Words in Five Places

Inspiration is absent. I go searching and this is what I find:

From “A List of Topics for Writing Practice”…

Write in different places—for example, in a laundromat, and pick up the rhythm of the washing machines. Write at bus stops, in cafes. Write what is going on around you.

 —Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

 I like this idea. I decide to pick five writing places.

***********

Wednesday.

  1. On the patio, 9:20 a.m.

The roses are gone; that’s the first thing I see. I had thought about cutting them yesterday, thought about sliding them into a slender bud vase and putting them on the bay windowsill to kiss the light that shines into the dining room: two perfect, tiny, pink roses from the valiant tea rose that surges every year in spite of my neglect.

I had thought about it, and then I forgot.

I think our deer friends ate them. Mark called me to the window early, early—mama and her two spindly-legged, spotted fawns were just rising from their rest under our big pine tree. They stretched and snuffled and took care of morning urges (SHEESH! said Mark), and then the babies hopped off in separate directions. Mama corrected that with a guttural click; they lined up behind her, but we could see that one fawn was going to be a handful. Mom led off; Baby 1 followed obediently. They stopped to graze.

But that other baby! Mom took a step forward and it scarpered, on its impossibly skinny legs, heading backward to check out a fascinating patch of something or other by the fence, then sneaking toward the house to peer more closely at Mark and me, peering at it through the kitchen window.

Kuck!!! grated Mama, warningly, and Baby 2 jumped back.

Yeah, yeah, Mama; I’m on board. I’m comin’.

A moment later, though, the curious little creature was tripping through a hole in the hedge, leaving Mama and Sib waiting in the street.

Kuck!!!

***

So, anyway: the roses are gone. The white petunias that I put in the pot on the Angry Little Chef’s head are chomped, too, but the hosta are blooming boldly. Maybe there are so many hosta I just don’t notice what the deer have eaten.

Little Chef.jpg

***

I am sitting at the little round table, on a cold black metal chair, relaxing into cool morning breezes. The sun shines, and birds chatter. On my walk this morning, I saw a funny thing. A lady cardinal and an English sparrow soared as if synchronized and landed on the same little branch. There was a tiny pause; then the cardinal stretched over and pocked the little sparrow sharply on the noggin. The sparrow shook its little head, gathered its jangled wits, and flew quickly away.

Bragging rights to the Woman Warrior, I guess.

But now the birds all sound placid and cheerful, lightly chittering, going about whatever their daily business entails.

***

Neighbors are busy too. Sandy comes out with the pup we call Tati, because she looks and sounds like the feisty little dog that pees on Russell Crowe’s leg in A Good Year. Sandy anchors Tati’s leash to the pretty little shed at the back of her yard.

Across the alley, Neighbor Bob checks out the lay of the morning. I see his white head over the fence, and I hunker down into my laptop.

I enjoy my neighbor’s company, but today, I have to write.

***

And now the back-door swings open and Jim steps out, raring to go. It is Wednesday: it’s our day for mall walking. I pause. The air conditioner, hidden behind the carport in the flower bed, clicks on. A bird trills a comment on that. I finish my typing, close up the laptop.

Time to go.

*****************

  1. At the Starbucks tucked into Kroger; 10:54 a.m.

Jim’s laptop butts up next to mine on a two-seater wooden table. We’re against the wall, up against a big Starbuckian mural. There’s a handle-less ceramic cup on the table; a bamboo plant, nestled in gravel, grows up out of it. The Carpenters sing over the intercom, sadly ironic:…so much of life ahead….

A retirement party’s taking place on the big tables. Kroger employees ebb and flow; when we lined up for our Starbucks drinks, we disrupted two revelers, who rushed over to take our orders. By the party tables, there’s a shiny silver barbecue grill sporting a big blue bow. There are Mylar balloons. On a rolling cart, a cake box from the bakery is almost closed; a pile of Hallmark cards tucks beneath it. A stack of patio chairs, neatly snicked into each other, sits in front of the cart, another big bow attached.

People in blue smocks wield plastic forks, eating cake from small paper plates. A young colleague, fair-haired and beaming, charges in to inspect the barbecue grill. He wears a button-down shirt and tie; he shakes hands all around and puts a hand on the shoulder of the retiree.

This retiree will be having backyard parties. It looks like his former colleagues hope to attend.

***

The store’s not thick with people on a Wednesday morning. But several people stop at Starbucks and grab a hot drink to take shopping with them. Is that a thing? I have not been aware.

