My House is Built on Words

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I recently unpacked into drawers and onto hangers for the first time since June, so I guess you could say I’m in transition. But is that a place you can be, and if so how long can you stay there? And why do we say we’re “in” something when the implication is that it’s temporary: in a pickle, in transition, in love.

Oops. I wasn’t expecting that, so we’ll call it a “plot twist” and circle back to being in transition. I ripped this off Elizabeth Gilbert’s Facebook page earlier this week and just love it. Imagine if we all threw our hands in the air and yelled “plot twist” when we got into something we weren’t expecting?

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I went from winter at eight thousand feet in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo to instant summer when I arrived in Southwest Florida in the middle of April. Unlike Montana, there’s never a chance of snow in April, My or June and it got consistently hotter until I left just after the official start of Summer.

It was a hot, muggy summer as I did loops around the northeast where my things stayed mostly in my car and I shuttled bags in and out of friends houses in smaller bags or by the armful when one of my bags served double duty as a hamper.

I met a lot of friends of friends this summer, and was asked the usual, “Where are you from?” Sometimes I answered “Connecticut,” where I spent my childhood, and sometimes I answered “Missoula,” which is where, I said, “I grew up” (or tried to grow up). Sometimes I even said “New York,” because that’s where my family is from, and even though I went to school in Connecticut I no longer have any family there. My roots are in New York City. Sometimes my answers were very long.

“But…I mean…” they stammered, “Where do you live now?” My answers ran the gamut from a shocking “nowhere” to “see that Subaru over there?” This is what the car looked like at the end of the summer:

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My car was four years old when I bought it in January 2008 and had just enough miles for the kinks to have been worked out. There was (and still is) a salad-plate sized dent near the gas tank so I didn’t have to cry over inflicting her first war-wound. I liked the champagne color and the “cold weather package,” which includes heated leather seats, heated windshield wipers, and heated mirrors, but the real “package” that sold me wasn’t one offered by a manufacturer: it was what I called my “getaway package” and consisted of an expedition size Thule box and a U-Haul hitch.

At the time I was only half a year back from my experience living abroad in Honduras, and not nearly straightened out regarding the experience, but I’m a forward-thinking gal, and I was already thinking of my next adventure. Less than two years later my getaway car came in handy for a WY/OR/CA trip during which time the Thule doubled as a closet/garage/storage unit when it wasn’t mobile.

We* took our show off the road (*we meaning me, Lucky, and the getaway car) for a whopping sixteen months, and during that time the Thule was barren and functioned mostly as a way to identify my car in Misssoula parking lots where approximately 7/10 cars are Subarus. Other than the fact that I can’t drive through some car washes or park in garages when given the opportunity, I love my getaway car, and it proved indispensable during my past three months as a true peripatetic. 

{NOTE: I love the word peripatetic and just learned it. It’s fascinating to discover a word that describes you and wonder where that word has been hiding all your life.}

Over the summer I parked on driveways made of crushed shells, on pea gravel, on mud, on city streets. On sand. I applied deodorant, tweezed eyebrows, q-tipped ears and road-tested outfits in every driveway I’ve parked in overnight and even in a few pit stops. I gained experience as a contortionist because you think there’s plenty of room in your front seat until your try to change your pants around a steering wheel.

My getaway car needs a name ASAP. As of this minute I’m going to start calling her Agnes, after my great-grandmother. Agnes also happens to be my mother’s middle name and a name she loathes; I’ll see if I can turn it around for her.

All summer Agnes carried a cooler, a tote of books, a Vitamix blender, a box of “kitchen” items and my “stuff,” which includes a handsome, leggy boy who likes (and deserves) to stretch out on his bed.

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One suitcase held the majority of my clothes with separate bags for underwear, athletic wear, and shoes. There was a “cold weather bag” but that stayed in the “upstairs” during the months when I thought it would never cool off (pretty much all of June, July and August), though my arrival in Maine coincided with the arrival of September and all of a sudden my clothes required some major shifting.

Like everyone living a few dozen latitudinal lines away from the equator, I had to reorganize my clothes for a change of season. This didn’t mean moving the out of season items to a different closet or to the garage or to under-bed bins; it meant a shift in real estate within Agnes. The flip-flops went up, and the boots came down. I located wool and down and discontinued strapless and linen. Agnes got a seasonal facelift. 

It might sound a little complicated, but really: it’s so simple. When people have remarked, “I don’t know how you’ve been able to live like this,” what they’re really saying is, “I can’t imagine myself living with so little.” I’ve realized I have so much more than I need.

I’d started thinking of a minimalist lifestyle before I moved into my car, and as I prepped for this adventure I wrote about the items taking up the most space in my storage unit: my books.

You see: my house is built on words.

This topic was 100% Emily and at first I thought “what house?” then I got it and felt like a fool for not “getting it” sooner.

