Wednesday, November 24, 2010

On my Knees (before Thanksgiving)

For three days I’ve been on my knees in the house of the Lord--my house that is—scrubbing, cleaning, waxing, sucking up dust that’s claimed whole rooms while my mind’s been far away, my heart in a trap.  I’ll get to where I’ve been in a moment.

An appraiser was coming to assess the value of my house.  I was refinancing my mortgage, determined to achieve the ever-elusive balance of financial stability. “Don’t worry about your appliances,” the appraiser said over the phone.  “I’ll be looking at the condition of the house—walls, floors—“

Walls and floors? Oh my.  

I stood in the kitchen and took a long view at what I had done.  This wood surface that I crossed daily to make coffee in the morning and tea at night was spotted and scratched with grit, its yellow pine worn out in patches. Individual floor boards were losing cartilage near the room’s most active points-- in front of the stove, sink and refrigerator.  For months, I’d ignored its diminishing condition, fading in the shadow of my neglect.

Dear kitchen floor, will you forgive me? I’m sorry that it took an outside force –a strange appraiser—to activate tending to your needs. 

I tied back my hair, put on holey jeans, and cleared the counter tops in preparation for cleansing. I filled a basin with soapy water and submerged a cloth—a piece of myself—into this bowl. I came up dripping, wrung out, ready for the task.

When I emerged, I found myself crouched in a corner where the kitchen floor and wall met at the far end of the room.  Where had I been, I asked myself?   --Wandering  in tunnels of family troubles?  Yes.  Squeezed between an ailing father, an exhausted mother, a teenage son struggling to find his path?  That’s right. Work worries, too.

As I scrubbed and rinsed, scrubbed and rinsed, muscles in my right shoulder and back awakened and hurt.   When my right side started to cramp, I switched to my left side, dunking and twisting the cloth to free old dirt, then applying it anew to the next section of floor, my wrist and finger joints pivoting, de-rusting from emotional paralysis.  

Some people run. Some people attack when life overwhelms.  I shut down.  Turn off.  Become numb.

Alone, with the November sky lighting the room, I bowed forward and pulled up, bending into malformed versions of Child’s Pose, then Downward Dog, then Child’s Pose again.  My right arm traversed narrow sections between walls.  At times,  my cloth-covered palm became a fist as I punched out emotional grime, reclaiming my base.  Life is hard, goddamn it.  Face it. Accept it. Move on.  

I crawled backwards, sliding on my shins toward the other end of the room.  When my knees began to throb, I folded a towel beneath me to soften the blow of bone, muscle, tendon, skin, blood against wood until my whole body succumbed to washing, and release.  


What person, event, thing, launched you out of a funk?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

UP FROM THE BLUE by Susan Henderson

Today, I am celebrating my friend’s novel debut. 

I’m celebrating with vigor because her novel, Up From the Blue, is a gorgeous, memorable story, one that took years to get told right.  It took years of writing and rewriting, and fending off rejections and close calls, and bleak days of nearly giving up, but my friend kept going.  She honored a vision. She listened to those shouting emotions that insisted she write this lung-stopping book.

I'd like to urge you to buy it (because it's affordable in paperback) or check it out at your library and experience the gasps and chills I experienced while reading it, and then again while rereading it.  When you're done, keep it close at hand. You'll pick it up from time to time, as I do, to savor paragraphs and sentences. It's that good.

Up From the Blue is a story about a family, and especially eight-year-old, Tillie Harris, whose mother has disappeared.  It’s about adult Tillie on the verge of giving birth to her first child looking back at that time in 1975, trying to make sense of what happened. I won't dare tell you, either.

But what especially fascinated me (me, the home-obsessed) is the house that Tillie's family lived in and how it contained a fierce emptiness, a hollow collection of spaces that echoed with her family’s pain and confusion and…love.

Rooms seem to lack furniture and purpose. Even the front door is painted shut.

In this neglected space, Tillie and her older brother cling to fragments of normalcy. They walk to school.  They walk back. But when they return home, who is there to greet them?  Their genius father is busy inventing weapons for the Pentagon, his mind distant as Saturn.  Tillie’s highly sensitive, brilliant mother is…well, you’ll just have to read this book to find out.   