I have become aware, though, of the plastic straw controversy. Starbucks is pledging to stop using any straws at all, by 2020, I think.

I was on a road trip, listening to NPR, when I first heard about the sea turtle who was found, washed up, with an awful, pulsing, facial infection. Rescuers took it to veterinary medicos; they sedated the poor beast and delved into the infection, which was deep-seated in one nostril. And found, embedded there, a plastic straw. It would have killed the hapless turtle had it not been removed. There’s a YouTube video of the surgery, I guess; it is not one I am brave enough to watch.

It’s not bad enough straws endanger animals and sea life; they pollute our beaches and landfills. I forget how many tons of plastic our discarded straws contribute to the earth’s trash problems. It’s enormous, and it’s a tiny metaphor for the changes we need to make.

At the end of that NPR road trip I went to a fun and funky college town coffee shop, and there at the counter was a bucket full of stainless steel straws. I bought three; I keep them in a cup on the windowsill by the sink, and I try to remember to take them when we are in danger of eating out.

And when I forget, I decline the plastic top and sip my drink right from the glass.

Such a little thing. What else can I do, I wonder, that barely inconveniences me and that will make a difference?

I am glad that Starbucks is phasing out its straws, although I wish it wouldn’t take two years.

***

Classic rock songs cycle. OSU T-shirts hang on a display; above them, glossy scarlet and gray go-mugs gleam, proudly stacked. Mid-July: not so long until football season starts again. The Incredibles smile from a kids’ T-shirt display.

The retirement partiers quietly disappear, taking the grill, cake, and chairs with them.  “500 Miles” begins to pour from the speakers.

“Ted and Marshall,” says Jim fondly, thinking of a scene from How I Met Your Mother.

It’s time to get our few groceries and head home to meet the Dad for lunch. Jim runs to grab a little cart, and I type my final sentence, swipe away dark-chocolate covered graham cracker crumbs, and pack up my laptop.

************

 3. Panera, 2:29 p.m.

I have lost my Panera card. The girl at the counter is wonderfully helpful, accessing my account, activating me a new card. We order pastries and drinks; we buy a cinnamon bagel for Mark’s breakfast tomorrow. Jim finds us a quiet corner.

Panera at 2:30 on a Wednesday afternoon has people, but there are many empty tables. Three women of a certain age bend their heads over a table across the way. Snippets of conversation float by. I try not to listen, but the impression is strong: they are teachers enjoying their summer break, and mourning, already, how quickly it evaporates.

A plump gray mother and her grown daughter, long, curly hair floating, walk by with steaming soup bowls cradled on plates. They look very serious, and they head for the farthest, most private, corner.

An older couple (older, of course, means my age, plus ten) stops, trays in hand; they swivel their heads. “THERE she is!” one says: the relief of completed connection. Their friend jumps up to meet them. She has brought a friend—a MUCH older (my age plus 25) woman. They all settle into a table and the talk, immediately, flows.

My decaf coffee steams; it’s fragrant and rich. Jim peels the paper from his blueberry muffin and sighs in anticipation. (Blueberries. One way to get a glimmer of organic foodstuff into the boyo who proudly proclaims himself a ‘veg-ist.’)

Jazzy Muzak pours from the speakers, and, like more background music, the voices of the workers rise and fall. There is laughter, often. I consider the helpful young woman at the counter and the laughing colleagues in the food prep area. It seems the workers like being here, which makes this a nice place to sit with a once-refilled mug and keyboard-tap away.

James sits kitty-corner, kicking it old school; he is writing with a mechanical pencil on a pad of lined paper. He is spending the summer reading the entire, if possible, Marvel Comics oeuvre; and he is planning original short stories he will write in response to his reading. His conversation, these days, is peppered with references to Thanos and the Avengers, to Ant Man and Ms. Marvel and Namor. His communications class, an online endeavor, keeps him busy; work claims many of his hours. His truly dedicated scholarship, though, takes place in the hours that remain after obligations are met. He is a true student of the Marvel Universes.

***

James was talking, as we walked in, about the graphic novels that 9/11 spawned—the writers and artists who chose that format to work out their grief and fear and anger, who sent tendrils out to the rest of us who were fumbling around, dazed and seeking meaningful, worthy ways to respond. He talked about a story featuring one man, working on the west coast, whose girlfriend worked in the Towers. THAT story had a sort of happy ending; they both survived, but they also had such deep and shocking loss to deal with.

