Monday, October 13, 2014

Autumn in the House of Reflection

Photo by Nick Kenrick
Published under Creative Commons license
I am staying in my friend, Jim's, house for a few days, while he's out of the country on business. I'm minding the house and his 13-year-old daughter, Maddie. so she doesn't have to stay at other people's houses while he's gone. I do it because I care about Jim, who frets about the time his professional obligations keep him away from his girl.  I also do it for Maddie, who is just starting to traverse teenager-hood, and (like all of us at that age) just wants to have her space and her things and her life, as uninterrupted and stable as possible.  Having been a 13-year-old girl, I feel her need for this as sharply as I felt it back when I was that age.

However, I confess that I do this also for myself, for a number of reasons. On a purely superficial level, the house is a beautiful house, large and airy, full of light. It has the requisite real estate selling points - hard wood floors, granite countertops, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves (complete with a rolling librarian's ladder, for easy access to the highest shelves).  It is clean and open, but also has little spaces that permit seclusion.

At times when I can't work anywhere else, because of distraction or temperature, I hide out in Jim's house, so I can write. I find the environment there perfect for writing. It's not my house, so for me, it's like going to work in a really nice office.  I don't feel the need to be doing a chore or seeking alternative activity, so I can write with more focus.  I get what I call "binge-writing" done at Jim's house.

The time I've spent here recently has made me come to appreciate it more than I used to. I have never been a fan of rambling, two-story houses, mostly because the idea of caring for them seems daunting to me. All the nooks and crannies, all the places to misplace things (I'm famous for this, as many of you are well aware). I have maintained for a long time that homes - particularly ones where families live, and where there have been both happy and tumultuous time - have personalities. I won't go so far as to call it a "soul", since I reserve "souls" for living things. But there are persistent and abiding energies in a place where people live their lives every day. For better or worse, we leave an energy trail behind us that invisibly marks where we've been and how we felt when we were there. Who knows how long it lasts, this vaporous trail?

I know when I first came here, the house seemed a little foreboding, almost intimidating. I felt uneasy here, a little edgy. When I first came here, it hadn't been that long since the main planner and dreamer of this house, Jim's late wife, had died. She had been gone less than three years when I first walked through the door, and I expect that the grief and sadness of her loss was still sitting in the corners and hugging the baseboards of the house.  The house's planning, construction, decor, and furnishing were undertaken with the enthusiasm and exhilaration. The journey to its conclusion took an abrupt left turn at some point, and the completion of this house, as a building project, came at a time when energy and focus were drawn away to other, more pressing events.  This is a family home, built with family life in mind. Not just any family, though - this very family that lives here now. But it's a smaller family than initially intended - smaller by one, in fact. And the loss of that one is still felt here.

Which is not to say the house isn't loved and appreciated by its occupants. The teenager probably doesn't appreciated it the way one would like, but only because to her, this is home, and has been for as long she can remember. I think this is only right. There are certain times in a life when you should be allowed to take things for granted, to expect that they will be there, to depend on them. Like, say, three square meals on the table. Or the comfort and solace of your childhood home, whatever its size or grandeur. Or the idea that both of your parents will be there to watch you grow up.

Sadly, you can't have everything. One of Maddie's parents must do her watching from elsewhere. As the years go by, and Maddie's memories of her mother have faded, the photos on the walls of this house, and the memories that others have of her mother, must suffice.

Over the years, the sadness has dimmed. The darkness has receded like a low tide. Lives move on. A toddler becomes a little girl, turns into a young woman. Time moves forward. The house's skylights and windows seem to let in more light, more warmth. The house has, as I said, shrunk, becoming less intimidating, less weighty. Time may not heal all wounds, but it does act as a kind of physical therapy, building the muscles and coordination necessary to live with the wound and its aftermath.

Photo by Seyed Mostafa Zamani.
Published under
Creative Commons license.
I woke up in the little guest bedroom of this house this morning, a little before the alarm was to go off.  I had set the coffeemaker to auto, and the smell of fresh brewed coffee right outside my bedroom door probably did the trick. (Note to self: get help for severe coffee addiction.) It was foggy and chilly outside this morning. The California weather seems to be getting the idea that it might actually be time for autumn to start kicking in. I lay in bed and thought of this house, the grey light outside, getting brighter by the minute, and the sleeping girl upstairs, ignoring her alarms for that extra five minutes sleep.  She was four and a half when I met her. Her father, now one of my best friends, was still feeling the loss of his love keenly. Now, they are both going forward. He delves cautiously into the frightening world of dating. She plans her adult life and career and dreams of her future in the spotlight. The passage of time has changed them both.

I have changed, too. I am, deep into middle age and nearing another birthday, finally retooling a life away from pure subsistence and toward creativity. It is a struggle, financially and practically. But I am, for the first time in my life, truly happy and hopeful. I should be terrified at the prospect of poverty and financial hardship at this age, but truly, I've never been less afraid then at any time in my life. Fear, it seems to me, is a useless emotion, particularly when one is pursuing a life in the arts. This is what I decide as I'm lying in a guest bed, in a house that is not mine, smelling freshly brewed coffee.

Autumn seems to have arrived at last. It's my favorite season - the season for shedding the old and readying for the new. Halloween and harvest, the Day of the Dead and my birthday, then on to winter and giving thanks and offering gifts and another turn of the calendar. Some like the spring, for the new growth. I like the autumn and winter for shedding of old things that get in the way of that growth.  Loss of leaves on a tree is an ending, yes, but also a beginning, too.  If you want your spring, you're going to have to walk through your autumn and your winter to get there.

This house knows that. This house has lived it. This house has figured out that if you just sort of stick around, doing what you were meant to do, fulfilling your natural function, day in and day out, without waivering or falling back, things get better.  Things get lighter and easier to manage. Sadness comes. Tragedy happens. So does triumph. Events take a turn for the better, and then the worse, and then the better again.  But sorrow that hovers near the baseboards cannot stick. It will fade eventually, from enough sunrises, and season changes, and holidays, and milestones.

It's autumn. And I'm writing. In this house, where people live and get through the day. Nothing bad can come of that.

(NOTE: All Photographs in this piece were acquired through Flickr, under the Creative Commons license.)

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