bought in Walnut Creek. Buying in SF is like “Right, why don’t I just shoot myself!” But, it isn’t enough to pay for your house, you have to also think of pension and retirement. We are in a very serious place. In twenty years, with the effects of the pact with the Asian countries, Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), labor will be off-shore.

  6. Devra Thomas says:

    When i took on my new job, all of my theater’s clients expressed such relief that their performing home was going to stay open. I’m reminded every day that I’m here to make sure it stays that way.

  7. Zambonesman says:

    This was moving reading to me as well- you put it so damn well.

  8. I liked this post it really moved me too. I’m in the UK and it is the same here. People are losing their houses and savings during this financial recession. I’m one of them, and I feel my life is dwindling away sometimes. Thanks for writing this.

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