Sample some (below)—then run and get it.

Chapter 1: A House with the Blue Door (From the novel, Up from the Blue)

I was barred from school for the day because I’d been biting again. Whenever I pressed my teeth into one of my classmates, my teacher stopped the lesson and called, “Tillie, Tillie.” There was always a struggle as she tried to wrestle the hand or arm from my mouth, but I held on—fighting until the last string of spit released—because I liked to leave a mark.

Up From the Blue by Susan Henderson. Available at Amazon, or your local indie bookstore.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

House Views, artist Chet Jones

I'm not the only one obsessed with houses.  A few years ago I was visiting galleries in Provincetown (Cape Cod) and saw this artist's paintings for the first time. I fell in love and one day I intend to purchase one of his paintings. His name is Chet Jones.  I think his colors are glorious.  They create layers of light, layers of meaning just as our houses do. 

There's a lonely quality here.  Yet I feel the artists' passion, his embrace, his yearning to convey what's unknown inside.

How often have you passed a house and found yourself creating a story about that house and the people inside them? These paintings resonate with hidden stories.  Don't you think?

You can go here and here to see more of Chet Jones' work.  I think his vision is spectacular.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

House Burning

One spring when I was eight, it was too cold to play outside, so I came up with the stellar idea of playing poor orphans in my friend’s attic. This meant we didn’t have parents, or money for electricity, or heat. (In my real world, my family had a live-in black maid. I lived in a five-bedroom, brick Tudor house.) My friend, Joan, had pale, thin braids, and a sweet disposition. She went along with anything I suggested. I was a year older, bossier, with big front teeth and auburn hair, cut in a pixie style—a style I despised but which my mom insisted on despite my tears and attempts to avoid that dreaded hour at the beauty parlor.

Joan lived around the corner in a large stucco house. Her attic on the third floor had two large rooms. The room we played in had a double bed covered in stacks of old books. That weekend her parents were on vacation. A short-term housekeeper, an older white woman with an Irish name, came to watch Joan and her two older sisters while their parents were away.

Joan’s house was larger than ours, but furnished plainly with dull, hook rugs and handmade cushions on the couch. Her mom bought clothes from the Sears Roebuck catalogue. My mother never ordered anything from a catalogue. We shopped at top name department stores as soon as the season’s new fashions came in. When Joan rushed home to tell her parents that my father had bought a new Washington, what she really meant to say was that my father had just purchased an expensive Lincoln Continental sedan. Mrs. Brickman, an unadorned woman with large shoulders, unpolished nails, hair in a bun, who sewed and volunteered at the temple, drove a practical station wagon. She told Joan that such an expensive car was unnecessary, frivolous, extravagant. Our money came from Brilliant Bros. Shoe Company, a family business passed down from my grandfather, whereas Joan’s father worked hard for a corporation. The Brickmans didn’t inherit their wealth like we did.

While the temporary housekeeper was in the basement folding clothes, and Joan’s oldest sister was in her bedroom on the second floor, we found matches in the kitchen and a candle in the dining room. Back upstairs in the third floor playroom, Joan and I found a small door that opened into a crawlspace where thick wires had been stapled to the rafters. We rolled up old newspapers into balls, then lit the paper into small, frolicking fires.

“Are you sure this is okay?” Joan asked me.

“Sure. Don’t worry. I’m a Girl Scout. I know how to light campfires.”

We watched the small fire burn. When it went out, I grew braver and made another pile and lit another fire, warming our hands until the pile collapsed to ashes. Watching the fire, we sang lullabies. One from my favorite Peter Pan movie:

Tender shepherd, tender shepherd
Let me help you count your sheep
One in the meadow, two in the valley
Three in the nursery, fast asleep.

After the fire burned out a second, third and fourth time, I decided that we needed to go to sleep. We slithered under the big bed that was stacked with books. Then we lit our candles and brought them under the bed. Soon, we were drawing soot faces with our candles, the soot leaving black marks on the plastic underneath the bed. My soot face caught fire and grew into widening rings of blue that wouldn’t stop.

