Friday, August 28, 2009

Modern inconveniences

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, translated by Anne Born.

This week I'd like to recommend a novel that my friend and novelist Jennifer Jefferson recommended after reading my post about the stone house without electricity. I haven't read this book but I'm intrigued. Here's what Jennifer said about Out Stealing Horses: "A 67-year old Norwegian man moves to a cabin with no modern conveniences. It's an amazing book about home and family."

The novel was a top ten pick of the year by The New York Times Book Review.

I'm going to give it a whirl and hope you will, too. Let me know what you think. Even if you read it months from now, come back and leave a comment here. My email alerts me to your responses.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

West Virginia Stone House

1700 WV house 015 I love staying in friends' homes when I travel. It's a chance to spend time that is both catching up and being a part of the life they live at that moment. From morning coffee routines to making dinner together to sharing bathrooms and hallways, I literally enter their shells, breathe their air, hear the sounds they live with. Going into someone else's shell allows me to reflect, once again, on my own lifestyle and the house I live in now. How are my friends' routines different or the same? What fresh perspective will I bring home with me? Will I make my coffee differently or bake those rolls that my friend's mother baked us?1700 WV house 007

In West Virginia, I stayed in a small town of Romney. It's in the Appalachian mountains. My friend grew up in the house where I slept for 3 nights. His sons grew up there, too. The house is a big L-shaped brick house that still has a bullet hole from a civil war scuffle. In their backyard, a herd of deer appear at dusk. At night, the stars are so bright, layers of glittering chandeliers float above me like holograms. The Milky Way is painted across the great arch of our galaxy. I can see the curve! A screech owl calls from down the holler (that's West Virginian for "hollow"). In the city, where I live, the stars look faded and forgotten in comparison.

1700 WV house 002 About a mile down the road from my friend's house, his uncle, Dan Wagoner, a well-known dancer who had a dance company in NYC for more than 20 years, spends the summer in a stone house built in 1789. Dan still teaches dance at a university in Florida during the school year, but chooses to return to his childhood roots every summer to a place that has no electricity or running water.

1700 WV house 013 In this stone house, once owned by Dutch slave owners, Dan has released himself from the modern world. He says "it takes about 10 days for an inner shift to occur," before he slows to a different pace and way of thinking. He draws his water from an outside pump, and takes baths in his clawfoot tub under a tree. At night, the porch is illuminated by candles, and moonlight hovering over the distant hills.

1700 WV house 012 "Ten days for an inner shift to occur." I keep thinking about that phrase. How many of us give ourselves permission to make an inner shift? Or give ourselves ten days to let any kind of change happen?

1700 WV house 005 In this stone house, which my friend has helped restore over many years, Dan has created a way of being, a sensibility. I admire his courage, his ability to do this.

Could I do it? There's something inside me that wants to try and something else that is afraid. What would happen to me if I were to live in a house without electricity for two months? Would I want to return to the city or would I disappear? Become unknown or forgotten? Or would I uncover some sort of magic, another world that has been waiting for me?

1700 WV house 003 How do you think you would handle living in place like this? If you're a country person, please tell me your thoughts. If you've lived in cities most of your life as I have, I want to hear from you, too.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Habit of Being

I love the title of this book. It says so much about what I'm reaching for in my search for a home. As I scramble from house to house, place to place, I'm really striving to develop a habit of being, a way of finding my truest center--a way of living that feels right.

This book of letters reveals the life of one of my favorite writers, Flannery O'Connor. Flannery grew up in the South (Georgia), and since I'm traveling through Southern states on a visit to see my husband's family, it seemed a good excuse to recommend this book and her work in general.

Flannery returned home to Georgia to live and fend off what proved to be a fatal illness: Lupus. She wrote astonishing stories in her short life. I believe she was 39 when she died.

Despite our numerous differences--she's from the South, I'm from the North; she lived in a rural town, I grew up close to a big city; she was a serious Catholic, I'm a questioning, uncertain Jew; I feel connected to her because I, too, had a serious blood condition and lived for several years under the threat of death.

She died. I'm still here, yet I continue to marvel at how she found strength and home in her faith.

Monday, August 10, 2009

What’s in Your Refrigerator?

(A quick note before I begin today's post. I'm traveling thru VT and will be checking in on your comments tomorrow. Internet access is spotty but I'll be sure to respond to your comments as soon as I can. I'm hoping to get my pics up tomorrow as well. Looking forward to your thoughts. Thanks--Jessica)

I’m fascinated by food and how it influences our experience of home. What was your family’s relationship to food? Was your cupboard overflowing or half-empty? What kind of food did your family keep in the refrigerator? Was food accessible?

