Other people's houses

By Shlomit Auciello | Jan 01, 2021
Photo by: Schlomit Auciello COV-Venn: an interlocking set of COVID-19 pods, bound by external relationships.

It's taken me most of my 67 years to figure it out, but the time has come to face facts: I'm socially awkward.

I talk too much and don't seem to have the filters others use to keep from saying things that offend, confuse or disturb. In spite of excellent advice, I often enter a room talking and speak my mind when it's clear no one wants the wisdom that falls from my lips. The flip side of this is that, while I don't make friends easily, the people who stick around are loyal and our relationships run deep.

I sold my house in July, just before the market had its late-summer-and-the-whole-crazy-fall surge. A friend offered to rent me a couple of rooms while I look for the ranch of my dreams. I put about 5/8 of my worldly goods into a storage unit, and now I watch the real estate boom and study on patience.

I'm not new to living in other people's spaces. I moved into shared student housing the winter I turned 62. That was 2015, a record winter for Bar Harbor, and none of my housemates took an interest in the fine art of moving snow from the driveway and front walk to the limited space that wasn't public right-of-way or part of a neighbor's yard.

Between that house and commencement, three years later, I moved 10 times, dormitory to apartment and back to dorm again. A summer month in 2015 found me dreaming in a berth snug to the hull of the Corwith Cramer, sharing the salon with 11 other student crews, whose nests also lined the ship's common dining and study space.

The following summer, I received a fellowship to work for a nonprofit in Portland and a friend asked me to house and cat sit.

Between terms and summer programs, I stayed with friends. Pared down to what I could keep in a room, on a shelf or two in the fridge or a kitchen cabinet, and in the back of my car, I learned housekeeping is a subjective reality.

Some people wash their cast iron with soap; some never let soap touch the pan. I knew someone who really did clean the skillets with sand and another who always left a skim coat of very good olive oil in the bottom, wiping it out before each use. Some people only use unbleached paper towels, some use clean rags, some appear never to have wiped any object in the kitchen for any reason.

Who am I, a housemate, tenant, sub-lettor, housesitter, or grateful guest, to question their worldviews? Ultimately, what makes shared living tolerable is decent communication, a lot of patience and a little kindness.

Before August, when I moved into my friend's two rooms, I was a household of one. Now, my social life is a COV-Venn diagram of multiple pods and bubbles, a constant exercise in risk assessment that depends on a common understanding of the comfort level each of us has regarding masks, hand washing and trips to the market during busy times of day.

There are people in this chart of interconnection I haven't seen in years and quite a few I may never meet, and we all acknowledge the take-out meals, extended relationships and random chance that push our contacts beyond the COV-Venn's known boundaries.

A couple of weeks ago, contractors took over one of my two rooms and I consolidated its contents into the one remaining. There wasn't any room for me at that point, so for the time being, I'm back with friends who put me up during vacations while I was in school.

I've got three drawers in a dresser and some space in the fridge. I've got a basic dry-goods pantry in my room, a small folding table for a desk and my twin mattress and feather bed. It's comfort enough for the short term.

I try to learn the ways of whatever place I find myself, but my social awkwardness shines in moments like this, a moody glow of stumbling interactions. I'd like to believe there's a rule book somewhere that explains the customs of those around me.

The reality is that we live in a world where people in one house celebrate Christmas Dec. 25, and the ones next door do everything Christmas Eve. One family gives daily gifts until Epiphany and another ignores the whole thing, perhaps because they're Jewish, maybe because they're Jehovah's Witnesses, and possibly because it's just too fraught with personal history.

The intimacy offered by our reduced social circles doesn't necessarily mean agreement within the group. There are no hard and fast rules of human behavior and interaction, in or outside of the COV-Venn, but the safety of my own solitary truth is a false comfort. Some day — perhaps many months from now — we'll all step outside of our overlapping circles, socially awkward and hungry for interaction.

From my COV-Venn to yours, I wish you a kinder, more patient New Year.

Shlomit Auciello is a writer, photographer, and human ecologist who has lived in Midcoast Maine since 1988. Letter From Away has appeared online and in print, on and off since 1992.

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