Wednesday’s Nonfiction: An Intersection of Lives

The thing about moving house and home is that past, present and future vie for attention and, mostly, all at once. About the time it’s perceived as inevitable–papers signed, money given, changes of address completed, boxes being filled–the magnetic center of your life is yanking you back to the current abode and security. Then the past nabs you as you shuffle and muse over odds and ends. And presto! -you’re afloat in “what once was,” even dreaming of surprising segments. Then you try to imagine again the new square footage–the very shapes of rooms and placement of windows, even slant and foliage of the land– and how to grossly simply it all. And how to like it, come what may.

At least for me, all this is becoming apparent as I plot and plan with Marc. We are determined to be rational adults during the entire process; we have nearly failed a couple of times already. It has been 25 years here. It is what we know–and enjoy. It is the familiarity which tops the list, I suspect, though vast neighborhood gardens, logical grid of streets and rambunctious style of the city life–these all count so much. Yet circumstances plus a big chunk of family devotion have brought us to this moment. Our current small, well situated building will be sold sooner than later. And one daughter is having twins soon while another is having major surgery. Reasons enough to– having scouted the new domain–compare movers’ estimates.

We have fantasized about moving (once or twice nearly taken action) for…well, at least ten-fifteen years. That is a lot of looking along with balancing pros and cons. There always presented some reason the timing wasn’t right. The kids joked that we’d always talk of it but never vacate. 

This time, after months of intensive searching, one of the first places seen has become the one we’ll transform into a den in the wilderness. Sort of. I mean, it sits on a high ridge. The view is fir trees and a bit of valley. Welcome to the southwest frontier, as our son-in-law jokingly said. Not a joke, exactly, as my daily walk will preclude an easy, carefree romp. It will require a trudge to get onto hilly trails–even fetching mail, for that matter, will be a chance to exercise. I have this glowing picture in my mind, though: I am smiling, I am breathing in fresh piney air, arms pumping to generate momentum and blood flow so my brain is oxygenated and thrilled and then thigh muscles sneakily yell at me and lungs tighten– but I am happy, yes! I am moving with grace and enthusiasm as sweat makes a beeline down back and chest and my heart is kicking at my ribs. Yes, made it up another 75 feet! Good for me and all.

Speaking of which, the new place is at 500 feet which contrasts with the current sea level…from the valley to hilltops. It is weirdly–with all the nature about– a more suburban community. But we can still drive to Portland’s downtown in perhaps fifteen minutes if we luck out with traffic.

Truth is, this is one reason we chose the new place: a rich beauty of quietness, trees, views. And it is much closer to the daughters we will see often. The one blossoming with twins I will be with daily a long while as new mothering starts to fit her like a beloved, comfy garment. I am hoping my grandmotherly skills are still up to par–our youngest grandchild is now 13– but some things are embraced in faith, with best intentions grounded in love. We’ll learn by doing, all of  us.

For Marc, a drive to work or the airport will lengthen. We don’t speak of that much yet. It is what it is. He was the first to feel more strongly that the place should be our new one. He is worn out by an insomnia worsened by the cacophony of passersby, sirens, homeless rooting for bottles and cans in bins, bar visitors making known their delights and miseries as they careen down the street at 2 a.m. (Yes, it is a “good neighborhood” but it is the real city.) Whereas, I lay there contemplating what stories can come of all that, and watch the night sky that is wondrous even with its city-lit sheen. This is some of what we are leaving. And I concurred with Marc. We have lived in countryside a few times over the decades; this is out of city proper and offers another scene.

And though it has plenty of space for us (plus family meals, friends visits), it’s strangely lacking decent storage, so I must not be self-indulgent as I start sorting. We can rent storage–it seems so many do that these days–but why hang onto what is outmoded, unnecessary?

Back at my tasks, then, I find the past comprises a whole lot as I toss out ancient  reading or sunglasses; a hundred sweet birthday cards that just cannot be kept; many articles I should have read, then recycled already; silly scribblings of once-younger grandkids; a bunch of decades-old prom and recital pictures of our five; even yellowing report cards. I like to keep pictures torn from magazines and other colorful paper items… for collages that are sometimes made. My small drawings and paintings- keep or shred? How many pens and paper clips do we need? Old bill receipts? The piles grow. My massive wooden desk is like a magic object: the more I pull out, the more paper/office supplies/miscellaneous expand. And the past beckons me so that dreamy pauses become as frequent as decisive action.

When did I-we-live all this life, gather such stuff?  Know all these people (friends, family’s multi-generations, co-workers, acquaintances, also husbands)? I know I took things in hand but the events sure took me in hand, too. I stand up and utter: Gaaack!

How did the kids just…become themselves? Oh, well, it happened despite our interference and attentiveness. Was the child in the bold red gown, Cait grinning from the stairwell, minutely aware she was to be a chaplain helping the aged? How about my tiny preemie, so quiet her hands spoke for her as she built things, patiently created fresh realities… Naomi became a sculptor and an advocate for many. Aimee full of dancing passion and a spirit of justice, still a deep heart whose persistence is mighty. Alex, the one percolating twins, started out life with a rare disorder,  is courageous and ambitious, full of quirky energy. Joshua, the firebrand? A born athlete who thinks outside the box, has survived near-death more than once. Of course, these flawed but loving adult children–though not all nearby–are with me always. It is not the stuff they left for me to muse over and organize but their very existence that takes up much room within me. And I am not crowded by that.