Jim told me about it and left it to float in the air between us, floating an unspoken question with it. I tried to hear the question; I tried my best to answer.

We talked about the real-life salvations that day brokered—people who called in sick, or whose kids were sick and had to stay home, or who had meetings off-site, and so survived. Jim told me actor Mark Wahlberg meant to fly on one of the planes, and his plans changed at the very last minute.

I don’t think, I told Jim slowly, trying to put voice to beliefs I’m not sure are fully gelled, that there’s a God who sits in heaven sorting us: “You—dead. You–alive. YOU have things left to do. You—eh, the world can spare what you’ve got to give.”

No, no, no. I don’t believe it.

Violence, disease, pestilence, environmental disaster: there’s not a God who spins those into being, divinely retributing. But I think the Power lets what humans have wrought come to full fruition.

The tragedies and the losses burden our hearts and break, sometimes, our spirits. Reconciliation begins within. What can I, spared for now when one so much more talented, so much kinder and more compassionate, so much more WORTHY, has been taken–what can I do to validate the rest of my life?

It is a question, maybe, that I should try to answer every morning, before I put the coffee on, before I say my prayers or take my walk or put my pen to paper.

***

3:00. The café fills up. Lots of women of all ages; here and there an older man. Conversation hums and throbs; voices pitch and recede, giving advice, offering sympathetic concern, murmuring, murmuring…a backbeat of connection.

Across from me, James takes the eraser from his pencil, realigns the graphite, puts it all back together. He shakes the pencil; ear buds in, he frowns. But the pencil seems to work now, and his story topics grow. Now they fill almost a full page, a formidable list.

I believe he carries each of those stories, fully formed, in his mind.

I believe his challenge is to transmute those mind-stories into tales that live in the world, that simmer where others can taste them.

And the simmering makes me think of dinner: if we are to defrost chops and rub them, get them ready to grill, basted with Kansas City barbecue sauce—well, if that’s going to happen, we need to blow this popsicle stand. Jim carries his trash—no plastic straw, though; he no longer uses them either—to the bins. I down the last sip of my coffee, and we depart.

We carry Mark’s bagel, we carry somber awareness, we carry a sense of purpose, out to the car, and we head home.

**********

Thursday.

  1. At the John McIntire Library, 9:42 a.m.

The library buzzes. I find a table toward the back of the main space, by the first shelves of YA books, with the Reference desk, an open arc-ing area, to my right. There’s an octagon of computer terminals kitty-corner in front of me; a young man leans in, connecting with a computer. He grins and grimaces, hitches and hunches. Then he finds something that compels him. He leans forward, goes still. Just his fingers move, guiding the mouse. His head is locked, his eyes focused.

Several people sit at tables in the Periodicals area; an older gentleman, casual in T-shirt and jeans, spreads the Columbus paper in front of him. He bends his head, intent on the day’s news. People wander through the DVD’s, stopping and plucking, considering, rejecting, selecting. An older couple comes in, tired faces, leaning on each other. They disappear into the stacks.

A young man, coughing, steers himself toward the YA stacks, hovers before the books, then sits at the table behind mine. He has a backpack. He wears sandals and thick white socks, sweat pants, an orange T-shirt. He sports a baseball cap. He pulls out a tablet, settles in.

Two people browse the Large Print New Books. They curve themselves into commas, looking; they do a fancy little dance, sashay and slide past each other, making certain not to miss, either of them, books in the middle section.

The phone rings at Reference; the clerks at the front desk answer questions, sign up a family for library cards, retrieve reserved books.

A grim-faced woman leads a bespectacled, round-faced teenager into the YA stacks. They murmur. They are picking out a book for the teen, who does not seem thrilled to be forced into reading. The woman proposes tersely; the teen wards off her suggestions with soft parries. But I hope that they will find a magical book, a transporting book. I hope the teen will fall into that book like it’s a haven or a safety net; I hope the older woman’s face will relax.

Perhaps she’ll find a magical book of her own.

Voices rise and fall, technology cheeps and trills. Doors open and close, and people chirp surprised greetings. Staff members listen and consider, search and suggest.

A skinny child walks slowly through the children’s stacks, one frail index finger extended. She strokes the spines of book after book. She slides out the right book, hugs it to her chest, goes off to find her Person.

