To a discerning Eye -
Much Sense - the starkest Madness -
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail -
Assent - and you are sane -
Demur - you’re straightway dangerous -
And handled with a Chain -
House of Charm is the ongoing portrait of Lee, a woman whose eccentricities conceal a beauty and intelligence that most people might not easily see.
I met Lee in 2003 when I moved in around the corner from her. At first, like others, I knew her as a shopping-cart pushing raider of recycling bins, a tatterdemailion with a foot-tall dreadlock of grey hair. Rain poured through the roof of her dilapidated house, a possum moved in to share the cat food. Hoarding was her lifestyle, and the floors were piled high with rotting relics of decades of her life.
Lee has no heat, no running water, and uses the bathroom at a nearby Safeway store. Every so often neighbors complain that her house is an eyesore and should be condemned before it lowers their property values. But mostly they ignore Lee and her "mess".
A social worker by training, I am fascinated by the cultural constructs of mental health. Who decides whether Lee (or any one of us) is crazy? And if she is, should she be forced from her home? Should someone diagnose her, put her on drugs?
These are questions I grapple with all the time. However, dire as her situation is, over the years that I have gotten to know Lee, what strikes me most about her is her happiness. Lee doesn’t complain. She speaks of being content, both with herself and with her life—an enviable state that eludes so many of us.
Without romanticizing Lee's situation, I can't help but wonder if her equanimity in the midst of astonishing squalor points to some secret the rest of us are missing.