Updated: Jan 16
When I began my career in the insurance industry twenty-something years ago, the first license I acquired was for the sale of property and casualty insurance. As a newly-wed, new mom and proud tenant of a house someone else owned, my life experience as it related to a “dwelling” was limited, so the concepts related to how insurance companies define them presented quite the learning curve.
One of the first dwellings I insured when I became an agent was an historical home in Tularosa, New Mexico. The woman who owned it was a retired teacher. It had two-foot thick authentic adobe walls, built more than eight feet tall in places with short, horizontal “windows” that once served as a way to ”look out” into the basin to see what was coming. One wall in the main living room was copper-plated for heat retention and insulation, an amenity that was paramount to ambient flooring back in the 1800’s when the dwelling was built. It’s for sale, apparently, if you’re looking to live in an interesting home in the southwest...
New in the business and not yet accustomed to the Way of the Underwriter, I was dealing with the threatened cancellation of the homeowner’s policy and trying to help the client retain coverage. The insurance company maintained that there was no way to assess “replacement value” of the dwelling- the materials originally used to construct the property were no longer used nor readily available for purchase in the event of destruction or loss. The house boasted, at the time, zero central heating or cooling since the walls kept the heat out in the summer, and the copper wall helped retain heat from the fireplace in the winter. You’d think an insurance company would find that advantageous. And even though the flat roof, which was graded for drainage, had been built with massive support beams, the company had categorically been declining dwellings with “flat” roofs.
This was the first of many forays into the precarious territory of trying to use common sense to reason with insurance underwriters. In my mind, a home that‘s been standing in the less-than-hospitable environment of a southwestern desert basin for more than a century probably isn’t going anywhere. In fact, I reasoned, it was clearly built by people who were interested in fortifying it against attacks as well as weather, the client ought to get a discount for that, not a surcharge! This building had been one of the first sanctuaries for settlers in the area, one of the first places built in Billy-the-kid country where people could find safety and warmth. There had to be value in insuring something like that.
In the end, the company agreed to a stated-value loss coverage policy with a signed disclosure that the client understood any loss would have to be replaced with commonly accepted current construction materials and methods.
I’ve been thinking about the word “dwelling” a lot lately. It’s fascinating, really, that the noun “dwelling” refers to the walls around us, the space in which we live. But it’s a verb, too. And “to dwell” is not only indicative of being alive and living in a certain place, it’s also the word we use when we ruminate on a thought for a long period of time, or frequently.
It came up when my daughter started a conversation recently, wherein she described how she feels like a childhood friendship she held very dearly has ended, and she feels a lack of closure as well as uncertainty about why. As I tried to offer suggestions on how to obtain that closure, I remarked that she was dwelling on the past. I heard myself tell her that when I was young, I remember my dad pointing out how I would fixate on a worry or a problem and completely dwell on it. I also remember how it always seemed like he would say, “Don’t dwell on it!”, but that was frustrating and ineffective. I realized in that moment, that telling someone not to dwell on something is paramount to telling them to leave their home, and don’t come back.
To dwell is to live there. That thought, that problem, that nostalgia... they are the details of the space in which we reside. Modern psychology would have us all believe that between chemical imbalances and genetic predispositions, gaining control over our mental state has more to do with chemistry than construction. Maybe mental renovation would be a better way to describe healing our mental health issues.
I’ve been wanting to remodel my kitchen for a while now, and I want to add a balcony or deck to the wall in our master bedroom that faces east as the sun rises. When I talk about extensive remodeling, my husband suggests that maybe we should just go look for a new house. But that idea appalls me, and the last time he mentioned it, I told him this was my forever home. That I would live and die here and they could bury me in the back yard and I will haunt whomever lives here after that. He asked me why I was so attached to it- I have never in my life lived in a home that I couldn’t up and leave for someplace new without a second thought.
But this house... We dwell here. We have healed here. We have laughed and cried and screamed inside these walls. Every other “dwelling” we ever lived in... the house held us. We passed each other in the halls, we gave little thought to improvement and remodeling, we came and went in a place that is known as a home, but we didn’t dwell there.
As I thought about my advice to my daughter, I recognized that just telling her not to dwell on the loss of a friendship was futile and unhelpful. Instead, I think, we need to make “dwelling” synonymous with “sanctuary”. I told her, in the end of the conversation, that it’s okay for her to feel what she feels, and, instead of trying to fight it- remodel it. Think about the things she’s grateful for, the things she misses, and find ways to honor those things inside your mind. Too often we play the role of insurance underwriter regarding the things we dwell on- we can’t make sense of how to value some things; we can’t see how strong the walls are or how fortified the roof is, and we concentrate on the fact that we just don’t think we can rebuild something better. But we can. We can create a sanctuary in all the places we dwell.