The computers, I see now, are all filled: a citizen, even more senior than I, sits at the one closest to me. She bends one long, thin arm on the shining desk surface; she leans her chin on her head. Tentatively, tentatively, she begins to click.

Someone told me once that libraries are living rooms for the community, especially for the homeless.  Lifelong universities, these wonderful institutions, offering access to technology, escape through story, connection through engaged staff, and community involvement through programs and reading challenges.

And distraction, for me. I sit, trying to type, and I hear the whispering voices of books unread. A woman with an oxygen mask, undeterred, strides by. As she passes a shelf, I spy an interesting book, and I realize this is not a place for me to write. The temptations are more insistent and more accessible than the hot chocolate chip cookies at Panera.

And I decide to pack up.

  1. The Zanesville Museum of Art. 10:38 a.m.

I thought I’d sit among the 73rd Ohio Annual Exhibition works, but they were too present, too compelling, too demanding. If the library books whispered, these works of art shout boisterously. I could not sit in their midst and pretend I didn’t hear. So I wandered the galleries, looking for a writing spot.

I light on a bench next to a railing, overlooking the first floor and the entrance to the Linn Auditorium. Light pours in through floor to ceiling windows, and the sculptures on display are ones I’ve visited before. They are restful and patient. They know I will be back to visit; they do not demand that I look at them RIGHT NOW.

I put my laptop on one end of the bench and lean over it, sitting side-saddle, feeling awkward. And then I think, Duh: laptop. Computer nestled on my lap, I spill my words onto the electronic screen.

Below me, a quiet bustle of people: this is a busy place, a humming place.

But where I sit, it’s also calm. Energy simmers in other rooms; there are displays and exhibits I really need to come back and see. But for now, for this writing challenge, on this comfortable bench, in this late morning environment…this is a place where I can let my fingers fly.

The pieces around me are modern and classical and ancient.  The works in the exhibit I just left push beyond those categories into something new and more.

A pretty woman, on a mission, comes smiling up the stairs. I meet Dan, ZMA’s Marketing Coordinator/Finance Administrator, and we talk for a moment about the Museum’s different spaces and the sense of welcome they engender.

I settle in; unseen climate control machines hum, and here and there, and once in a while, a voice murmurs.

I remember other art museum adventures.

I think of visiting the Chicago Museum of Modern Art, where, so engrossed in a work, wanting to see it up close and then, from further and further away, I backed up slowly—backed right into a bench and fell backwards into a group of art students. Who bent to peer at me, my feet on the bench, my head on the floor, flaming with embarrassment. I peered back up at them, thanking the wardrobe gods I had not chosen that day to wear a dress. (There is a reason my high school gym teacher called me Amazing Grace.)

I think of going to the OTHER Chicago art museum with my nephew Brian; we lost ourselves for hours in a Picasso exhibit.

I think of wandering the Columbus Museum on no-admissions Sundays, and people-watching—seeing families of all shades and accents, and elders and hipsters, and sketching students.

And I think of discovering this museum, with its astounding treasures, soon after moving to Zanesville.

Art museums are amazing places, drawing in a vibrant montage of lookers. They open windows to people; behind those windows, other possibilities pulse.

And on Thursday morning, this art museum is a thoughtful, compelling place to be.

There is a piece here that I have to visit; it draws me in no matter how many times I see it. It is William Saling’s (American, 1945-2004) Peg the Ideal Waitress, a Friends purchase in 1994. Peg is wooden. She is life-sized. She has plank saddle-shoe feet and miniature flour bag earrings. She carries two plates, one above her head and one in front of her. The plates are loaded with wooden burgers, fresh cut wooden fries.

Peg’s face is lined and weathered; her eyes are knowing, and her thick brows sweep sardonically. I can see she’s been slinging hash for a long time, Peg has. And yet there’s flair and verve in how she hefts that over-the-head platter.

Her chest is two drawers of a black-painted apron. Her boxy flowered dress is drawer-ed too.

Something about Peg, her knobby knees, her bold ordinariness, her spunky spirit, perks me up. There’s beauty, she reminds me, in everyday things, and in everyday people. Dan tells me she’s one of his favorite pieces, too.

So I visit Peg for a bit, and then I close my laptop and go down to see the new exhibit.

Peg

****

I am reading Old in Art School, by Nell Painter, a PhD professor, a lauded historian, who, in her mid-sixties, goes back to school to become an artist. Painter talks about what it’s like to begin again, in classes with people 46 years younger than she is. She talks about that heady life-changing adventure, and she talks about artists and how they dress and how they drink and the works, unleashed, that they produce.

