Once upon a time, there was a girl named Kenan. She moved into this faded brick house that she absolutely adored. The inside was not perfect, but something about the way the sunlight reflected off the walls made her feel safe and at home. Kenan spent her first few years there making it feel more like home. She would paint pictures all over the walls and the furniture, bake yummy food to give the house a sweet smell, and blast the music so she could dance and sing around the house. Since most of her time was spent making her house feel like home, certain aspects would often get a little neglected. It was not always perfectly clean, the lawn would not get mowed regularly, and there were weeds in the flower bed. Kenan did not care though; she was happy and safe inside her home.
One of the problems Kenan faced in this home was her furnace. It would create a spark every time it turned on. Since she was usually inside her house, it was easy to quickly run down and put out the spark before it could catch anything else on fire. The furnace sat downstairs in the dark with no windows or a way for light. Kenan hated going down there so she would run down and put the spark out as fast as she could quickly return to the well lit, happy upstairs area of her home.
One day, a few years after Kenan had moved into her new home, she got a knock at the door. This knock came from a worried-looking next-door neighbor who asked if Kenan was okay and if there was anything she could do for her. Kenan replied that all was well and that she was very happy in her home. The woman replied, “I know this may sound harsh, but it is only for your benefit. Your house is looking a little rough compared to the other houses and I wanted to point it out to you so that you can take the proper steps the mayor has instructed us to do to keep it looking nice. I am only saying this because I know the only way for you to actually be happy is if your house looks like all the others. I know it must make you so embarrassed to be sticking out so much and I just want to help you not feel so embarrassed.” The woman quickly gave Kenan a hug and then skipped away back to her house.
This caused Kenan to take a closer look outside; it became very apparent to her that her house looked quite different than all the other houses. As she gazed at all the white, crisp, paneled housing in the neighborhood, she noticed her brick house look tired and worn-down. Kenan was so embarrassed; how had she never noticed how awful her house looked compared to everyone else's'? Not only did her house’s exterior look distraught, but the unkempt lawn and weeds made it look even more horrifying. As she began to focus on the outside, she realized that you could see through the windows at how dirty and messy it was on the inside. As she looked out at her neighbors walking by, she realized that they were looking at how starkly different her house was.
As Kenan became overwhelmed with how different her house was and what to do to fix it, she remembered the homeowner’s manual that had been given to all the neighbors. It was a manual that was written by the mayor of the town and delivered to her neighborhood by the spokespeople of the mayor. She looked in her mailbox and found pamphlet upon a pamphlet that was given to her by the spokespeople on what to do to improve the upkeep of her house. All the various items on her lists were things she would not have even thought were problems unless it had been pointed out to her. It was said that if you were a good enough person you could keep your house looking nice and like the others with no problem. All the answers seemed simple, almost too simple. For the first time in her life, Kenan thought, “What’s wrong with me?”
Eager to get her house fixed, she started obsessively studying the manual and pamphlets and applying what they said. In the back of Kenan’s mind, she knew something was off about the manual being said to be applicable to every single house in the entire town. The solutions were very vague and contradicting. One page would say to do one thing, but the next seemed to contradict it. The manual was written in the 1800s; Kenan knew houses were completely different at that time. One time, when a spokesperson was dropping the pamphlets off at her house, she brought up these concerns to them. They talked about how if she just has an open mind that it will make sense and work for her. It works for everyone. They also told her that if she had any questions she could fill out a message request to the mayor and he would answer her. He answers everyone and guides each person individually on what to do with their home.
After reading the manual, Kenan started painting the bricks on the outside of her house white. Once again, this seemed off, but it is what the manual, pamphlets, and spokespeople said she should do. She was told that if she just starts doing it and believes it will look like the other houses, it will.
She also was trying really hard to keep her house clean, keep up with the lawn, weeds, and the sparking furnace on top of painting the house to look like everyone else’s. She started staying up late to mow the lawn and pull weeds, which would leave her too exhausted to pick up her house, put the sparks out from the furnace, or to make her house feel like a home. Kenan decided that a good way to prevent other people from seeing the chaos going on inside of her house would just be to close the blinds so that no one could see. It was sad for Kenan to do this since one of her favorite parts of her house was the sun shining through the front window and reflecting off her walls, but she knew this was what she had to do to not draw negative attention to her house.
The sparks in the basement slowly started to turn to little flames before Kenan was able to get to them. The bigger they would get each time before she would put them out, the scarier it was for Kenan to venture down to the dark basement and fight the flames.
Up to this point, Kenan had been writing to the Mayor every day because that is what she was told to do to keep up with her house. She had never gotten any real responses, they were all automated responses along the lines of, “Your question is important, I will get back to you as soon as possible.” Kenan wondered if this had something to do with her. Even though no one had ever seen the mayor, it seemed like he had something against her. She heard the neighbors talk about wonderful responses and insight they would receive from the mayor each time they would ask him a question, and wondered what was different about her. When Kenan asked this, she was told that it was probably because she was being too needy and not grateful enough to the mayor. So Kenan tried not asking any questions and only saying positive things to the mayor. Still, she did not get an actual response. She was also told that her music, the music that made her so happy, was too loud and that she should try turning it down so that she did not miss a notification. Kenan turned the music down lower and lower until she eventually turned it off. She still was not hearing any notifications but decided it would be better to keep the sound off so that she knew she was doing all she could to try to hear back from the mayor. That way, if she did not hear a notification she would know it was not her fault but that there was not one to start with.