The last time a big move was completed it was from a two-story four bedroom house. We dragged all with us, found places to keep it, hide it, lose it. (Will I locate those other socks? a lost earring? that poem?) Now, much will be let go. Material things can be weighty, a superfluous anchor for spirit and mind when both desire freedom. I am hoping someone else will utilize many books, clothes, tools, unloved furniture, those mugs that don’t excite me.

Loves, losses, hardships, revelations and such mundane moments, too –it all comes forth as I riffle through my old writings (and those family members wrote and shared), sort scads of old photos, eloquent letters and quick notes from my strong, thoughtful mother and tender sisters. Examining my father’s signature stamp for his correspondence and instrument invoices, I wonder why on earth I still have that useless thing. How do I rid myself of special Valentine’s Day cards that Annie, my artist sister-in-law, has created for years? Or the sheaf of postcards that Naomi and I sent back and forth, each inscribed with a sentence, poem, dream–a story that we made together with replies? The music mixes Alex made for us, some on which she was joyfully singing. The collection of bells that my mother started and gave me. My cello, asleep in its case.

It gets harder the more I stop to consider it all. Only things, I tell myself, let the life that was lived just be at it’s ease.

And please may my family not have to plow through an abundance of unnecessary stuff when I am gone for good.

Ordinarily, I do not linger in the past–despite the fact that many of my narrative nonfiction pieces revisit the past somehow. It is material for writing within a set time frame; I delve into whatever waits to take its place on a blank screen. My daily life is greatly consumed with the moment, the present needs and experiences–as is true for most, I suspect. And as I get older, I don’t think more of the past, contrary to what an over-60 stereotype indicates. There is far much to yet discover and immerse myself in; such an abundance of moments to celebrate–and work out and share. I think rather little of the future, as well–just enough so I can plan for certain events. But not so much that I become riveted or stalled by what good or ill may or may not occur. It is worth little to me to try determining a life that has created its own wild, then improved trajectory. My decisions matter, yes, but only in part. The rest is up for grabs.

So this is the thing: like a confluence of divergent tributaries, all simply merges. It is powerful, this life making its way and taking me into and along with it. In the midst of more significant change, where past and present and future intersect, I continue to find a new balance as best I can and join the lively movement forward. It is tedious and exhilarating and maddening. But I’m up for it, an hour at a time. Thank goodness I can write about such domestic adventuring. I’ll keep you posted on interesting starts and stops along the trip. And show you my perspective of the terrain I come to know. Here is to uncharted territory and trying to live this life well!

A Weekend’s Quick Pick: Finding Home

This is a woman on an unassuming balcony that has served her well for 23 years. It overlooks a peach-colored house and the glittering, rambunctious city. And the balcony will be missed and it will miss her, perhaps. They have kept each other company this long: part of a lifetime.

This is the place she has gathered family and friends, let stories step forward to speak, danced barefoot in a blue skirt to music resonant in belly and brain, risen in the softening wash of dawn, sung to herself. Lain face upwards, hands open, staring at nothing after heart disease got her early and was told she might have a few years more. Which did not undo her, even weighted with fears. Got busy, a kind of salvation for much of human living. Sought to cheer others, another act of mercy for the woman who offered, not only a few others.

She gathered stars as they breathed in the cave of the dark; when did they not see all and give their all, wasn’t it their destiny? Could she aspire to any less in the end? And so she faced matters as they came hand, gave hope more space. Let God keep her, whole or not.

This is where she has lathered and spun two thousand socks and kitchen towels, saved ruby red petals that fell from geraniums in the wake of streaming rain. Where the books have lived clandestine lives and language admitted her to its domain with beckoning phrase and whisper, where her own language circuits rattled her teeth with odd feats and loosened dreaming..and night welcomed her, made garlands around the moon and her shoulders.

 

This is a place the years have been plumped and embroidered with many hearts, children or grown ones,  such hands opened and hands filled with spillage of love and barren with loss, an agitation of wants and needs, a palette of feeling and music that has risen from sky and the dense, sweetening earth.

The ache of being exposed to more love coupled with its miracle and the pleasure of more willingness: she was no longer a victim of anything. Two feet to stand on, two knees to kneel. This was what the place gave her: opportunity to transform, renew.

This was a place that was supposed to be just a change station, a slow, muscular crossing from one aspect of life to  another, a temporary platform for ideas and goals to be challenged and completed. And then left behind on the serpentine trail.

But it was not.

It was a steady embrace, a safe abode for time shared–even time given away. A galaxy of small things that startled, the relentless unknowns surrounding what seemed often a small, leaky boat carrying such few tools alongside the rowing woman.

And a larger tale wrote itself from humility’s gentling hurt, then from stillness amid rushes of hope. A revelation, this wide spot in the powerful river upon whose banks she built a life in a long slow reveal. Ordinary weeping, laughing, watching and waiting, simplest doings; surprises of living make their marks, a deepening identity. She stirs and rises to greet more.

And more change so soon. Why resist when acquiescence, adjustment, reconstruction all underlay the physics of living things? Of women and men?

