Growing Home: Reflecting on Your Life Can Take You to a Happier Place

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Illustration by Gayle Ford

Six years ago, I was burned out. I needed a place where I could rebuild my life. I moved to a new area and rented a studio apartment in a triplex near downtown. It wasn’t ideal for the long term; it was tiny, had no yard, lacked a neighborhood feeling (it was behind a small office building in a mixed-use area), looked onto a parking area, and came with a hostile next-door neighbor. But it was charming inside, and it was the perfect place for me to shut out the world, go inward, and heal.

Now I have a delightful home. I have a large yard with many trees, a fountain, and a rose garden. I am part of a community of friendly neighbors. I enjoy a vista of distant mountains, and I watch birds and squirrels in the nearby tree branches. Within walking distance, there are cafés where the owners and patrons know me.

All this satisfaction didn’t cost me a cent; I didn’t move. The only thing that changed was my attitude.

As real estate prices soared and my dream of buying a Craftsman bungalow faded, I started to view my affordable studio as an asset. I looked around and realized that the “uninteresting” parking area was a sort of courtyard–a community space in which I had been getting casually acquainted with a dozen or so people. From my second-story window, I’d watched their lives develop. In the offices in front, I’d watched one man work long nights…until he got a divorce and a new girlfriend. I’d watched a single mother raise her boy from age six to twelve; I’d watched his friends, their haircuts, and their games go through numerous changes. I’d listened to my next-door neighbor entertain numerous women–and play loud music every time one of them broke his heart. We’d all watched each other take out the trash and the recycling. I began to realize what a precious thing this is.

I started lengthening my chats with my single-mom neighbor. Soon our seemingly hostile neighbor began to join us; it turns out he’s not so bad. In addition to the usual chitchat, we’ve begun to identify things about our building that could use sprucing up. Now we have a new front door and more energy efficient heaters. We have carved out corners of the parking lot for our “patios”–Adirondack chairs, potted plants, and a barbecue.

Meanwhile, I took up QiGong, an Oriental movement form that my teacher says is best practiced outdoors near a tree. I began to go to the park across the street every morning to do QiGong barefoot on the grass, surrounded by old redwoods and oaks. For the first time, I noticed how lovely the trees look against the sky, how good the sun feels on my skin, how calming the sound of the fountain is against the sounds of traffic.

Just across the park is a little Mexican café I used to ignore. As my home expanded, this became my second kitchen. Now, any time I don’t feel like cooking, I stroll across the park, order my favorite meal (for $4!), and do some serious people watching. Sometimes my “hostile” neighbor joins me.

As someone who makes her living improving people’s lives by changing their environment, this experience has been humbling. I discovered that I can improve my own life more by exploring my surroundings than by leaving or altering them. The trees, the earth, and the sunshine make me a more peaceful person. Warm relationships with my neighbors bring a sense of belonging and participation. Knowing that my organism is not separate from its ecosystem–yes, even in the city–may be the most healing experience there is.