And she writes about what’s considered, in a given age and time, to be ‘good’ art; about how figurative painting is frowned upon, and how representational and abstract work is lauded. She ponders that, and so do I, liking the crisp accessibility of what we call, at home, the ‘real-life’ paintings in the exhibit. But I am drawn, more and more, into paintings that blur textures and graphics and swirling movement into a surprisingly cohesive whole.

And here, in this exhibit, amazing paper structures suspend from the ceiling on gossamer threads, paintings tug me along the walls, three-D works and sculptures hum on pedestals. Each one is amazing; together they are an orchestra, a symphony of color and texture and soaring lines and bold statements.

The clock is goading me; I have an appointment, a place I have to be, but I know I will need to come back to this exhibit and just live in it awhile, and I’ll bring the family back to visit with these artworks, too.

*************

Routine is a wonderful thing; it frees me to forget surroundings and concentrate on tasks, and sometimes that is just what I need for writing.

But sometimes the same-old produces nothing but the same-old. Then I need to heed Natalie Goldberg’s advice and change it up. I need to sit outside and listen. I need to grab a coffee and watch. I need to be where books and art draw people to visit, to stretch and to savor, to rest and to be inspired. I need to appreciate the associations place dredges up, to pluck memories out of the murky depths and consider their meanings in the now.

And I need to appreciate the richness of place, the diversity of being, the treasure of community spaces.

I need to do all that, and then I need to stumble forward, trying to write it all down.

 

 

 

 

 

Looking for Some Home Truths

I’m thinking about ‘home’: what home is, what it’s for, what comprises it. Whether it’s a place or a kind of being.

Do we go there?

Do we bring it with us?

In a loosened, untethered world, it strikes me that a sense of home is essential. But I have to define it to be able to build it.

Right?

********************

The curtains are open. Beads of water slither down the window, a kind of slow-motion race: the one who gets to the bottom first wins!

There are lots of competing beads, but most are stuck, sullen, unmoving. Only a few keep sliding, keep searching for the sill.

The dog pants on the old brown lounge chair in the family room; the rainy, changing weather, maybe, has unsettled her. Or she is feeling the pain, or the confusion, of extreme old age. We know that she is at least 14 human years old; in dog years, the vet says, she is more like 98. And, because we are not sure how old she was when she came to us, she could easily be older—she could be, say, 104.

She wakes us almost every night now, panting and sighing and pacing. She comes to draw us downstairs, to confess: she has piddled on the carpet in the family room again. In all the many years the fastidious little dog’s been with us, this has happened, maybe, twice, and only when she’d been left alone for far too long a stretch. Now it occurs more than once a week.

About a month ago, I took her to the vet; he examined her kindly, probed gently, and found nothing specific. Just old age and its probable aches and pains and growing haziness. He changed a prescription, hoping something stronger for her arthritis might help her settle down.

“Take her home,” said the vet, “and see if this helps.”

But things are growing worse. She is home, but home doesn’t seem to be a place of refuge and healing and comfort any more.

******************

Concoctions simmer on the stove. The sauce pot holds big chunks of beef and pork; they bob gently in a brew made of herbs and tomatoes, red wine and chicken broth. Onions and carrots and celery soften, weaving in their flavors. This will simmer for the whole afternoon, until the meat is almost fork tender, until it can be taken from the rich juices and sliced thin and returned to soak up even more of the robust tastes. This, for me, is a new recipe; this is called Italian pot roast.

The little pot has smaller, bite-sized bits of beef and pork simmering in a broth-based sauce. This is for Jim, who doesn’t do veggies.

In an hour or so, I will fill the battered old pasta pot with water, add a dash of olive oil and a good shake of salt, and I will put it on to heat. Mark and Jim will come back from a weekend trip to Westerville, where they browsed through the library and hit the Half Price Books store: a bookish adventure for a rainy April afternoon. They will bring a loaf of crusty bread home with them. We will cook up some noodles, lay them down, hot and buttered and glossy, as a base, and scoop up the rich meat sauces to cover them. We will eat a hearty meal on a bleak and rainy day.

Home is a place for succor and nourishment, a place to share the tales of the day, to offer up treasures found, and to join around a common table.