Kenan decided to just settle on believing the messages got there and that it was at least helpful to write out all her frustrations every night. Whenever anyone asked her experiences with the mayor, she would talk about how wonderful it is that she gets to talk to him every night, deep down knowing that she never really got anything from him. She kept hoping that maybe one day, he would see her efforts and make her feel like she belonged just like everyone else did.
As the years went on, the fire in her basement got more and more out of hand. She was starting to get exhausted from having to keep up her appearance on the inside and outside while fighting a fire at the same time. She poured through the manual for solutions on what to do, but since there were no furnaces in the 1800s she did not find any solutions. She continually tried begging the mayor to help her know what to do so that she could know how to get the fires to stop, but she still was getting no real response.
Kenan tried going out on a limb and asking a group of neighbors what they do when there is a fire in their house. They all scoffed and said that they just put it out and it is not that big of a deal. Kenan walked away feeling more shame than she already felt about being different, not realizing that the fires her neighbors were referencing was when their food occasionally caught on fire in their microwave and was very different than her issue.
Kenan tried spending most of her time outside, smiling, waving, and looking happy. She had completely stopped dancing, baking, listening to music, and painting in her house. The inside of her house had become a complete disaster and no longer felt safe or like a home. Kenan got scared to go back inside at night because she had to face the chaos she was trying to hide from everyone; including herself.
The fire in the basement had started to creep up the stairs and it had gotten to the point that Kenan had just accepted there was always a raging fire in the basement and she just had to put out the part on the stairs. She knew this was probably not good for the basement or the rest of the house, but she had no resources to put the fire out since she had been neglecting it to fix the outside of her house. Kenan tried dismissing the fire by saying, “Well, at least it is not dark down there anymore!”
One thing that was deemed very admirable in the neighborhood was traveling to different neighborhoods to teach people how to have houses that looked like theirs. It was what all the neighborhood people worked their houses up to so that they could be perfectly devoted to helping other people have nice homes and their houses would be fine while they were away. This was presented that if you travel to help other people with their houses that yours would look even better than it did when you left it. Once again, this did not make sense to Kenan. How could leaving her house while it was ablaze help it be better when she got back? But once again the fact that it worked for everyone else pushed her to try to take a chance on it.
Kenan left her house for 18 months to help people in a Taiwanese neighborhood build better homes. It was the first time she had been outside of her neighborhood and was amazed at all the beautiful and various houses that were in that neighborhood. She was told to teach everyone to paint their houses white, which was hard for Kenan to do because she loved the houses just the way they were. They were unique, special, and cultured. Kenan spent an entire 18 months slaving over painting all these houses white. She knew this was supposed to be making her happy, but it was actually the most miserable thing she had ever done. It would get to 100 degrees and 100 percent humidity, and she still would have to be outside painting houses. If there was a typhoon that knocked her off her ladder, she had to keep painting houses until she was told it was ok to go inside. She wanted to experience the culture and the houses the way they were, but she was not allowed to talk to anyone unless it had something to do with painting houses white.
All the other painters in the Taiwanese neighborhood talked about how much they loved painting houses and never wanted to leave and go back to their own homes. Kenan did not understand this, she hated painting houses and all she wanted was to be sitting in her living room on her favorite chair, listening to her favorite music, and singing along. She never shared this though and instead felt bad for wanting to be home when she was helping other homes look so much better than they did (even though she thought they were great to start with).
When the 18 months was over, Kenan could hardly wait to get back to her house. She ran inside and found it almost completely on fire. The outside still looked fine, but the inside only had one room at the top of the house that was not on fire. Kenan hung out in that room and was unable to leave due to fear of getting burned by the fire. It seemed ridiculous, she had been the one who walked into the room but now she was unable to leave it. Each day she could hear and feel the fire getting closer and closer. She started burning from the heat, she was constantly sweating, her skin was burning, and could hardly breathe, but for some reason, she would rather be in this situation than back painting houses. It was as if she did not belong painting houses, but she also did not belong in her house.
The biggest unwritten rule of the neighborhood was to never, under any circumstances, abandon your house. Kenan fought the flames for as long as she could while she was up in the top bedroom of her house but finally realized that she could be completely consumed by the fire or jump out the fire escape. Even once the flames started catching her clothes on fire, Kenan was hesitant to jump out the fire escape. Horror stories were told of what happened to people when they abandoned their houses and how it was worse than anything that could be going on inside of her house. At this point, Kenan realized, if I stay in my house I am going to die. Whether it be me dying from jumping into the flames to get it over with, or me waiting until I slowly suffocate, my life is ending in this room anyway. I might as well try jumping and see what happens.