A new home will fit itself about her, a daily insistence of tasks, and faith and patience will illumine. She will reconfigure doubts, smooth out contention, just breathe. Place fresh geraniums and old on a new, bigger balcony. Where can this woman live that some unexpected folly or a plan of victory do not happen? What human cannot make a found patch into a home? Even the beetles, even the moss. The eagles and Arctic foxes. Even those all alone in their wandering do it. The brave young, the tempered old. It is managed each day by greater or smaller so she can do it; it will be completed again.

Every one sooner or later leaves for something or someone else, or migrates due to wanderlust or seeks out of desire. Rebuilds to survive. No being is static, even if they believe it so. Step, pause, leap, slide, turn, hang on, reach, thrive. Create.

Yes, another wayside, a still unknown beginning, but there are these that entice: giant fir trees atop a bluff, wind like a call and response, sleekness of coyotes slipping undercover. More liveliness aroused–two whole new beings from a daughter’s unstoppable faith and petite belly. The work and the play of it arriving with anticipation, unbridled energy. Goodness abounds. The woman will gather bird songs and new slant of light, sigh inside darkness and bring babies’ coos close. Open up that heart, something tells her, let it match more rhythms with this living.

The place will slowly become a home, another way to the center of things. Is not the way of the earth and those who dwell here for this short human span?

That woman: myself. Readying for more. Preparing to learn and adapt, allow these happenings as my soul hesitates and rises. I want to stoke a good fire and create another circle for the hearing and telling of this and that. There is forever another story. May I live it as a willing conduit.

I must remember: Love is the path that makes a way in the wilderness; I am another pilgrim who seeks, is sought; finds, is found. The home I best inhabit is the one I carry within and also beyond. 

 

Changing the Scenery

““““““““““““““Christmas wk-end- AT&David-PittockMansion., etc 016

I am, at last, considering the tentative possibility of moving and it brings on quaking deep inside. Is this normal, a frantic shove against a most reasonable idea? Is it a healthy response, the refusal to blithely embrace change that will likely soon barrel down the stony hillocks of my life?

I feel stubborn as a young girl, digging my heels in figuratively and literally, daring anyone to insist I just get on with it. Only as a younger person I would have surveyed the current abode, placed hands on hips, and said, “Good, I could do with a fresh infusion of places and people. Let’s get packing.”  I was used to moving often to support my husband’s career in manufacturing. The children were used to starting over. We all pitched in, curious (and perhaps a bit anxious) about the next stop. We have been a lot of interesting, even captivating, places.

But now I cast my eye around the rooms in which Marc and I reside and ask as I have for fifteen years: “Where do I find a place this affordable, in such an attractive neighborhood, close to amenities and our delightful city center? A place I am happy to make a home once more?”

It has been a long time and many tales in this second floor, 1100 sq. ft. apartment with two generous bedrooms, great light, a spacious dining plus large living room. Twenty years, in fact. It shocks me to admit that I have lasted here so unexpectedly long.

I was in my early forties when my youngest daughter, Alexandra; my son, Joshua; and I moved to an older, spacious two-story house in our newly adopted city. It had a renovated basement, a deep back yard and a bonus sun porch I used for writing. But in two years we had to move. It was one of my sister’s investments and with her usual foresight (the neighborhood was being gentrified), she decided to sell. I have to admit two robberies at the corner store and ensuing gun battles in the alley behind us made the location much less attractive. My son was on his own by then. Alexandra hoarsely called out to me in the dark and I slipped off my bed, slithered on my belly down the hallway as more shots rang out. I grabbed her from her bed by long windows, terrified bullets would find us. We lay on the floor clutching each other. We had moved from a Detroit suburb; this was not the least expected. It was clear it was time to move on.

I was also divorcing and just getting by as a counselor in a residential treatment center for youth. I felt passionate about my new calling of providing services to gang-affected, abused and addicted teens. But my bank account was hurting. After a fast search, this place came to the fore. We loved it at the first glance. The neighborhood, historic, dominated by mature trees and flowering gardens, was perfect. The apartment had a balcony on which to sit and sip coffee or tea, read books, chat. I had thought it could suit us three or four years until she went to college, my last of five sent on her way. By then I imagined I’d be in better financial shape and she’d get scholarships and back I’d go to a small single family dwelling.

Except it didn’t turn out that way. My daughter did indeed get to college but then her father moved here from the Midwest. We resumed where we had left off six years prior. I thought: a good time to move!

It would have made sense, of course. But Marc liked it here, too; I had made it a comfortable home and on we stayed. Planned to move in a couple of years. Planned to buy something. He had taken a salary cut to join me in the Northwest so we both worked harder than ever to improve our circumstances. Yet as he climbed the corporate ladder again and I found better positions our housing seemed more irrelevant. Why change what you already like, overall? It was the first ever apartment we’d shared and we appreciated the benefits. We didn’t miss the cost of maintenance issues, the attention required of a place of our own. We could come and go, felt freer. Still, I longed for another house. I’d walk down our graceful streets and though I knew we wouldn’t ever dwell in those million dollar homes, my own memories of broad porches and back yards to play badminton and have BBQ gatherings came forth. And there was much more privacy. Still, it was okay. I had had those things and this was what we had now. The years rolled on. I wondered if and when and what next, felt restless, looked for new habitats online and in our area. Then I tucked away my longings, kept living and working, content for longer periods.