**********************

I wasn’t home for most of the week just past; I was training, in Columbus, to certify to teach a Mental Health First Aid class. Ha, I thought, when I was planning. I can get so much DONE in a hotel room, by myself, every quiet night for four nights. I packed my laptop, so I could grade essays. I copied off a thick grant application packet to review. And I put six books into a canvas bag, imagining a comfy bed; picturing me, snuggling under a white duvet so soft it floats, a lamp burning: the uninterrupted chance to read.

Of course, reality happened. The training was textured and intense and, some days, exhausting. We took, first, the course we were training to teach. And then we trained to teach it, each of us assigned a thirty-minute segment to address. We would present and receive feedback from our peers. We would meet, one-on-one, with a facilitator and talk about, as one of our teachers said, things that glowed and room to grow. We would listen to our classmates carefully, kindly, offering up the strengths we saw, and sharing some opportunities to enhance.

There was an open-book test to complete in the after-hours, a thinking-discovery trek that made us find material in every nook of the participant’s manual.

So the days were jammed with learning, with discussion, with new ideas to tumble around and consider; at 5:00 each day, we felt a little drained. My colleague Becky and I walked back to the hotel, debriefing. Most nights we met for salad and planning. On Wednesday, Mark and Jim drove in, and we went for a family dinner at a softly polished, wood-gleaming, Irish pub.

I never turned the TV on. I pushed myself to grade at least two essays a night, but my mind went slogging through a molasses swamp. The grading didn’t come easy. Afterward, I crawled into bed with a book and fell instantly asleep.

I opted for the green clean solution at the hotel—I didn’t have the cleaning staff in, and each morning, someone slid a $5.00 coupon toward my dinner salad under my door.  I smoothed out my own bed, hung my towels neatly to dry, stopped at the desk each afternoon and picked up my daily two pods of Starbucks decaf for the little coffee maker. I arranged my lotions and potions on the bathroom countertop, and no one moved them to clean around. It was nice to know my room was private, unvisited while I was out and about; it was nice to come back—to come home?—to things left as I had put them.

The room was a solitary refuge, a place to rest and think and recharge for the time when the day would begin again.

It was, for five blurry, action-filled days, a sort of home—a home base, at least, a place where I had all the things (if not all the people) that I needed for my everyday life to work.

**************************

Yes: I have been thinking about home lately,–about how to define it and how to create it and how much of it is physical. Home seems to me a much-needed thing in our jangling, disjointed age. It occurs to me that everyone needs a sense of home, a place where we can safely become the persons that we know ourselves to be.

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” Robert Frost wrote in “The Death of the Hired Man,” (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Death_of_the_Hired_Man) and I’ve heard that quoted time and again. But I don’t like that definition—that sense of grudging admission, of unwilling support. “You left,” it seems to say, that quote; “you left, and now you’re back and there’s nothing we can do but open the door and tell you to enter. But we’re not happy. Not happy at all.”

There’s a sense there that home is someplace created by others, tailored to others’ definitions and dreams. No wonder, if that’s true, that the wanderer had to leave.

I’m thinking that home is a destination, a long quest, a place that we practice making all our lives. “What do I need to be happy?” we ask ourselves, and the answer may well be something light and frivolous and fun when we are, say, 22.

And that is not a bad thing. So our homes may be built, in our twenties, around space to entertain, around expensive methods of piping music into every room, even when the chairs don’t match and there’s just a worn, too-small carpet to protect the aging wooden floors. Maybe there is romance, too—candles in the bedroom, wine in the cupboard, two special goblets, a set of satin sheets. Splurges in days when grocery shopping requires careful thought, when sometimes the rent and the utilities battle to see which will be the winner, which ones will be paid.

We don’t think, then, that the homes we create will be places where we absorb hard lessons—where we disappoint ourselves, where we reel from the betrayal of trusted others, where we huddle, terribly alone, where the tears that fall bring bitter revelations. Home, we realize, is not always a place we are happy, but it should always feel safe. We take our hard-earned wisdom; we weave it in and grow.

And often our homes have to open up, to house others besides ourselves, so our vision becomes a shared one. How does this partner see home? What do these children need? Where, in fact, should the dog dish reside, or the kitty litter pan hide? How can I share this space and still honor my need for home?

The quest, I think, stretches and defines us, teaches nurture of others, and demands, finally, nurture of self.

Because we need to know ourselves to make ourselves a home, to realize what we can and cannot live without, what makes us secure, what rituals are essential and which practices can go. We find that out, over and over, deeper and deeper, as we grow more firmly toward ourselves.

