Soon after I read Already Home, I read Alexander McCall Smith’s The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Its heroine, Precious Ramotswe, and Barbara Gates have much in common. Both women learned to relish solving mysteries—noticing clues, taking risks, courting danger, using their intuition. Through their work, they both became more firmly rooted in their communities and more at peace with themselves.
Gates’s investigative work focused on the house she lives in and her neighborhood, Ocean View, in Berkeley, California. Once her curiosity was awakened, she spent countless hours researching deeds, death records and historical documents to find out who had built her Victorian house, who first lived in it, who their neighbors were. She wanted to know how these ancestors earned a living and what Ocean View looked like in their time. She walked through the streets and alleys of her neighborhood looking for old barns and factories, the remains of the first settlers. Then she went further back in time, finding the shellmounds left by the Ohlone Indians centuries before European settlers arrived.
Like searching for information about our blood ancestors, researching the history of our homes can deepen our sense of roots. Gates recalls the lack of roots she felt as a young woman and describes her migration to California from New York as “being on the run.” It didn’t come easily to her to settle in one place or to develop the attention to detail and the ability to take risks that fully inhabiting her house and neighborhood required of her.
Being diagnosed with breast cancer jolted Gates into widening her perspective. She writes: “I stretched my mind to find a more inclusive identity than my narrow mortal self. . . . What a relief it was to include trees and creeks, trains and streets in a sense of who or how I conceived myself to be.”
Gates’s research included the creeks in her neighborhood that had been paved over and the dawn redwood in her yard, whose ancestors thrived from about 100 million to 12 million years ago. Her explorations of the geology of the San Francisco Bay Area reached back into “deep time,” long before the appearance of human beings. I felt a sense of awe in reading these sections of her book, similar to the wonder I experience when I look at the starry sky.
A healer Gates consulted about her cancer advised her to take more risks in her actions and her thinking. She took his advice to heart and urged herself to venture into wild places in Tilden Park and scary alleys in her neighborhood. It wasn’t easy. Gates describes her struggles to stay open to what she saw and felt, especially what was unpleasant, with great honesty.
She brought the same courage and honesty into her relationships with neighbors. Some became friends. Others, particularly a homeless woman and her family, challenged Gates’s tendency to be self-absorbed.
I keep reflecting on the fence between our yard—what I defined as my home—and the one next door, on the fence in my thinking that allowed me to pretend that my actions didn’t affect whoever or whatever was on the other side. In its way, this was a kind of violence, the violence of not paying attention. When I didn’t pay attention, it was easy to slip into the view that the world of my yard was the only thing that counted.
Insights such as this one are woven into Gates’s stories of her encounters with family members, neighbors and local animals—a skunk, raccoons, a roof rat and her dog, Cleo. Gradually, Gates’s ability to see, hear and smell what is unpleasant increased. She became more accepting of herself and others. She learned something of great value in today’s conflict-ridden world.
Seeing the vast impermanence of time and space, insight can open. From this big view, there is no way to live in opposition to other things; there’s only the challenge to rest in what’s here—a continuous coming and going, arising and dissolving.
Thank you, Barbara Gates, for becoming an unflinching detective of what is hidden.