In our kitchen on 14 Scarsdale Road, we had an open door policy. By this I mean, anyone at anytime could go into the refrigerator for something to eat. I liked it best when my friends felt comfortable enough to open the refrigerator without asking me.

“Sure. Go ahead. Help yourself.”

We had a standard set of items in our refrigerator: pink cans of diet cola (Tab), a bottle of sauerkraut tucked in the refrigerator side door (when all the good stuff was gone, I’d resort to eating this crunchy sweet, pickled shredded cabbage). In the salad bin—iceberg lettuce, a tomato, half a cucumber, a package of carrots, celery stalks. I could depend upon finding sliced American cheese individually wrapped in cellophane, a large jar of Hellman’s mayonnaise, and smaller jars of gherkin pickles and strawberry jam. We had eggs, of course, and fruit.

In the summer, Mom bought fresh fruit from a produce truck that came to our street once a week. She chose ripened plums, black cherries that she washed and kept in a bowl, peaches, cantaloupes, honeydew and watermelon. In the freezer, no matter what season, I could always find a box of fudgicles, Swanson TV dinners (sliced turkey with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and peas), and frozen hamburger patties.

Our family loved leftovers. Anything wrapped in tin foil was a promise of something delicious from last night’s dinner. More typically, leftovers didn’t make it to the next day. Someone would nab the last piece of broiled chicken and eat it for a snack before bed.

My mother did her big shop once a week, packing the station wagon with brown bags stuffed with groceries. I loved the sound and smell of those bags as we carried them from the car, hugging them up the steps to the back kitchen door, and plunking them down, one by one, on the white countertops. The spotless kitchen became festive as we unloaded cans of tuna and tomato sauce, peas, soups, loaves of bread, cake mixes, Oriole cookies, graham crackers, sugar, flour, meats, milk, and our favorite cereals (Frosted Flakes, Sugar Pops). These items with their multi-colored labels filled the room with fresh, sweet and enticing smells.

“There!” my mother would exclaim. “Don’t tell me we don’t have anything to eat in this house.”

I learned that this same open door policy didn’t preside in every home. When I played with my next door neighbor’s daughter (the family with the instant lawn), we were not allowed to touch their refrigerator. It represented a danger zone that provoked a reprimand if we dared to approach it. Countless days and nights I played at my neighbor’s house; yet I had no idea what they stored in their refrigerator. Maybe it was the mother’s way of keeping her overweight daughter away from food. I don’t know. I guess I learned to accept it.

During the school year, we ate dinner every weeknight in the dining room. The table was covered in a white or blue cloth, and set by one of the girls (me or my two older sisters). Naturally, we had a number of favorite dishes. But, in our house, at the top of the food A-list, tuna casserole ruled. Mom made it about once every ten days. For this dish, she used white Bumblebee tuna in oil that she flaked into a bowl. She added a can of LeSeur peas, a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, and tossed all the ingredients together with a box of cooked egg noodles. She topped it with potato chip crumbs, then baked it in the oven for 30 or so minutes until it was steaming hot.

Let me tell you, when the maid placed that yellow casserole bowl onto a hot plate next to my mother, and my mother picked up the big serving spoon, we sat up taller, anticipating a queen’s royal meal. And this was a family that ate baked chicken, hamburger, steak, fish, London broil, even cheese soufflĂ©.

One summer afternoon when I was about twelve, the next-door neighbor’s mother, the one with the closed refrigerator door policy, stopped by. I was in the kitchen.

“I don’t have anything for dinner,” she said. “How do you make that casserole you love? I need something easy, something quick.” She was a pretty woman who wore crimson lipstick. She stood in the middle of the room, waiting.

“It’s really easy. All you need is a can of peas—“

“I don’t have any peas. Never mind.” She made a motion to leave. She had lively, dark eyes, a trim figure, and spoke in a condescending way, annunciating her words with a clipped flair as if she expected attention (and got it), yet I liked her. She let me call her by her first name.

“Samantha, Wait! I’m sure we do.” I hurried to the cupboard, anxious and excited about sharing my favorite meal. “See?” I handed her a can of LeSeur peas.

“Okay. Now what?” She attacked the word, what.

“One can of tuna. White tuna. Do you have cream of mushroom soup?” Then I explained about the cooked noodles.

“Okay. That’s it? I’ll try it,” she said. “This better be good.” Off she went out the front door with an entertainer’s flourish.

“You’re gonna love it, Samantha!” I called to her.