“Get water!” I shouted. We scrambled out from beneath the bed. Joan ran for water in the bathroom down the hall. She threw it under the bed but it was useless. The fire had caught and wouldn’t let go. Joan ran downstairs to find her sister who tried to put it out with another glass of water.

“Go downstairs! Go on! Go! Go! ” her sister shouted at us.

Downstairs we huddled in the glassed-in den while giant firemen tromped through the front hall whisking black hoses up the stairs. I wanted to leave, but the fire chief told me to stay. The housekeeper kept shaking her head. “I heard singing. I thought they were upstairs watching TV.”

The fire chief looked massive in his thick, black raincoat. His hat almost reached the ceiling; his rubber boots looked fat as elephants’ legs.

“What’s that for?” I asked, pointing to his clipboard.

He sat down in a chair next to us.

“We report all incidents and keep them on file.”

Joan began to cry. I wanted her to stop. “I’m sorry I’m sorry,” she kept saying.

The fire chief talked about fire safety and matches but he sounded far away.
Did I understand the danger of lighting matches? (Nodding. Yes.) Had I lit fires before? (No. No. Shaking my head.)

Oh, when would those lights stop? I couldn’t hear, but I could see. Outside, two red trucks hummed and blinked, lights circling rhythmically.

I fretted about my father coming to get me. Would he hit me the way he hit my sister? Drag me up the street, shouting and tugging? I had been the perfect one. But those days were over. I had committed a crime. Ruined. A sorry, damaged life.

Finally my father walked in looking tiny next to the fire chief. “I’m sure this won’t happen again,” the Fire Chief said to me. He turned and talked briefly with my father. Then I was allowed to go home.

My father took my elbow. I waited for his assault. Instead, he appeared sheepish and meek. “What happened?” he asked, sounding ashamed.

“We were playing poor.”

Silence. The air was cold and quickly growing dark. We walked up the driveway to our house. By the time I entered the kitchen it was black outside. The kitchen looked bright as a football field lit up at night. Mother turned to me. “Why don’t you go to your room, Jessie.”

I went upstairs past my older sister. “What happened?”

I shook my head. I would never be okay. My chest and throat collapsed into one closed pipe. I struggled to breathe.

I dragged myself into my room and sat by the windowsill in the dark. Over the trees the flashing lights from the Brickman’s house burned my face, advertising my crime to the neighborhood. To the world. My heart sank into my lungs. I pulled for air but breathing was hard. Only gasps. At last I heard the great, majestic sound of the fire engines driving off into the night.

Mom walked into my room. She stood back from me. “The Brickmans will be coming home tomorrow morning. They’re very upset.”

“I feel terrible,” I said, stroking my throat. “I can’t swallow.” The sharpness in my heart had spread in all directions, from my chin to my legs. “What do I do now?”

“Your punishment is how you feel, Jessie.” She spoke in a clipped voice. “We’re having dinner. Will you come down?”

No. I couldn’t eat.

She left and I stayed at the window until it was time for bed. I heard the rest of the house getting ready—my infant, baby brother in his crib. My older sister, brushing her teeth. My oldest sister upstairs in her new attic bedroom suite. Still, I waited for my father, the shouter, to come in and scream at me or hit me but he stayed away all night. My shoulders ached in anticipation. I finally crawled under my blankets exhausted and fell asleep.

The next morning my parents didn’t mention the fire. My sisters didn’t say anything either as if everyone understood that this was the way to handle it. I met Joan and another neighbor, Alan, at the corner of the street. We walked to school together. Alan was Joan’s age. He wanted to know all the details. How did you do it? Who started it? He circled me like a boxer in the ring.

“Shut up, Alan,” I said. The only way to minimize the disaster would be to silence it, like my parents did.

Joan walked with her head down but her words flowed out of her. Her parents had flown back early from their vacation. She was grounded for a month and given extra chores around the house. She wished it hadn’t happened. She talked on and on.

“Did the whole attic burn?” Alan asked.