I find books irresistible, and because books are made of words linked together: I also love words. Words don’t even have to be in books for me to love them. I love that we can use them for precision or we can just use them. Yesterday my friend Caraline called to check on me and sent this in a post-conversation text message:

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But not everyone cares about words. Not everyone minds the distinction between fewer and less or bring and take, and not everyone builds houses on words though some of us start early. Here I am, 2 ½ years old, in  bed with a pile of books: my little house of words.

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Emily has a deed with her name on it and I have, well, you know what I have (AGNES!) but our inner houses are built on the words we read, the words we write, and words spoken. Because we’re writers we also allow white space in our homes for the words unwritten, unread, unspoken.

Emily writes beautiful prose, but first she’s a poet. I imagine her house of words is a bit modern with tall ceilings and lots of light. The light comes from windows and also from stylish, European fixtures that cast bright beams and fabulous shadows. Reclaimed elements show scratches, dings and evidence of life lived, but are integrated into Em’s space with modern pieces molded from polished steel and concrete. Her walls are interesting colors you can’t identify. Is that green? Is that purple? Em giggles when you ask about the color, and offers you a cup of soup. 

My house looks different. It’s old and may smell a bit musty. The basement could be interesting but you might need to bring your own light. There’s an inviting front porch, but watch your step and make yourself comfortable but watch where you sit; that might be wet, here’s a towel. The windows are plentiful but shadowed by eaves. Many are leaded and stained glass—my favorites—and run from floor to ceiling. Some are so heavy they require four hands and a solid heave while some barely close and never latch. There are front stairs and back stairs and small rooms tucked here and there. The third floor feels like a tree house. Or a dog house. It’s unlikely you’ll get out without a little dog hair on you. 

i ended the summer under the harvest moon in Stonington, Maine (as far east as I’ve ever been!), but as the season turned from summer to fall I was in Concord, MA visiting the kind of friends you want to claim as family. Suzanne took me all over the place visiting Concord’s historical treasures, but the one that made the biggest impression was the Orchard House, where the Alcott family lived and where Louisa May wrote LITTLE WOMEN.

I learned that Louisa was a self-described “literary spinster,” and “happy to paddle her own canoe.” The semi-autobiographical novel says that her father went to war, though in reality it was Louisa. An early feminist, she didn’t want to have a husband in the book, but her publisher insisted, so she created one who was smart, on the older side, and a little rotund. She thought this was funny.

The Alcotts encouraged the arts with all their girls, and Bronson Alcott’s philosophy school started in the Orchard House, so the girls were raised with the Transcendentalists—Emerson and Thoreau—in their living room, and learned to be careful observers of both nature and themselves.

May was encouraged to draw—even on the walls!—and Papa Alcott built Louisa a writing desk at a time when it was inappropriate for a girl to have a desk of her own. I watched a video in which an actress portraying Louisa May gives advice: Read the best books to improve style, get physical activity, allow your stories to simmer by doing housework and gardening, don’t write at fourteen-hour stretches (as she did), and keep a journal because you never know what life experience will inspire you. At the end of the tour this girl without a home bought her second coffee table book of the summer: Annie Leibovitz’s PILGRIMAGE. It just seemed right to do.

{NOTE: I saw “Pilgrimage” back in March at the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe with Emily, my Striped Shirt Review collaborator, when this segment of my journey was well underway but still yet to reveal its full purpose. You can read my account of that visit HERE, and Emily’s HERE. We hadn’t yet started to blog on the same topic, but the idea incubated with these April Fool’s Day posts…. }

I was at the end of my rope in Concord with a book so close to but not quite fully cooked, and my immediate future looming large. The future I reference here is NOT the future of publishing a book, but rather the future of temporarily moving in with my mother and grandmother to help with my grandmother’s care and figure out the next steps so everyone can be happy and safe. I say “happy and safe” as if these are easy things to accomplish like covering greys or going to yoga or changing a lock. 

As Suzanne took me around Concord I met lots of her friends, and felt like coming up with something to say other than “nowhere” or “in my car” when asked where I live. One day, in response to the question, I spontaneously bent my elbows and wrists, tucked my fingertips into my armpits, and then slid my fingers down to mid-thigh. “Here.” I said. “I live here.”

“Oh! In Concord?” they asked, either oblivious to my gesticulation or uncomfortable with it. “No,” I clarified with a foot stomp. “Right here. Wherever I am. This body is my home. I’m at home in this body.”

I shocked myself, but tried it out a few more times and it felt good. It’s like this: we can define ourselves by what we have, by where we work, or by our addresses or we can start on a more elemental level: we can start with ourselves.

Here are a few more pictures of me when I was two and three years old: in bed with a pile of books, working on my balance, loving animals, checking out the horizon. Some things change, and some things sure don’t.

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“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” –Henry David Thoreau, Walden

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