When Kenan jumped, she had a hard fall. She stood there and watched as her house burnt to the ground, surprisingly relieved that she was not inside anymore. What used to be her most treasured sanctuary had become her prison. Kenan turned around and saw all her close neighbors standing there and watching her. It had been obvious they had been there the whole time, watching as her house burned to the ground. Judging her and saying it was her fault for not trying hard enough.
Kenan was outraged! Here she was, burned, out of breath, bruised, broken, and no one had done anything to help her. People had been knocking on her door asking if they could do anything to help and then turning away when they could not hear a response because it was drowned out by the flames.
It took a minute, but Kenan slowly picked herself up and started limping away. She did not know where she was going, but she was sure as hell she did not want to be near this house, the neighborhood, or any of her neighbors. As she started walking away, some whispered behind her back but once Kenan would turn around, they would smile and wave and say they hoped she was happy. Some people were more upfront and told her that she should not leave and would never find happiness if she did so. That she should stay in the house until the mayor says so. Kenan ignored all these people, but with every step she took, every whisper she heard, every pamphlet she was given, she got even more outraged. These were people who had always said they were there for her. That they would do anything for her. But where were they when she was literally on fire? Where were they when she needed someone to catch her as she jumped out of her burning house? Where were they when she laid on the ground until her body healed enough for her to start walking again? She realized it was all talk. That someone can say they are there for you as much as they want to, but if they cannot show up and help you leave a situation that is literally killing you, then they have no place with you.
As she walked out of the neighborhood, she noticed that not all of the houses had perfect white panels or lawns. That some of the other houses were painted over like her, with curtains drawn and flames shining through so you could barely see them unless you looked hard enough.
Kenan kept walking until she found a neighborhood with more colorful houses than white houses. She marveled in the beauty and uniqueness of the neighborhood and at how each person, although different, played a wonderful role in the neighborhood community. Instead of shame there was love, instead of fear there was laughter, and instead perfection there was brilliant chaos. Kenan was so surprised at how much she loved her life in this new neighborhood, in a house that brought the same joy it did when she had first moved into her other house. At the joy she felt from being able to have her lawn not be perfectly kept, weeds always pulled, and house spotless. She was able to keep her curtains open no matter what was going on in her home because she realized that those who cared did not matter to her. She was happy, truly happy. She was dancing again, singing again, painting again, and baking again. Ironically enough, Kenan realized the spark in the furnace was a glitch she was going to have to deal with in this new home. But rather than reading an outdated homeowner manual or sending a message to a non-existent mayor, Kenan looked to people who actually knew about furnaces. They came and fixed her furnace and taught Kenan a system to keep the sparks under control if they ever do come back. And they do, more frequently than she would like, but every time she is able to use the methods taught by the furnace specialists to put them out before the fire gets upstairs. Rather than getting burnt every time she fought the flames, she learned how to protect herself from the pain. She learned how to lighten up the basement so it did not seem so intimidating anymore so that she did not have to fear going to put the sparks out.
Sometimes Kenan wishes that she could have a normal furnace. She wishes she did not have to stay inside more than others and be more careful with what she does than others. But she has found hope in knowing she is not the only one with a dysfunctional furnace, and that it is not her fault. Sometimes furnaces don’t work, and that has nothing to do with who Kenan is as a person and does not take away from the beauty of her home.
As Kenan continued to be away from the white neighborhood, she learned more and more about how the spokespeople had been deceiving her and her neighbors all along. She found out that the head spokesman was the owner of the biggest white paint distributing factory, and with each person who had to repaint their house regularly he gained billions of trillions of dollars. When Kenan found this out and brought it up to her old neighbors, people got mad. They told her she did not understand and started to invalidate everything she said because she had abandoned her house and moved to a new neighborhood.
Kenan tried reaching out to those other people she could see were on fire but trying to hide it, but somehow it was twisted that Kenan was just trying to paint their house a different color. No matter how many times she tried explaining that she just wanted everyone to be able to paint their house whatever color they want, her words were not heard because she no longer lived in the prestigious white neighborhood who taught they were above everyone else.
When Kenan was confronted by her old neighbors, they would ask her why she left. She would tell them that because her house was on fire and burning her. People told her she was dramatic, that she could have done something differently, and that she took painting her house white too seriously (even though that was taught as the only way to have a successful home). Even though you could go look at her house remains and see that they were burnt to the ground, people were still telling Kenan that she was wrong. Handing her more pamphlets that she had read so many times that she had them memorized but had gotten no help from. Told to turn to the mayor that she had heard absolutely nothing from. Told to talk to the spokespeople who made her feel ashamed for having a “different” problem than everyone else. Kenan got frustrated because none of these people had a house that had ever been completely on fire. No one had ever had to choose between letting yourself burn to death or jumping out a window and breaking your body.
Eventually, it got too hard for Kenan to return to the neighborhood she grew up in. Every time she would see a white house she would fight tears, every time someone would bring up how wonderful their house looks she would hold back her rage and decided to keep her distance. She decided that she never has to go back to the place that almost caused her to be burned alive, from the inside out.