Joan said most of the damage was from the water. All the books had burned. Her mother had been upset about the books.

What did your parents do to you?” Joan asked me.


Both Alan and Joan stopped talking.

“Nothing?” she said, disbelieving.

I shrugged. It was hard even for me to believe.

“My father wants to talk to you,” she said in a way that implied we both knew I deserved a reprimand. Since when was my fancy family above the law?

All week my parents didn’t speak of the fire. At the end of the week, mom said that she had conferred with the Brickmans and that Mr. Brickman wanted to talk to me. At school a boy in my class heard I started a fire and said so in front of three other children.

“No I didn’t,” I said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“That’s what I heard,” he said.

“You heard wrong.”

The others looked at me but I must have convinced them because no one pursued it after that.
Silence trumped.

Another week passed. I wondered if everyone saw flames when they looked at me, but mom seemed oblivious, as if she’d already forgotten the incident. How could she forget? For a whole year, every time I passed a fire station I looked around to see if people knew how I had burned down my neighbor’s attic, but no one else seemed to notice or care.

After a month passed, Joan told me the attic had been repaired. “It looks brand new. You wouldn’t recognize it,” she said, almost cheerful in the way she kicked the pebbles on the way to school.

I braved a visit to her house on a weekend afternoon that Mr. Brickman was home. I waited for his punishment. Each time he walked by me in the downstairs hallway or came through the kitchen where Joan and I were eating lunch, my shoulders hunched up to brace for his harsh words. He looked larger than the fire chief. Back and forth he hauled firewood into the house in his Sears and Roebuck jacket and boots. Mrs. Brickman fed us lunch and said “Jessie, I hope you understand the seriousness of what you girls did.” She said she wished it hadn’t happened but it had and that was that. Did I want milk with my sandwich? I was grateful to her for talking to me that way—stern yet kind. I waited for Mr. Brickman to tell me how bad I had been.

He never did.


So there you have it, dear readers. It took me years to get over my “mistake.” Now I want to ask you if you ever started a house fire when you were a child or did something damaging to your house or somebody else’s house by accident? And have you forgiven yourself for it?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Tiny house, luxurious life?

Jay Schafer changed his life about ten years ago when he left his job as a retail clerk and built an 8 x 12-foot house to live in.  No longer burdened with a mortgage and large utility bills, he discovered a new sense of  freedom and luxury.  His passion for simplicity led to a business called Tumbleweed Tiny House Company.  Go here to learn much more about him.  You can watch a video, too, and see the inside of his house. It looks ridiculously tiny from the outside but you will be surprised by what's inside. It reminds me of a ship. Everything is neat. Everything has a place. There's no excess.  Want to see more designs? You can buy his The Small House Book by going to his website.

This is an intriguing alternative.  Could you live in such a tiny home if it freed you from money worries?  Would you want to do it?

Or are you like most Americans: dreaming of more space, a bigger house? 

I, personally, would want more space than this but I like his philosophy of paring down.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Circle Dance

Recently, I spent a week in a two-bedroom cottage in southwestern Vermont.  I’d rented this cottage once in the winter and was eager to return to the Mettowee Valley to see how the surrounding farms and meadows looked in the peak of spring.  No longer submerged in snow, the Valley was ravenously green, moistened and fed by the Mettowee River running through it.  --Every hill and dale, flecked with wild flowers; distant mountains textured with sheep, cows, and barns—some sagging under the weight of years--owned by families who have farmed here for generations.

My cottage was off the highway a few miles down a dirt road. The first morning, with coffee mug in hand, I walked a quarter mile to visit two oxen and three horses in a neighbor’s field.  On the way, I encountered a small bird sitting on the edge of the road. I didn’t notice this bird until it started beeping at me, a strident, repetitive, single-minded beep!

I slowed down but kept approaching it.  Alarmed, the bird stood up and began circling and figure-eighting in front of me.  “It’s okay,” I said.  I looked around for a nest but didn’t see one.  Still beeping, the bird bent over and splayed one wing, then toppled onto itself as if injured.

Now I was alarmed and stopped moving. I tried to appear frozen.