And a big, big house with lots of room may be the goal at one point, and then, we discover that, at this sudden point of awareness, a smaller space is perfect.

We no longer crave a sprawling sectional; two chairs, broken in and ripe for reading, are what our space needs now. Home may once have been a launch pad, a place from which we started adventures. It may now have become the constant spot, the thinking place, a place so essential that leaving is an unexciting anomaly.

Home could be both those places, all at once.

Home may become a place where sad things happen, where illness unfolds, where companions leave us, where we learn those secrets we hoped never to have to know.

And yet home needs to be a place where joy’s potential always simmers.

**************

We carry our sense of self and home within us; our goal is to actuate and refine those visions. But we need real, physical space, too; we need warmth and cover and freedom from chaos; we need the knowledge that there is food and a sleeping spot and clean clothes enough for tomorrow. We need a place to staunch our actual, physical needs.

And then we need a place to keep our treasures—the books of photographs we page through on soft-snowing winter nights, remembering. The packet of letters tied with a ribbon; reading them always makes us cry. The framed photos of dearly missed loved ones. The care-worn teddy bear that once was a constant companion. The only chair that feels just right. The stack of books that needs to be there, always, for the thumbing.

We live in a land of empty, staring buildings; we live in a land where, SocialSolutions.com tells me, there were 564,708 people living without homes in 2016. Can one, I wonder, have a sense of self without a consistent sense of home? And is that what the tearing diseases do—certain kinds of mental illness, the diseases of addiction? Do they rip us away from a sense of a safe and permanent home?

Some people, I think, have safe and wonderful spaces and yet they are physically adrift; some people have minimal living quarters, and yet they are vibrantly at home.

*****************

What, exactly, IS home? I think I need to figure that out. I think I need to learn more, to understand it better. And I think, in a troubled and uncertain time, in a culture where violence roars through the most innocent of places, that feeling the sense and the structure of a home is something no one can be without for long.

An Unexpected Week

So Mark’s car was back, shiny and pristine, and drenched, inside, with that patented new car scent. We took it on a road trip on Sunday, and then, of course, he drove it to work on Monday.  It rode, as they say, real good.

That night we grabbed a quick dinner, and then Mark took off for a 7:00 meeting. James and I settled in to watch some episodes of ER; I left my phone, muted, on the dining room table. Jim left his upstairs.

I pulled my knitting out of its bag and settled in to see if Carter and Susan were really going to make this relationship work, and if Mark and Elizabeth’s baby would be okay, and how they were going to handle the whole thing with Rachel. We weren’t even halfway through the episode when the back door swung open and Mark stomped in.

“Don’t you people EVER answer your phones?” he barked. Turned out he’d blown a tire about a quarter mile from the house and had spent the last half hour waiting, pulled off to the side of a snowy, busy street, for Triple A to come pull off the flat and put on the doughnut.

I grabbed my phone to find no fewer than 12 texts and voice mails…11 of them from Mark.

Sorry, Bubba, I said. This was unexpected.

************

In the quiet pause of Tuesday morning, after Mark had gone off to take his car  to the tire place and get a new tire put on, I made my to-do list. I had a writing project to finish, and some planning to do for the last weeks of a lit class I’m teaching on-line. I wanted to do a little research for a grant possibility, and the kitchen floor was bugging me…the dragging in of salty snow had left cloudy tracks all over. So I needed to get that mopped, and then I wanted to finish spackling the dining room walls.

A good day’s list, I thought, and I finished my nutty nuggets, did the required morning word puzzle, washed up the dishes, and headed to the computer. And then my phone buzzed.

It was Mark.

“I’m going to have to leave the car here,” he said, a trifle grimly. “Can you pick me up?”

I scuffed into my duckies and threw on my jacket and drove to the tire store. Mark climbed in, scowling. Not ONE tire, but two, and they needed to be aligned. And the tie rod was broken. The bill was going to be a wee bit more than anticipated. We shared a moment of stunned silence.

Geez, we agreed. Didn’t see that coming.

**********

So I dropped Mark off at work, and we agreed he’d call when the tire place let him know the car was ready. He thought it might be 10:30 or so. I went back to the computer with the phone at hand; at 11:00 I still hadn’t heard, and finally, about 11:45, I called to see if he wanted to come home for lunch, regardless.  Jim thought he’d go for a ride to get his dad, just to get out of the house, so we took the Hyundai downtown. Mark was waiting outside his office.