Then, about the time we had a good down payment for a house or condo, I became critically ill with heart disease. The real estate agent bluntly suggested I reconsider where the money was best used–as I might not ever work again. I had never considered that. What if she was right? I knew my prognosis wasn’t so good. Couldn’t I have a house even for a little while again? But my long-held hope and a nurtured dream was receding fast. Soon it was banished. I would make do. I enjoyed our ordinary but spacious, well-situated apartment enough that I had chosen to not move even when we might have. I didn’t need to buy a house at fifty-one, either. We’d put more in retirement, continue to take interesting vacations, help out family as needed. But in under three years I did return to work and only recently retired from my profession as a counselor. Did we ever re-think buying a home? Yes, but we had become habituated to compact spaces and a less complicated lifestyle.

Being adaptable is a talent shared with all other humans. Resilience and acceptance have often saved me. I learned to find contentment in a place not ever intended to be home for twenty years. Because it had felt so temporary in the beginning, the idea got stuck, as if I was certainly going to move on. We didn’t invest in more preferred furnishings, didn’t give much thought to its character except for comfort, changing color schemes and art and photos. A couple of attractive vases filled with flowers can do wonders. Plants on the balcony make it more inviting. I guess we most decorate with groupings of our books… and all is enlivened with music, our own and others’.  I don’t require substantial or impressive. If taken by something unique but expensive I will first wait for a sale –or prowl a secondhand store. Or forget about it.

The truth is, I can adjust to a variety of living conditions, and have posted before about it. I have managed in a renovated chicken coop and lived without heat in winter. And lived on several pretty acres in the country, enjoying a new four brick bedroom home with full views of land and deer grazing upon it, a wood fire burning in the living room each night. As much as I appreciate architecture and the aesthetics of design my everyday life is knitted together by relationships, my spiritual practices and faith, creative engagement and being outdoors. I can write anywhere, after all. And my current corner is just fine.

I started with the proclamation that I am now considering moving. We are, in fact, planning on it without knowing just when or where but the urgency factor has emerged. I have resumed seeking information online and scrutinizing rental ads and keeping track of potential vacancies in the neighborhood. Portland has become a magnet for the young and better-heeled, the techies who have fast track careers. Or an older population who bring from other states more money than I can imagine. It is a dynamic city, a place for innovators and risk takers, where new businesses crop up often and even thrive. Where living closer to city center means closer to so much good action, the thrilling energy of fresh ideas and intoxicating possibilities of more money. The Pacific Northwest is a fabulously livable place, ticks off all the boxes for most. Many of those amenities are why I moved to Portland long ago.

Before it was so crowded. Before it cost so much.

I have watched our city change over the last five years so much that some neighborhoods are barely recognizable. Many renovations are eye-catching and smart, creating vibrant districts where maybe there seemed less appealing configurations. Many people have been pushed out, too–especially those of color and those who toil long but garner less than a decent wage or those who have retired on far less than they had hoped. Whereas in most large American cities people seek the suburbs, Portland has pulled more people closer-in. Our urban boundaries and zoning laws are such that expansion must reach upward, not outward. That means more demolition, regardless of historic or intrinsic value of keeping the old. You can make a lot more money by housing fifty people in a small high rise than a family of five in one rambling house–if you are a real estate developer.

We have been watching and waiting for the owner of our very small apartment building to sell. They know as do we that this place is a steal, that they could ask much more rent if they just spruced it up. But the better option is to sell and either demolish the building or gut it and make them into upscale condos. It has been an odd thing living within the perimeter of one of the most expensive districts. The surrounding area is begging for development and greater density and it has begun. It’s the perfect set up for our five-plex to be soon purchased, perhaps six townhouses, each worth $500,00, taking its place. That’s right–it is getting that costly to live here. This is a city where an apartment of 500 square feet can rent for $2,000 or more a month. Micro homes, they are called.

I don’t have the heart to wait for that day of reckoning. I have known my landlord and his mother, now in her nineties, for the duration of middle age and beyond. I care about them but I know they care most about their investments. I have heard allusions to offers already made them, to the desire to sell sooner than later. I don’t hold it against them. Like my own sister, they have their particular needs; I have mine. But at this point being forced to leave our home would be a terrible ending to a lovely couple of decades.

So I have to get over this, deny an impulse to hide my head in the sand and hope my spouse and I will be lucky enough to stay another year or two. I  spend an hour or two a day searching for new habitats. So far none holds my attention more than a few seconds, though we have driven by a few places. Retirement communities are not yet an option when Marc is still working and I am not interested in being around those only over sixty-two. I want to hear kids playing, see a diversity of people walking their dogs. I am beginning to look across the mighty Columbia River, at Washing ton, where it might stay cheaper awhile. We could still visit Portland without much driving. Except for the mad, burgeoning traffic.

Somewhere there has to be a place for us. There always has been. We have made a life in exciting or trying circumstances, in both prosperous and lean times. Simplifying our lives more wouldn’t hurt a bit. I know that to even possess the choice, to consider yet another home are luxuries in many places in the world, including right here in my city. But all that said, there is a sadness loosening beneath the common sense that marches on in my thinking. It is never easy to let go of what is known, what has been a comfort.

As I become older I know that what is worthwhile often requires a true willingness to welcome ideas  or directions not previously considered. To weather the ensuing discomfort of transition. To be open to the possibility of the most unexpected things–it might be what changes all in the best ways. I have always been pulled to a goodly adventure. So I am readying myself for one more place where I can take meandering walks with camera in hand, to arrange fresh bouquets and listen to a cello concerto or a jazz trio as I sketch or read. To find a decent spot to write more stories. I am building up the steam needed to move on. Bidding farewell to the pleasing past while the new present is becoming inhabited takes time, but I will be taking along the same person I have always been, as well as my husband. Maybe we’ll be even better suited to what’s ahead.