The next day, she didn’t hurry over raving, full of thanks and gratitude. Maybe she decided not to make it. The day after, I saw her outside in her driveway. “Did you make the tuna casserole?”

“The what?” she said. “That tuna dish? It was terrible! Awful.”

“What?” I was crushed. Did I just hear her say she didn’t like it? How was this possible? “You didn’t like it?” I said.

“I’m never making that dish again.” She hinted a smile but I knew she meant it.

Even though she had banished my favorite dish to her garbage pit of kitchen hell, I liked her for another reason. Samantha was an adult who didn’t pretend. She told me her truth.

“Are you sure you made it right?” I asked.

“I did exactly what you told me.”

“You used white tuna fish?” White tuna was a key ingredient. Dark tuna would have ruined it.

“Yes. It was terrible. I threw half of it out.”

I have since discovered that many people despise tuna fish casserole. My brother adores it, but his wife refuses to make it. Mention tuna casserole to my husband and his face turns into a battered-looking sponge.

These days, I don’t eat much processed foods, so even I’ve stopped lusting for it. I guess change, except for what we preserve in memory, is imminent.

# # #

For fun, name four foods that were staples in your childhood refrigerator.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Merle's Door

After this week’s sad puppy story, I wanted to recommend a book that will lift your hearts to the heavens. This memoir by Ted Kerosote begins with a fortuitous meeting. A stray dog shows up on a river bank where Ted is white watering out West. From that moment on, Ted and his new companion, Merle, share an exploration through the hills and dales of humanity and caninanity that will expand your mind and soul beyond anything you imagined up to now.

Merle’s Door will deepen your understanding about everything, including my favorite question: what's home?

I laughed with this book. I cried. I learned about animal and human behaviors. I learned about America’s wilderness. Evolution. Love. Please read this book. It is truly special.

One other thing. I was so moved by this story, I wrote the author. Anytime a book inspires you the way Merle’s Door inspired me, I urge you to do the same. Send your letter via the author’s agent or simply email the author directly via the contact listed on the author’s website.

Now, let's hear about your favorite dog book.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

House Pets – Part I

The Unnamed

Sad to say, our family didn’t have a good history with house pets. Dad brought home an Airedale puppy one summer when I was about 3 or 4. The first evening, Mom took me out to the back yard to meet our new pup. It didn’t have a name yet. This was right before my bedtime when the sun was setting through the oak and pine trees.

The whole family was in the yard to meet our pet—my two older sisters, Mom and Dad. My younger brother wasn’t born yet. I had on my summer pajamas—cotton shorts and matching blouse with metal snaps for buttons. The new puppy had a long, rectangular face. He looked big!

Someone said, “You can pat him.”

I wanted to touch him but I felt scared and started running. In that same instant, the pup chased after me. Squealing with fright and delight, I ran in tighter and tighter circles. What if he caught me? Would he nip my bare legs and feet? I turned around to look and slipped on the grass, falling on my back.

Standing over me, panting in my face, the pup was all smiles and full of accomplishment. He’d won me over. I'd made a new friend.

“Okay. Time to say goodnight, now,” Mom said. She was strict about bedtime.

Upstairs in my bedroom, Mom read to me as she always did, then kissed me goodnight. I listened for the puppy outside and though I couldn’t hear anything, happiness squiggled through my limbs. I couldn't believe my good fortune: I had a pet.

Not long after, the light dimming outside, Mom came back up.

“Honey,” she said, sitting on my bed. She spoke quietly and looked sad. “I have something to tell you.”

Apparently, on the way to get something in the garage, Dad had tied the puppy’s leash to the back stair railing. During those brief, shattering moments —my father was gone for just a minute—the puppy in his exuberance slipped through the rails and dangled from his leash. The metal training collar functioned like a slip noose, tightening around his throat, choking him to death.

After my mother left again, I lay for a long time unable to sleep, going round and round, reliving the puppy’s chase and his short life with me. I wanted to cry but I was angry with my father and upset, my heart turned upside down.

How many times had Dad told us he wanted a dog? and now this unthinkable had happened. If I had been in charge, could I have saved our puppy’s life?

“I was gone for a minute, not even a minute,” my father kept saying the next day, and the next, and for days after that.

I was angry, but I also felt sorry for my father. I could see that he was torn and ashamed.—“Not even a minute. Less than a minute. Seconds.” He shook his head, beating himself for his mistake.

That marked the beginning of my divided self. One part of me surfaced like a shark circling toward the smell of darkness that I sensed lay ahead. Another part of me knew, even then, that to escape that darkness, I would need to learn how to forgive.