It stood up again, then ran on twiggy legs and flew low onto a muddy field where those three horses were grazing.  The bird moved as if on crutches, limping and turning and fanning that same wing again. One of the horses was making its way over to say hello to me, but even she paused to look at the oddly flapping bird before continuing toward the fence where I stood.

Again, I looked for a nest but saw only pebbles and a fringe of weeds growing out of the dirt.

Later, I told the owner of the cottage about this bird.  “It has two or three black stripes around its white neck.”
The owner urged me to read a book called Animal Speak by Ted Andrews. The basic tenet of this book imparts that animals have something to teach us especially those animals to whom we are strongly attracted.  If you don’t know by now, I happen to adore birds.  Animals that we find especially repulsive or scary have something vital to show us too, such as how we perceive the world, and even how we deal with life in general.

That black-ringed bird was speaking to me alright.  I wanted to find out what she was trying to say.

In Andrew’s book,  I found a picture of a grouse that resembled my insistent beeper.  When threatened or protecting a nest, grouses perform a circle dance.  This is how it defines its sacred space.

That sent me down another kind of road, a long, internal one to ponder how I defined my own sacred space.  How do I manifest this in my living quarters back home in Boston?  How do I protect my circle of beliefs? My sense of integrity?  Community?  Home? My sense of what is safe?

How do you?

Later that day, I returned to the oxen and horses and looked for the bird.  This time, I took the owner of the cottage along with me.  Once again, my bird stood up and started its erratic, circling dance.

“There’s the nest, silly,” the cottage owner said.  She pointed to the side of the road.
Okay. So, I’m an urbanite. My eyes didn’t see those four, speckled rocks that were really eggs.

After that, I visited the bird many times each day.  Of course, I made sure to walk on the opposite side of the road. I kept a dignified distance.  She beeped less and less when she saw me, and by the end of my week she stayed put and simply watched me pass by, as if we’d reach some higher understanding.


P.S. In response to Billie's comments below, I'm adding this photo she sent me.  The horsehair bird's nest!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Living off the Grid

Continuing my obsession about home,  I urge you to pick up this new and wonderful book by William Powers. It's a beautifully written account of his time living in a tiny, twelve-foot by twelve- foot house that is owned by a medical doctor who decided to release herself from the burden of material wealth.  Surrounded by an organic garden and makeshift shower and so much more, this book will inspire you and, in its gentle, embracing way, ask you to reflect on how you live now. Bill Powers has lived in other cultures and brings his global awareness and experiences to this jewel of a tale.  His story shines with the viability of alternative lifestyles and points to other, less traveled pathways to happiness.

It's a paperback original, so it's affordable, but you can also find it at your local library.  Enjoy!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Bird and a Car

I tend to think everything is a symbol and have been wrestling with an event that happened to me last week in Vermont.

My husband and I had just spent a satisfying few hours at my son’s boarding school—dinner with one of his teachers, followed by an end-of-school jazz concert. Our son plays the trumpet, and we were glad to see him performing.  We’d been attending his concerts for twelve years, the first one when he was five years old.

You could see summer in the students’ faces.  A professional photographer, hired by the school, was stopping groups of kids for smiles and arm-in-arm pictures.  We didn’t linger after the concert because our son had to finish an English paper, so we made our way back to my brother’s house--driving down a pretty road with farms on either side and the sky full of dusk and warmth.  I felt happy and was recounting the goodness when a flock of birds flew low across the road and we felt a light thump under the car. 

That thump sent me into gloomdom.   Me and the sky got very black.  I asked my husband to please drive slowly, fearing more unseen birds, and I became angry and disoriented because my moment of pleasure once winging through me had been smacked down, and now my thoughts twisted over whether we had killed or injured the bird and how it was all my fault.  We turned onto the state road and stopped at a gas station about 2 miles from where the bird collided under the car. We needed milk for our morning coffee.  