Let new tales commence.

Moving On/What We Leave Behind

Home is where

As an habituated writer, on any given day I sit down to the computer–or pull out a notebook if I am on the go–and start writing without much brainstorming. Words are conduits through which clues for tales arrive to stimulate forward movement. If the story is fiction, my mind becomes a space akin to an open doorway. I see someone traverse a room or street, their hair or feet, perhaps settling back into a bus seat or panting on a steep mountain trail. Crying on the edge of a bed. Eating ice cream as storm clouds gather. They are always up to something even if silent.

Nonfiction can seem more elusive. Patience is needed to seek a topic that grabs me, even though I could choose any topic and write until I am bored of it. Ideas are everywhere to note. And I can research things as needed. I love to learn while writing, not matter the genre. Writing is an act of gathering points of reference and insight, of defining personality and place, giving the story’s innate depth and breadth more air and light. It records life as it unfolds.

But this is a day that resists my laboring and inquisitive nature. I have other matters on my mind, events and people with no useful place in a narrative now. I pull out and stare at a list of writing prompts received at a workshop. I’m not big on verbal prompts although I do use visual ones. Yet I am stuck on this list, perhaps due to its simplicity. Or so I think. On second and third look, each one unearths deeper things. Which is the intent. I seem to gravitate to this:

Write about what got left behind.

Possibilities draw me in: people, places, creatures or objects. And what comes forward is all the houses I have lived in, all the rooms and yards and neighbors and pets. The five children raised there.

Starting at age twenty, I resided in thirteen homes in sixteen years, followed by one house for seven years, then three more places after that. That is a plethora of experiences, with something left behind at each stop, I am certain.

It was related to marrying, unmarrying, marrying again and where the work took us. Employment tends to dictate habitat. My first husband completed a Master’s degree in sculpture and ultimately had a construction business. Sometimes that industry required moving to more booming areas. My current husband worked his way up the corporate ladder, which meant he was transferred by companies or he accepted better positions. Inevitably it meant moving closer to the next job. (My career began in my mid-thirties. Luckily, I always lived near my place of employment.)

So: what got left behind?

The question reverberates as I review homes. There was a college abode that required patience and humility: a combination renovated chicken coop-shed painted a dull yellow, minute square footage currently qualifying it as a trendy “tiny house”. The roof slanted so we had to stoop to move from kitchenette to couch to sleeping area. A couple more early marriage/student housing locales were rented. After college and two children we found a townhouse with wonderful woods and playground. Then a Texas apartment with a pool of aquamarine water where we cooled and relaxed daily though we went broke. Next up: a solitary Michigan ranch house surrounded by fields and deer. The business eventually improved, but our marriage had come apart.There was a transition period during divorce where I, with two children, found a renovated two-story carriage house on an old estate while I took more college coursework.

Second marriage and three more children: a two-story blue house with a wide front porch on a quiet street. Then to a modern glass and cedar house on rolling country acreage with central wood stove and a red barn the kids took over; we also had a field mice infestations in the lovely place. We moved to a ranch-style house with lilacs that enclosed the yard, a fireplace that crackled with cheerful flames all winter. The split level house by a small nature preserve called Dinosaur Hill was next. And there was a perfect-sized Tennessee A-frame house that reminded us of northern Michigan. It offered an acre for a garden and a pond that attracted cotton mouth snakes, worth avoiding. Then came a house that once had a hair salon in the basement lined with mirrors. Our daughters practiced jazz and ballet dancing there. And at last a house with green shingles and a hilly back yard for sledding where we managed to live for seven years. After a Northwest move, there was a spacious, airy home, a favorite place with French doors to the living room and a sunroom that became my very own writing room.

Perhaps it was not the usual way to live for one who was middle class, moderately upwardly mobile. I had lived in the same comfortable childhood bungalow for eighteen years. But I wanted to a different way of liviung, to escape the strictures of the home town. Have adventures! I was drawn to the impermanence of a somewhat nomadic existence, the spontaneity of it with curious contrasts of life lived on the fly. There was a challenge to finding new jobs, houses, neighborhoods and companions. I didn’t often feel regret as we packed up to move again. Our children seldom complained or not for long though it wasn’t easy to change schools that often. We discovered the plastic nature of resilience,  how we could readjust ourselves with every new demand. For example, when we couldn’t locate a suitable house after one move we resided in a state park lodge and then cabins for two and a half months. And enjoyed much about those times. (This is shared in another post.)

Our five children are close in age. I think they would have suffered more (if they suffered, at all) if they had not had one another to play with, rely on, fuss at and care for. We stuck together as a team, from playing games to homestyle musical concerts and plays, to art events and museums and quick week-end gababouts. They found friends as did I. I enjoyed meeting people, navigating new territory so made my way. It was never boring and gave rise to more creative activity: more stories, poems, drawings, music. Education galore for the children.

But, in the end, what got left behind?

