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Not a Box/ Not a Lot

If you were around kids in the early aughts, you probably ran across the book, Not a Box. In it, a line-drawn bunny approaches an empty box, declares it “not a box!” and envisions it as something else…. a rocket ship, a pirate galleon, an ace jet. In the world of online ordering, it’s a sweet update of Harold and his purple crayon. Early in 2020 we gathered with our fellow cohousing dreamers in a parking lot on the East side. It was one of those chilly, blustery, clear sky days we get in Houston so we all hunched into our coats and hoped the tour would be quick. Some of the lots had buildings on them already so it was a little easier to see how things might lay out. The ones that were flat with weeds and broken concrete required a little imagination. I remember peering through a chain link fence at a swath of yellowed vegetation with my daughter when she turned to me and said “this would be perfect for the Common House!” It was her not-a-box moment as the mundane sparked a dream in her imagination. The corner she spied was perfectly equal in distance from all other. Neighbors would have to walk past each other to pick up deliveries or take out recycling. Her imagination filled the space with these people huddled along the chain link fence. These were the people who had shown up to dream with us. They saw the village as well. The weather warmed and our worlds turned upside down, but our little cohousing community settled on a location and launched into deciding where the buildings should go. Our local architect sent us boxes of tiny wooden blocks and a rolled-up plan of the property. We could move buildings around, stack them, or leave them out entirely. It was delightful to build a whole neighborhood on my dining room table. The Common House could go here and the bikes could park there and I could almost see tiny people traipsing toward dinner, swinging a bike helmet in one hand and waving with the other. Like the bunny in the book, the blocks burst to life when I thought about the life we were building. Summer gave way to fall, playing with blocks became drawing lines on a computer screen. How large a yoga room? How many bikes fit in a garage? Does an X there mean a shower in the bathroom or a hot water heater? We learned to read the pictures and imbue them with our hopes for a better world soon. We gamely discussed whether we need room for 30 or 60 seated in the Common House dining room at a time when my family hadn’t shared a meal with anyone in months. My girls looked at the pool plan and dreamed of in-person birthday parties. One of our favorite outings became driving by the site and eyeing the patch of air that will one day hold our fourth-floor home. At its most literal, our project is a bunch of papers, some computer drawings, a box of blocks, and a flat lot with a bunch of weeds and one determined cactus. Like the bunny’s insistence that his cardboard box is “not a box,” I look at the dimensions of the screening porch and want to grab my book and settle in a comfy chair under its shade. My kids see the wall around the pool as a canvas for art work. My partner sees the sink in the Common House as a place for the wort chiller when he brews beer. And then we let ourselves really dream. That’s when the spaces go from how we’d use them to what kinds of friendship will grow. I’ll get to navigate teen parenting with another mom who sees my kids every day. I’ll get to have friends who are older than me and younger. I’ll learn from them and share the ups and downs of life. I’ll have someone who is braver than I am to go try that borderline sketchy taco place. It’s not a box, it’s a neighborhood of possibilities.

In case you'd like a moment of sweet story time, here's Not A Box...

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