When I came out of the store, a small bird was hopping around the pavement next to the car one wing pointing up at an odd angle.  It was heart ripping.  Somehow it had got stuck under our car. Of course the poor thing was terrified, flapping and hopping on the oil-stained pavement near our car tires and blinded by the store’s bright security spot lights. I didn't want to leave it.  So we tried to nudge the bird (the size of my hand, duff-colored and sleek) into a paper bag but it kept trying to fly away.  In its panic (and mine—I was shaking), it flopped onto the busy state road.  My husband, good man that he is, walked out to the middle of the road and calmly put his hand up to stop traffic. And stop they did (which is why I adore Vermont and my husband). A small line of cars waited patiently as my husband shepherded the panicking bird across the road.  One man opened his car window and said quietly, “It looks like his wing is broken.”
Finally, the bird got over to the other side onto a thick, green lawn and managed, after another huge effort (and my failure yet again to get it into the paper bag), to disappear under an evergreen tree next to a white, clapboard house.  At that point, we stood there in the dark.  We could have tried to fetch it, but then what?  I guess I felt that we had done all we could do for the dear bird.   I said a prayer for it and for the rest of the night and the next day kept thinking about it and wondering about it under that tree.  How was it doing? Was it still alive?  Would a cat find it?  Would it drink water beading on the tree’s low lying limbs? Would it have the strength to poke for  bugs? Would the person who lived in the house next to the tree discover it?  Save it?
My heart hurt over this as I tried to understand why it had happened at that moment and how it was my fault. Was the bird accident a portent of something to come?  
The next day I learned my father was admitted to the hospital for chest pains and weakness. But all his tests were negative and after an overnight stay, he was sent back home. I also learned that a friend’s neighbor, a young father in his forties, was rushed to the hospital. A healthy man, something had gone wrong neurologically. It was sudden and awful. The neighbor is still in the hospital.  All his neighbors, including my friend, are rallying for him, taking on chores, helping his family.  I’m sending prayers. 

And I keep thinking about that bird.

Last night I googled “how to help a bird with a broken wing” and discovered that I could have done more. I could have taken the bird back to my brother’s house and found a vet the next day.  I could have tried to wrap its wing with gauze.  I could have. I could have.

But I didn’t. So I try to let this go. I thank the bird for touching me with its spirit.  It’s so sad, and yet so very much what nature throws at us all the time. --My father’s chest pains; my friend’s neighbor’s seizure.

I still think I need to try harder next time. One instant that bird was soaring across the road and then its life changed, and so did mine.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

House Remodeling & Novels

Revising a novel is not unlike remodeling a bathroom in your house.  Right?

First, there's the initial exuberance. You wholeheartedly start clearing out dated fixtures, knocking down walls. (In novelspeak that translates to: getting rid of characters and scenes, re-plotting, deleting.) At night, you lie in bed happily reviewing the day's latest events--isn't it great that the old floor has been pulled up? At last, that protrusion in the wall has been ripped away. (Novelspeak: thank God I got rid of that subplot.)

Another week goes by and that flush of adventure shifts.  You see progress but it's not obvious. The walls are down but when (oh when?) will the new ones go up? And once they're up, how many days before plaster completely dries?

More details.  Screws.  Lights.  Paint. The project's simply not done.

Sometimes you want all the work people and craftsmen to go away because you need a break from the crowds.  (In the case of your novel revision: you want those messy sentences and paragraphs to disappear on their own. You don't want to have to kick them out yourself.) Then, there's the electrician kneeling in your hallway, twisting wires, going back and forth between the electrical panel and wall plugs. Honestly, can't you have a few hours of silence again? The plumber is sawing old pipes. Scraping loud and irritating.  The house stinks.

Soon, you wonder: will this end?  You may even want your old bathroom back because you have laundry to do and your new washer/dryer hasn't arrived yet.  Dirty socks are taking over the kitchen.  Dinner plates are covered in micro dust.  Everything's upended. Everything, in fact, feels uncertain. But it's too late to turn back.  So you plod on, one day at a time, toward your remodeling goal--and then, a breakthrough.  One day, you're finished.

Finally, a new bathroom.

Finally, a revised book.

So, I'm celebrating with these yellow flowers.
What are you revising or remodeling this spring?