1. Friends, first of all. Each new place brought the opportunity to find at least one or two folks who could become a good friend. Monika, Steven, Jerri Jo. Betty Jo and John. Carol. Kurt and Madonna. Kenneth and Jane. Noreen, Judy. Deborah, Nikki. The list grows as the years come forward and faces pass before mind’s eye. When you move from one city to another, one state to another, those friends become harder to hang onto. If I let myself feel this procession of  friends come and gone, I can admit to having known homesickness–not for much for a place but for certain, once-close friends. The pain could go deep and remain long. Sometimes phone calls and letters–before computers were common–made my yearning worse. One learns to love and let go. Move on.

I especially remember Jane, the receptionist at the lodge who became my treasured friend in an insular town where I felt like an alien for a time. I was slow to understand her rich Southern accent, often asked her to repeat herself as if she was speaking a peculiar language. It took me a few seconds to even decipher her name at first: Jaaahhhien. Jane had lived a rough and tumble life but her graciousness was generous, her heart wide open. She found the best in others. Our settling in was aided by her food and laughter and tips about how to understand our locale and its inhabitants. Jane shared the area’s history, educated us in differences between harmless and dangerous snakes and insects, told me where to shop and what dentist to try, how to cope with incipient racism and a pervasive anti-northern sentiment. In time, we gabbed as if we were meant to be sisters. Saying good-bye was arduous. I can still feel her hug, see her standing with hand waving above a wobbly smile. I wanted to load her up with my family. In the following year we lost track of each other. We were given to each other as friends for only a short season.

2. Dogs. One died from parvo virus, two were given to others for safekeeping, to love. There was Max, a mixture of various big dogs; Twiggy, a miniature grey hound; Buddy, a Brittany springer spaniel. They all should have been country dogs. Two of the three were. The last was shipped out to the country when we moved. I really liked Buddy but hope to never again try to raise much less catch a springer spaniel. Our big family likely felt like a crazy zoo to his nature. He would lie in wait for the door to open even an inch. He zig-zagged like mad across streets and parks, engaged in a serious hunt that only he could discern. He liked us, yes, but he loved his freedom far more. I empathized at times.

But it is a vignette about a neighbor’s dog that sticks with me. When we locked the door to one of our favorite houses–one purchased–the very last time, a muscular, unkempt but handsome German Shepherd bounded over to us. Tag had often visited, chasing around the kids, given to barking at us along with anything else that moved or made sound. He watched us plant vegetables in neat long rows and weed the garden that ultimately failed–partly due to his digging habits. He was powerful and friendly, sometimes stalked bugs and snakes with us on humid summer evenings. I wouldn’t say we were so close to him that we thought he was counted as also ours yet we appreciated one another a great deal. For one thing, his presence meant we didn’t have to get another family dog during our two-year stay. I admired Tag. And I love dogs that stand high enough for my hand to graze their fine backs and heads as they trot beside me.

On moving day we had said our goodbyes, cleaned up after ourselves and were ready to try to beat the moving van back to Michigan. The house was hard to abandon to someone new but time to move on. Then my eye was caught by Tag’s race across the open land separating our two houses. He skidded to a stop, jumped up on us, licked each of us enthusiastically, big paws on our chests. And my husband and I, well, we wept as we hugged him.

3. Back yards. I miss them more now, as we reside in an apartment (large enough, comfortable for us) with only a balcony. I daydream about them, remember them with the glowy sensation of someone in love.

There have been all sorts of yards, some far better than others. How can I not recall the three yards that were really fields, where wild creatures came and went, along with shy deer and foxes and scores of birds, bold raccoons and quiet opossums. Rasping cicadas and tree frogs and bull frogs making their good racket. One rural house was across the road from a small river. I took the children daily, learning about wildflowers and plants each spring and summer, tromping through snow in winter, pulling two little ones on sleds. I chopped wood at three country houses for wood stoves that provided excellent heat. Clothes on clothes lines snapped in the breeze, smelled of far away winds. Sunsets and sunrises engulfed the sky. Those yards felt more like a giant campground.

But another comes to mind now. It belonged to a home that we perhaps liked structurally the least. A two-story bungalow, worn at the edges, it was crowded with seven people though it had four bedrooms. We stayed there the longest as four of our kids entered and exited adolescence. The village, as it was known, was one square mile in size, located between a couple of Detroit suburbs. Our tree-lined street meandered towards another community known for residents and businesses with exclusive attitudes and tastes.

But our own back yard was quite good enough for barbeques right near the door that led up to three stairs into a too-small kitchen. Tulips and irises popped up along the lawn. My husband planted another vegetable garden. There were large maple trees providing shade and beauty. The uneven yard sloped gently to a back alley that the kids loved to use as a short cut to everywhere. A jungle gym on flatter ground served them well–they practiced daredevil acrobatics and swung too high. Neighborhood kids careened in and out, biking down the hill, my son building and sharing daily his skateboard ramps. There were more outdoor games, sledding, building snowmen, raking and jumping in vast leaf piles. It had a sweeping view of neighbors and vibrant clusters of treetops. It fully worked for us; it matched our easy style of living. I counted my blessings as well as worried and wept over life’s woundings in that back yard.

4. Ourselves.

At least, I would like to believe we left something decent and true of ourselves in every place. Each child’s distinctive personality and deeds had some effect on others, just as their classmates’ and buddies’ did. Who they were in essence is reflected in who they are presently; strengths and talents they developed at each juncture have held. And they still keep in touch with special childhood friends, now adults with complicated lives like theirs.