“The car’s ready,” he said. “They just called.”

We took him back to the dealership and headed home to heat up some beef stew for lunch.

After lunch, Mark headed off for work and Jim reminded me that our library books were due, so we headed back out. We returned books and DVD’s and browsed a bit, and then we headed back home. As we were getting out of the car, Jim said, gesturing at the back seat, “Hey; is that your phone?”

“What?” I said. “No. My phone’s in the phone place in my purse.”

Just then Jim got a message, sent from his dad’s IPad. “Did I happen to leave my phone home?” he texted.

“Why, yes,” Jim replied. “Yes you did.”

“Do you think you guys could bring it to me?” Mark asked.

By the time we got back from that trip downtown, it was 2:30. My classwork, at least, was done, and I figured I’d jump in and get some spackling done before I started dinner. When 5:30 rolled around and Mark was pulling into the driveway, I only had two things checked off my to-do list.

This is NOT how I pictured this day rolling out, I thought. But at least we’ll have an adventure tomorrow. Mark was taking Wednesday off; we were going to the city to a gallery that has a quilt exhibit. To my surprise, it was something both Mark and Jim were interested in seeing, and so we planned a road trip, complete with a gallery browse, lunch, and maybe even a stop at the Apple store to get new batteries in our phones.

********************

I woke in the middle of the night to a tap-tap-tapping on the windows. Freezing, sleety rain was falling in sheets. The world was glazed. When we woke up, the neighborhood looked like it was glass-coated, and it was clear we weren’t going anywhere that day.

So we made a big breakfast and I did mop the floor and that afternoon we lit a fire in the fireplace and brought clean fluffy throws up from the dryer and wrapped up in cozy chairs and read.

It was not the way Mark pictured his vacation day shaping up, but it turned out to be a nice day, nonetheless.

**********************

And then little things kept coming up. I mixed up the crust to make apple pie bars but found the apples had turned beyond redemption. I froze the crust and made trifle for dessert instead.

I went to print the papers I needed for a meeting, and suddenly my printer had developed dire problems; I had to shut it off and run out to get my printing done.

The book I’d reserved turned out to be an audio CD. The program I had been watching sporadically disappeared from the Netflix line up. Unexpected glitches seemed to pop up at every turn.

The unpredictability simmered, brewing. I was feeling a little persecuted, frankly.

**********

And on Friday night I went to a gathering of people—people who have loved ones with mental illness. And one man told the story of his son, who’d been a bright boy, a shining boy, a boy with friends and skills and hopes and glorious, golden promise. And all that wonderful promise came crashing down when the boy went to college, when the voices started taunting him, when the world outside became too much for the boy to bear alone.

That was almost twenty years ago. The boy left college, came home, and stayed in his room, and the family writhed and changed. They went from shock to disbelief to action, to helping that once-glowing boy find the help he needed. Years passed without much progress, and then slowly, slowly, in tiny, terribly painstaking stages, things began to happen.

The boy learned to drive again. A new medication started to have a profoundly good effect. He decided to work with a job counselor, and he took a part-time job at a print shop. It wasn’t all clear sailing; there were a lot of adjustments, but he worked it out.

Then he met a young woman who knew what he’d been going through; she’d been on a similar journey. They circled each other warily for months, and finally decided to give dating a try. Slowly, cautiously, they built a steady relationship, not rushing, just putting out tentative feelers, seeing how this would go. And it turned out to be pretty good.

And just this year, the father said, the boy—now a 37-year old man—had accepted a full-time job at the print shop. For the first time, he had benefits. For the first time since his college life crashed around him, he was earning his own way.

The father leaned back in his chair and there was a deep and profound silence. Hands were still and eyes glistened.

And then the father continued.

“Sometimes things don’t work out the way we expect them to,” he said. “Things happen that you don’t ever see coming, and you just have to deal with that. And it’s not the way you expected things to work out.

“But,” he said, and his voice crackled, “they do work out. You have to hang in there. You might not get what you expected, but what you get can be pretty damned good.”

*********

A flat tire.

A lost phone.

A dirty floor.

An ice storm in the night.

A man who thought his life was going to look one way, but whose life, because of mental illness, and because he persevered, and because people cared and helped him, looked very different indeed.

A chance to gain perspective on a week that, though unexpected, wasn’t really a bad week at all.