As for me, I shed my youth and many illusions. A compact person, I lost more weight as I burned energy as if on fire. That winding road provided some treacherous turns and suspenseful times alongside excitement of discovery and spontaneous joy, those serendipitous meetings and little dawnings of broader wisdom. I suffered from mistakes and healed with love and faith. I gained gravity, a coveted element for a poet-seeker at heart.

I learned about myself in ways may never have been realized had I remained in my childhood town. Every time we started anew I was called upon to stretch myself, often beyond reasonable expectations, but what needed to get done was done. How does one find a new home–often rental–for seven when the main breadwinner has gone ahead to the new job or is too overworked, himself, to participate much? Research and phone calls. Repeat. Visits to places and presenting my best self. Repeat. It was a sales job. Talk quickly with friendly confidence: no, my kids don’t destroy things (not often); no, no pets will join us if we can’t have one; yes, I manage the household, husband is an engineer (or whatever the title became) who often travels. Too much to relay and examine and make deals about, perhaps, but that home had to be won and signed for in time.

Speed often mattered those days; so did thoroughness. It was critical I knew how best organize our children as well as material possessions, how to coordinate timelines and rapidly changing priorities. I, an introvert who likes people yet a creative sort who’d rather dream and write or sing in a quiet corner (when I could find one) than chat up strangers at a tedious business dinner, just adapted. Once everything arrived at the new house, it was another list of “To Dos”: school info, medical resources, parks and playgrounds, afterschool classes, introductions with neighbors, find the fastest route to the grocery and other marketplaces. And as for the slow unpacking: does anyone know where the cheese grater and toilet paper went? And who stole my sweater and jeans this week?

I know I gave care to my friends. Enough? Much time and thought to my work with people whose needs required patience, insight, compassion, problem solving. If I left anything with them, I pray it was gentle acceptance and hope, a desire to live deeper, more happily. When I had to leave my job overseeing services for homebound disabled and elderly clients, their phantom lives followed me. I dreamed of them, missed their talk, wondered from afar if someone kind was listening to them so they were fully heard, reading aloud their letters. Giving them a gentle pat on the hand and minding their meals and medicines well.

I used up my youth, I suppose. And hooray, as what is it for but to be lived inside and out? I didn’t notice it slipping away amid all that love and chaos. Growth happened when I wasn’t paying attention. Sleeplessness and surprise when I was fully alert. By the time I was forty-two, four of my children were out of high school. Those of us left moved to the Pacific Northwest and there were more changes than ever before. Middle age became a well-earned haven, mentally and spiritually. Life has become calmer, clarified, streamlined, sparked with new meanings. It’s been twenty-two years here and I can barely believe this: I have lived in one home for nineteen years. I may not leave, at least for a time. If I do, I hope I go once more without a backward glance, eyes wide open, shoulders back, head high. Something good will come of it, I just know it.

What did I finally leave behind, then? A lifetime inhabited with my intense committment, for good or not. But that’s all. I carry what I want here, in my heart. New moments and memories are being made as I type these last words.

 

(Note: This writing prompt is taken from Jessica P. Morrell’s “Brave on the Page Writing Prompts”.)

My Labor Day Dalliance

While I was power walking during Labor Day week-end I got a quick call about a sort of inside job. I readjusted my route and headed west. Soon I stood before rows of high hedges. Wiping the sweat from my neck and brow, I boldly strode up a flower-lined walkway and entered a large, attractive neighborhood house built in 1841 for the sole purpose of ogling its contents.

Lest you imagine I harbor hidden criminal tendencies, let me assure you it was legitimate; there was an estate sale being held. My sister was the caller and when I arrived she was already scoping out the best goods. It was the last day, which meant everything under one hundred dollars was fifty percent off. In other words, a possible bonanza awaited her, and maybe myself.

Since my older sister is one of my best friends and has an enduring interest in estate sales, I have gone to a couple dozen of these over the past years. She buys things she considers investment-worthy. My sibling is a small-scale entrepreneur, someone who invests wisely, has bought and sold a lot of goods including real estate–unlike myself.  She also just buys for the odd reason. Given her experience and decent results, I like to observe what she deems worth her cash and why. And estate sales are interesting to me, a recreational experience. I have a fascination with houses: their architectural details, nooks and crannies, decorative touches and interior design, yards and gardens. Most of all, with the stories that resonate within the rooms. Objects can speak volumes about people. Perhaps even more, the ones they leave behind.

Most estate sales seem to take place after the homeowner has died. In this case, the owners had sold their home and moved, leaving behind what they didn’t value. I gathered it was a way to make a little more money. It was certainly tidier than leaving furniture, mirrors, baby equipment or a box of odds and ends at the curb. Most people, of course, donate items to charitable organizations or give things to friends and family.

I’ve moved enough to know how all this goes. From age twenty through forty-five, I moved about fifteen times. I’m not completely clear about that number because it’s possible I may have forgotten –or blocked out– a couple short ones. I became well-versed in sorting, tossing and packing. My children might argue otherwise. I’ve been in the same place for eighteen years and there are a fair number of items stored I barely remember. When I last moved, I cleaned out things deemed irrelevant, and left a good-sized two-story, three bedroom house for a much smaller apartment. You can never take everything with you. Nonetheless, I stuffed two desks, for example, trying to do so. I can’t get some of the drawers open. In my defense, I’m a writer. I still am attached to paper (and peculiar items like old glasses and rubber bands which I’ve written about in other posts).

But this place was a different scene altogether. It was an imposing structure, a toney historical residence. The majority of fine objects had been purchased. In the expansive, bright living room, I spotted a flawless white leather loveseat for five hundred, as well as a creased, worn brown leather couch for seven hundred. Three bookcases were displayed side-by-side, each about ninety dollars.  I paused. I own many books which have a habit of stacking up in various spots. But the more bookcases, the more volumes would have to be bought to fill them. A conundrum. I waited on those.

In the red-walled dining room–how can one concentrate on appreciating food flavors when color blares at you?– there were landscape paintings and photos that were ignored by shoppers. For good reason. A couple better dining chairs remained, two of which seemed like possible buys until I examined them better. I am unfortunately not a “DIY” person; I like what can be used immediately.

In the cramped kitchen (the house was built in the nineteenth century, after all, I reminded my sister)  there was dinner and glass ware, the lovely and simply useable. Silver and china serving bowls, scratched platters and worn cooking tools sat side by side like aristocrats and the help, all waiting to be wanted. A small countertop model microwave, for some reason, was marked “Not for Sale.” Three graceful Lladro porcelain figurines were wedged in between random glasses. They always seem to have a spot at these sales.

Once in the shadowy, comfortable study I had to back out: there were too many books. Most of them were common airplane reads, not my usual choice, but also lining the built-in bookcase were a few mysteries and therapeutic manuals, travel books, special edition National Geographic tomes, political biographies. I winced and lowered my eyes. I just didn’t need to add to my own book collection that day.

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I confronted a door not to be opened and wondered if it was a bathroom, pantry or just a closet. It was a very old house; it seemed a few things had been altered over time, more than I’d see.

The basement was smaller than expected, two rooms with sad carpet. A door with a sign stating “Do Not Enter” led to the other half. Is there anything that makes you want to enter a room more than such a sign? There might have been extraordinary things in there, or something better left unknown. In any case, I saw a lot more bedding than I had in years. There were nicely folded mattress pads (I passed), many sets of king and queen-sized sheets of various colors and conditions, extra pillow cases and shams, towels and bedspreads and comforters jumbled on the floor. Along one side of a wall languished twenty decorative pillows. I kept picking them up and studying them at arm’s length until my sister got impatient. She had chosen a few sets of sheets, a favorite find for her to give to a daughter or those in need. I admit I felt a sudden lust for pillows. They are an item I often am drawn to but seldom buy. These, as well as most of the bedding, were in bold colors, which informed me further of the previous owners’ aesthetic sense: fuchsia, reds, some purples and blues. A group of outdoor pillows with festive designs caught my eye but, frankly, my balcony affords two plastic green chairs and tables only. I don’t lounge there often; neighbors are a stone’s toss away. These luscious pillows were made for the large redwood deck on the east side of the house, a place one might have coffee while admiring birds and watching roses grow. Sounded dreamy to me as I climbed the stairs to the main floor.

I was not getting much sense of who lived here. Urbane, yes, with some sophisticated taste. Perhaps a bit cultured, but hard to tell. It didn’t seem as if children had romped about, or a loping dog had torn up carpets or scratched wooden floors. The second floor was as much a blank canvass with four bedrooms and one and a half bathrooms. Bed frames remained in two; no chest or lamp tables were seen, no mirrors or knickknacks. It was as empty as if no one had lived their lives there at all.

Then I entered the main bathroom with classic black and white octagonal-shaped tiles. There on the counter were trays and bags of perfumes and lotions, make up and nail polish, all of it expensive, much of it partially used, then cast off. The most intriguing thing to me were groupings of travel-sized items brought home from many trips. I related to keeping somethings “just in case” and I don’t like paying a few dollars for “trial-sized” items. But these homeowners certainly had enough money for incidentals. I counted about seventy such items. Half of those had come from other countries, as the product names were not English. I picked up a few bottles and sniffed, wondering if they’d be handy. The prices were too high, some even more than I’d pay in a store. I left them behind except for one small soap by Aveda which I’ve enjoyed in the past.

Downstairs I met up with my sister. She tried to talk me into the good bookcases but I resisted. I tried to talk her out of four turquoise rings that were exactly alike, to no avail–she collects turquoise and silver. I paid for two purple floral pillows shams to give to a daughter, my little soap and a fancy wooden picture frame. Cost: four dollars. We were satisfied. The best part, for me, was catching up on our own news as we headed home, as we’re busy and live twenty minutes apart.

I often come away from an estate sale with a picture of the people who lived there, its history. Often, lingering secrets seem to reach out to me. But this time the place felt scoured of life’s residual energies, as if the previous family had been good and ready to clear out. They had moved, not died, and their lives were going on elsewhere. The grand historical essence may return after the rooms stand emptied of ownership a couple of weeks. I walked away pondering ponder who first built and loved this lovely home. But for the time being it was devoid of its deep roots. The property was resonant only of the business of buying and selling. Soon it would be cleaning and preparations for new owners. Different possessions will take the places of those departed, be a unique reflection of the people who enjoy them. Still, things don’t make or break us, but our truest being and doing. Housing is our small oasis, a place of repose and privacy. I hope the future folks living there will be extravagant of heart and soul, create a fully inhabited home. I may stroll on by and take a quick peek through the back fence by winter. Meantime, I await my sister’s next call. I might find one great book.

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